The footsteps I follow still

It was the beginning of December, some 30 years ago, when my parents moved their family, me age 7, from our cozy Baltimore suburban ranch to a decrepit 200-year-old farmhouse 40 miles north. Baltimore weather had been balmy the week before our move, but a cold spell hit the day we moved in. The old stone house had been less than welcoming as its rickety radiators groaned at the thought of having to put out heat. They rattled away for a week or so, and with the help of sweaters and thick socks, we all managed to keep warm until the middle of one particular night.

The fuel oil had run out, and a freezing house awaited us the next morning as covers were thrown off. Worse yet, there was evidence outside of an early blizzard that had already buried our farm lane, which led to the main road. "No fuel truck will get in," I heard my father say to my mother. That was followed by a yelp from my little brother: "The lights don't work!" Ah, the electricity was down, to boot.

As the grumbling grew louder, so did my father's determination to teach his three kids a little life lesson. Being an old house, it had lots of fireplaces, plus a huge kitchen hearth. My father started the fires, and it wasn't long before my mother began warming some canned soup.

When our bellies were full, my father pushed us out into the knee-high snow, saying, "Follow my tracks!" as he lumbered through the snow to the barn door. The cows needed to be fed and watered. Grumble, grumble went we three in the tracks. We made snide remarks about pastoral life as my father sang songs and cracked jokes. After the cow detail, we were conscripted into wood gathering, snow shoveling, and the list went on until we went back to the barn for the cows' night feeding. Finally, early dark!

That night, my mother heated up our third soupy meal of the day. I was so hungry that I even had seconds on the cream of mushroom soup du jour. Last drop, and upstairs with my candle I went. Flame out, I lay exhausted, burrowing myself deep under covers.

Thinking over the unlikely day, I tried to imagine myself as a kid in this house when it had been just a hundred years old. How would my day have been the same or different? Then I thought about the suburban ranch house we had left with its reliable heating and TV den. Then it hit me. I'd missed my favorite TV show! Well, I guess I hadn't missed it at all.

And sure, I was tired, but I couldn't help noticing how happy I was. I couldn't wipe the smile from my face. The up-for- grabs day had shown me something rare, which, if only for a moment, took me back to a time when families pulled together instead of sitting together in front of the TV the way we sometimes - well, a lot of the time - had done before our farm adventure began.

Thinking back, that December day remains one of my happiest, as it was for my father. It is something that has stayed with me, now that he no longer makes footprints in snow to follow.

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