No. 10: “Wolf Hill: An Essay About a Boy”
Context at the end of this excerpt.
Other entries in #33Stories at the Table of Contents. See you tomorrow!
Originally published in 1997 on my blog, http://gwaynemiller.blogspot.com/
|My son George Calvin Miller on his second birthday.|
WOLF HILL: An Essay About a Boy
We avoid the woods in summer. We don't like bugs, the ticks and mosquitoes especially, and anyway, we're drawn to the beach at Wallum Lake, which is just up the road. But early October finds us eager for the first killing frost. It came this year at the customary time, when the sugar maples are at their peak and the oaks are only beginning to turn. The temperature at dawn read 29 or 30 degrees, depending on the angle the thermometer was viewed. I figured if any of my city friends asked, I'd say 29.
By late afternoon, it had warmed to almost 50. The sky was cloudless and the breeze had shifted to the south. I put on my boots and vest and helped Cal, who is almost three, on with his. Our vests have large pockets, very important for walks in the woods. We went through the backyard and onto the cart path that ascends Wolf Hill, a fanciful name in the nineties, even for a rural town like ours. Cal's first priority was equipping himself with a stick. He found one about two feet long, and another slightly larger, which he gave me. ``Little boys need big sticks,'' he observed. I wholeheartedly agreed.
Many years ago, when a farmhouse graced the top of Wolf Hill, the path could accommodate vehicles; one, a bus, ended its last journey up there and its rotting remains continue to be a source of wonderment to all who happen upon it. Every year the mountain laurel and pine claim more of the path, and this year was no exception, but there was still plenty of room -- more than sufficient, I informed Cal, for another good flying- saucer run this winter. Cal insisted on taking the lead and, unlike our last walk, in April, he refused assistance getting past deadfalls. He went under, or around, and then stopped to reveal the appropriate route to me. ``Dad, come on over here,'' he said at one point, ``that's a safe place to get by.''
We climbed, past the inevitable stone walls, still remarkably intact, if mostly overgrown. The air seemed fresher as we continued, the light through the foliage stronger, and soon enough we'd reached the peak. Only a cellar hole is left of the farmhouse, destroyed some thirty years ago in a fire of suspicious origin. Rusting machinery, barrels and bed frames are strewn about, and the woods are slowly claiming them, too. We marveled together at a sight as strange as grape vines entwined around a bed frame, and I tried explaining how a house not unlike our own had been reduced to ruin, but I don't believe I succeeded, nor did I really try. I steered Cal's attention to the only grass on Wolf Hill, a small, sunlit remnant of lawn. We picked wildflowers, the last of the season. I did not know the species. They had thirteen petals and came in two shades: lavendar and white. The frost had not touched them. Cal was more interested in mushrooms. He'd been keen on mushrooms since our last swim at Wallum Lake, when he found ones as big as my hand that had materialized overnight beneath a picnic bench. He also gathered acorns, which he proposed to feed to squirrels, a word he still had difficulty pronouncing.
From the cellar hole, we descended to the quarry. I cautioned Cal not to run, but he explained that he was not -- this was skipping. I wanted to carry him or at least hold his hand; instead, I took a breath and was silent on the matter. The quarry has not been worked since the 1800s, but if you look around town, you will see many foundations made of its imperfect granite. Our own front steps, I am sure, came from here. Water has long filled where men once labored, of course, and a century's worth of sediment covers the bottom, making it impossible to gauge true depth (although we have tried, with our sticks). When Cal is a little older, I will tell him -- as I did his sisters -- spooky stories of the goings-on here when the moon is full. For now, we concern ourselves with water. It had not rained in over a week, and the stream that empties the quarry was dry. Our April walk was during a nor'easter, and we got soaked playing in the waterfall, but it was gone now, too. Cal was worried it would never return, but I reassured him it would, with the next steady downpour.
The shadows were lengthening and the temperature was edging down. An inventory of our pockets disclosed sticks, pebbles, acorns, flowers, mushrooms and a bright yellow leaf, which Cal had selected for his mom. We left the quarry and made our way back to the cart path through a stand of towering Balsam firs, unlike any other on Wolf Hill. When the girls were small, long before Cal was born, we found this place. It resembles a den, and the forest floor is softly carpeted and often dotted with toadstools -- certainly a spot, I allowed, where elves dance under the starry sky. Honest? Rachel and Katy were wide-eyed. There was only one way to know for sure, I said: Some fine summer night, we would have to camp out here, being careful to stay awake until midnight. We never did. Rachel is in high school now, and Katy, four years younger, is sneaking looks at Seventeen. Cal listened with great interest at the prospect of seeing elves. He was tired, and as I carried him home, I promised we'd camp out next summer, bugs and all. I intend to ask Rachel and Katy if they'd care to join us.
-- 30 --
Along with everything else, I occasionally write book reviews and dabble in the art of the essay. This is one of my favorites, for the memories it so strongly invokes. Cal is 24 now – hard to believe – and a wonderful young man gifted with intelligence, humor and uncommon wisdom who swells his father’s heart with pride, as do Rachel and Katy. But he wasn’t yet three when I wrote this essay, on a sparkling New England fall day. I was putting the finishing touches on Toy Wars that autumn (more on Toy Wars tomorrow) and I wanted a break from the heavy lifting so I wrote. Yeah, I know, some people golf…
Here's another photo of Cal on his second birthday, a few months before I wrote “Wolf Hill”:
|Who doesn't LOVE birthday cake?!|
|That's my late mother with Cal on his 2d birthday.|
|And my later father, the same day.|
Every year on the anniversary of my father’s death, I republish another favorite essay, about him, a kind and gentle soul and someone who often visits me in my dreams. He's doing fine!
Finally, for today, “It Could Have Been Any One of Us,” an op-ed for The Providence Journal that I wrote in early 2016 about the then-breaking news of rape and sexual abuse of students at private schools in the Northeast. It describes growing up during the era of abuse by priests in the 1960s and 1970s (and later) in the Archdiocese of Boston (think “Spotlight”), where I attended parochial and Catholic prep school and was an altar boy.