18th Birthday.

Here’s the thing: 18 years is a whole lot of parenting. 18 years is hardly a heartbeat.

My youngest was born by caesarian at 8:13 a.m. Leaving the hospital a few days later, corn nubs had emerged through the soil. As we drove by farm fields, I admired the new corn, marveling at its beauty. I had seen corn growing my whole life. And yet….

Perhaps that and yet sums up parenting. As a little girl, my youngest wore a green fairy tutu from her grandmother for about two years straight. These days, we are past the days of tiny teacups and Go, Dog, Go. Our family dynamics are now getting down to the hard questions: what does it mean to be a woman? what shall I do with my life? and how many times does sunscreen really need to be applied on a senior skip day at the beach? The questions go on….

blessing the boats

                                    (at St. Mary’s)

may the tide

that is entering even now

the lip of our understanding

carry you out

beyond the face of fear

may you kiss

the wind then turn from it

certain that it will

love your back     may you

open your eyes to water

water waving forever

and may you in your innocence

sail through this to that

— Lucille Clifton

Cars, Coffee, Conversation.

My daughter drives the interstate towards Burlington in the valley that folds along the Winooski River. I’ve driven this stretch of interstate countless times, in all kinds of weather, alone or with children in the backseat eating snacks and talking about something like various shades of blue.

We pass the town where, a few years back, I fiercely negotiated down the price of a Matrix. While my older daughter test drove the car, the owner and I stood on the sidewalk in front of his suburban split-level. He sold restaurant equipment and wasn’t in the least interested in sharing stories about that job. He couldn’t get the Matrix’s hood open, which made me ask how often he checked the oil. My question irritated him. That — and the cash I brought — tipped the price in our favor.

As it turned out, that Matrix never burned a drop of oil. My daughter drove the car for years. Well beyond 200k miles, we sold the car to a man who called himself Saffron Bob. Saffron Bob appeared in a snowstorm, also with cash.

My daughters found his story about growing saffron along Lake Champlain utterly believable. I did not, but I was wrong about that, too.

We stop for coffee. My daughter steps forward and pays. We keep driving and talking, another strand of our story.

The Horizon’s Edge.

Photo by Diane Grenkow

Many years ago, one of my daughters’ playmates wandered through our sugarhouse with a huge pine branch over her shoulder. My then-husband and I were working in the kind of frantic way we often did in those days, sap-turning-to-syrup boiling fiercely in the pans. The playmate was a slight and quiet child. She moved through us and then disappeared outside again, enmeshed in whatever imaginative world.

On this below zero morning, heading towards my oldest daughter’s birthday, this photo taken by my friend comes into my email, which reminded me how much of my approach to parenting little kids was let them wander around the world. More than a few times, that seemed to have evolved into a kind of what the heck is happening now sense from the kids.

Just for the record, we swam a great deal at this beach, too, although never in the frozen months.

The horizon’s edge, the flying seacrow, the fragrance of saltmarsh and shoremud;
These became part of that child who went forth every day, and who now goes and will always go forth every day,
And these become of him or her that peruses them now.

— Walt Whitman

Bobcat. Saw-Whet Owl.

I arrive a few minutes early to meet my friend for coffee and look for a window table to open my notebook. A writer I know just a little is eating a ham and cheese sandwich and asks me to sit down. He’s old enough to be my father if he began fatherhood at a young age, which I know he didn’t. He immediately tells me two things: he’s waiting for his back road to be sanded and he saw a bobcat in a tree behind his house that morning. He describes the cat’s reddish fur, and I ask detailed questions about the wild creature’s size and location and poise. My friend arrives and they keep talking about San Francisco, and then he tells us about studying with Joan Baez at The Institute for the Study of Nonviolence.

The bakery is at a busy intersection in Montpelier. Through the window, I see people in colored winter coats. Until the pandemic, I often brought my laptop to work at this bakery and the one across the street that closed a year or two ago. Two blocks up is the public library where I wrote long sections of my last book. None of these places I’ve returned to work. Like everyone else, my life has changed, my habits recreated.

The bakery is closing. The day moves along. My friend and I walk through Bear Pond Books. She buys me a novel, hugs me goodbye, and heads on her way. I walk the long way back to my car. That night, I dream about the saw-whet owl my daughter and I glimpsed in the woods behind our house. A toddler, she pointed at the hemlock branch where the tiny bird was nestled in the greenery, its eyes wide-open. We stood there for the longest time, wordless, our breath frosty clouds in the winter air.

“… nothing is a promise, but that beauty exists, and must be hunted for and found.”

— Joan Baez

Mapping, Metaphor, Motherhood.

I forget my map on my desk beside my eternal list (write thankyous, double check FAFSA submission, confirm E and J meeting….) and drive over the Canadian border shortly after sunrise. Luminous crimson stripes the clouds. Almost immediately, the land flattens from Vermont’s hard ridges to industrial ag fields, distantly studded with metal silos. Late December, and the terrain is more gray than white. I stop at a gas station and ask a woman who is emptying her car of fast food wrappers for directions. I don’t understand her accent, the slipperiness of French that eluded me all those high school French classes. She wants me to understand, repeating her directions, one hand waving a crumpled bag. I nod thank you, thank you, and turn back to my salt-crusted Subaru, miserable with my lack of agility with language. Aren’t I a writer?

At a crossroads, I have no idea which road to take, and the world opens up abruptly in dizzyingly wideness.

My intention is to drive to Montreal to meet my daughters. I hate driving the dullness of interstate and fear driving into cities, and I’ve made this infinitely worse by losing my map. For years with young children in carseats, I delivered maple syrup around Vermont, navigating by atlas and rivers, the sun and roadsigns, using my tools of snacks and a box of board books. I once pulled over and lifted a handful of pebbles from a roadside so my toddler could dump pebbles from one paper cup to another, satisfying her tired self.

Now: no map, no cell service, in a town whose name (ridiculously) I never learn, I pull a Streetcar Named Desire card ask strangers to point my way out. A teenager shrugs. An old man can’t hear me. Finally, an electrician in a truck gives me directions. We repeat his directions to each other three times, and then I roll out, my heart not full of faith, precisely, but enough warmth of optimism. May this new year bring out the generosity of strangers and of ourselves. Thank you all for your kindness and curiosity for reading.

You should keep on painting no matter how difficult it is, because this is all part of experience, and the more experience you have, the better it is… unless it kills you, and then you know you have gone too far.

— Alice Neel

Glass. Packages. Blood.

My daughters spent years playing with glass containers. Sure, we also had the usual endless assortment of empty yogurt containers, the odd plastic collection, the paper cups such as the beloved Easter bunny cups (known lovingly as cups-with-bunnies), but we made and sold maple syrup for years.

At one point, wedding favors in leaf or heart bottles was a chunk of our livelihood. I made endless trips to different maple distributors, loading up the back of my station wagon and often around my daughters in carseats with cardboard boxes of glass. That 8oz maple leaf with a gold foil top? Top seller.

I packed and shipped maple syrup in the PO’s flat rate boxes. Those boxes made shipping syrup a viable family endeavor, and I knew all the post offices in my small sphere of travel. Headed to story hour at the library? I swung by the Greensboro post office. Picking up more glass? East Montpelier post office. Need bike parts? Morrisville.

I had a “well, duh,” moment this week at the post office when I weighed a package to my parents. The clerk kindly handed me a flat rate box, tape, and a mailing label. I asked for use of a pen, too, then stripped off my winter coat and hat, and went to repackaging work in the PO corner. I sliced my fingertip on the blade of the knife dispenser and bled on the label and then on my check. All those years, so many bottles filled with sand and pebbles, with colored water and concoctions of leaves and flower blossoms, and I don’t remember a single glass cut on my daughters’ little hands.

I ripped up the check I’d bloodied and wrote another, left-handed and nearly illegible.

Cutting into with the ax,

I was surprised at the scent of.

The winter trees.

— Issa