Maple suger time

''You have no maple sugar people?'' I asked the proprietress of the tiny gift shop.

''All I got is what's over there,'' she replied, gesturing indifferently toward a low shelf.

There they sat, the creamy brown candies behind the windows of their tan and green boxes, as characteristic of New England as belfries and old linen. The shapes, too, were familiar: maple leaves, fruit clusters, even a kind of medallion with a covered bridge in relief. But the long narrow boxes - the soldier with shouldered rifle, the woman with skirt and bonnet - were not among them. Saddened, I settled for the fruit clusters, paid her my fifty-five cents, and stepped outside.

It was not her fault, I thought as I looked out over the lake. How could she know the significance of my question? How could she, idle among her stuffed bunnies and china mugs reading ''Lake Sunapee, New Hampshire,'' have heard the questions behind my question? How could she have seen, across such a span of years, the five-year-old lad standing shyly before that same counter, a dime and a nickel clutched in a fist of eagerness, waiting for the lady to hand down a maple sugar man?

For I had come back, on a passing whim, to see with adult eyes the place where, three decades and more ago, I had learned to swim. I had remembered it as a small town, a hamlet really, tucked into the trees above a public pier where the mailboat landed. I had remembered the canoes overturned on the grass, and the tiny waves lapping at the varnished speedboat in the boathouse, and the diving board fixed to the granite of the wharf pilings. I had remembered the gravel driveway, curving downhill and crossing a stream under a bridge with latticed iron sides where we played Pooh-sticks. And I had remembered the plastic tube I floated in - red above, white beneath, with a kind of ruffle around the circumference where the two colors met. But in all that watery past three things stood out most clearly: the shape of the distant hills, and the smell of unfinished spruce in the loft of the cabin where I was once tucked in for the night, and the maple men.

The hills, as I looked at them that day, were unchanged. They were so astonishingly the same, in fact, that to look out upon them was to be slightly disoriented - like being caught, I thought, at the point of waking, with the image of a dream still so fresh in thought that it equals the external world in laying claim to our sense of reality. And there on the grassy slope was the cottage, just as I had seen it when, time and again through the years, that clear and pungent scent of unfinished rafters had transported me back to my childhood. But the maple men, alas, were gone. They had waited patiently for me to push the screen door open every Saturday and spend, in one glorious burst, my entire week's allowance on their succulence. They, more than anything else, had been a fixture of the place.

I settled onto a log, opened the package of maple candies, and bit into one. The taste, at least, had not changed. And as I looked around, I could see that very little else had, either.Somebody had cut some trees, to be sure, and the town had widened the parking area. But the cabin was still so very red, and the roof-shingles so very green, and the water so very blue, that all else paled before them. Even the name of the family that used to own the cottages was the same.

Was it, I wondered, still run by the same man - a jovial fellow who, over the long winters after World War II, had built a rowboat-size replica of a battleship which he moored near the dock? The lady in the store was not the one I recalled. Surely, in all these years, the place had changed hands. I could feel the journalistic impulse welling up within me. Go ask, it said. Find out all you can about the place. There may be a story in it.

I had nearly left my log, in fact, when a contrary impulse rose to combat the first one. Surely, it argued, the lady in the store would not recall those old days. Surely she would not even guess what it had meant to me. Surely, were I to pour out the history of my youth among her pennants and napkin-holders, she would but politely listen with a half-interested, half-puzzled look.

And so I sat, for all the world like T. S. Eliot's Prufrock, not daring to disturb the universe. Was my second impulse merely self-consciousness? Or was it a genuine instinct toward the preservation of antiquities? And was it true that the expression of nostalgia must, in some degree, always be met by the indifference of others? It is, after all, a private feeling, easier to experience than to communicate. Perhaps, in the end, it is not a very healthy one, hiding as it does in the inner recesses of the soul. Perhaps those who rest on the past are finally trapped by it. Perhaps those who conquer the universe must somehow first disturb it.

Oh, I could have disturbed it, all right. I could have ridden in, note-pad in hand, and reduced to the mere outline of the moment all the resonance of that past. We could have talked, she and I, about taxes and tourism and the inflation of the maple candy market. Probing, prodding, I could have elicited from her a whole litany of changes - enough, perhaps, to make even the scent of spruce turn bitter and the very hills seem foreign.

Yet perhaps there are times to leave the past undisturbed - to cherish the fact that the world, for all its vicissitudes, has changed somehow less than we would have thought. Or so I thought at the time. I still don't know if I was right. But am I to blame if, with a final look around, and without another word to her, I slid into my car and drove quietly up the hill? Was I clinging to an illusion of stability in what, despite appearances, is a wholly changing world? Had I therefore failed to come to grips with reality? Or had I salvaged, from among a welter of mutability, an undergirding sense of permanence? Had I found, deep inside, a landscape whose values mattered more than any exterior world?

I guess that's really what I meant to say when I asked about the maple men. But I don't think she could have answered. I don't think she even saw me leave. She was busy, I noticed, with a new customer.

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