Winter’s Morning

A pale rose glow appears against the still dark sky of early morning as I descend the mountain.  Raven flies steadily at my side.  A sleepless bear appears, still searching for her den; behind this shadowed form, I sense the watchful spirits of my ancestors and the animals' progenitors, as well.

Hoarfrost-covered limbs frame the winding road. A yearling moose, not-yet-cautious, trots beside me, one resident among the many living in this winter world of frozen salmon streams, runty northern squirrels, lone coyotes moving through the shadows of the mottled birch.         

A stark white hare jumps from its hiding place.  A silent-footed cat with black-tipped ears appears and disappears.

Raven caws. The mountain road curves, and time moves on. The stoplight blinks; now green.  I turn left into another day.                                                                                                                              

Ancestors’ Communion

Ghostly apparitions of my ancestors hover near their cabins as yet another winter settles in.  These are not real beings, mind you, but figments of my early morning imagination. I sense them through the frost and the birch trees as I descend my mountain.

Now this is a mountain that I share with not only my imaginary friends and dead relatives, but also about 200 other house-dwellers, hikers, skiers, dog-walkers, dog-mushers, and troubled kids at the alternative high school at the foot of this particular mountain.  In other seasons, we share the space with gardeners and poll watchers, and year round, we host a whole company of firemen.  And let us not forget the Parks and Recreation Department personnel, the Department of Transportation, and Wells Fargo Bank and other lending institutions.  They all have a slice of my mountain. But today, in my dreams, this mountain is mine.

Spirits from a different time and different place, they transport me across a continent, reminding me that they, too, traveled great distances from their homelands under lonely and challenging circumstances. My guides, they accompany me on this morning drive.  Raven joins us, flying steadily beside me.

Now, we should probably say something about Raven. This is not “a” raven, or even really “the” raven.  This is Raven. There is something mystical about Raven, not quite God, but a godly messenger, nonetheless. Native Americans can claim a special connection to Raven, true, but the bird brings coded messages for us all. Tap. Tap. Tap. Caw. Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”

From out of the chilling mist, a sleepless bear peers at me, still searching for her den. Never mind that the bear is wearing a radio collar. I have pictures of the bear.  She exists. So does the collar. What the pictures were unable to capture, however, were the spirits of my German Mennonite and Lutheran ancestors readying for winter.  Imagining them through the birch trees, I see the Germans, whether Mennonite or Lutheran, gathering up the last of their harvest, slaughtering pigs, smoking their carcasses, and cleaning the horses’ harnesses. Women spin and can and collect eggs.

The Scotch-Irish clansmen keep their distance. These Celts are made of rougher stuff, their houses made of logs, their farms less prim than their Germanic neighbors. In coonskin caps, they closely watch the bear; having crossed paths with her before.  They understand the bear is fiercely loyal to family, but also represents life’s challenges and dangers.

The Huguenot and her Catholic husband stand alone, estranged from their childhood families; their success in this wilderness all the more remarkable because they conquered it together without the longed-for support of others.

The mountain road twists and turns and rolls up and down. At one point there is a hilltop where I can pause, gaze over the tops of the trees below, and marvel where the hoarfrost meets the pink horizon. With this pale rose sky to your left, head straight west and make a sharp turn to the left, go about 3000 miles, and hang another left, crossing a continent at the altitude of your choice until you spot the harbor. Throttle back and slowly dip down toward where my Puritans first arrived in 1635 to worship God and make their economic mark.  And yes, they were “my” Puritans.  I have their blood in my veins. These stalwart churchmen hunted white-tailed deer.  In this time and place today, a yearling moose, not-yet-cautious, steps in front of their descendant. I slow my pace. Cousins, he and I. And both cousins with the now-gone deer.

Raven caws. Now I’ve heard a raven “caw.” It’s more like a “crawk.” It’s a sound you don’t forget, even if your car window is fully closed. Raven does not ride with me every morning; often as not, there are two ravens traveling together, much more interested in each other than with me.  But at least on one morning, one Raven, cawed, and I heard the caw. And I took it as a sign that as I watch the ancestors, the ancestors in turn watch me.

One built grist mills; named Gideon Culver, he lost the use of one arm during the war with England.  Another, Jacob Slagle, tanned hides. Catholic, he lived with his French Protestant wife, Hannah Burrill, in Maryland. Lazarus Lowry and sons traded with the Indians. Old Lazarus was kicked out of the Donegal (Pennsylvania) Presbyterian Church for ample use of profanity, I’ve heard. An Englishman John Charles was a ship captain who ran aground in the 1600s and was sued for damages. Eliza Renschler Dempsey of Ohio was the neighborhood midwife.  John O’Harra, an Irishman, poured ale for the immigrants as they silently moved westward through the icy mist.  O’Harra and his wife Priscilla watched sixteen grandsons go to fight their cousins to the south. 

As I continue to descend the mountain and cross a frozen salmon stream, I feel the generations moving with me. Some follow the lakes; others cross the Ohio and move up the Scioto River, or roll along newly laid rails.  Ever west, the ancestors flow. They farm the deep and fertile land, fish for  big mouth bass and channel cat, hunt pheasants in their fields. But as the seasons and the years rolled past, the fish, the birds and farms did not continue to provide required sustenance. Families outgrew the resources of their forefathers; many of their offspring took flight to make their own mark.

Sons like John Smith settled in towns and became grocers.  Frank Shullaw became a barber; his son Roy, a printer. There was even a picture-maker, whose name escapes me at the moment.  Some moved to the cities and worked in factories, which is how Frank Bartel and Jennie Queen met and married.  It wasn’t the farm life of their childhoods, true. But there were advantages, like a steady paycheck, brand new store-bought clothes. Friends and family gathering to have their pictures made.  Dusty, fading pictures now.  Cherished. 

A stark white hare jumps from the not quite snow-covered brush beside my road.  A ptarmigan appears.  Even a runty northern squirrel.  No match in elegance with the Midwestern bushy-tails of my childhood.  The early morning, silent-footed cat with the black-tipped ears appears and disappears from view.

The mountain road now curves, and time moves on. It is still cold and hazy gray but I can make out more recent offspring of the old ones. Some still live on farms, while others inhabit towns and suburbs.  A few are in the cities.  Some even return to England, four hundred years after the ancestors left that land to plant their families elsewhere and find their God along the journey.

Whenever a wolf or coyote appears through the snowy birch, I remember. The lean and wary animals remind me. I cannot return to the ancestors, so the ancestors must come to me.

In my loneliness, I could fade into these frosted birch trees, take my place with the old ones. Stay with the cousins, the bears, the yearling moose – wait for the salmon.  Soon enough, they whisper. Not yet, they say.

The mountain road has reached its end. Raven caws – and leaves me. I will miss the frost, the birch, the cousins … for we only sense each other on this road, my road connecting two disparate worlds.  I hestitate.

The stoplight blinks; turns green.  I turn left into another day. 

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Winter Road

 Lynx

Not-Yet-Cautious

Radio-Collared Bruin

Caw!

Store-bought clothes