In my backyard, the struggle between winter and spring is coming to a close. Even the flowers, stopped in their tracks by an April blizzard, have begun their delayed adolescence.

One tulip, trapped under a pine branch brought down by the wind, has found a detour to the surface. It will, I suspect, survive. Another tulip, open before the storm, was badly shaken by its eagerness and winter's excess. It will also survive.

But in the shady corner of this New England garden, a patch of snow still hangs on. It is covered now with the ugly licorice frosting of urban life. It sits there as a visible remnant of the stormy past.

I find myself checking up on this departing bit of winter the way others check on the arriving spring. I leave the house these mornings wearing just a suit. But in sync with the mixed messages of my yard, I carry my coat. The snow is my patch of caution. The coat is my protection. I drag it along with me into spring.

The garden scene has become my miniature of all the awkward ways things change, in nature and in human nature.

During the thaws of my childhood winters I was the first on the block to put on summer clothes. I accepted the spring without suspicion, without withholding commitment.

Today my daughter still sheds snow jackets at the first sign of warmth, with easy optimism. But I now carry a coat in the car, read signs in the snow, and wonder whether it comes with the age territory. Do we get more cautious, are we overprepared for the worst, as we grow older?

Few of my friends make speedy transitions anymore. They seem slowed down by their histories. They even enter good times cautiously.

I have a friend who survived a predictable weather pattern of mid-life: a cold marriage, followed by a stormy divorce, and an unsettled single life. Finally she moved, by glacial increments, into a new relationship. Her days with this man are more than comfortable.

Yet, there is still a prevailing wind from her past. Her memories are also expectations. When we talk, she sounds almost superstitious. If she takes off the snow tire, makes a commitment to this new life, she tells me, another storm may take her by surprise. Above all else, my friend does not want surprises.

A man I know, a father, has been through a season of trouble with his daughter. For years he couldn't talk to her without receiving icy sarcasm. The atmosphere of their home was heavy with her hostility, anger, disapproval.

Now the girl is open, but the father is careful. When they meet, he is still braced against the chill of disappointment. He keeps his expectations low and his dukes high. During all the years he wished that she would soften toward him, he never knew how hard it would be to believe in it.

There are others I know who carry symbols, memories, patches from the past--even when times change. Others who find transitions slower and trickier than they used to. One brings an old illness with her into good health; she cannot yet say she is cured. Another goes to work at a new job taking with him the anxieties of his unemployed months. A third carries his childhood on his shoulders, like a chip.

I don't know if it is universal. But for many of us, disappointments accumulate like snowflakes, each different, until they settle into a cold mass in the dark corner of our lives. The harder the season, the longer it takes to melt.

Yet it does, eventually. Eventually we feel safe enough to store the storm gear. Sooner or later, if it's warm enough, even skepticism evaporates.

My yard has almost finished its transition. By tomorrow, the snow patch will have become mud. Within a week, I'll leave my coat at home. And by next week at the latest, this most tenacious winter will be over. I am sure of that. Almost sure of that.