Lately, it seems as though checking my email feels an awful lot like walking down the driveway to my mailbox. The real mail, the stuff worth making the walk or logging into my account, lies buried beneath ads for Black Friday and Cyber Monday. I glance through my mail, both virtual and real, toss most of it into the recycle bin, and return to my writing or to household chores. Last week, however, in the course of scanning and dismissing most of my messages I nearly missed an important invitation from an old friend.
The message contained an announcement about an upcoming performance on which my friend had collaborated. Just over the border in southern Vermont, the town of Guilford was celebrating its 250th anniversary. A local resident, a poet named Verandah Porche, had spent several years interviewing elderly town residents, mining their recollections of a lifetime shaped within the farmlands of the Connecticut River Valley. And until I typed that last sentence, I didn’t recognize the whimsy in the name of the woman who authored this project.
My initial response to the invitation was to dismiss the play as a small-time production, most likely performed with poor acting and amateur props. Then I stopped t othink about my friend, a gifted photographer, and the quality of work I’ve seen him produce. I begin to consider the possibility that this little local production might actually be very good, perhaps even better than every Christmas pageant I’d ever attended throughout my life. Besides, I hold a special place in my heart for old-timey family history, even if I don’t have a personal connection to those involved in the stories. The beloved Swede and I found we had some free time on our schedules, so we decided to make the drive to Vermont.
I am so glad we did. The production, titled Broad Brook Anthology, combined the recollections of local townspeople into a play for voices. The work was named for the stream which flows through the community connecting many of the family farms which provide context for the stories. Performed in the town’s historic meeting house, a company of six actors local to Vermont and New York gave voice to the reflections of the town’s elders. My friend had photographed the residents in their homes as they had told their stories; and he projected their portraits, interspersed with historical photos, throughout the course of the performance. Another resident composed original music for the play which a trio of local musicians performed.
We heard stories, stories about working hard on the family farm and of getting up early to deliver bottles of milk. The words: We were poor but we were satisfied, echoed throughout a number of the narratives. We laughed as we heard tales of mischief wrought in the days of one room schoolhouses, of children who fled to the hills at the sound of the recess bell never to return for afternoon studies. We saw photos of a devastating flood, one which shaped the earliest memory of a resident who watched as the current swept away his young cousin. We eavesdropped on courtship stories, many of which began at square dances at the local Grange hall. We viewed wedding photos of brides dressed in vintage gowns standing next to handsome men in uniform, some of whom had just returned from the war.
The final line of the performance came from a man who is now widowed but remains in the small community where he lived, loved, and raised a family. He said he finds peace in his solitude, surrounded by familiar landscape. He wanders the woods and hills of a place which shaped his life and considers the awe of existence itself.
This effort by local townspeople in celebration of their shared history accomplished so many good things. The play, and the years of work which went into creating it, honored the stories of ordinary men and women who had lived, loved, played, and worked in community with one another. Many of their stories have now been preserved in both image and word. A local poet, photographer, and composer; several actors, musicians, and audio and video technicians exercised their crafts, combining their efforts to produce something which was beautiful and good.
After the performance we returned to the home of our friends, nibbled on slices of fresh apple and chunks of Vermont cheddar, and told stories of our own. We caught upon one another’s histories, and shared our narratives of living, loving, playing, and work. At the end of the evening we said goodbye and turned down their dirt road, heading away from their place and toward our own.
And this morning I can’t stop thinking about the awe of existence itself.
Photography for Broad Brook Anthology provided by Jeff Woodward.
Linking with L.L. Barkat for On, In, and Around Monday: