WESTMINSTER, Vt. — I first climbed this hill at night 42 years ago, breathless, scared and looking over my shoulder the whole way up.
It was a week before Christmas, and no one yet plowed the drive that wound its way up the 14-acre field. So I pushed through knee-deep snow, sucking in cold air until I’d unlocked the front door in the pitch black and turned on the lights and the one portable radio. They stayed on until morning.
It was bad enough that I’d gone to the spine-tingling thriller “Wait Until Dark,” starring Audrey Hepburn as a blind woman terrorized in her apartment by thugs looking for a heroin-filled doll. It was worse to be in this unfamiliar and silent house, a suburban kid in the middle of nowhere with nothing but my imagination.
The next day several college friends arrived to ski, and we christened the new house, which my parents had built for their retirement, with a small party. One friend, in a valiant effort to do a hand stand, kicked the new floor-to-ceiling standing lamp, leaving a hairline crack along one of its cylindrical shades. If my parents noticed when they arrived a few days later, they never said a word.
Crack and all, the lamp stood for decades beside the picture window overlooking the New Hampshire hills across the river. As for the house, it gave my parents their best decade and all of us much joy.
When we’d visit in springtime, Mom would be on her knees in the garden, planting. Summer nights brought a symphony of bullfrogs. In fall, the maples turned brilliant shades of orange and red. And on cold, clear winter nights, as we stood on the deck, the expanse of the Milky Way filled the sky.
For New Year’s, carloads of cousins and college friends would arrive to sample Gunther Lanson’s famous champagne punch. Then we’d load four and five deep on the toboggan for a dizzying night-time ride to the bottom.
Kathy and I exchanged wedding vows in front of that picture window. And a decade later, in 1981, our older daughter visited for the first time.
By then, though, the joy of regular journeys to the country had become tinged with a melancholy that I felt again today as we approached.
On a glorious May weekend in 1980, Kathy and I joined my parents at a musical revue of Jacques Brel. Dad, in his almost-over-the-top exuberance, kept turning toward us, his face animated, making sure we were having fun, too. I raised my finger to my lips, shushing him in embarrassment. Three weeks later he was dead, felled by an aortal aneurysm.
Mom stayed on alone for 19 years, still planting a garden, still standing on the deck to gaze at the stars. But nothing ever did quite fill the space my father left behind. Even as Mom put her stamp on her surroundings, stories of my father filled many a meal.
In late April 1998, Mom was diagnosed with a brain tumor and initially given days to live. My brother Dennis and I worked hard to get her home, lining up round-the-clock care. I moved in downstairs, and days turned to weeks and more. Mom emerged on a cane at first to literally smell the flowers, and later walked slowly down the hill to the brook up the road. Time slowed as Mom, at 82, learned the gift of living in the moment. By fall, she’d fired her caregivers to give life another go on her own. She would live through the seasons one more time.
When Mom died in her bedroom in November 1999, the hill passed to Dennis and me. For eight months, the house stood empty. I bought Dennis’ share and found a tenant.
But much more than the lamp beside the picture window was showing cracks by then. The deck railing was unsafe. The garden had turned to weeds. Tangled branches from untended trees snarled much of the land. Kathy and I struggled over what to do, a decision that became infinitely easier when the daughter of Mom’s and Dad’s neighbor, once the little girl who rode a pony on the lower field, expressed an interest in buying the property.
Today Kathy, Dennis, his wife Erica and I made the drive back, no snow drifts blocking our way. There’s a new chicken coop behind the house, a new stone wall in progress. The garden is fenced, the field cleared, the hay cut and neatly bailed, just like my parents would have liked it.
Inside the house are still reminders of the past, my mother’s wood-burning stove, a painting my parents bought of the Rockies that hangs in the den, a piece of driftwood above the fireplace.
Gone is the floor-to-ceiling lamp with the crack. I think it was still there when Alisa and Andy moved in. Or maybe not. It doesn’t matter.
Parents pass on, as someday we will, too. Bit by bit, cherished places change. But memories have a way of hanging around, their details touched up with fresh paint over time as they are handed from one generation to the next. Perhaps that is the greatest comfort in remembering.