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A DUST OF SNOW FROM A HEMLOCK TREE





Snow fell here in central Vermont while we were having a family reunion over Thanksgiving in Connecticut. We returned north that Saturday and as we entered Massachusetts the shoulders of the roads were dusted with a coating of twinkling crystals. The fences were jeweled with ice, in the most precise patterns, as if some pastry chef had come through with his icing gun and decorated all the borders of some fabulous but invisible cake. The car was warm, a bag was bulging with turkey sandwiches, a jug of V8 juice lay in reach under the dashboard. Every town had its snow-white church with tall spire and immaculate garden fences. A few snowmobiles had already come through and left behind tracks that wandered around the narrow fields. The fine arts stations were laying the usual militant symphonies celebrating imperial victories. I couldn't find that one outlier station that might play a few string quartet pieces, so I turned down the volume and listened to the hum of the tires gobbling up the miles.

Our dinner on Thursday night was celebrated under candle light, with plates heaped with carefully arranged slices of white and dark meat, a scoop of dressing, cranberry sauce, warm chunks of baguette, and goblets of rich red French wine from Gigondas and Bordeaux. There was no end to the supply of these exquisite bottles, which kept coming to the table after a reassuring popping of a cork. Conversation rambled in all directions, but the guests included a well known director, his friend a playwright's agent, two scientists working on miracle cures, my niece with her piercing wit and satiric commentaries on the rich and famous she had come to rub elbows with, our French chef who had labored for two days over the meal, and my nephew, a connoisseur of pipes and exotic tobacco blends. I contributed a bit of wry humor and my wife charmed everyone with her tales of our children scattered over Europe and here in New England. A jolly evening of it, with a toddy afterward laced with a slightly peaty single malt to give it strength. And of course our conversation which continued before the fire, with a wonderful old dog who kept nosing my hand to continue scratching her ears. Outside, the night was crawling over the woods and spreading its long black cloak under a half-moon. You could almost smell the stark odor of snow falling to our north.

Steven Sondheim had just died in nearby Roxbury, home of a dozen literary and musical geniuses from Aaron Copeland to Arthur Miller, William Styron, Philip Roth, and many others. The local bookstore stocked many of their books and biographies, and the place was crowded when we came in, with our required masks on, and listened to the buzz of well-to-do residents and some New Yorkers enjoying their privileged lives. I saw Paul McCartney's two-volume compendium, Lyrics, which was selling for a modest $150 dollars. I didn't give in to temptation on that particular aisle. But I did buy a reprint of Anthony Bordain's Kitchen Confidential, which I had read earlier on line and fell in love with its jaunty, south Boston patois and turns of eloquence. We sipped a glass of wine in a cozy little bistro in the next town, with our backs to a roaring fire. Nice to thaw out after a short walk in the teeth-chattering weather.

We were glad to get away from our house, which we had been hibernating in the moment the weather turned in early October. I'm afraid the coming winter doesn't bode well for any thin-blooded citizen. Walking in the woods (it's tick season) is out, so is the lazy stroll down a street to admire the first Christmas lights and the occasional window blinking with a Christmas tree. We're limited to quick jogs to the woodpile and the box of scrap wood in the garage. Nights are filled with episodes of Downton Abbey and third-time reruns of the British detective series, Endeavor Morse. When all else fails, I have my arsenal of books, crammed into shelves from floor to ceiling in the little library down the hall, and piled up precariously in the bedroom.

This is how you grow old gracefully, without worrying about the next doctor's visit or a sleepless night now and then, if you've eaten the wrong food. You let yourself be taken by the river's current down through all those slumbering farms and half-frozen tributaries. The woods are kindly old grandmothers eyeing you as you pass by; no wagging fingers warning you not to indulge your desires. I long to write a great masterpiece, but my muse is away on business somewhere else in the world. An enormous fly is there to remind me I have responsibilities to the insect universe I live within. Sometimes I'm just too tired to pry open a window cranked tight for winter and let the beast out into the polar air. I'm even rather gracious at the sight of a field mouse scampering along arrogantly to his shelter in my baby grand piano. I usually don't permit such insurrection in the house, but when you've driven five long hours in the cold hinterlands, you are more tolerant of freeloaders. I'll regret it later when I discover a nest somewhere at the back of the sounding board, with little ones squirming around in the confetti. Tonight, it is time to stretch out, think about your good memories of Thanksgiving before they start to fade. Think about all the easy laughter that filled the cozy dining room. Think about the dog lying there on my foot as I nursed my toddy. Or how gracious our friends and relatives were, and how welcome we felt for three happy days.

When you no longer live to shop on Black Friday or Cyber Monday, you have these charming moments when a dish is passed along to you at the table with tender green beans sprinkled with the fine shavings of shallots that had been boiled and dried and flavored to perfection. There lay the faint traces of Eden, and the satisfaction of feeling innocent in that moment. I may not agree with the myth of Thanksgiving as told by sentimental historians; I may shudder to think what our colonial ancestors actually did in their haste to wrest good farm land away from their Indian hosts. But all that is for another day, when debate can resume in the harsh sunlight of begrudging conscience. You want to push aside judgment for the moment, to embrace the elusive comfort of being among those you love. And that is what I must cherish to keep away the dark shadows.

I had a seat with a good view of the front window, with the street just below. Cars went by slowly; a dog barked. Someone was walking off his afternoon feast at a leisurely pace, with the slivering moon over his shoulder. He could have been strolling in some paradoxical Magritte painting, where night loomed on one side of the house, and noon on the other. He had no apparent worries, even though my niece tells me this part of her county is militantly pro-Trump. Lots of lawn signs abound proclaiming their loyalty. The woods were gathered like so many hooded elders in a Gothic romance. Later that night I heard the shrill yapping of coyotes in the distance; I'm told a mountain lion patrolls these suburban streets and gives out a cry that sounds like a terrified woman being stalked by an angry lover. I'm glad I'm spared that drama as night unrolls on a spool of lamplight and flickering logs.

Home again, with the fire lit, and my wife making a pungent soup for the afternoon nosh. I could use a cup of ginger tea right now, but I'm not sure we have any ginger tea bags. I must make a note and buy some at the co-op tomorrow. If I forget, please remind me. I hate to drive all the way up to Middlebury and come back smacking my forehead because I forgot something. Like two ripe persimmons, or a bag of coffee beans. You know the feeling. But I had already said I had discovered how to grow old gracefully, and that includes forgiving oneself for those times when you let yourself down, a little.

It's getting dark and I need a few more logs for the night. Out to the snow, and back with my leather sling.

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