Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Balloon Story

It was on a Sunday in October, many years ago, when my son and I found ourselves on the fields next to Holliston High School, looking like the balloon-man and one of his young customers. The afternoon sun was bright and warm, and a stiff breeze blew. A soccer game was in progress, spectators were cheering, dogs were running and barking. And overhead, the deep blue sky waited for us to release our balloons.

During the preceding week, my mother-in-law had become seriously ill at her home in Rochester, N.Y., and had to be hospitalized. My wife had gone to be with her, in what would turn out to be her final illness. At 6-going-on-7, my son could not really grasp all that was happening (I'm not sure I could myself). It seemed best to start filling up the weekend with projects, in that carefree-but-glancing-over-your-shoulder way people have when they're killing time while waiting for the phone to ring.

Sunday morning was crisp and clear, and after church, I came up with an idea. Peter, I said, people at the seashore sometimes put a message in a bottle and let it go on the outgoing tide, to see if anybody will find it and answer. When we were kids, we used to buy helium balloons, attach messages to them and set them free from an open field. The message was always brief, because it had to fit into whatever small plastic container we could find. Almost never was there a reply. Often, the wind was too strong, or there were not enough balloons for the weight, and then the whole thing would scutter along the ground, maybe rise to 12 or 15 feet, high enough to be out of reach but too low to clear the treeline. The balloons would lurch upwards, then at the last moment they would get good and snagged in the topmost branches. They would snap around up there for a while, but the flight would be over.

Many times, though, the balloons flew free, and once, a message did come back. A couple in a nearby town found a broken balloon in their driveway, tethered to our plastic message-bottle, which they were happy to return. This gave us the confidence to send up several more balloons over the years, none of which came back.

This day, it simply seemed like a good way to fill time. We went home and found a piece of card stock upon which Peter wrote a message and drew a picture of himself, his house and his yard. We put this into an empty gallon milk jug, sealed it with tape and drove to Fiske's to buy the balloons. It turned out that nine balloons were needed to lift the jug from the floor with enough "oomph."

Up at the high school, with the balloons tugging at their ribbons, we waited for the breeze to stop and catch its breath. Peter was impatient, and wanted to let the balloons fly. But I wanted to be sure that this bunch would clear the trees.

Then I remembered my mother-in-law, dying in a distant hospital, and let the balloons go. My heart sank as a gust of wind pushed them to the ground, then they twisted free and began to climb quickly, gliding towards the trees but already high enough to miss the top branches. We watched as the balloons sailed east, soon becoming just a black speck against the clouds, then vanishing.

Betty Anne died a day or two later. We drove out for the memorial service, thus beginning that long journey so familiar to many of you, the one you take when a parent dies. It was many weeks before life began to return to normal.

But sometime before Thanksgiving, a padded envelope with a Canadian postmark appeared in the mail. At first, we thought it must be from friends of ours who live in Maine, some vacation photos. But we could see that it was not, when we opened the envelope and out slid Peter's drawing of himself, his house and his yard. There were also some packets containing seeds of native Nova Scotia plants, some seashells and a note from a grandmother and the grandson who lived with her near Yarmouth, N.S.: "Thank you for your message from across the Gulf of Maine. We found your bottle with all the balloons on our favourite beach. We hope these presents reach you unbroken . . ." I have often pictured the balloons, rising until they weaken and burst, and the jug tumbles out of the sky and lands in the sea. I picture the woman and the little boy spotting the tangle of ribbon and plastic among the shells and seaweed. They fish the note out of the jug, read it, and then (I'm sure) both look out towards the horizon. When they get home, they locate Holliston in an atlas, some 300 miles to the southwest across the open ocean.

I would like to report that we visited Connor and his Nana and became friends for life, but it hasn't happened yet. We still have the seeds. One day we will plant them. And we still have the note, and Peter's well-traveled drawing.

So why tell this story now, years later? Perhaps, with winter closing in and the difficulties of life in full array, it helps to remember that all you need to get the universe rolling in your direction again is to give it a little shove. You could say that nothing will come of it. But you never know.

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