Friday Night, The Three of Us

Sitting on the back deck after dinner last night, in jeans and long-sleeved shirts, the girls asked if we were going swimming.

Well, why not?

The girls sprawled on the grassy bank while I swam down the pond, from the shadows into the sunlight, the water warm, the surface rippling with feeding fish.

All summer long, we swam in this cupped bowl in the earth, our bodies both in all that dragonfly-filled sky and the water with muck and weed, minnow and turtles. A curled oak leaf floated on the surface. I floated on my back, staring up at the fading blue sky, a single cloud laced pinkly at the edges with sunset.

Later, knitting scrap yarn into a scarf, I shivered. Hours later, still cold, a cat crawled with me until the blankets while I read with a flashlight.

During the siege of Leningrad:

The heat in the (public) library gave out early, and the plumbing eventually froze and burst. In late January, the building finally lost its electricity. The librarians still searched the shadowed stacks with lanterns, and, when they ran out of oil, with burning pieces of wood. They still served patrons and sought out the answers to practical questions posed by the city government: alternative methods of making matches or candles, forgotten sources of edible yeast. As the building grew colder and more battle-scarred, they closed the reading rooms one by one. Finally, patrons and librarians all huddled in the director’s office, where there was still a kerosene map and a buzhuika stove.

— M. T. Anderson, Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad

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Hardwick, Vermont

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Searching For Gold

On this stormy Thursday morning, William Wordsworth:

My heart leaps up when I behold 
   A rainbow in the sky....

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Symphony of Our Small World

In high school, hidden in the upstairs of my parents’ barn, I read Russian literature — The Brothers Karamazov and War and Peace — I read about life behind the Iron Curtain, Darkness at Noon, Solzhenitsyn.

Late last night, the cats and I read M. T. Anderson’s Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad, a book filled with hunger, fear, and love.

These summery, hot days continue to unfold, a world apart from coal-less winters in Russia. Our days are busy, jammed with my multiple work endeavors, with a daughter in middle school, and soccer practices and games, with her babysitting and my older daughter’s tender young adult life — can I build a tiny house? will I fall in love? — with pickling green beans and putting up salsa and somehow painting the upstairs floors while listening to Rumblestrip podcasts, and swimming at the end of the day as often as possible.

This life, messy with creativity and doubt, with love and grief, is lucky beyond belief. Thank goodness, I remember this at times.

Shostakovich states that at the beginning of the Seventh (Symphony) he depicts the peaceful life before the war in the quiet homes of Leningrad. But to a listener in Iowa it could mean the meadows and the rolling hills around his home. After the fantastic theme of war, Shostakovich has put into his music a lament for the dead — and the tears of a Russian mother and of an American mother are the same.

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Loving Yellow

Lador Day Weekend, we’re all home Sunday — both girls and myself — and I followed in the family tradition instilled by my father: painting the house. Our previous house was cedar shingled, with paint only on the window trim. That house had many windows, so, most falls, I painted some of the trim or old storm windows, always the same exterior deep blue teal.

My daughter, when she was three, called this Mama velvet-tealing, a neat way of turning a noun into a verb.

While gray is a traditional New England choice for steps, I had picked up a remainder can of exterior floor paint for a mural on the barn door. When I opened it up, the paint sparkled the glossy richness of spring dandelions.

No, the girls said.

Yes, I said.

Later, when the new neighbors walked over for cake, they asked how long the steps had been so brilliant. Since today, said my older daughter.

Once again, I find myself wildly painting. Next, a deep yammish orange for the upstairs floors. Color, the consolation of fall.

…What is yellow? pears are yellow,
Rich and ripe and mellow….
— Christina Rossetti, from “Color”

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Postcard From Hardwick: September 1

After an intense week of work and family — of wondering where is this heading? — my daughter locks her keys in her car and texts me. Can I bring my keys? And there’s a sketchy stranger near her, too.

When I arrive, she’s leaning against her car, looking up at the sky, and the sketchy somebody is a dad in the high school parking lot, teaching his kid to drive, in that jerking, slow way my daughter and I both recognize.

I mention that my brother can teach my second daughter to drive.

From a soggy patch in the weeds, a bullfrog croaks.

September 1 today, the anniversary of the fateful day Hitler rolled his tanks into Poland, beginning the war that destroyed so many lives.

September 1, the anniversary of my former inlaws.

This morning, all’s quiet on this green patch of Vermont, overcast, with cricket songs and bird calls, a day that begs reflection.

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie...
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

— W. H. Auden, September 1, 1939

 

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Being 13, Hardwick, Vermont

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Turtle Visitor

A wildlife biologist smitten with wood turtles makes an evening presentation at my library, turtle in tow.

The room fills with people I know, and some I don’t know — a little girl from Montpelier with her grandfather whose family has owned a lakeside camp in Woodbury for 100 years. The trustees bring homemade desserts; there’s cold cider; we borrow chairs from the elementary school’s second floor gymnasium. In the humidity, I wipe sweat from my forehead with the school’s paper towels.

An older couple brings their dog, who otherwise would have cowered alone at home, if thunderstorms moved in.

These evenings are a microcosm of small town Vermont: one woman quietly counsels another about obtaining a medical referral. The kids pile a paper plate with brownies. Another woman raids my book sale, asks for a box, and says she’ll drop a check by later.

In the end, I lock up, saying goodnight to the silent 100-year-old schoolhouse. So many people have gone through these doors; so much living has happened here.

In my library, next door, I glance around at a bit of chaos — a pile of old buttons in a pie plate the children have strung into necklaces, picture books on the floor.

Enough for one day. I turn off the light, lock the door, and walk out into the cooling-down rain-sweet night.

And over the grass at the roadside a land turtle crawled, turning aside for nothing, dragging his high-domed shell over the grass: His hard legs and yellow-nailed feet threshed slowly through the grass, not really walking, but boosting and dragging his shell along.

— John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, 1939

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Ode to the Miraculous Melon

And then there’s this: at the very end of Vermont’s summer months — August 27th, a day of jumbled work and bruised adult egos, a day of existential pondering, after a moonlit night when I consider my very genuine failings as a parent to my oldest child, a day of humidity that ends with my daughters sitting on the bank of the pond while I swim with my friend, in all that cool water, its glassine surface broken in circular ripples with biting fish, and I long to keep swimming, swimming, we drive the 30 seconds home with a garden-grown cantaloupe cradled in my hands.

The melon had already split at its oblong end, vaguely skull- and exposed-brain-esque. As I carry the melon into the kitchen, the girls eye it skeptically. Already, that cracked end is clustered with fruit flies — where did they come from? — and I brush them away quickly with my hand and open the melon with a cleaver. The orange flesh bleeds juice.

With the cleaver, I slice off irregular squares, and then I’m eating it — famished not for the fruit, not for the sugar, not for the sticky liquid — but for the sheer miracle of a hard-shelled seed turned into such sweetness from soil and rain and sunlight, for all that this summer has been — both amazing beauty and clustering flies and ugliness of split rinds and quickly — hush, wait, yes — how just momentarily — we’ll all disintegrate back into that dust.

But not yet. Not this evening, with its creamy, rising nearly-full moon, two girls and two cats, a handful of chickens, and the crickets all night long, their songs still soldiering solidly.

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