One Step Forward, One Look Back


Down time in the middle of a weekday is almost unheard of for me, but, thanks to the State of Vermont, I get it once a week for eight weeks every winter.

For the last seven years, Thing1 (and now Thing2) have been getting out of school at noon through most of the winter so that they can enjoy the winter sports that bring so many tourists to our area. The younger kids skate; older kids get to ski, and the ski resorts get to train a new generation of instructors and winter sport ambassadors. It’s popular with parents because it’s a cheap alternative to indoor phys-ed, but it’s also an almost iron-clad excuse to leave work or other responsibilities for a few hours each week.

Siting in the warm room at our local skating rink is social and relaxing. I love to reconnect with people I only wave to in the school parking lot as I watch Thing2 glide from wall to wall more steadily each week. But, as relaxing as it is, every week, it also reminds me that, as firmly planted in the Vermont lifestyle as I have become, I have not completely let go of the city girl that left Boston 13 years ago.

Today the rink is deserted except for the few families from the elementary school. The kids flow in and out of the warm room, eating between lessons as parents, unconcerned about stranger danger watch and read and chatter.

For some reason, however, even surrounded by people I know, I still find myself falling into patterns of behavior that were once obligatory in the city and suburbs. I always keep my purse zipped and wrapped around me. When I go to the snack bar, I close any computers and bring things with me – and I can see the snack bar from my usual spot 15 feet away.

Some of my paranoia is founded in experience. A lack of vigilance at a Boston restaurant led to my wallet being stolen right out of my handbag and my guard being permanently alert from then on. Days like today, however, I have to stop my looking back from making me turn back.

I doubt that I will ever leave my door unlocked like many of our neighbors do, but today, surrounded by parents of schoolmates and kids that I know are (most of the time) well-behaved, I consciously made the decision to take a step forward. Thing1, now four inches taller than his mother (he keeps track) and a bottomless pit came in requesting a top-up for his snack. He had to run to his lesson, and, alone again, I got up. Without a backward glance I sauntered to the snack, leaving my fear on the table with my computer and my bag. As luck would have it, only one thing was missing when I got back, and it wasn’t the bag or the computer.

Pup Up with the Joneses

Most mornings when I drag myself out of bed for my 5AM display of writing discipline, I head to our study and shut the door.

Now that winter has finally arrived, however, something in me craves the company of the wood stove (it’s a want, not a need – our earth-sheltered house keeps the temps pretty steady), and I’ve been making my way out to my kitchen-study.  On these mornings, a soft jingle greets me as Katy, the wonder dog surreptitiously hops off the big green recliner in the family room, and I start the morning with a chuckle, amazed she still engages in the charade, if only once a day.

When I was a kid, my parents had a big black Lab named Rurik (my mom was studying Russian history then).  Their house was decidedly neater than ours – the neatness gene went to my sister – and there was never a question of whether dogs should be allowed on furniture.  Rurik was not.  Still, while he never openly challenged this rule or appeared to disobey at night, my mom would sometimes find a mass black fur on the burnt-umber sofa cushions after a day out.

We had this same pattern of rules and quiet, civil disobedience with our first dog after we moved to Vermont.  We acquired Josie, a Spoffordshire Terrier mix, from the local shelter while we were still under the influence of the German suburban sensibilities we had absorbed a couple years earlier while living just north of Frankfurt.  While our international experience hadn’t pumped up my cleaning mojo much, we did come back with certain ideas about how dogs should behave, and reserving furniture for humans was one of them.  Like Rurik, Josie had her ideas too, and she obeyed when we were there and left the telltale black-and-white fur on the sofa while we weren’t.

But the longer we lived in Vermont, the more suburban sensibilities we shed.  After the second year, we both abandoned any interest in restoring the front door of our then 200 year-old farmhouse and creating a formal entrance – the default entrance in Vermont is through the mudroom.  We both enthusiastically embraced the Vermont version of business casual (wearing your good jeans or newer Carhardts to work), and as we visited homes and got to know more of our neighbors, I unconsciously noticed that many people let dogs on furniture.

When we got Katy, we still stuck to our old ways – more out of habit than conviction now, but after a  year I found the evidence that she had taken up the dogs-on-furniture banner.  We caught her once or twice and shooed her off, but I clearly did not express my position well enough.  I wasn’t sure what my position was now.

She must have sensed a possible change in doggie fortunes in our house because soon after I brought home the green recliner from a tag sale, she staked it out as her spot.  The Big Guy shooed her off multiple times.  I did it a few times.  But each time she would return, soon not even waiting for us to leave before she slid one paw and then another onto the seat and then her body the rest of the way onto the chair.

I’ve chosen my big battles at this point.  The only ones I wage seriously now are to be sure Thing1 finishes seventh-grade English with as few psychological scars as necessarily and that Thing2 takes off the rainbow wig before school.  It might be because the Wonder Dog looks relatively cute sitting on that chair, but now, when I go over to give her a little petting, I realize that I’m getting almost too good at letting go of little battles.  Some people might call that laziness, and maybe I am lazy.  We’re not just not keeping’ up with the Joneses, we’ve given up on the whole race.  And while that may be a sign of our sloth, it does give us a chance to look around and enjoy the journey.

Keepin’ the Small Town Faith

Thing1 and the Big Guy had just headed off to Hubbard Hall, our local community theater and art center, to take part in a Holiday and Christmas reading.  Thing2 and I were headed to the library in Arlington Vermont for a visit with Santa.

We had missed seeing Santa at our town’s Christmas party (it’s a village of about 300 that is sort of a bedroom community next to the bustling metropolis of Arlington, VT), and I knew Thing2  really wanted to see him this year.

 

He is six. He asks questions all the time about everything, and Santa lore is uppermost in his mind this week, as it is with every child under the age of 12 (believers and non-believers alike).  As I guided the car down the dark muddy road, he asked how did Santa’s sled fly. I knew the tried and true answer of “magic” would not suffice. He had already begun hypothesizing. Would it have jet boosters?  Did the reindeer have some sort of special feed? Then he began asking who St. Nicholas was.  Were he and Santa the same person? Where did Santa come from?  I knew what the next question was.

I’ve been down this same road with these same questions before.  It seems like only yesterday that Thing1 was asking them.  Thing1 is a born skeptic.  However, Thing2 is more than willing to look for the magic in everyday items and events, so I thought we would keep the magic of Santa going a few more years before logic and skepticism threatened it. But as I drove I wondered if this would be our last year.

Thing1 has been well aware of the fact of the myth for many years, but he was willing to play along – after all it’s in his best interest.  As he’s grown older, he has enjoyed playing Santa along with us, helping us keep the story going for Thing2 by advising us to use special wrapping paper and even what should go in the stocking.  But I am not ready to surrender Santa on behalf of Thing2 just yet. Part of me knows that with the end of that bit of make-believe goes a special part of his childhood, as well as this magical phase of our parenthood.

The questions grew increasingly challenging, and I was relieved when we pulled into the parking lot at the library. The parking lot was crowded, the library was hosting Santa story hour, along with a Christmas basket lottery.

We climbed steps, and Thing2 asked, “Who’s playing Santa is here”.

“Santa, of course,”  I answered.

“No it’s not mom.”  Thing2 appeared very knowledgeable suddenly. All the Santa lore he had cleaned from years of Christmas specials on TV  briefly came to bear now as he authoritatively told me, “Santa sends his helpers.”  I didn’t know how to combat this so I listened to his theories until we got to the door and went in.

We were slightly late, and I was glad.  Santa had already arrived (no need to explain the lack of arriving reindeer – they were parked in back according to Thing2) and was getting ready to read The Night before Christmas.

Suddenly Thing2’s air of authority dissolved.  He clutched my hand pulling me closer to the front of the crowd to get a better look but was unwilling to go with his best friend to sit on the floor to hear Santa up close and personal.  Thing2 was silent through the story, his arms wrapping around my waist occasionally.  The story ended, and Santa invited the children to come sit on his lap and tell him their hearts’ desire for Christmas. Thing2 and I got in line, and he waited politely, his grip on my hand tightening as we got closer and his doubts shrinking with the line.

But this Santa was about to banish every last shred of doubt from his mind.

Thing2 watched his best friend climb on Santa’s lap. Then his little brother and little sister climbed on. Thing2 began to dance nervously.  A few more seconds and the last child in front of him was  finished attesting to their own good behavior for the year. Now it was Thing2’s turn.

Santa called Thing2 by name as he lifted him on to his lap. My first-grader appeared only mildly surprised. Then Santa told him he was sorry he hadn’t seen him at the Christmas party last weekend, and Thing2 was silent.

He stared at Santa, his list forgotten. Somewhere in his mind the acknowledgment was forming that Santa might actually see him when he’s sleeping and knows when he’s awake. Santa asked him if he been good this year.  Thing2 thought about that carefully for a moment and opened his mouth, but nothing came out.  He closed his mouth and looked at me for confirmation for the answer he wanted to give.  “He’s been very good this year,” I said.

Santa called him by his name again and said, “Well that’s wonderful to hear.   And has your brother, Thing1 been good too?”

Thing2 nodded solemnly and said,  “We’ve both been very good.”   Santa laughed, and Thing2 finally screwed up his courage and told Santa his wish list.  Then he wished Santa a Merry Christmas and hopped down.

We drove home talking about his visit and the Christmas basket we’d won for Grandma.  We talked about the kids he’d played with until we stopped to pick up some vittles at the Country store.

Thing2 bounced through the door of the establishment and immediately fixated on a toy the store’s owner had put out on one of the counters for display.  He played while I waited for the food and paid.  I picked up our bag and called to him to move along.

“I’m playing,” he responded with a mischievous smile.  Normally I would answer this type of insurrection with military efficiency and discipline (which, for some reason they don’t always take seriously), but tonight I reached into my arsenal for a new weapon.

“Remember,”  I said, “Santa’s watching.”  Thing2 instantly straightened up and walked calmly to the door, and I reminded myself to feel ashamed of my ploy once I had him buckled in.

“Is he really watching?”  Thing2 asked as we pulled out of the parking lot.

“He is in this town,” I answered.  And that was the end of the questions as we drove out of sight.

Fear

I let Katie out for her last potty break before bed.  I don’t walk her at night – one too many close calls with Yogi, the bear who visits my composter regularly, scared me off of late night strolls.  Katie’s a country dog.  She knows these woods better than the boys do.  But tonight her bravado outpaced her brains, and we both learned a powerful lesson about life in the woods.

Katie’s nightly runs are shorter now that the weather is colder, but they usually include a last minute visit to bark goodnight to the neighbor’s dogs.  She normally comes right back and barks at the window to come in.  Tonight, however, the bark at the window was short and sharp.

I turned to the Big Guy, happily snoring on the recliner we lovingly call our Venus Flytrap, to see if he had heard Katie’s agitated yelp.  He snored his reply, and I went to the door, hoping to get her in before anything more interesting pulled her attention back outside.  But I was too late.

I opened the front door and looked left toward our wood shed.  I knew instantly that something was wrong – both cats were crouched nervously on the top of the highest row of firewood.  As soon as the door opened, they glanced in Katie’s direction before darting into the mudroom and then the living room.  Katie was nowhere to be seen, but her barks had devolved into low growls.

Now I was nervous.  I stepped out and called out to her and heard only more growling and now scurrying sounds from the brush behind the woodshed.  Suddenly I saw something furry and low moving toward me.  Now I yelped.

Hoping my shriek had roused the Big Guy, I skedaddled back to the door, calling for Katie as I retreated.  Katie, however, was braver (or dumber) than I and came around the other side of the shed, zeroing in on her quarry.  At first I thought it was a raccoon and considered rousing the Big Guy to get his gun, but, worried that it would be too late and risk hitting Katie, I instead grabbed my umbrella and charged outside.

I knew tangling with a raccoon was stupid.  They’re not necessarily rabid here in the woods, but they can be ornery, and I was a little relieved when I got close enough to see that Katie’s prey was a porcupine.  As far as the dog was concerned, however, the porcupine wasn’t much better.

Our last dog had a couple (very expensive) run-ins with a porcupine or two, and I knew I had to get between Katie and the terrified critter.  Doing my best lion-tamer imitation, I kept the open umbrella between me and the fanned-out quills and tried to get Katie to leave off the chase.

There were a few shrieks (me) and lots of barking, and I kept hoping the Big Guy would come to my rescue.  But the pull of the Venus Fly-Trap was way too strong (and our house way too sound proof), and for those few tense minutes while I soothed and disciplined Katie, I was on my own.

Katie came into the house with a few quills in her mouth and, what I’m sure will be a short-lived but painful lesson about picking her prey.  My lesson will stay with me, however.  It is part of a long education that has already seen a few scary tests.

Largely due to our spotty and often abysmal health insurance situation a few years ago, the Big Guy went through a series of health care issues that became crises, two of them life-threatening.  One event led to a week in Intensive Care, and the second sent him to the ER with an infection that nearly cost him his leg and even his life.  While he fought so did I.  Once he was in recovery, however, and my adrenalin receded, I remained in crisis management mode.

I spent the next few years trying to anticipate and plan for any disaster that would leave me as the sole caretaker of two kids, and that planning often had me wondering how I would get on without my partner in crime.  I now know that the constant attention to that safety net took away a lot of the joy of being with my husband, but when it became less panicked, being prepared was – and is – a source of confidence.

Now, I may be temporarily terrified when wielding my umbrella against the creatures of the forest, but I know that somewhere in there I have the mettle to overcome the fear.  The fight is over, and I’m not obsessing about the next porcupine – or the next crisis.  I know whatever comes – crisis or critter – I can handle it.   And the foremost part of handling any of it is not to live in fear of what may come.

Traffic Jam

Tuesday day before Thanksgiving, and the house is almost ready.  The kids’ room is at Defcon 2 (down from a catastrophic level four), most of the laundry’s done (that was going to get done before Sunday), beds are made and ready for guests, and I only have the shopping left to do.  I dropped the kids at school and turned south on Route 7A going out of Arlington.  I got to the turn off for the highway but, not seeing anyone in front of me, decided to stay on the slower road to Bennington.

A meandering two lane country road dotted with  a few farms and the occasional white-steepled church, Historic 7A (as it’s known in the tour guides) is even more scenic as the November morning brushed the trees and meadows with a muted pink and green frost.  Usually I’m too preoccupied with to-do’s to absorb the view, but this is my last bit of quiet before a long weekend of entertaining, and I am determined to enjoy the drive – as long as it doesn’t take too long.

But I’m coming around a curve, about to set the cruise control when the back end of a decelerating dump truck magically appears in front of me, interrupting my view and my plan.  He continues to slow down, and I roll my eyes.  What now?  We are now crawling forward, but my curiosity is short-lived.

A few seconds later we get to the cause of the slowdown. It is a single flagger directing traffic around another orange-vested road worker. On the side of the road, parked in someone’s yard is an orange VTrans pickup.  And then I see the flagger has a couple helpers.

As the flagger steps out into the road, a couple of Rhode-Island Reds appear, inspecting the scuffed dirt around the parked pickup.

The dump truck and I slowly down a bit more, but we don’t even stop. I watch the dump truck weave carefully around the flag man, and the flag man waves.  The dump truck driver probably doesn’t know the guy.  I don’t either, but a second later I pass and wave too.

I accelerate out of the last curve.  The car speeds up, but I’ve completely slowed down.

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