The pond has finally frozen over and I walked down across the field this morning in the dark with the dogs running on ahead of me so I could check it’s thickness. You could see the ghost of each breath tracing a trail in the air behind them, running their crazy dog circles chasing a memory of a scent. The cold air filled my lungs with each breath and I kept tucking my face down into my jacket for a little warmth, hoping to find the perfect balance. I’ve been rising earlier than usual lately. Part of it is age, I suppose, part of it the ache in my bones that I have begun to accept as the new normal. I’ve beat my body up over the years and now it’s beating me back up trying to settle the score and that’s just the way it’s going to be. There’s something else though, something deeper that I can’t put into words no matter how often I try. There’s this deep sense that the things in the world are heading where you don’t want them to go. So many divisions, so much tension in so many lives that it’s colder now no matter what the temperature might read on the thermometer. It’s out there, no question, this thing that’s coming but there’s no way I can grasp it because I’ve never lived through anything like it before so there’s nothing to compare it to or measure it against. Seasons, I know them and I look forward to each one, the big turning of year to year that makes me happier with each orbit even as I find myself closer to the end of my own mortal coil.
I test the ice because the kids are asking about the pond every day now. They love to skate and once the ice has hardened up to where it’s nice and stiff they’ll take their skates with them in the morning and ask the bus driver to drop them off along the road instead of the bottom of the driveway after school. The dogs will run down to watch them and bark as they make crazy looping kid circles, tracing their own invisible paths on the black ice in the fading light of early Winter. I’ll stop whatever I’m doing too and watch them from the top of the hill and remember what it was like when I was their age. My friends and I would do the same thing, lacing up on the edge of Stony Brook and then taking off across the bumpy surface, gathering speed as we chased each other, for miles across the flattened landscape between Princeton and Hopewell. When you skated like that the whole world fell away except for the sound of steel on ice, each stroke of your legs propelling you this way and that, a zig-zaggy path under a perpetually cloudy sky. Under the skates you’d sometimes chase up a small school of suckers that would imitate our path beneath the ice and follow along as we skated, in concert with each movement from us above and we’d laugh about it, their ability to mimic another creature through a foot of ice, anticipating our every stroke. I still remember that though it was a long time ago. And because I remember it so vividly, it all comes back when I watch my children do it. It’s like I get a chance to skate away with no more thoughts or cares in the world, following the path of my own devising, wherever it would lead. And there it was again, another, greater cycle I had almost missed for the smaller one of Winter, the generational turn of time where now my own children skate away, their laughter falling like a light snow across the fields.
The children and I went and cut down our Christmas tree on Sunday. It was unseasonable warm and they ran out ahead of me into the trees where the hill started to slope steeply. I followed behind with the saw draped over my shoulder, eyes scanning the horizon. I’d caught sight of a bald eagle up here a couple of days ago and I was hoping he’d make a showing again while we walked but he was nowhere to be seen. They found a nice little cork bark tree with a lovely shape to it and a perfect tip for the star and my youngest asked if he could place it this year and I said yes, but it made my heart twinge and I found that incredibly sad, but in a nice way, that child-like desire that put so much value on something so simple. His sister chimed in about the perfection of the tree they’d picked and how nice it would look in the house and I nodded in agreement then settled myself down on the frozen ground and began to saw away at the tree, one stroke at a time. The smell brought back memories and the kids hunched down on either side of me peering in through the green boughs, their faces framed in an emerald spray of needles, smiling happily. We carried the tree back to where we’d parked the truck and I tied it on the roof with baling twine. I pulled the driver seat forward as far as it would go and nodded to my daughter to get in and drive us home. She’s only 12 and small for her age, but she’s more independent and self assured than I was at her age and that’s saying a lot. I have been giving her more time behind the wheel lately and this was a perfect opportunity for her to try her new skill out because it’s that time and because we didn’t have that far to drive. Soon enough she’ll be over the novelty of it and her skills will turn to confidence and then to mastery and she won’t even be a teenager. By the time she gets to her high school driver’s ed class she’ll sail through and be one of the better drivers in her age group while the rest of the kids will be spooked and self-conscious. Of course she’ll drive with me far less often then and I’ll miss all those conversations we’ve had together with her asking questions as fast as I could find answers, but that’s the way it goes. As we drove back down the Province Road the declining sun threw a pale orange light through the windows of the car and it cast a shadow on the wall of trees as we drove home and could see the outline of the car with the Christmas tree on top following us as we went.
A long time ago when I was still in my twenties I was a construction superintendent for a company that was building a bus wash for SEPTA in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. It was a cold, lonely job and every morning I would get up before dawn and make my commute from NJ and drive along the Schuylkill Expressway in the dark. One morning around this same time of year I noticed an older model station wagon with the fake wood panels driving in the other lane with a Christmas tree strapped to the top of it. I remember thinking how odd it was at that hour of the morning to be driving down the highway with a pine tree on your roof rack and didn’t give it another thought until I saw it again the next morning and several mornings after that. The driver was an old man to me, probably younger than I am now, but then he looked gray and badly worn down. Obviously we shared a similar schedule and as each day passed my curiosity grew; what was his story? Was it some kind of statement or protest? I began to imagine scenarios where someone might have forgotten that it was there, or no longer cared, that he had come home from picking it up to find his wife and children had left him, that the house had burned to the ground, something catastrophic and each morning the tree was a little more bedraggled, more dispirited and desultory. And then Christmas came and went and I never saw that car again even though I looked for it and that made me wonder even more. Over the years that memory has come back to me every Christmas and I still think about that man and that tree.
When I made it down to the pond I tested it like I always do, by putting some weight on in the shallow end where I know the depth and the way the water drops off and I listened for the creaking sound of ice being stressed, the tell tale cracks and splinters, but there were none. She was as solid as it gets and clearer than last year for having set so slowly, so you could see the bottom. The dogs gave it a test of their own and found it wanting, so they circled the pond as a pack noses to the ground, tails flagging in the soft light of dawn. I turned back to walk uphill and the sky was still a deeper shade of blue than anything else on Earth. The waxing crescent moon threw off a silver light and Venus clung to her like an ornament of its own, Mars dimmer, above them both. The kids will be able to lace up their skates today after school and I will probably get out my pair too, maybe, if I have any energy left by then and we’ll skate across the surface of the pond without thinking about anything but the sound of the skates and the wispy blooms of steam each time we exhale, hands clasped behind us, making lazy circles in the falling light. Christmas is coming, again. Maybe tonight we’ll trim the tree, the house filled with the sound of delight as we rediscover the ornaments that have traveled with us through time, another year together, another cycle. I told my children the story of the guy with the tree on his car and they thought it was extremely funny and came up with their own reasons why he had that thing up there for so long and they were far happier than the ones I’d considered and maybe next year when I think about it again it will be with a different perspective. I wonder how many more years I’ll have where the kids want me to cut a tree with them before they are off on their own and if, through repetition, I’ll be just another time lapsed version of that guy over years instead of days, a tree on the roof every Christmas until one day he’s not there any more. It’s probably sooner than I think, but I still have a few more in me and I plan on enjoying each one. Sometimes I wish I had a river I could skate away on, but it would always bring me back here, where I belong.