My daughter discovered the foundation of an old mill near where she lives, a fieldstone structure built beside a rushing stream. A grist mill I speculate.
Sunday afternoon, and the day has warmed. The bugs haven’t risen yet. The spring ephemerals haven’t unfolded from the forest floor.
With one daughter grown, my youngest nearly so, my own parents well along in old age, I think about the things I wish I’d done as a parent. I wish we’d traveled more, seen the northern lights, gone to concerts. I wish my daughters’ father had stuck around. That trite phrase — glass half-empty or half-full — comes to mind. But maybe a truer comparison is this foundation, this well-crafted structure that has now morphed into a wilderness home, where birch trees set seeds and grew in improbable places.
We keep walking, and she shows me a small swamp in a hollow far off the road. The peepers are singing. The mud beneath my boots is black and rich. Water runs through it.
When my daughter and I return from a walk tonight, we stand for a moment outside our house in the dark. The moon is a bit of a creamy curl over our roof. Mighty Orion stands at his guard in the constellations. Whoever dug this house’s foundation in the sandy soil, carefully set the fieldstones, and built this home has long since passed out of this world. People have lived and fought and loved and died in this house. It’s March and Mud Season hovers over us, freezing, thawing, freezing, and eventually the thaw will win out for the summer. Upstairs, my youngest daughter puts her face to a window. We go in, leaving the stars and the night to their own particular magic.
“It may be important to great thinkers to examine the world, to explain and despise it. But I think it is only important to love the world, not to despise it, not for us to hate each other, but to be able to regard the world and ourselves and all beings with love, admiration and respect.”
Right before the pandemic shut down the world two years ago, I drove with my youngest daughter to the New Hampshire village when I had spent ten years of my childhood. My family no longer lives there. An old high school flame had contacted me around that time, and I was half-thinking I might look him up some day. My daughter and I parked at the end of the street where I had walked with my siblings countless times, and then past the house where we lived and into the library when I had spent so many hours, dreaming of my life to come.
In a strange, almost sepia-toned kind of way, I felt I had been able to step into that past and see again the sweetness of it — something that seems so often lost in memory.
There’s that famous line from Tom Wolfe that you can’t ever go home again, but these days I’m wondering if that’s because you can’t ever really leave your home. I read that novel in high school, in that beloved library, a great big novel that I devoured with such enthusiasm.
Twenty-five years ago, a young woman driving a Subaru Justy ran into my VW Rabbit in a sudden snow squall, just like the one above. I wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, and somehow miraculously survived wholly intact. The young woman sat in her car, crying, in the middle of the highway, and I stood outside her car, begging her to get out. “I’ve killed you,” she wept. I kept insisting I was fine. I was wearing a blue sweater my mother had knit me, and I spread my arms out wide. “I’m alive.”
Her insurance company gave me three thousand dollars, which my husband and I used to start a sugaring business. Much later, I sold pieces of that business and bought a house in the village. I’m still carrying that squall and that woman with me. I never saw her again. I hope she’s well.
In what could be called Yet Another Phase of Life, I meet my oldest daughter at her apartment, and we take the dog for a walk up a dirt road where I’ve never been. It’s rural Vermont, and the road bends away from the river valley and winds steeply up a hillside. It’s sunny and cold, and there’s absolutely zero traffic on the road. The weather had turned warm a few days ago, rutted up in a foretaste of mud season, and now is frozen in deep ruts.
The trees end at a stone wall and a sprawl of farm fields, with an incredible four-story 19th century barn. Whoever lives here appears to be hosting a kids’ sledding party. The homeowner appears on the road, with his black dog, who coincidentally shares the same name as my daughter’s dog. We speak pleasantly for a few moments, and it’s clear not many strangers wander up this road.
My daughter snaps a photo of a dripping icicle from one of the little outbuildings.
The kids’ party slowly heads back to SUVs and station wagons, the kids red-checked, in snowsuits, carrying small white paper bags. The adults wave and smile at us.
A little later, I drive home through that river valley I’ve driven countless times now, alone or with kids or sometimes with friends. The road switchbacks through the shadowy Woodbury gulf, and shortly after that, I’m home again, feeding the wood stove and cats, then on the couch with my laptop and work, listening to the litany of reporting from the Ukraine. I remember clearly when I was 23, too, living in Vermont, and it seemed utterly normal to have strangers ask, out of curiosity and nothing more, where do you live and what’s your story?
I sweep up the stove ashes and bring in more wood. The night promises more cold. How much I’d love to put my hands on sun-warmed soil and plant a garden of sunflowers.
20 below this morning as I head out to start my car. The moon hangs in a crescent over our house, visible through the smoke from our wood fire. In January, Vermont, the days creak along with the cold.
In an evening meeting, it’s just me at the town hall, holding that physical place as an open meeting law requirement, everyone else virtual from their living rooms or home offices. From the hallway, I pick through a box of cast-offs and take a pair of Teva sandals. A kind of promise, for another season.
Twilight drags out again — not a sign of spring by any means but a hopeful sign. The light’s returning to us. After work, I rush through my outside chores, then keep walking and walking. I’ve somehow slightly twinged my knee, and so I walk with the faintest of limps, which amuses my athletic daughter no end. Why wouldn’t your body hurt? she asks me.
We live in such a crazy, mixed-up time. Some of this is just us — a high school student, a grown daughter, four jobs between us, an EMT class, a recently published book and another I’m writing, an absent father, my single motherless — and then a world where the Expected Everydayness is suddenly flipped inside out. The rules have all changed, or at least it’s worth rethinking all the rules.
No phones, ever, at dinner. But then my youngest asks why? and we call my brother. He’s working at his brewery and steps into a quiet place. My daughter and I eat calzones and talk skiing and Covid. We talk bread making. And that is really darn nice.
Some time when the river is ice ask me mistakes I have made. Ask me whether what I have done is my life. Others have come in their slow way into my thought, and some have tried to help or to hurt: ask me what difference their strongest love or hate has made.
I will listen to what you say. You and I can turn and look at the silent river and wait. We know the current is there, hidden; and there are comings and goings from miles away that hold the stillness exactly before us. What the river says, that is what I say.”