Five Aprils ago, I was looking for a house for my daughters and me. In a nearby town, on a weekday afternoon, I climbed over a chainlink fence separating an empty house from a town cemetery. The fence spikes ripped the back of my leggings. I was on my way to the library where I was working, and I wore those torn leggings for the remainder of the day. I still have those leggings. I wear them when I paint, and they’re now stained with patches of lemon yellow.
When I walked behind the house, I discovered tiny blue quill — spring flowers I didn’t know. The house was surrounded by those flowers and the promise of profuse lilacs in June.
I bought the house in 2017, although it wasn’t until the pandemic nailed down that the house began to feel truly ours. We are not a rowdy family of nine. We are a family of three and now two housecats.
The thing about spring is — turn around and it’s there, quietly, blooming in some unexpected way.
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.
We’re nearly at midwinter, the turning-around point of early February. The ice is hard; there’s snow; the light returns, an extra dipperful of it each day.
There’s that Currier & Ives vision of midwinter, nestled deep in fluffy snow that I’ve experienced in a few flashes. This year, unease eats us all around the edges, in strange kinds of ways. A shortage of kitty litter in the supermarket. What does that mean? Maybe nothing worth thinking about at all.
I buy a gallon of paint at the local hardware store. The young man who mixes it went to high school with my daughter. He puts the paint to shake, and I wait and wait in my winter coat and my knitted hat. I remember the first summer I canned so much from my garden and the endless jars I bought here — invested in, really — so many mason jars. High on a storage shelf above my head are those boxes of Ball jars, waiting for tomatoes and green beans and chutney.
He reappears, his face mostly hidden behind his mask. With a key, he opens the can of newly mixed paint. For a moment, he stands there, studying it. Then he asks if that yellow is the right color. I tell him, Yes. He hammers back on the lid, then pushes the can towards me. Good luck, he says.
As I walk out, I wonder if he means good luck with the color, or the painting, or just generally. But what’s the point, really? We all could use a little good luck.
2020 might not have been the brightest year on record, but then, say, 1944 might not have been all that rosy, either.
2020 became the year when our house finally became a home. Three years ago, I sold our former house and moved with my daughters. We moved, I realized only later, only out of desperation, to leave a bad scenario for what I hope would be a better life.
2020 showed me that this story — while uniquely ours — is also the human story, of movement and longing, of fear and hope. We’ve now claimed ownership of this house — us three females and our two house cats — through countless meals and nights and early mornings, through arguing about things petty and not-so-petty. We claimed ownership all those spring days when I leaned against the kitchen counter, listening to the governor and wondering what the heck was happening; through my daughter setting up high school in front of the wood stove, through the slow dawning when I realized my employment was no longer viable, and I would need to adapt.
I did. We did.
During this hard year, the ancient moon rose and set over our metal roof, over our neighbor boys’ sandbox, the road sloping down our hill and out into the world, our village, our sweet state of Vermont, the veritable globe.
Pandemic notwithstanding, the car I’m selling needs to be inspected. Since who the heck wants to talk through masks, I call the mechanic where I’ve left this car for a week or so. What’s a week, anyway?
The soft-spoken mechanic, who’s been undercharging me for years, quietly explains what needs to be done. Then he asks me, What do you think of that? Is that okay?
I’m leaning over the back deck railings, staring into the tangle of wild raspberry canes. I answer, What I think is it’s 2020, and I don’t like any of this.
He busts out laughing. I hate to say it, Brett, but we’re so fucked. This has only been going on since March.
I know. What’s going to happen in November?
I’m laughing so hard at this point; there’s so nothing funny about any of this — pretty much nothing funny about 2020 at all — but we keep laughing and laughing.
Then I say, It’s just a car. Fix it. I’ll sell it. That’s small potatoes.
And — it’s still Vermont July — with a creamy half-moon and endless cucumbers.
The cool breeze.
With all his strength
By now, we’ve settled into a string of days, weeks, maybe months, of my work folding into my daughter’s life at home. I work; she does whatever passes for virtual high school. I drink coffee. She eats trail mix. She’s borrowed her sister’s camera, taken a few online mini classes, and then heads out.
Among the many, many strange things about this Stay Home order is that the three of us have managed to get along so well, despite my intermittent weeping woods walks. Crabby me — with my endless laptop hours — my teen who fantasizes about driving to the California coast, and her sister, age 21, who relinquished moving out, to stay with us. As a divorced parent, I don’t take getting along as any given. In all the unexpected silver linings in all of this, there’s this interesting turning inward, back to the home, when so much in our culture has pushed us outward, away from home.
Like everything, I know this time won’t last — and there are many things about it I won’t miss — the utter uncertainty of work and money, the isolation from other adults, a public world of masks and frightened eyes. But baking potato rollswith the teen? That I’m happy to do.
Instant coffee, for example, is a well–deserved punishment for being in a hurry to reach the future.