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Aspen homecoming

IT is Thanksgiving as we drive up Roaring Fork Valley in late afternoon twilight, sharing the narrow road with returning skiers. Quietness pervades the snow-blanketed town. We are returning to our past, where our children were born. We seek closeness, and we find it in silent thoughts. Snow falls heavily as we approach our home. White-covered ski trails on towering Ajax can be seen only through white-on-white silvery streaks of falling snow.

Wiggling from my grasp, four-year-old Mandy slogs through the deep snow on spindly legs to dig out a toy left behind last summer. She turns and smiles without speaking.

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Following sister, Jonathan runs to the large maple and exuberantly hugs the frozen ropes of his swing. Still-green remnants of summer peek from beneath the white. Visions of the past, of oldness, linger strongly and we embrace them. Then neighbors, watching from windows, come smiling through the silver streaks and homecoming is complete.

Later we set a fire blazing in the ancient Franklin. An antique oil lamp lights the Victorian setting and reflects in the dark reds and blues of stained glass. A picture of an unknown family of 100 years before glimmers in soft light from a wall. I wonder again who they are: an immigrant family with two babies, the stout father holding the shovel with which he's just planted two maple saplings, now tall trees outside this house. They still seem, like friends, to share this house with us.

The old upright sits silently in its corner, waiting. Then I remember, start a Chopin sonata, and the scene is accomplished.

Laughter upstairs, then a rumbling down the back staircase and my fresh-bathed, pajamaed babies fly into my arms. They plead to stay and watch the fire. I protest and start them to bed when my wife speaks up: ``Our friends are about.'' Before I know it, the children and I have huddled together on the floor beside the fire. Mother continues with Chopin, but more softly.

There are knowing looks, covered with flickering firelight. Quiet now and listening. The hushed quietness of the falling snow has invaded the house, and we hear the first creak in the attic. Another follows from the back.

Then familiar imagined voices in the faraway part of the house. My children know and wait anxiously to hear again. Eyes wide in the mock excitement I know well. Each new sound brings a look of wonderment.

Now I am caught in the children's game. Well-known tales follow. The immigrant family in our home in other times. I look and see in my young family those who came before, who speak from the attic now and peer quietly from the wall.

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Mandy fills in the silence, ``It won't always be ours.''

Beyond his two years Jonathan adds, ``In a way it will.''

The contrast of newness and oldness pulls at me, brings me unerringly face to face with what was. It has always been this way, and I have sought this feeling from old homes and in children and in Aspen winters.

Dozing now, Mandy whispers, ``Will someone hear us in the attic someday?'' I answer, ``Yes,'' and hold her close as ember shadows enfold us further. Our old clock begins striking the hour as I carry my babies gently to bed.

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