A World of White

Pamela Goddard

The world my Grandfather lived in was full of color. He lived in a pale green house on a Vermont hillside, surrounded by acres and acres of fields and woodlands. So many acres that he called his home Hidden Acres. I have rich memories of the dusty brown/yellow dirt road going to the house, it's color changing depending on how early in muddy spring we visited, or how late in dusty August. The fields rolled from dark green wood lots to the close cropped pale green horse pasture and the blue washed barn and garage.

When we came inside for lunch, or one of Nana's famed strawberry shortcake dinners, the house glowed from the yellow golden knotty pine paneling. There were the green leather upholstered chairs and the red leather sofa. On the wooden table behind the sofa, there was always a red and white, or blue and white checked table cloth with matching napkins. And there was the painting on the living room wall, always mysterious to my childish eyes, of a pretty brown haired woman with a sky blue satin ribbon around her neck. I knew it was sky blue, because it perfectly matched the vivid blue Vermont sky stretching above the endless green hillsides.

Now, I think that all of that color was really the world my Nana lived in. Her bedroom was pink. It was she who fed the wild calico cats that would come to the back kitchen door. The world that my Grandfather really lived in, the world of his heart and mind, was white.

When my Grandfather was a young man he left his family home in New London Connecticut, and made a sea voyage. For his family this wasn't so unusual. His father, and his Grandfather, and his Great Grandfather had all made their living traversing the oceans and coastal waterways. But my Grandfather's trip was something different. He traveled, not once but twice, up to the Arctic circle with McClellan. It was the 1910s and 1920s, and still a time of exploration. His Grandfather had also traveled to the Arctic circle around 1852 on a Whaler. That was an economic journey, looking for valuable sperm oil. My Grandfather's trip, sixty years later or more, was a scientific journey. He was there to take magnetic readings and geological findings for the Smithsonian. He was there to find True North.

Whether he found all the data they needed during those trips, I don't know. But I think he found his own True North. For him it was an absolute wonderland of snow and ice formations. He never ceased to be fascinated by the incredible sculptural forms icebergs could melt and grow into. And he never ceased to be awed by the power and ferocity of polar bears.

To me, his room always seemed to be like a ship's cabin. The curtains were pulled to keep out the light. I could almost hear the wooden bedstead creaking against the wooden paneling. And then there were the photographs. The walls were hung with large print photos of icebergs and snowscapes. It was as you looked through port holes, and out into another world. He seemed to want to hold near that black and white world which put him at ease. It was black and white in the photographs. But I know in his memory he looked at those pictures and remembered all the colors which can be held in white. Frosty icebergs can shimmer with pink, blue and green. Or the ice can be partly rotted to a purple black. Polar bears and seals carry yellow and pink in their whiteness. The whiteness captured by the camera left out the brighter rainbow whiteness that he had known. But still the pictures helped him to remember.

Those silent landscapes were a perfect mirror for his silent social nature. It seemed to me that he tolerated family and friends - within limits. But his real world, where he interacted best, was the brilliant, icy wilderness of the Arctic and of Space.

The milky way was his other world. After his Arctic voyages, and some trips to Peru (which he hated), he took a position manning the Observatory at Dartmouth. It strikes me now that he was ever searching more far off and "Northerly" wildernesses to explore. When he started his extraterrestrial explorations in the 1920, and into the 1940s and 50s, he was convinced that man would never harness enough power to burst through the boundary of our atmosphere. Once the Apollo rocket did, he knew it was just a matter of time before we'd reach the white reflective face of the moon. How he would have loved to see for himself those lunar landscapes, so similar to the barren white landscapes of the Arctic. But, of course, he never did. The closest he could get was exploring those specks of white against the vast black reaches of space through his Observatory telescope.

I never visited him there. By the time I came along, Grandpa Dick had retired to his green Vermont hillside of Hidden Acres. He was a tall, upright man with thick snow white hair. To me Grandpa seemed as silent, powerful and fierce as a polar bear. I remember mending gray stone walls with him. He taught me that to build a strong wall we need to find the right side, the correct face of the rock so that it will fit in tightly against the others. I remember him, during late summer nights, sitting on the house porch. He would look out at the night sky for a long time, measuring in his mind, year after year, where the white stars came up over the blue black horizon of the hill.

© 2001 Pamela Goddard