Vermont’s summer mugginess settles in, and I lie awake at night, remembering the much stickier summers of my childhood in southern New Hampshire, a thousand days of no school and bike riding and eating salted cucumber and playing Acquire with my brother and the neighbor — the ultimate game of capitalism.
But those were likely much less than a thousand days.
My youngest texts me at work. She and her friend explore different swimming holes and go hiking. Together, as new drivers, they match route numbers with roads, beginning to master maps. I worry about her — my youngest navigating the world on her own — this place of such ineffable beauty and real badness. This is the summer she’s learning the price of a tank of gas — a transaction between labor and coin. But it’s also the summer she’s beginning to realize the phrase girls travel in packs has much more meaning than looking for the women’s room.
This is the summer of phenomenal sunsets and sunsets, of studying the sky, wondering if rain might move in.
Quit counting, I counsel myself. The hot days unwind into hotter nights, but the dawn is cool, the dew lush over my toes.
We pulled into the DMV exactly on time for my daughter’s driving test exam. I sped while driving there — lousy parenting example — but at the very last moment before we left, it seemed we needed my daughter’s social security card for her license — as if I knew where that was. So we left without it.
Driving there, I remembered the card is in her baby book, in the blue hope chest.
Fortunately, the DMV staff was cheerful on this Tuesday afternoon after the long holiday weekend. The missing card was glossed over; I produced her birth certificate; and then they asked me if I had a utility bill or a piece of mail with me. Weirdly, I had brought the electric bill that arrived in the day’s mail, so I could read it over while she took her road test.
When we finally walked through the doors to wait outside, my daughter and I exhaled an unintentional collective sigh.
For these 15 minutes or so, I had absolutely nothing else to do at all, but sit there — something that seemed unimaginable to me for so many years as a mother. I had things, of course, I brought with me to do — reading that electric bill, for instance. But for these moments, I slipped off my sandals and dug my fingers into the warm clover.
In the sunlight, I soaked up my gratefulness to live in gorgeous Vermont, one of the sweet spots on the globe. Sixteen years ago, as I was driven away from the hospital after a surgeon’s scalpel made this daughter’s life possible, I saw corn nubs emerging through the black soil. Corn! What a miracle!
Sixteen years ago, I never would have predicted that one member of our family of four would have absconded for another life, that the life I have with my daughters would evolve into a version of Elizabeth McCracken’s line, It’s a happy life, but someone is missing.
So much of this past year I often imagined myself in a twisted story, a freak Camus novel, but now here I was on the flip side. Meanwhile, my daughter channeled her life into literally her own hands. Sixteen years ago, I was still foolish enough to believe that my children’s lives could be buffered, that they could live in a make-believe world of no bad things. I was still naive enough to believe that was desirable.
My daughter passed her exam. On our way out of the DMV this time, we didn’t sigh. In the sunlight, we spoke of little things — what to cook for dinner, tomorrow’s plans — the stuff of everyday life that makes a life together.
…we barely know the world around us, even the simplest things under our feet..we have been wrong before and we will be wrong again…the true path to progress is paved not with certainty but doubt, with being “open to revision.”
My daughter drives through a thunderstorm while, in the passenger seat, I try to conjure all the terrible things she might drive through — sleet and squalls — as if my imagination can create a charm against bad luck for her.
It’s idiotic, I know, but I keep talking until she tells me I’m wasting my words. You keep using up words, she tells me, and you only have so many words to use.
I start laughing. Since when, I ask, is there a limit on words? Hello? As a writer, I believe words are limitless.
No, she says. You only have so many.
And then what? I ask.
Then, you die.
As she drives northward, the rain lessens, and eventually the pavement is dry. We wind through the loveliest landscape of apple trees bent under white blossoms, as if we’ve entered into a watercolorist’s landscape.
On these warm spring evenings, my daughters and I often walk through the town forest and circle around back to town along Bridgeman Hill Road. The woods are the solace of living in town, sprinkled now with spring beauties and red trilliums and gold trout lilies.
At the high school, we watch a young teen drive a pickup around the parking lot with his father, the truck lurching into gear as the teen finds that sweet spot between clutch and gas. As the dusk drifts down, watching this kid seems almost wildly hopeful as he turns and loops back again around that long parking lot.
This whole walk I’d been trailing my daughters, listening to the evening birdsong in the treetops, for some reason remembering the man who coached basketball for many years at the high school. He’d dug a basement for my former husband and me, many years, when we bought that first eight acres. I’d run into him a few years ago when we were both pumping gas. As the world goes in little towns, we’d each heard small strands of gossip about each other, and we caught up about what we were each doing for work.
Then I turned the key to my car and asked if he would listen to a grinding sound in my car’s engine.
Water pump, he said, and then asked if I needed help fixing it.
I thanked him and said no, I was fine. He went into his day, and I into mine. On my way to work that morning, the water pump failed.
The teen turns on the headlights. Back at my car, my daughter gets in the driver’s seat, ready to drive — not home, but somewhere, anywhere.
I make her wait, though; I don’t get in the car. I stand there for a moment longer, the night sprinkling down, the peepers singing, and that boy making a long slow turn in the parking lot. Around us, the ineffable mystery of the world widens around those two spots of light.
While waiting for my daughter to finish soccer practice, I wandered down the road and discovered three geese gliding through a wetland. I stood at the wetlands’ edge for the longest time, simply watching, as if by observing I can absorb some of their quiet certainty.
Everyday in Vermont, a few more strokes of green, a little more color.
“Empathy is more than putting yourself in someone else’s shoes; it’s using your power to fight for changes that don’t directly benefit you.”
I’m not a subscriber to so-called retail therapy, but I’m not averse to paint brightening up my patch of the world, particularly when I’ve chosen a light blue named Innocence.
My amusement mystifies my kids, and, honestly, myself, too. A better word to describe our life these days would perhaps be Koan. But try putting that on a paint can and marketing it. Who wants a little more koan, please?
Instead, I buy a used bureau from a couple who has seen far better days, or so I hope, and offer it to my daughter. From our basement, I pull out the can of yellow Little Dipper paint I used for our living room. She paints it on our back porch. I lean against the railing, looking at the trash that’s blown over the railing — junk mail, a used mask, a cardboard box I’ve used for kindling.
A sparrow sings in the box elders.
I turn around and watch her paint. What? she asks, looking over her shoulder at me.
Nothing, I lie. I reach for the quilt I washed that morning, hung over the railing, and fold it carefully.
I save my love for the smell of coffee at The Mill, the roasted near-burn of it, especially the remnant that stays later in the fibers of my coat.