by Willem Lange
EAST MONTPELIER – As surely as sugaring presages the advent of spring, September slides into October with its usual seasonal observances: hillsides and mountains aflame with dying leaves, tour buses from farther south roaring past the sidewalk tables at the coffee shop on State Street, and hundreds of comments on the internet regretting the passage of summer, the growing cold and darkness, and the dread of winter – all of them looking back on happy days – very mournful, sad, and elegiac.
Personally, I welcome the change. The heat and humidity of August were especially oppressive. Now, as I contemplate the approaching pleasures of flannel sheets and down comforter, the tactile bliss of wool and fleece clothing, the familiar aroma of a hot stove, and the all-too-obvious fact that winters aren’t what they were – how long has it been since we’ve seen thirty below? – the dread I often felt during my outdoor construction days is replaced by a fierce geriatric bravado.
Artists from Vivaldi to Frost have not so much celebrated as reflected upon autumn – a time of drowsiness, as of woodchuck or apple-picker; of measuring work accomplished, as of root cellars full of potatoes, closets full of canned vegetables, or sheds full of stacked firewood. But for me at my age, past digging potatoes or felling trees, Shakespeare does it best in Sonnet #73: “Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.” This apparent lament for what’s irretrievably lost, followed by the injunction to “love that well which thou must leave ere long,” evokes in me instead a silent recapitulation, and celebration, of so many happy memories.
Smells have a lot to do with memories. My grandmother always stayed home Sunday mornings working on dinner. She slow-cooked her roast in a soapstone cooker. Coming home from church to the aromas from her kitchen was an early hint that all was well with the world. Then there was the smell of chlorine in the YMCA pool; on the way home from the Y to the bus stop, the open door of the Karmelkorn shop; and as the bus passed the bakery, the mouth-watering fumes of fresh bread. I don’t need to smell them again; the reality could be no sweeter than the recollection.
It would be easy to regret loves lost, but it’s sweeter to recall how wonderful each was at the time. My crush on a seventh-grade classmate led to a date to a middle-school dance. She lived too far from school for us to walk, so I ferried her on my sister’s bike. I stood up and pedaled; she sat on the seat behind me with her feet swinging in the breeze. The romance of that evening lives yet.
We’re all infused with old mental delights, if we can forget the pain of their disappearance. We also surround ourselves with artifacts. My old Winchester 94, its bluing worn to silver where I carried it, never will go into the woods with me again. My Adirondack guide boat, one of the most beautiful designs ever, is painted blue to match the one in a favorite Homer painting. It took forty years for me to get it. When I pull into the barn and my headlights strike that shape and that blue, I just gaze for a few moments as if it were a Renoir. Over the head of my bed hangs a photograph of the irresistible young woman who became my wife. It was our first overnight date, maybe a week after meeting; I think we both knew already. She’s sitting on an Adirondack ledge with her back to the camera and her arm around my German Shepherd puppy. Neither one of us suspected what life ahead held for us. But that day was as happy as any in the next 59 years, until she died.
I think of old canoe partners, Arctic summer days without darkness, the black flies and the mosquitoes swarming, of muskoxen and caribou; of lake trout and char as long as my arm; the rumble of familiar men’s voices in a lamp-lit cabin on dark winter nights; my kids’ faces as a bear swam across Eagle Lake in front of our canoe; my lovely dogs waiting at the rainbow bridge, and the little one right behind me in our recliner. With no idea how far away the end may be, I’m certain that the most precious things we can accumulate in our lives are beautiful memories.
Knud Rasmussen, the ethnographer, asked Orulo, an old Inuit woman, about her life. Afterward she said, “In telling you of my life, I seemed to live it all over again. And I saw and felt it all just as when it was really happening . . . There are so many things we never think of until one day the memory awakens . . . And I could not help weeping for joy to think I had been so happy.”