During a recent church service in our small town in Vermont, the minister asked the congregation if there was anyone we ought to pray for. The mother of a teenage boy called out, "Let's all pray for teenagers!" On another occasion, Mike, a local farmer, was helping me hook up a brush hog to our tractor. When it slid right onto the power take-off without a hitch, he exclaimed, "That was as slick as a mitten!" Years ago, I jogged by Tom and Nancy's place in the early morning, followed by an amorous (or maybe just hungry) goat. Tom cried out, "That your new girlfriend?" Speaking of Tom, he once saw his beagle chasing a rabbit in circles -- or so he thought; actually, the cottontail was sitting comfortably on a stump right in the middle of a briar patch, watching the dog run.
If you call Don Lewis's number in the fall, his answering machine is likely to say, "Well, the frost is on the pumpkin. . . ." On the wall of Axel's saphouse, there is a large mousetrap and a sign that says, "For Complaints, Push Here." The Wayside Country Store has a photograph on the wall of four donkeys that reads "Board of Directors." And nothing will ever beat John K's defroster, the one he jury-rigged in his rusty brown Rabbit. It was a votive candle stuck into the dashboard.
John's wife, Lucille, told me that one morning he got up early as usual to go the outhouse. (He used to phone in the local weather report while sitting in the two-holer.) He came back in a few minutes looking bewildered. "John," she asked, "What's wrong?" John looked like he'd seen a ghost and said, "I can't find it!" Lucille, still confused, asked, "Can't find what?" John shot back, "Can't find the outhouse!" A strong wind had picked it up and blown it into the next field.
Old-timers, of course, enjoy the little things, understanding the power of a simple word or phrase or gesture. When the last bale of hay was finally thrown up into the barn, I remember Charlie Bentley always calling out, "That's the one we've been looking for!" Back in the '60s, when someone from the state agricultural department asked Bernie Squires if he knew where the Kimballs lived, Bernie got out from under his truck, walked over to the fence, and said, "Yup," then turned his back and walked away. Fraisher Mears used an apple branch for divining water, and he was known to start up a conversation with it, saying, "Tell me, Mr. Stick, how far is it?" Russell Bain had a saying about women and tractors, "Powder and paint make it what it ain't." There were two sisters, Big Helen and Little Helen: Little Helen was over six feet tall. The Woodcocks nailed a TV antenna to the top of their doghouse. Sonny Skidmore used to pick up a bathroom scale between his ham-sized hands and squeeze it until the needle jumped off the chart. Calvin Coolidge, stuck next to a dinner guest who had wagered she could get more than two words of conversation out of the tight-lipped Vermonter, said, "You lose."
In the country, life is made of the little things, stuff that nobody else has time to notice. One Saturday morning I was up early and walking by the lower pasture just before daybreak. Our six horses, normally slow moving and gentle, were galloping and skidding on the wet sod, rising up and pawing the air, kicking like broncos, and generally behaving like a bunch of kids. An hour later, when they came back to the barn for hay, they were as tame as usual.
That afternoon, I went out grouse hunting, and my 7-year-old, Emily, asked to come along. I said OK, but she would have to walk behind me since I would be carrying a loaded semi-automatic 20-gauge. I had to keep reminding her that it was dangerous to walk ahead until she finally said, "Mom would be really mad if you shot me." I allowed as how she would indeed be pretty mad. "After all," she stated firmly, "she went to a lot of trouble to have me."
That weekend, all four kids were at home, including our two oldest girls, who are now off at boarding school. It was suppertime, and we were sitting around the table in front of a fire that felt particularly good, as the rain hadn't let up for 10 days. It was a simple supper: our own steak and potatoes, a salad from the garden, and a deep-dish apple pie made from the just-picked stock in the root cellar.
This reminded me of another table, the one at the Yellow Farmhouse. Back in the 1960s, I was sitting among farmers, Charlie and Floyd, the farmhands, Onie and Herbie, and the two dogs, Dixie and Bonnie, as the heat came from a green Kalamazoo wood cookstove. (Most Vermonters don't care for fireplaces -- they suck up too much heat.) The one detail I remember most about those days was the cookies. Marie Briggs, the cook and baker, gave us only those cookies that weren't good enough to sell, so most of them had slightly burnt bottoms. Pretty soon, we all acquired a taste for dark-colored cookies, and to this day I like my pastry on the black side of brown.
We shouldn't be surprised that details define our personal history. The smell of yeast and wet dog. The heat from a wood cookstove. The way Floyd used to tell a story, elbows on his thighs, a cigarette dangling from his lip. Or, on this rainy evening, the taste of apple pie and with it the pleasures of a warm fire and the family table. Little things are economical, telling us who we were with a mere lick or glance. Even today, when I taste something dark and smoky, it's an invitation to noon dinner, to a place at the table where I learned to appreciate the commonplace -- hard work, parsimony, self-reliance, and even the cookies that Marie couldn't sell down at the country store.