Corey was standing a few feet from the sled run when she spoke; one hand on her hip, her other mittened hand trying to wisp away the strands of hair run renegade from under her cap.
Corey was 8. She often cut to the heart of matters with me, her nattering uncle — curt queries snapping her into adult demeanor, leaving me bemused and suddenly self-conscious.
“I’m just trying to make this more exciting, like we did when I was a kid.”
Corey only half-listened and then belly-flopped onto her plastic glider, tucking the tow rope under her purple parka. “Push me far this time,” she gasped. One-two-three and she zoomed off.
Her cousin was trouncing up the hill, excited for another run.
“Did I get the world record? Is that the farthest anybody got ever?”
“Ever. Now get snug to the front. Josh, you’ll never beat Corey with your rope hanging out like that. You gotta be smart. It’s the intangibles that get you to the top.”
He only winced. Another three-count and Josh grinned as he slid away. Corey was still at the bottom of the hill, eating snow while flat on her back, feet kicking in the air. I was happy to see her once again acting her age.
I cupped my chopper-covered hands and yelled in my best “announcer” voice. “And Corey is seemingly relinquishing her record run to Josh. She seems totally unaware or unconcerned that Josh has just broken her world distance record.”
I had been robust in my play-by-play of niece and nephew frolicking on another Thanksgiving afternoon. Was it necessary? Corey’s annoyance rang true. Who was I to artificially amplify a simple afternoon of their kid fun?
I looked past Corey and across the country road to the barn — or what was left of it. It was another holiday at home and another chance to fit a well-rounded childhood into the square thoughts of an adult.
Filled with romantic notions of my youth, I trance-walked to the bottom of the run and gathered the rope that towed Corey’s sled. “Come on. I’ll show you where we used to slide.”
“Goody, goody,” Corey said, sputtering snow. I smiled, back in her curious graces.
She climbed onto the sled and I pulled her over the icy road. Josh followed with his head triumphantly cocked. He wasn’t sure of the next adventure but was willing to join in.
“The ride stops here,” I said as we reached the far side of the road and the foundation of the old barn. “Too much snow and too many weeds to pull you over.” I didn’t mention that I was winded and intensely ruminating about this favorite childhood haunt.
The remainder of the barn was a mysterious Stonehenge to the cousins but a reminder of a Noah’s ark of history for me.
The barn had collapsed a week after I left home as a college freshman.
“It finally went,” Mother chimed over a phone two hours away. “A sign,” I jokingly warned. Everything was changing.
The animals we had nurtured there were long gone. I thought of the jeopardy of boards in the hay loft that hadn’t stopped us from attempting a basketball court or coming in with rocks to pelt cooing pigeons.
The barn had been built into a hill with hay wagons in mind. The slope’s peak came to a wide sliding door on the second story and then raced back down to farm level. That back side, the north side, became our championship sled run.
The cousins labored behind me as we scaled the south side of the hill. Fear of the unknown and irritation at the snowtop cockleburs filled their hearts as barren stickweeds towered over them.
I closed my eyes at the summit. The tricky traipse up and the lack of a hay-lined warming house barn to the right had already clouded my memory. I was hoping to look down the old run and find a clear path to the pond 200 yards away — a path stuttered with alfalfa bale jumps, dangerous side runs and discarded bread-bag boot liners.
Instead, I opened my eyes to find wind-breaking trees planted by an empty-nester father and scrub brush placed by God.
“There it is.”
The cousins stood blankly, unimpressed.
“You see, the trees weren’t here. If you look close you can see the pond down there. That was always the world record goal.”
“You went all the way where?” Corey asked, squinting.
The cousins strained to see and understand. In the moments of silence I realized I had nothing to hold their attention.
“Let’s find another hill,” Josh said. He was aware that his parents might come calling from the house any minute.
“We’ve been out a while.” I sighed. “Maybe we should check in. Warm up.”
The cousins looked tired. They stood like penguins and were obviously wondering why their uncle had dragged them up this hill.
I stood silent a few beats more, eyes likely slightly bouncing, Wide World of Sports announcer in my head.
“And it looks like Mike has taken away his brother’s world record with a ferocious run down Creger Hill here at Innsbruck. And by using three moguls in the process, his style points may make him unbeatable.”
Josh kicked his sled around and turned toward home. Silence broken, Corey made a plea. “Uncle Mike, maybe we could have Grandpa cut the trees down.”
Josh turned back. “And we could slide over the pond and jump the other bank.”
“You think so, huh?”
“Yeah, let’s go in and talk to Grandpa.”
A mother called from the house.
Corey made her turn. “Let’s go in.”
“Sled champs lead the way,” I said.
As I pivoted to follow, a gust of north wind came through the trees and sprinkled snow on my neck. I turned my collar up and swear I heard a slight roar.
Mike Creger is a freelance writer from Duluth who also writes poetry on demand. For more, email mike.creger @ gmail.com.
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