I have a love hate relationship with the North Country. I grew up here, so I am loaded with memories, both good and bad. But I went away and focused on the bad for a very long time: the winters, the gray days, the snow and slush. The way you can never wear anything pretty on your feet for months because you have to wear boots. And the way your pant legs are all stiff and frozen when you come inside, and then melt so your ankles are cold and damp for hours. Or the way the sun hides for weeks at a time, and turns the mood worse and worse until just being alive feels like a miserable chore. The way grumpy, petty, gossipy people feeling irritated and going through life together in one dull and drizzly haze seems inevitable for the area. As I got older I became aware of even more things: the heat bill, snow tires, property taxes, school taxes, and more taxes.
But something has happened to me since moving back here after traveling around for several years. With the window open on a late August day, I hear the sounds of the katydid, and the smell of fall in the air, and I am back in my childhood kitchen, just home from school and there on the table is a big wooden bowl full of fresh picked apples. We had gone for the day, and rode in the back of the truck, and picked only the biggest reddest apples we could find, storing bushel baskets full of them on the porch off the kitchen. There they would wait to be peeled, cooked, canned, or baked into some dreamy treat. The smell is more intense than any Yankee candle ever dreamed. And then I remember my mother making Halloween costumes. My favorite, the robot, was cardboard boxes covered with tin foil and all kinds of little gadgets attached. Then there was the hobo, or witch, or Raggedy Anne. Halloween could be enjoyed in an Indian summer, or with winter coats and boots covering your costume. I can still hear the rustling of leaves as we would shuffle through them walking all around town at dusk and continuing for several hours on a school night. Popcorn balls were the jackpot, but apples were a little lame. A pillowcase was the best carrier for your treats because it was so big, but sometimes I would use the plastic pumpkin with a hole in its head because it was cooler.Wow. All that from a little fall breeze. It makes me long for the country. I have been living in an apartment in the city since I returned to the North. I hear traffic, and sirens, and the tire shop next door with its grinder and air driver sounds. I get in my car and drive and keep driving until I can hear the high-pitched cicadas and nothing else. I smell faint manure and see open fields, cattails, and goldenrod. And everything is better. I am beginning to wonder why I hated it here. Snow? Is that the big one? Is it the snow and cold that was so awful? Again I am returned to childhood and standing on the register. I peel off my thick socks and feel the itchy red burning on my feet and cheeks. I just took off my wool snow pants and jacket and mittens and hung them on the clothes bars in the kitchen. My hair is damp and matted from my stocking hat with the long tail. I have an icicle that one of my brother’s broke off the porch roof for me. And all I can smell is damp wool. We just built a snow fort in the dark. We started it before dinner, ate, did up the dishes, and went back out to work on it under the street light. It’s at the edge of the driveway where the snowplow, and dad’s shoveling ended up in a good-sized pile. The inside is like an igloo with smooth walls, roomy enough for three of us. And the dog. I feel my heart sink as Mom calls us in from the porch. It’s bath night. Bummer.
When we weren’t making a snow fort, we were walking to the Brown Mansion where the fireman had flooded the yard for an ice rink. There was even a loud speaker playing music. We practiced skating backwards or we made a chain. Everyone holds the person if front of them, and skates as fast as they can. But you hope like hell you’re not on the end, because the end people get whipped around and fly off like a broken tail! The sledding hill was at the mansion too so if your feet got tired, or cold, you could go inside to warm up and have some hot chocolate, take off your mittens, warm up your hands, unlace your skates and put on your boots. There was another whole gang of kids out on the hill with toboggans, flexible flyers, plastic sleds, saucers, or if the hill was icy, you could even slide down on the back of your snowsuit. Sometimes we played bean pile on the plastic sled. I was lucky I was small. I would be on top.
I open my eyes taking in the old stone house for sale. I sit in the driveway with the windows down and listen to the quiet. I could sit in this driveway forever. This house is private, quiet, and very much in the country. Several acres stretch out behind a red barn. A big pond promises bullfrog sounds in the evening. Grapes hang ready to be harvested, and rhubarb and asparagus plants thrive. I still can’t believe I am scouting out a house right here in the North Country. I never would have dreamed I’d be back here to live. But as I inhale the fall air and feel the end of summer shining on my face, I dream of wood stoves, and crunchy leaves, and pumpkins to put out on the steps.