Sunday, September 11, 2005


When I was growing up, my maternal grandparents lived on a farm about 20 miles out of town. Many, many an afternoon was spent there, playing king of the hill in the hay-loft, weeding and seeding and roto-tilling and picking vegetables from the garden, mucking horse stalls, roaming around the 20 some-odd acres, pondering my life. My childhood memories are colored in the landscape of Northspring: the lush green leaves of a Mid-Atlantic summer, complete with buzzing yellow jackets, biting mosquitoes and chirping crickets, the pale grey of winter, long brown branches of maple trees and dull grayish spikes of evergreens, water pails in the barn frozen over.

The farmhouse itself was originally built at the turn of the century, and then added onto in the 20's and 30s by my grandmother's family. She grew up there. When her father died and her mother grew ill, she moved there with my grandfather and their six children, aged 19 to 5. They lived there for over 30 years, finally selling it in the early 90s, in part to finance their move to a retirement community.

My grandmother has never gotten over the loss of that house. I myself mourn for it often--I would love to be able to show my husband the linen closet we used to hide in with the hidden trap door leading to a bedroom. Or the attic where we spent hours scouring through old dresses and top hats, reading letters from a great-great uncle written home from World War 1. I long to prove to him, finally, that a tomato grown in the heat and humidity of the east coast beats a mealy Californian one hands down. I would love to watch my son learn to flip off the diving board, a rite of passage for all of us cousins.

I can only imagine the memories my grandmother had to leave in that house.

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It is cold, and there is still an inch or two of snow on the ground from a storm the night before. Although it is only 3:30 in the afternoon, the light is dim. The sky is cloudless, a grayish white film that blends into the snowy hillsides at the horizon. My mother, holding my sister's hand, looks over her shoulder at me.

"Come on, Amy, let's go!" she calls. My grandmother is already down at the pool, lacing up her skates.

I grumble, but trudge along, watching the impressions my shiny red boots make in the snow. All afternoon, there has been talk. My mother and grandmother are going to show my sister how to ice-skate. I am deemed too little for skates, but have decided to come along anyway. I have been told, in no uncertain terms, that if I complain, I will be sent right back to the house.

"Alright, Annie, let's get your skates on!", calls my grandmother. "Won't this be fun?" Ann sits down on the wall and lets my mother lace up one skate while Grandma does the other. I stand nearby, watching.

"Here, sweetie, you can skate, too." says my mom. "Your boots are slippery, almost like skates!" She helps me onto the pool surface. "Just stay right here in the shallow end. I don't know how thick the ice is in the deep end."

I slip around the ice on my boots, but I can't get going very fast. I don't understand why I can't try the skates, too, but resist the urge to ask the question again. Soon my mother, grandmother and sister join me.

My grandmother and mother each hold one of Ann's hands and help her wobble over the ice. "Look!" squeals Grandma. "Isn't this fun?"
"Look at you, Ann!" agrees my mother. "Look, you're skating!"

I turn, slushing away from them.

"Amy! Don't go in the deep end! You've got to stay down here!" my mother hollers.

"Okay, okay." I mutter sullenly, turning around to watch again.

"Can't I please skate?" I ask. But no one hears me. They are concentrating on Ann, helping her up when she stumbles, encouraging her and laughing with her when she slips.

I turn around again, and make for the deep end, waiting for the scolding from my mother. I'm bored now, and I don't care if I get sent back to the house.

The deep end is slicker than the shallow end was, and I can slip around easier on my boots. The ice is darker, almost black in spots, but I also notice that there are cracks. The cracks make pretty designs in the ice, and I follow the lines with my boots, turning in crazy directions. I try to twirl in a circle, throwing my hands out to my sides, but my boots catch on the ice. Maybe if I get a running start.

Then I am in the water. I am holding onto the edge of the ice with my mittened hands. My boots are heavy, dragging me down, but my head is above water, and I can see the other women in my family at the shallow end of the pool. Their backs are to me; they didn't hear me fall.

I hesitate at first--if I call for help, then they will know I disobeyed. I went to the deep end despite orders to the contrary, and I will be punished for sure.

But it is cold in the water, and it is hard for me to hold onto the ice. My legs, in their snowpants, are heavy.

"Mom?" I call out, not much louder than a whisper. Suddenly there is a very loud CRACK!, and the ice shifts.

"Help!"I yell, startled, and scared.

"Amy!! Oh my god!"

My mother is running, slipping, skating across the ice to me, but my grandmother stops her in her tracks: "Randy, no! The ice can't hold both of you! You've got to go from the side!"

She stops, wobbling on her skates, but her eyes have locked with mine. The panic in her eyes scares me.

"Mom?" I start crying. "I'm sorry".

"Sweetie, no. Hold on. Just HOLD ON. I'm coming to get you."

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The rest is a blur. I know my mother, in attempting to reach me, fell in the water herself. I know that somehow my grandmother got me out, but could not lift my mother from the water. I remember very clearly the image of my father and grandfather running down the hill to the pool to help. I imagine my father lifted my mother to safety.

This is one of many memories of my childhood at Northspring. I am not sure why the one I chose to share happens to be scary, when so many other memories are only wonderful. Perhaps because the emotions were so strong that it sticks out for me.

In any event, September 11th is my grandmother's birthday. A day that brings a lot of sadness and retrospection for most Americans, especially this year, especially when it seems we have learned nothing in the last 4 years. I prefer, for now, to think about Northspring, and picking blueberries from the bushes (not groundcover, like they grow in more northern climates) underneath the protective netting.

Happy Birthday, Grandma.

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