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Faith in Vermont: Through My Children's Eyes

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Posted on August 1, 2017 | Blog Category:
By Faith Gong



At the beginning of the summer, our entire family attended my 20th college reunion.

I’m not a reunion person; I spent my first 15 years of adulthood moving frequently enough to rid me of whatever nostalgia I might be tempted to nurture – which I suspect wasn’t much to begin with. But this was my 20th reunion, it was only about two hours away, friends exerted pressure, and my daughters had begun expressing interest in my alma mater. So, late one spring evening, I found myself registering online for my reunion, paying an exorbitant amount to house six people on three dorm-room beds.

My alma mater is Williams College, a small liberal arts school nestled among the Berkshire Mountains in the northwestern corner of Massachusetts, just over the Vermont border from Bennington. It bears a striking similarity in both size and location to Middlebury College, which explains one particular moment from the reunion weekend.

One of the highlights of the reunion was not only the chance to reconnect with old friends, but observing our children become friends as well – as if to confirm that we’d chosen our cronies well two decades prior. On the final evening of reunion weekend, as our children romped together on the green grass of a quad surrounded by pillared academic buildings and, beyond them, the rolling slopes of the Berkshires, my friends waxed nostalgic about the setting.

Isn’t it wonderful, they said, to come to a place where our children can just run free and we don’t have to worry about them? And: Look at that view! Isn’t it just beautiful here?

Most of my college friends now make their homes in major urban or suburban settings: Boston, New York, the Bay Area. While I agreed with them that it’s wonderful to be able to allow your children to run free, and that the view from Williams College is beautiful, I also realized:

1.     I LIVE in a place where my children can run free and I don’t have to worry about them.

2.     The view that my children have out their bedroom windows every single day is more beautiful than this view.

3.     I have ruined forever my children’s opportunity to feel the sense of wonder that my friends have right now.

When I first arrived at Williams College I, like many of my friends, came from the suburbs of a major city. The college’s remote location was the most beautiful place I’d ever lived at that point.

My daughters will probably never feel that way, because they are growing up in one of the most beautiful places they could ever live.

When I expressed this concern to my college friends, someone said, “Well, they’ll just feel wonder for other places. Cities will seem unbelievably beautiful to them.”

Which is what I’m afraid of.

I would love nothing more than for all of my children to stay in Vermont – the closer to Addison County, the better. While I realize this is probably unrealistic in our ultra-mobile day and age, I still encourage my daughters’ fantasies of living next door to us, or building their future homes on top of our current house (connected by a spiral slide, of course.) I smile and offer free babysitting for my grandchildren.

My eldest daughter has always been the greatest flight risk. This daughter has never once expressed a desire to live in Vermont. She wants to be a filmmaker, or the President. At nine years old, she’s already poised to leave.

It was this 9-year-old daughter who accompanied me to Albany last week for a visit to the Schuyler Mansion. 

We were going to the Schuyler Mansion to indulge two of her great loves: American history, and the Broadway musical Hamilton. As fans of either will know, the Schuyler Mansion was the childhood home of Alexander Hamilton’s wife, Eliza Schuyler (and her fascinating family.) Its parlor was the site of their marriage. Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette, and Aaron Burr all passed through its doors.

“Are we almost there?” my carsick-prone daughter moaned about 15 minutes into the 180-minute drive. “I’m bored.”

“Just enjoy the view,” I told her.

What view?” she wailed. “It’s just cows and barns. I see that every day!”

“Well, it’s a beautiful view,” I cajoled. “People come here on vacation just to see this view.”

This is beautiful?” she scoffed, confirming my worst fears.

About an hour later, I pointed out that we’d crossed the border into New York State: rural, dairy-farming New York State.

This is New York?” she asked. “It looks just like Vermont!”

It wasn’t until we merged onto the highway in industrial Troy that the scenery stopped looking like Vermont. Then we reached Albany.

The Schuyler Mansion used to sit on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River, surrounded by between 80-125 acres of fields, orchards, and gardens. But after the death of Philip Schuyler, the family’s patriarch, the property was divided and sold off. Now, the Schuyler Mansion is just a big house in the middle of a city, with a view of the I-787 highway overpass. My daughter took it all in quietly.

Later that day, we drove back into Vermont among the rolling green mountains, the fields, the barns, the cows, I said again, “See? This view is beautiful.”

This time, my daughter answered: “Yes. It is beautiful.”

That would have been a nice place to stop, but I kept talking (as my daughters will tell you I’m prone to doing.)

The next day, another daughter – my newly 8-year-old second child – was having a Hobbit-themed birthday party, inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic fantasy-adventure novel The Hobbit. With this in mind, I told my eldest daughter that some of our friends think Vermont resembles “the Shire” – the bucolic home of the peace-loving hobbits.

It wasn’t until much later that I realized that what sets the story of The Hobbit (and the subsequent Lord of the Rings trilogy) in motion is the idea that sometimes it’s necessary to leave the comfort of the Shire, because dark forces are gathering elsewhere that need to be battled before they overtake everything – including the Shire itself.

When I putter in my garden, when I see my daughters wander through our field to the beaver pond with their fishing net, when I watch our chickens and ducks waddling around the edges of our yard, it’s easy to forget that there are indeed dark forces elsewhere. But there are – and not just elsewhere. The darkness – of addiction, of abuse, of injustice, of environmental degradation, of despair – it’s already here. I don’t need to travel far beyond my own driveway to find it.

So, as much as I’d love for my children to make good on their plans to settle down above our house, I’ll accept that they may have to leave. They may have work to do beyond the Shire – work that involves battling the darkness in distant cities.

But I’ll keep reminding myself of this: At the end of Tolkein’s series, after journeying far to save the world, all of the hobbits return to the Shire.

 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, four daughters, assorted chickens and ducks, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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