Vermont Winters

The prompt for the Chatham Writers Group this week was to write a story around a painting by Maxfield Parrish. The painting reminded me of my sister-in-law’s house in Vermont, and the many trips we have made there through the years. My memoir covers the years when our sons were in grade school. A copy of the Maxfield Parrish painting is included.

Winter Night Landscape by Maxfield Parrish

Vermont Winters

There it was, right in front of us, the embodiment of the Maxfield Parrish “Winter Sunset” painting.  The branches of the surrounding pines were heavy with a freshly fallen snow. Backlit by the setting sun, the house at the top of the hill appeared to have a gold arc behind it.  The arc faded to gradually darkening shades of blue. A thin line of smoke drifting from the chimney made it appear the house was tethered to the sky.  The lights behind the windows hinted at the warmth enclosed within the house.  A barn-like garage sat to the left of the house, the one way in which the image differed from the painting. We were appreciating the image of the quintessential Vermont country home in mid-winter twilight from our car, stuck in a snow bank a 100 yards away from warmth and comfort.  

My sister-in-law and her husband lived at the top of a hill on a 300 acre dairy farm in the Green Mountains of central Vermont.  The idyllic setting, for 3 seasons of the year, belied a treacherous winter.  It was not atypical for our car to get stuck on the approach to the house.  This was one of those occasions where cell service (Sprint at that time) failed us, so my wife and sons trudged through the chilly dusk to alert those in the house as to our fate.  My sister-in-law’s husband bundled up, backed his truck down the driveway as though he were on dry macadam, hooked a chain to our car and pulled it the rest of the way to the house.

We all remember those trips through snowy Vermont.  The cargo space laden with Christmas gifts and skis affixed to the roof, our car would wind its way along Route 103.  Our sons would giggle and poke fun at Gramp’s Riverside Disco in Chester, and begin to bristle with excitement as Okemo Mountain came into view.  In the distance, the skiers appeared like ants spilling out of the top of a giant ant hill.  Driving through Ludlow we would marvel at how high the plowed drifts were, and how that did not seem to have any effect on the people living or visiting there.  Every store, every restaurant was packed, the sidewalks busy.  The car would get silent as we approached my sister-in-law’s home in East Wallingford.  Despite the six degree temperature outside, the inside of the car felt tropical, all perspiring anticipating the unknown that awaited us.  

A collective gasp would escape within the car as I turned onto the hard packed dirt and gravel road that led up the hill to my wife’s sister’s house.  The road itself was fairly straight and not too steep, keeping a steady speed of 35 mph would get me to the entrance to their driveway.  That was where things would go to hell in a hand basket, for I had to make a sharp right turn to enter the driveway.  Losing all forward momentum, the tires would begin to spin, the car skew from left to right.  I would roll backwards to the road to get another running start at the driveway, but once again become stranded at the left turn, the Maxfield Parrish set house taunting us from 100 long yards away.  My sister-in-law’s good natured husband would dress warmly, drive his truck down and drag us up the hill once again.  This didn’t always happen, but it happened enough to make it seem like every visit resulted with us being stuck in the driveway.  I am told there were a couple of trips where there wasn’t any snow.  My wife attempted the driveway one year by herself, the car remained at the driveway entrance for the remainder of the visit.  It got to a point where my sister-in-law would watch for our arrival, her husband standing by like a fireman, ready to jump into his gear to save us.

On the other hand, the big sloping hill that would vex our car, turned to a sledding run that provided hours of joy to our sons.  They would rocket down the hill on flying saucer sleds like Chevy Chase in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. When we would drive over to nearby Okemo to ski for the day, the thought of driving back up that driveway struck more fear in my heart than the double black diamond trails.  Calling my wife after packing it in for the day, I would say “We’re leaving now, tell Richard (her brother-in-law) to have the tow chain ready.”  We usually had a 10% chance of successfully making up the driveway.

I thought things would improve after we bought a front wheel drive vehicle.  The left turn kicked my hypothesis right in the kneecap on the first attempt to conquer it.  This time as I backed the car down the hill to make another run, it started to spin around like a slow top. We now had Verizon cell service and the call got through to the “family tow service”.  We called because it was too damn cold to walk up to the house.  I tried to talk to my wife’s brother-in-law law as I helped him hook the chains to our car, but the words froze into logs of ice as they came out of my mouth.  We gathered them up so we could melt them later to hear what I said.  

Through this narrative, please note I blame the car, it sure as hell wasn’t my fault!  We eventually did something we should have done years ago, we purchased an all wheel drive vehicle.  Recently, while reminiscing about the winter trips to Vermont, our youngest son Jeremy said of this picturesque setting between Okemo and Killington, “we had this great place to visit, that we loved to stay at, to but it was as though we had to earn that privilege.”

Ernie Stricsek

Chatham Writers Group

February 14, 2022

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