It was January in the middle of the COVID pandemic when our unexpected visitor showed up. She did not drive or walk up to the house; she arrived on the telephone.
The previous year an old friend who lives in Vermont stayed with my wife and me for a weekend. He brought us a special bottle of Vermont maple syrup as a house gift, but we had recently used up the last of it. We agreed that the syrup was so special we would order a replacement, so we checked the label for a website. But, no website, only a phone number.
My wife placed the call. The way she held the phone to her ear, I could see she was having difficulty understanding whoever had answered the call. Originally from Austria, my wife sometimes has difficulty with spoken English when a person has an accent, or vocal idiosyncrasy. She made some excuse and handed me the phone.
I started over as whoever was on the phone must have thought we had been cut off: “Hello, yes, I can hear you just fine. We wanted to order some of the Brookfield Sugarmakers maple syrup.”
After a moment a slow wavering female voice answered, “Yes … what do you want?”
Both her voice and the question stopped me. Hadn’t I just said I wanted to order some maple syrup? But her speech sounded like a broken digital recording. The voice was stilted, there were slight but consistent gaps. If her voice had been a letter, the paper would be crinkled. I apologized and repeated my request explaining that we had run through a small bottle of syrup a friend had given us.
Again, there was a pause before she answered, “What size is the bottle you have?”
“Twelve ounces”, I answered.
“Oh, that’s one of our special gift bottles.”
I began to form a picture of her, and I very much liked what I saw. This woman was not young, or even middle aged. My guess was at least eighty, hence the slightly splintered voice. She continued, “How did you get the bottle?”
I explained that a friend had brought it down from Vermont the previous year.
“Oh, he must have gotten it at one of the co-ops. Where does your friend live? What is his name?”
Without realizing how it had happened, I found myself in the middle of a personal conversation with someone I could only imagine as a kindly grandmother living in a world I was unfamiliar with. Co-op! who does business with co-ops? And when was the last time any reorder clerk ever asked me who my friend was? For that matter, when was the last time I had reached a human being when ordering a product? And as for my friend’s name, Vermont might be a small state, but not so small that everyone knows everyone else.
Never mind, this wonderful woman — I had already decided she was wonderful — deserved an answer. “His name is Lou Pulver and he lives in East Hardwick.”
“Oh yes, I have never met Louis (she used the proper name! Maybe she was over ninety), but I think he is a vegetable farmer.”
“Yes, you are right. For years he grew garlic and potatoes, but now mostly tends his chickens and sells eggs. I know his wife worked at a co-op up there somewhere.”
“Oh yes, and what is his wife’s name?” she asked. By now I’m thinking, maybe everybody in Vermont does know everybody else. Or maybe just living the way she did had taught her to care about people, whether she knew them or not?
“No, I don’t think I know her. Now you said you had our twelve-ounce gift bottle, but I don’t think that’s what you want to order now?”
Really! She was now telling me what I want, but saying it with such a gentle authority I didn’t dare question her. She reminded me of Mrs. Denton, a teacher who protected me when I was in the fourth grade. “Well, what do you have, what do you suggest?”
‘We have pints and quarts. You would be best with two pints as it keeps better than the quart.”
“I’m sure you are right.” And I really was sure she was right.
I imagined her sitting by a window at a cherry wood kitchen table. A wiry thin woman with arthritic hands, but a grip that was still strong. Her hair, nearly white, in the same pageboy cut she adopted in grade school. There is only one other chair at the table.
Outside everything is covered with snow except for a shoveled path leading to a barn where several cords of firewood are stacked along one side. Against the far wall of the kitchen, a wood stove heats the room. The floor is made from planks ten or twelve inches wide worn smooth over by the sink and gas oven. The ceiling is low and uneven. Her telephone was replaced thirty years ago with a digital wall unit next to the table. It is still wired to a pole somewhere at the end of a frozen dirt driveway. The house is older than she is.
I agreed to order two pints, and asked if I could give her a credit card number. “Oh no, I can’t manage with those. You just give me your name and address and I’ll mail you the syrup. I use the US Mail because they have those boxes where the price stays the same no matter the weight. I’ll put a note inside and you can send me a check.”
“Well that would be just fine, I hope it’s not too much trouble.”
“Oh no, we don’t do much mail business, but maybe this time I’ll remember to write down the cost of those boxes so I can be more helpful.”
How could anyone be more helpful! It was all so simple. We get our syrup, and mail her a check. No card numbers, expiration dates, security code. No worry that one more computer will hold our financial security in jeopardy.
She continued almost as if she was speaking to herself, “Yes, I really need to do that. You see I take care of what we sell, and my son does the outdoor work, but he’s getting on and it’s hard to find anyone to help out.”
Now I’m thinking that if her son is “getting on,” maybe she’s over a hundred.
“I’m sure it’s very hard work.”
“I suppose so. Some of our neighbors put in those new plastic hose systems that connect all the sugar trees, but Daniel still uses the horse and wagon to go from tree to tree.”
Horse and wagon! I imagine Robert Frost reciting poetry, I see a Norman Rockwell painting a Christmas scene, and the ghost of Ethan Allen listening in.
“Well I want to thank you for your business. I’ll do what I can to get this off to you in the next few days.”
“Thank you, but please don’t worry, no rush.” Although I doubt that there has been any “rush” in her life for at least the last half century.
The call ended, and there was a moment when I was unable to speak. Sitting at the kitchen table I sat staring at the placemat.
My wife asked, “Are you alright? What did she say?” Nodding my head very slowly, I could barely speak. “Amazing”.
I had just visited another century, and spoken to the grandmother I had never met. She lived in a place that no longer exists, but a place I very much wanted to see. I imagined myself driving to Vermont and inviting her to dinner. She probably hadn’t been to a restaurant since the local Howard Johnson’s closed.
Overwhelmed with emotion thinking how wonderful that there are still people like her, I buried my head in my hands. I was certain she had faced troubles every bit as dark as anyone else. But I was equally sure she had met it all head on. And now, along with her elderly son and a whole state full of friends, she carried on making, selling, and shipping maple syrup. Replaying our conversation, I was reminded of a short poem by a Chinese poet I keep pinned above my desk.
In Spring, hundreds of flowers; in autumn
A harvest moon;
In summer, a refreshing breeze; in winter
Snow will accompany you.
If useless things do not hang in your mind,
Any season is a good season for you.
Especially that season when the snow begins to melt, and sugar sap starts to flow.