Around Town: Exeter Town Common

Snow coats the leafless branches of the maples and oaks scattered throughout the open space near Exeter Town Center as the sun rises, a rosy glow reflecting across the unbroken expanse of white. Town plows rumble by periodically, their blades pushing gray chunks of snow onto the sidewalk that rings the Common. As the sun climbs in the sky, a handful of cars go by. More common are people walking to the train station downtown, opting to catch the commuter rail trains that run between Boston and Worcester. They trudge through the snow in boots and jeans, carrying small duffel bags or backpacks in addition to briefcases and purses.

Fewer than normal are heading to work this morning, the rest staying home because their offices are closed or because the Exeter superintendent canceled school for the day and somebody has to watch the children.

Once the streets are clear, a town public works crew comes back and uses small forklift-sized plows to clear the sidewalks and the brick paths through the Common. The white pillars and trim of the bandstand disappear against all the snow, the stone foundation buried under the piles plowed from the walkway surrounding it.

As the sun rises higher in the sky, children in colorful snowsuits start to fill the space. One small boy ducks behind a wooden bench, while a girl tries in vain to hide behind one of the old-fashioned streetlights the town installed a few years back with grant money. Another group of children gathers at the end closest to Town Hall and starts building a snowman family.

The chimes in St. Brigid’s steeple chime noon and the Common starts to clear out as children head home for lunch and hot chocolate, their noses and cheeks red from the cold. Only now do the teenagers start to arrive, after taking the rare occasion to sleep in.

The younger ones have sleds in tow and walk past the flat Common, heading for the sledding hill behind Park Street Elementary. The high school boys scope out the area, selecting their places and stockpiling snowballs. There are too many parents at the sledding hill for a good battle, but here they can let loose.

After a few industrious minutes, ones the high school teachers would be surprised to see, everybody is set. Hats are for wimps, and snowpants for sissies, so they crouch, wind blowing hair and reddening ears, jeans faded and worn. Nobody is willing to throw the first missile, reveal his position to the others, without a clear shot. Then a tall, thin boy walks through the Common, hands shoved in his pockets and head down. Snowballs come out of nowhere to leave white marks on his blue down jacket. After the first, he ducks, then walks more quickly. The snowballs keep coming, one from behind the World War I doughboy monument, two from the center of the bandstand. The lone spruce tree shelters another hurler, while three squeeze in behind the squat granite square that lists the names of all the World War II dead.

Once the teen has left, the snowballs keep flying. It isn’t long before a police patrol car rolls up, idling on the side street that borders the back of the Common. Once the snowballs stop flying and the boys head off to find more trouble, the car resumes its slow patrol of the town streets, watching for people in distress.

The Common is quiet for a few hours, until an older woman comes out, bowl in hand, from one of the Greek Revival homes along the back of the Common. She’s cautious crossing the street, picking her steps carefully even though the plows, sand and traffic have cleared the streets of all but a bit of slush. A few of the trees on this side of the common are young, replacements after the town had to replace several diseased ones about five years ago. She walks among them, scattering birdseed, then makes her way to a bench, brushing the snow from its seat. As she watches, cardinals flock to the food she’s left, their red feathers splashes of colors against the snow.

Dusk comes early to Exeter at this time of year, and by the time the commuter trains start bringing people home from a day at the office, the Common is dark, lit only by the lamps threaded along the pathways through the space.