Sometime around Easter, the cherry trees lining both sides of my mother’s street in Maryland create a gauzy cathedral, easing her from winter into summer. When I was little, I would waltz down that aisle, happy that the short ineffectual winter was over. By then the crocuses had come and gone, their banner taken up by daffodils and tulips, to be followed by innumerable azaleas, lilacs, and lilies throwing colorful confetti over the suburban lawns, all before May Day.
Now I live in Wisconsin, where the brown spring does not remind one of a celebration but rather of an old bachelor thawing old meat, twisted with freezer burn. Yet on a day in early March, my children and I rejoice even in brown as the melting snow finally reveals a glimpse of earth. My children, with their thick Wisconsin blood, throw off their hats and drink in the sunshine.
A couple weeks later, the snow recedes enough to reveal the dull chestnut of my garden. Although I long for cherry blossoms, I know the best I can expect are crocuses. I find one immediately, then search for any other survivors, but it looks grim. I had planted them when we first moved here, hoping to bring the spring celebration to my front yard, but every year fewer return.
On St. Patrick’s Day, I walk my children over the university footbridge. The silty river has flooded, sighing against the bridge pillars, careless after imprisonment. A metal rowboat is wrapped around a pillar, battered tight against the concrete by the strong current. My hat is thrown into the water by a gust of wind, and it rushes downstream. “You must be careful when the river gets this high,” I caution my son. “It’s very dangerous.” He’s only four, so he nods. “Dangerous.” He clutches my hand tighter.
Overnight, more crocuses appear in my garden, only to be smothered by a late snow. Flakes swirl in front of my house while a thousand miles away petals swirl in front of my mother’s. She shovels them off the walk so neighbors won’t slip in the rain. Each step crushes petals and releases the strong perfume of dying blossoms. I don’t bother to shovel. My flakes will melt by tomorrow; hers will linger for days.
By the first week of April, the crocuses have given up, and the daffodils have not yet come, so we search a pond for frogs. A few of the males already sing out for mates. Every year I wonder how they survive the winter, the freeze and refreeze of noncommittal springs.
Our spring is not an easy passage. Here, rivers flood. Children are sucked into icy mud puddles. Frogs that didn’t survive the winter thaw and rot, sending out the stench of long-postponed decay rather than ballads. Here, Persephone has a steeper climb from her tomb, all the more alive once she finally emerges for being all the more dead, and she is not alone. We journey with her, and once above ground we rejoice in the smallest blessings: frog songs, the brown earth, a lonely crocus emerging from the snow.