Spring crocusPhoto Credit : Aleksey Kutsar/Pixabay
In 2020, the arrival of spring coincided with the rise of an unprecedented American public health crisis. As it did in other nations fighting the coronavirus, life here profoundly changed — and for how long, no one knew. Throughout the pandemic year, Yankee’slongtime editor, Mel Allen, has posted regular dispatches from our home in southwestern New Hampshire. Now, as we finally begin looking forward to a post-pandemic life, Mel will continue writing “Letter from Dublin” as a column in Yankee magazine, separate from the archive below.
Rudy, our Jack Russell, comes to work with me each morning. By that I mean he walks behind me up the stairs to my second-floor office, which looks out one window to the road, the other to the river. There is a wicker basket against the wall behind my desk. He jumps into the basket, lined with a blue blanket, and in our now-year-long ritual, I cover him with an orange fleece, a pullover that once I called my own but which now and forever belongs only to him. He is 12, and his lifespan has passed the three-quarters mark. I am certain the fleece will follow him from this life to the next.
Rudy burrows deeply into his office attire this way. Most of the time only his snout shows when, now and then, I turn away from the screen to see what he is up to. Mostly different stages of sleep. He snores lightly through many of our Yankee online meetings — and occasionally I hear the excited whimpers that mean he is no doubt dreaming of summer days when he monitors the backyard for chipmunk and squirrel intruders. I do not understand how, even this past winter with the windows shut, he somehow knows when Gizmo, his mortal enemy from next door, a big shaggy white dog who outweighs him at least sixfold, ambles by — and at those times, often twice a day, Rudy’s growl starts low and erupts into a full bark as if sounding an alarm from our roost.
What he knows of this most terrible year — a year that has taken much from all of us, and everything from hundreds of thousands — is that he is now attached, branch to trunk, to the two people who live here, seemingly with the purpose of taking him on several jaunts a day (even if only to the backyard), to keep the woodstove burning for his after-office-work repose, to say “good boy” a dozen times a day.
For the first time ever, I have burned all the firewood laid aside for the fall, winter, and early spring. Four cords. When I stacked it last April, I never guessed that the weeks and months of staying home would spill past summer into fall, then winter; that I would be here, first light to last, stoking the stove. This weekend I raked the woodshed floor, gathering deep scraps of bark and wood splinters, which startled the red squirrel who rents a loft there, and who is not accustomed to my being around for more than a few minutes, as I fill my arms with wood or split kindling on the chopping block. This, however, was a more prolonged visit.
After a few days that teased us with 60 degrees, the north wind dashed in and single digits said “Remember us?” I was curious if I could keep a fire burning and heating the house with the detritus I’d swept up off the floor. No, I could not. But the effort felt right. The woodshed was bare except for empty stacks of walnut shells that lined ledges where the squirrel had picnicked. In a year where the most ordinary of things — “Please wear a mask when entering our store” — became a point of tension and, at times, worse, scraping a dirt floor bare seemed somehow imbued with meaning. A way to tidy up what had been messy.
What does it mean to anyone, I wonder, when we say “last year”? These past few days I have read numerous stories from people who are marking the one-year anniversary of a lockdown, or when a loved one fell ill. I am no different.
One year ago, I said good-bye to my two sons after an early March week in the Colorado mountains. The virus was in the news, but nobody had been reported ill in the state. Our last night we even went to a movie. We’ll meet up in July, we said, and then in the fall. We call these “Allen boys adventures” — an echo from when they were young and we climbed Monadnock and Mount Washington, stayed up into deep darkness to watch meteors. One week after I came home, New Hampshire’s governor closed businesses. Until May, he said, and that seemed like a long time. Surely, we would find a way out of this by then.
And that is when I began writing these letters. In one sense, they were meant to connect our Yankee world — even if we were scattered and working from our homes in three different states — with you, our readers. It was our way to say, We are in this strange, unexpected, scary, uncertain world together. We know you are going through what we are. I felt that what I observed in my small corner of the world might resonate with others, wherever they might be. But in truth, I realize I have been writing these for me more than anyone. Each one reminds me, This is important to remember.
There are days that seem to have no beginning or end — simply a rippling from one to another. I don’t know if you have ever stood in a doorway and felt, even if for a moment, the strange sensation of being in both past and present. This year, I have. The familiar seems to belong to another time and place. It is not unlike when I look at photos from when my boys were small — photos that line my walls.
I see Dan, his legs poking out of my backpack, in the Florida sun when he was one year old. It was October. I had just buried my mother there, and we had taken a few days afterward in Sanibel Island. I see the photo above my desk and I am back in time and place — but I am no longer that much younger dad, he is no longer the little boy just learning about his world. But there inside that frame: I am, he is.
Last week my friend and colleague Jenn Johnson cut and pasted these letters from the first one, last March, to the latest, last month, and arranged them in chronological order. Then she printed them out, 44 pages clipped together.
The first one began: The snow fell heavy and wet on Monday night, and we woke up to trees wearing a blanket of winter white. It was really quite lovely, and even though spring had arrived and I would have welcomed having grass to mow and a garden to till, there was something comforting in being out at 7 a.m. shoveling. The sheer normalcy of flinging snow off the car with my mittened hands and clearing a landing spot in the yard for Rudy, our fiery Jack Russell terrier, made the world seem, for that hour or so, quite ordinary. And for that I was grateful.
And then for many weeks, in my letters I tried to make sense of a world that seemed so foreign. My walking into the house to find Annie sewing masks on the machine her mother once used. My discovering a box of discarded Yankees from the 1930s and 1940s outside the library. Watching the town bridge be taken apart by huge machines we had not seen here before. Feeling the sense of community when a high school graduation was celebrated house by house with posted signs of encouragement. Taking more delight than I thought possible by plunging into a clear lake on a hot day. Feeling the conflict when seeing so many cars from distant states parked by mountain trails. A year compressed into 30,000 words.
This will be the last “Letter from Dublin” in this format: strung together here, spooling out present to past, letting you rewind a year, able to stop anywhere. I will continue to look around and write about what I see, but we are now in a new springtime. Many of us have signed up for a vaccine. This is a good time to unbuckle from pandemic mode, and see what comes next.
Early on, I wrote about finding a box of blank journals put out by the local historical society with the hope that residents would record their lives, and then at the end of the pandemic give the accounts to the society for future generations to know what it was like, when life seemed both so still and so turbulent. I hope the children of today will come read these journals when they are ready—maybe in 20 or 30 years, when they have families of their own. They will see what all of us know to be true, even on a hard day: In time the ground settled, and we learned what we are made of. They made it through. We made it through.
We are. We did. This is how it was, one year gone by in a small New Hampshire town where every morning a little dog followed me into my office and snuggled under covers waiting for me to get up and play.
Readers, we’d love to hear from you. If you want to share your thoughts with Mel directly, drop a note to email@example.com. Otherwise, click the link below.
Edie Clark, Yankee’s beloved “Mary’s Farm” columnist, thinks it was five years ago, maybe more, when she first blacked out for a moment and fell. After that, she would tell me every now and then that she had fallen again, but even as her friends prodded her to see a doctor, she was adamant she was fine, it was likely her chronic Lyme disease causing mischief. Then one night she fell and could not get up, and an ambulance took her to the hospital and doctors discovered she had been suffering a series of mini strokes; she would need rehabilitation and long-term care. In 2018 her beloved farm, the beautiful setting for thousands of words that detailed the simple moments in her rural world, was sold. I wrote about her final visit to the farm from her new “home,” a nearby nursing-care facility.
When that story appeared in Yankee, her fans responded. “Edie, I’ve learned so much from your writings. I have pored over your books many times now,” one wrote. “To me, you’re a teacher. The subject? Courage. It’s as simple as that.” Another reader said, “I was certain she wrote just for me.” And this, from another fan: “I feel like a bright flame in my life is being extinguished.”
Edie’s devoted readers still write to her. Their words of encouragement and thanks arrive at the Yankee office, and before Covid I would collect them and bring them to Edie’s room every few weeks. Her eyesight has been growing increasingly worse; she said I appeared to her as if through gray gauze. So I would read to her. If it was a special-occasion card, I would give it to Edie and she would hold it almost touching her face to see. When I read, Edie would laugh, grow teary, swell with pride — sometimes all within one heartfelt letter. We kept a box of the ones we knew she would want to re-read as the years passed by. This one from a reader in Litchfield, Connecticut, is one of those.
“Edie Clark raised me — not in the parental sense, as heaven knows two other stalwart Yankees had that merciless job, but in the literary sense — raising my awareness of the New England world around me through her stories. Her constancy of word saw me through teenage angst, college finals, and all that life presents, while balanced by her innate optimism and hope. Her unwavering curiosity and excitement in small observations enriched my own view of things.
“The back story is simple: My parents had subscribed to Yankee for as long as I could remember, so Edie’s stories were truly my first go-to when each issue rolled in. A cup of black tea, a deep warm armchair, and Edie’s latest discoveries fed my love of language, image, and simplicity. She proved you didn’t need to be Homer to find truth in quiet things and near perfection in the often overlooked.”
When Covid arrived, visits to Edie’s nursing-care facility stopped, and we were left with phone calls. I could not see her face, but as I read the letters she might murmur, “That is so nice,” or “I have to save that one.”
Last night we talked, and I had a small pile of envelopes from her readers to open. But first, Edie said, she wanted to tell me about an idea for a story she wanted to write for Yankee. An old friend had sent her what he called “cheaters,” simple inexpensive glasses that magnified print threefold — maybe more, she said. She was able to make out the local biweekly newspaper, and she had just read about a famous white ash tree that had come down in a winter storm at Pickity Place, a well-known eatery and gift shop about 15 miles away. The owner wanted to honor the tree by hollowing out the massive standing trunk and making it a free book exchange. “I want to get back,” she said. “I want to write stories again.”
I asked how she would do that. She spends most of her day in a recliner, and when she needs to move about, she is helped to a wheelchair. “I’ll rent a car,” she said, knowing she would not and could not. But the words still spill around her head. She is awash in stories to tell, mostly about the days before the falls. Often now, about long ago.
“I write in my head,” she said. “Lately I’ve been where I grew up in New Jersey. I grew up watching my father create his lawn, and that was a huge thing in his life. We had three acres, and two brooks ran through the land and we built a bridge across them. All summer I played by the stream and looked for frogs. It was so lovely. He built a stable for my donkey. I was four or five. I helped put up the fence. Now I get to go back and walk on those paths.”
Not long ago Edie sent to friends a letter she had dictated, a voice from a tiny room beyond Mary’s Farm.
“I’m grateful for everything I find here…. There is forecasted to be a large snowstorm tonight, and I find myself thinking about what I would be doing if I were home. I would be filling jugs of water in anticipation of a power outage and making sure my shovel was ready for the morning. I would be getting out candles from the drawer in the dining room. And I would be sure that all the wood boxes were filled for my many stoves. And I know that most of my friends would be saying something along the lines of ‘Thank God I don’t have to do that anymore,’ but not me. I miss it very much. Just thinking about it is somehow oddly satisfying. I imagine that my beautiful stoves right now are cold and no one is feeding them any fuel. Nostalgic thoughts like that keep me very busy.
“I’ve been in and out of lockdown, isolation, and quarantine since March. If nothing else it has been interesting. I wish I could write because I would have written all kinds of things about this year. It has not been as painful as I would have thought. My little room I have figured is roughly 8’ by 16’. In it I have a bed with a pump that continually brings air into the mattress and two bureaus and a wide-screen TV which I could not do without. And a bookcase where I store everything you could think of. I have a large window that looks out on the parking lot, alas, not the fields or the mountain. Snowstorms come and go without my notice. I wish I could shovel it. I miss that little burst of activity that would have broken up my little pocket of isolation here.
“I miss everything: trips to town for groceries and daily trips to the post office. Most of all I miss my wood stoves, the cheerful penetrating heat that I came to rely on for comfort. In summer I miss my porch and the cooling afternoon breezes. And I miss my dog, Harriet. Most of all I miss my friends. I apologize to all of you who have been so kind in sending me cards and letters. These have been a daily joy. I long for visits….”
The best Christmas gift that Annie and I gave each other is the show that begins every morning outside the windows facing the river, and does not end until just before dark. Two birdfeeders filled with seeds, and a third with suet, have convinced every cardinal, blue jay, nuthatch, tufted titmouse, chickadee, woodpecker, and others (whose names I am still searching for) that this is the neighborhood takeout banquet. They have become the loveliest scenery imaginable.
By the dozens they perch on the rose bush or the trees, and then, by some secret messaging known only to them, they flutter to the feeders, each in turn, peck furiously, and fly off just as another wings in. There is a chair by the window, and I sit and watch as the swirl of wings and frantic beaks and bright colors come and go, the birds somehow never intruding on each other, understanding, in the way that wild things do, that if they get along during the hard days of winter there will be enough for all.
On Tuesday, January 5, we at Yankee had “laydown” for our March/April issue. This is when ads are placed on pages, and we get to see exactly what the readers will see; it is one of the last steps before the pages leave Dublin on their way to the printer. During this plague year, we all have had to rethink what is “normal,” and laydown was no different. We watched the pages turn on our screens, some of us in the Dublin office, some not. And then we got ready to turn our attention to the coming issue.
The next day, Annie and I took a short walk with Rudy to a pretty cemetery about a half mile from our house. There is an upper and lower section, both bordered by trees, and gentle rises here and there, and I see why the townspeople chose to make this their final resting spot. The headstones span the 19th century to today, and as we walk I notice familiar names that I also see on buildings and street signs in town. We rarely come across other people, and we walk upper to lower and back in about half an hour. We were returning home when, at 2:34 p.m., a message popped into my phone from a colleague: How are we supposed to get work done? I did not know what she meant. And then a few minutes later when I turned on the news, I did.
The day melted into night and into the deep dark of early morning, and then the next day and the next. Even the weekend did not offer respite from the grim news of Wednesday, with warnings that the unrest was not about to end. I was in my Yankee office on September 11, 2001, and I was reading at my desk when a colleague rushed in and announced about the planes. I remember how the quiet and disbelief seemed to stay in our offices for days. This was the first time since then that felt the same.
Once I was on a flight to Washington, D.C., that experienced trouble. The pilot announced there would be extreme turbulence ahead. He said, “Strap in.” Then the plane shook and did that deep, sudden fall that seems to send your belly to your knees. Then oxygen masks dropped down. Someone behind me let out a cry. In that situation, there is an instinct to panic, yet there is no flight-or-fight response possible. There is nowhere to go. You know the pilot is using all his expertise to steady the dive. You know that sometimes that is not enough, because when it is not, we read about it. What you have, all you have, is hope and trust, and maybe prayer, that things will be OK.
My son Dan’s longtime girlfriend works inside a state capitol, and today came an FBI warning that armed marchers could descend on all 50 state capitols in the next week. Whether it happens or not, we won’t know for another few days. And if it doesn’t happen now, will it a week later? Or two? Sitting here in my cozy wood heated home, I can do nothing to change the course of what lies ahead any more than I could bring that plane out of its dive. But I can wrench myself from the turbulence and look around. Find out what I can do.
I can finally take down the 2020 calendar from the refrigerator and put up the 2021 one, using souvenir magnets we bring back from trips. Before I tucked last year’s version into an obscure shelf, I turned the pages. Those little boxes with short notes embedded within told a story in miniature — a year interrupted as suddenly as if it had been erased by something unfathomable. Which of course it had.
I see that on January 5, I flew to Utah to see my sons, and flew home on January 11. A few days later, Annie and I went to New York City, where I was a judge for the National Magazine Awards. Before returning home, we saw the glorious musical Hadestown, written by Anaïs Mitchell, the Vermont songwriter and performer who had brought her creation from obscure Green Mountain stages to Broadway.
On February 11, we joined neighbors who crowded into a small room in Town Hall to plead with officials to help with flooding on our street caused by ill-designed storm drains. That weekend, the calendar reminds me, Annie joined an animal tracking workshop.
On March 5, I flew to Colorado to again see my sons, returning home on March 12. And then the words, the plans written confidently in ink, they just stopped.
We retreated from offices, from outings. The future became this strange place that we did not know or understand. Nothing was as it was. We started living life at low throttle.
But my colleagues figured out how to keep making a magazine and a website and even a television show. A virus invaded every village, town, and city in the country, and still medical workers possessed the will to help many survive even as they lost more patients than they had ever before. As I write this, my mother-in-law is scheduled for a vaccine in a few days, a vaccine that was created faster than any in history. Distribution is proving harder than anyone knew, yet today I read that football stadiums and baseball fields will soon be staging arenas for thousands.
So, like most of us, I am holding my breath, watching birds survive cold and snow and ice by figuring out a way to get along. And I am waiting for the voice of calm and reason to bring us out of the dive, to say, “OK folks, I know it was a scare. Be careful, but you can now move around the cabin.”
The first significant snowstorm of winter (I know the solstice is on December 21, but when I light the woodstove by 7 a.m. and darkness settles by 4:30, that to me is winter) fell on the first weekend of December. We had eight inches here in Peterborough and double that in the northern mountains. Saturday night, the lights in the house flickered a few times, nothing more — but when I awoke and checked the news, I learned that thousands had lost power, not only in New Hampshire but throughout the region. The snow was wet and heavy, tinged with ice that clung to branches and broke limbs off trees. We have a crabapple tree in the front yard, and slender ribbons of ice built up on the twigs.
It is the irony of snow mixed with ice that it has the capacity to create exquisite beauty as well as damage. I have never seen more unforgettable landscapes — like visions from another planet — than during the ice storms of 1998 and 2008. We lost power for days; some people, even weeks. Roads were impassable, with trees that bent and then broke beneath the weight. Yet we all surveyed the wreckage with cameras, to capture the sun glinting off the trees wearing that beautiful and sometimes deadly blanket of ice.
Sunday morning I shoveled the driveway, and the wet snow made it feel much deeper than it was. Every shovelful I carried from sidewalk to the wall by the garage, where I sent it thudding to the yard below, seemed heavier than the last. In the afternoon we drove to Dublin and walked Rudy around the lake where we had enjoyed so many swims last summer. The trees along the shore shimmered in the sun, and the lake was calm. In summer, cars often lined both sides of the road, but now we were alone and it was quiet, broken only by Rudy’s barking to alert us that workers had arrived in a utility truck and were eyeing bent trees branches near some power lines. In the subdued winter light, it was like seeing a different lake.
Around 7 that night we drove to Putnam Park in the center of Peterborough. I had read in the local paper that a special Christmas display had been built there, but I did not expect what we came upon: a magical wonderland with multitudes of lanterns and luminarias and twinkling lights, and what looked like a lighted New England village for tiny woodland creatures. Trees and bushes in the park were draped with lighted stars, and everywhere you looked there were miniature buildings — houses, church, town hall — each shining against the dark. Even the hill on the far edge of the park was lit with tiny stars, and if you’ve ever been in a valley town and looked at the distant glow of mountain houses, that is what it was it looked like, in this scaled-down world.
As we got ready to leave, I saw Terry Reeves with a few other women standing, masked and distanced, by the stone wall along the street (and even here there was light: dozens of mason jars, each holding a candle, lining the wall). This display was their inspiration and creation, and now the three-night show was ending in a few minutes and the lanterns and stars and all those little houses would go dark and be packed up. Terry is one of those people who arrive in a small town from away — in her case, the deep South — and over time become so ingrained in town events and institutions, from museums to public gardens to art fairs, that it is hard to imagine a time when she was not here. And if she ever left, it would at first be as if the river had dried up.
I called Terry later to find out how this lighted display had come to be. As we talked, I learned a story about the best of us in these last days of 2020, when so often we have felt caught in a fog that won’t clear. It goes like this:
Terry was one of the organizers of a Christmas lantern walk that for the past two years had brought people together to stroll through town carrying lanterns. A new tradition was beginning. But soon after last year’s stroll, we started hearing news about a mysterious illness too distant to be much concerned about, and then within a few weeks all that changed. This year, there could be no third lantern stroll.
“I said, ‘OK, what can we do?’” Terry told me. “People were in serious need of magic and light and joy.”
The plan would be to turn the park into an art installation, spread the audience out over three nights, and for a little while bring a sense of normalcy to us all. Terry knows a lot of people, and many are artists and folks who like working with their hands and, just as important, making things happen. She wrote to them, saying, “I know you will love doing this.” A team of about 15 people signed on; the first meeting happened in late September. Terry and her husband, David, turned their two-car garage into a maker space, where four people at a time could stake out a corner and help build a lantern village. “David and I couldn’t use our garage for months,” she said. “But people love making light.”
The garage filled with scrap wood, coffee filters, glue, papier-mâché, corrugated plastic, and cardboard, and day by day the lantern village emerged: cottages with doors and windows and even tiny pets inside. In their own quiet, head-down way, this group of people was saying, Here is what we can still do. We can make beauty in the midst of darkness, we can make everyone feel a little less alone, we can make a village of lights grow in a little park, a Christmas miracle if ever there was one.
More than two weeks have passed since we waited in the chill to vote, standing in a line whose calm and quiet was all the more noticeable after warnings about the disruption that might happen everywhere. We did not know how deep the disruption would be after the votes were counted, and how it would still be stirring all these days later, one of those storm systems that refuses to blow out to sea.
And in just this blink of time we have seen virus numbers that a few months ago would have seemed inconceivable — even here in New Hampshire, a place that until now has suffered less than almost anywhere else in the country. Thanksgiving awaits, and health officials are warning of how easily the virus will spread when friends and family get together, and wine and conversation flow. My colleagues do not know how long their children’s schools will continue having in-person classes, and unlike when schools closed last spring, the cold will make things tougher on everyone. Some days, it all seems more than we can handle.
We found a glimmer of hope this week in news of vaccines; experts say there is light ahead, if only we can endure a few more months, perhaps a bit longer. The child that lives in all of us wants to hear “We promise,” but that is not how cautious experts talk. Every morning, I wake up and hold my breath as I scroll through the news, aware that everything we once knew as normal can change in an overnight tweet, and that our task is to hang on and wait.
With all this going on, a lone red apple clinging to its branch stopped me during our walk a few days ago. The tree stood on a slight knoll in Boccelli Garden, a tidy patch of town green that shoulders a stone wall on Grove Street in Peterborough, across the street from the post office, and a bigger park overlooking the Nubanusit River. Rudy often holds a tennis ball in his mouth during our walks, and sometimes Annie and I stop by the garden, wrestle the ball free, and toss it for him to chase as it bounces along the grass. Last month, the tree in the garden was filled with apples, and as the days passed they fell in a pile at the base of the trunk. One day Annie gathered one, and when she bit into it, she smiled. It was juicy and firm, and we said we would bring a bag the next day. But we never did, and later I saw the apples had been swept into a pile by the wall. Now the tree was November bare … except for one apple that held on and caught my eye against the blue sky.
I said something about the apple symbolizing something — I wasn’t sure what exactly, tenacity perhaps — or maybe it was nothing more than an unknowable quirk of nature. When we walked home, Annie stopped by a house a few doors down from us. A woman stood outside, and Annie asked her what kind of apple tree her grandfather had planted years before — meaning the same tree that had caught my eye. “Macintosh,” she said.
Annie has lived in Rome and San Francisco and Washington, D.C., but she returned to where she grew up, and again I realized that where I see buildings and shops and streets, she sees stories. I knew the name of the tiny park was Boccelli Garden because of a plaque placed in a corner, but Annie knew about the family, and that our neighbor’s grandfather Michael had come long ago from Italy and had been a cobbler. Furthermore, his cobbler shop had been in a little building on School Street that Annie’s parents had bought when she was a child, and she remembers the cobbler’s bench that sat in the back room. Her parents had spruced up the building and shingled it, and people say it looks as if it had been dropped into downtown from the Cape. A women’s clothing store called Alice Blue is in there now, and the little building has been in Annie’s family for 60 years. She tells me about the long list of small businesses that have passed through, a small-town genealogy that only those with roots here will know.
Most days, we cross the makeshift pedestrian bridge into town as deep construction whirs beneath us and bulldozers dig craters and tons of steel are laid in place for a new bridge, and people, mostly older, stand transfixed at the railing, staring at the commotion. One man with a white beard is there nearly every day, and I wonder who he is and Annie tells me, and that his son was a policeman in a nearby town. She tells me stories about working in the old hardware store that is no longer in business, and about hearing about the trains that once rumbled through town (they stopped just two years before she was born).
The wood man brought another truckload to our house on Saturday, and he always carries the local news too. He said that a house in a nearby village went on the market for $290,00 and “it sold in two days,” his voice incredulous. “And they paid $310,000. And I’m telling you, it’s a dump.” He said the people who bought it live on Boston’s South Shore. We hear this all the time now, about the migration to towns like this, not only in New Hampshire, but in Maine and Vermont, people looking for a simpler life, not unlike what happened in the ’60s and ’70s, when back-to-the-landers put down roots.
Though I have lived here more than 40 years, the stories I know are mostly what I have heard, like a relative once removed. But now I know a new one, since I stopped to wonder about an apple that refused to fall. I like to think that in the spring, I’ll be sitting on the bench in Boccelli Garden — which will be lovely, thanks to the volunteers who care for it — and people who are new to town will stop by. The apple tree will be in bloom. I will tell them about a young man who came from Italy when he was 28, worked as a gardener for local families, and in time sent for his wife. They not only raised a family but also boarded many Italian laborers in the enormous 19th-century house that once stood where we are now.
He was the town cobbler, I will say. His shop was two blocks away. He planted this apple tree long ago. “Macintosh,” I will say, and they are still good to eat.
I hope that when I look back on these final October days, I will remember the leaves that held on to the oldest maple in town, which stands in front of the bank, and the carpet of red that covered the grass beneath its branches. I want to remember the black walnuts that drop with a thud in our backyard (when I rake, I am always waiting for the startling flick of pain when a falling walnut finds me en route). That walnut tree is bare now, its fruit and leaves strewn across the ground near the woodpile. The walnuts are green and look like limes; their scent is akin to citrus, and when we scoop them by the dozens to take to the composting heap at the recycling center, our hands are fragrant with walnut. The small stone wall that separates our backyard from the church parking lot next door is littered with broken shells, the aftermath of red squirrel picnics, as if the animals had been shelling peanuts at a ballgame. Every day we sweep the wall, cleaning up after our guests. The squirrels seem to take it as an invitation to return.
I want to remember the annual task of raking leaves into tall piles, then gathering armfuls into tall brown bags that we toss, along with the walnuts, into the compost mountain; by late spring those leaves and nuts will be black soil to feed new plantings. For me, raking is a quiet exercise — a few steps forward, a few back. I think about things when I rake. Each time I scrape the tines across the grass, I drag dozens of acorns along with the leaves. For the chipmunks that dart across the yard and tease Rudy with their chittering, the yard provides takeout service. Some mornings I enter the woodshed to find a feast of acorns tucked between pieces of wood, hidden in corners, filling their pantry against the coming cold. The oak that grew the acorns still has a third of its leaves. We have filled at least 20 of those brown bags, and more await. Some years ago for a Yankee story we asked a forester to estimate how many leaves an oak held. He said 100,000, maybe more. I figure I still have about 30,000 to rake and gather while Annie puts the gardens to bed, giving the phlox their winter buzz cut.
I want to remember the crimson burst of the Japanese maples we see on our walks through town and up the hill where the pretty houses line the quiet street. The town has its own Facebook page, and Annie says people have been posting their Japanese maples, a message of brightness sent to neighbors to ward off the coming days of lessening light.
There are many things I hope to remember from these last days before November, before we turn back the clocks, before the too-early dark, as if we don’t already have enough on us. In less than a week there will be an election, and I cannot remember any in my lifetime — and I doubt in the lifetime of anyone today — that our nation has anticipated with more anxiety, even dread. We are all jittery, living on edge, not knowing what awaits. We fear a brewing storm, one we may not be able to board our windows against. I read the other day that dentists are seeing an epidemic of cracked teeth. So many of us grinding our teeth in fitful sleep, waiting for something, anything, to give us hope that we will find our way to a semblance of normal.
The agitation felt across the country seems distant, and yet also near. Voting in this town until now has always felt communal, and I wonder if the national mood will infect us too. In Peterborough we vote in the former armory, now the town community center. On either side of the walkway will be people, many of whom we know, holding signs. We nod, say hello, enter. We follow an arrow that leads you to a row of tables, and we stand in line according to the alphabet. I have never waited more than 10 minutes. Often I will know the person who looks at my driver’s license, checks my name on the roll, then hands me a ballot and pen. I go to a narrow voting booth, fill in spaces beside the names of those I hope will lead us, then walk a few steps to where Phil Runyon watches me deliver the ballot into a machine that whisks it away. He is a former circuit court judge and has practiced law in town for over 45 years. He smiles and thanks each person when they insert the ballot and makes sure they pick up an “I Voted” button. Then we follow the signs out the door, past the people holding signs, past the people waiting to enter.
Each day I read about people standing in line to vote for hours, about tens of thousands of people unsure if their ballot will even be counted. It seems as if we are living one reality here in this small town, and just beyond is this roiled fragile elsewhere. And knowing that the elsewhere is so close is what makes me jittery and agitated, fearful for what may await us, and no doubt why a piece of tooth chipped off last week.
For seven years, I shared a view with Mark Twain. I lived in a rental apartment on the 19th-century estate of a Boston publisher whose house and meadow here looked out to the east flank of Mount Monadnock. Like many writers and artists, Twain was drawn to Dublin’s pastoral nature, and in 1906 he spent several months on this same estate. Hanging on a wall inside the main house was a photo of the great writer, dressed all in white, taking his leisure in a rocking chair on the porch, cigar in hand, looking out across the grass to the mountain beyond. The owner and his family would sometimes be gone for days at a time, and now and then I would sit alone on the porch, gazing at the exact view that Twain had once described:
From the base of the long slant of the mountain, the valley spreads away to the circling frame of hills, and beyond the frame of the billowy sweep of remote great ranges rise to view and flow, fold upon fold, wave upon wave, soft and blue and unworldly….
At night, the howling of coyotes echoed across the hills and valley, and my dog Scout would prowl restlessly from room to room. When I let him outside at night, I went too. The sky there was the darkest I have known, and when meteor showers came along, I spread blankets on the knoll by the house and my two boys and Scout and I would lie on our backs, and the only sounds were the coyotes as the bolts of light streaked through the sky.
If we had lived here among the farmers long ago, the howling we heard would not have been coyotes but wolves. They preyed on the livestock of the farmers, who in the 1820s set the mountain ablaze to rout them from their dens. The wolves fled, and the mountain was left forever barren across its high slopes — bad for wolves, but good for hikers. The tree line ends quickly on the ascent, which means that within an hour’s hike, expansive views of lakes and villages and valleys accompany each step across the cairn-strewn, bouldery paths leading to the 3,165-foot summit.
This bald peak, people say, is the only place where you can see all six New England states at one time. I have climbed the mountain alone and with friends and with my sons many times, however, and I have never had that experience. On clear days, I am certain I have seen the outline of Mount Washington, and once I might have convinced myself there was a glint of sun reflecting off the John Hancock building in Boston. Maine? Connecticut? I do not know what Rhode Island would look like, actually. The smallest state — maybe a speck of high ground hoping to be included?
Thoreau and Emerson and Whittier wrote about Monadnock long before Twain, and their words enticed droves of men and women from Boston and Hartford and New York to the villages nearby. The mountain became so famous it gave its name to the region where I now live; when asked where we are from, many of us here in the towns and villages that look out to it simply respond “the Monadnock Region,” the way I imagine someone might say “Tuscany.”
Supposedly it is the most- or second-most-climbed mountain on earth. I’ve read that five million people have climbed this modest peak. Some 125,000 hikers are said to visit annually, and in past years an estimated five percent of them arrive during the same time, the long Columbus Day weekend, to take in the peak foliage. For a day or two, those several thousand hikers strewn across the summit, taking photos and picnicking, would make Monadnock one of the most populous places in the region. But that was before Covid, and, like everything else, changes had to be made.
This past Columbus Day weekend did its best to let us forget, if only for a little while, how many of the simple pleasures we’ve lost. The sky was blue, clouds were light, temperatures were in the 50s and low 60s. If you wanted perfect conditions for climbing a mountain, this came close. I have been on Monadnock on previous Columbus Day weekends and seen the summit as crowded as a summer beach, but this year park rangers set a limit of 250 cars for the parking lot at the main entrance, where the most popular trails begin. And for the first time I can recall, the dozens of cars parked along the country roads near the side trails had tickets on their windshields. The rangers wanted to keep the numbers down for safety; the hikers were too eager for views and freedom to be easily deterred.
Annie and I did not add to the crowds this year. Instead, we drove the roads circling Monadnock’s craggy slopes, and now and then we’d pull over, with the shadow of the mountain looming close by, and I would look through binoculars to see how many people might be up at the top, scattered across the granite.
One of my Yankee colleagues, Ian, was on the White Dot Trail by 7 a.m. Sunday. He was joined by photographer Corey Hendrickson, and together they spent hours on the summit talking with people who had reached the top. There were visitors from many places, of all ages and backgrounds, and when I looked at the photos that came back from their day, I saw what must have been hundreds of people looking out to the magnificent views I have seen many times. It doesn’t matter if you see six states or far-off peaks; there are peaceful villages, steepled churches, farms, lakes, houses. As the hikers gazed out from that mountaintop, some bundled against a fall wind, others in shorts, they must have felt life was back in sync. They must have wanted to stay there as long as possible, until the fading light made them head back down.
“The slow fire spreads from the blazing maples to the gold of the birches on our high slopes. The threat of winter is not yet upon the land, but rather a sense of awakening from the sultry bondage of summer—and the Red Gods call….” —From “October” by Ben Rice, Old Farmer’s Almanac 1945
This past Sunday, I was supposed to be in Hawaii to see my son Dan for his 35th birthday. Instead, I drove to Vermont with Annie (Rudy perched happily on her lap) in search of a gift. Dan first went west to attend college in California, then kept going, across the Pacific. Over the past decade I have gone four times to Hawaii, and plans for the fifth visit were made early last winter, before a mysterious illness on the other side of the world became our own.
Dan was born the day that Hurricane Gloria howled through southern New England, drenching us on its way north and leaving two million people without power. The windows of the hospital here in Peterborough were boarded up, and no light peeked through during my wife’s 20-plus hours of labor. (A nurse wondered if maybe the baby knew a hurricane was afoot.) I crushed ice into nuggets and drizzled honey over them to keep us going, and then in the early afternoon, Dan’s first cries signaled the storm inside the room had ended. A week or two later I put him in the tiny pack I wore around my chest and walked through the leafy neighborhoods of Keene, where we lived, and picked up maple leaves and held them against his face. This is fall, I said. You will never see it like this anywhere else. You will never forget it.
The drought has caused the trees here in Peterborough to turn early by at least 10 days, and when we walked Rudy through the park on Sunday morning, they were so stunningly scarlet and yellow it was as if you could breathe the color. In fall we use active verbs to describe what I like to call New England’s own Mardi Gras. We say the foliage explodes, erupts, pops, bursts, blazes — and sometimes it is hyperbole, but not now. On this last weekend of September, the trees in town are all dressed up for the ball.
Annie asked if I was hearing how the wind blew through the leaves — the rustling, rippling of leaves shaking against branches. “It’s a time of good-byes,” she said. “All this color means they will soon fall, and you won’t hear the wind blowing through them anymore.” And it’s true. Where summer lingers and winter feels endless, brevity is the timeless paradox of autumn. We love it, then it disappears. The leaves change color seemingly overnight, then after a week or two you see a few leaves fall, then some more, and then a cascade, falling in a slow twirling dance, and the pavement and yards are soon draped in leaves, already browning at the edge, and when the wind blows through the bare branches, it simply passes through, nearly soundless. We know this is also a time of good-bye to long hours of light, and we wish it could just slow down.
Our drive took us west on 101 through Dublin, past the Yankee offices, past lake and mountain, and after a few curves we came to a pull-off by a reservoir. Outside a car with New York plates stood a woman holding a small child; from across the road her husband bounded over, camera in hand. “It’s spectacular,” he said. I told him it was early because of the dryness, and that usually it doesn’t look like this until Columbus Day weekend. He shook his head in amazement. “It’s spectacular,” he said again. A mile or so later, we pulled over again to photograph cows grazing in a field banked by a hillside of color, and after a minute the New York couple stopped here too. Annie crossed the road with her camera, and the man followed — strangers on the same mission.
But as we drove west just a few more miles to Keene, we saw the green still holding on, the trees not ready to yield to the shorter days, the colder nights. It was proof once more that there’s no one perfect time to find “peak” color. It’s not an elusive animal that you can catch only in the right place in the right time. The “right time” was only 10 minutes behind us, and would likely not be here for another week, maybe longer.
We continued on to Vermont, my first time leaving New Hampshire since March. It was still more green than not until we reached Brattleboro and turned down Black Mountain Road and then Kipling Drive on the way to the apple orchards at Scott Farm in Dummerston. The drive is only a few miles, but we could have taken an hour, just stopping to look at the pastures flowing to hillsides full of color, with just a tempering of green for contrast. The air was warm; it was that time when two seasons converge. As we reached the farm, we saw people carrying bags and walking out into the orchard to pick apples, and everything seemed almost normal, except they wore masks.
We had come not to pluck from the orchard, where only a few of Scott Farm’s famous heirloom apple trees are available to the public, but from the rows of bins at the open-air stand. More than 100 varieties of heirloom apples are cultivated here, and the names on the bins seemed to belong in a secret woods, or in a Harry Potter novel: Allington Pippin, Ananas Reinette, Ashmead’s Kernel, Duchess of Oldenburg. We filled three bags, and then I bought two half gallons of apple cider, a blend of maybe a dozen or so of these apples. (A week earlier, a writer from Boston.com had interviewed me and asked what was my favorite taste of New England. I guess he expected me to say lobster roll, or fried clams, or maybe even whoopie pies. I did not hesitate: “The heirloom cider from Scott Farm,” I said.) We sat outside at a picnic table, I unscrewed the cap on the glass jar, and we drank.
We headed home then, and when we reached Peterborough we walked Rudy through the park next to Depot Square, his reward for waiting patiently in the car at the orchard, with only a few bursts of barking to scold us. I had the gifts to express-mail to Dan — a quart of maple syrup and a great hunk of Vermont cheddar — and here, at a single brilliant red maple by the river, I found one for me. It was a memory of a walk after a storm when I carried my son against my chest and showed him the leaves and said, You will never see it like this anywhere else. You will never forget it.
It goes so fast, and one day becomes 35 years. Remember to look at the leaves while they hold on.
“What difference would it make, would my teaching make, in their grown-up lives?” —James Herndon, the late writer and educator, in his book The Way It Spozed to Be
I am writing this on Tuesday, the first day of school here in the Monadnock Region, and though this is also town voting day, I hear little talk about that, and much about school. To be or not to be. That question seems to have a different answer every day.
We have three public schools: a high school, a middle school, and an elementary school. Yesterday Annie and I strolled the elementary school grounds, where taut white tents sprawled across the front and back lawns and spilled onto the soccer field, as if a circus had come to roost. Up the road from our house, dozens more tents splay across the upper school playing fields, now quieted by the virus. Most of these, too, are white, with a few pink tents here and there.
At the elementary school, teachers have decorated some tents with artwork and “Welcome Back” signs, their goodwill efforts to make this strangest of back-to-school weeks as normal as possible. We can see that our schools are opting for ingenuity and optimism, hoping for the best for as long as they can. In this new territory, everyone is a stranger with many questions and few answers. So all around us you can almost feel the collective holding of breath.
Most of us likely have a handful of first school days that we remember. My own will stay with me until my last day. They were when I stood at the door of a fourth-grade classroom during the three years I taught in Gorham, Maine — nervous, curious, hopeful that maybe what happened inside for the next year would make a difference in a life.
I was 24 years old when I taught my first class, and the only experience I brought was that once I had been 10 years old. I was hired because the district wanted a man for a class that had frustrated every teacher in each successive grade. I had just returned from the Peace Corps, and the thinking seemed to be that if I could survive living in an equatorial mountain town, I could tame 27 country kids with attitudes.
I taught 80 children during those three years, and today they are all on the far side of 50. Once a year, with a mix of curiosity and nostalgia, I Google their names. Jennifer, painfully introspective as a child, owns her own marketing firm in California; Petra, who once sat beside me crying because she thought nobody liked her, has been featured in TheNew York Times for her home in the tower of one of Seattle’s tallest buildings; Brad, the best athlete in the class, has retired as chief executive of one of the largest grocery store chains in the Northeast; Jon, whose father built a cozy “cabin” inside the schoolroom where children could escape to draw or read, lives on a farm near the Maine coast and posts lovely photos of his produce on Instagram.
Occasionally I get the urge to see my former students one more time, because I once knew them when they were young, and I never forgot them. And maybe, I want to know if they remember too.
Back then, their stories sometimes kept me awake at night.
One day, several months after the year had started, there was a knock on the classroom door. A woman stood there, and beside her a boy. She said he was from a town 30 miles south and now he had come to live with a foster family. He was short, sandy-haired, unsmiling. He said his name was Faron. The class looked on in silence, aware there might now be a shift in the class dynamic.
I asked him to write his name on the blackboard. He stood still, unmoving. I thought he was shy and said I’d walk with him to the board. He did not move. He motioned for me. I leaned down and he whispered, “I don’t know how.”
This was when instruction still was done largely in groups separated by ability, especially in reading. I had the first “open classroom” in the district, and when I met with each group, the others worked on personal projects or read in the cabin. Faron and I became a group of two, and each day we sat together “reading” stories I wrote for him. They were only five to ten pages long, written with ink on white paper, stapled together, and they came with bold titles in black magic marker. Faron flew with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on Apollo 11, and as Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface, so, too, did Faron. He fought through frigid winds and ice-choked waterways to plant a flag at the North Pole with Admiral Robert E. Peary. He stood with Edmund Hillary on top of Everest. He set sail from Plymouth, England, aboard the Mayflower. He was a scout with Lewis and Clark. He found his way to this little Maine town where he was brave enough to tell me what he did not know.
I don’t know whether he learned to read that year or whether, as I suspected, he memorized the stories and the words flowed. Soon he was reading his stories aloud to a larger group, and a few months later the school year ended, and Faron disappeared from my life.
Not long ago, I typed his name into Google. What I found was a grave marker with his name and, beneath it, the year 2002. He had not yet reached 40. I looked deeper and discovered he had died on a street in Portland. Maybe he kept those stories for a while. Maybe not. Teachers rarely change lives, but sometimes — if they are lucky — they can change a few months here and there, when even a little boy with so much stacked against him can be a hero, when he reads aloud about the night he walked on the moon.
Even though this summer continues to be a gift of lake swims, and Annie’s garden is erupting with tomatoes sweeter than any I have known, today I am thinking about mortality. Every day numbers fill our screens, and always the numbers increase, sometimes by thousands. I am careful, I am masked and socially distanced and well scrubbed — but I have no illusions. I read that 70 percent of those who do not survive the coronavirus are baby boomers, or older. In early March, before the severity of the crisis had sunk in, a young colleague joked that millennials had given the virus a nickname: “boomer remover.” By late March, the jokes had stopped.
So for me it is time to consider what if? My two sons live far away, and of all the legacies I could pass on to them, the one I do not want is to make them return home to paw through the sediment of my life. I am not being morbid — simply practical, with a dash of compassion. I grew up with two parents, a brother, and a sister. I alone remain. My sister left a husband and a grown son to do the sifting and storing and cutting loose, but it became my task to deal with what my mother and father and brother left behind. I had to decide what to keep, what to give away, what to drive to some obscure place that took things that no longer belonged to a home. I had to pretend to not know that some of it would likely be crushed in a dumpster. I do not want that burden to be a legacy I leave.
Spurred by those thoughts this past weekend, I ventured to a place I had been too timid to visit for so many months I could no longer recall my last time. A place I knew could disrupt my life for weeks, even months, could even haunt me a bit while I slept. A place I have avoided because I know that beyond its door lies my personal black hole.
I am talking about my storage unit. For years I have paid $105 every month for a sturdy 10-by-10-foot metal and concrete square that sits about two miles north of where I live, among hundreds of other similar units in one of those storage neighborhoods that take root on otherwise barren land. This cold, cell-like structure holds stuff that once filled the lives of my parents and my brother. After my former wife, Carole, a professional photographer for many years, died, I emptied thousands of photos from her file cabinets into boxes and brought them here too, where they all teeter rather haphazardly. When our sons, Dan and Josh, moved away and sold their mother’s house, their collections and video games and mementoes from proms and sports — all this squeezed into nooks and crannies too. And then we come to the crux of the matter, and why I knew the time had arrived for me to take action: my own stuff.
I keep things. I am not a “hoarder,” because that implies a sort of aberration. I do not hoard. I keep things that should not be discarded. Some years ago a friend told me he gave away his mother’s furniture but kept everything that told a story: a knitted wool hat, a scarf, a miniature porcelain swan boat. I understood. But what do I do when so many things here hold stories for me? Stories that likely hold little interest to anyone else?
Which is why I have not gone to see it all for so long. I know the time is long past to trim it all back, to put this storage space on an austerity program. So even though I do not know where to begin, on Saturday I found the key, and opened the lock.
The door is heavy and seems to groan as I raise it. Inside, I stare into what to my eyes seems to be a chaotic land of boxes and crates. My first instinct is to close the door, retreat. I need a friend to take this all away, the way a friend will take your dog to the vet when it is too painful for you to make that final ride. Annie has long hinted at this solution, offering to be that friend. Her mantra is if you have not looked at any of this for months, for years, you will not miss it. You will feel lighter. You will have $105 each month that now simply goes to a closed door. And I know she is right. But I hold on. This stuff once meant something to people I cared about. I hold on to my own boxes and boxes of notebooks and newspaper clippings, and interviews of writers ripped from magazines, and more boxes of audio tapes, because they were the tools of my life’s work.
But I cannot have it both ways. I cannot leave the chaos to be sorted out by others. So I lifted one box and placed it in the trunk of my car. Then another, and another, until the trunk was full and then the backseat too. I drove them home and carried them into the sunny backyard. To prepare, I had gone to two stores and bought 10 plastic storage crates that hold manila folders, and two large clear plastic crates for mementoes: I labeled these “keepers.” I bought a box of folders and index cards and scotch tape. I set a large container for discards beside the table. I began.
I opened a box, and inside was a framed photo of my dad in his Army uniform from World War II. He is only a few years older than my sons. Beneath it was a framed collage my mother made long ago showing them on their wedding day. My sons never knew them. I have nowhere to hang these things. I place them in a “keeper” crate. In another box I find an old dusty brown leather satchel. Inside are large manila envelopes that have not been opened for decades. One holds letters my father wrote to my mother during the war; another holds his Army papers. When I leave this earth, nobody will ever want or need to see them. I am supposed to be thinning the herd so my sons do not need to. But these, too, go into the “keeper” crate.
I have been to many flea markets where the displays include framed portraits of men and women and children, families staring into a camera from a long-past era, and I have wondered how those photos ended up being sold and bought by strangers. Will the photo of my dad, his arms flung open, one day perch on a flea market shelf, a symbol of a GI off to war?
In another box I found a set of audio tapes with my handwritten scrawl: S. King. Hours of Stephen King talking to me about his early life and his first novels from 40 years ago. Another set read Alan Shepard. An hour passed, and all I had accomplished was to stack dozens of tapes into a crate, each cassette filled with the voice of someone whose story I wanted to tell, and did. In another box was the notebook I used for my first story for Yankee, a profile of Ma Dudley, the wife of a Maine potato farmer who would feed a dozen farmhands every day and who opened a small restaurant in her Aroostook County homestead after her husband died. I started reading those notes, and another 20 minutes passed. The notebook found its way into a “keeper” crate too.
I discovered a yellowed paper, slightly crumpled, beneath a few notebooks. It was a handwritten letter from a girl named Jamie. She would have been 8 or 9 years old when she wrote to me. She was on a youth baseball team I coached in the early 1990s in Keene, New Hampshire. There were only a few girls who played then, and she had been unsure she fit in. I read: “You have showed me so many things that I never knew I could do. If it weren’t for you I would still be that whimpy scardey cat I was when we started. But now I’m someone who can go up to the plate and hit, swing hard and not strike out and be upset…. Thank you so much for getting me to be the ballplayer that I’ve dreamed of being.” She had decorated the top and bottom and both sides of the paper with colored stars. Tell me, how do I put that in the discard pile, even if I have not seen it for over 25 years? Because now I have, again, and it fills me with the same flush of pleasure when I read it long ago.
Maybe, in the end, I will make peace that I did my best. That each day I will carve an hour or so to sift through all the papers, keeping only the ones I could not bear to not see ever again. Which, as of today, four days into the project, is nearly everything.
Have you had to tackle clearing away the leftovers of a lifetime? I’d love to hear your story. Drop a note to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Heat moved in over the past few weeks, with a short break between the two waves — the kind of heat that leads the news on radio and TV with “advisories,” the announcers full of cautions about what could happen, as if we somehow have forgotten what to do beneath a broiling sun. Every summer there is always a spell or two, when the air is this heavy and the body feels on a slow burn, when I cannot imagine being anywhere else but here.
My younger son moved west to the Rockies some years ago, because I made two parental mistakes if I wished him to live closer: I encouraged him to seek his passions, and I encouraged one of those passions to be skiing. Today he looks out to 12,000-footers and snow-capped peaks into early summer — but he lives where drought defines everyday life and where glacier-scoured lakes are hundreds of miles away. If he needs cooling, he has to go to a creek, and step cautiously on rocks while his dog soaks them both. So I send him photos of my summer to remind him of where he grew up, and what he could find if he ever chooses water over high mountains.
The Monadnock Region of New Hampshire is studded with rivers and ponds and lakes, and when you drive west from Dublin along Route 101, the road curves along the shore of Dublin Lake. Cars snug up against the tree-lined shoulders all around the lake, their owners having launched kayaks, canoes, and often themselves into the cool depths.
Every day, Annie and I park at the boat launch in the early morning, when the water is as still as glass, and I swim to where the shore curves slightly: 20 minutes that begin my day with a head-clearing rush. On weekends the scene is both joyful, with children and splashing dogs and sailboats and kayaks and people dangling from inflatables, and also a bit intimidating, with social distancing impossible until we have stroked past the happy crowd.
Mount Monadnock frames the lake to the south, and if you take a left onto Lake Road, where one of the most popular trails to the summit begins, more cars, sometimes several dozen, line up as tightly as on city streets. Only a handful of the cars bear New Hampshire license plates. Monadnock is the second-most-climbed mountain in the world, and its easy access to urbanites in Massachusetts and Connecticut is a big reason why.
This presents a kind of dilemma shared by so many in New England’s vacation spots, whether we live on islands, in seaside towns, or tucked away in the mountains or lovely forested valleys — places so desirable that anyone would want them for a hideout while an insidious virus seeks yet another host. I get the allure, but still I wish sometimes there was a cosmic fence between wherever others call home and this piece of earth. It’s a wish that carries regret. Is sharing one’s natural setting and safety not as important as sharing food if others are hungry? These hard times make such a question hard to answer, especially when so many people seem impatient to get on with life even as the virus powers through communities.
The news this past week brings the threat of outsiders close to home, too close for many. On Friday, a religious group called the Last Reformation is coming to New Ipswich, a town of about 5,000 close to my hometown of Peterborough, for a 10-day tent revival on the property of a state representative who welcomed them.
There may be several hundreds coming — the number varies in different reports — including many from Illinois, a state with nearly 200,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus. According to online chat groups as well as the local newspaper, members of the Last Reformation do not adhere to mask wearing or social distancing; they have been encouraged by event organizers to camp in a nearby state park and to shop and dine in local towns.
The conversation threads become more insistent each day as the group’s arrival grows closer. Late this afternoon, the governor announced a mask mandate for any gathering of more than 100 people. It feels as though a showdown that has been brewing across the country may play out in our backyard. It reminds me of the tension that builds up in High Noon when the train holding Frank Miller and his compatriots bears down on Gary Cooper’s Marshal Kane, and everyone in town knows trouble is coming.
Yet there are other kinds of visitors heading this way, too. Well, they are headed many places, but Annie and I will see them this week in the dark of midnight from a quiet causeway across MacDowell Dam. We do this every August when the Perseid meteor shower flames across the sky. The word shower does not do justice to what we see on a good night. No matter how many times I have seen it, lying on my back on a blanket in the wee hours, when a streak of flame flashes in the sky, one, two, then another and another, it seems as if all earthly troubles are small, and now is the best time I know to find awe when a distant visitor comes calling.
As I write these words, the nation is again gripped with dueling fevers: a virus that threatens any normal life and the human need to bolt back into the swing of things, to rejoin friends, to embrace the lives we led before this spring. The fact that we are again talking about a possible lockdown, the need to shelter in place, speaks to the power of the virus to thrive on our impatience to get on with it.
All this made me think of one of the most remarkable people I have met doing this work of talking to people about their lives. Her name was Connie Small, and she spent more than 20 years of her life as socially distanced as a person can be. And then, over time, she told thousands of people how beautiful and unforgettable such a life could be.
She had grown up on the coast of Maine, about as Down East as you can be before crossing into Canada. She once had dreamed of being a painter, but at age 19 she married Elson Small, and he was destined to be a lighthouse keeper on remote Maine islands, and she was going to be beside him.
Connie’s life of virtual isolation began in 1920 at Channel Light, in the swirling waters between Lubec and Campobello. After a few years there, she and Elson moved to Avery Rock Lighthouse in Machias Bay, then Seguin Island Light at the mouth of the Kennebec River, then St. Croix River Lighthouse. Their final assignment would be at Portsmouth Light in New Hampshire, after World War II.
When I met Connie in 1982, Elson had been gone for many years and she was living in a small apartment in Kittery, Maine. And — as she would hundreds of times, to groups and historical societies and lovers of lighthouse lore, until she died at age 103 in 2005 — she told me a story of how rich your life could be if you could find a way to love the life that you had, in the place you had to be. “I went on Avery’s Rock the tenth of October 1922,” she told me, “and didn’t get off until the last of April….”
She described her life there when she was only 21, and this is what I wrote all those years ago:
“Avery’s Rock was three miles out in Machias Bay. There was no earth, only a half-acre of boulders and a wooden plank leading from the house to the boat slip. There was no phone, no electricity. Rain washed off the roof into cisterns stored beneath the pantry. The lighthouse tender brought coal once a year. If you ran out, there would be no more. Every two weeks Elson rowed to shore for supplies. But the light couldn’t be left alone, so Connie stayed. She saw only Elson, and at night while she knit socks or sewed quilts or bedding or clothes, she’d twist the radio dial, hoping to hear another voice, however faint…. She found her social life with pen pals, writing to lighthouse families around the world. ‘I’d wrack my brains trying to write something from off that rock,’ she says. She put the letters she received in a big box lined with oil cloths. Years later, leaving another island and unable to transport it, she buried it. ‘I felt better then. I wasn’t destroying something that was precious to me.’”
I have a storage locker that I have not visited for far too long. In there, in a box buried among too many other boxes, is a sheaf of letters I had received from Connie Small for years after the Yankee article. She had told me that people never tired of her stories, the way she described the life that so few could imagine: how once there was three weeks of fog and the horn never stopped. At night seabirds crashed against the tower; in the morning she buried them.
She told me that when she talked to groups, people always pressed her to write a book. So she did, and a few years after I wrote about her she published The Lighthouse Keeper’s Wife. Readers around the world wrote to her. When she turned 100, the American Lighthouse Foundation threw her a party she called one of the great honors of her life. She was ushered into the party by Coast Guardsmen, who drove her in a limousine as if she were royalty.
Over the last two decades of her life, Connie was featured in countless newspapers and documentaries about living on chunks of granite surrounded by ocean where the sky was so dark and keeping the light lit was a mission that made any sacrifice worth it, because she and Elson knew that lives depended on them. Before I left her that day in 1982, she told me that she still woke at sunrise, “stirred by tasks that no longer need her doing — extinguishing the lamp, shining brass, baking Elson’s pies.” When fog moves in, something builds up inside of her; if sleeping, she’ll wake with a start. “There’s always the feeling that we have to get the bell going. That there’s someone out there who needs the bell.”
That is why I think I’ve been thinking of Connie Small these days. There are millions of us, tens of millions, who are out there in this fog, peering into the night, riding out these waves. We really need to figure out that there is no miracle around the bend, no magic spell to weave, that if we could only be each other’s keeper, stay apart for just a few weeks, all of us, and make sure we ring the bell and keep the light burning, then maybe, just maybe, we can make our way to land.
A few weeks ago a writer I have known for more than 20 years asked me, “When are you going to retire?” I suppose after you have put in enough time with your job — or your job has put in enough time with you — people figure the logical next step is to simply stop. On Sunday a former colleague who moved to upstate New York came to town to visit her son. We met to catch up in the park: first masked, then not, trusting the summer air and the length of the picnic table to keep us safe for another day. Within five minutes she asked, “Why haven’t you retired?”
I’ve been thinking about how I should respond the next time the question comes my way. I think I’ll just say, “Séan Alonzo Harris.” Or “Joel Woods.” Or “Becky Tuttle.” Because I am in a position to find those with the gift of storytelling — whether with camera or words — and to be able to share their work with everyone I know and thousands of people I will never know. How many people get to do that? Who would not want to?
A few years ago a writer friend emailed me to say she had seen astonishing photos on the Facebook page of a Maine fisherman. His name was Joel Woods. She sent me a link so that I could see them as well. Three days later I was sitting in a small living room in a house Joel rented a few minutes away from the sea in Rockport.
Journalism is an odd sort of business: You enter the lives of total strangers for a few hours, sometimes much longer, and if you’re lucky they open up their lives, open their hearts, and the words they speak are like reading their private journals or looking at their family albums. People will tell you details of their lives that they may not tell anyone else. It’s because writers need to listen — that is what we are there to do — and most people do not have anyone who listens to them totally.
On that afternoon in Maine, while I looked at photos taken at sea by this deep-sea fisherman who had never known an art class or photo workshop — photos that would stop you cold were they hanging from a gallery wall — Joel told me his story. How he had grown up tough and raw, and how “fishing was for me the biggest, baddest, the most hard-core thing I could do. That’s why I was drawn to it. I wanted to prove myself.” He began taking photos of the life at sea swirling around him. “I was seeing the fisherman’s world with brand-new eyes,” he said.
We ended up collecting a number of Joel’s images into a photo essay titled “A Hard Life Made Beautiful.” At the end were his words: “If it wasn’t for photography I wouldn’t be the human being I am.”
A few months after we published that photo essay, I entered it in the annual City and Regional Magazine Association contest, to be judged against the photos by professionals across the country. Joel Woods took first place.
One of the early stories I wrote for Yankee was about the Tuttle Farm in Dover, New Hampshire, then the oldest family farm in America. Since 1632, Tuttles had farmed on this single tract of land. When I saw the farm, Hugh Tuttle, the family patriarch, told me, “I keep having this feeling when I’m walking across a freshly cultivated field. I’ll suddenly think, My God, my ancestors have put a foot right there, where I’ve put mine. Would they approve of the way I’m treating the land?”
When I was there, I found a story nobody else had written about. Rebecca, Hugh Tuttle’s youngest daughter, had wanted to do nothing but farm. “When I was growing up,” she told me, “I always felt it would be my farm, because I obviously was the one who cared the most about it. I would follow my father around, and I’d say, ‘Willy doesn’t seem very interested in the farm. What about me?’ And he’d chuckle and say, ‘Little girl, you’ll just have to marry yourself a farmer.’”
Two years ago an essay popped into my email inbox by Rebecca Tuttle Schultz. The farm that was the passion of her life had been sold by her brother Will. Her essay was both elegy to the farm that was and a bittersweet reminder of what could have been, if only she had been given the chance to be the farmer she knew she was meant to be. It was titled “Corn Season,” and it began like this:
“I was 23 years old before I first tasted corn that was not grown by my father. I was visiting friends and wanted to be polite, but what was on my plate bore little resemblance to the corn on the cob I was used to: just-picked, steamed until barely done, and rolled lengthwise on a dedicated stick of butter. Corn that snapped when you bit into it to release the milky juice inside each kernel. The corn I ate that night at my friends’ house was store-bought and tough, even though it had been boiled hard for what seemed to me a terrible length of time. And the people at the table spread butter on it with their knives! I had never seen such a thing.”
Rebecca had never published before this essay appeared in Yankee two summers ago. As I had with Joel Woods’s photo essay, I entered “Corn Season” in the City and Regional Magazine Association contest, in the highly competitive Essay category. It, too, won first place.
Which brings me to photographer Séan Alonzo Harris. I have not met Séan, but over the past two weeks we have spoken three times on the phone — lengthy conversations that lead deeper each time into his life story and what stories he wants his camera to tell. He talked about being seven years old and his grandmother giving him a plastic camera. He was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, visiting his father in Washington, D.C, after his parents divorced. “I took photos of all my family there,” he said, “and when I was back in Cambridge, I’d look at them and it kept my father close to me. That was how I learned to love photography.”
Séan is now in his early 50s and has lived in Maine for more than 20 years, making his way as a Black photographer in one of the whitest states in the nation. He shoots every day, rarely knowing what he will return home with. For the past few years he has documented the Kennedy Park neighborhood of Portland, the most diverse in the state. “The people I’ve photographed are proud, intelligent, beautiful people. But also almost forgotten,” Séan said. Then he added, “When I photograph, I think of my own place in the world. The most obvious thing is to be human and show respect. To have honest communication with people. To show their humanity.”
The people of Maine have seen Séan’s work in galleries and at art shows; much of the world has not. For centuries, artists have prevailed through the harshest of times, their need to create being more powerful than the obstacles of nature or man. We are all living through a harsh time. I am living through this harsh time. When I look at Séan’s work, I remember how I felt when I sat beside Joel Woods in a small living room in Maine and he described what he saw through his camera that no one else was noticing. Now I could see it too.
In a few months, Yankee will publish a Séan Alonzo Harris photo essay. I will be able to share his work with everyone I know and thousands of people I will never know. How many people get to do that? Who would not want to?
And that is why I am not retired.
There are so many big things filling our lives, it is easy to feel small in the world, and so finding pleasure in familiar tasks, just taking care of things, brings a comfort I would not have imagined a summer ago. I bought my first new lawn mower since I can remember — in fact, every mower I have had since coming to New England in 1970 has been a castoff from somebody who was happy to take $25 or $50 for a machine they had all but run into the ground. As a young teenager I mowed everyone’s lawns in a new residential development, $5 a yard no matter how large, and I learned early not to ask a mower to do more than it was built for. I have written many stories in my head while walking behind a mower, seeing the fresh-cut grass drift in the air, leaving the scent of summer as it landed. Here, with my new machine, I felt almost giddy firing it up the first time, back in May. When I finished, Annie said the yard looked like a park. The young teenager who lurks inside me smiled with pride.
But then the dry spell came, and lingered. Now the word “drought” regularly crops up on the news. Conversations with a neighbor often begin with “Sure could use rain.” Annie is in the yard early each morning, watering. She has a hose for the front flowers, a hose for the tidy lettuce garden on the side of the house, and a sprinkler for the raised beds beside the river. I can sit outside and just watch the sprinkler, losing myself for a few minutes as the spray undulates back and forth. Every few days she clips tender leaves, and then we drive two miles to the beautiful gardens of Rosaly’s Garden and Farmstand. It is the oldest certified organic garden in the state, and we fill a basket with more greens and early vegetables, and we eat from garden home and away, as if we had gone out.
I don’t cut the grass when it is this dry. Already, in places, the lush green has taken on that burnt brown of straw. So I’ve let the tiny oak sprouts gain a toehold. If I were to leave the house for a few years, when I returned there would be a little forest spreading from house to river. It’s a dilemma, not to cut, because this is tick season, and there are deer, and where deer live, ticks thrive. A trim lawn is not just for show — it is what experts say keeps you safe.
When Annie was a child here, a drought settled in, and people talk about it in the same way they speak of historic snowstorms. Wells went dry, livestock perished. Police responded to calls from neighbors reporting that someone was washing their car. There was the sense that everyone had to get through together by following the same precautions. As I type these words, thunder rumbles, close. Two days ago we had a cloudburst in the early evening, and we were in the car and it was hard to see; the rain poured over the road and the car shimmied as it splashed through. Now we could talk about rain for just a bit. Over the Fourth of July weekend, I will mow.
The dryness has one upside for me: It accelerates the seasoning of my woodpile. When I first moved to Maine, my wood came in eight-foot lengths, $25 a cord. I was young and reading Scott and Helen Nearing and We Took to the Woods by Louise Dickinson Rich, so splitting cords of wood with ax and maul made me feel kinship with these literary heroes of mine. Now my wood arrives cut and split, and our task is to stack and, when cold comes, carry and burn.
Karl has been bringing me wood for over 20 years. You can hear his old red truck rumble down the road before he appears. He lives beside the church in Dublin, and parks his truck in a small lot behind Yankee’s offices. His truck has no sides, just a frame in the rear. If he stacks the wood with precision, the truck bed is full; he says it holds three-quarters of a cord. I order four cords each spring, and he makes many trips — sometimes with a full truck, sometimes not. Trust with a woodsman builds up over many years, and when he finally delivers what he says is four cords, I figure we are pretty close. He spends his days alone in the woods with chain saw and splitter, and when he is not in the woods he is haying. The other day I drove into Dublin and there was Karl sitting atop one of the largest tractors I have ever seen. He was driving it up a country road I have walked hundreds of times, and I had no idea where he was going. In a time when adventures are few to be had, I was tempted to follow at 5 mph just to see where we ended up.
My woodpile stretches across the back of the yard, at least 50 feet. I have dry wood from last winter piled in the woodshed, and on the driveway, a stack just shy of a cord gets the morning sun. I glance at woodpiles in the yards of others when I drive, and I’ll admit feeling envious when I see they have let their wood dry for an extra year, so it is dark as charcoal and will be nearly weightless when they carry it inside. My wood weathers by the week, cracks appearing as it dries, nature’s art as time slowly ages the once-blond maple and oak; by winter it will be brown. I know I am putting more on a woodpile than it was meant to give, but I see it as a voice from the future, six, seven, eight months from now, when it will burn bright in our stove as the night presses down.
In a summer when the yard and the river have become work space, dining room, even vacation getaway, I spend more time watching than I ever have before. A deer with three legs made its way along the river a week ago. I remember seeing in the local paper’s police log that in April someone had phoned to say a three-legged deer was walking along the road. The caller was worried. The report said that the officer saw the deer, but it seemed able to get along fine, so he let it alone. There are many rocks in the river and the water is low, and the deer, with its missing hind leg, stumbled along, but when it reached an embankment, it made its way up and disappeared behind the trees.
A family of Canada geese has been visiting nearly every day, usually in early evening. Silently, all of sudden they’d appear, feeding on the grass along the river. Two adults and four goslings, dining alfresco, as Annie and I were, maybe 25 feet away. I enjoyed their presence even if I had to clean up after them, enjoyed knowing they felt safe in the yard even if Rudy was tethered close by.
Three days ago they came back, but now there was only one adult. Although there are many possible reasons why, the most likely is that we have foxes and coyotes, and even bobcats sometimes are spotted along the river. The story in my head is the adult who did not come to dinner this time fought to save the little ones. Early every summer at Cunningham Pond, we’d see a Canada family just like this, the babies swimming after their parents, and as the weeks passed there was usually one fewer until only the adults remained. There are snappers in the pond, and I imagine the parents never even saw the danger, just a frantic splash.
There are so many big things happening all around us, sometimes a small thing can make all the difference. Right now, on the cusp of the Fourth of July, I’d like to see the geese come back and feed on the grass. I’d like to see the deer with three legs come splashing through the water, before it makes its way up the embankment to wherever it goes where shelter awaits.
When your world narrows — as it did for me in late March, when many of us retreated to our homes — then narrows even more with each passing week, you think about people you once saw nearly every day who now might as well live in another country. And in a sense they do. Which is why yesterday I phoned Jud Hale, Yankee’s longtime former editor, under whose watch the magazine became an icon of New England. When I asked how he was, he said he was OK. “I’m not supposed to,” he said, “but I’ve been sneaking out to go to the post office.”
Jud lives in a retirement community only two miles away with his wife, Sally, in a pretty cottage set amid woods and by a river. He is stepping gingerly into his later 80s now, and the past few years have forced him to shed some of the most important fixtures in his life: the island home on Lake Winnipesaukee, where his three sons and later his grandchildren felt a summer day had no end; his home in Dublin, where he wrote in a tower room; his “House for Sale” column, which he wrote as “The Moseyer” for decades; his decades-long succession of golden retrievers, various mutts, and finally Murphy, a long-haired dachshund, whom Jud carried with him on journeys until Murphy, grown deaf and blind, could not hang on any longer.
Before the pandemic sent us all home, Jud still came to the office nearly every day. In winter, the parking lot can get dicey, no matter how urgently it is plowed and salted. For several years we have urged Jud to park in a reserved spot by the front door. The more we asked, the more he dug in and refused, deliberately, it seemed, choosing to park as far away as possible. He once spent three years as a tank commander in Germany, and whatever residue remained from those days roared back at our efforts to tell him that we worried.
He’d arrive around 10:30, give or take a half hour, chat for a few minutes with Linda, our receptionist who has been with Yankee for over 50 years, before climbing the stairs to his second-floor office, clutching his wicker basket that held a Boston Globe, a mug of coffee, and pieces of mail. We could hear him walking down the hall as he called out to each person in their office: “Hi, Janice… hi, Tim… hi, Ian… hi, Heather… hi, Joe…” If the New England Patriots had played the day before, he would linger outside the office of Joe Bills, a former sportswriter, and deconstruct the game. Which was notable, since Jud cared so much about the team he could rarely bring himself to watch. He’d then sit at his desk, drink the coffee, read the newspaper, open his mail, and make a few phone calls, his voice booming down the hall.
After an hour or two, he’d walk back down the hall, basket empty, down the stairs and out the door. To an outside observer, he had achieved little. To those of us in the office, he had shown us how what we do stuck to him like a burr, how the meaning of this work remained, and he just wanted to be part of us, even on days of ice when we looked out the windows as he made his way across the pavement.
He attended our Thursday editorial meetings, and we began each one with what we called “Jud’s Three,” during which he would read or talk for three minutes about some quirky or historical New England tradition or tale. He has been with Yankee since 1958, when he joined his Uncle Robb’s magazine as a do-everything assistant editor, and he had a lifetime of anecdotes to pass down. He was — and remains — a storyteller. He wrote three books, and his best, The Education of a Yankee, makes clear where the stories began.
Though born to Boston wealth, his parents moved the family to the wilderness village of Vanceboro, Maine, on the edge of the Canadian border, where they lived on 12,000 acres of both farm- and timberland. His father employed every logger for miles around, and his mother started a Waldorf school based on the teachings of Rudolph Steiner. “When I dream, I always dream of Vanceboro,” Jud once said to an interviewer.
He always told his writers that storytelling mattered above all else, that we had to make readers feel. Make them laugh, or cry, or be amazed, but they could never be bored, and if they felt emotion they would want more. You wanted to write for Jud the best story you had in you, because he believed you would.
I would not be writing this letter if it were not for Jud. When I met him in 1977, he had taken over the reins of both Yankee and The Old Farmer’s Almanac a decade earlier. John Pierce, the new managing editor of Yankee, brought me to Jud’s office after softening him up a bit by saying that he had read stories I had been writing for Maine newspapers, and that Jud should get to know me.
Few people enter Jud’s office without getting a tour of what he calls “Jud’s Museum,” and so before I talked story ideas, I was brought into a small world that is best described as something akin to one of those strange roadside collectible places, except this curator was a tall, blond-haired man, educated at Choate and Dartmouth, who took delight in setting a banana peel on a shelf to see how long it would take before it dissolved.
He showed me a safety pin from the first flight over the North Pole, and a piece of cloth from Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, pebbles from Red Square, a photo of Red Sox legend Ted Williams, and a letter rescued from the Titanic. Over the years, I never learned of anything that was removed from the museum, just more “treasures” he wanted us to know about: seats from Fenway Park that were removed during renovations, and a humble jar labeled “Einstein’s Brain.”
When Jud read that the doctor who had performed Einstein’s autopsy had kept the brain to study, he wrote asking if he could have it in his museum. He added he would respect it and care for it. The doctor wrote back. He had promised Einstein’s family it would not go on display. Jud wrote once more: He would keep it out of sight in a drawer. The doctor never answered. Undaunted, Jud created “what his brain would have looked like,” as he’d tell everyone who looked at the jar in wonder. In time it became hard to know whether the museum reflected Jud’s idiosyncratic tendencies, or whether in his efforts to keep himself entertained by all that surrounded him, he became its most original artifact of all.
That day when I met Jud I came with a list of 28 story ideas. He said he wanted 25. He and John Pierce assigned me a story each month, $600 apiece. To make my life easier, they gave me a contract so a check would arrive early each month. To a freelancer, this was like finding a hidden door. A year later, my dad, who had retired to Florida, discovered that the back pain he had complained about was lung cancer. The more time I spent seeing my dad, the more I fell behind to keep up with the monthly stories. John and Jud then told me they had retroactively changed my story fee to $800, so I was caught up. There are gestures one does not forget.
A few months before my father died, Jud asked me to join Yankee full-time. I told my father as he lay on his bed, his eyes glazed by opioid painkillers. The lessons of the Depression had burned into him, and he had long fretted that my freelance life was a precarious way to live.
“I’m going to Yankee full-time,” I told him.
“Benefits?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. He smiled, one of the last I can remember, said, “Good,” and then he closed his eyes and slept.
It is easy to look back on my years with Jud and to play the game of where I would be if he had not wanted so many of my stories; if he had lost patience with a young writer who could not fulfill the deal he made. Sometimes I give a talk to some group that wants to know about Yankee. I always begin by saying, “This is a story I heard from Jud Hale.”
He and his wife, Sally, were somewhere around Tamworth, New Hampshire. Sally had an upset stomach. At a general store Jud stopped to get her some Tums. As he entered the store he noticed an old fellow sitting quietly in a chair next to the door. Jud walked up to the counter and asked the proprietor for Tums.
“I’d like the cherry flavor, please,” Jud said.
“We don’t have the cherry-flavored Tums,” the man replied.
“Well, do you have the orange flavor?”
“No, we don’t,” said the man.
“Well, then,” Jud said, a little exasperated, “I’ll just take the plain Tums.”
After paying for it, he was walking out the door when the old fellow in the chair looked up at him as he was passing by and said…
“Looks like you’re gonna have to rough it.”
The audience always laughs, and I bask in Jud’s light for a while. We are all roughing it now, and we don’t know when life will smooth out. But it will, and when it does, I’m going to ask Jud to make it five, not three minutes, and to make us laugh, maybe cry, to remember the power of a good story to pick us up no matter how often we fall.
I suspect that many of you reading this have had moments, or even days, when it feels as if you are living in two realities at the same time. We are coping with a pandemic and its ensuing financial free fall, and now the tidal wave of protests sweeping across the country over the death of George Floyd. It is hard to know where to find firm footing. Fear of falling is all around. And yet, we still play with our children, still search for quiet walks, still wonder what we should make for dinner.
Yesterday the afternoon was hot, and I drove Annie to Dublin Lake, where on the far side, away from the slender town beach, there is a boat landing for anglers and paddlers. The lake is icy cold, 100 feet deep in places. She swims in cold water that I will not feel for weeks ahead, but I go with Rudy and we watch. Driving over, the funeral service for George Floyd played live on NPR. There were passionate speeches and sometimes a song, and though I could not see the images, you could feel the tears.
And then we parked by the lake and Annie waded out and soon was in the cold deep blue water. Not 30 feet from where I stood, a loon swam by and then dived deep and I did not see it again. When we came back to the house, I took work to the table outside and a merganser flew along the river, so low it seemed to stir a ripple. It was Tuesday, the day the local Monadnock-Ledger is popped into the mailbox, and on the cover was the photo from the second peaceful demonstration along the nearby highway, now swelled to double the previous week.
As I write this on the 10th day of June, I am told the July/August issue of Yankee has left the printer in Saratoga Springs, New York, and will be in Dublin tomorrow. In normal times, when the new issue arrives, the boxes are stacked against a wall in the mail room and on a black wooden bench in the reception office. Each box holds 50 magazines, and in all my years here I have never actually witnessed someone wheeling them in on the dolly. It’s a bit like magic; I come down the stairs and there they are, the way from one day to the next plants seem to suddenly emerge from soil.
The policy is we are not to open the boxes until copies have been placed in our mail slot. This usually requires the patience of a few days’ wait. But someone, I’m not saying who, usually bends the rule and spirits away a copy or two under the cover of, well, waiting until everyone has left for the day. Even though we have worked on the issue for many weeks, by the time it lands in Dublin I have all but forgotten its contents — we are so deep into the next one — and so sitting down with it at home in the evening, slowly turning the pages, is like discovering anew what we did, and for the first time I can read it for enjoyment, telling the critical voice that lives inside my head to leave me in peace for a while.
But, of course, these are not normal times. The July/August Yankee will be the first in our nearly 85 years to be produced without any of us being in the office. When we all quickly packed up in the last days of March, our new art director, Katty Van Itallie, had settled in for only three days. She barely had time to know us, and then she had to pack up her computer and hope that our technical experts had aced their tests, and that, yes, our text and visual files could zip here and there, back and forth, without any being derailed. At first, we all held our breath.
I know that many of us at times have misgivings about how intrusive technology can be in our lives. I believe that the anxieties that cling to nearly everyone I know are fomented partly by the bombardment of constant images, news, blogs to read, Facebook posts, videos to click on — a nonstop elbow in the ribs saying “you must look at this.” It is why the vacations we most yearn for often promise no Internet, give permission to just turn it all off. But technology is the only way we could have put out this issue of Yankee, and we did it well. And as tempting as it may be, do any of us have the right or the luxury to turn off now, when the world seems to demand we be more attentive than ever?
Tomorrow I will pop into the Dublin office for two minutes, just long enough for my evil twin to slice open a box and extract a handful of new issues. Katty lives down the street now; Jenn, our managing editor, lives a few blocks farther; and I will leave Yankee on their doorstep, tempting them to settle in, as I will, to a world both with us and seemingly beyond our reach at the same time.
Inside this issue is a story about the tranquil Blue Hill Peninsula in Maine. This is where E.B. White lived and where he wrote Charlotte’s Web. I have been to nearly every village in Maine, and there are few places where sea, forest, and hills twine in a way more lovely than here.
There is also a story about the North Shore of Massachusetts, where Gloucester and Rockport have learned how to make fishing culture a lure for travelers. And for anyone who has been beguiled — or maddened — by the audacity of seagulls, there is a story about why researchers both love them and also wear helmets so they are not concussed by diving birds. That is what we worked on throughout the spring, while the world as we knew it dropped away, and a new reality of face masks and ambulance sirens and the visuals of riot police filled our lives.
Tomorrow I will settle in with these summer pages that speak of waves and gulls and the promise of sitting outside at a lobster shack. With little time, we ripped out a story and replaced it with vignettes of people who had endured hardship and tragedy with uncommon resilience, courage, and a refusal to lose hope.
Even in the pages of this magazine, two realities live side by side. And when I finish, I’ll bring Rudy to the edge of our river. Annie saw fresh deer tracks there this morning. A family of Canada geese climb each night to our lawn and leave their gifts. I will scoop those up in the morning, then come upstairs where I write this and get back to work. The virus remains. The protests continue. It is possible the narrative about racial inequality may be changing forever. People are volunteering to have unproven vaccines put into their bodies so that we can live without fear. Summer is just beginning, but in our Yankee world it is autumn. Photos that were taken when we knew nothing of what was ahead show us trees of beauty, mountains ablaze with color, apple orchards bursting with fruit. There is still wonder. Loons dive deeper than we can imagine, but they always find the surface.
It feels different this time. What is happening around us will not recede with the next news cycle or the day’s spin. We sense our country is at a turning point, and which way it will turn we do not yet know. So we are holding our breath. Waiting. A mix of anger, fear, determination, and hope fills the air, like a humidity that clings to us wherever we live.
Right now, early Thursday morning, June 4, the birdsong comes in so loudly through my open windows it is as though I have speakers outside. The sky is blue, the river quiet, and with the day expected to reach the 80s, it feels as if summer has stopped teasing and is ready to settle in. It smells like summer now, lilacs everywhere, and roses starting to wrap around our trestle. The trees along the river have never looked so green. I bought a new lawnmower and the freshly cut grass inspires Rudy to roll on his back, his legs pawing the air in what can only be joy, and I envy his delight.
I live on the main road to Concord, and the traffic, especially trucks, has picked up as businesses begin to reopen all around the state. And if I lived without any news, in a quiet insular world of my own, it might seem that life as we knew it before the pandemic was finding its footing again. But the news floods in, more than most of us can absorb. A friend told me the other day he was struggling to focus on what he had to do. I knew what he meant. I imagine the exception will be anyone who is not torn apart and searching for words and actions that make sense.
I do not know as I write this what today will bring. Or tomorrow. Events beyond this pocket of mountains and forest and lakes and villages where I live feel both distant and close at the same time. When the virus overwhelmed cities only a few hours away, we felt its approach. We followed the numbers. Just two weeks ago our conversations seemed to be about one thing: the pandemic. Would this state and the rest of New England reopen in time for summer? Could tourism survive without summer travelers pouring in? If not, the region’s resiliency would be tested as it has not been in our lifetime. That is what we read and talked about.
Then Memorial Day came and changed what we talked about, what we thought about. That morning, a black man named Christian Cooper who was strolling, birdwatching, in Central Park asked a white woman to please obey the signs and leash her dog. As she threatened instead to call police and claim she was in danger from “an African-American man,” he calmly recorded the interaction. Soon after, his sister posted the video, and the shock of what people saw and heard sped around the world. Viewers reacted with anger, shame, and the recognition that this is what black men understand can happen to them anywhere, anytime.
Later that evening, George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, was killed in Minneapolis by a police officer named Derek Chauvin. We not only know that he died, we also witnessed how he died, because a 17-year-old held up her phone and recorded one man taking the life of another. George Floyd’s gasps of “I can’t breathe” now echoes in our history. The cruelty and barbarity of the knee against his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds — even as, suffocating, he called for his mother — has shaken this country, an emotional earthquake with aftershocks that repeat day and night. In the news coverage, what we see most often are scenes of destruction and chaos; we have seen those scenes before, and as always the violence of a minority of protestors as well as of police threatens to steal the profound reality of a country stopping in its tracks, saying, This is another virus to kill.
At noon last Saturday a few hundred people, with the blessing of local police, gathered on both shoulders of Route 101 in Peterborough. They stood together, beginning at the main traffic light, a few feet apart, most wearing masks, hoisting signs: Black Lives Matter, Heartbroken, Remember George Floyd. Children stood beside adults, and they lined the roadside flowing west for a few hundred yards. Seven miles away in Dublin, the scene repeated, all ages standing along both shoulders of the road, faces masked, signs held aloft. It was not a protest march to make national news. But in that shared hour, neighbors said to neighbors, We can’t be quiet. No matter where we live, we have to play a part.
I have a friend who lives an ocean away, and when I told him about the outpouring of shared feelings in these small towns, he asked how that could make a difference, especially since so few people of color live here. I understood the question. New England is one of the whitest regions in the country. Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire are three of the four whitest states in America. Except for a few urban pockets — Portland and Lewiston in Maine, Burlington in Vermont, and Manchester in New Hampshire — many residents here in northern New England will live their whole lives without working beside someone who is not white, someone who has lived the bitter truth and consequence of racism. Within this bubble, it can be easy to draw a curtain against a reality far from one’s own.
I am the editor of a magazine whose very name lends itself to a stereotype: The word “Yankee” conjures up the face of the Maine fisherman, the Vermont farmer, the wilderness logger, the maple syrup maker, the flinty citizen at town meeting, all of whom are likely white. This has been one of the challenges I have not yet succeeded in meeting.
People have always read Yankee in part because they find comfort in it. The world is so complex, so often unsettling, and we give them beautiful images of lakes and coasts, fall foliage and snow-capped mountains, lobster shacks by the rocky shore, winding country roads. People have told me they feel their blood pressure being lowered as they read; they look elsewhere for commentary on social and political crises. Even when we write about complex issues facing the region — whether rising seas, or intrusive pipelines, or opioids, or asylum seekers putting down roots in an old mill town — Yankee remains in the minds of many the magazine of a New England that is always lovely, always inviting.
But there is both an old story and a new one being told right now. Old to black people, new to anyone to whom “Black Lives Matter” felt abstract, belonging somewhere not here. There were other victims of police violence in just the few weeks before George Floyd died, and their names, too, are spoken at protest rallies, but the unbearable intimacy of watching what happened to this man made it about here, wherever here may be. The curtains can’t be closed again, no matter what business we are in.
So I think about the question from my friend overseas. Do a few hundred people on a New Hampshire roadside move even a pebble’s worth of the mountains of pain and hurt felt by people of color? Probably not. But there are hundreds of these gatherings now, and within them moments that provide both inspiration and hope. Scores of people, so many of them young, lying face down on roadways and in parks, their arms clasped behind their backs, in total silence for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. White people standing, kneeling, marching, yelling, crying alongside black. In Connecticut, a state trooper holding hands with a black protestor. Police everywhere being photographed kneeling beside protestors, police chiefs across the country saying, This is how change will happen. There will be no turning back.
My son Dan once attended an elementary school in Keene, New Hampshire, named for Jonathan Daniels, who had grown up in that small city. Daniels was a seminarian at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when he joined many others to fight for civil rights in the deep South. He was 26 years old, when, in a small Alabama town, he tried to enter a store with two black teenagers to buy them a soda. A local deputy sheriff aimed his shotgun at one of them, Ruby Sales. Daniels pushed her to safety as the gun went off, killing him instantly. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “One of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry was performed by Jonathan Daniels.” Ruby Sales, who is now in her 70s, went on to found the Spirit House Project in honor of the man who saved her life. The project has documented more than 2,000 state-sanctioned deaths against black men and women, nearly all of whom were unarmed. She has dedicated her life to his death, and her work now ripples through the Black Lives Matter movement. How many pebbles did Jonathan Daniels move before he was killed? How many does Ruby Sales continue as she keeps on with her own mission?
It feels different this time. If this is not a crossroads for America, then I do not know what that might look like. The irony is not lost that George Floyd lost his life on Memorial Day, a day when services honoring the men and women killed in wars end always in prayer and always, always with the words: We will never forget.
Time is starting to diffuse; I awake with daylight and sleep when it is dark, but the hours in between become harder to discern. Recently I asked Annie what day it was, and she replied, “Noneday.” That seemed about right. I cannot recall another period in my life when nearly everything seems to be so ripe with metaphor. The most ordinary events, things I once took for granted, whether food shopping or waving hello to a passing motorist, seem to carry deeper messages now, or maybe they always did and I am just now paying more attention. Despite myself, as someone who is always hurrying to the next project, I am trying to look a day in the eye and hold its gaze for just a few moments. I am learning patience.
A year or two after we moved in here, we planted a crab apple tree on the front lawn. It was a newborn, tiny and spindly, reaching barely to my knees. Each year it sprouted higher, and now it stretches far above me, well over 15 feet. With the sun and warmth of May the buds opened, and just last week glorious white blossoms filled the tree. These blossoms tease you with their beauty, because soon after that burst of brilliance, petals rained down and laid a carpet of white on the newly mowed grass. When I walk Rudy to the backyard, we have to pass beneath the branches, and the fluttering petals in a breeze must seem to him like flying insects, and he snaps his head trying to corral them. In a few more days the tree will be leafy green, and weeks later tiny apples will emerge, no bigger than almonds. In fall the tree will shelter flocks of trilling cedar waxwings, who feast on the sour fruit. And when the cold comes the tree will be bare, waiting, like all of us, for light and warmth. Nothing I can do will alter that rhythm of beginnings and endings.
It takes us five minutes to walk from our house to the center of town. To reach town we cross a 75-foot-long bridge that spans the Contoocook River. Well, we used to cross the bridge. No longer. The bridge was built in 1940 to replace another that was destroyed in the Hurricane of ’38. We have been hearing about the big bridge replacement project for some years, and now the due date has arrived. The quiet beauty of a small New England town has given way to a hub of noise and fierce machines that chew up concrete and dig deep into earth, a scene to hold any 6-year-old kid transfixed for hours. We are told this will be a two-year project, and because it is all new to the eye, we always pause and watch.
Our favorite perch is by the library wall, where you see the river rushing below and the huge bulldozers, bucket loaders, and cranes towering over the scene. On the riverbank rests a lone dinghy that I assume is there on the off chance that a worker will lose his footing and tumble into the cold water and need to be hauled back in. But it seems more likely that after the workers leave for the day, a curious (and foolish) bystander will find it irresistible to explore what the day’s work has uncovered under decades of dirt, and a dunking will be the consequence. Last week when we walked at twilight we saw two women taking selfies while sitting in the bucket loader.
We say hello to the workers when we walk by and they nod in return. Their ages seem to span from 20s to 60s. They notice that Rudy walks with a tennis ball wedged in his mouth — a Jack Russell pacifier, I call it — and the other day when he did not have it, one worker yelled out, “Hey, he forgot something.” They will be with us for many months, through heat and cool and then cold, and when they are finished we will have a wider sidewalk, a wider street, and a spanking-new bridge with some of the original stone facing so that we feel we have the same familiar structure, only better.
We watched one recent morning when the temporary pedestrian bridge was being lowered into place, since the sidewalks are now impassable. It has been a lifetime since I was that six-year-old kid, but we both watched the deftness of the crane operator as he had to capture the structure, lift it into the air, and place it ever so gently in place. It took a long time — nearly an hour, it seemed — and it was like watching mechanical surgery, a piece of hard-hat theater many of us never see playing out in our town center.
When we walk past the workers on our way to the park, they politely slide a few steps over, mindful of our concern for distancing even as they stand shoulder to shoulder all day. Two days ago, for the first time, we saw two workers with face masks; I do not know if they were new to the site or new to masks. I have a good friend who for years has worked construction as a blaster. He is now in his mid-60s and feels his age and reads the statistics about who is most vulnerable to this virus, so he wears a mask wherever he works. He says he is the only one. I am as perplexed as anyone over how this simple ask that has been shown to be one weapon we all can employ in this fight has become yet another way we divide.
Some years ago I met the wonderful writer Sarah Wildman at a writers conference in Quebec City. Her daughter, Orli, then was perhaps 4, a beautiful wide-eyed child. She is now 11 and being treated for a rare form of liver cancer. Sarah and her husband brought Orli to Boston for a liver transplant, and then COVID-19 hit us all and here they remain. She wrote an essay about Orli, and this stood out to me. I wish it could be read by every single person who demands the right to not wear a face mask when out in public. It is both a plea and an anthem for looking out for each other, especially those among us who need the most looking after.
We are the people you’re being asked to stay home for. Yes, you’re staying home for yourselves, of course, for your children, your parents. But also for my daughter, whom you’ve never met, who was given a fragile second chance we are so desperate to shelter. And for her doctors and nurses — and for your doctors, and your nurses. The work the world is now doing, my family learned just a few months ago, is akin to building a small lean-to around a newly planted tree, the boards built of good intention and follow-through. They are terrifyingly wobbly.
There remain some certainties that still unite us, no matter where we live, no matter what we do, or what our politics may be. If you could have driven around the Monadnock Region over Memorial Day weekend, you would have seen what I mean. Contoocook Valley Regional High School (Conval) embraces nine small towns, and about 720 students from grades 9 through 12. Faced with the demoralizing prospect of seniors having neither graduation nor the sense of bonding that comes with it, parents and seniors created a “Seniors Graduation Celebration Drive Tour.” No matter where you walked or drove over the weekend, you would have seen blue and gold balloons, hand-painted posters, streamers, signs with photographs of students, and on Pine Street here in town, what looked like a theater set of an astronaut “reaching for the stars.”
Across the region a singular voice arose from storefronts and town commons and parks and homes: “We know this is hard, we wish it could be different, but we are behind you and congratulations.” These displays won’t help the students get jobs, or replace the once-in-a lifetime-sendoff from high school to whatever comes next — but it will remind them that they are not branches without a trunk. Others are looking out for them. Tiny skinny trees become beautiful and give shelter and food to birds; a bridge that a hurricane tore away, and then was rebuilt only to have time take its toll, is being built anew. It will take many months, and now it is messy and noisy and it is impossible to see all those months down the road when a new one will again stand sturdy across the river. That is what bridges have always done: They take us across those places we cannot go alone.
The white wooden crosses bearing names in black letters, each aligned perfectly alongside a small American flag, suddenly appeared Saturday in the wedge of lawn between the town hall and the historical society here in Peterborough. Veterans remember their service and their comrades in many ways; these crosses and flags are how Richard Dunning, who was wounded in Vietnam, chooses to remember. When he was principal at the middle school, he and the shop students built the crosses and painted them white. With his wife and grandkids, he plants them each year, early in the morning, shortly before Memorial Day.
A lot of wars have called the young men and women of Peterborough: the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Civil War, two world wars, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. This year, 99 white crosses rise from the ground, one for each person who did not come home. They stand in the town center, as quietly powerful as any speech could be.
Last evening we lingered there, looking at the names on the crosses. I wrote some down, including three that seemed to echo another time: Philemon W. Cross. Gustavus A. Forbush. Henry C. Taggart. Later I learned that they were among 40 local men killed in the Civil War. Gustavus Forbush, for instance, was a carpenter, and he was shot just as he reached the top of Fort Harrison in the battle for Richmond, Virginia.
I remember being at Arlington National Cemetery more than a decade ago, working on a story about a Maine wreath grower who brought thousands of wreaths to Arlington each December. People would travel from all over to place the wreaths against the headstones. I met a Virginia woman named Nancy Cox, who came here every year to do just that. “I say the names aloud,” she told me. “I say to myself, When is the last time someone said this soldier’s name out loud?”
I never forgot that, and last night I, too, said the names as I went down the rows: Philemon Cross … Gustavus Forbush … Henry Taggart …
On the brick walls that border the tiny green are plaques commemorating every local man and woman who has gone to war. As in so many small towns, Peterborough’s families have roots that stretch deep into the past, and there are names here that I’ve seen on street signs and storefronts. Annie grew up here, and now and then as she read a name, she told me she’d gone to school with that person’s son or daughter.
There is something about names engraved on a wall that holds the eye, and digs at the heart. Three years ago, on Memorial Day, we were at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. I remember the flowers, so many, pressed against the black granite. And the letters that loved ones had propped against the wall, many with photographs of young men who would today be pushing 70 and beyond. The image that everyone who visits the Wall seems to come away with is that of Vietnam veterans scanning the rows before stopping on a name … and then standing there. I overheard a woman who was looking at an older man running his fingers across the names. “They were all the same age then,” she said softly. “They are the same age now.”
This year, for the first time anyone can recall, there will be no Memorial Day parade here in town. A ceremony that brings generations together in a way unlike any other, it is when veterans march proudly, a few still able to wear the uniform they came home with. The school band plays with spirit, the notes of “The Marines’ Hymn” and “Anchors Aweigh” carrying through the streets, the drummer banging away for all he’s worth. Members of the American Legion carry their flag, and kids run to keep pace in their Cub Scout or Boy Scout or Little League uniforms. The long, mournful notes of “Taps” drift into the air, making even children feel the solemnity of the moment though they do not really know why.
But on Monday, even without the parade, we will still gather by the post office bridge, where a pretty park edges the river. Flowers will be tossed into the water, gunfire will crack through the air, and as always there will be a speech, a prayer, and the silent hope that no new crosses will ever need to join those on the lawn.
This past week I learned that finding an unexpected treasure could make me smile, even laugh, one minute and then, without warning, make me shudder — and see with fresh eyes what is happening around us today. Here is what happened:
One evening we went on our usual walk into town, a route that takes us behind the library. Dating from 1833, the Peterborough library boasts it is the first tax-supported library in the country. (Being first in something historical is important in New England. Just a few miles west, in Dublin, where Yankee has been since 1935, the library has its own boast: the first free public library in America.) Despite its proud history, a good portion of the Peterborough library is now being taken down, to make way for an $8.5 million addition. A moving van has been parked outside recently, and while the library is currently closed to visitors, I can imagine the flurry of activity inside, with crates of books being packed for delivery to a temporary space across town.
We paused here for a reason. That morning, during Yankee’s online staff meeting, art director Katty Van Itallie had mentioned that her husband had found some of the earliest issues of Yankee apparently tossed out behind the library. She held up to her computer the magazine’s second issue ever — October 1935 — and said there were many others waiting in a heap.
And so they were: a pile of Yankee magazines on the ground, tucked up against the back wall. In fact, there was a whole collection of stuff lying here and there. It looked as if someone was clearing out the clutter from nearly 200 years and had started with the easy stuff: old furniture, metal racks, paperbacks, magazines that had not been read for decades.
Rain was forecast, and though they were under a roof, I felt oddly protective of these issues that Yankee editors long before me had put together. I picked them up — there were 40 remaining — and carried them home, no longer unwanted.
At Yankee’s Dublin office, there is a small room where you can find bound collections of every issue of the magazine, beginning with founder Robb Sagendorph’s first one, in September 1935. I cannot recall when I last browsed through these heavy, musty volumes. But when I spread my orphaned Yankees out on our living room floor and sorted them in order — from November 1935 to December 1941, when war arrived — I felt as if I had brought home a gift of times past, which is so welcome now that all thoughts, all conversations, are revolving around the present.
As evening came on, I sat down with these oversize issues in my lap (Yankee did not adopt its long-running “pocketbook” size until after the war, when paper shortages and costs made it the obvious choice for thrifty New Englanders), and one by one, I looked back. Paper pockets were glued to the backs of many of the issues, holding yellow library cards filled with the penciled names of those who had borrowed them. As I leafed through the pages, I imagined the people behind the names, who had lived here in the depths of the Great Depression and just before the war that likely changed them forever.
The November 1935 issue had a portrait of Mark Twain on its cover, in honor of the 100th anniversary of his birth. There would have been about 600 readers of this issue, and it did not warrant many more: It would be another few years before Yankee’s idiosyncratic humor showed up, along with popular features like the Swoppers’ Columns.
Many of the Swoppers’ listings held the kernel of a short story whose ending we would never know. From January 1938: Would discuss Thoreau and swap nature notes with beautiful blonde, not over 5 feet 4, send picture. February 1938: Wanted by gal, a portable typewriter. In swop one untanned deer hide (shot this fall) and a prize springer spaniel who barks incessantly but is swell with kids. And another: Yankee bachelor maid with an itchy pen and a love of life will swop letters that really are letters with a man-about-town or -about-country.
I turned a page, and saw the future lit up in this 1938 dispatch: George Proctor, New Hampshire’s Game Warden, told the story about New Hampshire State Trooper Fletcher Forsythe who had a special harness made for his Irish Setter that he covered with reflector ornaments. He suggested bike riders and walkers at night should come up with something too.
By 1938, even in the pages of a magazine devoted mostly to rural life, the threat of Hitler was becoming impossible to ignore. One of the best-known writers in the country at the time was Gladys Hasty Carroll, a Maine novelist whose debut, As the Earth Turns, had recently been a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. In 1938 she wrote a series for Yankee on her travels to Europe. Her writing on Germany is both lovely and full of foreboding:
Uniforms are everywhere, five, six, and eight on each street corner, long gray coats flapping over their swords, faces grave and fair, Hitler’s portrait in colors graces the windows of the finer shops.” In a toy shop she sees “Half the dolls are boys in uniform; girl dolls are nurses. How does a child cuddle and tend a Red Cross nurse?… Where are the people who made the music and spun the stuff of fairy tales? In Cologne, seeing the Cathedral with the moon behind it, I could have cried. It was so beautiful and so alone….Down in the street under my window, it rains hard; and men in gray are marching past. Why? I cannot say. Where? I have no idea. I’m only an American, staying overnight in a German hotel, and realizing I have never heard soldiers on the march before.
And then I left the rumors of war and lost myself in the comfort of Yankee’s ads, which told stories of their own. Here was a 12-room house with 90 country acres: $10,000. A century-old Vermont homestead with eight rooms, porch, fireplace, large barn, chicken house, 1,500-foot elevation, 50-mile view, brook, 25 acres: $3,800. I looked at photos of maple syrup jugs: a gallon for $2. A room at New York’s Langdon Hotel, on Fifth Avenue at 56th Street, a smart address and not expensive: $6 double. There are ads for canned codfish cakes, known for their delicate flavor, and for the burgeoning sport of skiing where the snow never fails.
At the end of the night, I had come to the last months of 1941 and the brink of war. I had thought I would just glance through these Yankee relics but instead found myself reading entire stories, thinking, My mother was 20 then, she did not know that in three years she would marry my father on an army base, and there my sister would be born. This was her era. My dad’s era. The only way I would know it was here, turning these pages.
On the December 1941 cover were these words: A Yankee is an American, and in the present crisis, thank God, the North, South, East, and West are together, working and fighting for the same principles and ideals. And yet, on the pages inside, I noticed something in the small print for many inn and hotel ads. An inn on Nantucket: Restricted. A hotel in Hyannis: Restricted clientele. Four lodges and inns in New Hampshire: Selected clientele … Restricted … Selected clientele … Christian clientele only.
Looking up these phrases on the Web took me down a path I had not expected: “Restricted clientele” meant no Jewish clientele. I paused. Not long after this issue was published, my father became one of roughly half a million Jewish soldiers serving in the U.S. armed forces. I asked Google another question, and found out that some 4,000 Jewish soldiers had landed at Normandy. Not one of them would have been able to vacation at these places advertised in Yankee, if and when they returned. I wish I could go back in time and be in the room when these ads, so removed from the cover’s “same principles and ideals,” were being accepted. But I cannot.
Here is the thing: Yankee did eventually stop taking those ads. Many of those same inns and hotels are still here, and I doubt today’s owners and staff could even envision an era when guests were turned away. Today we say we have never been so divided — we can’t even all agree to wear a mask to care for each other’s health — but at the same time I learn every day about acts of kindness and courage and concern that take my breath away.
The world of December 1941 is long ago, and yet still with us. Again we are in the fight of our lives. I know what Robb Sagendorph put on the cover back then seems beyond our reach: in the present crisis, thank God, the North, South, East and West are together, working and fighting for the same principles and ideals. And I wonder what someone will think of the 2020 issues of Yankee if they find them 80 years from now, tossed out when a local library clears out its clutter. I hope they will see that these are the stories from a time unlike any we had known, stories about how we kept believing in the best of us. Because the virus of restricted clientele died out. And we never stopped looking and finding the beauty all around us, and we never forgot what got us through, not once, not ever.
Summer arrived here on Sunday. The sky was blue, the sun hot. The thermometer read 80. My wife, Annie, and I live beside the Contoocook River in Peterborough, and for the first time this year we set up the table on the lawn and the outdoor furniture, cranked open the umbrella, and let the day drift along like the river. Our house was built in the 1820s, with two huge fireplaces in the basement where food was once prepared. Historical records suggest it housed factory workers for a good part of a century, and I picture them on a Sunday, watching the water flow, just like this.
In our 12 years here, we have seen a bald eagle in our oak tree, great blue herons skimming low, kingfishers on the hunt in the evening, a family of Canadian geese that every fall use the grass as their feeding station, a beaver that gnawed its way through our young trees, bobcat tracks, a bear track, a moose track. Sometimes when I walk outside late at night with Rudy, our Jack Russell terrier, he will begin to bark wildly into the dark and pull on the leash with ferocious urgency. I know at those times there is something close by that is best to avoid.
Right now I have a complicated feeling, even a trace of guilt, about living here in this pretty town, beside this pretty river, heating my small house with the wood I keep stacked on the edge of the yard. I know that millions of people cannot step outside and see the sun sparkling on the water as we do, going about our day, Annie planting lettuce and I picking up hundreds of acorns before they all sprout into a miniature forest. In the news I see images of beaches packed with people of all ages who are willing to risk their health and that of their fellow citizens just to be outside and soak up the ocean air. I want to think I would not be one of those people — that this collective cabin fever would not lead me to ignore the health experts and scientists when they plead for us to stay in. But here I am, with my tidy yard, a river to watch, the promise of a heron streaking by. So, I don’t have to find out.
I have the same complicated feeling now when we walk into town, and always to River Street, the prettiest lane in Peterborough. This week, the magnolias and cherry trees were in full blossom. I know that fall foliage is New England’s signature season — our very own Mardi Gras — but when spring truly comes alive here, I can’t think of a more beautiful, more welcome time. So, I understand why license plates from distant places are suddenly everywhere in town.
I have not paid attention to license plates this closely since I was a boy sitting in the backseat with my sister as our father drove us on some road trip. We’d call out license plates we spied from states that seemed as mysterious as a foreign land: “Nebraska!” “Arkansas!” “Utah!” Now, though, it is very different. Yesterday as I was turning in to our driveway, three cars in a row with Massachusetts plates passed by. At the local supermarket on Saturday, I saw Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut. Then there was the young woman we saw unloading suitcases from a car with Texas plates and taking them into an apartment we’d seen being cleaned a few days earlier. And overlooking the river is a pretty Airbnb where I’ve seen New York, Illinois, California, and Connecticut plates over the past several weeks.
If I lived in one of the states hit hardest by the coronavirus, I’d want to be here, too, in a town where you can walk or bike and never feel crowded. There is a part of me that wants to say to visitors, Welcome, be well, be safe. And there is also a part of me, deep down, that shares the fears of many others in rural areas, and wants to say: We don’t know you. We don’t want to be unwelcoming, but can you go back home?
Today, a woman phoned me from the island of Vinalhaven. She had seen one of our e-newsletters touting beautiful Maine islands for readers to daydream about — including hers. She was worried that people would do more than daydream; they would come to see the island for themselves. “We are the oldest population in the country,” she said. “You can’t believe how on edge we are.” I do believe it. In some ways, we are all islanders.
Where I live, we have always welcomed people from away. When we see them sitting outside the Waterhouse restaurant where the river hurries along, or strolling in and out of shops in Depot Square, or on the trail climbing Mount Monadnock, we see our gifts reflected back to us. I want that feeling back. I don’t want to look a license plate from New York with a twinge of concern. I want to stop and say, “You won’t see it in a guidebook, but walk along River Street, and see if it doesn’t make you want to stay.”
I don’t know the names of the two young women I saw walking from the pond beach to the nearly empty parking lot at dusk last Saturday. I wish I had asked if they would mind if my wife, Annie, took their photo. But I hesitated, thinking it was too intimate a moment for us to interrupt, and by the time I realized that maybe they would want to share it with others, they had climbed into their car and driven away.
It had been a mild day, 50s, the last weekend in April, and after a day of chores — stacking firewood, raking fallen branches and brambles and leaves from the yard — we had gone to our favorite local spot, Cunningham Pond. There are few summer days when we don’t go there after I come home from work, and we stay until the sun sets behind the trees. The pond is only 34 acres, 18 feet at its deepest point, and so pristine that for years it supplied our town’s drinking water. When Yankee wrote about it, we called it “Elizabeth’s Gift,” because local writer Elizabeth Marshall Thomas had bought the pond with proceeds from her best-selling book, TheHidden Life of Dogs, and bestowed it upon the citizens of Peterborough (with the provision that a second, smaller beach be set aside for dogs).
This Saturday I knew the pond would be Maine-ocean cold, the cold that seems at first to burn. We had come not to swim but only to see it, for the first time in months: the rippled water, the lifeguards’ pretty cottage, the path where blueberry bushes crowd close in July. Mostly, we went to remember the ease of summer.
As we walked down to the beach, we saw the two young women headed up. I thought at first they had wrapped themselves in towels, and I shouted over, “Did you go in the water? Was it freezing?” One shouted back, “No, it’s our prom night!” And when I looked again, I saw they were wearing beautiful long gowns, and that everything about them was elegant.
Of course prom had been cancelled, here and everywhere, which means so many thousands of high school students had bought or made dresses only to have nowhere to wear them. So, two friends came to this lovely pond and made a memory they will surely talk about long into the future. Maybe if they read this — or someone who knows them reads this — they will send us the photos I am certain they took of themselves, looking happy and proud, with the sun glinting on the water.
This is the kind of story that our local paper, the biweekly Monadnock Ledger-Transcript, writes about. Like so many small-town newspapers, it has been around for generations. Entire lifetimes play out in its pages: a birth notice … youthful achievements on athletic fields, or in band, or in theater or 4-H clubs … honor roll mentions … graduations … news from college or the military or trade school … a wedding notice … more birth announcements … and one day, the final notice, when a person has passed. Countless households here have scrapbooks filled with clippings from the Ledger, some no doubt going back decades, telling the story of a family in one yellowed swatch after another.
The newspaper also reports on the things that matter only here: a road paving project, a zoning petition, what band is playing Friday at Harlow’s, who is signing books at the Toadstool. It’s the steady voice that connects all of us who live in the Monadnock region, and it is needed now more than ever.
On Tuesday, the front page told us about a solitary trout fisherman who is living his social-distancing dream on the Souhegan River. It also reported that our famed summer theater, the Peterborough Players, has cancelled the season. And then, in a narrow column running down the side of the front page, I saw a name I knew: Kirsten Colantino. A friend and former colleague at Yankee, Kirsten is 53 and lives in Dublin. She is a hiker and a runner who had not been sick for a decade. But after returning home after a trip to Florida with her daughter in March, she soon felt ill. It was COVID-19. “Like being hit by a freight train,” she told the reporter. As to why she was sharing her recovery battle, Kirsten said, “I thought it was important to get a personal voice out there.”
Local newspapers rarely have circulations of more than 10,000, and most have half that at best. Yet they are with us, week after week, no matter what: a crippling ice storm, a two-foot snowfall, a pandemic. We rightfully extoll the frontline doctors and nurses and EMTs and everyone who works under the most hazardous and stressful circumstances to help others. They are the ones for whom whole cities cheer, every night, and they deserve all the thanks we can give. But I want to also praise the reporters working long into the night to bring the stories of their towns to the rest of us.
With restaurants and shops closed, there are precious few advertisers putting money into newspaper pages. For the first time, the Ledger has reached out to the public for donations; there are many other newspapers facing the same odds. We need them. Those two young women in their lovely prom dresses one day may have another chance to celebrate a special event, and I want a local newspaper to be here to tell about it — a story for family and friends and fellow townspeople, so far from the affairs of the world, and never more important than now.
It’s a strange feeling to realize that a story my father told about living through the 1918 flu epidemic is now becoming my story, and the story of my two sons, and the story of all of us, a century later. Then 11 years old, he was living with his parents, two brothers, and a sister in a cramped second-floor apartment above the used-clothing store his Russian-immigrant father owned in Philadelphia. The flu hit the city hardest in the fall, and soon all schools were shut. Before the epidemic abated, more than 12,000 had died. It was one of the heaviest tolls in the country.
I doubt I paid much attention to what my father said when he told me that story. We were likely looking at the only photo I remember seeing of him as a boy: He is sitting on a pony in the middle of a street, for some reason. And I haven’t thought about my father’s experience in that epidemic for decades. But now I am. I don’t know what his family did to survive — there is no one left to ask. Maybe just knowing that they did survive is enough, and that the little used-clothing store and that crowded apartment were both still there when I was growing up.
Thinking of my dad at age 11 makes me think of children today. I wonder what they will remember, what stories they will tell. Many have computers and video games; they have cellphones. They are confined but not cut off. Still, this is a time they will never forget. My generation came of age when nuclear war was not abstract. A bell would ring at our elementary school, and we’d scoot beneath our desks and huddle like turtles, hands over our ears so that (we were led to believe) the sound of the blast would be muffled. But no blast came. And as years passed, we no longer crouched waiting for the unthinkable. Today’s children will no doubt prove to be the most resilient of all. I can only imagine the collective sound they will make when once again they can romp on playgrounds and ball fields, and run out to recess. We adults may need to hold our hands over our ears as their joy cascades across our towns.
What started me down this path of thinking about children was a message that Amy Traverso, our senior food editor, sent out to the Yankee staff a few weeks ago. With all nine of us now working at home, we’re using a platform called Microsoft Teams to stay connected, send files, collaborate on projects, and also, from time to time, get playful. Amy announced she was launching a series of challenges under the heading of “Yankee Fun Times,” something to give us a laugh and keep alive the bond we shared daily in the office. Think of it as small talk in a world with so much talk about big things.
For this week’s challenge, we all had to dig up a favorite photo from our childhood. When I first saw this request, I sighed; I just couldn’t find the time to wedge in one more project, no matter how frivolous. But then there was Amy, giddily playing in ocean waves; Heather, our photo editor, on a Shetland pony named Pepper; our deputy editor, Ian, on a swing, his face full of mischief. There were also no fewer than four photos of future editors in tutus. I scrolled through the photos and realized I had been wrong. Looking at who we once were and knowing who we became, I saw the thread through time. A story on its inevitable loop.
Every Thursday morning, we have an editorial meeting by way of video conference — which to me is mysterious technological alchemy. Our senior digital editor, Aimee Tucker, has a 2-year-old daughter named Vivien, who often joins our meetings sitting on her mother’s lap, looking wide-eyed and intently at what must seem a strange set of talking heads onscreen — as if we are simply living in some secret chamber in her house, only to pop out once a week. She doesn’t disrupt what we do. She patiently shares her mother’s attention with us. I do not know what Vivien will remember from these weeks and possibly months. Maybe none of it. Or she may have a glimmer that her mother was always there, even as voices and faces popped up unexpectedly before vanishing in a flash.
One day I want to tell her, “Vivien, your mother woke so early, even before you, and she stayed awake late, long after you, so she could do what she knows connects thousands of people to New England.” I will want her to see the photo of her mother when she was a little girl, when she dressed up and danced, because that is what children should always do, even when their parents worry about an uncertain future. “Vivien,” I will say when she is older, “there was danger, yet you were protected. You made your mother laugh. You made a whole group of editors smile. That is how life continues.”
I have taught writing for 20 years — first at UMass, now in the MFA program at Bay Path University in Massachusetts, as well as at a number of workshops. I have no magical words that I pass on to help students reach their potential. So much depends on how deeply they want to work on the craft, how widely they read, how keenly they observe the world around them, and how well they understand the music of words. But I do always tell them this: To make their stories live on the page, they need scenes. Life happening, people talking, people reacting, movement, conflict, choices, resolutions. Every story I give my students to read is rich with scenes.
Last evening my wife, Annie, and I walked into town. It was nearly 7. It was cool, the light soft. And nobody was around. We walked up the hill, past the waterfall, through neighborhoods where now and then we stirred a dog to bark from inside a house. Forty minutes passed, and we saw only two other people.
It hit me then — in our small town, with spring poking its way through, with grass greening — that it was if this place had been stripped of scenes. I know from the news that there is immense courage and sadness everywhere, that makeshift hospitals now rise in New York’s Central Park, that healthcare workers are reaching their breaking points, that governors and mayors lie awake over how to balance saving lives against preserving livelihoods. But here, in this moment, that all seemed elsewhere. I listened to the barking, the wind slapping the trees. The scenes were inside these trim homes, and the doors were shut for the night.
But then a car stopped. Two windows rolled down, a black dog poking its head out the back. Greeting us from the front was Beth Brown. She is the granddaughter of Edith Bond Stearns, who founded the Peterborough Players summer theater in 1933. She is the daughter of Sally Brown, a force of creative will who kept the Players alive through the years, bringing it to where it stands today, one of the premier summer repertory playhouses in New England. As for Beth, she came aboard as the Players’ director of advancement last year.
There were no cars on the street, so Beth simply parked in the middle of the road. I asked if the Players would close for the summer. She sighed. “We don’t know,” she said. “We say to ourselves, ‘Maybe we could do one show. Or two. We could sit people in one row and not the next.’” She shook her head. “We have always found a way. We have to hope the people know how important we are, and they will stand by us.” Then she told us that performers from past seasons, including NYPD Blue star Gordon Clapp, had recorded short videos of hope and appreciation — called “Bright Spots” — that were posted on the Players’ website.
When I arrived home, I clicked on the video from Clapp, who had performed as Robert Frost in a one-man show at the Players. He said he was currently in Vermont, where he was living “in a safe and beautiful place” while the virus roiled New York. He finished by reciting “One Step Backward Taken,” a poem written by Frost after he saw a bridge washed out in a storm, a car teetering on the edge. It ended with these lines:
I felt my standpoint shaken
In the universal crisis.
But with one step backward taken
I saved myself from going.
A world torn loose went by me.
Then the rain stopped and the blowing
And the sun came out to dry me.
Afterward, I thought again about that sense I’d had, that I was living in a place without scenes. I remembered a few mornings ago, Easter Sunday. We live across the road from our town’s lovely stone Episcopal church. At 10, the church bells began ringing out hymns, and then I saw people gathering on the church lawn — not many, maybe 20 — standing apart from each other but still joined, not singing, simply standing in silence, listening to the hymns. After a half hour or so, the group gradually melted away, and soon the lawn and the parking lot were empty, leaving only the flowers on the church steps to stand sentinel.
Late that afternoon we went to see Annie’s mother at Summerhill, the assisted-living home where she resides. Like so many families with relatives living in these facilities, we can’t visit. Nobody can visit. It is necessary, but difficult. Mary opened the window as we stood outside; because her mother is hard of hearing, Annie spoke to her on the phone even though Mary hovered just a few feet above our heads.
Mary is an artist, and each day she draws fantastic images, her hand still steady at age 93. The form is called Zentangle, and it can be a sort of meditation put to paper. Each piece takes about three days. She will often awaken in the middle of the night and go to her desk, grab her pen, and begin. She has had an art exhibit of her drawings at a gallery and also at Summerhill, and today she held up at least 10 for us to see. She did this in utter silence. Her art has become a world within a world for her.
Even as I write this, I realize I will have to adjust my advice to writing students on the importance of scenes. Don’t just look at what is happening in front of you, I need to tell them. Think of what you can find by paying attention. Think of how the simple act of saying hello when a car stops can lead you to an actor reading Frost, or how hearing a bell can let you witness faith when church doors are shut, or how showing up beneath a window can let an artist have her own show for those who matter the most.
In the summer of 2017, I traveled to Bucksport, Maine, to give a speech about the importance of community. There, I found a town that was facing the end of a way of life it had known for generations, as the local paper mill had shut down with little warning. I spent a number of days among those whose lives had changed so swiftly, and later I wrote their story for Yankee. I called it “The Town That Refused to Die,” and it began like this: You learn what you’re made of not when life is good, but when the ground beneath your feet gives way, and you are left afraid and uncertain of what to do.
I’ve been thinking a lot about those words lately. The ground beneath our feet is unsteady, with each day bringing fresh tremors. Yet everywhere I look, I see people carrying on, finding their way.
There are nine people on Yankee’s editorial team, and as with most offices across the country, we are scattered: one in Massachusetts, one in Vermont, but most of us right here in the Monadnock region of southwestern New Hampshire. We connect through words on a screen, and we see each other on video calls. Four of us are within a few minutes’ walk of one another, yet we ask how everyone’s day is going as if we were all living in far-off places. In a sense, we are.
I am noticing small things more than before; I imagine this is happening to many of us. The other day, I counted my steps as I walked the perimeter of my backyard, which ends at the bank of the Contoocook River. If the time comes when we are not allowed to walk freely in town or along the bike path, or on the forested trail, I know that 20 laps around my backyard will get me a mile. Over the weekend, my wife, Annie, and I took our dog for a walk in the woods behind the high school, and in the empty parking lot two young parents were giving their son what looked like his first bike lesson. He was laughing, and that was as welcome a sound as the peepers in the small pond, who in the quiet seemed as loud as geese.
And I am noticing the people I see walking past our house and on the sidewalks downtown. There’s a young woman who walks past our house every morning at roughly the same time. She seems shy and is usually looking at her phone. A few days ago, Annie and I were walking on one side of the street, by the shuttered town library, and the young woman was on the other side. We were the only people in sight on the main street of a town of 6,000. And we waved, and she saw us, and a smile lit up her face. I imagine we will always wave from now on, and maybe she will always smile.
Neither of us wore face masks that day. Yesterday, we both did, along with nearly everyone else we saw: the grocer, a woman by the post office. We nodded at one another, fellow wearers of masks. And in a small town, recognizing neighbors — whether with a nod in passing or a wave from across the street — feels for that moment that we are connected by something bigger than each of us.
These walks mean more than exercise. Nearly every day when we were at Yankee, several of us followed a nearly two-mile loop: up a steep hill, past stone walls, onto a dirt road bordered by trees, then spilling out onto the leafy campus of a private school. Those walks were for getting out, clearing the mind. Now, walks are for looking closely. I noticed that a magnolia tree overlooking the river is about to blossom. For the first time in years, I paused to actually read the historical sign by the thundering waterfall that marks the site of the first water-powered cotton mill in New Hampshire.
Today Annie and I saw a box outside the back entrance of the town library. It sat beside a container filled with hundreds of homemade masks, all waiting to be distributed. Inside the box were dozens of copies of a 40-page stapled booklet titled “Socially Distanced/Connected by Community: A Personal Journal of the COVID-19 Pandemic in the Monadnock Region.” Free for the taking, these blank journals are being offered by the local historical society, which hopes to collect residents’ accounts of these shared days and weeks. According to the sign on the box, organizers hope that one day, long into the future, “the people of the Monadnock region will be able to hear our voices, learn the ways the community pulled together (while staying six feet apart!), experience our disappointments and triumphs, and see the ways we persevered.”
I hope the children of today will come read these journals when they are ready — maybe in 20 or 30 years, when they have families of their own. They will see what all of us know to be true, even on a hard day: In time the ground settled, and we learned what we are made of. They made it through. We made it through.
It was nearly dark when I finally left the Yankee office last Friday. New Hampshire’s governor had ordered all nonessential businesses to close until May 4, and even though in our hearts we feel our work is essential for anyone who finds solace in stories about the spirit and beauty and endurance of New England, we understood. And our staffers are continuing to tell those stories — though now from our homes, each of us connected through what I am convinced is sorcery.
By late afternoon Friday the parking lot was all but empty, yet I lingered. I had stacked a small mountain of Yankee volumes beside the copier and was picking through them, looking for those stories whose inspirational message would never grow old. Our associate editor, Joe Bills, hung in there with me, carrying volumes to a second machine to help copy my selections. In the end, when I drove away I had a box filled with stories of endurance and resilience that I hoped would brighten not only readers’ days, but also my own.
When I walked into the house carrying the box, there was a sound coming from the living room that I had not heard for a few years: the purring thrum of the Italian-made Necchi sewing machine that my wife’s mother had bought in 1953. And behind which now sat my wife, Annie. (“The machine weighs as much as a small car, and there was a fair amount of shoving and a dangerous moment of lifting, before it came to rest on the dining room table,” Annie wrote later on Facebook.) Beside the machine, she had laid a small pile of brown calico decorated with flowers, which she had retrieved from her mother’s box of fabrics and was using — like many others here in town and around the nation — to sew masks for hospital and nursing home employees.
The next day, I learned that a local man who had once fixed up and sold vintage sewing machines had come out of retirement during this crisis and was repairing machines throughout the area at no charge. Now, the sound of that antique Necchi downstairs from my home office reminds me that even when we feel helpless to control the big stuff, we can still find our voice to say, “This is what I can do.” And when millions find the same voice, it does make a difference with the big stuff.
My wife’s mother, Mary, is 93 years old and lives at an assisted-living facility called Summerhill about a mile from our house. Our routine for several years has included a short Sunday drive with her to a local eatery, usually a diner. Of course, that has ended for now; the residents of Summerhill can no longer leave their rooms. It is hard on them, hard on their families, but everyone knows why this is needed.
After snow fell in New Hampshire last week, the community relations coordinator at Summerhill, a woman named Jean Kundert, started making snowmen for the residents, whose windows provide their only link to the outdoors. When Jean finished a few hours later, 42 snowmen faced those windows. Later, on her nightly phone call with Annie, Mary laughed as she told about seeing the snowmen, her voice sounding light as a child’s — which for a few minutes that day she was.
Stories of hope, and of people going to extraordinary lengths to help each other, are our lifeline to a more normal future, whether that lies a month ahead or two, or well into the days of summer heat and tomatoes ripening in our gardens. For today, my sign of hope is an amaryllis plant. Annie brought it home three years ago from the recycling center, where it had been dumped into the compost heap out back. She placed it in the sunlight, beside windows facing east and south. She watered it, believing in the power of nurturing. The green shoots grew — one foot, two, three — but never a flower.
Last night? Well, last night this is what happened.
The snow fell heavy and wet on Monday night, and we woke up to trees wearing a blanket of winter white. It was really quite lovely, and even though spring had arrived and I would have welcomed having grass to mow and a garden to till, there was something comforting in being out at 7 a.m. shoveling. The sheer normalcy of flinging snow off the car with my mittened hands and clearing a landing spot in the yard for Rudy, our fiery Jack Russell terrier, made the world seem, for that hour or so, quite ordinary. And for that I was grateful.
My colleagues here at Yankee are now working on our July/August issue, and our daily newsletters, and our constant outreach on social media. Sometimes it may seem as if this stuff just happens, as if by magic, but it doesn’t. And I want you to know the names of two of the people working hard behind the scenes: Aimee Tucker, our senior digital editor, and Katherine Keenan, our associate digital editor. They understand that they are building a bridge that spans the country, even farther, and whenever someone takes joy in making a recipe they send out, or scrolls slowly through the beautiful New England photos they feature on Instagram — well, in moments like those, they have given all of us a kind of landing spot.
The May/June issue, which we finished last week, will soon arrive in mailboxes around the country, filled with stories about paying a visit to Atlantic puffins on their rocky Maine island home, experiencing the magnificence of a windjammer under sail, celebrating the tradition of New England summer theater. These stories seem as if they belong to a different place, another time. And we all know they do. When we planned the May/June issue so many months ago, we talked in the halls about the summer ahead, the Red Sox, and whether Tom Brady could win one more Super Bowl.
So here we are. We remain at our post, but our task has shifted. We are looking for that delicate balance between acknowledging that we all feel anxious about what happens next, while still working to bring the beauty and blessings of ordinary life to you, wherever you are.
A few days ago, I heard from one of Yankee’s contributing writers who lives in northern Vermont. He wrote that he saw the year’s first red-winged blackbird in his yard, and that the maple sap was still running, and that a friend who was anxious about the headlines also had lambs on the way—and lambs won’t wait until the world is on an even keel again. This writer was saying when you simply look around, you can find timeless comforts even in the most trying times.
I also recently came across a Facebook post by a gifted local singer-songwriter, Wendy Keith, who plays all through the Monadnock region and beyond. Her new CD just came out — Wendy Keith and Her Alleged Band — and yes, I plugging her record here. Why? Because when my wife read her post, tears welled in her eyes and she shook her head, and I realized that even these dark days bring unexpected bursts of light. Here is some of what Wendy wrote:
It’s been 30 years, no, maybe 40 since I rode a bike. I’m not sure. It’s been a long while.
Today, here on Sanibel Island in Florida, where although it’s the month of March, it feels like July back where I come from in New England.
But today I made the little extra effort to do something that frightened me, and I know this sounds a bit silly, but hey, I’m 65 and almost 66, and falling has greater ramifications than it did when I was 20 or 30 or even 40.
Today I felt like I was 10 or 12 again and I tried something that felt virtually new again. I got on a bike and rode. And it’s true; it’s just like riding a bike.
When I was a child, my dad taught me how to ride the amazing two-wheeler…. He talked me into feeling confident, gave me a running push, and did the hardest thing parents ever have to do, he let me go. I was feeling so excited and adventurous that once I got going, I spontaneously thought I might get tricky and began to waggle my handlebars back and forth. I vaguely heard him say I shouldn’t do that because I might fall, when the pavement came suddenly up to meet me…. Boom — I crashed. This I remember well. I don’t remember getting up again, but certainly I did. I lived to ride another day.
Somewhere along the line, I stopped riding bikes. I grew up, went through college, met a man, married, and had children. I taught children how to ride bikes, how to drive cars; they grew up and moved on.
Now I am older. I have a grandchild who has yet to ride a two-wheeler. He will before too long and sometime he may fall.
And this season is radically different…. Radical and unfamiliar changes are taking place constantly, daily, minute to minute. Courage, faith, and simple daily tasks have become challenging, and being far from home right now is surreal and unsteadying….
We are in a small, private cottage on a long-planned trip, taking precautions to isolate and physically distance ourselves to the best of our ability. We drove on this trip, which gave us a sense of security and control at least over our transportation. Not much else has been normal. Restaurants are shut down now and an order has just been given to close all lodgings in the Florida Keys, not far from here, so we could be next to be told to pack our bags and go home.
But today we put on some sunscreen … and went outside and got on bikes and went for a ride. In a remarkable way, I was suddenly 12 again. I felt the wind on my face. I pedaled and balanced and loosened my grip and rode down the road like a pro…. I found myself riding all around the neighborhood, then down the bigger road and all around and around the nearby neighborhood. And it had a bell. I rang the bell.
Life is often so much about context and perspective. You, my friend, can draw any conclusions you like from this tale of my day in this troubled time. Today I got back on that bike.