Familiar Things

For six months the chancellor of the university lived next door. In May he and his family went to Disney World. Each morning Vicki fed his dogs, two Labradors named Mousse and Huckleberry. One morning, after feeding the dogs, Vicki pointed to our kitchen ceiling and said, “Don’t you think that’s better?”

Last fall in Norwich, Vicki had bought a light fixture for the kitchen. Once home, she discovered the lip of the fixture was warped. For months the lip swayed, dizzying across Vicki’s vision. Then in May, while preparing food for Mousse and Huckleberry, Vicki noticed three of the same fixtures in the chancellor’s house, none warped. “The darn things only cost $21.95 apiece,” she said. “The university should have bought something better.” In June the chancellor accepted the presidency of Louisiana State University. “Before he and Clara leave for Louisiana,” Vicki said, “I’m going to switch fixtures.”

“Don’t,” I said.

“I’m doing it,” she said. “He’s leaving, and the change won’t bother him. I’d switch fixtures even if he stayed.”

A week later when the chancellor was in Baton Rouge, Vicki rid herself of the warped fixture. “I switched ours with the one in the study. I thought about removing the fixture from the master bedroom, but then Clara might have noticed. Women’s minds wander to cooking, cleaning, lights, almost anything during—”

“Enough,” I said, clapping my hands over my ears and staring down at the kitchen table. “I don’t want to hear any more.”

Despite refusing to glance at the ceiling, I knew not only what hung above but also what lay ahead. School had ended. Francis was riding a mountain bike in Italy, and Edward and Eliza were at camp in Maine. Summer had arrived, and the time had almost come to depart for Nova Scotia. Every June, Vicki and I debate going to her family’s home in Beaver River, Nova Scotia. Invariably we decide to spend summer at home, in Storrs, Conn. Just after the decision, however, something happens, and we leave. Two years in a row, thieves stole my bicycle, and rather than remain in town fuming, we decamped. For a moment I thought the ceiling fixture might push us toward the northern lights. But then the chancellor didn’t notice the switch. Four days later he and Clara invited us to a farewell party. At the party the kitchen light flickered in my mind. In hopes of dimming fluorescent consciousness, I squeezed a skin of red wine dry. For a while I succeeded in darkening awareness, becoming an incandescent bore. An acquaintance’s nose was so large, I informed a vice president of the university, that he couldn’t blow it without packing his nostrils with gunpowder. After the naiads finished bathing, I asked a dean, what service did the dryads provide? On the man’s looking puzzled, I explained that the dryads distributed towels.

A sociologist, not a classicist, the man didn’t appreciate my bon mot. Consequently, I asked him a riddle. Why is the letter B like a hot fire? As the answer—because it makes oil boil—did not elevate him to laughter, I then described recent doings in Carthage. One chilly night in February, Horace Armitage staggered into Enos Mayfield’s Inn and sat by the stove. Horace had prepared for the cold by swallowing a pint of homemade antifreeze before leaving his house. Nevertheless, the walk chilled him, and he hunkered over the stove, rubbing his hands together and spreading his fingers. “Mr. Armitage,” Mayfield’s son Tyrell said after five minutes. “There ain’t no fire in that stove.”

“Damn you, you rascal,” Horace exclaimed, standing up, shivering. “Why did you tell me that? I was just beginning to get warm. Now you’ve given me the shakes.”

Like pigweed amid corn, my wit proved too weedy for the chancellor’s cultivated guests. The dean having left me alone, I ambled over to a clump of people, including, among others, the town’s representative in the state legislature. Age had uprooted several incumbents, and local Democrats, she said, were having trouble finding people to plant on the town council. At this furrow of the conversation, wine blighted my intelligence. Eight minutes later, the representative led me into town hall to be interviewed by the Democratic Committee. The committee sat soberly around a table. I thumped down, slapping a plastic glass brimming with wine in front of me. I began discussion by apologizing for being “tight as a tick.” I announced that I wouldn’t hesitate to raise taxes, saying I’d promise the citizenry a chicken in every garage and a Lexus in every pot, wit that brought puzzled, not smiling, looks. Afterward, remarks vanished in a Cabernet Sauvignon haze. Eventually my stomach turned feathery, and I walked home through the woods, suffering from dyspepsia, “the remorse,” my friend Josh said later, “of a guilty palate.”

The next morning I informed Vicki the time had come to leave for Nova Scotia. By summer’s end my lubricated appearance at town hall would have dried and blown from mind. “Maybe,” Vicki said, “but suppose the Democrats nominate you? Drunk or sober, you’d lead the ticket.”

“Surely,” I said, “the committee wouldn’t nominate a tippler.”

“Bad behavior provides the best possible education for office,” Vicki continued. “The pure and the good cannot cope with public matters. Besides, you behaved like a jackass, something that always indicates good character. No man who has been laughed at is irredeemably damned.”

Four days later, Vicki and I, and George and Penny, the dogs, left Connecticut, driving to Bar Harbor and the new ferry to Yarmouth. By the time I reached New Hampshire, I’d shed the cloven hoof kicked up at town hall. In truth, banging the boards of my stall frees me to spend summers willfully. Misbehavior protects a person from distending ambition. Instead of foundering amid the poor provender of position and responsibility, I wander pastures that have nourished me since childhood. Any wise man, as Josh put it, can run a college, but only a fool can lead the good life. “Shakespeare was wrong,” I said to Vicki as we passed Portsmouth. “Pharmacists are not pillers of society. Essayists are.”

“What?” Vicki said.

“Never mind,” I said, dropping the speed to 50 mph.

Vicki and I are experienced dog travelers. At Mackey’s in Willimantic, Vicki bought a pillow cover, stuffing it afterward with two pillows purchased at Penny’s, making a dog bed for $28, $31 less than a comparable bed at Puppy Love, the pet store in East Brook Mall. We walked and watered the dogs throughout the drive: at the “Welcome to Maine” rest stop near York; outside the Birchwood Motel north of Castine; across a field behind the Dexter Shoe Outlet in Ellsworth, Maine, where boat shoes sold for $39, unfortunately none 10½, Vicki’s size; then finally along the hill above the Bay Ferries terminal at Bar Harbor. Dog days are tiring. The owner of Birchwood kept two cats. During nights the cats pounce from the railing running the length of the motel, landing on the hoods of cars. To prevent the cats leaping onto the Toyota and conducting the dogs in a chorus of howls, I parked 10 feet from the railing. Still, at 5:12 the next morning, a cat ambled across the parking lot and Penny yelped. At least she yelped until I joined her in the car, barefoot and wearing pajamas.

Later that morning Vicki and I planned to explore Castine. Because the day was hot, we didn’t leave the dogs in the car long, this despite cracking all four windows and placing a plastic bowl of water on the floor in front of the driver’s seat. Still, we wandered a bit. ABCD Books sold used books. A customer in the store asked the clerk the location of books describing nature. The clerk didn’t know. “Next to gardening,” I said, having roamed the store searching for one of my books.

“Any collection of my essays would have done,” I told Vicki later.

“You write about New England. Did you really expect to find one of your books?” she said, handing me a postcard, adding, “Here’s a present. I bought it at a souvenir stand.” Six belted Galloways grazed across the front of the card, the white bands resembling corsets circling the stomachs of the steers. I pondered buying a muffin and a cup of coffee at Cappy’s Bakery. I wanted to stroll down Commercial to the Megunticook River. I planned to sit on a bench and sip and munch. I imagined furling into the quiet and watching schooners slide through the harbor. “Sweets and doldrums kill dogs,” Vicki said, steering me clear of reverie and piloting me back to the car. The ferry at Bar Harbor was a catamaran, from the side looking like a pasteboard iron, from the front, a giant ray, wings sweeping black toward the water. On board I sat in the theater. Tired from having muzzled Penny before breakfast, I slept through a showing of “Anastasia,” waking only for the death of Rasputin.

“If your heart is in the Highlands,” Josh informed a musical acquaintance, “it ain’t here.” In Nova Scotia, my heart and body can almost always be found in Beaver River. Once or twice during the summer, envy causes a chamber to skip, when, for example, a friend writes from Italy or France, his letter winy with murmuring about Tuscany or the Loire Valley. A walk, however, soon restores rhythm, ambles along the drumlin overlooking the Bay of Fundy being natural pacemakers.

Electrical problems always await us in Beaver River. The hot-water heater in the house is 44 years old. This summer it needed, as the repairman phrased it, an “electrical bypass.” After the operation, I bathed, sinking under a white mound of “Wild Rose” bubbles. Before the bath, while the heater was convalescent, I’d spent days doing chores in and out of the house—inside, removing shutters, freeing stuck sashes, and jacking up the backhouse in order to open the pantry door. Vicki admires spiders, and before I vacuumed, she urged me to be gentle. “Catch the spiders and take them outside,” she instructed. “They are fragile. Be careful not to suck them up when they scurry into cracks. Cleaning near spiders requires a delicate touch.” Many spiders built webs under windows, bays being favorites. The spiders fed on flies and wood lice, spotting boards under webs yellow with droppings, the exoskeletons of lice drifting dry and broken across the floor like minute shields. The vacuum cleaner wheezed when I turned it on. During the winter a mouse built a nest in the tank, crawling up a 7-foot hose at the end of which was a metal extension shaped like a boomerang.

The second morning in Beaver River I cut rhubarb growing along the stone wall beside Ma’s Property, the field south of the house. Later Vicki bought a flat of strawberries grown in Annapolis Valley. The next day she made eight jars of strawberry-rhubarb preserves. I spent much of the first week in Nova Scotia outside. From under the bays I trimmed bridal wreath. I oiled the scythe and mowed grass behind the barn. I cut dead branches from hawthorns and dragged away spruce weakened by porcupines, then snapped by wind. I chopped Japanese knotweed with a machete, carting canes into the woods. Forty years prior, Vicki’s father had planted the knotweed as an ornamental, a mistake because the plant spreads by rhizomes, forming dark, close bacterial thickets that smother other vegetation. Two red maples shade the front of the house. In fall they drop leaves into trenches formed where gables pitch up from the roof. Moss and twigs cling together in heaps, and the trenches become planters. This past year asters rooted, and soon after arriving in Nova Scotia I climbed atop the bays and weeded the roof, hoeing some of the soil, then using a long, bamboo pole to pry up the rest, playing clumps of dirt like fish on lines.

In summer, saws jump to hand. After a morning’s cutting, be the slicing useful or whimsical and indulgent, I drink coffee and eat a sugar doughnut. Rocking in the kitchen, a wood fire thumping in the stove, I feel more attuned to the world than in Connecticut. Instead of hanging heavy, leaded with the metallic fumes of automobiles, air sweeps blue off the Bay of Fundy and, stirring through the side meadow, whisks up currents of rose and pine. In Nova Scotia, summers slip together seamlessly, the appointments of days comfortable and familiar.

On our arrival, black alder and sheep laurel bloomed along the lane leading to the bluff. As I do each summer, I confused black alder with inkberry. Once more, sheep laurel startled me, the small blossoms, cups overflowing with pink sweetened by purple. A long-horned beetle alit on my right leg as I sat on the side porch. A white-spotted sawyer, the beetle feeds on dead and dying conifers. During the summer several sawyers land on me. “Because,” Vicki explained, “you are so woodenly conventional.” The first moth I noticed this summer was an underwing with three glossy black spots dotting the margin of its forewing. The moth is common. In past years I tried unsuccessfully to identify it. This summer I failed again. For creatures about the farm, place is constant, something that reassures the two-leggers who live in the house.

Every summer a song sparrow or one of her progeny nests in the rugosa roses bordering the side meadow. Caterpillars of mourning cloak butterflies chew the willow at the edge of the meadow ratty. Batches of their castoff skins stick to the ends of branches, turning twigs black and spiky. This summer in the blueberry field, a stick mimic clung to a stem of fireweed. A fleshy shelf jutted from behind a caterpillar’s head like a leaf scar. While the caterpillar’s back legs grasped a twig, a silk thread tied the insect’s head to a leaf. The head stuck out, resembling a bud, and the caterpillar’s legs twisted like crooked twigs from its body I wouldn’t have seen the caterpillar if I hadn’t known where to look. Every July a similar caterpillar appears in the same patch of fireweed.

Trifles compose place and character. In early afternoon a cock pheasant wandered the lane, usually resting near alders shadowed by apple trees. At dusk a porcupine swam up from beneath the backhouse, or did until I crammed buoys into holes dug under the building. Place and person are patchworks of the small. The more patches a person recognizes, the more he will appreciate life. Great achievement deceives, often leading to dissatisfaction. During my first amble along the lane, I heard the song of a white-throated sparrow, then those of myrtle and black-throated green warblers. Tails bobbing, a small flock of palm warblers foraged low through scrub. A black-backed gull rode the wind over the headland, muttering impatiently, the sounds out of feather with the bird’s unperturbed, elegant flight. Two eiders and a loon bobbled in the water, the breast of this last ballooning white, like a buoy. Two years ago I lay two sheets of plywood on the open ground behind the headland. While four brown snakes curled like laces under one sheet, a vole nested under the other.

A white admiral patrolled the lane. Soon Atlantic fritillaries would sip meadowsweet in George’s Field, and monarchs would perch lazily on knapweed growing above the foundation hole on Ma’s Property Deerflies had hatched, and looking at the ground, I watched their shadows swing around my head. Suddenly the sour aroma of witherod oozed through the air. Bill Grace, our neighbor, had sawed branches off saplings that leaned into the lane. As the leaves of witherod blackened, fragrance clotted and fermented, repulsing Vicki but appealing to me, smacking of bourbony bread pudding. For 12 years Bill’s cat has crossed the highway and hunted our property. Amid grass along the lane lay pieces of two meadow jumping mice, the tufts of their tails small black brooms. A northern harrier lifted herself over white spruce, then slid down the headland. Near a setting of swamp candles lay the head of a hare, hunks of meat red and still attached, fur spreading in a brown puddle, scraps left by a great horned owl. I pocketed the head and later stuck it in a jar, covering it with a blend of water and Javex 2, an all-fabric bleach.

Even the new seemed familiar. Cardinals nested at the edge of the blueberry field, the first Vicki and I ever saw in Beaver River. In the lane a large green-and-yellow dragonfly hawked a skimmer out of the air. Perched on a twig, the big dragonfly ate its smaller cousin. The dragonfly swallowed the skimmer head first, eating everything except the wings, which hung near its jaws for a moment before falling and drifting away Torpid after the meal, the dragonfly didn’t flutter when I pushed it off its perch onto my index finger. Later I surprised a woodcock and two fledglings in the damp near the cow pond. That afternoon the body of a humpbacked whale washed ashore at Beaver River. Rot had shrunk the whale’s head, and the carcass was smallish, 12 paces from front to fluke. Time had flayed the body, slicing black skin into strips that waved in the tide like kelp. Beneath the skin gleamed hunks of yellow-and-brown flesh. Blubber glistened, and cables of bone bound the animal’s sides. From the sides, fins swept out like loose, knobby wings. When I turned away, Penny bathed in the carcass. “No different from last summer when she rolled in dead seal,” Vicki said later. The next day Vicki’s brother Geoff arrived for a visit, and we pried two vertebrae from the body. After inserting a long pole through holes left by the spinal column, we brought the vertebrae back to the house, each of us carrying an end of the pole. “By next summer the stench should be gone,” Vicki said.

Keeping life familiar takes effort. Grass grows amid the stones above the outlet at Beaver River. Vicki’s father thought the grass was foxtail, and for years Vicki and her father cut clumps, arranging them in vases in his study. After her father’s death, Vicki continued to cut the grass. Every July foxtails evoke memories of family summers past. For years I’ve known that the grass Vicki and her father cut was squirrel tail, not foxtail, a lovely but, as botanists put it, “noxious weed.” Never have I corrected Vicki when she called the grass foxtail. Better that familiar association endures, tying daughter to father, warming days with recollection.

Things that occur in Nova Scotia seem to have happened before. One morning Vicki picked 1,304 blueberries. That night she started reading “Moby Dick.” She began at page 147, the chapter titled “The Mast-Head,” having read the first 146 pages two years before. Printed in Boston for the St. Botolph Society, the edition had been given to Vicki’s father in 1922 by Aunt Leila. The following night at dusk I walked to the headland. Venus gleamed near the lower horn of the crescent moon. From horn and star, yellow ladders rolled across the water in rungs. Lights from fishing boats pricked the horizon. To the north, waves slipped landward smooth and silver until they broke into shadows and oozed oily over the sand.

Two days later I hiked the cliffs above Bear Cove. Several years before, portions of the movie “The Scarlet Letter” had been filmed at Bear Cove. Atop an outcrop, builders constructed a house and barn. During the past year, teen-agers tattooed walls with sketches of bats, flying snakes and headless horses. Scattered throughout the house, perhaps as a form of evangelical exorcism, were copies of a religious tract, “How to Live Forever.” The front cover of the tract was blue. Pasted against the blue was the skyline of Atlanta, a cross towering above buildings. The tract was distributed by Rock Spring Baptist Church, located at 5900 Reynolds Road in Morrow, Ga., Tommy Aman, Pastor. Printed inside the back cover was an “Eternal Life Birth Certificate.” “I,” the certificate began, followed by a space for a name, “received Christ at.” After a space for the place appeared the word “on,” this followed by a final space for the date. Also printed on the certificate was an excerpt from John. “And this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this is in his Son. These things have I written unto you that believe on in the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life.”

The slow roll of days in Beaver River quickens memory. Early in July while walking the spruce woods behind the headland, I stepped on a young hare. The hare screamed and flipped over, legs kicking spasmodically. I picked the animal up, and wrapping her in folds of my sweatshirt, carried her back to the house. I intended to drive to Yarmouth to buy an eyedropper and soybean milk, the kind of milk fed to unweaned kittens. “I can save this hare,” I said.

“No, you can’t,” Vicki said. “Break her neck and end her suffering.”

“Don’t thwart good intentions,” I said, suddenly remembering when a cat belonging to Vicki s mother ripped a mouse open. The mouse s entrails protruded. I pushed the entrails back through the tear, then asked Vicki to sew the wound, saying I would hold the mouse while she sewed, after which I’d cover the stitches with antibiotic cream. Vicki refused to stitch the wound, and as a result I snapped the mouse’s neck, a memory that bothers me every summer. The hare fared better than the mouse. More shocked than hurt, the animal recovered in the warmth of my shirt. After examining the hare’s legs, making sure no bones were broken, I returned her to the woods. I rubbed her back, then placed her on the ground. Quickly she jumped away, vanishing under blackberry canes.

The next morning Vicki and I received a letter from Eliza. “Thursday was an exciting day,” she began.

For breakfast I decided to be adventurous and have oatmeal instead of raisin bran. I will not be repeating the experiment. The first few bites were good, but the rest tasted like paste. After breakfast I packed for the Lake Magaunacuk canoe trip. I was in the stern of our boat with Sarah in the bow. The rest of my tent went as well as a couple of other girls. When we reached the lake, I saw an extremely large green frog sitting in reeds. The day was sunny, and although I wore sunscreen, I still got burned on my arms. The lake looked deceptively short, but it twisted and lengthened. We paddled for about five hours and covered 3 or 4 miles. Because I provided most of the real pushing power for my canoe, my arms felt like jelly at the end. I was so happy when lunch came. We had cheese Triscuits and Fig Newtons, then went swimming. It was really windy on the way back and hard to paddle, but Sarah, Abby and I belted out show tunes. Consequently we kept drifting off course and were the last to finish.

“That sounds familiar,” Vicki said. “Eliza must have lifted the letter, from one of your books.”

“Yes,” I said, “green frogs, Fig Newtons, sentimental old songs, and drifting—that’s the good life.”

About the Author

Samuel F. Pickering

Samuel Pickering teaches English at the University of Connecticut. Eleven collections of his familiar essays have been published, the most recent being “A Little Fling” and “Deprived of Unhappiness.”

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