Wednesday, July 15, 2009
Colchester: Walking The Lane
It is my first evening in Colchester and I am going for a walk. Gray skies boil overhead as I follow the familiar streets. I walk past places that are still the same and others that have changed so much. Each step is a memory as I watch and listen for birds. I am seeking escape from the traffic and noise in the center of town where a weekly car rally is being held on the town green. Eventually I find my way to the field behind St. Andrew's Church on Norwich Avenue. All along the way I am mostly seeing starlings, robins, and barn swallows. To my utter surprise I have seen a few cedar waxwings right here in town! The typical house sparrows are out and about, but I have found a few chipping sparrows as well as a song sparrow or two. But now as I reach the farthest edge of the field all thoughts of birds are forgotten. I pause before the back of a small gray shingled house and look at the mowed path that runs alongside it. In my mind I am running down this path as a child, running for my life in fear of the Big Black Dog!
It was shortly after I turned 8 years old when we moved into the house on 23 Pleasant street. My mom was a single mother raising five children on her own. My grandfather still ran a few dairy cattle on the old family farm in the center of town and every few days he gave us some fresh milk. It was the job of my oldest brother, Rick and I to get the milk and bring it home. We carried the milk between us in an old-fashioned milk can, the silver kind with a handle on each side and a tight fitting lid with a handle on top. To get to the farm we had to walk down the lane, and to walk down the lane we had to pass the little gray house to which the Big Black Dog was chained. The Big Black Dog didn't like kids passing his house. The Big Black Dog would rush snarling and snapping to the end of his chain which just barely missed reaching the edge of the lane, and though I knew this, the Big Black Dog still struck terror in my heart. Rick and I would walk across the road, then he would rush past leaving me to fend for myself. I would stand there at the edge of the yard, then run past as fast as my little 8 year old legs could carry me, sure that I could feel the dog's hot breath on my legs. There was little doubt its ferocious barking resounded in my ears. Once safely past the Big Black Dog it was a pleasant walk the rest of the way down the lane. I turn to see the path now dark in the gray light of evening made grayer still by the leaden sky. A light rain is falling on me and I see the once clear lane overgrown thickly with brambles and brush, with a small forest growing where the pasture once was.
Eventually Rick and I would emerge on South Main Street at the old Family Farm. This is the house as it looks now, but it used to be white and gracious. The wide veranda was like a big hug waiting to sweep you up in welcoming arms. It was where we all gathered at Christmastime for the ultimate family feast. It was where I learned all the complexities of family relations from second cousins and great aunts to first-cousins-once-removed.
The house has been sold twice now with the passing of my grandparent's generation. First it was made into a gift shop and now it is being remade into offices of some sort. But I remember it as a place where great-grandmother lived and died and where my great aunt Ruth always welcomed me inside. I remember it with a wooden swing hanging from a huge tree alongside the dirt drive that led down to an old barn pungent with fresh hay and manure. It was there in the basement of the old barn where the cattle stanchions held black and white Holsteins. That was were the fresh cows milk was stored in an old refrigerator. That is where my stern grandfather watched as Rick and I grabbed onto the handles and lifted the can of fresh milk between us. Then we carried the cooled milk back across the street and down the lane past the Big Black Dog to our little apartment on the second floor. Once safely home we'd lift the lid to see the thick cream rising and mom would pour it into smaller bottles to be stored in our refrigerator and we would have to remember to shake the milk before we poured ourselves a glass or we'd get all cream at first, and all skim milk after awhile. The Big Black dog never did get me, though it did make me cry a few times and it haunted my nightmares for years. Somehow I never transferred this fear to other dogs and so I was able to have dogs as pets and best friends growing up. My feet are soggy from the wet grass as I walk away from the lane and head back to my mother's house. I smile as I think to myself that though it is an old-fashioned term, I now see why it's called, "Taking a trip down memory lane." In this case it is both symbolic and literal!