In the Early Morning, When the Big Owls Hoot


Havre de Grace -- The late-fall air, misty and chill, has been fuller than usual of memories this year. Mostly they're on the move early in the mornings, long before the first light, while the house is still and the big owls are hooting down in the woods along the creek.

First something rustles in the cerebral underbrush, and then a recollection, often an unexpected one, jumps up. Sometimes these encounters are prompted by approaching anniversaries of some sort. Anniversaries come galloping out of the future, flash across the present like a hunted deer crossing a clearing, and dissolve into the past, gone forever. They too seem especially plentiful this year.

Can it really have been 20 years? Twenty years ago this past November, he remembered, life had begun to seem desperately complex. He had given up one good newspaper job, and had been offered another which he had accepted but hadn't started yet. He had serious doubts he had made the right move in either case.

He was also trying to get a small business going, and every day brought a new revelation, or perhaps only a new reminder, of his own ignorance and naivete.

It was not going well, and he was not sure it ever would. The only way out of the swamp was ahead, he felt sure, but with every step the mud felt deeper.

He was between marriages, too. One had been over for a couple of years, and a new one was about to begin. Any marriage is an expression of optimism, and he considered himself an optimistic person, but at that particular moment in the late fall of 1973 he didn't feel optimistic about anything. He felt numb. And that didn't seem promising.

A short walk away from where he was living was his parents' house, the heart of the farm where he had grown up. The farm, and the house on it, and the family living in the house, his family, had often seemed to him to represent the only stability in the windswept ever-changing world. Now his mother lay dying in that house.

She was 57, he thought in 1993 on the anniversary of her death, only four years older than I am now. But in 1973 he hadn't thought of her as being 57, or being any age in particular. He thought of her as the bright and happy person, loved by many, he had known all his life, and he thought of her too as she was now in these last hard days -- as he had never imagined she ever could be.

One morning in November he was up early, and walked on the hills before sunrise. A great horned owl called -- hoot-hoot-hoot, hoot-hoot -- and another answered. He went looking for them, but the farther he moved into the woods the more the five-note calls receded. Finally they stopped.

Later that same day he was in the house with his father, waiting. A repairman arrived, to fix a telephone elsewhere on the farm. He went out with the repairman, a pleasant chatty person, who found a nest of spiders in a connection box and, removing it, declared the problem solved. When he got back to the house his mother had died.

Now, 20 years after, he found himself wishing again, as he had so often, for the chance to talk with her with her once more. She'd want to know how things were doing, how it was all turning out. And he'd be able to tell her that although it wasn't perfect -- she'd have known that, being a realist -- it was all right. It really was.

Here's the farm, he'd say to her, about as you remember. It's a little more run down, maybe, but we've taken good care of it. And of course Pop's still here. After a time he got married again, to someone who in certain ways reminds people of you, and they both seem happy. He misses you, though.

And you, she'd ask. What about you? Did things at work go as you'd hoped? Did you and Irna marry? Are there children?

He'd imagined this conversation so often he knew how it would go. He could tell her that he had a lot to be thankful for, though naturally there had been defeats and disappoint ments to go along with the small victories and occasional moments of great joy. At work he'd kept busy and had something to show for it. And yes, he and Irna had been married almost 20 years. And yes, there were two children.

He wanted to talk to her about the children, but this was where it always grew difficult, and where he was always sharply reminded that this was a conversation that would never take place. She more than anyone else would understand how he felt about his family, how proud of them he was, and how pointless his own life would have seemed without them. And he would never be able to talk to her about that.

There is nothing unusual about the death of a parent. It's in the natural order of things, unlike the death of a child while a parent still lives. We're supposed to outlive our parents, and our children are supposed to outlive us. When his mother had died he'd been able to accept the loss in that light, and to go ahead with his life like anyone else.

But in this wintry season of anniversaries and memories, especially in the dark quiet hours when nothing else stirred except the faraway owls, he still found himself thinking about her often, and wishing with all his heart that she had been able to know her grandchildren.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer. His column appears Sundays and Thursdays.

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