Each step out of the bubble is a landmark to be celebrated. At least I thought that until the Delta virus resurgence. We had planned our first plane trip deep into the summer because we assumed that by then the pandemic dangers would have receded to a manageable level. The virus thought otherwise.
But there we were on our flight to New Hampshire, admittedly one of the safer destinations in the country if measured by the rate of vaccination, double masked, wary of contact with the stranger in the third seat next to us, equipped with straws to sip our drinks without lowering our facial coverings. The Southwest snack pack was a bit more difficult to negotiate and hardly worth the trouble. Contrary to some of the horror stories we had heard from traveling family members, everyone in the airport was masked, as were all the passengers on our flight. As I’ve said so often in recent months as various aspects of our lives went live again, what was most weird about it was that it didn’t really feel weird. Activities that were recurring parts of our lives just slipped back into place and the missing year just collapsed back onto itself and we simply picked up where we left off.
The rental car companies could serve as one of those Harvard Business School case studies on corporate mismanagement. They all sold off their fleets when travel evaporated and when it began to pick up again, they were unable to buy new vehicles fast enough to meet the need because of the computer chip shortages. As a result, the rental car area of the Manchester, New Hampshire airport was a ghost town, with a skeleton crew and a light sprinkling of cars in each company’s lot. All of this made for exorbitant rental costs in the area of $1600 for a two-week rental of an economy-sized car. That would have been completely out of reach if not for the fact that one of our dearest friends in New Hampshire has made it possible year after year for us to use a house he owns free of charge. This amazing gift is the fruit of 56 years of friendship and is an important piece of our recurring theme of the central role relationships play in enriching and giving meaning to our lives. We’ll return to that theme shortly.
Southern New Hampshire where we become our country selves for some time each year is not exempt from the bizarre and outsized climate events that are our new normal. Shortly before our arrival the area experienced 7-8 inches of rainfall in a single weekend, this on top of a steady barrage of precipitation in the previous weeks which continued into the first days of our stay. Our favorite walk in the area runs along an old railroad bed that parallels the Contoocook River, the largest in the area. All that rain bore an unexpected gift of mushrooms along the entire length of the trail. So many varieties of every size, shape and color had emerged that our companions on the walk could hardly keep up with the photo ops. Fungi are experiencing a surge in popularity with the recent flurry of books about communication among trees facilitated by networks of underground growth that act as a woodland central nervous system. I highly recommend a recent Netflix release called Fantastic Fungi which includes some of the most spectacular time lapse photography of mushrooms emerging from underground that you’ll ever see.
But to return to our central theme, as I indicated in the last posting before we left (apologies to those who had trouble accessing it), what draws us back to NH every year (minus the pandemic aberration) are our friendships which, like those fungi, are constantly at work undetected creating connections that provide support and sustenance to the entire community of people around us, just as they would a stand of trees. I’m about to be strangled by this heavy metaphor, so it’s time to move on.
As I said in my last entry, we love the woods and fields of our region and we thrill at the sight of the pair of deer who came foraging at dusk behind our house, but the real gift of our New Hampshire time is seeing friends. Months before our arrival we begin contacting people to make dates to see them. These plans are then inscribed on a calendar for the months covered by our stay. We refer to that, only slightly in jest, as our “dance card” which fills up at an astonishingly rapid rate. Long before our arrival, every night of our first week was already spoken for, and by the last day of our stay we were engaged in a triple header – a different set of friends for breakfast, lunch and dinner. These are all people with whom we have a history – watching each other’s children grow, celebrating the work of the creative among us, even reminiscing about long departed pets, the most famous of whom was Christopher Hogwood, Sy Montgomery and Howard Mansfield’s memorable beer guzzling 800 pound pig, celebrated in Sy’s book, The Good Good Pig. Many of us own prints of Peter Milton’s extraordinary etchings, and on this visit Peter, now 92, invited us into his studio to see his latest creation, every bit as masterful as his earlier work. Every year we check on Ann’s progress on the viola da gamba, which she took up on her retirement from managing a local arts organization. Some of these threads have been spinning for more than fifty years and they continue to grow with every ear of corn and cup of coffee we consume together.
Seeing each friend once doesn’t suffice to hold us for the entire year till the next encounters, so we try for seconds with as many people as we can squeeze in. At home we are perfectly capable of not seeing anyone for an entire week, but during our NH stays we become insatiable people addicts and we return home full of the sounds and sights of the people whose lives we invade annually before we slip away.
Twenty-five years in Chicago is time enough to spin out some equally long threads of relationship. We cherish these too, but they come at a different stage in our lives. Our children were already out building their own independent lives before we got here, so the special seasoning they added to our New Hampshire lives is absent. Country living also offers more opportunities for doing things together – boiling maple syrup, splitting wood, tending a garden – the kinds of collaborative physical activities that leave deep traces in your nervous system. There are urban analogs to them, but they just haven’t been as critical a part of our lives in Houston and Chicago as they were in New Hampshire.
This year’s stay clarified for me that both in my work life and in my retirement, I have always been in the relationship business, a mantle I’m proud to wear. Recently, I tried to describe for someone the scroll that turns constantly behind my eyes. It only surfaces in my consciousness occasionally, but when it does, it contains the names of the many people — friends, relatives, colleagues, students – who are a permanent part of my being. I note that we haven’t heard from this friend, that it’s time to get in touch with that former colleague, that I wonder what’s happened to a former student. It feels like both a pleasure and a duty to maintain and feed these links because, in the end, we are the sum of our relationships.
Just after I finished writing this, Rosellen handed me a copy of the current edition of The Atlantic and said “You have to put aside Tess of the D’Urbervilles and whatever else you’re reading right now.” She pointed to an article by Jennifer Senior called “Twenty Years Gone.” It is the story of a family’s struggle to make sense of the loss of their son and brother in the fall of the Twin Towers. Bobby McIlvaine was a bright and promising 26-year-old on the cusp of proposing to his girlfriend Jen when he died. He left behind diaries and notebooks whose ownership became a source of contention between the family and Jen. When Jen finally agreed to hand over to Senior after twenty years, Bobby’s final diary, the author found in it this stunning quote:
“There are people that need me. And that, in itself, is life. There are people I do not know yet that need me. That is life.”
It captures everything I’ve been trying to say about how central relationships are to giving meaning and purpose to our lives. I had to share it with you.