When I was a young boy, my mother would walk with me down through our backyard and toward the river. There was a decline on the property that, in very old times, was the bank of our river. Now, it was simply a gentle slope down to a lawn that took my father decades to transform from a field of weeds to grass…that had to be mowed, of course. I often wished he’d left that part of the yard alone and allowed it to grow into a forest of wildflowers and small birches.
My mother would usually stop and sit on the highest part of the slope and lay back…looking at the sky. She pointed to the cumulus clouds that were usually present in the afternoon above Owego.
“Look,” she’d say. “See that cloud? It’s shaped like a whale.”
I’d look and wonder. Then I began to see the shape she was still pointing to.
“Yes, mommy, I see the whale,” I said and I did indeed see the hump and the tail.
“The clouds can take on all sorts of shapes if you let your mind free to imagine. Right now I see a ship…a ship that will one day come in for me,” she said wistfully.
I think this is what she said. I don’t remember exactly because I was too young to remember her words. But, from that day on, I used to keep my eyes aimed at the clouds and I began to see that what one minute was an amorphous shape, become a dragon, or a knight, or a horse…or an angel.
I did this through my teenage years when I would stretch back in the same place where my mother and I would sit and sit and think and begin to see the shape of castles and eagles and great ships and more knights.
In the late 1970’s, I would take my daughter, Erin, down to the slope in the backyard, to the same place my mother sat with me…when I was a little boy.
“What do you see?” I asked Erin.
She stared at the sky for a time and then said she thought one looked like a mountain…a volcano…with the sun edging over the peak.
“It’s a beautiful mountain,” she said. “Daddy, do you see it?”
“I don’t see it now,” I said, “but maybe someday. That cloud is only yours to imagine.”
Years later, I took my son, Brian, to the slope in the backyard, to the same place my mother sat with me…when I was a little boy.
“Daddy!” he said as soon as he looked up. “I see a big building, a skyscraper like the one you showed me in a book. It looks like the Empire State Building,” he said. ” Do you think I’ll ever see it in real life?” he asked.
“Maybe someday,” was all I could say.
Many years later, I would manage to look up…the trees were thinning out now…and find objects and shapes in the clouds while I mowed the lawn my father had created. My children are both adults now. I saw only shadows of happiness in the faces of the dragons and knights. The castles I saw were dark and menacing.
Even later, after a heartbreaking divorce, I still continued to look up to the clouds and try to find fanciful and dreamy and mythical shapes. I only saw only puffs of water vapor…simply clouds.
After my father passed away, I continued to mow the lawn and look up. I saw only dark clouds and vague images of those I loved who had passed on.
I took one last walk to the river the day I handed the keys to 420 Front Street to a woman named Lauren. It was overcast and nothing distinct appeared in the sky. A vague shape of an hour-glass formed in the lower clouds that were building over the southern hills.
A year or two ago, I took the walk…perhaps for the last time…to the bank of the river. I was with my wife. The house had been empty for a few years and the lawn had suffered through two devastating floods. When I had mowed it, it look like the 17th hold of Augusta National Golf Course. This day, it was shoddy and overgrown and almost unrecognizable. But, this time I saw visions of King Arthur, Roy Rogers and cowboys and indians and brave soldiers and angels that seemed to smile on me once again.
Mariam and I sat and looked at the sky. She told me that when she was a child, she would lay back and make images of the cloud shapes. I asked her what she remembered.
“I recall the image of an old man…with a crooked nose and a cane,” she said.
“Maybe someday,” I said.
Walking back to the house, I looked at my wife. Then I looked at the very spot my mother would make me sit.
“Yes, mom,” I said. I see it all.”