October 4, 2018 | Feature
far from home
changing perspectives of morgan (vt) and providence (ri)
The car jerks in the transition from smooth asphalt to unpredictable dirt and rock, bumping the suitcases within. The road narrows, and a soft click turns on the brights, illuminating the canopy of countless maple and birch lining Wayesses Shore Road. Behind the reach of the car’s lights, there is a darkness so complete it is impossible to tell if anything else exists at all.
At 3 a.m., the Subaru pulls into the driveway, the white stones crunching underneath. My family exits the car and enters the silence of Morgan, Vermont, crossing the threshold of the Christmas Tree House.
Morgan, Vermont, was chartered in 1780, although its first settler, Nathan Wilcox, did not arrive until 1800. It is known for Lake Seymour, a 7.01 square km freshwater lake contained entirely within the town’s boundaries. At 44°54’19”N, 71°59’25”W, Morgan is so far north that phones ping off cell towers in Canada and inform their owners that international data rates apply. In 2010, the total population of Morgan was 749. This small population size may explain why it is so hard to find accurate information on Morgan; why, for example, the total water surface area of the town is listed as 6.8 square km on Wikipedia despite how Lake Seymour’s size alone exceeds that; why Wayesses Shore Road is spelled Wayeeses on one road sign and Wayesses on another, and why no one seems to know which is correct, or particularly care.
Morgan is static. While my family has had three children, one grandchild, and five dogs, the Christmas Tree House has remained relatively unchanged. It is so named for its white wooden balusters on the railing that are shaped like evergreen trees. When the wind blows hard and skims across the lake, the houses in Morgan, tilted wooden structures called “camps,” creak and moan, their joints cracking as they sway.
The landscape is unaltered: the lake shaped like the number seven, the mountains that surround and cradle it. The Morgan Country Store has been serving this town of 749 for as long as the collective memory of the aging inhabitants permits; the building is a short, green-roofed affair with a screen door that slams against its wooden frame at every open. The store—the only one in town, on the only paved road in town—sells rentable movies, lottery tickets, expired boxes of Jello coated in a fine layer of dust, and penny candy, because no one has bothered to learn that Tootsie Rolls and Swedish Fish have experienced a price increase in the rest of the world.
Cigarette smoke hangs in the air at the Kennedy Plaza bus station, occasionally blowing into the faces of those waiting. Everything is gray-hued; the people are covered by smoke, smothered by it. Gray coats bundle around a woman who presses herself into the cold plastic benches. Her black boots do not reach the ground, and she swings them aimlessly, unconsciously. Her hands clench in her lap. Eleven minutes left to wait for the 27 bus. The wind hits the passengers’ faces the hardest; clear streams appear underneath nostrils, shining in the sun, as cheeks turn dark red and numb.
Unappreciated, a small park wedges itself between terminals. When fall turns to winter and commuters start turning up their jacket collars, men in blue uniforms bring hoes and hack apart the summer flowers, cutting them from the hardening dirt. My heels click against the adjoining sidewalk, earbuds stuffed into my ears. A man with graying hair walks in the opposite direction, but instead of walking to my side, he walks up to me and puts his face in mine. He says something to me, leering, but all I hear through the sound of drums and an electric guitar is “beautiful.” Later, I cannot shake the image of his teeth peeking out from between widening lips and the sound of the dead leaves crunching under my shoes. It is my first month in Providence.
Providence was founded in 1636, making it one of the oldest cities in the United States. Kennedy Plaza is the geographic center of downtown, and has served as a hub for transportation since 1847 (first for pedestrians, then horse-and-buggies, and then modern cars, trolleys, and buses). Kennedy Plaza has been called City Hall Park, Exchange Terrace, Exchange Place, and The Mall before it was renamed in honor of John F. Kennedy, who spoke there to a crowd of 60,000, only days before he was elected president.
In 2010, there were 178,042 people living in Providence. This explains why there are few conflicting facts to find about the city.
The small building in Kennedy Plaza is full, squat, and white-tiled. A man waves a red lollipop in the air, a shiny hello to passersby. Here, the smell of cigarette smoke is muted; instead, the smell of sweat and stress lingers. It is my fifth month in Providence.
A man meanders through, weaving first towards the seats, then towards the ticket station, before settling against a tiled wall. He speaks to no one in particular.
“Last night she screamed so loud my eardrum blew.” His laugh fills the building. “I had to call 911!” He pauses for a bit. “Yeah, can you believe it? I actually called 911!”
On February 28, 1860, Abraham Lincoln spoke to 1,500 people at the current location of Kennedy Plaza. In 1902, Theodore Roosevelt spoke on the City Hall steps; twelve years later, the same area housed a performance by Harry Houdini and a 20,000-person crowd. In 1919, the plaza hosted a World War I Victory Parade. And, in 2015, the Providence Journal published an article about Kennedy Plaza’s renovations. The construction is intended to reassert the plaza as a gathering place, a place for celebration, a place for community. I imagine Houdini wiggling overhead, the people around me craning their necks to watch his feat.
The man’s voice, lulled briefly, begins again. “Spell beautiful.” Silence. “Spell beautiful backwards.” He chuckles. “Spell beautiful backwards, without the a. Spell beautiful backwards with an i instead of an a. Beautiful. Beautiful. I love the letter b!” His voice fades, his words not receiving any response other than the sound of soft shuffling feet.
Beautiful. Lufituaeb. Lufitueb. Lufituieb. Beautiful. B.
I stand in the midst of waves of people, of laughter, of movement. If I stretch out my arm, I can grasp it with my fingertips and feel its warmth, the warmth of 178,042 lives mingling together to form something new, something fresh, something hopeful. It reminds me of a graffiti tag, outside of 511 Broadway, on a metal box. The box is covered in blueish-purple paint, red and green planets and yellow stars of varying sizes spread across the surface, wrapping around, so bright. The center, blue lettering on yellow background, a quote: “Something incredible is waiting to be known.”
Outside, a man walks amid pigeons and discarded tickets, speaking to a small group of people. “God bless you. Have a blessed day.” He veers away. “Thank you and have a blessed day,” he says, in the center of the plaza, in the center of Providence, his arms flung slightly out.
We are blessed.
The Christmas Tree House was so named because of my grandfather, William Portway. He helped design the house in the 1980s, and when it was finished, he created the evergreen balusters by hand-cutting boards of wood. He stayed in the house from May to October every year until his wife died in 2006. He then only came up when my parents could go—two or three weeks every summer—until his death in 2013.
2014, 1 a.m., my mother, father, brother, and I were watching a movie in the Christmas Tree House. Nearly every time we came to Vermont, we rented a movie from the Morgan Country Store and laid across the furniture my grandfather had built 35 years earlier.
Something black fell on my brother’s gray sweatpants. Then another piece floated down—except this one was alight. We slowly tilted our heads upward.
Directly above us, on a wooden rafter near the top of the 20-foot-tall ceiling, rested the speaker. It had burst into flames. Pieces of burning black plastic, mixed with ash, were falling down on us.
Amidst shouts and chaos, the flames began to spread across the entire speaker, creeping closer to both the wooden rafter and the wooden ceiling. My mother’s search for a fire extinguisher yielded nothing. My father slammed together pots, hurling water towards the ceiling but not quite reaching, the water instead splashing across the wooden floor planks, the rush of the sink and subsequent splash forming a rhythm.
I waited, frozen, for the flame to grow. If anything more caught flame, the whole house would be lost. The house my grandfather built, that never left my family, all its memories—gone.
In a sudden slam, the screen door bounced against the wall; my brother carried in a hose with a whoosh of water. The flame was extinguished in seconds. The room was consumed by smoke, and it became harder to see, to breathe, as we realized the house was no longer in danger. We stood in the unexpected quiet. We would be blowing soot out of our noses for the next three days.
I didn’t want to stay inside, so I laid on the dewy grass, wetness seeping through my sweatshirt, and watched the sky. It opened after a few minutes, offering clusters of stars, patterns of the Big Dipper, Orion’s Belt, the bluish hues of the Milky Way against a velvet-navy sky. One. Two. Three. I counted the shooting stars as they glided across the sky, traveling to new locations as my head stayed cradled by dirt and grass.
There was a peaceful beauty to laying outside at 1 a.m., one of the few people awake in the town of 749, possibly the only one that the sky was entertaining in this brief moment that seemed to include in it the eternity of the universe. Memories of Vermont were etched in those stars: my first birthday, the first time I went swimming, the first time I climbed a mountain, the first time I made a bonfire. And the quieter moments: sipping hot chocolate early in the morning, watching the glassy surface of the lake that the motor boats had yet to break reflect back at me mountains full of sugar maples and balsam firs and paper birches. Kayaking to the middle of the lake and leaning back, feeling the hot sun dance across my cheeks. Writing stories on the deck. Standing on the horseshoe-shaped rock in the lake right before leaving for home in New Jersey, watching the lake, in its 7.01 square km glory. A moment of pure, blissful perfection. I closed my eyes.
Later, I learned the fire truck took 45 minutes to arrive. But the time I spent stargazing seemed to have no length, no beginning or end. Everything was so darkly bright, and the air tasted cold and fresh and smelled of the sap of thousands of pine trees.
The air you’re breathing right now may be dirty. You probably can’t tell; it’s the air you’ve been breathing your entire life. It doesn’t smell dirty, and when you smack your lips together, let your tongue touch the outside world, you taste nothing. I taste nothing in New Jersey. But if you ever find yourself in Morgan, you will find yourself truly breathing, and you’ll realize you’ve been missing out on something so fundamental you never even knew you missed it.
There’s something beautiful about smoke clearing away. About the air becoming lighter, about the promise of new beginnings. The Christmas Tree House belonged to my grandfather’s estate after his death; we lost it in April 2018 when it sold. It will stay forever frozen in my memory. But the smoke of Providence is still able to clear, to transform, to offer a peek of a new horizon, shifting in my consciousness.
On my wall: a map of Northern Vermont and a collage of Providence buildings, one of my hands splayed on each, my breath falling even and slow.