A mockingbird dozed on multiflora rose, wings wrapping its body in dreamy warmth. Beneath the bird, canes curled upward out of waterlogged softness. In woods, rock tripe wrinkled over a chin of granite. Around a cornfield, male flowers on willows turned yellow, their fragrance light and sweet, smacking of lilies and the afterglow of Easter. In the field itself, robins bounced amid clods of newly turned earth. Along an abandoned road, green rind peeled from the blossoms of spicebush. A Phoebe perched atop mullein, its tail bobbing, making the shaft of the plant waver like temperature. Near the beaver pond, the waxed red horns of skunk cabbage clawed from the damp while leaves of false hellebore slid through dirt smooth as trowels. Six boys hurried out of the woods and followed a track beside the pond. Distance runners on the E. O. Smith track team, the boys ran in a silent huddle, arms clasped to sides like sweaters. By month’s end, spring would unfurl, and the boys’ strides would lengthen. Mockingbirds would toss wings into clattering flight, and leaves of hellebore would splay into shovels. Hairy rock cress would dapple gravel; ferns would sing into fiddleheads, and marsh marigold would bunch above the lips of streams like gold coins spilling through fingers.
Spring comes fitfully to Connecticut. One morning the sun bites like a lemon. The next afternoon gray clouds curtain the sky, and snow blows in raking screens. Hints of spring tease patience, and mood flourishes. In April, impatience for spring often provokes me to mull the past. On dark days, memories blanket hours like compost, and I sit in the warm study and ponder buds that didn’t bloom. In early April, my ponderings were familial and numerical. In 1943, when I was two years old, Mother lost twins, and I remained an only child. How different life would have been if siblings had shared the last twenty-one thousand five hundred and thirty-five days of my life. With two other children cluttering their lives, Mother and Father would not have hovered so lovingly about me. As a result I might have felt freer and, dreaming less of wider spaces, might have married and settled in Nashville. Thirteen thousand one hundred and forty days ago, I almost married Pat. If we had married, my children would have graduated from college by now, and I’d be a grandfather. Because Francis, Edward, and Eliza are still in school and because at my pulse I sense a cardiovascular storm thundering near, I will never cradle a grandchild. “No matter,” Vicki said when I mentioned the fact. “Because you are so old, you are not only the children’s father but also their grandfather, and they, of course, are both your children and grandchildren.”
Numbers appear less arbitrary than weather and smack more of doldrums than tempest. Although recollections of subtraction from life can provoke gusts of melancholy, the past is more placid than early April. On April third, Eliza was born and Mother died. For me the day is an emblem of the month itself, bright at sunrise, dark by afternoon. Throughout the first half of April, mood shadows my classes. Last week I criticized television, saying no channel appealed to me: MTV, The Food Network, Disney, The Cartoon Network, ESPN, and MSNBC, among others. “You’d think differently,” a girl interrupted as I condemned channels, “if there were an Old English Teacher Channel.” Immediately, clouds vanished, and the rest of the day was sunny, this despite snow drizzling across the evening. Age, of course, is partly responsible for my gloom. No matter the calendar, I inhabit the November of life. In contrast, not even allergies can dampen youth. No matter how bleak my remarks, optimism spreads like mold through students.
Occasionally, however, a student throws a shadow over an hour, something that cheers me wondrously. This past Friday I found a pin on the floor of my office. Round and black with white letters stamped on the face, it was small, measuring an inch in diameter. Printed on the pin were two sentences: “It’s not that I’m antisocial. I just don’t like you.” It probably fell off the backpack of one of my advisees. Still, I’d like to think a disgruntled student tossed it on the floor in hopes that I’d find it. Late that afternoon, Kimberly asked me to write a recommendation for graduate school. Before leaving my office, she handed me a résumé. To help pay for schooling, Kimberly worked four years at Subway as, she wrote, a “Sandwich Artist.”
Alas, in April students forever bloom into uplift, not anger. Unfortunately a few bloom before their intellectual seasons. “A school education,” a boy wrote on the midterm, “can be beneficial to those whom obtain one.” For extra credit in one of my courses, students wrote stories. No matter the month’s being April, the stories were uniformly inspirational. A girl swam to her personal best in two events as the university swimming team defeated “its arch rival Syracuse.” A long pass won a football game; a grand slam with two out in the ninth inning won a baseball game. A shy girl rode to public renown in “Walk, Trot, Equitation.” To help his team, a football player changed from tackle to guard, risking a career in the National Football League. Selflessness was rewarded. The next summer the boy made the Colorado World Winds and at the end of his first season starred in the Super Bowl. Although his left arm was broken, J.R. refused to leave the baseball field. He remained at second base and made “a spectacular bare-handed grab” insuring Connecticut’s victory in the Big East Championship game. For two years in high school Betsy worked to become as good a sprinter as her older sister Kathleen. Because Kathleen had led the school to the state championship and Betsy rarely placed in a meet, the coach thought “Betsy was dogging it.” One day to punish Betsy for doing poorly in a sprint, the coach entered her in the 3200. During the race, Betsy “blossomed, learning that she was not a sprinter but a distance runner. Not only did she win the race, but she qualified for States.”
The athletic optimism depressed me. On bright days, my muscles call for the earth, having become corpses of their former selves. “Ignorant as carp,” I muttered, dropping the papers on the floor. Suddenly dark sayings ran weedy through my mind. “Not only does the old man know mankind, but he knows mankind knows him, and that makes him wary.” “I do not heed the man the more / Who hangs religion at his door.” No mood lasts long in early April, however. One spring years ago when green wilted, I created Josh in order to raise my spirits. In April, Josh suffers from puns. He visited my office soon after I read the stories. Bees, he told me, were paradoxical creatures, explaining that although they were stingy they were not parsimonious. Why, he hurried on, do washerwomen lose clothespins in grass? Upon my looking puzzled, he said, “Because when clothespins fall to the ground, they become terrapins and crawl away.” Rain, Josh continued, transformed not simply natural landscapes but also artistic terrains. Downpours turned huge statues into mere statue-wets.
The first week in April has passed, and green days are coming. On Sunday a pair of bluebirds frolicked above the dell outside my study window. West of Unnamed Pond, bobolinks foraged through grass ruffling the cornfield. This morning Francis drove the Toyota to West Farms Mall on the other side of Hartford to buy clothes for a semester in Germany, and Vicki left in the Mazda for New Jersey in order to visit her Aunt Sallie. At noon I suddenly remembered that I had a dentist’s appointment at two o’clock. I walked to Dr. Raynor’s office on Route 195. Cars swarmed past throbbing angrily. Twice bumpers drifted near my right leg, and I hopped off the shoulder of the road. I reached the office unscathed. “I know I am a little early for the tooth scrubbing,” I said to the receptionist, “but I always get places ahead of time.” “You have outdone yourself today,” the receptionist said, studying Dr. Raynor’s schedule. “Your appointment is tomorrow.” “What sort of dentist is Dr. Raynor?” Josh asked me later. “He should have telephoned before you left home and told you that you were going to be a day early.” In the mail that afternoon, I received a letter from Turlow Gutheridge. Spring had come to Carthage, and optimism flourished. Last Saturday, Turlow recounted, Wally Hogue fainted when his wife, Cora, was buried. “Call Dr. Sollows,” Proverbs Goforth said, looking at Wally splayed out in the lilies. “Don’t you worry none,” Loppie Groat said, leaning over and pulling up Wally’s left eyelid. “Wally’s healthy as can be. He’ll soon rewive.”
Sam Pickering is a professor of English at the University of Connecticut. The author of fifteen books of essays, he was also the inspiration for the teacher in the film The Dead Poets Society. In spring 2004, the University of Michigan Press will publish two more of his books, one an account of a year he spent in Australia, the other his selected essays. (5/03)