My dad has been living in the same house for more than 60 years - in the first and only house he and my mother bought. So visiting him is like leafing through a brittle-paged old diary of my childhood.
Not that everything is the same in the small white house at the top of a hill as when my four sisters and I grew up. Far from it. But even the changes bring to mind what used to be. A grass-covered mound at the far corner of our one-acre yard reminds me of willow branches swaying in the breeze.
When I see the 15-foot circular depression where the grass still doesn't grow well, I remember sucking the pool's chlorinated water from the ends of my pigtails. The little barn in the middle of the lawn suggests the sweet smell of my pony's neck and the soft, fine dirt of the barnyard under my bare feet.
I can't go home without the past staring me in the face. But last time, I stared back.
It was dark when I arrived. After chatting with my dad, I went up to bed. The stairs, covered in the same wool carpeting installed when I was in high school, creaked in all the old places.
The 1964 edition of World Book Encyclopedia still slept on the shelves in the tiny hall. I slid into bed under the familiar slanted ceilings of my old room and woke with the same bright eastern light that always drew me outside before anyone else on summer mornings.
Waking up more slowly now, I looked around the room. It was and it wasn't the same room where I had lived and dreamed. A few pieces of the original furniture remained: the cedar chest my father had made, inscribed "To my sweetheart"; my sister's maple desk; a wrought-iron floor lamp.
Gone were the antique chest of drawers, the dressing table with its gathered skirt, the neat twin beds draped in ruffled rosebud bedspreads my mother had made, and the fresh coats of paint she had lovingly painted on the walls. It was jarring to move from those memories to mismatched mattresses and bedding, an upholstered chair ruined by cats, a plastic end table brought in from the porch and forgotten, white curtains turned dingy gray, and black mold on the window sash.
I got up and went to the window that looked over a hayfield. I used to look out of this window onto the top of a young blue spruce stretching toward the sky. Now I pressed my forehead against the screen and looked upward to see the top of a mature tree. At eye level, its needleless lower branches almost obscured the view of the field.
It made me uneasy to look at that two-acre plot anyway, now a fragile buffer between our house and a large parcel of land recently sold to a developer. All the woodland trails and open spaces where I used to pick blueberries and roam on my pony are about to be bulldozed for new houses. I didn't want to think about it.
I went down to breakfast. Dad jumped up from his newspaper spread over the antique table.
"Would you like some scrambled eggs?" he asked brightly. He pushed piles of bills, paper clips, and rubber bands to the center of the table and made me sit down. He moved briskly between the frying pan, the toaster, and the refrigerator. While I ate my eggs he plopped two pieces of buttery cinnamon toast onto my plate, hacked up some fresh fruit into a cereal bowl, and then noisily started scrubbing the frying pan.
I should have such energy.
"I want to show you something," he said after breakfast.
We went outside, the screen door banging after us. The air was cool and the sky a clear, soft blue. As I stood looking at an old apple tree, I caught the flash of a bluebird.
There were bird feeders everywhere. That was new. We had only one when I was growing up. Dad showed me how he had rigged the feeders up with pulleys in the tall fir tree so he could raise them out of reach of the bears at night. Next, we walked toward the large vegetable garden. Dad had tilled it the day before. I couldn't resist plunging my hands into its brown-sugar consistency, all ready for the seeds Dad was eager to sow.
Maybe that's when it hit me. I had been mourning the past and worrying about the future when all around me was evidence of a vibrant present. The house was badly in need of paint, yes, but here was a garden prepared by a man in his late 80s who is still vitally active and enthusiastic. The one-acre lawn was meticulously mowed, and the bushes were recently pruned. Here was a pile of brush he had collected for burning; there was a row of firewood neatly stacked. And the woods beyond the hayfield - the woods I worried about - were bursting with bird song.
The bluebird, I thought. Here he was on this cloudless day in all his present glory.
Suddenly, it was the kind of day that made you want to do things. I washed the curtains and made a bouquet of apple blossoms. We made a trip to the local greenhouses and bought a dozen six-packs of flowers. We planted them in the window boxes and in a bed where a single daffodil bulb struggled among the weeds.
"You should see the flowers," Dad told me on the phone a month later. "They're beautiful."
He must see them each time he fills his bird feeders or brings in vegetables from this year's garden. So much can ripen in one sunny day.