The cats eye the dog with disdain. The dog considers the cats a potential meal or simple annoyance; we don’t know. The dog sneaks into the kitchen and steals the bowl of chocolate covered stars which horrifies my daughters. In that tussle, the braver cat slinks behind the wood stove and regains his favored position.
My oldest has no heat in her apartment, worries about her houseplants, has heat and then again has no heat. She texts me before five in the morning, and then my brother and I lie awake and text each other through the bedroom wall. I write, looks rough in Buffalo. I make endless pots of coffee. My brother, the brewery owner, drinks beer. We play Concentration, Chinese Checkers, Wordle.
The bathroom needs painting, and we discuss paint options, how Steam might pair with Orange Juice like our father’s study. The remains could be used in our tiny dining room.
After he’s home, he sends me three photos. In one, my youngest as a tiny girl stands in a borrowed homemade dress with mud smeared to her elbows and daubed on her face. My oldest leans down from an apple tree, sunlight in the leaves over her head. My brother pedals a tricycle. I remember the summer day I took that photo of my youngest. We had stopped by a site where her father was building a house. So much mud, so much pleasure for this child. Years later, I saw that homeowner ice skating with his young daughter. How much I wanted to know if he still lived in that house. How well had it held up for him? Instead, we exchanged chit-chat about the ice, and I never learned his story.
In the dog’s absence, the cats retake their rug and wood stove territory, protagonists in their own cat-language drama.
After the death of Ray McNeill, I scavenged a phone number for a woman who roomed in my freshman college dorm and phoned her. We hadn’t seen each other in years. She called me, years ago, after a mutual friend died unexpectedly from heart failure. Our conversation has no real point, no precise question I want answered. We agree we didn’t like each other, years ago, but can’t remember why. What was the contention and why did it matter so much?
Four degrees this morning. I’ve experienced forty below zero, but, good lord, four degrees is not compatible with prolonged human exposure. I carry the stove ashes out and stand for a moment, a few snowflakes drifting down from the darkness, illuminated in my kitchen window’s electric light. Below me in the valley, the scattered lights of the village glow: power still on here. All night, wind threw handfuls of icy snow at our windows. I lay awake listening and reading, my cat curled on my bed, wary of my visiting brother’s dog.
My youngest and I, as the initial rain set in, discovered a rainbow over the village. A fortuitous sign? All depends on how you read that, which way luck will run.
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.
I stop in at the former Hardwick Gazette building, now turned into the Civic Standard, an organization trying to figure out itself. An acquaintance and I stand at the windows in the building’s rear, staring down at the Lamoille, where ice feathers only along the edges. The water is low enough that the rocks are mighty in the rushing current.
I drink coffee and sit crosslegged on the couch, and we talk for hours. I finally vaguely inquire if we haven’t had enough of our own words, and then we go on and on again. The building itself seems marooned in the 1970s, and even in 1972 the building likely felt stranded in 1957. An old printing press hulks beside us. One of us has an Hungarian immigrant family, and our conversation inevitably weaves in the first half of the 20th century.
December in Vermont is as good a time as any to ponder the Zen koan chop wood, carry water in the pieces of my life. Sunlight on the living room floor. Kim chi and brown rice. Reading Ruth Ozeki’s The Face on the rug.
Sunday afternoon, light snow sifts down, the sweetest gift, its fresh cold sweeping away our stale human layers of mind and emotion. I carry in an armful of wood to feed our little stove for the night. The snowflakes melt in my eyebrows. Finally, I think, finally, a scattering of snow. Then I quit thinking, close my eyes, and listen to the falling snow.
“The past is weird. I mean, does it really exist ? It feels like it exists, but where is it ? And if it did exists, but doesn’t now, then where did it go ?”
Thanksgiving weekend, we pulled out the memory game. Not so long ago, my youngest and I played the game almost daily. The game was from my own childhood, and somewhere along the way came to us.
The cardboard squares are now old and well-used from hundreds of games. We turn them around and around in our hands, talking and playing, remembering and mis-remembering.
On this December 1 day of sunlight, I cut kale from the garden. The soil beneath my boots is soft, the ice melting into mud. At last night’s virtual Almanac launch, the editors spoke about the importance of print, of books you can hold in your hands, press your face into the opened pages and breathe in the scent of paper and ink.
The memory pieces all have names we’ve made up: pointy tree and leafy tree, yellow girl, blue girl, ugly quilt, the ball, the sun. Strangely, there is no moon. I brew tea. We eat leftover pumpkin pie. Here again is the question: what’s real? Answer: bird in the hand.
At night, I knit and read, diligently counting stitches two-by-two before beginning the yoke pattern. I read about witches in 18th century New England, about muddy roads and fieldstone chimneys, about hunger and families and the complicated passions of small communities. About fear and remorse.
Around my house, the wind howls, lifting pine needles and crows’ feathers. November is the season of reckoning and looking towards the new year, of town and school budgets, of placing what you have beside what you want, of financial cost-and-benefit analysis, of a personal reckoning, too.
I remain awake unreasonably late, determined to proceed carefully this time to avoid ripping apart these stitches, anticipating the pattern work, the joining of color to color. Outside, I imagine smoke rising from our chimney, dissipating into the starry sky. A mouse nibbles in the wall. I keep counting.
“Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. I’m always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system.”
— Flannery O’Connor
Last the third Vermont Almanac —one of the loveliest (and most useful) print publications — is out. The Almanac folks are virtually kicking off the third edition at Burlington’s Phoenix Books Thursday night, 7 p.m. You should come!