Travels into the Past

My daughter and I stop briefly in the New Hampshire town where I grew up, as part of a much longer day trip. Although Goffstown is three hours from where we live, my younger daughter had never been there. My parents have long ago moved back to New Mexico, my siblings spread out in their own adult lives.

The little village, where I haven’t been in years, is surprisingly unchanged. There’s some sprawl here and there, but not as much as I expected. A town ballfield has been converted to a cemetery, planted with saplings and marked, so far, with a single tombstone. Below that, the small pond where I learned to ice skate is still encroached by weeds and brambles, making for tricky skating but immensely interesting viewing for a child lying on the ice.

The snow has mostly melted here, and the earth is an amber-brown. Not a single shoot of spring green is visible yet. Walking around, I see the places that I loved: the gone-to-wild swathe behind our neighborhood houses — places a child could endlessly explore for years — the Ucancoonuc Mountains, the woods with huge glacial erratics surrounding the town. The library where I read out the children’s section and held my first job as a library page has been expanded. We walk through the library. Tom Wolfe famously wrote that you can’t ever go home. I can’t quibble with that wisdom, but walking through this library I loved so dearly, I step back into my childhood for a few minutes. Crammed with books, the library was both alive for me with the social chatter of the town but also ineffably fed my hungry imagination.

On this Wednesday morning, the library staff says hello and good morning to my daughter and me, and I feel, again, that same hum of life, endlessly unspooling, utterly fascinating. The shelves now stretch far up to the high ceilings, and this makes me so happy, to know the library is loved and funded.

Likewise, walking past my former house, I see a treehouse in the backyard and a tire swing from one of those enormous maples. Every summer, my father — and then his three children — painted the clapboards. Whoever lives there now does the same, I see.

I had expected to be sad, maybe nostalgic, about this town I never visit any longer. But walking around with my teenager, I see immediately that I’ve taken that town with me, that the child and teenager I was then carried that love of woods and wild, of imagination and dreaming, the same quirky family story and laughter with me.

At my parents’ former house, I see children play in that mixture of tended domesticity and the small patch of woods behind that old house. It doesn’t make me feel old; instead, I feel resilient. Driving, we listen to Coronavirus news, to the stock market careening, to the political uncertainty of this world. My daughter and I talk and talk and talk. Listening, I don’t second-guess myself, I don’t wonder what I’ve failed as a mother. I know, instead, I’ve given her a fertile, imaginative childhood, and I know it’s hers, to decide her own course, too.

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Teenagers Recite Poems

Reluctantly, my daughter drags herself to a required high school poetry recitation.

While I chat with parents I haven’t seen in ages, I see her laughing with a boy she’s known since third grade.

Adolescents and poetry — how fun! One boy gives a comedic performance of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” beginning by asking the prompter, Where am I stopping now?

Another boy’s fingers tremble as he reads a particularly beautiful poem. A shy girl comes alive.

Afterwards, talking in the dark on the short drive home from the theater, my daughter tells me about each student, how they chose their two poems, and what their voice was like. My daughter’s second poem was Frost’s Two roads diverged in a narrow road, so familiar, such a beloved poem. Nervous for her first poem, Emily Dickinson, she gained her voice with the second, her eyes on the upper balcony, her voice clear, melodious, utterly her.

Tonight the bear
comes to the orchard and, balancing
on her hind legs, dances under the apple trees,
hanging onto their boughs,
dragging their branches down to earth.
From ‘The Bear” by Susan Mitchell
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Kid Tracks

Tuesday, I’m at the Vermont Department of Libraries for an all-day workshop in the enormous, former high school — the loveliest of buildings in Barre. Built on a hill with a view of the town, every time I walk through the doors I wonder when we thought it was wiser to educate kids in ugly brick and nearly-windowless buildings instead of spacious and high-ceilinged rooms, with a sweeping staircase and polished woodwork.

How the world changes. The building is largely quiet now.

Midday, I walk on slushy sidewalks around a nearby park, a perfect square fronted by enormous ornate Victorian houses. On a snowbank, I see where a child’s mittened hand pressed ripples into the fresh white. The waves are low, and so I imagine a small child walking along in a snowsuit, thinking of not much at all but the pleasure of pressing fingertips into snow. The bank ends, and there’s no more sign of the child.

Here’s one more poem from Buhner’s book…..

People possess four things
that are no good at sea:
rudder, anchor, oars
and the fear of going down.

— Machado

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Photo by Gabriela. Hazen trails, Hardwick.

Teen Dreaming

What’s up with the lilies in Vermont this summer? Even my kids noticed they’re crazy tall — like an advancing army of flowers, about the coolest thing imaginable, in a summer that’s turning not so temperate.

Now fully a teenager, my 14-year-old is not a street-legal driver, which in rural Vermont makes a real difference. She and her friends have their eyes on the road, anxious to spread beyond this small town.

Summer to her now seems interminable; I remember that sense as a small town girl myself, as though the hot days would just keep appearing, one after another. While I’m at work, I leave her alone for long periods of time, with two cats and a list of chores and the freedom to do what she wants, within these physical confines.  I don’t know if that’s wise or not — but at the very least it gives her the space to imagine….

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Zeke, the New Friend

My 12-year-old returns from the southwest with the story of a bobcat who slept in the raingutter in her grandparents’ roof. She’s worried about the wild cat, who she thinks is too thin, unlike her own glossy, well-fed kittens.

The cat is my daughter’s main story of her faraway trip — this wild beast who seems remarkably tame and drinks from her grandmother’s bird bath.

Driving home in the dark, I’m listening to my two daughters’ disparate conversations about enchiladas and pueblo ruins and a stranger’s delayed flight. My daughter in the backseat keeps mentioning Zeke.

Who’s Zeke? I ask.

She answers, We named the bobcat Zeke.

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Playing

When I was in college, one of the houses I cleaned was for an older woman who usually had me set up a square table for mahjong. Three of her also-elderly friends arrived around that time — one hobbling in with a walker — and they were always so darn excited about this game. I laid out a wooden box of tiles, coasters, a cut glass bowl of cashews while one of the husbands made drinks.

My 12-year-old, lover of games and puzzles, studies instructions with our tiles, piecing together patterns, possibilities, in what can only be described as our unique version of play. Need four players? We’ve bastardized that, too, and make do with the two of us.

Across the table, the bridge of her nose sparkly gold from a friend’s shared paint, her eyes glow mischievously.

Do the best that you can in the place where you are, and be kind.

— Scott Nearing

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