Corona Chronicles XXV
Early March sun is deceptive. If you stand in the southwest corner and turn your face upward, the warmth permeates your skin, warming to the core. Take a few steps into the dooryard and the wind gusting across the snow-covered field shatters your warmth and your hopes. But spring will come and the maple trees will be among the early greeters.
Sap, as attracted to the sun as you are, flows up the maples to feed the eventual emergence of leaves. Thirsty chickadees and red squirrels sip a drop or two from a broken branch and delight in its sweetness. Small boys and grown women do the same. Perhaps ancients gathered sap as an alterative to the water winter had frozen solid and discovered how heat made it sweeter. For my children, it was the ritual announcing spring.
Storms had been heavy that year – forty or forty-five years ago: eighteen, twenty-six, thirty inches at a time. The neighbor’s barn collapsed under the weight. The kids took their sleds to the top of the toolshed roof and slid down a track almost to the pond. Walking anywhere in the woods required snowshoes and even then, it was a struggle. Without them, you’d sink to your thighs. March sun though melts the surface during the day. The cold night air transforms it to a heavy crust. In the morning, you can walk anywhere! Early settlers wrote of waiting until March to move to their newly acquired land up in Maine. They hauled their belonging on wooden sleds, traveling on the colder days. We, too, used the March crust to find and tap the maples up above the house.
The kids are excited. We pack the spiles, buckets, a drill, a hammer, my snowshoes and the two-year-old on a sled. I strap the baby in her Snugglie, and with the older ones hike up the old woods’ road. The crust, solid enough this early March morning, easily supports our weight; the sun’s rays are warm on our faces. I figure if the crust gives, I can put on my snowshoes and haul the kids the rest of the way.
Tapping a tree takes a bit of work: Drill a hole on the south side that gets the most sun, pound in the spile, hang a bucket or an old milk jug on the spile’s hook, and go on to the next maple. The sap of the sugar maples is sweetest, but red maples produce sap. If a tree is large enough, it can take two or three taps. The first tap is the most exciting. I drill the hole and the kids take turns pounding in the spile. We hang a bucket and immediately hear the plink-plink of the sap hitting the pail. Mittens fly off and hands reach in for the first taste of the sweet drops.
We move along, tapping a dozen or so trees before the baby wakes up and everyone is suddenly exhausted and starving. I hand out the mushed up peanut butter sandwiches, share the jug of tepid water I’ve carried in my pack, and let the baby nurse for a few minutes.
The sled, now empty of buckets, suggests a speedy ride home for the older ones. The sun has softened the snow a bit, so they cannot go too fast. I strap on my snowshoes, put the drill and hammer in my pack, and trudge along, knowing most of us will be ready for a nap by the time we get home. I muse about maybe sitting in the sunny, south-facing window and reading for a few minutes.
Next morning we hike back up with two sleds: one for the kids and one with five-gallon pails for gathering sap. This seems less like fun to the kids and today they grumble and bicker. Many days are still too cold or too cloudy for the sap to run. Much as I want it to be spring, I am not unhappy to take a day or two off. By week’s end though, we have stockpiled enough sap to make a few pints of syrup.
We’ve made a crude outdoor stove from half of an old oil barrel and found a large flat pan to fit on top. Once the fire is roaring, I fill the pan with the watery sap. It takes hours – feeding the fire, pouring in more sap – forty gallons to make one gallon of syrup. Clouds of steam fill the air with sweetness. The older kids, mesmerized at first by the fire and the steam, lose interest and go off to build a snow-crust fort. I alternate between tending the equally demanding fire and the baby napping in the house. By suppertime, the sap is still not boiled down enough, but this is the tricky part. Let it go too long and it will burn up in seconds.
By seven, it’s reduced enough to fit into my largest canning kettle and I set it on the kitchen stove to finish. With the promise of pancakes and syrup for breakfast, everyone else goes to bed without a fuss. The canning jars and lids are clean and ready. I’m alone in the strangely quiet kitchen, watching, waiting.
Most of the time, I cherish any minute I have alone. The first hour or so, I read, check the thermometer regularly, and breathe in the sweet steam. By 10:00, I yawn, pace around, notice the tiny rivulets of sticky moisture on the walls. Knowing I’ll have to wash everything down in the morning heightens my exhaustion. I check the thermometer again – still not done! Now I am fighting sleep, but letting it burn would disappoint everyone, especially me. By 1:00 a.m. the wallpaper is peeling back in the upper corners, and I’m so tired I’m crying (softly-not to wake anyone) as I pour the finished syrup into two, pint jars and crawl into bed.
At 5:30 a.m. they are all up, excited, and starving. Bleary-eyed, I drop circles of batter on the griddle – one starter pancake per child. “Me first,” “Me second.” “I want to pour my own syrup.” Soon the thick, sweet syrup floods the plates and dribbles down chins.
Next March the warm sun will tempt us. They remember only the taste of the sweet syrup and the fun of sliding down the hill!
Lee Graham is a member of Senior College and the Belfast Garden Club who grows asparagus on her farm in Maine.
Photos by Audrey Deveney
Ask Me How I Am
Heather Heath Reed
you won’t get a straight answer.
I’m fine, I’m not so fine.
I keep busy. I’m bored.
I have projects up the wahzoo,
but no motivation to start them.
I write a line or two,
then lose my train of thought.
If I could wake up to a sun-filled room,
there’s a good chance it’d be a good day.
Lately, though, it’s been snowing and grey,
and I just want to lie in bed and sleep.
But today I wake to blinding sunlight,
and all I want is to be outdoors.
I want to feel the sun almost sting my face.
I want to swing my arms and stomp my feet,
Feel my body come alive again,
like it means to enjoy this day to the fullest.
So, ask me again how I am,
and I’ll tell you straight.
I’m fine. I feel grateful,
I feel my spirit rising.
I hear sparrows and finches
warbling in the trees.
I see frozen puddles
melting into slippery pools of ice water.
The sky is the bluest I’ve seen in ages,
and I think about bluebells and iris
And the promise of spring hovering nearby
like a sunset all lit up along the river.
Heather is retired and lives in Westport, MA. She is an avid reader, gardener, and walker. She enjoys writing poetry and is a longtime member of the Westport Poetry Group. In normal times Heather is a devoted volunteer at her library, which has been closed during the pandemic. Recently, she has been volunteering at the Council on Aging calling seniors to assist with vaccinations. She is a member of Belfast Senior College and has enjoyed several online courses this year.
Masks Have Changed Our Lives in Many Ways
Masks save lives. I wouldn’t dream of entering a grocery store, the post office, or anywhere else I might go – if indeed I did go anywhere else – without donning one. Early on in the pandemic, I was a warrior against the unmasked, silently berating those who passed by as I grabbed a block of cheese or a bag of rice, calling store managers to complain, researching local protocol for reporting errant businesses, should it come to that. Masks had rapidly come to symbolize an “us vs. them” political divide and fueled by Covid anxiety, I was guilty of demonizing many of my fellow Mainers while attempting to interact as always with those I perceived as being on my own team.
Masks have changed my life in other ways, as well. As a senior with hearing loss living in Maine, going out into the world this winter involved a cat’s cradle level of entanglement: Earloops over or under eyeglass arms? Best way to keep behind-the-ear hearing aids in place? Tuck everything in under the knitted hat? Don’t lose those earrings!
Beyond minor annoyances, masks have affected my life in a more profound way, making those chance encounters that often brighten my day nearly impossible. Raised in a secular Jewish tradition, I try to incorporate Judaism’s concept of “tikkun olam” into my daily life. Usually defined as “repair the world” and applied to such weighty concepts as social justice, my interpretation encompasses even those small acts of kindness that may elicit a smile and add a tiny bit of joy to the world. Moreover, one friendly gesture often leads to another directed back at us, lightening our own burdens for a few moments.
I like to believe that my eyes convey my smile to the little girl in the shopping cart, but do they? And what of my words? Were they spoken loudly enough to convey my appreciation to the helpful guy at the fish counter? I recall the day I ran into my manicurist near the potato bins. Realizing that I didn’t recognize her, she surreptitiously lowered her mask. “It’s me, Heather!” She quickly remasked and initiated a friendly chat. Heather happens to be what some call a “low talker,” challenging to hear even back in pre-Covid days as she worked on my toes. Unable to follow what she was saying, I simply nodded and wrapped things up with a “hope to see you soon!” Hugs were out of the question.
I tell myself it’s been a small price to pay, this loss of everyday affirmations. It pales when compared to the long year away from our grandkids as they enter and outgrow new stages, develop new obsessions, grow inches. But the other day, along my walk, as I strained to understand a new neighborhood acquaintance without benefit of lipreading and minus facial expressions, I spent the rest of my solo walk thinking how lovely it will be to get back to daily life unmasked and begin to repair the world, face-to-face once more.
A Bostonian by birth and lifelong Massachusetts resident, upon retirement in 2016 following a long career as a librarian, Liz Vezina moved with her husband to their lake house in St. Albans. She loves their leisurely lifestyle and treasures having time to read, write, participate in multiple book clubs, volunteer for their local library, and take Maine Senior College classes!
Thought for the Day
You can cut all the flowers, but you cannot keep spring from coming.
You might as well answer the door, my child, the truth is furiously knocking.
Courtesy of Gratefulness.org