Sunday, March 12, 2006

Until next year, adieu Mr. Snowman

The snowman sits on the lawn, a sad little puddle of his former self.
“Oh, no! NO MAYN,” Ittybit opines with every ounce of drama she can muster, pointing toward the soggy lumps of snow partially hidden by a small pile of colorful winter clothes.


If only I could fix it.

These cheerful little winter beings, draped in last year's woolens and sporting leftover produce from the refrigerator to accentuate their chiseled features, were an important part of my youth. More so than I ever knew.

There are many photographs of me leaning against a population made entirely of snow; my front yard friends. Images of great sleeping giants — too heavy for my 12-year-old self to lift into upright positions — mingle in the old shoebox with endless summers at the lake and pictures of my teenage feet.

These days when I see a snowman my mind travels past the simple joys of childhood and rests on a single dog-eared photograph in that box of memories. A childhood friend, lost.

Its color has faded a little with time but the crispness hasn’t. It shows two seven-year-olds, wearing different colored parkas with similar fur-line hoods and exactly the same toothless grins, sitting side by side on a half-finished snowman. Whenever I see it time always comes rushing back.

We had similar-sounding names and similar pre-teen interests. When he visited his grandmother, who lived next door, he routinely made his way over to my house. Ringing the bell, he’d eagerly ask for himself as my mom opened the door. My mother loved him. She joked every time he visited that she’d like to hide him in her pocket.

That snapshot represents an idyllic childhood friendship filled with leaf pile jumping, sledding and summer lightning bugs we collected in jars — a bounty of quarter apiece put on their heads by the boy’s visiting war-hero uncle. We gazed at them in amazement as they performed a phosphorescent ballet. Magic bottled in jars.

He died in a car accident on a lonely country road a few months after I started college. He wasn’t the first of my friends to die this way nor, sadly, was he the last. But it is his memory that haunts me every winter when the snowmen begin to appear.

I think it’s because the idyllic childhood of my memory is laden with stories of him and memories of other neighborhood kids so marvelous that I have forbidden myself to seek revelation lest the miracles be explained away with matters-of-fact. Many of those children have grown up and moved on just as I have. They have new adult friends and busy lives.

As we walk past the “NO MAYN,” I reassure my Ittybit that there’s nothing to fear or fix. The snowman will be back again next year and he will be just the same as she remembered. In some ways I am also reassuring myself.

There was a time when I thought that I had outgrown my childhood friends, but now I don’t think it’s exactly true. I think they are as important to my childhood as my daughter is to the life I have now. And in some comforting way, they are all the ages they were when last I saw them. I am too.

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