A Calling to Return

I’m not sure why my mind keeps returning to my time on the hill, the remote hill in Vermont I so wanted to leave when I was eighteen and felt penned in by the smallness of it all.

The wider world was calling, the promise of college and meeting new faces and hearing stories about places I hadn’t been and hoped to one day see. I couldn’t understand why some of my graduating classmates weren’t doing everything they could to get away. I was ready to grow up and grow out, to get away from the hill, with its dirt roads and modest houses tucked around bends and scattered in meadows. Even the bigger farmhouses, despite impressive sizes, looked worn out beside faded red barns that slumped to one side and wore rusted hats. These homesteads were built to last, built to work sunup to sundown in what was once an active farming community. Their heyday had come and gone before my family moved into one. We had our own slumped red barn, a bleached woodshed attached to it. Tin roof, streaked orange. The 1832 white Cape Cod house my parents bought, like the barn and woodshed, had been neglected for decades. They’d spend ten years restoring it and would sell before they had time to start renovating the barn.

I think about the hill and try to piece together why this is so. The pandemic, perhaps, something we believed could never happen in our lifetimes. Or, could it be the waves of violence and protesting coast to coast in America, and across oceans? It sometimes feels like we may never get on the other side of these lifechanging events, and through it all there’s a growing part of me who wants, more and more, to return to the hill.

To where it’s quieter, where there are more trees and fewer people, more birdsong. Where I remember smelling summer; the lush, wooded, cool scent of things growing. Orange daylilies, wild ferns, pungent mosses along Vermont’s dirt roads. I think about living again among the state’s rolling meadows and abundant shade trees and fields framed by two-hundred-year-old stone walls. Where it feels—it may not be, but it feels—safer. Less traffic. Wider spaces. The home of my childhood. Thirty-five years after I left, as often happens with the passage of time, I realize what I had.

And I want it again.

February, 1977. We arrived in a snowstorm.

My parents moved our family to Vermont from Pennsylvania in the middle of a school year. My sister Mare was fourteen, my brother Pat thirteen, Tom ten, and Sean nine. I brought up the back of the line, at eight. Mom and Dad had asked the seller, an investment property owner, if they could settle on the house in June after the school year ended. She refused.

Dad drove through the night, 400 miles, two puppies squeezed in the back of a station wagon with five kids. We arrived at the bank on a Friday morning. The moving van was scheduled to meet us at the Cape later that day. The overnight drive had felt endless, the environment the next morning foreign. Paperwork signed, we left for our new house nine miles away. I watched my siblings’ faces for clues of what to expect. It felt like we’d landed in what seemed the last stop on Earth. A place I hadn’t been able to find on a map: Newbury, Vermont.

The Village of Newbury has a population fewer than 400 people and is home to a small general store, one bank, a church, a post office, a handful of houses, and the quaint brick elementary school I attended that fronts onto an immaculate, tree-lined, Revolutionary War-era Common where schoolkids sled in winter and townsfolk set up fairgrounds in summer. Newbury Village is what I believe Norman Rockwell strove for when he picked up his paintbrush. Greater Newbury includes the Village, along with West Newbury, South Newbury, Boltonville, Peach Four Corners, Wells River, and Newbury Center, yet still barely tops a population of 2,000. We landed in Newbury Center, the smallest of the hamlets. There’s an unofficial marker where civilization ends and the wilds of Newbury Center begin. That delineation, to this day, is the car-rattling thump as one’s tires drop into deeply rutted roads. While villagers enjoy paved streets through the half-mile downtown, Newbury Center has dirt roads that snake endlessly down narrow lanes and up mountainsides.

Our house sat at the edge of twenty-five acres. Mom’s desire to restore the neglected Cape fueled her every free moment. In the time it took to unpack boxes, she was lining up carpenters and whirling through the homestead like a dervish, punching through walls and ripping down ceilings. Mom embraced open concept fifteen years before it caught on in the 1990s. She’d enlist my brothers for grunt work, giving them sledgehammers, light supervision, and the promise of a hardy dinner before getting out of their way.

As an adult, I reflect with appreciation on the unspoiled beauty of my childhood surroundings. I now understand what my parents gave my siblings and me. They relocated us to a place, a time, sheltered from the societal effects that too often harden landscapes and perspectives. Nestled along a picturesque bend in the Connecticut River, Newbury remains untouched. In the soft light of an encroaching evening, it enchants.

I was in Newbury again for my high school thirtieth reunion a few years ago, staying in an Airbnb in the Village. As I turned out of the rental’s driveway that Sunday morning, headed back to my home in southern New Hampshire, I turned right instead of left. I couldn’t be this close and not at least drive by our Cape. My parents had moved off the hill in 1998, eleven years after I graduated from high school. They wanted to be closer to my sister, an hour north, as my brothers and I lived out of state by then.

I drove past the Newbury Village General Store after leaving the Airbnb. It has stood on the tiny main street since 1840. I walked inside to buy a candy bar and it was a time capsule, with the same rows of wood shelving, bread loaves stacked high, canned items three-deep, chip bags lined up. Jars of penny candy. Milk and beer at the back of the store. The worn black-and-white checkered floor and the jangle of bells at the red front door felt like old friends.

Dad and I, for years, would stop into the general store on weekdays on our way to pick up Mom from her nursing shift across the river. We’d pick up more bread, another box of cereal, and always a candy bar for me. While I could say the reward for my bottomless sweet tooth was what I most valued, I now understand it was the unrushed afternoons riding shotgun with Dad; first, in our yellow Dodge Coronet station wagon he’d named Betsy, and then in the maroon Chevy Impala station wagon that was just slightly smaller than Noah’s Ark. I’d tell Dad about school and listen to him quietly hum, windows rolled down in summer, heater toasty on my feet in winter.

That Sunday after my high school reunion I lingered in the general store, walking up and down narrow aisles. I pulled the store’s jangling door behind me and crossed the street to the Common. I looked up at the monument to the Revolutionary War General, Jacob Bayley, and closed my eyes; listened for laughter, hoping to hear my classmates shouting with the delight of being kids again. I looked down at the grass and remembered how I’d lost part of my front tooth on the Common in 1979. I was playing “Rock Soup” with Joy and Beth, and as werewolves we snacked on stones in an imaginary broth. Joy eagerly spooned a rock into my mouth and as stone connected with enamel, a searing pain bubbled up from my gum and hot tears splashed my cheeks. Joy kept apologizing while Beth dropped to her hands and knees and rubbed the grass, looking for my tooth wedge. We never found it and I walked around for weeks with a snaggle tooth.

I crossed the street, got into my car, and took my time driving up to Newbury Center, the roads as bouncy and dusty as ever. From the Village, I followed Sawmill Hill past Hebb’s Corner, climbing to Scotch Hollow Road. I took a left onto the Lane, a right at the top onto Fuller Road. I followed the dirt road for several miles, then started my descent around Dead Man’s Curve that got its grisly nickname in the 1800s when a funeral procession lost a coffin from the back of its wagon as a horse climbed the hill. I rounded the last bend and recognized the vista that had always greeted my family. I parked the car at the crest and walked. The woodshed and barn had a fresh coat of red paint. The large metal potato digger sat where it always had, on the side lawn. My brothers, in the summer of 1977 while exploring the fields for the first time, discovered several pieces of rusted farm equipment from the 1800s. They rolled up the potato digger and a large manure spreader, Mom directing them where to position each to its best advantage. Friends and visitors complimented my parents for years on the wonderful finds.

The Cape on Fuller Road sheltered my family for twenty-one years, from our arrival in that snowstorm to Mom and Dad’s last summer in the house. Through high school and college graduations, marriages and births and retirements and deaths of pets, it was the place we returned to, as so many families do with beloved homes. For holidays and celebrations and sorrows. To keep traditions alive. Dad loved it best of all the houses he’d lived in. He said it rooted him.

I snapped photos with my iPhone while deer flies chased me, the kind I remembered from childhood that bite and sting. I breathed in the familiar scent of damp, forested air. I kicked stones, watching dust dance in sunlight rays. I didn’t expect any cars, and none came. I reversed course and ended at the cemetery where my father is buried on Scotch Hollow Road. I parked again and walked to a small metal gate, unlatching it. I weaved among grave markers, making my way to Dad’s stone where I told him I’d just been at the Newbury Village General Store and had gotten a candy bar, knowing he would enjoy hearing that I still fed my sweet tooth.

Though we may leave a place, many times a place does not leave us. I think it’s because of this that I feel, more often, a calling to return.

I’ve made no plans, the idea just percolating in my head for now. I sometimes scan Vermont real estate listings, calculating—for fun—how much I’d need for a down payment. The idea of a second property appeals to me; something small and within driving distance that I could use as a weekend escape. I scroll through the limited listings online, ruling out most. My mother and I saw a listing in the spring of 2020 for a circa-1880 one-room schoolhouse. We knew immediately where it was. The schoolhouse had been converted into a small, two-bedroom home in the 1970s. I flipped through online photos, and imagined children in the early 1900s practicing penmanship at small wood desks.

The schoolhouse is a half mile from Newbury Center’s small cemetery. Since Dad’s death, several of my parents’ local friends have been buried there and my mother will one day join them. The headstone already has her name and birth year. She’d insisted to my sister when they were planning Dad’s funeral that she wanted her details carved at that time. Why, I don’t know. I don’t like to think about the date that has yet to be added, so I’ve not asked her about her earlier decision.

I’d planned to take a drive to Newbury Center to see the schoolhouse but decided against it as the pandemic worsened. A year passed. I pulled up the listing again in April of 2021 and discovered it had been sold the previous November. I didn’t think I’d be as disappointed as I was. I recall how eager I was to leave as the eighteen-year-old who believed she’d outgrown what this place has to offer. I consider, again, how several classmates never left. Whatever they saw that I couldn’t all those years ago seems enough to have kept them there. I think about my father in the cemetery, just down the road from the schoolhouse. I think how it would have been nice to buy that one-room schoolhouse, to be closer to him. To be closer to where Mom will eventually be buried.

Our family plot can accommodate four, and as the only unmarried sibling in my family, it’s been a long-held assumption that I will take one of the remaining spaces, upon my death. I like knowing I have a final resting place secured. It feels like coming full circle. Though my siblings and I were born in Pennsylvania, I consider Vermont our family home, the place where we all set down roots and budded from childhood into the adults we would become. Only my sister remains in Vermont.

I sometimes daydream that I bought the schoolhouse. I think how I could have turned it into a weekend writing retreat. A place to escape the demands that pull at me, like the job that affords me the opportunity to work from a home office, but with the expectation that I will be available early, late, and always. I think about the traffic that surrounds me. The news that comes at me, at all of us, nonstop. I think about Newbury Center’s trees and fields and quiet and memories. How my parents left behind a life they’d built in a city and struck out for new land and traditions and community. The feeling of safety it reawakens in me, of recalling what we’d been given, soothes me in a world that feels increasingly provoked.

A resting place in Newbury Center waits for me. Yet a calling to return, perhaps sooner rather than later, whispers.

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About the Author

Ann Kathryn Kelly writes from New Hampshire’s Seacoast region. She’s an editor with Barren Magazine, a columnist with WOW! Women on Writing, and she works in the technology sector. Ann leads writing workshops for a nonprofit that offers therapeutic arts programming to people living with brain injury. Her writing has appeared in a number of literary journals.