• Dear Charlie

    You're my first son, your two older sisters having exhibited a startling disregard for gender-neutral behavior, quickly abandoning the train set and Tonka toys (presents from Dad) in favor of bright-pink Lisa Frank diaries and endless rolls of glow-in-the-dark stickers (presents from Mom). I didn't know I wanted a son until you came along one January afternoon, the plumbing merely a passing detail at the time. But today as I sat on the half-rusted International, ploughing up the lower corn field, you sat on my lap, lulled by the warm spring sun and the churning of the tiller, until your small body went soft, eyes half-closed, rocking gently in my arms. The roar of the tractor's engine is always a call to action, sending your short legs into a frenzy of motion, racing down the driveway as you call after your dad on the big red machine. It is honest work we do together, the two of us, watching the swallows swoop over the just-ploughed fields, your dad trying frantically not to let the moments fade.

    But for now, I take comfort that my life is filled with a great inventory of moments yet to be lived: our first fishing expedition, watching the sun burn through the thick, early morning mist on the Battenkill; splitting and stacking oak and chestnut on a chilly November afternoon, the two of us working as one; our first hunt together, flushing a grouse or woodcock, the great beating of wings sending our hearts racing at the same instant. As a father of older children, I know that the innocence fades over time and the special moments are of a different sort, no less magical, but painted in more subtle, often darker hues. They come not in great waves of joy but in single, unexpected moments; a parent's ear must be well-tuned not to miss them. But you are still young and a boy, all bluff and swagger, without the skill or need to hide what you are really thinking. Your deepest desires are etched plainly in your smile.

    Yet during these postcard summers, I am constantly reminded that the time will come when the farmhouse will be still, abandoned by small voices. I see your mother and I, standing by the stove, troubled, not knowing when we will cook for you again. The everyday noises of childhood will have faded, the tune distant, but a few melodies still remembered. But stacking memories like cordwood seems like so much time wasted. Instead, I want to burn them all now, before the memories turn soft with age and produce little heat. Living for the moment, all the bright, crisp New England days will collapse together as one, the two of us driving the old Ford in circles in the lower meadow, laughing, banging the horn, getting stuck in mud up to the axles and not caring. We'll set aside the camera and notebook and explore old hay lofts, finding great treasures: a dusty bottle of number two colic drops or an old issue of Hoard's Dairyman. We'll be a right pair, you and I, going everywhere, doing everything, the neighbors expecting to see your small, round face peering through the steering wheel each time I drive by. And when our summers together are over, and time enough has passed to cloud memories of frog hunts and muddy boots, bowls of homemade peach ice cream, old yellow casseroles filled with silky custard, and the crashing of thunder as we sit snug on the front porch, I will drive the old pickup down the same dirt road we travelled many summers before. On that day, you will have long said goodbye to this small town, but our neighbors will see your face in mine as I pass; happy, expectant, full, I hope, of the joy of a two-year-old, eyes keen with the excitement of a new world just around the next bend.

    And on another day, you will come back home to show us your trophies and scars, having struck, I hope, a few shrewd blows in favor of civilization. I will search your face for a hint of your dad: The way I squint into the bright sun or the way your eyes reflect a passing memory, a small wisp of smoke from that blazing fire we started so many years ago. But if I look hard and see nothing of myself, that will be no disappointment. I'll know that each time I start up the old tractor, you will be there for me, asleep in my arms as we plough together the fields of your childhood.

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