The Letter: Stories From Higley Hill

The letter

 

I found another letter in our house. This one was handwritten. In the upper right corner of the first page was the number three. No salutation, no date, and the letter ends at page 6 with no Yours Truly. It starts with a laundry list of health concerns. The writer is clearly a woman.

“Also went to the doctor for a complete physical. Just having a period too often and far too many days at a time.” I can only imagine she is writing to another woman because I don’t know many guys who want to hear this information.

“The blood pressure is right on the button, heart fine, blood count good, no sugar or infection showed in the urine. Never the less my legs and feet swell so badly at times I can’t get on my shoes.” She goes on to explain a biopsy and mentions how the doctor doesn’t think it’s anything serious, just “a chemical and body change due to my age.” Then she’s on to her teeth, and mentions dental exams back in 1958 and 1960. She has only one filling, a gold inlay, and says “it just seems so wonderful to have my teeth stay in such good condition.”

She’s boring me to tears but at least I now have a time frame of the 1960’s. She finishes up the first page of the medical chronicles with a full report on her mother’s health. Apparently her and her husband, Gene, live with her mother. I wish I had something better to work with here, like an illicit love letter, but unfortunately this, along with the bank notes, is all I found.

I flip to Page Two. She writes her letter this way: not turning the page over but flipping it upside down, starting at the bottom of the next page. Gene is a handy guy and has put jalousie windows in the sleeping porch and made it into a bedroom for his mother-in-law. It’s been a hot, humid summer – which may be contributing to those swollen legs and feet.

Things get a little more interesting when she moves on to current events. “I am still studying and making contacts and calls. I certainly started during a poor time as far as the stock market goes. Kennedy has done a wonderful job of upsetting ‘Big Business’ plus the general public. No one knows what he’ll do or suggest next.”

Just imagine what she’d think of Donald Trump.

“The retail sales are down, showing people are hesitant about spending or going further in debt. With taxes being cut and the government still spending, and wanting to spend more and asking for more and more, what else can follow but more inflation? More and more people better put some of their dollars into variable dollar assets or in years to come they won’t even have enough dollars to buy groceries. It isn’t easy, however, to convince people that investing in securities at this time is the best hedge against inflation especially people who have never put dollars in American Industry before.”

I’m guessing from this information it is 1961 or ’62, and the letter writer is most like likely a Republican. Clearly she is not a fan of JFK. She goes on to talk about teaching Vacation Bible School in July and then mentions a letter she received from some friends in Eastern Pennsylvania. “They haven’t had rain in ten weeks and the heat has broken all records. It’s dairy country and the farmers are in a fix. It’s been declared a disaster area and there goes more money.”

There are also water problems in her neighborhood. A lot of wells have gone dry and she may have to connect to city water at the cost of $150 so she “sure hopes we don’t have to do that.” I can’t help but wonder how she would feel if her neighborhood was declared a disaster area and needed financial assistance. Five new houses have been built on her side of the street and she is also not happy about that. I am getting the sense this woman wouldn’t be a friend of mine. She likes to complain but the parallels are interesting – the hot summer, the droughts, the money concerns, the bitching about taxes and government spending.

By the end of the third page I am able to pinpoint her location. “Since Barbara works at the Florida Theater she gets passes. Mother, Gene, and I saw The West Side Story last week. It’s strictly teenage amusement. The music is pleasant and it was an outing without spending cash.”

I find her take on West Side Story amusing as my parents were big fans of Broadway musicals and this was one of my Dad’s favorites. I remember playing the album on the stereo in our family room, singing along to “I feel pretty, oh so pretty.” The music was Leonard Bernstein, the lyrics Steven Sondheim and this play was his Broadway debut. And the story was inspired by Shakespeare! Nevertheless my letter writer is saving her other free pass for Advise and Consent. She enjoyed the novel and hopes it will be a better night out at the theater.

“We have only been to the beach four times all summer. Just haven’t taken the time and don’t like to use gasoline for pleasure. Gene can just hardly contain himself, he wants to go to the beach so badly. The salt water bathing seems to make him feel better.”

Poor Gene. This woman and her frugality and complaints are starting to wear on me. Life is short lady, use a tank of gas and take your husband to the beach. It’s summer in Florida!

Finally, she shows her kinder side in the last paragraph. “We continue to watch over our elderly neighbor, 84 years. All her kin are out of state for the summer. I do her laundry with mine and we take her to the doctor weekly and church and groceries and what not. She’s quite a person. We enjoy doing for her. Her nephew has one of the largest funeral businesses in town. They have one daughter and six adopted children. Two pairs of the children are blond brothers and sisters. The children including their only child are under sixteen. They are a wonderful family. The old lady’s well gave out last week. Never a dull moment. Gene hooked our garden hose to her neighbor’s city faucet and ran…” And that’s all she wrote.

I have no idea how this letter from Florida ended up in my house along with Mr. Van Ness’ bank letters. I have since found out that Mr. Van Ness did live in a large home around the corner on Upper Dover Road. I found some old Christmas cards he had made up with a photo of the house he called Chez Nous and my friend recognized the property.

Chez Nous

Chez Nous – Christmas Greetings from the Van Ness Family

I wish I had found a more interesting letter to share.  I can only imagine what she thought in the coming years leading up to 1968. I think this might be another reminder during the hot, crazy summer of 2016 that the more things change the more they stay the same.

Contemplative Loafing: Stories From Higley Hill

Library 1

I recently spent a weekend outside of Boston at an old New England house filled with books. I planned to take walks, hike the hills, and write. I did manage to write but most of my time was spent browsing the books that lined the upstairs hall and the living room wall.

I frequently got lost, in more ways than one. On the first floor, one room led to another, and I circled around trying to find my bedroom. Along the route I gathered books and my plans for fresh air and exercise turned to what Walt Whitman once coined contemplative loafing. Honestly, it was too hot and muggy to do anything else.

The Politics of Rage by Dan T. Carter practically leaped off the shelf into my hands. The biography of George Wallace seemed as topical as the daily headlines so I brought it to the living room and plopped down on the only comfortable piece of furniture, the couch.

Virginia Durr, a lifelong campaigner for civil and human rights who saw much of the dark side of history, noted that Wallace’s appeal must have something to do with the basic insecurity of Americans in the 1960’s and ’70’s. She believed they had to “blame somebody else….I just don’t know, I wish I could understand why Wallace or anybody feels so good about humiliating other people,” she said. ~ The Politics of Rage, Dan T. Carter

If that doesn’t sound like our current predicament, I don’t know what does, as we all anxiously make our way through the hot summer of 2016, full of fear and insecurity at the thought of a possible Trump victory.

Arthur Miller, in Death of a Salesman, says of a washed-up Willy Loman: “Attention must be paid.” What he was talking about, said the Democrats’ 1972 presidential candidate, George McGovern, “was the frustration of the little guy, the little salesman that couldn’t make the sale.” George Wallace tapped into the anger and that desperation. Long before journalists and pundits had coined the term “silent majority”, said McGovern, Wallace understood that there might not be a majority, but there were millions of Americans who felt that nobody was paying any attention to them, nobody cared about their frustrations. ~ The Politics of Rage, Dan T. Carter

I understand that feeling. At the Democratic convention, Hillary reached out to Bernie supporters like myself. She told us, “I heard you.” Is she being sincere or are we just being focus grouped, only to be ignored after the ballots have been counted? If money talks, and it surely seems to be that way in Washington, Goldman Sachs is a fire alarm compared to the small whisper of millions of average Americans like myself.

George Wallace had recognized the political capital to be made in a society shaken by social upheaval and economic uncertainty. As the conservative revolution reached high tide, it was no accident that the groups singled out for relentless abuse and condemnation were welfare mothers and aliens, groups that are both powerless and, by virtue of color and nationality, outsiders. The politics of rage that George Wallace made his own had moved from the fringes of our society to center stage. He was the most influential loser in twentieth-century American politics. ~ The Politics of Rage, Dan T. Carter

Carter goes on to say the Republican party embraced Wallace’s politics of rage in a more subtle way. “Reagan didn’t need to make the race connection when he began one of his famous discourses on welfare queens using food stamps to buy porterhouse steaks. His audience was already primed to make that connection.”

This all left me wondering what happens after November. If Trump loses, where does the anger go? Will Bernie’s supporters carry on the revolution? Or do Trump’s supporters fight back? Does Hillary say what she means and do what she says, or does she keep the status quo? You take Bernie and Trump supporters and add up the numbers and you have more people than those who voted for Hillary. The status quo isn’t going to quiet the no longer so silent majority.

Library 2

I put the book down and hunted for another, searching the library shelves for something more uplifting. I found a biography of Walt Whitman. “A poet who hoped to save America.”

The mid-1850’s when the first two editions of Leaves of Grass were published was a time of political and social turmoil and upheaval…. a middle class was developing, (but) the gap between rich and poor was wider than ever, immigrants arriving in large numbers, changing the ethnic makeup and fanning anti-ethnic sentiment…. In 1854 there was widespread unemployment and suffering. In the wake of the 1854 slavery debacles, William Lloyd Garrison publicly burned the Constitution and Henry David Thoreau spoke murder against the state. An ex-congressman from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, declared that compromise now between the North and South was impossible. Frederick Douglas spoke for many when he wrote, “We now say, in the name of God, let the battle come”….On the national scene, the jingoistic Know-Nothings rose to bizarre prominence by promising to restore America to Americans.”

Echoes of Make America Great Again reverberated around the living room. The Know Nothings are back.

Whitman believed in a harmonious universe of the individual, the state, and nature. Pretty lofty stuff not often discussed by the water cooler or on a barstool at the local pub. “Justice is not settled by legislators and laws…it is in the soul.” he once said. What would Whitman think of Trump’s soul? Or the likes of Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and Kelly Ayotte, spineless politicians who care more about their political careers than the state of the union?

The fact we survived all of this makes me feel slightly optimistic but I am left wondering why mankind continues to repeat the same mistakes over and over. Mere mortals seem only capable of living in the present moment and incapable of learning from the mistakes of previous generations. History repeats itself and we continue to ignore it at our own peril.

Whitman believed that through poetry he could hold America together. He believed in the founding fathers, the American Revolution, and the idea of democracy despite the fact slavery and class divisions were tearing it apart. His poetry sings of the working class and the ordinary people, because he believed that was where democracy was alive, in the daily lives of average Americans. And here we are, one hundred sixty years later, still dealing with racial and income inequality. The middle class is shrinking, and there is more than enough anxiety and tension to tear us apart.

Attention must be paid but I’m not sure who is capable of paying attention in a fast paced world where breaking news drives the headlines and a presidential candidate communicates by tweeting a maximum of one hundred forty characters.

I certainly don’t think my middle class stories can hold America together but I keep writing because I don’t know what else to do. Each time I return to Higley Hill I try to shut out the news of the day and keep Whitman’s ideals in mind. He wrote something for everyone, for all Americans, and he too was as much the average American as anyone.

“I celebrate myself, And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
~ Walt Whitman

**** Two days after I wrote this blog I sit in a coffee shop posting it and read the day’s headlines. Donald Trump has told “second amendment people” they can stop Hillary Clinton from curbing gun rights. The Secret Service has confirmed they have spoken to the candidate. November is a long way off. Optimism is hard to maintain.***

Cats On a Chair

 

We Met In A Coffee Shop: Stories From Higley Hill

Wilmington Flood Stats

Wilmington VT town hall

Yesterday I met a transgender woman in a coffee shop. I am assuming she was transgender because she looked like Caitlyn Jenner’s twin without the makeup, styled hair, and designer clothing. Her long gray hair was shaggy, parted in the middle. It was a hot, muggy, bad hair sort of day. My hair was pretty wild too and my roots were screaming as Mark, my hairdresser years ago in Portsmouth , N.H. would say. The woman had a deep voice, but not too deep, walked with the same gait as Caitlyn, and the fingernails on her large, sturdy hands were painted fire engine red.

We were the only two people in the coffee shop when they shut the music off and one of the young girls from behind the counter came over to tell us they were closing early due to an emergency. She let us know we didn’t need to rush, they were cleaning up and we had ten minutes to finish our drinks.

Still without Wifi at my house, I quickly stopped goofing around on Facebook and prioritized my Internet needs. I checked my bank balance and answered an important email. The other woman walked toward me and said, “Well, I got my coffee in a to-go cup, so at least I can bring it with me.”

“I can’t bring this with me,” I said, taking a big swig from my bottle of Switchback beer.

“Drunk driving is a big problem in Vermont.”

“Is it?” I asked. “I wouldn’t know. I moved here in May.”

“Where did you come from?”

“A lot of places but most recently New Hampshire by way of Connecticut where my husband and I were innkeepers. Before that we lived in Florida. I think drunk driving is a problem everywhere.”

“Not some places. But New Hampshire has a big problem. Florida, too.”

What was she really saying? It was four o’clock on a very hot, muggy day and I was already well-caffeinated and very thirsty. I’d only had this one beer. As if she read my mind, she asked, “How many beers do you think it takes to get drunk?”

“I think it depends on the person. Your weight, your tolerance for alcohol, if you’ve eaten or not.”

“I don’t think any of that matters,” she said.

Avoiding the implications, I asked, “Do you live in Vermont?”

She told me she lived in New York with her partner. Okay, so maybe she’s gay, but the more time I spent with her the more I felt she was transgender, not that any of that is a problem as Seinfeld once said. After all, it was she who appeared to have the problem with me, the potential drunk driver.

A tenured mathematics professor at a CUNY college in New York City, she was also a computer consultant. She started talking about how so few people really understand mathematics and threw two names at me, famous 20th century mathematicians I’d never heard of. One of the mathematicians was once asked to name a prime number. He hesitated answering the question. “Prime?” he kept asking. “Yes, a prime number,” the questioner kept replying. Finally he gave in and answered eighty-one. The woman looked me in the eye and raised her eyebrows.

“That’s not a prime number,” I said.

“Exactly.”

Phew. I got that right despite the late afternoon beer. “I would have said eleven,” I replied. “But maybe this guy, the famous mathematician, thinks all numbers are prime?” I meant maybe the guy thought all numbers were unique and important in the equation you were trying to solve, or something like that. I shrugged. “What do I know? I’ve been a bookkeeper all my life. I add and subtract with the aid of a calculator.”

“I don’t add or subtract,” she said. I stood there unsure of what the story meant. The counter girl returned with the keys to lock the back door and we walked outside to the parking lot.

Somewhere between the back deck and our cars, the conversation turned to politics. I can’t remember how it started. Clearly the beer I was forced to chug due to the early, abrupt closing of the coffee shop was muddling my memory. She mentioned something about rents in New York and how she and her partner both make six figures but they rent a hovel in the East Village where they never invite friends to dinner because of the cockroaches and the rats.

“There’s something wrong with that, don’t you think?” she asked.

“Absolutely,” I agreed. I told her about apartments my daughters had rented, not really apartments, just bedrooms in college towns like Boston and Providence, where the common rooms are shared and the renter signs the lease for just the bedroom at a rate of $800-$1200 per month. “These places have four or five bedrooms and they are three story tenements. That’s twelve or fifteen leases! Theses landlords are making a killing, and you never even know who they are. You only deal with the property management company. The last landlord my daughter had was rumored to be some hedge fund guy in Greenwich, Connecticut who owns dozens of tenements in Providence. Most people don’t realize how politics and legislation effect their daily lives.”

She nodded in agreement. “Exactly, that’s what this election is all about. But daily lives don’t matter. The real issue is Wall Street versus the real estate moguls.”

I muttered a skeptical “Hmmm, I haven’t heard that theory before.”

She went on to talk about capitalism, Hitler, and the Great Depression. I was beginning to think we were on the same page until I said, “It’s a depressing election but we have to vote for Her.”

“No, we don’t. She’s far worse.”

“What do you mean? Trump’s insane, and all this hate he’s fostering. It’s awful.”

“She’s full of hate, too. She’s a war monger.”

“Well, I agree she’s never seen a war she wasn’t ready to get behind but still, do you trust him with his finger on the nuclear weapons?”

“Well, I’ll tell you this. He won’t take shit from Wall Street.”

“Do you like Bernie?” I asked. “I voted for him in the primary and I’m still deeply disappointed. And yes, I know Hillary said she heard me, but I’d still very much like to see those Goldman Sachs speeches.”

“Well, Bernie was better than the rest, but in the end he caved. These politicians have always been in bed with the banks. Did you know American banks supported Hitler?” She looked me in the eye, assessing me. “Let’s see how much you know about history. Do you know which famous banker was giving money to Hitler?”

I tried to remember famous bankers in history. Carnegie? Mellon?

She was impatient, probably guessing I didn’t know the answer. “I’ll give you a hint. His first name was Prescott.”

My eyes widened. “Prescott Bush?”

“Yes! This election is an epic showdown between Wall Street and the banks versus the real estate moguls.”

I did ask her about the Supreme Court, affordable healthcare, legal abortion, and the right to marry the person you loved. And what about this latest incident with the Gold Star Muslim parents? It didn’t seem to faze her. This election was about money and Trump could blow all that up. Shake up the system. Bring real change.

Well yes, I too want to blow up the system and bring about real change, but I don’t want to lose the social justice we have worked so long and hard to attain. Peaceful revolution is sometimes necessary but not when it destroys people’s everyday lives. We’re trying to improve things here, not make them worse.

After that we wrapped up the conversation pretty quickly. I told her to enjoy her stay in Vermont and she told me to drive safe.

I sat in the car for awhile thinking about the transgender or lesbian woman. Or maybe neither, just a woman who had the outward appearance of an aging hippie, a New York college professor teaching mathematics at a city university, reading a book titled Nucleo Mathematics in a coffee shop and writing formulas in a notebook that looked like the blackboard scene in Good Will Hunting. She mentioned how she could have worked on Wall Street for big bucks but eschewed the corporate, capitalistic lifestyle.

I was left thinking, how can this woman defend Donald Trump?

As each day in this election year passes I become more anxious and worried. The New York Times posted a video of Trump supporters that made me feel sick to my stomach. Almost on a daily basis, I find myself in uncomfortable situations with people I know, friends and a few family members, not knowing what to say if they are Trump supporters. How can I respect these people? Do I really know them the way I thought I knew them? I’m left thinking I don’t know much of anything anymore. The world has been turned upside down and I’m afraid we might all go tumbling down after it and never be put back together again.

The Book of Love: My Mom’s Alzheimer’s Journey

My mom’s Alzheimer’s journey ended on Wednesday. She died peacefully with her family by her side. There are more chapters to this story that I have been sharing with you but at the moment I am sitting here alone in my daughter’s Providence apartment waiting for my husband to arrive and join me at the wake and the funeral. I am not religious. I know these rituals help others but for me it’s a struggle.

For me songs are like prayers.  This one is for my Dad who lost the love of his life, his wife of 60 years. When we told him he had given her a wonderful life, he said, “No, she gave me a wonderful life.”

Camp Compo: Stories From Higley Hill

“Let us not be too particular. It is better to have old second-hand
diamonds than none at all.”
~Mark Twain, Following the Equator

It was as if he tucked his wallet in his back pocket, zipped up his ski jacket, and walked out the front door, never to return again. His snowmobile suit still hung in the closet and his clothes filled the dresser draws. The liquor cabinet was well stocked, the ice cube trays full, and the fridge was loaded with mixers. “Can I make you a cocktail?”, Rich asked the first night we slept in the house.

Vermont House 2

His name was Richard, too. Richard Compoletero. It sings like some of the names in Moonstruck, and reminds me of the scene when Rita Cappomaggi answers the door and says “It’s Johnny Cammareri” in a lilting voice.

Compo passed away five years ago but his personality still fills the rooms of the funky little house we bought, more like a summer camp by a lake or an old ski chalet decorated in the style of 1970’s Italian trattoria meets the gothic vibe of Barnabas Collins of Dark Shadows.

Italian Trattatoria

 

His three sons inherited the house, and I suppose like many of us, their busy lives interfered with their plans to use the place as a vacation getaway. As the years passed by, they continued to keep up with the bills and the real estate taxes but their kids grew up and the wives most likely tired of the place, so they visited less and less often, until one day they hung a For Sale by Owner sign by the front door, behind a pine tree, barely visible from the road. And so the house sat empty for a couple of years, until the day my husband’s good friend since first grade, whose name is also Rich and lives up the hill from Camp Compo, happened to notice the sign and a realtor he knew in the driveway.

Vermont Rich called us right away and gave us the phone number. My Rich reached the youngest son. “What a coincidence,” he said, referring to the unexpected phone call, not the fact that his name is also Richard. Fortunately, for the sake of this story, he goes by Randy. “We’re about to give the house over to a realtor.”

“I know,” Rich said, and explained about his friend driving by, and how we worked at an inn in Connecticut but were looking to buy a house in the area. “It would benefit both of us if we bypassed the realtor.”

Randy needed to talk to his brothers but soon got back to us. They were all eager to sell so he told us where they hid the key. It was a slow time of year at the Inn so the next morning we hopped in the car and drove up to inspect the place.

We’d seen a lot of wet basements in Vermont, crazy septic situations, deteriorating roofs, and other home improvement situations that were daunting. Camp Compo was clean, the roof was in good condition, and the pool table kind of sealed the deal. That and the Defiant wood stove. We knew old houses well. Our home in New Hampshire was built in 1728, and although we didn’t want to repeat that never-ending DIY project, we thought we could manage this if we could settle on the right price. Because of course, there was the not so small problem of a tumbling basement foundation that needed immediate attention. But our friend Vermont Rich is a stonemason, so we had that going for us.

IMG_4167

Rich & Rich playing pool

We called Randy and made an offer that after a bit of back and forth he and his brothers agreed upon.

“I checked that Inn you guys work at and you seem like really nice people. Those are some great reviews you have. I feel good selling the place to you,” Randy told us. I guess it’s true what they say. What goes around comes around.

Compo was quite the improvisor. He also recycled long before it became the environmentally correct thing to do. The original house was a traveling bank. Some time back in the late ’60’s/early 70’s, he owned a crane operating business so had the equipment to also move a “pop-up” bank around to several locations in and around Stamford, Connecticut. Once one permanent bank branch was built he’d move the unit to another location, and when the project was completed he moved the modular unit to this ten acre chunk of land he owned in Vermont, where we now live. Two years later he built an addition; a great room with a west facing view of Haystack Mountain and some amazing sunsets.

Sunset in Vermont

Haystack Mountain at Sunset

He also worked on a house that needed a new entry way and when he tore down the existing structure, he saved some of the posts and the shed-like roof, and used them in the front entrance to the great room. Randy told us he and his father had a hell of a time taking the thing down. It was full of hornets nests and both of them got gang stung dismantling it. They kept one of the nests and tucked it in an eave as a personal sort of shared heroic memory. We’ve left it there for now because someone who recently stopped by to visit told us he saw people were shellacking them and selling them for a couple of hundred dollars on-line. The things some people collect never ceases to amaze me.

The fully stocked liquor cabinet was actually an improvised wall in the kitchen cabinet made with a piece of cardboard duck-taped to the shelves, separating the booze from a set of gold, green and brown plates, bowls, and coffee mugs. On the shelves with the Sambuca, Gordons London Dry Gin, Tito’s Vodka, Johnny Walker Red, and Cointreau was a container of I Love My Carpet and an unopened package containing something called a toilet flapper, so I’m not quite sure why Compo separated the improvised liquor cabinet from the dinnerware.

He certainly enjoyed his creature comforts and once he settled in to putting up his feet and relaxing, it appears he did not like to get up to answer the phone. I got rid of a dozen old phones, rotary and push button. They were set on little tables throughout the house along with a pen and a pad of paper nearby.

He also had a gadget for everything. In the drawers we found one of those wooden tongs that grabs toast from a toaster, an apple slicer, a tool to make watermelon balls, a garlic press, an electric can opener, a Vermont bullshit meter, a back scratcher, and something called The Giant Destroyer, two gas cartridges that kill gophers, moles, rats, ground hogs, skunks, squirrels, and ominously, Others. I’m glad we found this on a shelf along the stairs to the basement, not the liquor cabinet.

Once the foundation is fixed, we still have work to do but most of it’s cosmetic. We do have to rebuild the front entrance, for now we’re walking the plank, and a big priority is rebuilding the sunset view deck. Eventually, we plan to replace the wall-to-wall carpeting with hardwood floors. Paint the walls. Do something about the bathroom. We’re not planning on getting in over our heads here. We’re off the grid, living a simple life, making our wants few except for that biggest of all desires. Time to live life. Time for me to write. Because if not now, when?

At some point, Compo’s personality will fade from the house and ours will take over this humble abode. We’ve already hung our pictures and moved our furniture in. Some of Compo’s worldly possessions, like the couch and the dining room table, now reside in an apartment in Providence where my youngest daughter will be living off Broadway when she returns from studying in Germany. But we did promise Rich aka Randy his Dad would remain here in spirit. By the pool table Compo left us we are going to hang the homemade sign that hung by the front door above For Sale by Owner. Every once in awhile we will make a cocktail, an old-fashioned real drink, raise our glasses and toast Mr. Richard Compolatero, in a lilting sing-song Moonstruck sort of way, for this beautiful spot on the planet where his simple vision and endless ingenuity will always reside.

Compo

Off The Grid: Stories From Higley Hill

One Saturday morning, we woke to the sound of Tough Mudders driving by, creating more traffic then we hear in an average week. Trucks, motorcycles, and even Masaratis whizzed up and over the hill from Marlboro on the dirt road side of Higley Hill where Whoopi Goldberg once owned a house, down into Wilmington, then north to Mount Snow to compete in athletic events that involve slogging through mud. Our house is set behind a buffer of trees. I was exhausted, the Mudders barely disturbed my sleep.

dirt road

Turkey Crossing Higley Hill

Since we’ve moved to Wilmington, I have spent only half my time here. I’ve been driving back and forth between Rhode Island and Vermont, helping my parents and my daughter with the everyday hassles that are life in America in the 21st century. But each time I cross the border into the Green Mountain state, a huge weight lifts off my shoulders and I breath a sigh of relief.

We currently live off the grid. We have a lot of work going on at our house. We bought this little place for $60,000, cold cash, for sale by owner, no realtors involved. Rich was a former home inspector so we saved money there, too. Our biggest expense is re-doing the cinder block foundation which caved-in some time ago, probably from rough winters of freezing and thawing, or spring floods. We don’t know the details but Rich has jacked the house up a bit, eased the weight of the house onto cribbing  and a couple of steel beams we borrowed from a friend of a friend, and we’re ready for another friend of a friend to pour a cement foundation tomorrow.

cribbing

This is cribbing a house

So for now I manage without Wifi at the house. I find my Internet connections in various places. The town center of Wilmington has free access. Sometimes I just park on the street in front of the town hall, roll down the car windows, quickly check email, and scan the New York Times headlines to see if I’m missing anything important. This summer there’s a lot of important and disturbing news. It is one of those times in our nation’s history when the center isn’t holding.

Wilmington Flood Stats.JPG

Wilmington, VT Town Hall

I was a couple of days late on the news out of Baton Rouge and Minnesota, two more black men killed by police officers, but I was in Rhode Island visiting my mother at the new nursing home she has been moved to when the shooting in Dallas occurred. I was staying at a friend’s house and we caught the news as it was breaking.

On my return to Vermont, before heading back up Higley Hill to leave the mad world behind, I parked in front of the town hall to get online and check the latest news out of Dallas, somehow not noticing the sign, No Parking From Here To Corner. I was oblivious to the steady stream of traffic passing through town — tourists with kayaks on their roofs, towing RV’s, bicycles on trunk racks — until a policeman poked his head in the passenger side window.

“I’m sorry, you can’t park here,” he politely said, pointing to the sign. “When the big delivery trucks come through town they need this spot clear so they can make the tight turn.”

I apologized profusely, told him I forgot all about the sign, and for some reason didn’t notice it today.

“That’s okay,” he said. “I think you should be able to get the Internet around the corner.” He straightened up, walked a few steps, and peered around the corner then returned to my car, leaned in again and said, “Yeah, there’s a few spots around the corner. If you can’t get it there, the public parking lots in town have access, too. Just look for the signs with the big “P” and an arrow.”

This time I thanked him profusely and moved my car around the corner.

I now use those public parking spaces where there are Welcome to Wilmington signs on the back of colorful benches set among yellow sundrops, purple iris, and orange poppies. One day while I was sitting on a bright blue bench reading about the FBI’s findings on Hillary Clinton’s email habits and feeling depressed about the upcoming election, two women in a car with Tennessee license plates parked next to my car and asked me if I could recommend a good place to eat. Still there when they returned, now answering emails and checking book sales — I sold three books the day before! — I asked how their lunch was, then somehow mentioned I was an author and happened to have a book in my bag. I offered it to them for free but they insisted on purchasing it. So I sold a book on a bench that day, and three more on Amazon, and things started looking up.

The Saloon in Dover is also a good spot for finding a connection, and if they’re not open the bartender told me, “just park in front and you’ll get the signal.” Sticky Fingers Bakery, a tiny shoebox of a building with no indoor seating, is across the street. One rainy Sunday I made a late morning cinnamon bun run only to discover they were sold out, but the guy behind the counter told me a fresh batch would be ready in ten to fifteen minutes.

“No problem,” I told him. “I have my laptop and some things to do on-line. I’ll wait in the car.”

After a half hour of getting swept away on the world wide web, I heard someone knock on the window. It was the bakery guy, rain dripping off his beard, his shirt getting wet.

“The buns are ready,” he said. “I wanted to let you know so you could get them while they’re still nice and warm.”

Sticky Fingers

Sticky Fingers Bakery Dover, VT

Today is July 18, the first day of the Republican convention, when Donald Trump officially becomes the standard bearer of the Grand Ole Party. I thought we might have Internet service by now, but we’ve decided to hold off for a bit longer. It’s not as stressful being off the grid as I imagined it would be. As a matter of fact, it’s the other way around. The stress is out there, beyond the Green Mountains, back on the grid where the 24/7 news cycle reports the constant headlines of a world that has lost its bearings and can wait until tomorrow or the next day or whenever I decide to come back down the Hill to send more breaking news my way. Let’s hope the crazies are staying  safe in the open carry state of Ohio. I myself am going to read a book tonight and try not to worry about where we go from here.

higley hill sunset

Sunset on Higley Hill

A 4TH OF JULY TALE: STORIES FROM HIGLEY HILL

Monday, July 4, 2016: My Dad is 83, my mother is one year younger. Maybe I should have written that sentence the other way around. My Mom is 82, my father is one year older. At 59 years old, I am their eldest child. No one is feeling young around here at the moment.

In the month of June, shortly after I left the Inn to move to Vermont and finally had time on my hands to get away, I started driving from Vermont to Rhode Island to try and help my Dad fight bureaucracy. I’ve been getting nowhere. There is no direct route from here to there, and I mean that in many ways.

To physically get to Rhode Island I travel various routes and state roads from Southern Vermont through Massachusetts to Warwick where my parents raised me and my siblings, and lived most of their lives until they lost their condo in a fire on February 21st of this year. I pass through old mill towns and other forgotten places that have been riding the riptides of American prosperity and poverty over the past several decades. Cities like Brattleboro, Leominster, Fitchburg, Worcester, and smaller towns like Millers Falls, Athol, Pawtucket, and Slatersville.

woonsocket downtown

Downtown Woonsocket, RI

A distinctive feature of the landscape I pass through are the empty old factories, many with the tall brick chimney you can see from a distance, the mills where textiles, costume jewelry, and furniture were once Made In America, they are no longer the beating heart of impoverished ghost towns where meth and heroin addiction are serious problems. Interstate 91 also travels through these parts and is now referred to as the Heroin Highway. The issue became a hot national topic when presidential candidates went begging for votes during the primaries in the New England states.

Woonsocket empty building

Empty building in Woonsocket, RI

What I am doing in Rhode Island is visiting lawyers and barging in unannounced at the offices of the woman who runs the condo association and the guy who was the property manager until he got fired.

One early morning I followed my Dad through downtown city traffic that turned into local suburban strip mall traffic, until we finally finished our day’s business and headed south through beach traffic on Route 95. I don’t know how this 83 year old man does it, running endless errands that require trips to city hall to notarize something and visits to insurance agencies to argue about claims adjustments and deductibles, but I can tell you he is exhausted and beaten down.

Woonsocket for sale

Restaurant for sale in Woonsocket, RI

He doesn’t handle adversity well. He lived in a time when the GI Bill put him through college, a teacher’s union fought for his pay raises and healthcare benefits, and his retirement has been covered by a generous pension. He was able to put his kids through college with the help of Pell grants, scholarships, and our summer earnings. He retired and traveled the United States, whose history he taught for thirty-two years, and also made it to several European countries. I look at my generation and wonder how we got from there to here.

Woonsocket reflection in window

Another empty building in Woonsocket, RI

Life was good. He had healthy kids, no major illnesses, no lay-offs or financial worries. He never acquired coping skills to weather the bad times and is now ill-equipped for the perfect storm that has hit him. My mother’s Alzheimers’ and the fire at the condo are too much for him to handle at this stage in his life.

There are various reasons given for why nothing has been done over the past four months to get the six unit owners back into their homes after being displaced by the fire. None of them are good, most of them are excuses for incompetence and mismanagement. It’s a common case of he said, she said.

I made an appointment with the consumer reporter at WPRI News to meet me at the condo and tell my family’s story on camera but the staging for the roof had finally arrived and the condo association promised the work would begin on Monday, the day before my mother’s 82nd birthday. Flag Day. My Dad asked me to give them a second chance.

Woonsocket radio

Former radio station seen through the window Woonsocket, RI

A week later I was back in Rhode Island. My mother had settled down, the meds were working, and after five and a half weeks on the geriatric psych floor of a hospital in Providence, they had found a bed at a nursing home not far from the condo. I was going to meet her there, along with my Dad, when she arrived by ambulance, and help get her settled in. After crossing the Rhode Island border I got a phone call from my sister informing me that the woman who handles the nursing home’s admissions was on vacation and paperwork had been misplaced, things got overlooked, the bed was given to someone else. Blah, blah, blah…….

I can’t describe what I was feeling, the words I was yelling loudly, alone in my car as I swung into the parking lot of the condo. Not that this was their fault, but they had their own string of fuck-ups unrelated to the nursing home and I needed to yell at someone. I took a few deep breaths before calmly walking into the office where I wanted to see some heads roll and get some real, not bullshit answers about why the work hadn’t started on the roof as promised.

Woonsocket Parms building

Corner building Woonsocket, RI

More excuses were given, something having to do with permits, hurricane regulations…. I stood and listened to the background noise of bullshit while trying to control my temper. It’s the property management company’s fault, they’ve been fired, the condo has detailed notes of the steps they’ve taken to rectify things, the owners could have the possibility of suing the property management company for rent money as this project is going to take awhile and no one will be moving back into their homes until mid-October. Best case scenario.

“Have you been updating the other tenants on all of this?” I asked.

“Yes, we send out emails. Your father’s on the list.”

“My Dad lost his computer in the fire. He doesn’t have a smart phone and he was never very good at email to begin with. Two weeks ago my mother wasn’t doing very well in the hospital and we thought she might not make it. My Dad told me he wanted to bring her home where she could lay by the window and look out at the Narragansett Bay. Then he got choked up and said, I can’t do that because I don’t have my home anymore.”

I was playing the sympathy card.

“We’re doing our best. It’s moving forward now. These things take time. They’re starting the roof tomorrow.”

Oh really?

The following day, I walked from my sister’s house over to the condo and took photos of the hole in the roof covered with a bright blue tarpaulin blowing with the wind off the Narragansett Bay. There were two roofers in the portico where my Dad used to park his car. They were eating and drinking coffee. In the office they had told me they would be working inside today on something called a two hour firewall. I had driven three hours from Vermont and again I got nowhere. There is no easy way to get from there to here where I was now standing, feeling lost and helpless in the wealthiest nation in the world where I hear we have the very best workers, the very best healthcare, the very best of everything.

So they say. I got in my car for the three hour drive back home to Vermont.

Outside of downtown Providence, not far from the on-ramp to Route 95 North I passed a junkyard full of discarded American trash, things people no longer want. A pile of consumer detritus. An American flag flew in front of it all.

Providence Trash

Providence Trash

Not long into my journey I pulled off in Woonsocket to take a walk and find a cup of coffee. The only times I ever came to this mill town were on the school bus when I was a high school hockey cheerleader. Yes, I was a cheerleader. Any time I find myself playing the cocktail game Three Truths and One Lie, the “I was a cheerleader” fools them every time. Most people believe the lie “I shoplifted when I was in high school” and think the cheerleader is the lie. I’m not sure what this says about me but it wins me the game every time.

Woonsocket Blackstone River

Blackstone River Woonsocket, RI

I parked the car along the Blackstone River that once provided the water power to the textile mills that closed during the Great Depression then were revitalized during World War Two only to close again in the 1980’s, the decade of Ronald Reagan, that led to the 90’s when Bill Clinton signed NAFTA. Since the factories closed for good, unemployment remains high. In March 2013, the Washington Post reported that one-third of Woonsocket’s population used food stamps, putting local merchants on a “boom or bust” cycle each month when the EBT payments were deposited. The median income for a family of four is $38,000.What I mainly saw on my walk through town was bust and very little boom. Across the parking lot was the The Museum of Work and Culture where a few school busses were parked but other than that the city was quiet.

Woonsocket Bienvenue

Welcome to Woonsocket

Woonsocket is referred to as the most French-Canadian city in the United States. In the early 1900’s a large wave of immigrants crossed the border from Quebec to work in the New England mills. My grandfather, my mother’s father, was one of them. He first worked in a textile mill in Newmarket, N.H. not far from where I lived in the house on River Road for 23 years, then he moved to Pawtucket where he met my grandmother and eventually became a U.S. Citizen. I am not sure if he crossed the border legally. All the years I knew him he spoke broken English and called all of his grandkids Joe because he couldn’t remember our Irish names.

At one point, 75% of the population of Woonsocket spoke French. A French language newspaper was published here and French language movies were shown at the local theater.

Woonsocket newspaper

Woonsocket newspaper

As I walked the city streets I wondered if my grandfather, and my father-in-law who was also a French-Canadian immigrant, were ever accused of being rapists and thieves. Did English speaking Americans complain when a shopkeeper spoke to them in French? I know my mother spoke French until she was eight years old and then quickly learned English to fit in, like most children of immigrants eventually do. When my siblings and I studied French in school she was very little help, having forgotten her first language. I often wish she had raised us to be bi-lingual. The Bienvenue sign painted on a brick building gave me hope that somewhere in America’s angry heart immigrants are still welcome on these shores.

I never did find a coffee shop but I took a lot of pictures before I left. I spent the rest of the drive home passing through more of America’s discarded cities and thinking about that pile of trash on the outskirts of Providence. I fantasized about renovating the lovely old empty buildings in Woonsocket set along the river where you can go kayaking or drive a few miles out of town and hike Purgatory Chasm. It’s not a bad place to live.

Why can’t we work with what we have? Why can’t we revitalize our cities? I asked a lot of questions with no one riding shotgun to answer them. My younger daughter is flying into Frankfurt, Germany next week to study at a wine institute in Koblenz. I flew out of Frankfurt over thirty years ago. It’s a very American looking city rebuilt by Americans after we bombed it during World War II. Clearly we are capable of revitalizing cities.

Rents are rising everywhere. The homeless population in San Francisco is reaching a crisis level. Couldn’t some hot shot techies move to places like Woonsocket and work from home on their laptops? Open a few decent restaurants, improve the school systems….? But wait a minute, that would take a village as someone once said. A society that believes we are in this together and when one city fails we as a society fail too. How is that going to happen? A few days earlier Congress couldn’t pass one single bill to enact a sensible gun law after the Orlando shootings. They couldn’t agree that those on the no-fly list shouldn’t be able to buy a gun. How the hell do we expect to get anything done if we can’t all agree on that?

My radio went in and out as I traveled the highways. Hitting the seek button I found some public radio where they were discussing the two years and seven million dollars spent on the third Benghazi investigation which has reached the same conclusion as the other two hearings. I thought about Woonsocket and other towns and what they could do with seven million dollars. Frustrated and disillusioned, I hit seek once again and found some bluegrass.

Back at home I sat on the deck and watched the sun set over Haystack Mountain. It’s now a private ski mountain. You have to be a member. Golf courses and country clubs have been like this for years. I walked many a private beach in Florida because like the Native Americans I believe the coastline doesn’t belong to any individual just as the air we breathe is also something we cannot own.

I recently heard of someone who received a phone call from a renowned surgeon on a Sunday afternoon. I also read about a lake that received environmental protection and tax-exemptions that reduced the wealthy homeowners property taxes in exchange for public hiking and fishing rights, however the townspeople can’t get past the gates and No Trespassing signs. It is they that bear the brunt of the reductions in the tax base that covers schools and fire departments and other social services, but no they can’t fish in these waters.

The folks with the big lake homes and private ski mountains are a small minority who have access to power. They don’t want to fish and golf and ski with you and I, and the way things are now in America, they don’t have to. We all bear the brunt of their privilege.

On this 4th of July evening while my husband golfs at the public course over at Mount Snow instead of the course at Haystack because that is now private, I look out at the setting sun and think about Vermont and how far away it feels from the rest of the world’s chaos, despite that damn private mountain. I wonder if New Zealand is like this, only better. I think about what it would be like to up and move to the other side of the world. I’m pretty good at picking up and relocating. But then I remember the words of Barbara Kingsolver that I recently read in her collection of Essays From Now or Never: High Tide In Tucson. It is from the essay Jabberwocky.

“A country can be flawed as a marriage or a family or a person is flawed, but “Love it or Leave It” is a coward’s slogan. There’s more honor in “Love it and get it right”. Love it, love it. Love it and never shut up.”

I am not about to shut up. If you’re listening, let me hear your questions and maybe together we can find the road from here to there.