Friday, September 11, 2009

Chelsea, Vermont

Meadowbrook School, Chelsea, Vermont

Old country store, Chelsea

The hardware store

August 29, Saturday, was cold and rainy, a day with no hint of summer lingering in the grey sky and chilly air. Our motor home was parked in my sister's yard which is a large space encircled with trees, saplings and underbrush. We crawled from under our blankets, fed Raisin the cat and trudged through wet grass to the house lured by the thought of hot coffee.

The arrangements for our Dad's memorial service had been made for the following day, we had gathered in groups to sort, pack, discard, clean at his house. We had thought this would be a good time to drive to southern Vermont and visit with J.'s aunt and his cousins. This plan bogged down when the cousins didn't answer phones and no reunion could be arranged.

J. sat staring glumly over his coffee mug, the rain dripped down, sister's dog and cat came in wet-footed from a brief and dutiful foray into the yard. I offered suggestions which were met with monosyllabic grunts.

Suddenly J. stirred from his gloomy reverie and stated, "We can drive to Chelsea." I wasn't immediately enthused. Chelsea, Vermont is the place that in his rather nomadic childhood J. considered "home." Our last visit there was undertaken about six or seven years ago. We had flown to Vermont, rented a car, and J. decided that an expedition should be launched with the idea of showing our daughter and her children the family home site. It was one of those occasions which joined the collection of "typical Whitehurst journeys"--memorable in retrospect for ridiculous things rather than for hallowed trysts. Daughter and grand daughter took turns whining that they were "going to puke", turning various unsavory shades of green with car sickness. Grandson bounced on the back seat announcing that he was hungry, interspersed with "when are we going to get there?" When we did arrive after swooping up and down dirt roads J found that the old logging road, scene of his adventures with his twin brother was overgrown with brambles and sumac. After an hour of plunging through the woods, disgruntled tribe in tow, he gave up on the family history lesson. The fresh air had restored daughter and grand daughter, everyone confessed to feeling starved. Driving from one hamlet to another in search of a meal, we discovered that it must be "off season" as every cafe and eatery had closed for the afternoon. Finally, after an hour or so of drifting we happened on an old brick building which offered an assortment of country store items and a soup and salad bar. Daughter made a beeline to lift the lid of the soup caldron from which issued a savory smell. Clanging the lid back in place, gasping with horrified laughter, she announced in a stage whisper that there was a FLY floating in the soup! I seem to recall that we had fresh sandwiches made and sat there eating them, meeting each others eyes and bursting into barely smothered snorts.

It was only J. and I making the trip on this rainy Saturday. We were both tired and said little as we drove over Brandon Gap. Wind whipped the roadside trees and green leaves lay plastered on the pavement. We passed through familiar villages where stately old houses clustered around the common. In dooryards, stands of golden glow, phlox and rudbeckia bowed nearly horizontal, colorful heads dragging on wet grass. Dahlias held proud blooms of dark red and purple above the sodden wreckage of lesser flowers. We noted how side-hill pastures were empty of milk cows, goldenrod and juniper and steeple bush taking over what had been grazing land a decade or two ago. Noble barns with upper bays for hay storage, lower stables for cattle stood empty, red paint peeling. Small graveyards encircled with spikey metal fences loomed in the dankness of mid day, white marble headstones black streaked with lichen.

J. drove on determinedly, turning onto the dirt road that would take us past the old home place. Running water had cut out the sides of the narrow track overhung with dripping trees.

"Do you want to stop and take a picture?" I asked. He slowed near the neat cottage which had replaced the small cobbled-together dwelling of a half century ago. Slowed and then drove on to the nearby school house. I asked why this particular place was special among the many places the family had stayed. "I suppose," he replied, "because this was the first place that my parents had owned and I was the right age to enjoy it."

When we stopped at the old brick store in town where J. took photos and bought wintergreen patties of a bilious pink, the store keeper told him that there had been so much summer rain that the rivers and brooks had overflowed their banks.

We drove slowly back, stopped for a late lunch at a restaurant we used to know. While we ate, an elderly man came in carrying black berries in a plastic cool whip container. He asked the young waitress if the manager would buy the berries for making pies. The girl explained that all the pies were made from canned prepared fillings. On impulse I pulled a 5 dollar bill from my wallet, having overheard the price the man was asking for his berries. They weren't the biggest berries I've seen or picked myself, but I thought of his labor, clamboring through wet underbrush, brambles clinging to his clothes. I looked at his knarled hands. He saw me eyeing a large bandaid on his wrist. "I got snagged picking the berries and it bled forever," he explained.

I paid for the berries. Blackberries, he told me earnestly, had more nutritional value than strawberries--"the darker the berries, the more goodness."

We watched him go out to his old van, a tall lean figure, only slightly stooped, eyes a far-seeing gentle blue under his shabby cap. That evening at my sister's house, we ate the blackberries with a splash of cream.


  1. I'd have done the same MM, over buying the blackberries that is. Your lyrical writing took me with you to that dripping county, farmsteads sinking into oblivion (why?). Your mention of the old man and his fruit reminded me of mum growing up in Romsey. They lived close to the old Jam Factory and in the autumn the New Forest gypsies would arrive with basket after basket of blackberries. Crab Apples too I don't doubt as the Forest has hundreds of Crab Apple trees (I wish I were there now . . .)

    Oh, and I now know why WE had such a wet summer - it came across from Vermont!

  2. Our home county in the Champlain Valley of Vermont was known as "the land of milk and honey"--large dairy farms, beekeepers, maple syrup producers. Even there dairy farms are going under--the costs of maintanence and production, high land taxes, have too long out-stripped the income. The overgrown pastures and "mowings" in the hillier country were indicative of a generation who have realized they can't make a living from the land.
    Our sense of sad changes was very much in keeping with the rainy washed-out day.
    The gypsies selling fruit at the Jam Factory sound a bit like my Grampa "pedaling" berries and produce to the summer hotels in his youth.