Once again, we are making the journey; the one we have taken every year since I was three years old, the awe-inspiring sojourn which lures us across the Atlantic Ocean each winter. However, this year the warm familiarity of the trip is tinged with sadness. The green meadows of the summer will be asleep under their fluffy, white duvets and the cornflower-blue sky will lift my spirits, yet I am nervous and full of trepidation.
After the usual uneventful flight, we collect the hire car and begin our scenic journey north. It is astonishing to think that Vermont is only a few hours’ drive away from Boston. They are parallel worlds; one a city full of life and excitement, the other, a peaceful haven. We zigzag our way through the maze of traffic, passing endless billboards, buildings and crowds of people. Boston will always hold a special place in my heart as it marks the start of our annual journey, the most incredible voyage of my life…to Papa John and Ancy Nancy’s house.
The drive there is astounding. We watch in awe as the loud buzz of the city steadily transforms into a blissful, winter wonderland. As we journey onwards; cars, houses and people diminish whilst the amount of snow on the ground builds up and up. In New Hampshire, memories flood my mind as we drive past our beloved frozen Occom Pond where we have skated, Mount Sunapee where we have skied and the Power House Mall where we have shopped. We continue our journey, swerving our way through forests and more breathtaking scenery. The frozen, narrow streams meander through the trees and the sparkling, silver icicles hang tantalisingly from the picturesque rooftops of the wooden-clad houses. Everything is beautiful.
We continue our familiar route, passing through the old, wooden covered bridge. Below, the vast Connecticut River carves its way through the New England landscape separating the scenic states of Vermont and New Hampshire. We make our final ascent into the Green Mountains heading towards Papa John and Ancy Nancy’s wonderful home in sleepy Brownsville. Excitement mounts as we begin to feel the warm closeness of our journey’s end. We pass the wooden, white church cloaked in its winter jacket, the General Store from a bygone age and the llamas in their snowy field near the red barn. Bible Hill Road; such a heavenly name, lies before us, high above the village with panoramic views of the valley below. Just over the brow of the hill, we catch our first glimpse of Windmead.
After all these years I still marvel at its magnificence. The fairy lights on the porch of the farmhouse twinkle effortlessly, bringing life to the endless valleys below. As I step out of the car, snowflakes gently tickle my skin as they flutter down like graceful dancers. Then, the familiar sound of the dogs barking announce our arrival and, as if on cue, the door abruptly swings open and out comes Ancy Nancy welcoming us with open arms. Alone. I freeze and suddenly remember that dreadful day last summer…
“Sophie, he’s gone,” Mum whispered, her voice trembling. “We’ve lost him.”
I instantly felt my heart rate accelerate as though a ticking bomb were about to go off. “What?”
“It’s Papa John…he passed away last night. I’m so sorry.”
A whirlwind of emotions raced through my brain. I could not believe it. I was only sixteen – sweet sixteen he’d written in my birthday card – and I was never going to see him again. He was my Papa and we had so many more fun times to come. How could the universe be so cruel as to punish someone so kind-hearted, so selfless? I never even got to say goodbye.
‘Pancreatic cancer, I hate you!’ I screamed in my mind. ‘How vicious you are to take my dear Papa John away from me. How can I ever visit Vermont again at Christmas?’
However, we have. We needed to.
Later that evening, we gather around the warm glow of the Christmas tree with Ancy Nancy. The majestic yellow room, with its vast cathedral ceiling and large, stone, inglenook fireplace, makes me think of Papa John. I gaze out of the window to the vast slopes on the other side of the valley where we have skied, to the tranquil woods and the beaver pond where we have walked and across to the frozen pond where he taught me how to skate. I close my eyes and I see him, smiling back at me with pride.
“I am here Papa John,” I whisper, “we came again. I miss you.”