Sometimes I wonder if a literary sensibility is born from a love of nature. As a Jewish child in rural Vermont, there were many Sunday mornings that I spent idly engaged in the woodland flora. I would play in the forest for hours, just exploring. I would lie back on the moist forest floor and look up at the blue sky framed with scarlet and orange maple leaves. Gently caressing a mossy covered rock with my small hand, I learned that moss feels a lot like carpet, only softer and the greens more saturated in color. And, when my best friend did come home from church, we found ourselves "lost" in a nearby cornfield. The homonymous association of playing "maze" in the "field of maize" was not lost on my childhood sense of humor. Running through the cornfield, wildly chasing my freckle-faced friend in an elusive game of hide and seek, I recall those sharp and dusted leaves of corn brushing past our jubilant faces shouting, "Are you there? Are you there?"
In my professional life as a Jewish newspaper editor, I often think of those early days and how appreciative I am to have had them. My parents were loving, my friends were dear and the Vermont setting nourished my love for nature and language. My parents, a mixed marriage, found their spiritual home in a small, start-up temple who housed themselves temporarily in a church. My spirituality started in their setting and, after many twists and turns, ended up, more or less in the same spot; I am still a secular Jew and we are still, to now an extended degree, a "mixed blessings" family.
|The author's niece Abby, eating ice cream with sprinkles at the beach.
My parents are spending their retirement years on the shores of Lake Champlain in Colchester, Vermont. Wisely, they purchased their beach home about 10 years ago as a place for my two brothers and me to bring our families. My older brother lives nearby, my younger brother flies in from Florida and I drive the hyper-caffeinated trip from the Philadelphia "suburb" of Chester Springs, PA, eight hours of window-time, as often as four times a year. However, as an editor, these trips always fall strategically between deadlines and other commitments.
Living on Lake Champlain, which is about 11 miles across, is like living on the ocean--minus the pesky jellies, sharks, rip tides and other typical salt-water problems. Personification of the lake's moods comes easily to one's mind. I've sat on that familiar beach many times, thought about life's problems and let her mood carry me away--sometimes placid, sometimes tumultuous and demanding, but always comforting. Water is something that I'm naturally attracted to; some of my biggest life decisions were made sitting on the shore feeling the enormity of the lake, my problems were never that big.
Years ago, my Jewish brothers married two Catholic women with varied backgrounds--one sister-in-law is from Louisiana and the other is from Brazil. I'll be quite honest, when they first married, I went through a mourning period. Those wonderful Rosh Hashannah meals with family and prayers would find a permanent home in my literary imagination.
But while I mourned the loss of traditional Jewish family events, I gained something of extreme value. I love my sisters-in-law like they were my own sisters. And, there's something more. You see, my older brother and his wife had a "miracle" baby late in life, Abby. She is now 4 years old and it is impossible not to dissolve into putty when she wraps her little arms around my neck and says, "I wuv you, Aunt Shel." As you can imagine, my motivation for making the long trip has increased over the last few years. We all feel so lucky to have Abby in our lives. She has enriched our family's love in immeasurable ways.
This 4th of July, we again made that marathon trip to Vermont. From my parents' front porch, we looked over the lake and saw various communities, near and far, participating in fireworks celebrations. Abby loved it. She's always up for a celebration and took the opportunity to eat her fair share of red, white and blue sprinkles that weekend (it seems that when you're looking, sprinkles can be found on just about anything sweet: donuts, cupcakes, cookies and ice cream to name a few).
She was also intrigued by the many bonfires, glowing up and down the coast. We could see bright patches of wavy light through the darkness, the lake's sunset colors, orange and pink giving way to this only light. At the beach house next door, we noticed the large, crackling bon fire, not so much because it was next door but because it was never there before. The owners, both elderly, were estranged from their children (or the other way around, we were never quite sure). It seems the couple passed away within a few weeks of each other and their adult children were back at the house, which was also their childhood home. The children were cleaning out the house and we all observed large truckloads of their life's belongings being hauled away. My sisters-in-laws and I agreed: in the end, only feelings matter, the material stuff of life is meaningless.
When I thought of the years of missed opportunities for their family to heal and grow, it brought a deep sadness to me. Seeing the red, "for sale" sign on the lawn, seeing their belongings carted away by truckloads, caused me to reflect on my own life, on mortality but also how years ago I made the right decision to give up my dream of large family meals full of Jewish traditions. Giving up that dream, I received so much more. I gained the love of two wonderful sisters-in-law and many hugs and sprinkle-laced kisses from one little miracle girl named Abby.