Matt Dickerson: Sledding at grandmother’s house
The day after Christmas, we piled into our modern sleighs beneath a clear blue winter sky. We went over the river and through the woods — and up and over two mountains, and over two more bigger rivers, and through more woods, and over one very long covered bridge and past two more smaller ones — to Grandmother’s House.
A team of a 165 horses carried our sleigh through white and drifted (and, thankfully, mostly plowed) snow atop the Snow Bowl and Bethel Mountain Road. Another 150 horses came along behind us pulling the loaded sleigh belonging to one of my sons.
Our horses almost seemed like they knew the way. My wife and I have been making this trip with our family for 30 years, and for two decades before that she took a similar trip with her parents from the opposite direction. Whenever a shiny new set of horses appears in our driveway, it isn’t long before the trip becomes familiar to them also. A visit to Grandmother’s House is such a central part of our family holiday tradition that Thanksgiving and Christmas seem incomplete without it.
My wife’s Grandmother Fran is gone now. We lost her a few years ago. Yet her house will always be Grandmother’s House. Her youngest son and daughter-in-law, my wife’s Uncle Jerry and Aunt Karen, still live there. They carry on the grandmother tradition, hosting the clan gatherings. On this December 2017 trip, both of their daughters were home visiting from warmer climates: one from Florida with her husband and two daughters, and one from the west coast. We try to plan at least one trip when they are around. Our sons and their significant others came with us. My wife’s parents also joined us from northern Vermont, and her brother and sister-in-law drove up from the Berkshires. Three generations of Fran’s clan gathered: children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren; or brother and sister with brother-in-law and sister-in-law, a quartet of cousins, and a whole parcel of second cousins.
Grandmother’s House is an old farmhouse on a hillside of western New Hampshire in the hills lining the Connecticut River. Although in the winter, one can catch a glimpse of a neighbor’s lights through the trees, and other old farm houses can be seen across the valley, no neighbors’ houses are close enough to be visible. When the summer foliage is thick or when snow lies heavy on the branches, not even their lights can be seen.
Much of the property is forested, with enough maple trees mixed in to constitute a significant sugar bush (and enough oaks and old apple trees to make it something of a venison bush as well.) When my wife and I were newly married and living in Vermont, before we had any way of tapping and boiling our own syrup, a jug of syrup from Grandmother’s House was an annual treat.
A huge meadow extends out from the house in both directions. On the north-northeast, the meadow is relatively flat. There isn’t much to see on this side except for the occasional deer wandering past. Touch football sometimes happens here, but it is more famous to the youngest generation as the big snowmobile loop.
On the southwest side, however, the meadow is steeply sloped, and extends beyond sight over a knoll and around a corner of the woods. On that side, the meadow offers lovely views out the picture window of mountains on both sides of the Connecticut River. Two or three of my uncle’s binoculars always sit on the windowsill waiting for passing wildlife. They don’t usually have to wait long. Not long after we arrived, a flock of turkeys plowed their way across the meadow, and roosted up in the trees. The day before, an eight-point buck spent the late afternoon at the edge of the meadow. Both types of viewings are common from Grandmother’s House. Grandmother also always kept bird feeders just outside the windows. I think she enjoyed chasing off the gray squirrels as much as she enjoyed watching the birds.
Equally importantly, though, the steep slope of this meadow — along with a lumber trail extending into the woods at the bottom of the meadow — makes it a fantastic sledding hill. When we left our house in Vermont, the back of our Subaru sleigh was loaded with a few of our favorite sleds along with bags of snow pants, boots, and warm gloves. One of the sleds, appropriately enough, has been around our family for many years: a Christmas gift from Grandmother Fran. An additional supply of sleds awaited us at Grandmother’s House, enough that nobody would ever had to wait for a ride down the mountain.
We arrived to find that the snowmobile had already groomed the sledding hill. Anticipation grew. With the fresh batch of Christmas snow on the ground, conditions were perfect. When a power outage delayed the preparation of the midday meal by a few hours, nobody complained. The younger two generations were soon suited up, and out on the hill.
Snowmobile rides back up from the bottom meant that the sledding time lasted especially long. Knowing the quantity of pies awaiting me later, I went old school a few times and tromped up the hill on my own, but I also accepted a couple rides. More than once, I looked back across the house toward the picture window, knowing that there were faces watching us. I remembered all the times that one of those faces would have been Grandmother’s.
Whether it was the sledding or the turkey and pies, or a combination of both, I’m not sure, but the younger generation was ready to fall asleep when it was time to depart. On the sleigh ride back over the rivers and mountains and through the woods, my wife and I ended up driving both cars while our passengers nodded off in the back. 2017 was quickly waning. That was OK. It had ended well.
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