Maple Sugar Run

On a March morning long ago at Aunt Katy's home....

I could smell sausage cooking before I came down stairs this snowy morning and knew Martha had made pancakes for breakfast. Rama, our Siamese tomcat, stood, demanding to be let out of the kitchen door but the birds were having their breakfast and his presence would have spoiled their feed so we had to put up with his strident complaints.

Light, persistant snow sifted down from the leaden skies adding steadily to the already considerable accumulation on the ground. Bushes and trees were frosted with white. Young Joe hadn't arrived yet to clean our driveway and walks so we were in the midst of an island of untrampled snow.

"Mornin', Lazybones." Josiah greeted me as I dropped a kiss on his white head. "Thought you were going to sleep through the rest of the winter."

"You were just figuring on eating my share of the pannycakes, my love. Now you'll have to settle for a meager half dozen. Good morning, Martha. Umm, that smells good." I said, pouring hot syrup over my stack of golden brown pancakes.

"This seemed like the perfect morning for an oldfashioned breakfast," Martha smiled as she filled my coffee cup. "I made enough so Joe can have a taste when he comes to do the walks and here he is now."

A short time later our grandson stomped into the kitchen, sending a shower of snow off his fur hat and sniffing the air hungrily.

"Whiew! That's cold, hungry work. Wouldn't have a cup of coffee to spare for a hard working man, would you, Marthy? Morning, Grandparents. Carrie said to tell you the children are all over their colds and Fritzel put the cat in the dryer last night but she discovered it before it came to any harm. He said pussy was cold."

"What that boy won't think of next!" Josiah laughed, proudly amused by his four year old great-grandson.

"Last week it was bubble bath in the fish tank because it smelled so nice he thought the fishies would like it. Saved half of them. Trudy cried buckets over her angel fish and poor Fritzel cried right along with her so she couldn't be mad at him. Thanks, Martha, don't tell Carrie I ate all this. She says I'm getting fat." Young Joe attacked his plate of cakes and sausage happily.

"This is the last of the sausage your father brought us when he butchered last month." Martha told him as she joined us at the table with her own breakfast. "And the last of our own syrup too. Are you going to sugar off this year?"

"Plan to," Young Joe said through a huge bite of pancakes, "Carrie and Mom got the buckets all scrubbed and scalded the other day so we're ready when the run starts."

Once again I felt the thrill of anticipation that came every late winter when I was a child waiting for Grandma's note saying the sap was running in the maple trees at the Big Farm. Closing my eyes, I could see Grandfather striding through the sugar bush, lifting the full pails of sap from the trees, pouring their sweet watery contents into the gathering tubs, his hands encased in huge sheepskin mittens. I could hear the horses snorting and whickering to each other as they pulled the "toadsmasher" sledge slowly along the rutted track.

Smoke rose from the sugar shed, a tall straight plume in the cold, quiet air. Inside, fires roared under the evaporator pans, hot enough to distill the syrup but not to scorch and spoil its delicate flavor. How good the hot sugar tasted spread on one of Grandma's biscuits when we picnicked at the sugar shed. How deliciously the sweet maple syrup trickled down my throat when Uncle Bert poured it over clean snow and made "chewing wax" for me.

"Katy Lou's gone again." I heard Joshiah chuckle. "Mention sugarin' off and she's back at the Big Farm, nine years old, and following her Granddad around like a kitten."

"Now, Uncle Jos, don't tease Aunt Katy." Martha chided.

Smiling, I raised my face for Jos' apologetic kiss and went back to my remembering. The bare tree branches tracing delicate fans of silver-grey lace against the steel-blue sky; the thin black ribbon of open water snaking through the ice-bound creek; the huge slippery glacial boulder deposited eons ago in the middle of the sugar bush, waiting for a child to clamber, with Grandpa's help, to its top where she could survey all the activity in the woods.

I could hear again the voices of my uncles and cousins joining in a hymn as they worked in scattered parts of the bush. Here a crotchety old grey squirrel poked his head out of his nest to see what was disturbing his late winter rest. There a line of dainty foodprints told of a deer's nocturnal wanderings. A flutter of wings brought brave winter birds to peck at the cookie crumbs I scattered.

There were the evenings I sat, huddled in a quilt, watching the cracking fire, listening to one of Grandpa's stories. Uncle Bert, with his ready laugh and sad eyes, who worked as hard and fast as his young nephews despite his stiff leg, Uncle Lonzo and Pa sometimes swapped stories of the time they served in the War Between the States. A small, quiet child learned so much at times like that.

Back at the house, Great-granny sat by the fireside waiting for her favorite treat, crumbly curls of maple sugar shaved off a cake of the lightest and finest Grandpa could make. Many years before when she first came to this part of the country from New England, an Indian Chief had admired her tiny form and firey red curls. Each spring he brought her a birchbark pannikin of maple sugar even after he understood that Great Grandfather Harvey had no intention of selling or trading her to him.

The taste of maple syrup is pleasant on the tongue and a key to open the door to memories of the past. So I spent a few minutes in the "olden days" while my breakfast settled and then returned to the present to help Martha wash up today's breakfast dishes.

The snow still dances outside, depositing even more fluffy whiteness for Young Joe to remove later in the day. No sap rising yet but its day will come. And so will Spring.