retreat {part two}

There was once a blue wooden mail box that stood where the road dipped. It marked the entrance to our farmhouse, a line of maple trees overhanging the steep drive on either side. A green rusted gate now stands in its place, blocking access to the hill upon which the house sat for over 150 years, sheltering hearts and stories between its walls. New life, first steps and first words. The passing of life and final words. Countless stories of joy and some of heartache for all those who lived there.

The gate looks imposing, its iron cold to the touch on this autumn afternoon. I can barely see through the tangle of branches that obscures the long climb up the hill to where the house stood. So completely is it covered, there are few signs that a path ever existed. One gentle push on the gate and its bulk, reinforced by chains, sways slowly, mournfully. As though to say I’m sorry. I had no choice. Others put me here.

In an act of defiance, I climb the gate and prepare to make the trek to the top, gently pushing brush out of the way. Branches on either side of the drive lean to touch each other now. With every step, a memory comes rushing back: the first time I climbed this path on an autumn day, love-sick for the man who lived here, and whom I would one day marry; winter mornings, bitterly cold ones, when this hill was a sheet of ice and the oil truck sent its regrets; summer mornings, hands deep in soil planting vegetable gardens, recording each bit of growth in a journal while sitting at the harvest table in the kitchen; a tire swing and tree house built for the kids, three dogs lazing in the grass under a canopy of trees; Christmases with a tree brought home from the land.

I stand at the top of the hill and look to where the house last stood ten years ago. Searching through brambles, branches and impossibly high weeds for my familiars: the shed, the tree house, and the apple tree that grew outside Zoë’s bedroom window. Once an easy walk from the kitchen door, burdock now surrounds the shed, unforgiving and almost impenetrable; the land’s own act of defiance. Or perhaps this is its way of protecting our beloved shed—built by hands large and small—from trespassers and those who don’t know the secret of where the house once stood.

I move strategically through the burdock, still not escaping clumps that eagerly attach to boot laces, mittens, and even my scarf. And I see the shed’s blue-framed window barely visible above new growth, its roof covered in vines. The tears come suddenly, easily: It’s twenty-three years ago and Shawn is surveying the ground, a tiny girl in striped overalls and knee-high rubber boots at his side. He stands with his hands on hips, face beaming as she twists the post-hole digger with all the determination that a four-year old can muster. There’s a dog barking encouragement and me walking towards them with a camera.

I turn and look up to see the remnants of the tree house, its boards splayed against a bright blue sky. The tree is old and sick, no longer strong enough to hold the boy who would jump from its ladder.

Discovering the wood frame of a compost bin, I climb over matted branches to reach the old garden. Fragments of chicken wire remain, much of it buried beneath the ground. The brush is waist-high and I move through it slowly, carefully. I find two old tires from what was once a row abundant with zucchini and pumpkins. A paddling pool lies close by, filled with damp leaves and a single toy—a plastic tractor that I rescue with desperation, as though it were a child itself. Just beyond this a rope dangles from a branch and below it a tire lies on the ground like a fallen hero.

I look up to the lone, tall pine that once was visible from the kitchen window, and from there to the valley below, the hills ablaze in autumn reds and oranges. We walked these hills in times of joy and sorrow: hand-in-hand as new lovers; swaying rhythmically, leaning into each other, as the contractions of childbirth signaled the birth of our son; planting a mighty oak tree in ceremony for our beautiful boy; carrying babies in pouches and children on shoulders; collecting berries, plants, fiddleheads, pussy willows, wild flowers and treasures to adorn faerie huts; moving silently, clutching hands as tears fell over the deaths of our dogs; digging a resting place for beloved animals; retreating to find solace when confusion, heartache and grief were too heavy a load to bear.

There’s a cold wind picking up now that grounds me in my body. I stand in a slant of late afternoon sun for a long time, methodically pulling burrs from socks and jacket, gradually shifting my awareness to the present. Glad of the comfort they provide, I pull on mittens and tightly wrap my scarf. I’m ready to move away from this place of memories atop the hill and head towards the road, to another place we call home. I carry with me the three toys I’ve recovered, clutching them tightly like the small children who once played with them.

When the bricks came down, the stories rose above the rubble, migrating into the safety of our hearts. Memories found a resting place in the hills, histories whispered on the winds. This is our sanctuary, where the trees gently speak our truths, forever and always.