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Posts Tagged ‘Vermont’

Wandering the graveyard

In aging, behavior, culture, History, life, travel, urban life on June 22, 2012 at 1:11 am

Near the house I’m sitting in Vermont is a town with a small graveyard with some early stones. Early, of course, is a relative term in a nation as young as the United States.

I wandered there at sunset, the sun low and pearly in the sky. I was sweaty and sore from a major workout at the gym, feeling as alive and strong as I have in years. What better time to contemplate one’s mortality?

I always notice the same things in graveyards dating from the 18th. or 17th. century here — people who died at, then especially, a ripe old age in their 80s or 90s, but a large number of young wives in their early 20s and their tiny babies, some dead within a few days or weeks of their birth.

How must have life, and death, felt like then?

Women died in childbirth. Their babies died of a host of diseases for which modern medicines were far distant in the future: smallpox, scarlet fever, diphtheria, pneumonia, influenza. Doctors, if one even lived anywhere nearby, arrived at whatever speed their horse and muddy, icy or snowy roads allowed them — after being hastily summoned by someone riding, rowing or running at top speed to find them. Even then, they had only a limited armamentarium in their black leather bag.

Husbands might — as one man did in this cemetery I visited — have three or four wives in their lifetime.

How much more familiar and intimate the spectre of (early) death must have been.

Where I live, in a northern suburb of New York City, I was for many years puzzled by many small graveyards I’d spy as I turned back onto the highway. They’re shaded by thick, old trees, bordered with stone walls and a wrought-iron gate. I wrote a New York Times story about them, (how I often satisfy my curiosity about something), and discovered these had once been on family farmland, long since sold off, the graves left behind.

It’s so easy to forget who came before us and what their lives, and landscapes, were like. Early graveyards are a useful reminder.

Their marker stones are often very beautiful, with a skull or an angel, and deep incised script in red sandstone or white marble.

My husband is a Buddhist and wants me to cremate him and spread his ashes at our favorite lake in Quebec. I should choose the same method as, with no kids, I can’t see anyone going to kneel at my grave. My ashes, similarly, are probably best scattered into a Canadian lake from the back of a canoe, to the haunting cry of a loon.

If my husband dies before I do, who will even take care of my disposal and estate? Serious stuff I still have to decide and write into a longer and much more detailed will.

I have no idea where my grandfathers are buried, or my paternal grandmother. My maternal grandmother, a grande dame who squandered much of her considerable wealth, was cremated. My mother buried her ashes in a silver Russian tea caddy (what else? where else?) in a Toronto park. Yes, illegally. I have no idea where exactly…but I wave to her whenever the subway car passes through the Rosedale station, nearest to the park.

My maternal great-grandfather, a prominent businessman in Chicago in the late 19th. century, has a gorgeous mausoleum I hoped to visit when I was there last year, but ran out of time. At least I know he’s still there.

Do you ever visit cemeteries to which you have no personal attachment?

Why?

A nine-hour drive

In behavior, cars, cities, life, travel, US on June 16, 2012 at 1:46 am
Nick Drake, c. 1969.

Nick Drake, c. 1969. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well, that was an odyssey!

As some of you know, I could have crossed the width of Ireland three times in the time it took me to get from my Dad’s house in Canada to the house in Vermont where I’m now house-sitting til the 29th, responsible for a pool, a charming small dog and a huge garden.

I started at 8:45 a.m., dropping my Dad off at the car rental place to start his day. As it would turn out, I was driving in tandem with a convoy of tour buses filled with chattering, texting, flirting 13-year-olds…and every rest stop I made, they made as well.

The 401, which runs east-west in Ontario, might be one of the world’s most boring highways — a straight line of asphalt with farm fields on either side for hundreds of miles. (Kilometers, there.)

So, if you’re alone, as I was, tunes are key. My new radio wasn’t working (!?) so it was CDs that would keep me energized and awake for the next day.

Corelli. Martin Sexton. Some Indian instrumentals. That was enough to get me to the Quebec border, where a big blue flag said “Bienvenue” and I switched to the Indigo Girls.

Montreal traffic at 3pm was no pique-nique…especially when the first road sign telling me to look for Route 10 never re-appeared. Nope. Nowhere. And Montrealers, where I learned to drive in 1988, drive fast. At least I could read the road signs in French and knew which streets were which as the exits whizzed past.

Finally, I hit the Champlain Bridge…and was overpowered by a terrifying memory of a story I  covered as a reporter for the Montreal Gazette. There is a lane on the bridge that’s a dedicated bus lane during rush hours, the same one I was now using to head south to Vermont. A car filled with young people had smashed head-on into a bus heading the other way…and I had taken (and passed) my driver’s test the following day.

The minute you cross the bridge, you’re in flat, green farming country, surrounded on both sides by barns, silos, cows. Enormous churches whose steeples gleam in the sunshine. I stopped for a breather and flopped into a deep bend to stretch out my back. I stood and caught the eye of a man in a purple polo shirt driving a flatbed carrying a tractor.

It’s fun to be out on the road alone, a redhead in a Subaru packed to the rafters.

The perfect music as I passed through towns whose names would take longer to pronounce than to drive through, like this one,  St.-Pierre-de-Veronne-a-Pike-River, was Nick Drake’s album Pink Moon, (his third and final one, whose title track was used for a Volkswagen Cabriolet commercial.) I adore it — meditative, soft and quirky.

It’s barely a half-hour from Montreal to the U.S. border.

I offered my passport…which I had forgotten to sign after I got it two weeks ago. I showed my green card (which actually, now, is green, which allows me the legal right to work and live in the U.S.) in which I’m still a blond.

“Why do you have so much stuff in your car?” the officer asked. I stayed calm and perky and confident, the way Jose has taught me to be: “I’m away from home for a month.”

“Do you have receipts for all those things?”

I actually did. Even my auction goodies.

I figured for sure I was due for a complete shake-down, but was waved through.

It’s always an odd moment when I cross the border between my two homes, the one where I grew up to the age of 30 (Canada, and where my family still lives) and the U.S. (where I’ve married twice and re-built my career despite three recessions.) I treasure elements of both countries and find deeply irritating elements in both.

Toronto pals wonder why I’m “stuck there” and New York friends wonder about the appeal of that 10-hour drive north.

I end up trying to explain American political gridlock to my Canadian peeps and Canadian health-care to my bewildered American friends who desperately crave a better solution but many of whom loathe and distrust any solution involving government.

As I faced my final few miles, I turned the wrong direction and drove another half hour the wrong way, The Doors blasting loud to keep me awake.

I finally pulled into my friend’s driveway after nine hours, grateful for a huge glass of red wine and Chinese food for dinner.

What’s the longest drive you’ve ever done on your own?

The inner hippie emerges!

In behavior, cities, culture, life, travel, US on April 11, 2012 at 12:11 am
The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, CA.

The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, CA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Have you ever found yourself in a landscape that transforms you?

I recently returned from one amazing day spent driving through Marin County, which is across the Golden Gate bridge, north of San Francisco. I went with a friend and her tiny daughter, who turns 3 in June. It was so lovely I’m counting the minutes until I can get back on the plane for the six hour ride from my home in New York.

Marin is bathed in golden light, its velvety hills a mix of Ireland, Scotland and Vermont, dotted with black cows and brown horses. Thick groves of redwoods. A winding road that led us through Dogtown, pop. 30. (The official sign later hand-lettered, amended to 31, 32, 33…)

I felt like a chorus in a Joni Mitchell song.

We stopped in Point Reyes and bought ice cream. Four men asked me to take their photo outside the Western Saloon, which looks exactly as it sounds.

I posed them in the narrow doorway of the saloon. “You look like a rock band,” I told them, and they laughed. Until they looked at the photo on their Iphone.

“We do! Great photo!” one said, delighted.

Thick afternoon light coated the red bricks and the emerald-green California I highway sign.

The last place that had so profound an effect on me was Taos, New Mexico. Like Marin, it’s a favorite of some big name celebrities — Julia Roberts lives there, at least part-time. Taos is tiny and filled with eccentric details. (Yet, like many of these idyllic rural areas, almost a quarter of its 4,700 residents live in poverty.)

Here’s a recent essay about Taos from The New York Times:

I had come to this far-flung desert town to write a memoir about searching for traces of one of the heroes of my English adolescence, D. H. Lawrence. Taos was the only place where Lawrence had ever actually owned a house, and I suppose, as a visitor, I was hoping some of the inspiration he had drawn from the land and people might rub off on me. I had imagined the landscape would all be bare desert and mountains. The last thing I had expected was to find it reminding me of England.

But all around town there were grassy fields, tussocky, mostly flat, with patches of shorter grass where horses and cattle had grazed. They were no different from the fields back home where I had grown up, playing soccer with friends, walking the dogs, rambling, sleeping out in summer. This one near my apartment was no exception.

An unexpected sense of intense familiarity with a foreign place has been felt by other travelers in other lands, but I was surprised by how completely at home I felt in this field: the long grass, the faint scent of hay, the trees hissing softly in gusts of breeze. Of all strange things, this meadow in Taos had exactly the same rough grass stalks, feathery at their tips, as the field next door to my childhood home in the Cherwell Valley north of Oxford. And the path, beaten smooth as hide, was just like the path that ran through that field, too. And the tremendous ribbed trunks of the cottonwoods that ringed it were like the boles of old English willows.

The day we arrived in Taos I ran out and bought a tie-dyed tank top, astonishing Jose, then my boyfriend of only three months, (now my husband, 12 years later.) In New York, he’d been dating a woman who appeared buttoned-up and conservative, a WASP — me — who showed up on dates wearing turtlenecks.

Who, suddenly, was this hippie chick?

Blame it on coming of age in the 1970s, but I’m often deeply happiest in a place where I can ride horses, pick up fossils from ancient riverbeds and let my eyes roam across empty miles. Where the air smells of dry earth, old stone and sagebrush and eucalyptus. Where the light is so exquisite I’m torn between my camera, sketchbook — and simply letting it soak into memory.

I found the same qualities of Taos and Marin — of light, rugged landscape and timelessness — in Corsica. I wept when I left, in June 1996, and dream of returning to explore it much more.

How about you?

Have you been somewhere that so moves and touches you?

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