How does spring come to New England? Snow goes brown-gray and gritty. It melts and rushes down storm drains or gets lifted up and rides in the back of dump trucks to the French King Bridge where it goes over the railing the way Johnny Weissmuller (aka Tarzan) did in 1932 to commemorate the opening of the bridge.
“Ahh, ahahaha ahhh!” Johnny did his Tarzan yell on the way down and then splashed into the river the way the dumped snow does now. It splashes into the Connecticut River and rushes away into the industrial canal behind the abandoned Strathmore factories.
Water rises and water falls in a New England spring. Thank God for heavy snow and a sudden melt that spring my son, the volunteer fireman, drew water from the swollen canal. He and other firemen threw hoses into the river as you have to here in the country. Fire hydrants are far and few between. They threw hoses into the river, got the pumper trucks going and sucked snow melt into the air to put out the fire at Strathmore. That was one of many fires that spring but some springs are fiery and others are not. Every year is different.
Spring comes to New England sometimes like a bear coming out of hibernation. It looks like a snow covered rock that shivers and suddenly stands. For a moment its silhouette is curved and looks like my grandpa at 87 when he just couldn’t keep his head up and shoulders back any longer. He bent over an aluminum walker struggling against gravity and time then, the way rising bears do in spring. They are commas uncurling, pulled up by the sun, the season, their natural clock that tick, tick, ticks and suddenly RINGS!!!…RINGS!!! There is no snooze on their alarm. So as the brown-gray snow melts, the bears rise like dough and come squarely to consciousness suddenly consumed by the thought of food, glorious food and how thin they’ve become deep in sleep and dreaming all these months.
Bears wake and rivers rise and it’s the rising rivers that scare me most. The rising, reckless brown waters and how one spring my boys, old enough to know better, came into the kitchen soaking wet. They had been tromping around out back and gotten too close to the Connecticut River’s brittle edge. The bank buckled under Dom and he went in with Jason’s hand suddenly and unbelievably on his collar. They went in and under—winter coats and boot and all—and I’m still not clear on how they got out in one piece. I remember them standing like bookends in the kitchen—how they smelled like wet oak leaves and sulfur—and how my heart beat so hard in my ears I couldn’t hear their story. I remember nodding and waving and sending them to the basement to change. And after they went down that’s when my knees buckled and I ended up on all fours facing Mecca, thanking God for the two of them safe, soaked to their skivvies, in the laundry room below me now laughing like hyenas about their great adventure.
In spring the days stretch longer and longer like the rubber bands my father took from work and hoarded. Every doorknob in our home had rubber bands around them—thick and expanding like the rings around the necks of the women of the Padaung tribe. Their necks grow long and useless with the addition of each ring the way our doorknobs became useless covered in rubber bands. You could barely grasp them. You could barely turn them. But rubber bands are meant to hold things together and my father must have needed them to shore up his foundation. Our house had way too many kids in it and not nearly enough money to feed all those mouths. I remember at Saturday dinners a pound of ground meat in chicken broth was meant to feed ten people. I remember always being hungry and cold. I remember the spring my father died and how my sister who was too afraid to visit him in the hospital was the one who wanted to go to the funeral home to dress his body. She put his bus pass in his jacket pocket and his watch cap on his head. She put his rosary in his hands and I wondered out loud when I saw him “Where the fuck are the rubber bands?” maybe he should go with just a few of the millions that surrounded us growing up and made it hard for us to open doors—almost impossible.
I got a door open once and when I did I ran for my life and stopped 1,000 miles east on land surrounded by forest and cradled by the Connecticut River. It was a place where I knew things I shouldn’t—the names of flowers like Ladyslipper, Jack in the Pulpit, Jonny Jump Up; the names of birds like junco, goldfinch or the woodthrush that build their nests six feet up in young fir trees. I grew up in the city for god sakes—living on streets and in alleys, feeding pigeons and feral cats. But when I got that door open, despite the tangle of rubber bands, and ran for my life to this place where strange words formed in my throat, I felt defined and certain as stone that I was finally home.
I planted a garden there with borrowed flowers like sundrops from Alice who smoked More cigarettes and taught my little boys how to bet on greyhounds; grape iris from William who was so grateful for the kindness I extended to him and his dying wife; peonies from Irina that always needed special attention the way she did all her life.
I wait for that garden every spring and each spring like clockwork it sends up delicate shoots “tender with hope” like Reverend Holly says. Tender with hope the way my heart is every spring when I’m ready to believe I can begin again.