As a rural home-schooling family, we had to arrange social opportunities for our young sons because most of their friends lived several miles from our farm. Sometimes we could drop the boys off at a special event such as a stamp club meeting, but usually the planned engagements brought together mothers and children. Otherwise, some of the parents would drive home only to soon turn around and retrace their route.
One January, frequent snowstorms swaddled the landscape and sequestered our farm in drifts. Matthew and Carlos sledded on our hills and skated on the pond along with John and me. But finally the weeks of pewter skies and ragged clouds sifting lake-effect snow dimmed their spirits as they missed having companions. So on a sunny Groundhog Day, I called a friend whose daughters' ages matched those of my sons.
"Would you and the girls like to come to a Valentine's Day party?" I asked. "Escape the city? We could share a treat and exchange valentines."
"The girls would love it," Jo said. "I'll bring cheese and crackers and some cookies."
During the next dozen days, art class encroached upon spelling and music. We dipped into a box of supplies donated by the boys' artistic grandmother. Glitter, gouache paint, and gold markers embellished paper hearts. But no lacy doilies or ribbons passed between their fingers, nor did they letter out cotton-candy-sweet rhymes as the stack of valentines multiplied. They addressed envelopes for penmanship class and mailed off their sparkling creations to grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins.
The day before the party I discovered a crayon drawing of our oxen, encircled by a heart on a folded piece of paper. The greeting read, "A bale a day keeps the vet away. Love," and was signed – in Carlos's printing – with the names of our oxen, Leo and Tolstoy.
I taped the valentine to the refrigerator. The kitchen timer dinged, and I placed a tin of cupcakes to cool on the counter.
"The oxen sent me a valentine," I said.
"They wanted to make sure we gave them a treat," Carlos said.
"Have to take them apples," John said.
On Valentine's Day, the wind bent the tops of the pines bordering our house and flung snow against the skylights. Like a wet fleece, the mounding flakes smothered the glass and choked the light. Snow twisted a shawl around the hills, erased the driveway, and stole our sons' smiles.
Jo and I canceled the party and promised our children that we would gather as soon as the weather abated. At suppertime, our family lit candles, broke out the cupcakes, and selected chocolates from a box sent by a friend.
Four days after the storm, the mercury rose to more than 40 degrees F., the drifts subsided, and the sap ran when we drilled a test hole in a sugar maple tree.
While John and the boys yoked the oxen and loaded the bobsled with buckets and spiles, I called Jo.
"Want to help tap the trees?" I asked. "Can you come now?"
"We'll be there soon," she said.
I followed the bobsled's tracks to the sugarbush, and after John drilled holes, I hammered in spiles. On their sleds, Matthew and Carlos hauled buckets to the trees and hung them on the spiles while Leo and Tolstoy rested.
Suddenly, Carlos stopped.
"I hear voices," he said.
We looked beyond the trees and toward the farmyard. Havalah, Adelle, and Jo surfaced over a rise, pulling their sleds.
"We've come to help!" Adelle called.
The galvanized buckets soon glinted against the dark bark of the maples and sap pinged upon the metal.
The kids threw snowballs and rode the bobsled back to the barn, where they joined in evening chores. Jo and I added another leaf to the table, and the children tucked valentines by the place settings.
"Should have baked more cupcakes," I said. Jo shook her head and unfolded the edges of foil from a plate heaped with heart-shaped cookies sprinkled with red and pink sugar.
"We baked dozens, so there are still enough left to share," she said.
"I'm glad the sap ran early," I said, and reached for a heart.