February 20, 2016, 1pm.
I am walking to the park with my youngest two kids. The sun feels like spring already, and the sky is the soft blue of March or April, but the rest of the scenery is decidedly wintery still. The trees are bare, the grass is still a matted brown, and the air, while unseasonably warm, smells of nothing but wet soil.
My town is at the bottom of a hole. Two streams empty into the Illinois River here, making it prime territory for coal mines back at the turn of the century. Between the streams and the now-abandoned mines, the entire town is a series of large steps working their way down towards the broad expanse of the Illinois. What this means is that from our home by the riverfront and the library is as much a climb up as it is a walk across town.
My kids ride ahead and fall behind on their bikes, loving the flat areas but lagging as we tromp up the inclines. I am not old yet, but I can’t call myself young or in particularly good shape, so by the time we make it to the library my legs buzz and I can feel my heart working in my chest. The library is an odd looking building. A century-old original structure at one end, a larger extension done in the ‘90s at the other, and city hall and the police department sitting next door, the entire effect is slightly Frankensteinian. It is small by my standards; I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, where libraries were multi-story monsters with entire floors devoted to genres. Here, each section consists of a handful of shelves, the staff no more than 4 older ladies. But that’s what happens when you move from a city of 60,000 surrounded by others cities just as big to a town of 5500 surrounded by cornfields.
We wander the stacks for a while, pick out a few choice volumes, then make our way back out into the sunshine. The kids bolt right for the park across the lot, racing for the best locations on the swings or monkey bars, bickering as usual. They are only 19 months apart in age, and the competitions between them are kind of a default setting. I turn my face up to the sun and let the south wind whip my hair back. It’s getting long again, time to cut it unless I decide to ponytail it up again like I did for so many years. For now it curls around my ears and hangs down to my collar. The sunlight is still a bit watery, but I can feel it is stronger than it was just a few weeks ago. I drink it in like an elixir, feeling it soak into me, filling me up.
I love these first hints of spring, these first reminders that winter is not eternal. I know that in a day or two, the temperature will drop back into the 30s and the clouds will roll back in. There will probably be at least one more measurable snow, at least one more snap that leaves frost on the car windshields and puts blades back into the wind. But for now, just for a bit, I can pretend that winter is over. I can pretend that the dark is finished and the sunlight has won again.
At least until November.