From a vase of sticks, the fruit of hope and promise

It's time again. When the thermometer stays too low too long, and the pristine snow has melted and refrozen so often that the best of it is concrete gray, I bundle up and head to the yard to gather forsythia branches.

Granted, when I first pick them they resemble nothing more than pretzels with bumps. But I cut them anyway. Tall, graceful branches tower over the top of my largest vase and interfere with supper. The shorter branches reach out at sharp angles like Martha Graham dancers. They stand in the middle of the dining-room table, where we see them night after night - each night slightly shorter than the one before.

The first time I did this was five years ago, when we first moved to Connecticut from Texas. We bought our house in October, and the family didn't see the yard in bloom before their first snow. At first, winter was a wonder. The children deemed snowflakes "hypnotic" and learned that you don't clean the snow from your gloves by running them under warm water. They mastered boots, scarves, hats, black ice, snowdrifts, and the art of shoveling. But after a while the miracle of snow days, delayed openings, sledding, and icicles lost its charm. All of us were eager for spring.

The first time I said, "enough!" and went outside with the clippers, the children were concerned. When I came in with my curious bundle and placed it before them, they were frightened.

My oldest son said solicitously, "Mom. You put sticks in a vase. Is everything all right?" We adults smiled. I grew up in Boston and know forsythia well. My husband grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich., and knows both his wife and Yankee plants. The willowy plant, so far from its native China, had hidden gifts to share, fruits to bring forth if nurtured. We told the children that it was an act of faith.

In the stories of the monks from the early days of monasticism in the Egyptian desert, there is the tale of an elder who told a novice to water a certain stick every day. It was a long walk to the water source, and the task was as onerous as it was inexplicable. But one day the staff in the desert bloomed - the fruit of obedience. I love that story.

But what I want is the fruit of hope.

For a week, the branches stand together, brown and fruitless. But by the start of the second week, we see signs of green. By the end, yellow blossoms are everywhere. I trudge to the yard for more branches so that when the blooms fall off and green leaves shoot out, the vase will still have flowers to go with the foliage.

I love having something vibrant and living amid the gloom of winter. I love having free flowers to share with friends during the months when everything is expensive. I love knowing that the forsythia will already be pruned back from the waiting vegetable garden, under snow outside, under construction in my mind. And I love the amazement of my children as one of Mom's more tangible dreams comes to fruition before their eyes. It encourages us to believe in the bigger dreams my husband and I share for them all.

By the time the bloom is off the last of the branches, a transformation has taken place outside. I can toss the sticks with their foliage onto the mulch pile because the bushes themselves are in bloom, and our entire town is tinged - first with yellow and gold, and later with pink, white, lavender, and fuchsia. We will have survived the bleakest season.

But that last bleak stretch of winter, the Heartbreak Hill of the marathon to Spring, is so much easier to bear because of something as simple as branches in a vase and as complicated as hope and faith.

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