The short drive to the Woodstock household of four great-grands was beautiful. Housetops were glittering like fresh snow, there was no traffic, and Christmas scenes and lights greeted us from frosty lawns.
In contrast, when I opened the car door in the driveway, I heard a bird singing its heart out, bringing to mind my favorite winter verse, “I heard a bird sing in the dark of December, a magical thing, and sweet to remember. ‘We are nearer to spring than we were in September,’ I heard a bird sing in the dark of December.”
Celestine Sibley (remember her?) had a knack for making us appreciate every season. I think of her often at the change of seasons and especially as we welcome a new calendar year.
It somehow seems ironic that our calendar begins as the lives in nature end. The trees are bare, the shadows are long, and the earth is barren. The butterflies and hummingbirds have abandoned us. But our calendar is man-made, and man chose the birthday of Christ, rather than his Resurrection, as the benchmark. I used to wonder why our calendar begins a week after the commemoration of the birth of Jesus. Since the calendar is based on that event, the New Year should begin on his birthday. Right?
But they say that the very vain William the Conqueror wanted the year to begin on the day of his coronation. Before then, England’s New Year did begin on Christmas Day, Dec. 25. So much for conquerors and their legacies.
William had no way of knowing the effect, centuries later, of having two holidays within a week. He could have gotten a degree in marketing and economics in addition to his throne.
Sibley tells of her move from downtown Atlanta to “A Place Called Sweet Apple,” the title of one of her books. She discovered that city life faded in comparison to the life she would come to love in a dilapidated cabin just across the Cherokee County line in Fulton County … with a Woodstock mailing address.
She soon purchased a thermometer, “a splendid one with a magnified face that I can read through the window.” The description fits the one in my friend Mary’s backyard in Whitfield County. When I visit there, I can look at the “indoor-outdoor digital” thermometer that hangs inside my kitchen beside the window where I watch the birds and squirrels and their comings-and-goings, their to-ing and fro-ing. I can imagine Sibley squinting in the morning sunshine as she learns just how cold it is in the country.
The winters of my memory, even in the early years of our marriage, seem much more severe than now. In the months following the birth of our third, and last, baby in December 1957, I recall diapers frozen “stiff as a board” on the clothesline.
I always had the most admirable clothesline in the neighborhood. The MOTH put strong posts in the ground, and strung the lines, made them as sturdy and attractive as those utility poles and lines that were the scenes of his livelihood all day, every day, with the power company.
Celestine Sibley’s first winter at Sweet Apple was the culprit that “did-in” her clothesline. She didn’t have a MOTH who worked for the power company and was intimately acquainted with the ways of the wind. She had purchased one of “those fancy folding things of aluminum with arms like a television antenna.”
One night there was a storm of the sort that fit her description of Sweet Apple weather, galloping “back and forth between heavenly and horrible.” The next morning found the dead chinaberry tree on the ground, having brought down the clothesline with it. She had been squeamish about her apparel hanging out for the world to see, but she soon realized that “in the country where there’s plenty of space and nobody to note nor long remember the condition of my underwear and household linen” there is no reason not to take advantage of sunshine and air.
Sibley’s advice about plant and animal life was based on experience. I know she could tell me why my Christmas cactus (apparently a misnomer) cannot manage to be in bloom for Christmas.
There are dozens of tiny buds, maturing at the speed of cold molasses. I guess patience is the name of this game. So for today, I’ll have to settle for the small flock of robins that just landed in our front yard.
Happy New Year! “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?”
Juanita Hughes is retired head of the Woodstock Library.