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April Again, and Not a Moment Too Soon

by Julia Sneden

It is springtime in the South again, and the tulips and redbud and cherry trees are blooming. The dogwoods that have begun to open are that faint chartreuse which means they'll be creamy in a few days, and a few days after that, brilliant, blazing white. They also come in a pink that my Disney-crazed granddaughter once referred to as: "pink like the pink of Sleeping Beauty's cloak."

Somehow I am surprised that at my age I am swept up by a dreamy spring fever every bit as strong as the ones I suffered when I was a romantic teenager, or a housebound mother sick of the eternal round of boots and snowsuits.

Spring is not really my favorite season, but I welcome it because we humans are attuned to the rhythms of seasonal change. Their predictability is comforting.

This year in this part of the country, spring follows a rather relentless winter that was cold and snowy and felt eternal. The first signs of spring came on schedule all right, but winter had the nasty last word: crocuses and jonquils pushed bravely up out of frozen earth, only to be squelched by a fierce ice storm that brought down telephone, cable and power lines as well as trees and limbs. One of the latter fell across the ancient dogwood that stands by my front door, taking out a large section of the crown. We are waiting uneasily to see whether the old tree can recover, or will have to be replaced.

During the ice storm, three days without power found us huddled by the fireplace, wrapped in blankets and many layers of clothing, candles lit and flashlights at hand. We winced as branches and small trees snapped and crashed in the wood that surrounds our house, and leaped from bed when in the black of night a large limb thumped onto the roof directly over our heads. Fortunately there was no permanent damage from it, although its smaller branches were enmeshed in our electric lines and had to be cut away by the power company several days later.

At most, the ice storm was scary and inconvenient for us, and occasioned some heavy yard work as twigs and limbs were cleared away. The electric thermostat wouldn't function to ignite our gas furnace, but at least there was plenty of hot water thanks to a gas water heater, and we could cook on our trusty gas stove. Even so, we decided that we'd have made lousy pioneers; we are too softened by all the conveniences in our lives.

It embarrasses me to admit how much we missed the television, radio, and other electrical appliances. I found myself remembering my grandmother's tales of life in Minnesota in the 1870's, when her mother would entertain the family of an evening by sitting by the fire and reading aloud as blizzards howled outside. Sometimes her brother would play the piano and the family would sing (everyone but Grandabbie, that is; of eight siblings, she was the only one who couldn't carry a tune). They lived in a drafty rectory, and when winter brought -40 nights the three girls slept together in one big bed for warmth. They often had to break the ice that had formed in the pitcher on the wash stand before they could pour water into the basin to wash their faces.

Grandabbie said that her brothers were always busy, chopping, lugging and stacking wood, or carrying water from the pump to the kitchen, or taking care of the cow and the missionary ponies (a pair of horses, really, but always referred to as "the missionary ponies"). The girls, too, had to pitch in. The older ones trimmed the wicks and carefully refilled the oil lamps, and each morning the youngest was given the job of fetching candles from nightstands in the upstairs bedrooms. She scraped up any dribbled wax, neatly trimmed the wicks, and placed the brass candlesticks back on the small table at the foot of the stairs so that each member of the family would be able to pick up a candle to light the way to bed. There was a hired girl to help with the cooking, cleaning and laundry, but Grandabbie and her sisters were expected to assist her. The older girls did the ironing (sadiron heated on the wood stove in the kitchen), and the little one polished the silver, including the napkin rings that marked who sat where at table. The girls also set the table, washed the dishes, and did minor chores like sewing on buttons and stitching up seams split by their five obstreperous brothers. Until they were old enough to go off to finishing school, their mother was their teacher, and she was a demanding one.

Being brought up in a household with my grandmothers, a great aunt and a great uncle, I was keenly aware of how much easier life was for us in the '40's and '50's than it had been for them as they grew up in the late 19th century. I loved to listen to the stories of their childhoods, but I was grateful for the comforts of my own. We may not have had all of today's conveniences, but we lived in California, not Minnesota, and we had electricity and running water and central heat. We had the radio for entertainment, too. My mother tells me that when my father first turned on the radio, Aunt Martha got a dreamy look on her face and said: "Just imagine, all these years, music was floating in the air all around us and we couldn't hear it until Sr. Marconi made a receiver to catch it." My poor father didn't even try to explain that prior involvement of a transmitter was essential; her poetic vision of notes floating around was just too charming to destroy.

We Americans truly are spoiled. Much of the world population lives today just as my grandmother's family did 'way back then, or possibly in an even more rudimentary fashion.

When the war began just a couple of weeks after the ice storm, I was brought up short by the thought of what it must be like to live in Afghanistan or Iraq these days. No matter what your view of the rightness or wrongness of the current conflict, the misery it inflicts on ordinary people is incontestable. The destruction of the infrastructure of any country is a horrible thing. Our local infrastructure was out of commission for only a few days after our spring storm. If sitting in the dark and cold of an ice storm is unpleasant it is at least not terribly dangerous, and it is temporary. How unthinkable it must be to sit in your home in the dark and hear bombs and weapons exploding all around, destroying your way of life for the foreseeable future, with death or mutilation possible at any moment.

It is an odd thought that spring is bound to come to Iraq at its usual appointed time, no matter what chaos mankind has wrought there. In fact, spring will no doubt come to some corners of the earth long after humankind has either blown itself up or evolved into a life form quite different from the homo sapiens we know today. The hemispheres of earth will continue to tilt closer to or farther from the sun, and winter snows will blow and spring blossoms will open on schedule whether we're here or not.

Our grip on what we call civilization (with all its creature comforts) is tenuous. We need to look after it and nurture it and appreciate everything that has gone into creating it. And we need to start thinking about how to share our blessings with the rest of the world, before envy and misunderstandings cause even more misery in the midst of what should be a perfectly glorious spring.

 

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