It’s the seventh of January, 2013. Epiphany has been celebrated; the Christmas season is officially over. The electric candles in our windows have clicked on and off for the last time this winter. Tonight’s early January dusk will have to stand on its own; there will be no soothing, quasi-magical boost of simulated candlelight. We are back in ordinary time. Yet again, the days sped by too quickly.
This is the dreaded week of my Christmas clean-up. I began the day by wandering remorsefully through the house, wishing we hadn’t put up six trees, wondering where to start the process of un-decoration. As always, I will resolve this year, for a change, to find the right boxes for the packing-up. When I can’t manage that, I will vow to locate an actual working marker to label the boxes. When even that proves undoable, I will tell myself that I’ll remember what I put where. Eleven months from now, I will be standing in our frigid attic, muddled and confused. The box that professes to contain miniature trees will be full of stockings and bead garlands. Where did the box of white lights go this time? Some crucial item, usually one of our star tree-toppers, will have vanished completely.
But it’s a new year, and it’s time to move on. The trappings of the holiday season have undergone an unmistakable, unsavory shift in essence. Five weeks ago, they were the stuff of joy and hope. Now they are clutter. The blue spruce is droopy and dry, its needles as sharp as steel.
I look forward, past the mess, envisioning the uncluttered, restful simplicity of mid-January. It’s an illusion, a vanishing mirage, of course. With a vengeance, this first month bursts with the business of everyday life. A glance at the calendar reveals an exhausting proliferation of church meetings, school volunteer meetings and appointments with doctors. All that and all the Christmas debris, still here.
Yet the reality of the new year brings a clearer, if starker, light. It gladdens my heart to think that the shortest, darkest day of the year has come and gone. The earth is turning, tilting toward spring. The leaves of the rhododendrons in our back garden shrivel in the cold, but their blooms are set, ready and waiting. Nature’s optimism and foresight promises renewal. It really is time to move on.
A beautiful frost covered the ground during my early-morning walk today with Kiko. My little dog was especially frisky, evidently invigorated by the chill in the air and the intriguing sensation of the frost. He tends to paw daintily and delicately at the icy grass, then exhaust himself by running through it in wild and exuberant circles. I was struck by the muted yet luminous colors that had descended upon our ordinary neighborhood. Lawns were glazed blue-green, and bright red nandina foliage had paled to a shimmery rose, like the sky above (although that eluded my camera). The world looked like one of those sparkling holiday centerpieces of red and green grapes dipped in egg whites and sugar. I’ve never made that sort of frosted fruit, but I’m thinking I will have to give it a try this Christmas season.
While there is no denying the bright glory of mid-October foliage, I find the muted palette of November equally beautiful in its own way. After most of the leaves have fallen, our neighborhood woods wear their subtle winter tones of gray, beige and brown. The few remaining autumn dashes of orange, flame-red and green stand out like colorful stitching on a sensible tan tweed jacket. On this day, the leaves were so deep that the familiar path was hidden. Kiko, however, our sure-footed guide, knew the way by smell.
I like the star-like shape formed by the core of this fallen tree’s roots.
I’ve always loved the many varieties of berries that ripen in the fall, adding to the season’s spectacular color. I’m not especially picky–I have a soft spot for weeds and climbing vines some term pesky and invasive, as long as they produce nice berries. Poke, privet, lyriope, elaeagnus–all these were readily available in and around the yard of my childhood home in Atlanta. We had a couple of holly trees, but they were not prolific berry-producers. For fall and Christmas displays, we had to turn elsewhere.
The neat, grape-like clusters of nandina were our stand-in for holly. And when we transformed the concrete wasteland behind our Virginia house into a real backyard with actual plants, I knew I wanted to include nandina, or heavenly bamboo, which spoke so clearly of home. The green, lacy foliage turns red in the fall, just like its fruit. The nandina berries, I can happily say, are ripening now along our fencerow. If the birds don’t eat them all, I’ll have some to bring in for Christmas.
About a week after the above photo, the nandina berries and foliage are brighter still.
I find bittersweet to be a particularly enchanting vine. It didn’t grow in Atlanta, but I vaguely remembered it from my younger days in Kentucky. I rediscovered it in the woodsy surroundings of our first apartment in New Jersey. I brought it in by the armful. Like wild trumpet vine, it’s one of those climbing plants that can take over if left unchecked. Here in Virginia, we typically see bittersweet growing in a pleasant tangle at the edge of the woods. Its berries pass through several different stages, all interesting and attractive. In early summer, the new berries are bright green, surrounded by abundant leaves. Gradually the berries turn yellow, as above. With cooler weather, the hulls pop open to reveal bright orange-red seed globes, segmented rather like tiny beach balls. The pliable, free-form vines are easily wound into wreaths.
Once cut, the bittersweet pods quickly open to reveal their red-orange fruit.
The bright cherry-red berries of fall honeysuckle shine with a silvery glow like bubble-shaped jewels. Each berry is perfect–perfectly red, perfectly round, perfectly sized. I learned the hard way not to bring these inside–they are very juicy and tend to stain tablecloths and rugs.
This Japanese dogwood or Kousa Tree is laden now with its characteristically lumpy, globular fruit, which are edible and said to be tasty, although I’ve never sampled them. For some reason, they strike me as vaguely futuristic, like something we might see on the Jetsons.
During the years before we renovated our backyard, one of our few touches of greenery was an immense pokeweed that sprung up every spring in a small patch of ground beside our old porch. It offered some shade and color, and the birds flocked to its berry clusters. I enjoy the plant’s evolving appearance. At the ends of young stems, tiny, pale pink blossoms appear in early spring. These are transformed first into bright green berries and, in late summer, into plump, dark-purple spheres. The stems also change color, from a lavender pink to a bold magenta. The vigorous heartiness of pokeweed, as well as its amazing rate of growth, make it a force to be respected. Long used in herbal remedies, the plant is being studied as a possible cancer-fighter due to its established antiviral properties. Children should nevertheless be warned that the luscious-looking berries can be toxic to humans.
In late summer and fall, the pink climbing roses on our garage trellis give way to these jumbo rose hips that resemble large gumballs or miniature tomatoes. A Martha Stewart disciple would laboriously harvest them for jam, but we are content to appreciate their autumn color. Kiko occasionally awakens from sleeping in the sun to munch on a rose hip if one happens to have fallen nearby. He seems to find them tastiest when they are rather shriveled and overly ripe.
After our return from the railroad tracks, the predicted rain was not yet falling, so we walked past broad flat fields to the Ford Farm Market, a showcase of pumpkin glory and diversity. On this beautiful old family farm, Tom Swain, a former middle school science teacher, grows a vast variety of pumpkins and gourds. Signs proclaim the availability of pink pumpkins. Indeed, some are peachy-pink. There are pumpkins in nearly every conceivable earthy hue, including white and many shades of yellow, orange and green. There are also multi-colored varieties, some speckled, some striped, some uniquely patterened. The range of sizes is equally wide, from tiny palm-sized pumpkins to enormous giants, and everything in between. In years past, the largest Ford Farm pumpkins have topped 1,000 pounds. Tom’s wife Sharon is a pumpkin carver of great skill and imagination. Each year she creates a series of gigantic, intricately designed masterpieces. The family’s extensive and charming collection of Halloween decorations is displayed in the barn.
We made no pumpkin purchases because we would soon be flying back to Virginia, although D bought an apple for the walk back. A cold rain was falling steadily by then, but our cheery dose of Ford Farm fall spirit sustained us along the way.
In front of the old farmhouse, more pumpkins, including some of the giant ones Sharon Swain typically carves.
A colorful celebration of roadside vines and wildflowers.
When I was young, I spent my summer days
Playing on the track.
The sound of the wheels rollin’ on the steel
Took me out, took me back.
Big train, from Memphis. Big train, from Memphis. Now it’s gone, gone, gone, gone, gone, gone.
–John Fogerty, Big Train from Memphis
For many of those who grew up hearing the whistle and roar of passing trains in the night, the sounds evoke home, family and childhood. My husband and I each became accustomed to the music of the trains, and we miss it here in Virginia. When we return to Rochester or Atlanta to visit his parents or mine, we savor the familiar, comforting sounds of the train.
H and his childhood friends really did spend their summer days playing on the tracks and beneath the adjacent highway overpasses, at least when they were not deep in the neighborhood woods. The tracks are easily accessible from his sister’s house in Rochester. If we have time, we head over to see what’s new and what’s as it always was. It’s a particular joy for H to explore the area again with his daughter by his side. She appreciates his tales of boyhood adventure as well as the desolate beauty of the landscape along the tracks.
D was delighted to find this sturdy rope well-anchored to the underside of the bridge.
The unruly landscape bordering the tracks gets a beauty treatment of fall colors.
A mingling of the seasons: touches of gold and green among the fallen brown leaves.
D negotiates the tangle of weeds as she emerges from down under and years gone by.
This past weekend we went to Rochester to celebrate Grandma’s birthday. In between the frequent meals, the snacks, the cookies and the birthday cake, we managed to squeeze in an afternoon walk in the woods. My husband wanted to show our daughter a spot much loved by him and his boyhood friends. Enjoying a freedom from adult supervision nearly unknown to kids these days, they met there on their bikes after school. Using found lumber and fallen trees, they built hideouts and forts, which they outfitted with discarded furniture. They shot their BB-guns at cans (and occasionally, at each other, but with a strict one-pump rule). They made campfires for roasting hot dogs and for the sheer joy of watching things burn. Responsibilities were divvied up, and H brought the explosives. (It’s no coincidence that he went on to study combustion in grad school). He hadn’t set foot in these woods for decades, and he was worried that they had been developed or modified beyond recognition.
We were relieved that the entrance to the woods, several streets away from H’s childhood home, was just as he remembered. As we walked, it became apparent to him that some paths had been widened, neatened, or rerouted. But thankfully there was no sign of encroaching development, no nascent parking lots, shopping malls or townhouse complexes.
The weather forecast had predicted a full day of rain, but early morning showers had given way to a sunny afternoon. The light on the turning leaves suffused the canopy with a golden glow. The woods took on a magical, enchanted aspect. Our daughter appreciated their appeal as keenly as H had when he was her age.
Rochester’s fall palette was bright and varied. The yellows and oranges of the trees were especially brilliant.
The ground was carpeted with green moss and colorful fallen leaves.
Perfectly formed mushrooms, the small white kind that fairies rest on in childrens’ books, were a frequent sight underfoot among the leaves.
Beech trees, their leaves just beginning to turn yellow.
The kindness of trees: one member of this group of trees, having lost its base, is supported by its neighbors.
Our ultimate destination was the secluded pond where H and his friends had focused many of their boyhood activities. D and I followed H as he wandered, searching uncertainly through the swampy, heavily tangled brush, looking for landmarks to point the way, such as the tree on which they had carved their names. As my feet got soaked, I regretted not stuffing my hiking boots into my suitcase. Repeatedly, the pond wasn’t where H thought it should be. He began to fear we wouldn’t find it. Finally, with the help of the GPS system on his phone, he located it. It looked the same as it had all those years ago, H said, except for the greater accumulation of algae on its surface. A small boat was tied up in the reeds by the shore, suggesting that the pond continues to be the haunt of local explorers.
The walk back to Grandma and Grandpa’s house was a happy one. It was enormously satisfying to see that every once in a while, despite the fleeting pace of time and so-called progress, we can return to a place that still matches up with its treasured memory.
Here in northern Virginia, we are fortunate to have a long, luxurious fall season. Typically, around the start of school, just after Labor Day, the weather turns, as with the click of a switch. The dense humidity of late August dissipates. The refreshingly crisp air of autumn starts streaming in. Mornings and evenings are chilly, afternoons sunny and warm. The switch usually clicks off again briefly, and summer’s hot blanket gets a few last chances to throw its sticky weight around. But these are the final gasps of a lost cause; fall’s triumph is inevitable. And by then, the visual signs of the new season begin to appear.
The first signs of fall in our area are subtle. In a cloud of green leaves, a few spots of yellow and orange pop up, as here at the big rock known as Freestone Point in Leesylvania State Park on the Potomac.
Here, above and below, the crows seem to appreciate the touches of red and gold that beautify their treetop perches.
Morning sunlight cuts through the mist off the lake, intensifying the glow of newly golden leaves.
Scruffy, disheveled pond foliage assumes a dignified fall palette of bronze and copper.
Goldenrod, like crystallized sunbeams, dresses up the banks of the pond.
Before long, a few trees, like this maple, above, and the small dogwood in the distance below, trade all their green for more flamboyant colors.
Commercial Street begins in Provincetown’s quiet East End, just across the line from quiet Truro. The street name appears misleading at first, in this almost exclusively residential stretch, a mix of cottages, grand homes, and historic guesthouses. The crowds of tourists are absent for the first mile or so. My daughter and I especially enjoy exploring this serene section of the street, where lush gardens flourish and the waters of the bay provide a bright, sparkling backdrop.
A favorite subject of local artists, this white Dutch colonial, with its pristine lawn overlooking the bay, is the first home on Commercial Street’s East End.
Pigeons keep watch over Commercial Street from the dormer of the sturdy brick house where Norman Mailer lived and wrote for 25 years. After the author’s death, the home became the Norman Mailer Writers Colony.
An eighteenth-century Cape Cod cottage, glimpsed through the garden gate.
The gardens of Provincetown, though typcially small, are vigorously hardy, dramatic and colorful.
This spacious expanse of lawn, with its rugged old schoolyard swing set, is an odd, unexpected luxury in Provincetown, where bay-side land is at a great premium.
An artfully styled P-town compound, with a patriotic tableau of American flag and exuberant red and blue flowers in white window boxes.
At the Sea Urchin cottage, a profusion of wild roses and a sandy path to the water.
Tranquil spaces may be found even in the busiest section of Commercial Street, as here on the shady porch of Shor, a home furnishings showroom. Next door is the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House, built in 1847. The church’s front lawn, when not hosting an open-air market, offers an inviting escape from the crowds, as does its gracious interior, notable for the trompe l’oeil sculptural paintings in the sanctuary.
The beautifully detailed tower of the Meeting House.
This charming book store, located in a little house behind and surrounded by art galleries in the midst of Commercial Street, is reached by a tree-shaded pathway. D and I stop in at Tim’s to browse the shelves for interesting bargains and to enjoy the quiet.
Artists began to discover the small fishing village of Provincetown in the last decades of the nineteenth century. It quickly became established as an artist’s colony after Charles Hawthorne opened his Cape Cod School of Art in 1899. Now, over 40 galleries display a wide range of styles. In the hands of local artists, the regional tradition of atmospheric, Impressionistic landscapes, still lifes and figurative work remains vital and fresh. The gallery above specializes in bold contemporary Asian art. Many of the galleries are staffed by the artists themselves, who tend to be friendly and unpretentious.
The 200-year old Red Inn, which hosts one of the town’s most acclaimed restaurants, is in Commercial Street’s far West End, past the reach of the heaviest crowds. The deck, with its view of the harbor, is a spectacular spot for a sunset drink. Here, in the repose of early morning, neat white chairs welcome the promise of another beautiful day.
This year, H’s sister and her husband brought their three-month old baby to Cape Cod. We were not so brave. We waited until our daughter was two and a half. The year before, we had attempted our first family beach trip, to the Outer Banks, just the three of us. While it was a joy to experience the sun and sand from D’s fresh perspective, it was not a vacation. The demands of our beautiful child, limitless as always in those early years, were more difficult to satisfy, being away from home. We were simply caregivers in an alien setting, and there was minimal opportunity for relaxation or enjoyment. When D was awake in the hotel, which was most of the time, H worried she would awaken or annoy our neighbors. On the rare occasions when she finally succumbed to sleep, these same neighbors typically awakened her and annoyed me. There was great collective frustration all around.
That trip made me reassess the Cape Cod complex that H’s family has visited for over thirty years. Some cottages are covered in white clapboard, others in weathered cedar shakes. All are small but charming. They cluster, like the homes of a compact village, around two spacious central greens and a pool. It’s timeless, quintessential Old Cape Cod, exactly the picture conjured by that 1950s Patti Page song of the same name. An immensely wide beach, unusual for Truro, provides a buffer zone from the water. Rather than the pounding surf of the Atlantic, there is the relative tranquility of the bay. It suddenly hit me that this was a decidedly welcoming environment for small children and their parents.
I realized that at the Cape there would be willing, helping hands, certainly those of Grandma and Grandpa, perhaps those of H’s sister and her husband. I wasn’t hoping to hand my child over completely, only grateful for any assistance that might be offered. I also knew by this time that our daughter tended to behave better when she knew there were other eyes on her besides those of Mama and Daddy.
H’s family’s adopted Cape Cod village opened its arms to welcome our daughter, and for her it was love at first sight. As children sometimes do, she appreciated the simplest things. She found it supremely entertaining to sit outside our cottage, pouring sand into a cup; she didn’t even need a pail or shovel. We would send her over to her grandparents’ cottage for cooking oil or butter, and she relished the responsibility. H would use the walkie-talkie to tell his parents D was on her way, and we’d keep her in our sights during her short journey. (There are no phones in the cottages, and before we were all so fiercely entangled in the web of technology, this meant an actual break from the typical work-a-day world.) Grandpa would signal D’s return, and she would arrive flushed and happy, more mature than when she had left.
There is a real sense of community in our vacation village, because families tend to return for the same week every year, and friendships are nourished. Most of the parents who are now H’s and my age grew up vacationing here with their families. Two sweet and thoughtful sisters, four and five years older than D, took her under their wings on our first visit. Through these girls, D became acquainted with kids of all ages. Even now, with one sister in college and the other a senior in high school, they remain close. All the kids look forward to their annual reunion. Friendships pick up seamlessly, as though no time has passed.
Above, D and her friends float in the calm shallows of the bay, a pastime that never gets old. Sometimes the waves kick up and boogie boards come in handy, but the water is never as rough as the ocean. Having grown up with the Cape’s prodigious seaweed, none of the girls finds it objectionable (as I did, at first). Neither are they squeamish about the amazing variety of life in the water, which includes tiny shrimp, eels, sea worms, insects we refer to as potato bugs, and a vast number of unidentifiable, speedily swimming slimy things. Some years there are hosts of jelly fish, but typically these are the small non-stinging kind, drifting in the water like blobs of translucent white paste. D and her friends have always collected these in buckets, examined them, and returned them to the water. The blue crabs that lurk in the sand are ready to rumble, pincers poised for an unsuspecting, intrusive toe. Occasionally we see multitudes of horseshoe crabs, the dinosaurs of the crustacean world. And there are the furry-looking spider crabs, of which D is inexplicably fond, despite her distaste for true arachnids.
At low tide, the water of the bay empties out nearly completely, so it’s almost possible to walk across to Provincetown. Starfish, sand dollars and scallop shells are revealed among the reeds. It’s time for D and her friends to build expansive sand compounds, which they populate with feisty hermit crabs and slow-moving moon snails. Before long, the tide turns and begins to inch back in. Islands of sand appear and gradually diminish. Soon the bountiful and diverse life of the bay is submerged once again.
This year, it was a blessing to welcome the new baby on the beach. It was also a blessing, at this stage of my life, to be the baby’s aunt rather than mother. D’s newest cousin looked out on the summer landscape from the shade of his peapod tent. When it appeared that even from that sheltered vantage point, the bright light made him cranky, Grandma and Grandpa went on a mission to Provincetown. They returned with infant sunglasses that strapped around the head with an elastic ribbon. This made their grandson, and all of us, much happier.
I had almost forgotten that magical essence of Baby. What a gift is a baby’s smile! How rewarding it is to share in his squeals of delight! Our darling nephew was just discovering his unique voice, and his vocal experiments were enchanting and enthusiastic. I had nearly forgotten the incomparable warmth and sweetness of a baby in my arms.
D treasured the time she spent with her cousin. For one week a year at least, he was, and will be, a substitute for the brother she never had. And I like to think that next year, when he’s old enough to walk, he will follow in our girl’s sandy footprints. I can see the two of them now, wandering through the sea grass, making their way down to the bay.
A blog about motherhood, marriage and life: the joys and frustrations, beauty and absurdity, blessings and pain. It's about looking back, looking ahead, and walking the dog.