My mother, Mary Alice, was a latter-day suffragette. A rumored Communist party member in the ’30s (or, at the very least, a bang- up socialist), she was always fighting the system and for good reason. Her chosen profession, school psychologist, put her up against a bureaucracy that was rigged for men, semiprofessionals of a lower order: hidebound, territorial, and well fanged, much like encountering a group of particularly savage baboons in western Uganda, where we visited in 1967. In an academic setting, this savagery took its toll behind closed doors and over years, not minutes.
That led to an alternate life, one landscaped by organic gardens, a love of new age health advocates such as Bonnie Prudden and Adelle Davis (Let’s Eat Right to Keep Fit), and a social group made up of New York misfits who visited the farm for summer outings. One of my most bizarre memories is of three nuns—Faith, Hope, and Charity—playing badminton on our lawn. Of course there were the folksingers; the fund-raising cocktail parties for Jack Kennedy and, later, Bobby; and all sorts of stray intellectuals—the sort that felt right at home in our ex-urban commune. Every summer evening was launched with gimlets and cheddar cheese on the porch until the mosquitoes ran amok.
Summers and weekends were a rich stew of creosote, pig manure, raw cow’s milk, fly-stuffed barns, and the happy scent of molasses cookies, wood smoke, and yeast with a strong undercurrent of wet dog. Fence posts needed pounding; barbed wire had to be stretched; hay had to be cut, tedded, raked, and baled; pigs and Angus had to be chased up the road and back into fenced pasture. We sold our own Green River brand of pork and beef, which, when mixed together, made our signature burgers. As for the garden, the theory was survival of the fittest. A full quarter acre was planted every spring with no intention of further support (watering or weeding). There were always sufficient survivors to fill the root cellar and provide for bitter and fresh greens, tomatoes, and herbs throughout the season.
My sister Kate and I endured countless hours of slow Vermont conversation about the road commissioner, foundations, conservation easements, and property lines. It took years to get used to a people who spoke only when they had something to say, which was not all that often. (Bernie Squires, a neighbor, was once working in his yard when a stranger from the Vermont Bureau of Land Management came up inquiring after my mother. When asked if he knew where the Kimballs lived, he simply replied, “Yes,” and slowly walked away.) And the characters in our childhood production were straight out of central casting: two Bentleys, Charlie and Floyd; Marie Briggs the baker; Herbie and Onie the summer farmhands; plus Daisy the collie and Bonnie the mutt. The other old-time families in town were Skidmores, Wilcoxes, Hurds, and Lombergs, but it was Mary Alice who was, for me, at the epicenter—a New York intellectual who had read everything from Proust to Trollope yet reveled in Bean boots, mud, crop rotations, animal husbandry, fly fishing, tractors, and the party line phone that needed cranking. She was born to one thing—she was married at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.—yet was happiest in another; a flock of chickens was almost family in the size of her affections. On Saturday nights, she got liquored up on Jack Daniels and drove a WWII surplus Jeep helter-skelter up the mountain, Kate and me hanging on for dear life, bugs smashing into our faces like grapeshot.
After I had my own family, we showed up at her farm at midday and the turkey was warming in a 175-degree oven per Adelle Davis’s sous vide theory of cooking meat at its final resting temperature. Keenly aware that bacteria doubles every 20 minutes, my first act was to raise the oven temperature to 325 degrees, hoping not to lose a family member to an outbreak of salmonella. (In later years, I revealed my strategem and confronted her about the risk to our four small children. Her reply was, “Well, I haven’t killed any of you yet,” a retort that I always felt was evidence of good luck rather than good practice.)
And she was a tortured soul of contradictions. One Thanksgiving she extolled the virtues of the local redheaded minister and the next disavowed any knowledge of churchgoing. Having finished listen- ing to a particularly damning polemic against sugary treats, I discovered a freezer full of Häagen-Dazs and a drawer full of English biscuits, the sweet kind. And she had an endless supply of organizational tools, from her personal day-by-day farm calendar (when to check your hoses, plant cover crops, clean your garden tools, and order your seeds) to dozens of yellow legal pads filled with to-do lists. The numbered items were but a paean to a nuts-and-bolts Protestant universe from a woman who thrived on intellectual heresy fed by a rich appreciation for right-brain chaos.
Mary Alice’s legacy lives on in my latter-day root cellar: carrots and beets stored in sand and bushel baskets of Green Mountain potatoes with a good flow of cold air to keep them from rotting. (Always store apples in a separate area.) I learned to butcher beefers and pigs, milk a cow, shovel manure, raise bees, boil maple syrup, and throw hay bales. As for culinary adventure, I have eaten venison jerky and pickled cow’s tongue out of a gallon-size jar filled with liquid the color of Oz on a dark, rainy day.
In later years, she turned to good topsoil, a 22 pistol to keep the bears out of the bird feeder, and an English shepherd named Dolly for solace. My last memory is a Sunday goodbye. She often waved us off, standing high above on her second-floor porch, her eyes moist, but the kids didn’t notice. Their grandmother was beyond their known world, like the candy-cottage witch from Hansel and Gretel. In later years, they would remember a woman ahead of her time, who put local above global, who dug deep into the ground for nourishment.
When she died, I took the ancient birch and gut snowshoes; there is nothing better in deep snow. They are a reminder that Mary Alice was fond of gearing up to challenge the elements or whatever else stood in her way. She knew the secret of life, taking that first step.
Her legacy is still the garden, our family’s hallowed ground. We plant every year with the hope of digging deep to find a life that is rich and unexpected.