(as published in the Bennington Banner, Nov. 10, 2014)
I just moved back to the Bennington area after an absence of twenty years, during which time I was teaching English in Greece. Like Rip van Winkle, I now have a beard, though mine is not as long as Rip’s was. Like Odysseus, I am returning to my own home, on West Mountain in Shaftsbury.
Unlike these fictional heroes, however, I’ve been back a number of times for short visits over the years, so I’ve spoiled some of the surprises. Still, driving in from Boston via Brattleboro on Route 9 the other day, I was able for the first time to take the bypass north. I believe that was forty or fifty years in the making: Hallelujah. And then, going north on 7A through South Shaftsbury, although I had read about the new 25-mph speed limit on-line in the Banner, I was not prepared for the experience. Time slowed. I watched a leaf drop from a branch, drift through the air, and settle on the ground, all while I was passing by the tree. Very Zen.
Downtown looks more or less the same. My two favorite Main Street stores, Shaffe’s and Katie Cleaver’s tiny jewelry shop, are still there. Gary Jones is still barbering in an establishment that doesn’t seem to have changed much since the Coolidge administration; Gary himself has been there since 1970. Bennington still has a bookshop and a daily newspaper, though you can barely start the woodstove with it now. The stores on Northside Drive – and the people shopping in them – have grown larger. The Blue Benn is reassuringly the same.
The lights at the Four Corners were redone some years ago, and I notice that they no longer chirp at pedestrians but order them to walk, when the time comes, in two voices, male and female, speaking at the same time, like an old couple arguing. I think that if the lights are going to talk, they should at least apologize for keeping us waiting so long. As I stood there like a statue, I noticed that the sidewalks were mostly empty. Bennington seems pretty sleepy to me, but perhaps I’m just used to the rhythms of city life in Salonika.
Because I’ve been reading the Banner, and the New York Times, I know that Bennington now has its share of what used to be only urban problems. There was no heroin epidemic in Vermont twenty years ago. Yipes.
Even the woods pose new dangers. My house is in a forest clearing: deer tick territory. I’d read about the ticks, and now I’ve seen one live and crawling on the back of my hand. It was a neighbor who pointed the insect out to me as she was casually terrifying me with stories of the infestation. “Don’t look now,” she interjected. The tick had evidently jumped me when I cleared a little brush from the path on the way over. Remind me to collect some of the critters in a vial and send them to the climate-change-denier caucus in Congress.
But the trees themselves – I hadn’t been in Vermont in the fall for all these years, and the colors have been stunning. The air is clear, and even the clouds seem exotic after those monotonously blue Greek skies. Moreover, the people are so friendly – and they all speak English! The Vermont wit is intact, too. The day of my return I stopped in at Paulin’s and picked up a box of spaghetti, a jar of sauce, and a can of beer. As the young woman at the register handed me my change, she deadpanned, “Enjoy your dinner.”
The mountains, the Monument, and cheerful Judy Stratton, who as Shaftsbury Town Clerk recorded our property deed and marriage in 1983, they remain. Many of the people I knew, including my neighbors, are right where I left them. But others, friends and former colleagues, the man who married us (it was Zeke Cross), and the woman I married, are gone forever.