Håkan Nesser is the best-selling Swedish author of “The Return,” a mystery featuring Detective Chief Inspector Van Veeteren. For those unfamiliar with the genre, Swedish detectives are depressed, drink too much coffee, smoke too many cigarettes, and have a constant cold. They are drawn to the dark side, as is one of Nesser’s policemen, Münster, one Sunday morning as he contemplates the perfect moment: a warm summer breeze from the garden, the scent of cherry blossoms, the chatter and giggles of his two young children from the nursery, and the sight of his young wife sitting at the kitchen table, sipping coffee and reading the newspaper. Münster “suddenly felt pain creeping up upon him: a chilling fear, but also a realization, that this moment must pass. This second of absolute and perfect happiness—one of the ten to twelve that comprised a whole life, and was possibly even the meaning of it.”
So that got me thinking about my list of happiest moments. Were they as pedestrian as Münster’s Sunday morning? Putting aside more personal family memories for the purposes of this public list, I jotted down the following.
It is fall in Vermont in the early 1960s on a wet day during hunting season, and I am sitting in the front parlor of the Yellow Farmhouse. Floyd Bentley is asleep on the sofa/bed with the dull green corduroy cover, Marie is kneading dough for anadama bread, Herbie is shoving a large split of oak with his boot heel into the firebox of the Kalamazoo, and the two dogs, Dixie and Bonnie, are rain-soaked, snugged up to the curved metal feet of the hot stove on the linoleum floor. The air is close, steamy with the smell of yeast, a whiff of manure, wet dog, pot roast, and potatoes. There is no place I would rather be.
I am sitting with my mother and sister in our town’s Methodist Church, at a service for Charles Bentley Sr., who lies in an open coffin on a sunny day. Much of the village is there, and I had never seen a dead body before. Here’s a man who rarely left town and is about to be buried in it for eternity. It makes one think, at least for one happy moment, that life is comprehensible.
It’s February 1970 and I am at Fillmore East for the late show, my first Grateful Dead concert. The lights are down, the stage is dark, there is a wink of red amplifier lights as the band moves around, and then I hear the first riff from “China Cat.” The spotlights flood the stage, the drums kick in, and the world changes. It’s a sea of sound and whirling movement, as Jerry plays in the eagle-winged palace.
The next summer I am visiting friends at the Putney School, in Vermont, just north of Brattleboro. We end up at a cabin deep in the woods and then skinny-dip in a small beaver pond, the water ice-cold and the bottom thick with the mulch of rotten leaves. It’s dark out, so dark that we can’t see our way forward or back. We stand there naked, trying to dry off in the chill of the late-summer breeze— there isn’t a towel or thought among us.
Adrienne and I have just bought our farm in Vermont, on the other side of town from where I grew up. It’s her birthday, and it’s raining lightly. I have two chain saws, and so we spend the afternoon cutting poplars and scrub saplings. The footing is slippery, and the work is hard. It’s a beautiful day.
It’s snowing hard, and Tom and I are out rabbit hunting with his beagle, Bucket. A rabbit scurries through a small stand of pines, the dog barks and gives chase, we snowshoe through the deep snow. Late afternoon comes, the light wanes, and we have a long, into-the-wind hike back to the pickup. Tom’s wife, Nancy, invites us to dinner. It’s venison stew, salad, and good bread. I drink beer from a frosted glass and sit close to the wood stove. The wood pops; my feet are warm.
We are hunting Easter eggs at my mother’s farm in northwest Connecticut. The kids are small, and they each have their own wicker basket. My mother takes young Emily by the hand to help her out, both of them walking unsteadily on the wet turf. The guinea hens are out and about, there is a fair view of the cloudy Berkshires, the wood smoke settles low over the old gray house, and then we go in for Easter dinner: local ham and the best pickings from my mother’s root cellar.
It’s 1969 and I am in the Central African Republic, in the middle of a trip from London to Nairobi with 18 fellow high school graduates. One evening, two of us leave the three Land Rovers behind and walk down the burnt orange road toward the sound of dancing. We discover a small village celebrating a funeral. We are asked to spend the night. I sleep on a rickety cot in a small, round hut. The ground is hard-packed dirt, the men are drinking bush beer, and the party goes on all night. I fall asleep to the cadence of singing and drums.
Caroline, 10 years old, and I are fishing on the Miramichi River in Canada. It’s late April, and the weather has gone from rain to sleet to snow and back to rain. It’s the last day of a three-day trip, and just an hour before we motor back to the landing, we land a salmon, a shiny six-pounder. Caroline is proud and smiles, holding the fish across her short, outstretched arms like a newborn baby. The photo sits proudly on my desk.
Adrienne and I ride up to the top of our mountain and then over and down toward a small, narrow valley. On the way back, we take off at a gallop, up a long, winding logging trail where the sunlight falls in patches through the leaves, ducking branches, following the serpentine path of stone walls, rounding corners at full speed, flying away from everything behind us.
And, every year, early on Thanksgiving morning, when it is still too dark to see out the kitchen window, I start the wood cookstove, roll out pie dough, and consider the friends and family who will be seated around the table later in the day. It is a small, happy miracle that drives us to this place each year, but Thanksgiving is for cooking, not philosophy.