We savored Sunday's leisure

Impelled, perhaps, by a fit of spring ardor, I recently acted on impulse in a way that brought my teenage son to roll his eyes.

It was a Sunday, bright and mild, on the waning edge of Maine's rapidly receding winter. "Let's go for a drive," I cheered as I hustled Alyosha toward the truck. "A Sunday drive."

"But why?" he whined. "Where are we going?"

After starting the truck, I leaned toward the windshield and gestured. "Out there," I said. "Just out there." And we were off.

When I was a child growing up in New Jersey, Sunday was something to yearn for. I lived in a crowded, busy city, where the sights and sounds of commerce and industry were dizzying. Six days a week, that is. And then, on the seventh, Sunday dawned with the repose of a sleepy village and people slowly rose - rather than jumped - to their feet. In short, Sunday once had a "feel" that set it apart from the other days of the week. It was a day of quiet, bacon and eggs on the stove, family visits, and church bells pealing in the distance.

The high point of my childhood Sundays was the afternoon drive. My father owned a 1957 Chevy Belair (yellow and lime-green) that gave him no end of trouble. But on Saturday evening he would suds up a bucket and lovingly wash it down until the Chevy shone like a brand-new haircut.

Come Sunday, my mother would dress me and my younger brother in shorts, freshly pressed shirts, and bow ties before planting us in the back seat of the Belair. Then she and my father would take their places up front, and my dad would maneuver the boatlike vehicle down the narrow driveway and out onto the city street, navigating us toward the Palisades Parkway, high above the Hudson River.

I nose my own vehicle north, along Maine's Route 2, which in my neighborhood winds along one of the most beautiful rivers in the East, the Penobscot. "Ducks!" Alyosha announces. It's true, there are goldeneyes and mallards everywhere. I pull over for a few minutes so we can observe the animals as they glide and dart about the water. I explain to Alyosha the differences in coloration between the female and male ducks. Then we ease back onto the road and continue north.

I recall one of the sublime thrills of driving along the Palisades with my family. Here and there, at the lookouts over the Hudson, were perched binocular telescopes (they're still there, last I checked). At the drop of a coin, a child could wrap his arms around the machine and observe the far shore, sailboats tacking north, and the river below.

On the return journey, always at a leisurely 45 miles per hour, my brother and I could sense the excitement building as we passed familiar landmarks. To the left, on the far side of the bay, the Empire State Building. To the right, the railroad yards. And then, dead ahead, standing out against a drab, featureless turnpike, the bright orange and blue of a Howard Johnson's restaurant, our last stop before home. HoJo's meant a cheese dog, fries, and an ice-cream cone on our way out.

A little way up the road from where my son and I observed the ducks, there is a small ice-cream stand, little more than a neatly painted shack. The owner is preparing to open for the season. I pull over, roll down my window. "Open yet?" I ask. He clucks his tongue, ready to answer in the negative. Then he sees my son's earnest face. "Oh," he says, "I'm sure I can scrape up something." Five minutes later, we have two cones happily in hand (pistachio and maple walnut). We drive away, completely satisfied.

WE RUMBLE ALONG in the truck, windows cracked open to admit air freshened by last night's rain. To our left, the Penobscot surges; to our right, freshets pierce the pine woods. Pockets of ice and snow persist on the lee side of the trees. I slow to a stop and allow the engine to quietly idle as we seize this moment to observe the evidence of transition from one season to the next.

I am not yet convinced that Alyosha is happy to be on this Sunday drive, this journey without aim or object. But I take advantage of the quiet moment to ply him with questions about school, soccer, and his summer wish list. He eases back in his seat and considers each topic in turn. Then he makes his own contributions to the conversation.

We cross a bridge spanning the Penobscot, then coast down its western shore, so as to vary the route a bit. The trees on the eastern bank are aglow with the lowering sun. The road before us is empty, and we arrive home with just enough Sunday left in our pockets to shoot some hoops in the yard before the stars punctuate the end of a perfectly well-spent day, free for the taking.

The Sundays of my childhood were golden days. There was no urgency about them, and they could be counted upon to follow on the heels of every Saturday. As they were then, so can they be now; but I find that the week no longer drops them into my lap. It is up to me to seize them from the grasp of a busier world, as gifts to myself and to my son.

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