Voter Number 33
Bunny and Lothar moved to our Vermont town in 1963, becoming the 33rd and 34th voters. They spent $10,000 for a shingled farmhouse built in the 1830s by the Heards just off a grassy track, with no indoor plumbing, heating system, or fireplace, but as Bunny told me, “The house was just waiting for us to arrive.” It soon became a true Vermont homestead, made from bits and pieces of other buildings. It was a meeting place of sorts; folks came and went in different configurations, like spare parts that are artfully reassembled. Bunny knew that where you wake up in the morning is not a trifling matter.
They installed a Franklin stove but they didn’t split enough wood for the winter, running out by early December. Every week until late spring, Lothar had to chop down a tree on Monday, drag it to the house, and then cut and split it. The wood was so green that the logs stacked in the kitchen ran sap onto the floor, and the creosote buildup in the stovepipe was so thick that every morning, there was a heart-pounding “whoosh” as the accumulated creosote ignited.
Both had lost their parents as young children. Lothar had grown up in an orphanage and Bunny was sent to foster parents after she and her sister almost burned to death, locked inside their house while her mother was busy perched on a barstool at the local watering hole. In the 1950s they lived for a spell in a $5-per-month rental in Mexico, and were pictured in a 1957 issue of Life magazine for an article entitled, “Yanks Who Don’t Go Home.” Lothar was a painter turned sculptor, and their house contained two life-sized pieces featuring his wife as the model: A “Mother and Child” carved out of basswood shows Bunny seated with her son Hasso standing like a naked angel on her thighs, and “Sleeping Woman,” fashioned out of mahogany, with Bunny stretched languidly on a bench in the kitchen.
When the well ran dry, they had to fill leaky barrels from the nearby stream, drive hell for leather back to the house, and dump what was still left into the well. Lothar finally dug a hole in the swamp, placed a wooden barrel in it with sand at the bottom through which the water percolated, built a platform and derrick on top, ran a pipe up from the barrel to a sap bucket with a pump to prime the system, and then ran a pipe down to the driveway that filled up an old enameled refrigerator. Then Bunny had to carry pails of water from the makeshift holding tank to the kitchen.
I once asked her if it was a tough life, and she responded, “It wasn’t tough; it was just the way it was. It was life.” Bunny learned to eat everything from daylilies, butternuts, milkweed (blanch it three times; the first bite tastes like asparagus), to locust tree flowers (add them to pancake batter), and made wine out of daisies, rhubarb, tomatoes, and roses. Her favorite meal, the one she fed weekend guests, was Compost Soup. You start with lentil or pea soup and then just keep adding leftovers — it all just went into the soup pot. When asked for the recipe, she always laughed since it never came out the same way twice.
As for meat, Lothar hunted and finally bagged a buck, field-dressed it, and then dumped it on the kitchen table, expecting Bunny to do the butchering. She said, nonchalantly, that it was just like cutting up a chicken, although she had to borrow a library book to teach herself how to do it. One year they found a raccoon in the basement, drunk on dandelion wine; another time they saw a bear moseying down their hill, curious about Bunny who was busy flying a kite.
When Bunny first moved to town she thought everyone was friendly since they always waved. What she soon learned is that you were not taken seriously until you had made it through at least one hard winter. This was a town where generations of Lombergs, Skidmores, Bentleys, Tudors, Wilcoxes, and Woodcocks had been born and raised, and it took years for her to understand the respect she owed those who had deeper roots. Although the old-timers didn’t much like to give advice (Vermonters are wary of being blamed if something goes wrong), they were almost always right. Bunny and Lothar were told never to prune an old pear tree. When they did, it bloomed magnificently the next spring, but, as predicted, it fell over dead a few weeks later. They were also the butt of practical jokes. One day, Ken Wilcox invited Bunny and Lothar over to see the magnificent view through his telescope. Turns out that the “view” was a naked woman painted on the far end.
The last time I saw Bunny, we sat on her back porch in early spring. The birds had returned and their music was still freshly sung. She pointed out the stone walls that she and Lothar had built over the decades. We both knew that she was dying, and yet Bunny, who had never been scared of life, had no fear of death, either. In our small town, some circles of neighbors rarely overlap, so the two of us had crossed paths only occasionally, rendering our conversation bittersweet. I had, at the very end of her days, come to a stranger’s house, one that should have been as familiar as my own back porch.
Two weeks after my spring visit, Bunny was gone, having taken to her bed without food or drink, knowing that her life was now behind her. I have seen many at life’s end, but none of them conquered death as well as Bunny. Her sparkling eyes, her lust for life, her nonchalant discussion of where she was to be buried—under a rock above the orchard, next to her beloved Lothar—had lifted a tremendous burden from my middle-aged shoulders. But perhaps that was Bunny’s magic all along: to feed others, to make her house a home for visitors, to laugh aloud naked in a hot sauna at midnight, or to serve Compost Soup, making something special out of nothing.
A few days ago, I tracked down a copy of the Life magazine article and turned to a full-page photo of Lothar and Bunny in Mexico, bathing in Lake Chapala, hair wet and tangled, surrounded by a vast sea of lily pads. Bunny was young and beautiful, and Lothar, turned to her and smiling, looked every bit the handsome Beat generation artist he was. Today, across the continent and half a century later, our two neighbors are still with us, happy, I suspect, with a damn good view of their children and grandchildren, on a hill above the house that is their eternal home.