Berith Arragh Hogan, Creative Nonfiction, Featured

They, Me & the Sea

by Berith Arragh Hogan

Since first the ticks of time recorded me in attendance I have made a yearly pilgrimage to Cape Ann on Massachusetts’s rocky North Shore – on some lucky, and some sad, occasions the trip has exceeded the yearly dictate. Funerals, weddings, Thanksgivings, spring breaks, and deathbeds dot the calendar in between.

I have driven, flown, or taken the train. I’ve broken down, turned around, and wept as a young lady trying to get from North Station to South Station (or was it the other way around?) to board the commuter rail. I’ve clocked in at six hours flat from my home base in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and I have made it in twelve when circumstances conspired against me. I cannot imagine, though, a distance long enough to prevent me from making the trek.

My mother, Jane, married into the deep dark of the North Atlantic when she wed her first husband, David, a thousand ebbing tides ago in 1963. They had a daughter Kira and a son Micheal, my eldest and only sister and the oldest of my brothers four. The marriage to the man did not last, but his mother Nadia, his sister Julia, and the ocean churning invited her back year after year – even after her second marriage to my father Michael, yielded a raucous family with no shared blood. A lent-out lineage legacy lasting generations beyond the dissolved union of its origin.

I joined the family’s yearly caravan north with my natal arrival in 1981. My mind in its infancy had no words or shapes assembled to log the sprawling stays of lazy summer weeks – but by the time my sentience had garnered such capabilities the tidal pools of coastal rocks had always hosted starfish, snails, and younger swimmers. The nooks of the sea-blackened boulders had always offered precarious perches to be shared with mussels, seaweed, and barnacles. Blueberries had always been plucked warm from their bushes along forest paths leading to the abandoned granite quarries we swam in. There is no frame of my memory’s blink untouched by the crashing waves or lazy eddies offered by Cape Ann’s Rockport, and Rockport’s Pigeon Cove.

The water was already haunted by the time I got there, swallowing so many of Gloucester’s fishermen. Even Nadia’s son Daniel had walked out into the hungry sea. But despite, or in thanks, or in indifference, the ghosts I spied in her waves bore power equal in sadness and in peace. Both moonrise by the settled sea and the violent crashes of storm-swelled surf carved an ache out of my heart before the heartbreaks had been enacted. The ocean warned me of the pain there would be.

My brother Daniel was the first ghost of my lifetime. His time on earth ending at the age of twenty-two. My world breaking at sweet seventeen. Nadia left not that much after, my borrowed grandmother with the house by the sea.

The ocean did not change her story. Not once did she ever mislead. Still when my mother passed twenty years after my brother the pain shocked me with its depth and its crash. The worst heartbreak was offered just after. Four months later I lost my infant daughter, my sweetest Margot, now tucked forever in her sleep. The depths of the lightless black pressure of this loss traversed only by creatures designed by its deep.

I return to the ocean in three days now, with my husband Will and our four living children in tow. We will stay at the home of my Aunt Julia, once Nadia’s. The same weathered house perched at the crest of the deep ocean’s shore. We will meet there two of my brothers, Jake and Joshua, their children, and Jake’s wife Hilary who has been joining us for more than twenty years now. My aging father will still venture the journey. The fleeting tick of time grants each gathering an unsolicited nostalgia.

So, gather we will on the cusp of the sea’s rhythmed, beating shore. The children will bathe in her cold majesty. Her magic will render us all under her spell. There will be peace in the calm of her power. She doesn’t lie, no, she could never. She tells a tale and I now know the story. I know more shapes and words than I wish I could assemble. While she smooths the bones of my ghosts, my beloveds, she whispers the song of my spirits in her gale.

Creative Nonfiction, Featured, Jennifer E. Tirrell

Gertrude’s Gifts

by Jennifer E. Tirrell

Aunt Gertrude was my father’s eldest sister. She came to visit us from time-to-time, but she never stayed long. Uncle Nate was kind, but anti-social, and waited in the car while my Aunt came in for her visit. Aunt Gertrude was very plain, with short white hair, brown eyes and a smile that looked like the one I saw in the mirror. She never failed to send me a birthday message, usually written in a simple note card with a bluebird on the front, or a cardinal, or maybe a flower. On the inside she would write to me about the birds that came to her feeder, and other quiet happenings in and around her yard in the town of Cohasset, on the South Shore of Boston. I knew she cared about me, and because she was connected to the father I never knew, I was very interested in her. When I was asked if I would like to stay with her for a week during summer vacation, I said “yes.”

I had never been to their house before, and I felt strange at first, being an insecure child; never truly knowing where I belonged. My parents had died when I was very young. A change-of-life baby, I had siblings who were quite a bit older. The oldest, a sister, soon adopted me and I became part of a new family which included several additional “siblings.” As I grew, I struggled to understand my place in the new order, sensing that I belonged, yet didn’t belong. I was now a daughter to my sister, a sister to my nieces and nephews, and somehow still a sister to my natural brother and sister, who had children of their own.

Butterflies swirled in my stomach as we pulled into the treelined driveway and I caught a glimpse of their tall, straight, house. Once inside, I followed closely as we zig zagged through what I thought might be their living room. My mind grappled with what my eyes were seeing; bookcases overflowing with books, antique furniture pieces randomly placed, dishes and knick-knacks squeezed onto every surface. Only later would I learn how special these treasures were, each piece carefully researched and selected.

We came to a staircase, which was narrow and steep, and my Aunt waved me upwards. “Your bedroom is the one on the right.” The stairs creaked as I climbed and when I got to the landing I waited, uncertain. “Go on. It’s that one.” She was watching from below, pointing, so I turned and stepped into the room. Whitewashed walls were lit by sunlight that streamed in through two wide windows framed with crisp cotton curtains. There were little balls on the trim, I noticed. The bed was covered in a faded yellow quilt. Beside the bed was a book. Curious, I put my bag down and picked the book up for a minute before heading back down.

“Do you like to read, Jenny?” My Aunt was leading me through the maze to the porch, a screened room about 8’ wide with a daybed in one corner. “This is where I like to read. Maybe you’ll try it.” I nodded my head and looked at the bed. Soft, worn pillows were lined across the back in rose-covered fabric. I loved to read but never had enough books. I re-read books over and over, including the 3 encyclopedias of short stories my new parents kept on the bookshelf in our living room. I had read Little Women at least five times already, and it never got old. “I left a book on your bedside table,” said Aunt Gertrude. “It’s one of my favorites.” We passed a small cherry desk and I ran my fingers along the surface. “Your Dad used to sit at this desk and do his homework. That’s him, there, in the picture.” She picked up a small black and white photo and I saw a young man on the bow of a sailboat. After I looked at it for a minute, she turned. “Let’s go out and pick some pears off the old pear tree.”

I climbed up the rickety ladder and she handed me a broom stick attached to a jagged-topped coffee can. “Just find a pear and put the can around it, Jenny. Let the sharp edges cut it off. It will fall right into the can.” It worked. I was amazed. Next Aunt Gertrude and I walked to the edge of her large back yard and at the base of a really big tree, she showed me a hole. “This tree has been here for more than 100 years,” she said, “and there is a family of bunnies living here now. If we wait very quietly, we may see one come out of this hole.” She pointed to the base of the tree and I saw a dark spot. We crouched together on the grass, a little ways away and were silent together for a long time. It felt good just to wait and not have to talk. Our patience was rewarded and my heart leapt as a black nose peeked out of the hole! It was such a thrill to see that little bunny.

Later, with nothing to do, I picked up the book she had left in my room. Anne of Green Gables was the title. As quietly as the stairs allowed, I made my way to the porch. A gentle wind rustled the leaves on the trees, competing with the breeze from the tick of the fan. I pulled a worn afghan up over my bare legs, then, leaning back against the pillows, I began to read.

Anne was an orphan. I was an orphan, too. My father died in a canoe accident several months before I was born. When I was 3 years old, my mother dropped her car keys and fell out of the car onto the ground suffering a fatal aneurysm. I was left sitting alone on the front seat until help arrived. Anne’s parents died of typhoid fever. She was left alone in the world without any other relations. Our lives were quite different, of course, but Anne and I had a lot in common. It helped to read of Anne’s struggles. I liked to read how even the hard things always worked out for the best. I saw how she attached to her new parents, but that they still fought and had to work through their differences. Anne had a bosom buddy, Diana. I thought about my best friend back home. Pausing after reading the words ‘kindred spirit,” I wondered if I had a kindred spirit, too. What a lovely week of imagining. I was hooked. I read the whole series during the week, and I was gifted with the first edition set of books when I left. Over the years, she gifted me with other books like Freckles, A Girl of the Limberlost, The Little Colonel series, and Dear Enemy. They are treasured possessions to me now.

I think Aunt Gertrude left that particular book on the bedside table in the little room at the top of the creaky staircase on purpose. Maybe, on her visits to our house, she noticed that I seemed a little lost. Maybe she was my kindred spirit, and perceived that she could offer me something that would ease the turmoil in my young world. She invited me to her home, and gave me rest. She did not often use words, but instead, used her actions to teach and guide.

That week when I was 10 years old she showed me how peace and wisdom reveal themselves in simplicity and quiet. She opened up the world of old books and the sweet purity of their stories. She taught me to slow down as I read, and to take time to breathe in the wonderfully musty scent that rose up as I turned the pages very slowly and carefully. She showed me how to sit quietly by old trees and listen and watch for miracles. Through her storytelling, family heirlooms came alive. Best of all, she taught me that I can find my smile in someone else’s face and feel belonging.

 

Creative Nonfiction, Featured, Jesseca P. Timmons

Agatha

by Jesseca P. Timmons

One September, in the 1970s, my parents went away for a whole week, and old friends came to stay with my twin sister and me. Back then, my parents were deep into their homesteading phase. Our friends David and Sally Synder, with their two boys, had most recently been living in a luxurious gated community in Panama. But they were delighted to spend a week in the New England countryside with the two of us, our two dogs, a hostile cat, two pigs (Statler and Waldorf), a dozen chickens, four turkeys, and four sheep (Paul, John, George and Ringo).

My sister and I were excited to have the Snyders stay with us. They made food we had never even heard of, like tacos and burritos, and they played salsa music on the stereo. They had no idea what time we were supposed to go to bed, and let us watch as much TV as we wanted. At that time, our favorite thing to do was make fairy houses in the woods—with Mom and Dad away, we were now free to do that for hours on end, until it got dark in the short fall days—it was bliss.

The first three days of the visit were peaceful. My sister and I would play the woods after school, then head back up to the house to find tacos on the table, the boys doing their homework, and David and Sally having a cocktail and watching the news. But on the fourth day—on our way back from the very large tree deep in the woods where we were constructing an entire mouse-sized apartment building with sticks and moss—we came across a scene of hideous carnage: Louis, our English setter, had somehow gotten into the pasture and killed the turkeys.

Hulking black bodies were scattered around the pasture. Heads hung limp or were torn off, and feathers carpeted the ground. Louis was dashing from carcass to carcass, his tail wagging frantically, beside himself with joy. My sister and I screamed and cried at him, pulling him off the birds by his collar, and calling him what Dad would have no doubt called him at that moment—”Louis, you goddamn sonofabitch dog!”

After dragging Louis out of the pasture and closing the gate, my sister and I ran screaming to the house. Sally came running to the door in a panic—had we been hit by a car? Bitten by a rattlesnake? Shot by poachers? I threw open the sliding glass door, sobbing, “Louis got the turkeys!” The entire Snyder family—the two boys taking a moment out of pummeling each other for the remote control—froze in disbelief. David and Sally—who were really city people—stared at each other in mute horror. They had expected to take care of our house in the country and the livestock—but now there had been a massacre!

We all went down to the pasture—David, running first, with a grim look on his face and probably thinking back to his time in the Peace Corps; the boys, shoving each other in an attempt to get there first; and finally, Sally, with her arms around my sister and me, trying to comfort us and telling us Louis couldn’t help it—he was, born and bred, a bird dog. David first checked on the sheep: Ringo seemed a little freaked out, but they were all fine, huddled together in the farthest corner of the pasture. Then we all stood in the pasture, looking down at the dead birds—body parts, claws, feathers, and blood. Even the boys were reverently silent. Then David said, “Wait—weren’t there four? There are only three here!”

He was right. There was one missing. A survivor! And then, Sally saw her: perched precariously in a huge pine tree over the pigpen, tilted sideways on the branch, her feathers disheveled, was one shell-shocked but surviving turkey.

My sister said, “Let’s name her Agatha.”

The next day, Agatha came down from the tree and began staggering around on the ground. When we got home from school, we rushed straight down to the pasture to see her. It had been a close call for Agatha: her rear end was now partly bald and she was missing all her beautiful tail feathers. Never, as a turkey, had she possessed the most intelligent of facial expressions, but now Agatha looked like she had been hit over the head with a brick. Her head stayed tipped sideways. She made confused croaking noises and seemed unable to walk in a straight line. David and Sally watched her lurch and stumble around with their hands pressed over their mouths in horror. David—father of boys—suggested that maybe he should put her out of her misery, but the horrified gasps from my sister and me ended that discussion.

My sister and I decided we would spend every spare second with Agatha until she recovered from her trauma. We ran back to the house and loaded up with supplies: a selection of crackers (we weren’t sure what Agatha liked—I thought Cheez-Its, my sister thought Wheat Thins), a tub of Port wine cheese, two bottles of ginger ale, canoe cushions to sit on, and several different Trixie Belden mysteries. (We chose ones that made frequent mention of Trixie’s chickens.)

Ignoring the stares of complete disbelief from the Snyder boys (“You’re going to read books to the turkey?”), we headed down to the pasture where we found Agatha wandering in the corner behind the raspberry patch. We set out canoe cushions on either side of her, carefully placed the crackers within her reach, and settled down to read to her. She seemed to like it—she stayed pretty close to us (maybe it was the crackers). When she ambled too far away we would get up and move our cushions, until it was dinner time, and we had to bid her farewell for the night.

When our parents got back from their trip, David and Sally—who had been sitting silently in our living room for hours in a state of suspended dread—greeted them at the door with such somber faces that my mom thought for a moment that one of us must have died. When Sally tearfully told them that Louis had gotten in the pasture and killed most of the turkeys, my mom started laughing, “Oh, Jesus Christ, Sally—the turkeys? You scared me half to death!” Our dad was a little more distressed, but since the culprits were his beloved hunting dog and his closest friends, all he could do was mutter about the boys leaving the gate open (which was patently unfair, as the boys had never been in the pasture). But my sister and I had no problem letting them take the blame—which probably didn’t do a lot for our relationship.

My sister and I continued our daily visits with Agatha for months, until it got too cold and dark to be outside after school. Then Dad announced that Agatha would have to go live with someone who had a barn. After what she had been through, he did not have the heart to send her to the butcher—she now had a name, cracker preferences, and a favorite Trixie Belden adventure (Book #3-The Gatehouse Mystery). We offered her to a friend who lived down the road on a farm. Agatha lived through the winter in the barn, but sometime the following summer, our friend told us she had disappeared. We took it well—Dad reminded us that Agatha would have been Thanksgiving dinner had it not been for the massacre.

A few years after that, an article appeared in our local paper: “Mystery Bird Alarms Neighborhood.” The article described how some hikers on local conservation land been completely astonished to come across a hulking, bald-headed, bare-butted bird wandering in the woods. One person was quoted as saying, “It was the size of a golden retriever!” Someone else wondered if the strange bird was rabid, because of the way it walked in circles. Another person in the group thought it was some kind of rare vulture out of its normal habitat. Calls were made to the Audubon Society, and volunteers were searching the woods for the strange bird. At that time, there were no wild turkeys in New England—it was a few years before they were re-introduced and made the epic comeback that now finds them around every corner.

My dad re-read the article and realized the bird had been spotted in between our house and our friend’s house. He laughed so hard he nearly fell off his chair.

“Oh my heavens, girls,” he gasped. “It’s Agatha!”

Agatha was alive! Possibly, she was headed back to our house to find some more Port wine cheese, or to find out how The Gatehouse Mystery ended. But we never saw her again. Perhaps, Agatha, the survivor, is out there still.

Creative Nonfiction, Rodger Martin

One Who Stands Alone

by Rodger Martin

Forty-eight years ago this month, I was just returned from Vietnam, shoulders heavy with war and on my way from a home in the Pennsylvania Amish country to a new posting at Fort Devens, Massachusetts. I drove late into the night until the cold and fatigue caught me as I crossed the Connecticut/Massachusetts border on I-84 and found a rest area on the Mass Pike likely near Sturbridge. I pulled in, and as all good soldiers know how to do, went right to sleep in my car.

At dawn I opened my eyes and spread before me was the entire Central Massachusetts landscape: the Connecticut River valley on the left, Quabbin Reservoir to the center, a distant Boston far to the right. Presiding over it all was a tree-lined, snow-capped mountain with a granite peak—Monadnock: He Who Stands Alone.

I did not know then of Monadnock and Emerson, Monadnock and Thoreau, Monadnock and Older, or Monadnock and Kinnell. It was the vision I recognized and experienced at that moment. Upon this great rock I would anchor the rest of my life. Only much later did it become clear how it has anchored so many others of this culture and those before that, the ones who gave the rock its name.

The mountain is a mystic, magically transforming its few thousand feet of altitude into a height recognized around the planet. Even the dictionary finds its attempt at clarity undermined by its connotations: “monadnock – In geology, a single remnant of a former highland.” Monadnock, the last man standing.

The mountain befuddles most photographers and painters—revealing its power to mesmerize only to those who can see beyond their craft.

I recall a mid-winter in early 1990s when Chinese poet and translator Zhang Ziqing visited to see for himself this place of Thoreau and Emerson. Snow piled to the eaves of houses as we drove out to good vantage beyond Jaffrey, New Hampshire, and stopped.

Zhang pulled out an Instamatic camera to take a photograph and because I had tried and failed many times to use an Instamatic to photograph the mountain, I knew it would miss the magic. It was like photographing a ghost in a mirror. I said, “No, no, the picture won’t come out.”

Something got lost in the translation because he put away his Instamatic, but when he returned to Nanjing University, he wrote an essay about how Monadnock is so sacred that one is not permitted to photograph it, and so, out of a cultural misunderstanding, was born the Monadnock Pastoral Poets and their sacred mountain.

As the decades have passed and I have witnessed its effect again and again on others, it has occurred to me that Zhang was right. The mysticism of He Who Stands Alone had taken possession, and I did not know it. According to the 2014 Fairpoint phonebook, Monadnock has possessed at least 117 other businesses as well: Monadnock schools, Monadnock banks, Monadnock dairies, Monadnock dentists, Monadnock septic tank cleaners, Monadnock Music and Monadnock Writers’ Group, Monadnock Family Services, and Monadnock Fence. The list—like the mountain—goes on and on.

We are as spiritually under the influence of this gray whale of a rock today as were Henry David Thoreau, painter William Preston Phelps, and Mark Twain, who wrote in his autobiography about its magic during his summers in Dublin, New Hampshire. How does a mountain just a hair over three thousand feet high do it? It’s a mystery.

One can drive south to New Salem, Massachusetts, and look north to see Monadnock stun the Quabbin Reservoir with its image. One can drive just as far north to Pitcher Mountain and look south and there is Monadnock again lording over the horizon. Go west to Vermont and drive east from Brattleboro on Route 9 or Putney from Route 12 toward Keene and one comes around a hilltop curve expecting to see more of the traditional Appalachian ridges. Instead one gets this thing that looks like another hill except it just keeps on growing, morphing into a tree line and the gray granite visage of a mountain that should be out West. Go east to the coast and drive west. At each rise from Portsmouth or Boston, there is the dark profile of Monadnock on the horizon—its image almost Biblical–speaking in the tongue of the mind: “Come ye who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

~

Mount Monadnock
Photograph by Linda J Thomas
Carl Mabbs-Zeno, Creative Nonfiction

The Golden Fungus Mystery

by Carl Mabbs-Zeno

My walks in New Hampshire’s moderately wild places fill me with questions. I direct them toward my hiking partners and receive their knowledge and speculations in addition to their own curious observations about the complexities surrounding us: topics of nature, history, science, engineering, mythology. Often I am on my own and get no response to the mysteries I find until I get back home and examine my specimens with a lens and consult my guidebooks. I rarely learn much in my research. My guidebooks typically call for information I failed to gather and I soon forget what I learned in the same season last year. Despite my record, my impulsive inquisitiveness never wanes.

One morning in May, I went into the forest alone even before breakfast because I heard there would be rain later. I had no more mission for the morning other than to walk along the stream to see if there was anything new since yesterday. The rising breeze whipped a few raindrops onto the emerging canopy of summer, which held them away from my head for the moment. A few lightning flashes could be seen but were still too far off to be heard. I did not feel pressured by the impending storm, rather, I was invigorated by its cool promise of harmless violence.

Before reaching the stream, I saw where something had been digging holes six inches deep and of various widths. This was exciting as I was on the track of another mystery. Twenty similar holes had been dug in a nearby field a few weeks ago and I had discussed them with my neighbors but had nothing but speculations on their source. I bent close to the fresh hole looking for tracks in the wet earth, or claw marks, or a pattern in their form, or some other sign of who had been digging here. There were four new holes but none of them revealed anything new to me other than their location in the deep woods, which contrasted with the dry field where the other holes had been.

It seemed one small clue to hold for another day….until I came on more holes dug into the leaves a few hundred yards downstream. I looked closely again for tracks, still unsuccessful in this, but it was then apparent that the woodland digger would be known this day—for he or she had placed a signature of scat very near. I would recognize the digging of raccoon next time.

Learning something new about the creatures living near my home conveyed a satisfaction that led to my taking the long route along the stream. So what if I risked a soaking if the storm came too soon?

I climbed the steep embankment where an ice storm had toppled a dozen large trees a decade back. A few were still alive and growing sideways. From the top of the gorge, I could look over the chaos to the stream, now well below me and yet still speaking loudly in a seasonal voice formed of countless small waterfalls invigorated by spring rains. The drone of the water was background to the melody of a winter wren, the most enthusiastic singer of these woods in May and the answer to a mystery that I had enjoyed a year ago.

Witches Butter and Slug
Photograph by Carl Mabbs-Zeno

As I examined from above the inaccessible portion of the stream I rarely visited, I thought of the identification I had made a few weeks earlier of a fungus called “Witches Butter.” It had required a second steep climb down into the isolated pocket I called “Shangri-La” where I had first seen and photographed the orange fungus. But I failed to notice whether it was growing on the branch of a conifer or a deciduous tree, which distinguished it from Orange Jelly.

On my second laborious climb into the gorge, I found the fungus had dried while retaining its extraordinary color and was on a dead branch already torn from its tree but recognizable as deciduous in origin. I know very few fungi by name so it was a personal triumph to be sure of this one and more enjoyable for being such a bizarre specimen with its brilliant color and eerie sheen, which belied the claim made by the field guide that it was edible.

I peered down into the ravine to see if the branch with the fungus was still there and whether it might have a new crop of fungus. It was not surprising that I could not locate where the branch had been exactly. Without the cover of the canopy above me, I was getting wet from the edge of the storm.

I was about to move along when I spotted a gold color close to the water. I could aver authoritatively that it was not the orange of Witches Butter. Too bad I had not brought my binoculars. You can’t carry everything every time. It seemed smart to go home and check on the thing another day.

But I already had seen the Witches Butter dry up and become unrecognizable in a single day. I might not get another chance to ever see this new species. It was feeling as if Shangri-La were a magical place and worth another climb. I positioned myself above first one tree and then another to break my slide down the mossy slope that would not hold my weight. Going back up would be messy, on hands and knees, and grabbing trees.

At the bottom was a level bank as much as five yards deep running along the stream for 25 yards, the tiny mythical kingdom. A small pile of straw introduced new questions. What would have nested here and how would this have made a bed for it? The rain was building quickly so I turned back to my search for the fungus. It was not hard to find, except that what I found is not what I was looking for. My bizarre fungus was naught but the golden lid to a can of lemon cream soda.

Obviously, I was disappointed that I had not discovered a new fungus just as I was disappointed that such urban trash marred this special place. Nonetheless, I was not displeased to have come down, for at least I could crush and pocket the offense and leave with the mystery of the nest to ponder on the way home and for time to come.

~

Creative Nonfiction, J.C. Elkin

Foliage Tour

by J.C. Elkin

The leaves look sick, chartreuse as Grandma’s tumblers. For three glorious days we have seen no autumn colors but safety-yellow as we drive through Pennsylvania, the Catskills, and western Vermont, our bags heavy with flannels we do not wear. The fields glow with the golden harvest, but there are no reds against the lapis sky: only boughs of russet among the green, a hint of their lifeblood remaining. By the time we reach Robert Frost’s Stone House in Shaftsbury, Vermont, the area is so rife with leaf peepers that the “no vacancy” signs outnumber the squirrels, yet the forests scrolling past our windshield continue to disappoint.

“Beautiful sunset,” my husband says. It’s a true sky-blue-pink under a full moon with the horizon split vertically between both hues, a phenomenon I have never seen before. The Green Mountains in the distant haze look smoky with humidity. Stunning, but where are the oranges, maroons, and purples?

The guy at the tourism bureau apologizes. “It’s the drought,” he says.

“It’s the temperature!” his coworker says, removing her sweater. “Come back next week when it’s cooler. It’ll be beautiful then.”

Her easy reassurance makes me feel like one of those pitiful tourists from my youth in New Hampshire. All I want is a piece of my past. All I get is vague promises.

I thought the colors were caused by waning sunlight. That’s what we learned in biology, along with the tidbit that sugar maples are brightest of all. Good, we are headed to Canada where the maple leaf is the national symbol. Surely it will look like fall there with their Thanksgiving harvest just two weeks away. But no; when we get there, Quebec is a balmy 75 degrees Fahrenheit, with trees that continue to disappoint. We distract ourselves with artisan boutiques, the walled city, and Acadian cuisine, the mystery of the missing foliage coloring the whole vacation.

As we head south two days later, though, one glorious orange tree on the edge of town tempts me to stop for a photo, but I don’t. That would be pathetic, given my heritage, especially for a monochromatic orange tree. I want the autumn reds of memory, from the deepest magenta to the palest pink, colors that have nourished my soul in all my life’s Octobers. I am starting to fear they are a thing of the past, a victim of global warming perhaps.

I search online for the science of foliage and find that it depends on all the factors we’ve heard discussed: temperature, moisture, and daylight. All summer, leaves convert water, carbon dioxide, and sunlight into sugars through photosynthesis, making the tree grow, flower, and reproduce. Then autumn signals a time to store those carbohydrates in the sap for winter nourishment.

It sounds not unlike my youth, ushering in winter with binges of Halloween candy and sitcoms.

As days become shorter, the chlorophyll of photosynthesis wanes, taking with it the green of summer and unmasking the yellows and oranges of carotene and xanthophyll, which were there all along.

How like my years upon the musical stage, I think. It was always such a relief to remove the makeup after a show and let my natural glow shine.

Meanwhile, anthocyanins, which give maples and sumac their characteristic reds and oranges, build up in the sugary sap. The colors are there long before they become apparent, masked by the chlorophyll’s green.

Just like my writing voice of which I was unaware until a midlife illness impaired my singing voice and my creativity found a new outlet through the pen. It had been there all along, just waiting for a reason to step from the shadows.

The brightest autumn colors result from dry sunny days followed by cool dry nights—unless the health of the tree is compromised by drought, in which case a corky barrier grows between the branches and the leaves.

And there it is: the reason for the vast forests of chartreuse and russet I have been seeing. Those trees never achieved peak color before they died.

It seems to me that too many of us live like that—never singing upon the stage, penning our thoughts, climbing those mountains. We remain on the couch, noshing on Snickers, withering into the winter of our lives.

Driving home, via the eastern auto route this time, we see more blushes of hope as we approach the Vermont border: a twig of persimmon here, a touch of cranberry there, immature maples turning pumpkin. The small new-growth forests bordering the road are suddenly flush with color while the towering forests in the distance remain muted. Our spirits lift even as the atmospheric pressure drops, darkening the countryside in a shroud of patchy clouds with pockets of coral and tangerine popping from patches of sun. It rains that night and into the next day, but we don’t care because the woods are aglow in cantaloupe, persimmon, beet, and pink grapefruit.

Photograph by Linda J Thomas

I consider all those muted trees among the radiant and ponder the aging process. There’s so much going on that sustains the life cycle as we grow, flower, and reproduce. But what’s left after we are no longer green? If aging is the process of exposing what lies beneath the youthful glow, do we wither straight away or glory in talents that were perhaps masked by our green phase?

I am a tree in autumn with bursting myriad talents. My children have grown but I now run on reserves of inner nourishment. I am that maple with six shades of red, four shades of orange, and two shades of yellow. One day, of course, I will turn russet. To see an autumn forest afire with color, you’d never know it was dying unless you’d seen it happen every brown November of your life. Today, though, I am early October, and winter feels a long way off.

~

This essay was previously published in Topology Magazine.

Creative Nonfiction, Mary Elizabeth McClellan

My New World Without a Car

by Mary Elizabeth McClellan

It’s a Ruby Red 2003 Subaru Legacy station wagon with 53,000 miles on it, NH Moose Plates for conservation, and scrapes on the front and rear fenders, hopefully not caused by me.

At eighty-seven, with two years to go on my driver’s license, I’m losing my driving edge. I don’t drive enough, only locally and never at night. Older, less “with it” colleagues still don’t want to lose their independence, but I feel like an event waiting to happen. In an accident, I’d be blamed because of my age, even if I collided with a reckless driver on a mission. Besides I can’t think that fast any more. A college friend had a heart attack in her car, not a preferred way to leave. Finally, I can’t open my gas tank at the gas pump, and I have to ask a male customer to rescue me.

It’s time to move on. Decision in hand, I find the best of all worlds: my son needs a newer car. Money changes hands. Siblings benefit. Mom and Dad’s last car now sports a Maine Lobster plate.

I live in RiverMead, a Continuing Care Retirement Community, in the Monadnock Region. During last winter’s snow days, I checked out how the van transportation schedule could work for me. The van does medical appointments on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday; shopping loops as far afield as Rindge, for Hannaford’s, Walmart, and Market Basket; to Jaffrey, for a dentist and Coll’s Farm Market, and to Peterborough, for food, drugs, and sundries. The van holds fourteen passengers and is wheelchair accessible.

My first foray is Friday, Labor Day weekend. There are six of us, three in their nineties and three in our eighties, doing “the loop” in Peterborough. We cover the full range from picking up mending, banking, checking out the Toadstool for books, to shopping for stationery supplies, food, drugs, and wine, to advice on mailing family pearls. One woman is really only along for the ride, a chance to see who’s who and what’s what in the world outside in this two hour excursion. The river is low. Will Hurricane Earl bring us good rain? I hope so.

Seven errands are on my list. First, an ATM stop at the bank. “No mon. No fun,” my mother used to say. My roll of pennies will buy a copy of Monadnock Ledger-Transcript with the Steve Pelkey story. (Impresario of the Atlas Fireworks extravaganza held each summer, Steve grew up in Jaffrey with a friend of mine, now retired to Virginia, who will love the details.)

The next bank stop is heralded by Priscilla: “I’ll be a while,” which gives us pause. Is she teasing, or serious? Teasing, thank goodness. On around to Rite Aid for two flavors of Altoids (of British origin), Ginger and Liquorice. Copies & More for possibility of laminating dried pansies into bookmarks. (Presents from grandmother for an upcoming family reunion.) Three of us get out at Rite Aid. No one notices that only two of us come back…

The van proceeds to Ocean State Job Lot, a kind of discount department store of odds and ends of all sorts. Our only gentleman shopper, a joker, goes inside. His name is Cornwall. Call me “Cornball,” he says. This sets the tone. Idling, we read the come-ons in the windows: “Men and Women’s Dorm Pants.” A former dean of a women’s college wonders out loud what dorm pants might be. I offer to run in and ask and also check on “Cornball.” Dorm pants turn out to pajama bottoms.

Back in the van we laugh at the marketing ploy. Probably they are just sweat pants. Or maybe in coed dorms these days there really is a fashion parade showcasing the best-dressed in dorm pants.

Heading out for Roy’s Market, an upscale corner grocery downtown, Richard, the driver, wonders if we have left someone at Rite Aid. Doesn’t he have a list of us? We begin to joke and tease, “You’ll find out soon when your beeper goes off.” But, lo and behold, Priscilla, the teaser at the bank, spies Penny, sitting on a stone bench outside of Rite Aid. Richard pledges us not to tell her we forgot her, but then, he, himself, blurts out the truth, and she doesn’t know whether we did or didn’t. We are bonded now.

On to Roy’s: Irish oatmeal, Seriously Sharp Grated Cheese for cheese biscuits that I make for cocktail time, a half a dozen eggs, two kinds of ice cream, and…I realize I have left the freezer packs in the van. And finally a six pack of Coke. Moving the Coke from cart to counter, the plastic slips, a can escapes, and not only that, explodes right there on the counter, spurting all over everything—the cashier, me, the magazines and the windows across the way, an incredible mess. It will be sticky, too. How did she stop it? An immediate fistful of paper towels for mopping up. A fistful for her, a fistful for me, and red-coated clerks on the run to deal with the damage to the merchandise. The cashier is apologizing, and I’m apologizing, and neither of us quite knows what happened. But we complete our business sanely. She charges me for only five. I write a check.

Senses of humor are alive and well, and I am being dubbed a Teeny Bopper because I am bopping in and out of all these stores, still moving on my own, quite agile as it goes for eighty-seven. When I stopped at the bank at the beginning of this adventure, Richard tossed out the idea of picking up a lollypop. At the jeweler’s, there is a candy dish and one lone lollypop. Yes, it had Richard’s name on it. At Toadstool, I pick up Frederick Buechner’s Yellow Leaves: A Miscellany. In his eighties, too, he is sharing a lifetime of memorable moments and persons. One is his last drive with his mother.

As we make the final turn off Route 202, Richard says, “Mrs. E. always calls out wheeeee as we come around that turn.” He’s a zippy driver of this lumbering bus. We joke some more and are getting the feeling we might be regulars for the Friday loop. Perhaps we will come up with a chant, like a cheering section coming home from a field trip at school.  Or try: “Home again, home again, jiggety-jog.” Laughing is good, and coming home with the satisfaction of missions accomplished feels great!

“It’s the surprises in life that keep you going,” preached Pop Wicks, in the 1950s, with the image of Fibber Magee and Molly’s opening the front hall closet and a lifetime of everything tumbling out. Surprises abound! Seventy years of driving have memories galore, from life before car seats and seatbelts to my own share of warnings for being a zippy driver in apparently sleepy towns. However, life in your eighties has its own surprises and it turns out to have the full range, from the silly to the sublime. This is My Brave New World.

I know the decision to give up the car is a wise one. Now I know how good: the physical relief of not being the one behind the wheel, or the owner expected to monitor tires, batteries, and such. I won’t miss the gas bills or insurance outlay, either. I also know another kind of freedom. The freedom of choice, choice to show up for the loop, and the possibility of new adventures in the dailiness and magic of it all. One door closes, another opens, yet again.

~

This essay was previously published in the Northern New England Review, Volume 33, 2011, Franklin Pierce University, New Hampshire.

Creative Nonfiction, Janet Banks

Rocks and Roots

by Janet Banks

I sit in my chair with a stack of unread New Yorker magazines that I’m determined to read or toss, overcome by a sense that life is slipping through my fingers. I’ve no zest, just guilt about feeling as I do—a person who has everything she needs, except…what? Has age crept up so insidiously and ground me to dust, with me unaware? Fear rises like acid at the back of my throat. Am I already a little dead?

By the time my husband, Art returns from the car wash, I’ve booked three nights at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Highland Center Lodge in Crawford Notch, New Hampshire. “We need to get out of Dodge before winter sets in,” I say, relieved to have a plan.

The late October sky threatens more rain, but we’re prepared with rain pants and hiking poles. An AMC guide assures us that the moderate, 3.4-mile trail to the summit of Middle Sugarloaf is well within our capacity as experienced hikers in our early seventies, and that the 270-degree views are worth the effort.

Ours is the only car in the parking lot. We slog through mud to find the trailhead. The Zealand River gushes alongside us until we reach a bridge and cross it. More mud. The forest of balsam fir and yellow and white birch looks primeval, inviting, and intimidating. Art is the navigator. As a former pilot, he’s flown over forests like this one and is confident in his map reading skills, but I’d feel better if we had evidence of other humans on the trail. He points to faded paint blazes on the trees ahead; I stifle my fear of bears.

Golden leaves shimmer in the trees and cover the path that is wet and slippery from early morning showers. I’m grateful for my new waterproof hiking boots and wool socks. “Not so fast,” I say, stumbling over the knotty lump of roots covered by leaves. Up ahead, enormous boulders, big as small cottages, flank the trail. They look out of place, as though an angry god threw them down from the heavens. We climb for a closer look. The ferns and mosses, the lichens that grow on the granite, are every shade of green, from pale to neon.

“Glacial erratics,” Art says, running his palm over the stone. “Erratic, because they were carried and left here by the glaciers more than a hundred thousand years ago.” Rain begins to fall; the temperature drops. We move on.

The trail ascends to a much steeper pitch to a col, a saddle between two peaks. We follow an arrow to steps, a collection of boulders, one atop the next with others placed alongside to prevent hikers from sliding off the edge. Whoever labored over these slabs did not have me, a five foot woman in mind. The rain is letting up, but the wet steps are too steep.

Art reaches back for my hand and helps me stretch up, step by step. “Just take your time,” he warns. He’s worried I’ll fall, but what if he’s the one to slip? Neither of us asks the obvious: Should we be climbing a mountain alone in weather like this? Both of us want to get to the summit. When the sky brightens, the trail flattens out. Birds chatter in the trees.

Sweating, I tie my jacket around my waist just as a teenage boy with a golden Lab bounds down the trail in front of us. He looks as if these woods belong to him; my relief is palpable. I ask how much farther, and he shrugs. “When you see the ladder, climb to the top and you’re there.”

“We’ll make it,” I say, but the incline becomes more challenging. The path, a cascade of rocks and tree roots, is tough to traverse. An iron ladder, hammered into a large boulder at what appears to be an 80-degree angle, has no handrails. “You go first,” I say.

“It’ll be easier going down,” Art says, offering me a hand.

“No, it won’t.” I say, and give him a look.

In only a few short steps, the vista opens before us. We’re standing on a ledge of rock about a quarter-city block square, with jaw-dropping views. The sheer cliffs are dizzying; mica sparkles in the rock floor. A small boulder provides a perfect place to rest and contemplate the majesty of Mount Washington and the Presidential Range far across a deep valley. The simple turkey on rye tastes so good; the scent of pine is delicious. We are in a world of our own, a castle with no walls.

When dark clouds roll in, we suit up quickly. The descent in the rain is painstakingly slow—I doubt I’ll be able to walk tomorrow. More rain; more rocks and roots. Still only one car in the lot: ours.

Back at the lodge, we store our muddy boots, then collapse, hand in hand for a rest on the bed before dinner. I am totally spent and totally alive.

~