Face From the Past

Every bird around us is singing this morning. The garden luxuriates in a clinging dew.

Unexpectedly, a woman I worked with for a number of years texts me with news she’s in town for a few days. We had last in early March, just before our world shut down.

We take a walk through the town forest and catch up on kids and work. Then, for a few minutes we stand in the parking lot, and our conversation branches a different way.

She asks about when my daughter and I were quarantining after my daughter contracted Covid. In those long days, waiting to see whether I (who wasn’t yet vaccinated) would contract Covid, too, I painted the window trim in our front porches, a blue light blue color called Innocence. While painting, I listened to hours of Derek Chauvin’s homicide trial.

So much of our lives, I muse, is simply circumstance — we’re white women, living in Vermont, with particular backgrounds and education. How much of our lives do we choose, and how smartly do we make decisions of what we do choose? It’s a question that’s been asked myriad ways in the past year, in innumerable ways.

Driving home, I keep wondering, what do we do with this now?

Members Only

Sunday afternoon, rain showers fall intermittently. In between, the sunlight sprinkles the garden — the most delicious weather for the garden. I read on the front porch couch, the cats wandering between me and my daughter.

I bought this novel to add to the library’s collection — Members Only, by Sameer Panda — after listening to the author on NPR. It’s clever, sharply written, utterly relevant, and its plot hinges on what seems to be a single slip up by the protagonist, but gradually a whole story of circumstances and choice is revealed.

This July, like my garden, I’m soaking up sunlight and rain showers — as if my daughters and I can store these lovely days in our DNA for the long winter yet to come. Why talk about my daughter’s sophomore year? Who knows what will happen in American schools this fall and winter? Like just about everyone else I know, I’ve accepted we’re not headed anywhere, anytime soon or not soon. The ubiquitousness of the disease is a strange kind of leveling field — there’s no longer the wealthier kids my daughter knows who are headed on extended vacations while I suggest to my daughter that she repaint the north side of the house.

While it’s day by day here, as the parent I’m always eyeing that future, and that, perhaps, more than anything else, brings me back to day to day, in this sweet July.



Here’s where I am, on this day buried deep in gray-and-white January: I’m in a tiny Vermont village — general store with a beer cooler and sandwiches made-to-order, post office open for its afternoon hours, volunteer fire department. It’s early afternoon, and I’m walking back to my library with an armful of mail, and no one’s around, the store empty of customers, no passing cars or granite trucks on Route 14 — no one but me and my library mail and a man on the steps of an unused church. He’s pressing his phone, and he doesn’t look at me.

I stand there, on the pavement, looking at him. I know who he is, as I’m sure he knows who I am, although we’ve never exchanged a single word between us. I know he’s been at my desk, illicitly after hours in the library, sitting with his hands on the worn wood, surrounded by stacks of books, my untidy bins of yarn and crochet hooks, the hastily piled colored scraps of paper. All around are small offerings from children — tiny notes to Miss Brett, a sketch of a piglet, an orange origami box holding a clay snowman. Miniature paper airplanes folded by 7-year-old hands.

On this January day, I keep thinking back to that sunny October afternoon, the leaves turning gold and russet. Had I known that man would be dead within months, I might have stood there a little longer and then walked over to him, said, Come in through the door and not the window.

As a writer, I’ve spent years training myself to look for junctures, to know actions matter far more than thoughts — and yet, that afternoon, I kept walking. Maybe I guessed I had all the time in the world, maybe I judged some things can slide without action and the world will work its own wonders. Maybe it was simply that the day was a fine autumn one, and I believed I had things to do.

I turned left, up the dirt road, and carried on with whatever I was thinking, and that particular day passed in the great finality of the past.

I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one. . . . Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil… There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?

— John Steinbeck, East of Eden


Johnson, Vermont