I've been watching the snow recede from the hill opposite the house. It takes a long time if the snowfall was heavy, which it was two weeks ago. More snow has since come and filled in the melted crannies, but that too has begun to recede. There may be more snow this weekend, but the temperature is slowly creeping up into the low forties, which means we don't have those menacing daggers of ice hanging from the rain gutters. I feel stirrings in the earth of a spring that is still far away, but not exiled behind the frozen boundaries of winter. The crows make their cheerful yawps high in the air and appear to be enjoying the thaw. I saw a squirrel frisking about on a maple branch, clearly entertaining itself without a care in the world. No doubt the tracks in the snow indicate other creatures are beginning to poke around looking for worms and bugs to nurture their own dreams of rearing a family.
But it's the way the snow withdraws that fascinates me. I sit in my reading chair and stare out of the windows at that field, with its graceful ascent into the pale blue sky. The snow is in long streaks and patches, and where it melts away reminds me of how I remember the past. We seem to retain bits and pieces of events that caused us pain. Pleasure vanishes, and surprises lose their edge and fade away. I can't recall much about the girls I loved; they might linger as names, or a face, or a hand, or some peculiarity of their laughter, but who they really were is gone. I couldn't say what drew me to them, or why I agonized over my shyness or mistakes, or what made them drift off to someone else. Those summers when we were all thin as rake handles and good-looking were full of melodrama and soul-searching. I know I spent my nights worrying about nothing and getting up in the morning resolved to try again.
But the snow darkens around those melting divots like punctuation around a phrase, hesitating what to say next. The dark streaks are reality pushing up through the fantasies of white frost, and carry no trace of the past as they emerge into the sunlight. The moist, fragile soil is ready for the new, for change, and whatever bits of disintegrating history lie buried there are of no importance. The whole field is a waterlogged diary, with pages falling loose and crumbling. You can't say whether this metamorphosis of time is painful or reassuring; it's just the pulse of the earth. The archaeologist digs out the fragile bones from history's graveyard and sorts them out into a narrative, satisfying in some of us the urge to remember.
I knew a woman who became a marine archaeologist and landed a job as a researcher on the sunken remains of the H.L. Hunley, the Confederate submarine that managed to sink a Union ship off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina before the crew perished. A museum enshrines the delicate iron shell of this boat and draws big crowds in the summer. The lost war has this fleeting instance of heroism that inspires people to gaze at it wonderingly. It means something, but no one is quite sure what that meaning is. But there it stands, a figure hoisted up out of the snow-covered remains of the 19th century. Nature has no use for it; it was being nibbled at by the corrosive salt water, and would have disappeared if southerners had not longed for a relic of its tortured past.
As a kid I would often sneak behind the altars of Italian churches searching for those glass sarcophagi in which saints were preserved. I marveled at the dry bones of their hands, the mummified grins of their skulls. Sometimes a shoe would have fallen off a foot and revealed the web of bones still clinging to the cartilage. Hardly anyone would want to see these ghoulish figures, but I was driven to find them on our family trips across Italy, and would come away strangely moved by these apparitions haunting the dark, moldy air. A priest might find me hanging around and gently push me away, telling me I was too young to understand such mysteries.
But I would know one thing for certain. The desire to remember was as powerful as the instinct to draw breath. But nothing could hold back the destruction that goaded memory to keep the past alive. There's the field as I write this, vast, unmoved, like the hide on an elephant. Birds of all kinds land in the field and peck at the surface, moving the snow aside to reveal a pill bug or a brave grub testing the air. They eat the fruit of mortality, and swallow the bits of rubble that were once a vivid, luxurious, Technicolor July day, with all its boisterous wind and rumbles of far off rain clouds. The whole edifice of summer soared in all directions like the cathedral at Cologne, with banners flying from its turrets and arches gaping open to the noon sun. And all that exuberance and erotic mayhem slowly condenses into a frost that is iced over by a blanket of indifference piling itself up like the down-filled humps of a comforter.
I try not to think of what is disappearing from my own memory as I gaze out of the windows. I'm sure my past is strewn with H.L. Hunleys of despair and defeat, and that the earth on which my consciousness floats contains the epics of lost civilizations. But as Morris Morrison, my late friend, once remarked, "We have a memory, but we also have a forgetery. We need both." He had made peace with the dilapidated state of reality, and was happy he didn't have to haunt the relics of his youth. I am too moody to accept the loss of my past; I need to reach out sometimes and hold a hand, or sit on a park bench talking to someone who had broken my heart. I need the smell of lilacs and the rustle of a skirt, the tap of shoes on the sidewalk, the amorphous jewelry of the morning light warming the window sill, begging me to come down and pluck the biggest rose on the trellis. How precious are those flowers that don't exist anymore.
A man is walking on the hill surveying his property. I wonder what he is thinking about as he looks around, hands in his pockets, his boots wet with the thaw. He wants to descend the hill and step over the rutted cornrows, maybe pick up a withered ear of corn from last summer. But he decides not to and before I can take a sip of coffee, he's gone. He has decided, perhaps, that this page of the past can continue its inexorable self-destruction. He's all right with it. But he can't escape it, not even when he closes the door behind and lights a fire. Even if he puts on a Beethoven sonata and sits with a glass of cognac, the field is moving like a river toward oblivion. I wish I could join him. He would think I was a little crazy to come knocking on his door and telling him I'd like to discuss his field as a metaphor of the human condition.
Instead, I walk away to my study and sit in the cozy, semi-dark interiors. I am aware of how I too must hold the world at arm's length and not let its iron-fisted rules of existence affect me. I need to think about the delicate old lady down the road who keeps a green house going all winter long. The delicate pale flowers she has coaxed to grow in this ice-bound season would die if a window broke. Nature pretends not to notice this exception to its rules; the ethereal tulip stands on a precarious stem with its petals open to the gray winter afternoon, safe from the vampire breath of the frozen air. It flirts with the neighboring daisies and pretends it is dancing in the heart of summer. The potted plants are all exactly like the old lady who tends to them, safe for the moment. She holds a watering can and lovingly dribbles a bit of comfort onto the soil, and moves on.