October 31, 2016
MONTPELIER – When it comes to wedding anniversaries, Halloween is the best of times and the worst of times. Mother and I were married that day in Harrisonburg, Virginia (“Turkey Capital of the World”), in 1959. We didn’t choose the day, though I suspect it appealed to our spirit of whimsy at the time. My father, the priest who would bless the union at the conclusion of the marriage ceremony, had only that day available; he had to be back in central New York the next morning for his usual services. This meant we had to drive north all night – Interstate 81 didn’t exist yet - on old US Route 11 If he pulled that on me today, I’d find another priest.
Here’s why: For years we had to stay home on our anniversary to greet the kids who tramped to our door in costumes, and give them treats for their bags. As our own kids got older, we had to take them trick-or-treating. And when we finally were clear of that, after almost twenty years, we got dressed up in our Sunday duds and booked a romantic dinner at a favorite nearby restaurant. That’s when we discovered – the gay liberation movement was in its early days back then – that Halloween evening was the movement’s night to shine. So, as we gazed soulfully into each other’s eyes across candlelight, we were bathed in loud rock music and surrounded by gyrating, shouting, stomping warlocks, witches, red devils with horns and forked tails, and men in drag. It was difficult to convince our waiter that our discomfiture was sonic, not cultural.
But as I mentioned, it’s the best of times, as well. Halloween and All Saints’ Day are the beginning of “low season” in the hospitality business; so if we play our cards right, we can book reservations in getaway places at rates lower than we might have paid for them the week before. There are fewer people on the road than, a strong inducement if we’re driving in a foreign country, especially the one in which I’m frequently reminded by other drivers that “Idiot!” and “Imbecile!” are French words.
Our first anniversary getaway didn’t happen till we’d been married six years, and was a sort of honeymoon-we-never-had, as well. We got a baby-sitter for the kids and, through the good graces of an old guide I’d worked for occasionally, were able to travel through the very private Adirondack Mountain Reserve lakes. From the end of the dirt road, it was two miles by guideboat to the head of the lower lake; a mile across the carry between the lakes; a mile and a half up the upper lake; and another mile paddle up the tributary stream to a wild, mystical place called the Stillwater. I’d been told there was an old cabin up there, probably still standing, that had been built many years before by another, extinct, guide named Cy Beede and a few of his pals as a hunting camp. The directions to it were precise, but the forest had grown up, and it was a bit of a search. “Still standing” was a barely accurate description; the floor pitched crazily toward the rotten front sill, but the roof didn’t leak and the stovepipe was clear. The old mouse nests in the range made great – if smelly – kindling. I remember that trip with nothing but a smile. and cherish the photograph above my desk, of the two of us in front of our rustic overnighter. But this morning, when I mentioned it to Mother, she grimaced. She’s hidden that reaction well for all these years.
In later years, when we became able to afford to travel, we went always to France, where Mother fancies she lived in an earlier life, as an embattled Huguenot. She loves Paris; I like it best in my rearview mirror. So she sometimes preceded me by a few days, and got the city out of her system. I joined her, and we headed for the south on the TGV, the high-speed train. We picked up rental cars at the end of the train ride and putted around the beautiful yellow limestone hills for days. We stayed in medieval inns built by Crusaders, stopped at the castle once owned by the Marquis de Sade, and one day stumbled across the village of Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert, deep in the valley of the amazingly green and clear-as-glycerin Herault River.
William of Orange retired here after slaughtering thousands of Muslims in Languedoc and became a saint. The church there is ninth-century, and a plane tree reputed to be the largest in France shades the plaza in front of the sanctuary. The streams are full of rainbow trout, and the limestone side canyons are laced with switchback trails built by pilgrims and monks centuries ago. We’ve been back there twice, but, regrettably, are probably past it now.
In recent years we’ve driven south to the battlefields of Virginia, especially Gettysburg, where I visit the monument to Joshua Chamberlain’s 20th Maine in the quiet oak woods and then hike the route of Pickett’s Charge from Seminary Ridge across a short mile of open fields. Mother walked into the trees one day to see if she could better imagine what Armistead’s men felt as they crept from the woods under long-range cannon fire to dress up for the charge. She emerged wounded and bloody after falling on a rock and breaking a finger. We’ve liked Gettysburg enough to check out the local realtors’ web pages. I remind myself that one of its most interesting citizens, Thaddeus Stevens, was from Vermont and, as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee during the debate over the 13th Amendment, was instrumental in its passage.
Just a year ago Mother and I were touring the battlefield of Antietam – the cornfield, Bloody Lane, Burnside’s Bridge, and the quiet Dunker church. Tonight will be a lot less exciting: a quiet meal of scallops, fries, and squash in Mother’s room at the local nursing home. But with us in the room will be the cheerful ghosts of happier days. We’ve been together so long now that neither of us needs to mention them – the day she got exasperated at my canoe instruction, for example, leaped out of her canoe into chest-deep water, and swore to tow it to Allagash Village on foot. No regrets. It’s been a great run so far, and the present perfect tense describes it...well, perfectly.