Many years ago we lived in a farmhouse, which sat at the base of 200 acres of sloping hills in Columbia County, two dairy farms and some six miles west, of the Massachusetts border. I had come across it one morning looking for a shortcut, on a whim. There it stood, a humble sentinel of pasture long overgrown by saplings, shrub, and hawthorn. Its windows beckoned in endearing smiles of six-over-six, despite the awkward gaps where one or two were missing. The house was old, but not decrepit. Cedar clapboard dressed three sides in weathered-brown. The fourth, which stoically faced north and up the hill, was faded to a softer, wizened gray. Its fireplace had long been lost and with that had gone a portion of its pride. And yet it stood after seven years of solitude, patient and unassuming. It was its self-effacing fortitude, I think, that won me over.
The dirt-floored basement was the only part of the house with remnants of its past inhabitants. Narrow, rough-cut wooden shelves along two fieldstone walls were lined with dusty jars containing the probability of pickles. The others were filled with applesauce, or perhaps, tomatoes. It was difficult to tell—but they were prolific. The heaps of jars that weren’t full, spilled out of many mildewed cardboard boxes, whose bottoms dissolved when I tried to lift them. In one of these I found a little oil lantern. Its etched-glass base was garnet colored, and fit perfectly into the cup of my hand. Once scrubbed and filled with oil, I set it on the kitchen table, and there it stayed. It was the first light lit in the morning, and the last blown out at night in the years we lived there.
Out to the south of the large kitchen window and up a little rise, was a shallow cow-pond choked by reeds and thick clumps of grass. It was a watering hole for bobcat, deer, and coyote in the warmer months, and froze over beautifully in thick ice, by late December. My sons have long since forgiven me for stuffing small pillows into the backs of their snow-pants, that first time they tried to skate. It took some years for me to learn it was important to let them fall.
On one cold night, we carried them sleeping, wrapped in blankets onto the deck, waiting for December Geminids to shower through the sky. Stars shone through the expansive stillness with sharp clarity so unique to a winter sky. I started singing, hoping to wake them gently so they would see it. The meteor didn’t perform for us that night—maybe we were too early. But the coyotes close by were inspired by the song, and howled and yipped wildly from all directions.
That winter, the snow fell with abandon. It blew down off the hill from the north, piling up against the boot room door. It slipped through gaps we hadn’t seen, leaving little drifts on the floor. Sometimes, on a windowsill. The house was anything but weathertight. But we kept warm, wrapped in woolens, and youthful optimism shared by a circle of friends, whose children in addition to ours, made up a lively sum of seven. Meals were shared, music made, and festivals celebrated. Torches were planted in the snow all the long way up the steepest hill, and sledding parties ended with rosy cheeks and chins covered in hot chocolate. Hands were lent, and cars were loaned when a need arose. We wove a solid net from our collective shoestrings, which saved us from the harder falls. These were lean times, but far from empty. What we couldn’t pull from our pockets was supplanted by rich experience and the combined goodwill of a community of friends.
Years have passed, and life will test the best of intentions, which later would be relearned. Winter brings with it a raw and often harsh vulnerability. But it is generous in contrasts, and at its deepest darkness lies an opening in which to celebrate the light.
The lantern is lit, and the fire in the wood stove fills the room with warmth.
Outside, the sharp strike of freezing rain against the window has ended suddenly, shifting gently into snow.
Cardinale Montano is a freelance writer living in West Stockbridge, Massachusetts. She shares her creativity with good friends, family, and eager learners, and celebrates daily the blessings of nature in the beautiful Berkshires. She is the founder and designer at LineflaxAndRoving.com