A sap harvest sweetened my view of my father

The afternoon was wild with March winds, which were fat and sodden like the slap of a snowball across your face. Despite all the drippy thaw in the air, I was determined to be frosty toward Dad that day; I was furious to be pressed into the chore of helping to collect sap for syrupmaking.

I fed my fury with each small annoyance, slamming my feet into uncomfortable rubber boots, scraping into a scratchy wool coat, and climbing over the massive tractor wheel to wedge myself into my customary spot between the driver's seat and right rear tire.

Maddeningly oblivious to my mood, Dad swung into the seat with a jarring bounce, whistling as he teased the tractor through the complex moves required to bring Old Hazel to life.

As she finally sputtered into a respectable roar, he swung us down into the muddy lane, empty milk cans clanging in the wagon behind us. The ruts there were cut so deeply by previous sap runs that our tires rose and fell in the slurping suck of chocolate-milk mud, more like a ship on rough seas than a land vehicle.

Dad cast a satisfied eye along the horizon and burst into song, his deep voice booming over the tractor's roar in his most jaunty, vaudevillian tune. It was a favorite of ours in more companionable moments, and ordinarily I would've joined him. But I remained a portrait of aloofness, with only the errant tapping of one toe responding to the rhythm - a small betrayal secreted safely within sturdy boots.

We tumbled into the woods, threading ourselves through the dense trees with armadillo awkwardness until we reached the first stand of tapped maples. Dad climbed into the wagon and pried the lids off the milk cans while I slid down into the muck and trudged toward the first tree.

I lifted the brimming bucket gingerly from its hook, a small splash of the faintly sweet liquid wetting my pant leg and adding to my annoyance. Pausing only long enough to pluck out a rust-colored leaf in the sap, I gripped the handle with both hands and picked my way over to the wagon to dump it. Dad was already there, emptying his first two buckets.

We worked in silence, carrying our loads back and forth through the tangled, sloppy undergrowth, climbing back aboard Hazel to rock our way to the next stand of trees. The soothing rhythm of the work threatened to smooth my prickly mood, but I pampered my peeve and worked faster and harder to feed its fever.

In the quiet of the woods the soft sound of sap overflowing our buckets was gradually replaced by the bright, tinny tap of drops into empty pails. Bucket by bucket we created this unruly music, the din of a disorganized bell choir. The sky pinkened and purpled as we worked, and blue dusk was already upon us when Dad stopped the tractor one last time.

"I think there's just a few more back in that section," Dad said. "You wait here. I'll take the lantern and go get them."

I watched as he walked into the trees, his shape growing fainter and fainter until it melted completely into the silky blackness; then moments later the dimming lantern-light blinked and flickered out.

There is a different kind of darkness in the deep woods: more complete, more black than the soft fluid grays of the bedroom ceiling or the glistening silvers under a starry sky. It's a blackness so solid it can almost be touched.

As I sat waiting - minutes or hours - watching the spot where my father had disappeared, that blackness closed in against my face and pressed into my ears. As my eyes fixed upon the spot where he'd gone, straining for the slightest flicker of returning light, I was gripped with a sudden certainty that Dad was never coming back. And in that moment I felt eternity, because I also knew without any doubt that I would sit there, utterly still, frozen in that moment until he returned.

Then there was a spark, so small it could've been imagined, then a faint glow growing gradually into the unmistakable shape of my father, full milk can stooping him and the blessed lantern lighting him. I don't think he saw the tears in my eyes when he swung the can into the wagon, gave my shoulder a squeeze, and said, "Let's head home, Pumpkin."

But I know that by the edge of the pasture I was able to force the melody of "Goodnight Ladies" past the lump in my throat to harmonize with his voice. I know that all through dinner that night I kept glancing up at him: a familiar presence taking the new form of a miracle. And I know that whatever teenage illusions of independence and separateness I'd been fostering, whatever foolish notions of the dispensability of parents I'd harbored, they were, after that night, shaken into dust and blown away on the wild March winds.

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