Yankees are what they always were.
-Robert Frost, “Brown’s Descent”
When the paved road faded away to hardscrabble gravel and ruts on Bridgewater Mountain, my Toyota started rattling like a bad carnival ride and I considered stopping and turning around. No one was expecting me up there, so no one would miss me or wonder where I was. I could just pull off into the next long driveway and make my way slowly back down to the pavement, across Clay Brook, and back to the house I’d moved into a few weeks before. There was still some unpacking and arranging to do – shelving books, finishing the kitchen, hanging the solid old mirrors – and I still had some work to finish on my syllabi for the fall semester. Should I keep going? Turn around?
The pros and cons rattled around in my head as the car rattled up the mountain. Familiar, shorthand arguments I’d played out dozens of times in my life when I moved somewhere new and didn’t know anyone yet. That day, I was still living almost anonymously, in the space before really settling in, before making my first big forays into connecting with the place and the people. I’d met a couple of neighbors, but was mostly spending literally days without speaking to anyone, and not really minding it. Would I stay silent in the comfort of my solitude for a while longer, listening to music and alphabetizing record albums, or would this be the day to step outside and admit that, yes, I actually lived here now? I kept driving. The road got steeper and there hadn’t been any homes for a few minutes – just thick, dense second-growth forest on either side, the occasional stone wall stretching back into the trees, a reminder of those who’d lived here long ago and gone away.
My destination was the Old Town House on top of the mountain, the 103rd Annual Old Home Day Observance in Bridgewater, New Hampshire, population around 700. Old Home Days were a tradition started by the governor in 1899, partly in response to declining New Hampshire population. He came up with the idea of an “Old Home Week,” when those who had been born in New Hampshire and moved away would return to their hometowns to celebrate, reunite, and reminisce with family and friends. A neighbor who had introduced herself while I was moving in told me I absolutely had to come. She had even given me a tour of the “mountain” in her big truck a couple of weeks before Old Home Day, narrating so much history, ecology and gossip that I wish I’d been taking notes or surreptitiously recording her. It was too much to keep track of – the families who’d lived here so long, the community dynamics, the black bear and moose, winter weather. My neighbor’s family had deep Bridgewater roots, and she showed me their land up on top of the mountain – old camp cabins, a broad meadow, and breathtaking views of other, distant mountains, the names of which I forgot as soon as she mentioned them. She seemed to enjoy showing me around, introducing the new girl to the neighborhood. After the impromptu tour, her husband made us Manhattans in enormous tumblers, and then sent me home, a little drunk, with a bunch of cucumbers.
Growing up a military brat, I became an expert at being The New Girl; grew so accustomed to it, I rarely imagined being any other kind of girl. When you’re new, you’ve got every excuse. Out of state license plates make for great ice-breakers, and help forgive the occasional traffic gaffe, and pardon the confused requests for directions, advice, et cetera. I love the permission I’m granted, as New Girl, to be a little wide-eyed, a little fresh-faced. Moving every couple of years growing up, I learned both to treasure being new and alone, a tourist in my own life, and to shed the newness and just plunge forward, as if these kids on the school bus had known me since kindergarten, as if I belonged the way they belonged. But I’m not sure the newness ever fully faded – and if it came close, it was probably time to move again.
Everything my neighbor told me about Old Home Day intrigued me – the fact that it had been going strong for over one hundred years, that families who’d been here for that long (and longer) regularly attended. Now I lived in Bridgewater, and this just seemed like the next logical step. Never mind that I’d only lived here for a month – I’d just head on up with my camera, my Nebraska plates and my New Girl game face, walking my favorite tightrope: armored in my outsider status, yet trying to inch my way inside.
About a week before Old Home Day, I had spotted my first moose, a hulking cow, drinking from a ditch next to the road. She’d slowly lifted her head, a thin stream of water pouring from her wet, round muzzle. I slowed down, and we eyed one another as I crept past, then left her; in my rear-view, she bowed her head again to continue slurping the cool water left by long-awaited showers.
Though I used the moose to mark my arrival in New Hampshire, I had actually seen the moose in Vermont. I had been to Bread Loaf for a friend’s afternoon poetry reading and I was driving home on Route 125, a “memorial” highway to Robert Frost. When I first noticed the signs that memorialize him (the Frost rest area, the Frost “interpretive nature hike” down the road), I scowled a little. Frost wasn’t from Vermont. Wasn’t he from New Hampshire? He’s ours. Ours. The embrace of those vowels, the way I invoked the third person, the “us” I insisted on becoming a part of. Already, in my head, I was defending our ownership of Frost, using Frost as the crotchety old crowbar to squeak my way into the “us” of New Hampshire. He’s handy that way. And Vermont borrows Robert Frost. I guess I borrowed the moose. A fair trade, though maybe I needed the moose more. And truly, Frost is the U.S. of A’s.
I was a student at Robert Frost Middle School in northern Virginia, where my family lived for a three-year stretch. It was, overall, a wretched experience – hundreds of thirteen-year-olds doing time in the purgatory between elementary school and high school. Some days, the teachers insisted that we were grown up now, that we should be more mature and responsible and upstanding. Other days though, we were treated like the babies we suspected we still were. It was horrible. That day at Bread Loaf, I ran into an acquaintance I hadn’t seen in a few years. Somehow, we discovered that we’d both attended Robert Frost middle school – so on the drive home, Frost was already on my mind, just a little bit, somewhere in the back.
In high school, as an aspiring poet having just barely escaped middle school alive, I read and dismissed Robert Frost – he seemed too traditional, too old-school, too nice. In college poetry classes, I was similarly unimpressed. I wanted Plath and Sexton. I wanted Ginsberg and Rich and cummings. I wanted to write free-verse poems, work which Frost likened to “playing tennis without a net.” Later, in graduate school, I came around a bit, attracted by the notion that Frost was not, in fact, a sweet, endearing poet-farmer, but rather a skilled (re)maker of his own image and sometimes cantankerous grouch, even in the poems we were taught to love and accept as mere reflections on the rural, natural world. Consider “The Road Not Taken,” one of the “greatest hits,” of high school graduation recitals, offered and interpreted as an invitation to “take the road less traveled by” as some sort of brave, adventurous, morally superior choice in living. At its heart, this poem is more aptly read as pointing to the randomness of choice, with its repeated emphasis that both the roads looked pretty much the same that day; that no matter which way you go, you may find yourself years later, second- or third-guessing yourself. Frost himself admitted that the poem was written to poke fun at his friend, Edward Thomas, who was always berating himself after their country walks, constantly convinced they should have taken a different path. This poem, elevated to some kind of credo by American culture, is just one excellent example of Frost’s grumpy mischief-making. It is recited, on “appropriate occasions,” with the very bizarre combination of wistfulness and grandiosity that Frost was poking fun at in the poem. Starting to read Frost in more depth and with the benefit of more life experience allowed me to make a little more space for him in my personal canon.
From 1911 to 1912, Frost lived in Plymouth, New Hampshire, and taught education and psychology at what was then known as Plymouth Normal School. I, too, had come here to teach – to start my first full-time, tenure-track job as an English professor at Plymouth State College. Among the classes I teach is the poetry workshop, which met, when I first joined the faculty, in the renovated and expanded “Frost House,” where The Man Himself lived and wrote at that time. Occasionally, as I taught my first few classes, I wondered if there was any kind of Frost “vibe” still lingering in the walls or in some dank, undiscovered sub-basement. Is Frost a friendly ghost? As I drafted my first lines about a mushroom growing in my yard, I felt him as a poltergeist, rearranging the furniture in my poetry-house, cackling as I rolled my eyes, shook my head. A poem about a mushroom?
After a few more bone-shaking minutes on the road, I came upon Old Home Cemetery, behind an old stone wall and shaded by enormous trees. Even from the car, I could see that the thin stones jutting from the ground, some at skewed angles, some broken, were very old. A little ways past the cemetery, I came upon the first few cars and trucks parked on the side of the road, and then, around a gentle bend, there was the white Town House with its small front porch. It was late morning, nice and cool for August, and people were already gathering on the green space around the Town House, some on lawn chairs next to coolers, mingling, enjoying the weather.
Inside, benches were lined up, like church pews, facing the front of the building, where there was a raised platform, something like a stage. On the walls were dozens of framed photographs – spanning nearly a century – of the town gathered together on Old Home Day, posing as a group in front of this very building. I studied them, imagining how still everyone must have had to be as those earliest photographs were made, men in summer suits and hats, women in long white dresses with cinched waists, some holding parasols. Beneath the photographs, around the edges of the room, were tables with crafts and baked goods for sale. I bought a brownie and a book from the Historical Society.
As people continued to arrive for the day’s events, I strolled back down the road a bit to the cemetery to take some pictures and poke around. A woman was there with her son, pointing out gravestones with familiar family names, telling him who was related to whom, tracing from ancestors to current neighbors, to relatives, to him. I recognized one family name – the ancestors of the guy who collected my garbage each week. And another – the ancestors of the man who lived down the road from me and worked in the hardware store.
Aside from the neighbor who had given me tour, I didn’t really know anyone at Old Home Day. I met a couple of people who used my car’s Nebraska plates as a conversation-starter. At noon, we watched the hand full of Bridgewater Boy Scouts, who’d camped out the night before, raise and salute the flag in front of the Town House. Following the flag-raising and some remarks, I posed with everyone else for the annual town photograph. Standing for the picture was standing on a familiar tightrope – I was so new, no one knew who I was, and yet I lived in Bridgewater now, so I got to be in the photo, which would serve as the cover of next year’s Old Home Day program. I stood in line for the “Bean Hole Beans,” which had been cooking overnight in huge cast iron cauldrons buried underground. As they had been doing for years, the “bean crew” had come the night before, prepared the beans, dug the pits, started the fires, buried the cauldrons. As they had been doing for years, they unearthed the beans as the rest of us watched, using a rope pulley to hoist the cauldrons from the pits as everyone applauded. As they had been doing for years, the residents of Bridgewater, the “summer people,” and the folks from other towns lined up with paper plates and plastic forks to get their (our) beans and bread. I wasn’t able to stay the entire day – so I missed the children’s games, the annual meeting, the hymns and historic flag presentation, and the evening’s square dancing. But even as I headed down the unpaved road, to Bridgewater’s edge, where my rental house was, I kept thinking about the photograph, about me in it, about having my own tiny part in the enormous tide of years and tradition. I imagined, briefly, fifty years into the future, this year’s photograph framed on the wall of the Town House, with the others.
Reading my recently acquired Bicentennial History of Bridgewater New Hampshire, 1788-1988, I discovered that at Old Home Day in 1915, Robert Frost gave a poetry reading. Further, the book notes that Frost “summered in Bridgewater at Webster Farms for several years” and “wrote ‘Brown’s Descent’ based on a local story.” Even little Bridgewater gets a piece of him. Even me, imagining him there, here – he as a part of the “us” I was continuing to pursue in my first few years as a New Hampshire resident. A New Hampshire writer, for whatever that was worth. Of course, it’s impossible for me to ever truly belong to the “us.” Even if never leave the state again, even if I die here, I’ll still be “from away.”
I love the honeymoon with a place, when romance is still alive, when there is mystery and adventure to be had. During that first year in Bridgewater, in New Hampshire, there was so much that shone in newness for me – the brook babbling at the edge of my yard, the gray flying squirrels living in the walls, the transfer station with its gossip and treasures, the wild turkeys in the field up the road. Tax-free booze. Living in a whole house all by myself, a house with an upstairs and a basement, with a mud room and a garage. The wood stove. The wood pile, with its resident chipmunk. “Live Free or Die” license plates. The town spring, icy cold water perpetually running from its pipe that sticks out of the side of a hill and into an old cement trough. People are always there, filling bottles and jugs. The town common, with its gazebo, on Main Street. It all felt so fresh. Even the heating oil tank in the basement seemed exotic to me – but it was just another enormous, dark, common thing, like the moose I suppose.
I both longed for and dreaded the inevitable time when those new things would become common to me, when the landscape would become a mere backdrop to my daily, normal life. I longed for it because it’s a great feeling – the comfort of a home you’ve been in long enough to take for granted. Growing up, I couldn’t imagine what it must be like to really live somewhere, for a long time, for years, to know and be known in the thick of a place and its people. I dreaded it because, for most of my life, I’ve been the New Girl in nearly every way that matters – the world has shone for me in its strangeness. I have moved through it, always, as a stranger myself, each house or apartment a way station rather than a destination. Most people outside my immediate family remain deeply mysterious to me – so unknowable – distant childhoods, extended families, history I’d never even think to ask about. This is just how most people seem to me – distant, but attractive because of it. I don’t feel isolated by this distance, or, rather, that isolation is just the life I’ve lived, the only way I’ve known to live it.
When I’d lived in New Hampshire for a year or so, people asked me whether I liked it, whether I’d stay. Now it’s over a dozen years later, and I’m still here. I’ve bought a house with a partner I love, achieved tenure at what’s now known as Plymouth State University, made some great friends, and come to love so much about the state and my town. I do like it here, very much and for many reasons, but I’m still baffled by the question – will you stay? – that is mostly one I ask of myself silently, from time to time, when an old itch to move on strikes. Will I stay? For the first time in my life, I could do it, I could stay. But how will I know when I’ve decided that? And how to decide? And why decide? In the spaces between these absurd questions, I can just make out the plaintive, over-rehearsed voice of the high school valedictorian: “And that has made all the difference…” I don’t imagine most people decide to live someplace all their lives; they just do. I know that when things start to feel common, I usually get antsy and start eyeing the horizon. I think I have feared what lies beyond the newness, because, to me, that unexplored terrain has been the truly strange landscape: years unspooling, unquestioned, into a dim and distant future. In Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, poet Mark Doty considers the “fierce internal debate, between staying moored and drifting away, between holding on and letting go.” He puts into words what I’m wondering, at least partly: “how to live in connection without feeling suffocated, compromised, erased? We long to connect; we fear that if we do, our freedom and individuality will disappear.” Settling down. I still can’t imagine it – I feel like I’ve got no frame of reference for it. And yet I think I’m doing it. Or I’ve done it.
I still keep my eyes open for rare moose and all the other sights and sounds and experiences that still ring new to me; I keep my eyes open for the black bear, the “ice out,” the Old Home Days. I say “I live in New Hampshire,” but not “I’m from New Hampshire.” I still roll my eyes a little as I write lines about the mushroom, the chipmunk, the wood pile, the acorns, the sugar maple. And I suppose I continue to nurture a flirtation with crotchety old Robert Frost, who, to be plain about it, was originally from California.