Sunday, February 17, 2013

Simple Things

           I understand the attraction of the standard vacation: a week at the beach; your trip to Paris or Rome; skiing or diving at some exotic resort. I’ve done those things and they’re great. Sometimes, though, it’s good to go off and find smaller experiences, less spectacular in some respects but equally enriching in other ways.

            I decided to visit New England in the winter. My first stop was Boston. It’s always exhilarating to be in Boston, except it’s a little intimidating to drive a car there. I can see why everyone takes the T. There is no grid in Boston, no logical explanation for the layout of its streets. They are one-way. Some of them start out paralleling each other but end up coming together at right angles. And there’s always traffic so a misstep can be costly. People use their GPS to go around the corner to get groceries. And there I was trying to maneuver from Cambridge across the Charles River and then over the harbor to South Boston, a good mile or two away. I must have been out of my mind.

            Samantha’s GPS voice guided me, sometimes, but there were places where even she got confused and just stopped talking. My first inclination was to demonstrate the tiniest bit of road rage, but something eased me away from that into an enjoyment of the city, dressed as it always is in a cloak of vitality and beauty.

           Next I drove to Windsor Loch, Connecticut to visit the New England Air Museum. They have an exhibit of fighter and bomber aircraft. As I stood in the midst of those planes I was struck by how small they are compared to how they look in war shots and movies. At the same time, I got a heavy sense of the power and aggression that the planes embody. I could almost see the canopy flying off and the pilot ejecting from the F-86 after having been hit. From inside the bomb bay of the A-26 Invader, I pictured the doors opening and the load falling out, then the pilot turning sharply left or right to avoid getting caught in the devastating blast that would follow seconds later. Images notched themselves into my memory. I will think of them again.

            Next stop was my mother’s home on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. This cottage has been in my family since Mom was a teenager. It has become the Old Homestead. Most of my trips to the cottage have been during summer months. This time, the lake was frozen and a crop of colorful bob-houses had sprung up off shore. It looked like an odd shanty town sitting out there in the middle of the bay. Between the shacks, children played hockey. Further out snow mobiles raced and spun themselves on the ice. Cars drove around, just because they could, and airplanes came and went using the unclaimed stretches as runways.

            How neat, I thought, as I watched this cluster of life dare nature at the same time it took advantage of her. I wanted some. So I stepped off our dock onto the frozen lake. It was thrilling to walk away from safety out onto a landscape that had the opportunity to crack open and suck me in. Each step was a flirtation with danger. The adventure was small, but it brought something different to me. It was a moment of excitement that formed itself into a memory as colorful as any other.

            During the week at Mom’s I visited my brother in Portsmouth. Every now and then you stumble across something wonderful that, for whatever reason, has been largely overlooked. Maybe the thing is understated or otherwise modest in its trappings. No flash that catches the collective eye, which is probably a good thing. So, there’s Portsmouth, a charming coastal city that sits an hour north of Boston and an hour south of New England’s lake and mountainous regions. The city center is a collection of restored historic buildings inside which you find a variety of coffee houses and book stores, eclectic shops, diverse eateries. The people are on the streets. They are energetic and engaged. I picture throngs of “Remote” workers living there. Portsmouth was a delightful find.

            I left New Hampshire and headed south to the Cambridge side of Boston  to spend a few days with my daughter, Kirstyn, and her boyfriend. I find it harder now to say goodbye to Mom. The visits have that sense of urgency that comes when parents get older. No matter how healthy they seem, they are advancing toward the end zone. There’s nothing we can do but love them, knowing in that bittersweet corner of our hearts that one day, much sooner than we can stand to think about, they will no longer be here to remember the old days with us.

            So I said goodbye and watched her disappear in the distance, like time fading away into itself. I memorized her smile and the love in her eyes and felt a renewed appreciation for having had a great mother.

            In Cambridge I spent a morning at one of Harvard’s libraries researching a photographic depiction of Soviet gulags. Empty eyes looked out from sunken sockets and told of horrors not understood by those of us who did not suffer them. Diagrams of the various camps had several things in common: double rows of barbed wire fence that loomed high above crude barracks; the Forbidden Zone; guard towers; the Punishment Room. Hand scribbled notes spoke of death by starvation or disease or exhaustion, if not by execution for some wrong word uttered. It was a painful and sobering glimpse of unspeakable torment.

            After spending several hours with the collection, I looked up to absorb what I’d been seeing. Out the window Harvard Yard was suddenly white. The snow wasn’t falling from above. It was howling from the side and swirling upward and blowing straight at the windows. The blizzard had begun. Time to hustle.

            Outside, I bent into the wind and felt the coldness of gritty grains slapping my cheeks. Was it snowing or was someone blasting a sand trap nearby? Before I’d cleared the campus I looked like a snowman. My eyelashes were almost too heavy to open up after a blink. In the square people were dashing about to grab a few things at the market, hit the liquor store one last time, and get home. My eyes met those of strangers and we shared a knowing smile.

            Kirstyn, Dave and I hunkered down and watched the storm descend. All day. Then all night. Then all day again on Saturday. Between us we must’ve had a dozen electronic devices charging, just in case. We could do without heat or food or lights but God forbid we should not be able to use our phones or our computers. 

           When it stopped snowing Kirstyn and I took to the streets, to the extent you could find them under the twenty five inches that had fallen in the past twenty four hours. There were no cars—they’d been banned. The T stood still. Store fronts were dark. Everywhere people climbed the smooth white mounds. Some dug tunnels; others built snowmen. Frozen hands held cameras this way and that to capture the beautiful spectacle. Kirstyn and I walked for miles, down the middle of the road; up over drifts; along narrow pathways hurriedly carved by a few ambitious souls. Cambridge was crisply silent except for the muted sounds of trudging boots and buoyant voices. It was lovely.

            On Sunday we drank mimosas and cooked delicious food with some of Dave's family who'd braved the storm's remains to come for brunch. We talked of so many things I can't remember them, except to recall the richness of conversation well spent.

             And then it was time to go home. I moved through security and to the gate like a loaded pack mule. I watched out the window as we sped up and away. Boston retreated first, then the harbor. The New England landscape shrunk below as we climbed through the cloud layer, a dizzying fog that offered nothing until it broke open and delivered us to a painted sky. Shards of gold and orange swept downward into a rim of sleepy red that settled itself into white clouds along the horizon’s rim. The blue sky gradually faded back, the festival of colors muted into night and we flew on.

            It had been a good trip.