• Hear the Good News

    In our small Vermont town, there are many ways of getting news. You can sit at the "round table" at the Wayside Country Store before dawn and discuss everything from local DWI citations to the United Nations. Or you can meet on the road, two pickups stopped in opposite directions, the drivers lazily discussing the flatlander who likes to garden stark naked. Or perhaps a neighbor will just stop by while you're boiling sap, mucking a stall, feeding the pigs, or washing dishes. If it's close to high noon, you offer a beer; coffee is only for the early morning hours. One of our neighbors, John, used to ask for a cup of tea to which I often added a healthy shot of something made in the Scottish highlands. And of course there is coffee hour after church, the conversation often turning on the prospects for haying given the variable weather. The telephone is never used for social reasons. Old-time Vermonters will almost never answer it, and, when they do, they speak in words of one syllable until they can prematurely end the conversation with a "See you then," followed by a click and the inevitable dial tone.

    Of course, there is also the News Guide, the free weekly newspaper. Announcements appear about the Square and Round Dance to benefit the Interfaith Council, the Easter Basket Raffle at the St. James Church, the local school bottle drive, and even the First Annual Woodchuck Festival, which features the Extreme Woodchuck Rescue Challenge. This spring, there was a close competition in the Wood-Chucking Contest (the winner tossed a log 20 feet, 6 inches), and the grand finale was the Woodchuck Ball, an event that includes a Woodchuck King and Queen.

    The News Guide also contains a whole page of AA meetings followed by notices for support groups, wellness clinics, selectmen and planning committees, and notices about bridge and bingo. And if you look closely, you might come across a Pitch Card Party planned for the Grange Hall or an Embroidery Guild of America meeting at Trinity Church. The classified ads give you the opportunity to earn $5 for every envelope stuffed (Guaranteed!), to become a well driller helper, or, only if you are honest, to assemble refrigerator magnets. (Dishonest magnet assemblers need not apply.)

    This is not to poke fun at country life--quite the opposite. I'd rather attend a wild game dinner, go to the Easter Egg Hunt sponsored by the fire department, or go see "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" Saturday night at the town library than make the trip to see the latest off-Broadway entertainment. I guess that's because Vermonters feel that they shouldn't have to pay for their fun. Gossip is fun. Hard work is fun. Hunting and fishing are fun. A square dance is fun. The summer fireman's carnival is fun. And Old Home Day, held at the Methodist Church in early August, is fun (but the minister does pass the collection plate after reading out the shortfall in this year's fund-raising efforts).

    It is also true that bad news travels faster than good news. When Sonny Skidmore had a stroke, Charlie Bentley got run over by a tractor, Fred DePeyster had a heart attack, or when our good friend John died suddenly on a Friday night, the whole town heard the news instantly. That's because the rescue squad is made up of neighbors. Of course, if you do any work on your house, the town assessors show up pretty quick to take a walk through, adding up the numbers in their heads.

    On Sundays, down at the Methodist Church, we hear the good news that Christ died for our sins. Of course, in a small town, the worst sin is not being useful. I remember Russell Bain, who eventually ended up at the nursing home because he had a hard time walking. But he still wanted to be useful, so on Sundays Susie and Valerie picked him up and drove him back to town, where he was strapped with extra seat belts onto a riding mower. His memory wasn't too good either, so they put a photo of him on the mower next to his bed. That always cheered him up, that photo. He could see himself being useful.

    In the summer, on the farm, we tell our kids that they have to fetch the eggs, feed the pigs, groom the horses, pick the berries, dig the potatoes, shuck the corn, and help with dinner. This is our salvation, hard work. Show up at Old Home Day with a plate or two of brownies and you are forgiven. Help stack a few cords of wood for a neighbor and you are pretty certain of seeing the gates of heaven. It's a simple rule to live by.

    Last weekend, I baked two loaves of anadama bread and brought one over to Charlie Bentley. He was cooking a bachelor's dinner in a cast-iron skillet so I didn't stay long. When I walked in, he turned off the heat, and the sizzle of the meat started to quiet as we talked. I used to hay and milk with him as a kid and got paid 75 cents an hour. I wasn't much help--I walked like a circus clown with a bum leg when I tried to carry a heavy milking pail to the cooler--but I tried. Here I was 45 years later, guilty of most sins I can think of, still trying to be useful in spite of it.

    All in all, most people would agree that cooks are pretty useful people. You'd have to ask our minister if forgiveness can be had for a loaf of bread, but I'd be willing to bet on it. This Easter, our 14-year-old, Caroline, surprised us by baking a cake: white on white, with "Happy Easter" written in pale blue and pink. When she whacked her younger brother, Charlie, after dinner, we forgave her. It was the lingering taste of the cake and a good cup of coffee that induced divine intervention. And if my anadama bread doesn't make me worthy of salvation, at least I baked an extra loaf for myself, just in case. As I have often told our four kids, a good cook always thinks ahead.

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