This is Where We Belong

by Willem Lange

EAST MONTPELIER – You know how a dog, obeying some primordial prompting, sometimes circles a prospective nest before lying down? This week, as the sauna-like heat of late July finally (and likely, temporarily) broke, and cooler air flowed in on north winds, and I quit sleeping on a bath towel to save the bed, that canine image came to me. Kiki quit her chilly spot in the easy chair by the window, jumped across to the bed, and pleaded silently to burrow. So we snuggled. It was as if the two of us, having circled this spot for years, were finally home. The full Sturgeon Moon soared across the yard through the night and lit the bedroom as if to ratify the feeling.

I’ll never be a Westerner – Texas, Montana, Washington, California. When I spent time out there in the 1950s, I found myself constantly wondering what was going on back in the world. Getting up in the morning, I felt that the day had already happened back home – which it had, sort of. Same for the Midwest: the accents, the certainties, the uniformity of the closely cropped front lawns, were all alien somehow. I yearned to be somewhere east of 75º west longitude. That was home.

It’s not that the accents of home are all that attractive, but they ring bells deep inside those of us raised here. The Maine fishermen’s coast of Cornwall irony; the Boston Brahmin drawling over martinis about sailing; the Southie Irishman fulminating about the latest screw-up by the Sawx; the Brooklynite, whom you’d peg easily in Australia; the New Jersey native, whose accent can’t be rendered accurately in print; my own ancestral family, solid, yet imaginative, and announcing their origins with one shibboleth: Awbny. All of these are my home, and familiar turf.

In a few minutes, however, Kiki and I will be taking our almost-daily brief drive to a beautiful local park right smack in the middle of Vermont. Almost all the people we’ll meet – and now, with the heat broken, there’ll be quite a few – will speak in generic accents, likely because folks who take walks in Vermont parks in afternoons are pretty much all from away. Yet here is where this old dog and his pup, after circling the spot, have chosen to lie down at last. Afterward, we’ll sit quietly on the back porch with our preprandials and watch for the young doe, who almost trusts us, to materialize from the bushes and feed cautiously through the deep grass out back.

I was born in Albany of old Hudson Valley stock. When I was eight, our little family moved west, to “Sarracuse”: new accent, Roman Catholics everywhere, and no more extended protective family. After a few brushes with the juvenile justice system, I was off to a prep school in Massachusetts, where we all worked about ten hours a week as part of the curriculum. It probably saved my life (it certainly kept me out of Attica); but, though I love that place, and go back as often as I can, it never has felt quite like home. Fast forward to a small college in Ohio. My reaction was essentially get-me-out-of-here! – which is likely why it took me nine years to get a degree.

I had fallen in love with the Adirondacks during my multiple sabbaticals, so the next serious move was a step in the right direction: a teaching job in a little town on the west shore of Lake Champlain. After six years of that, a move to Hanover, N.H., where my wife and I lived forty years and raised our family. We made a good living there, and I do miss parts of it. But New Hampshire, spectacular as its scenery may be, was not a good fit. Beyond the borders of literate, liberal Hanover dwelt gun-toters whose default mode was grumpy. When our property taxes rose to an intolerable level, we cashed out and, like the Israelites, crossed the river into the promised land.

Unfortunately, neither of our beloved dogs nor my irreplaceable wife lasted more than a few years here. So I’m left now with the house all to myself (not quite; there’s a roomer downstairs), and share it with a new dog, who’s with me just about 24 hours a day. It’s as nearly perfect as any situation could be. To friends who comment that Vermont is landlocked, I can point east to the Connecticut River or west to Lake Champlain, each of them less than an hour away. To those who claim that it’s an expensive place to live, I can show my property tax bill, well under half what I paid for the same house in Hanover. There’s no doubt Vermont is changing; the first of the climate refugees, working from home, are arriving. But there’s still ancient virtue in a neat woodpile, and sitting on the porch in the evening with a dog is a picture of paradise. This is where we belong.