Reflection: The Places That Mark Us Indelibly

What is it about permanence that is so alluring on the one hand, and so vexing on the other. When my kiddo was tiny, he developed an appetite for drawing and coloring with permanent markers because they were forbidden. If his tiny fingers found their way around a Sharpie, in short order I’d have to pry it loose and then replace it with a less-desirable washable Crayola. When he was a toddler I stocked his cheerful playroom with bins on top of bins of art supplies, including washable markers—plain ones, scented ones, fat ones and skinny ones, even special markers that doubled as rubber stamps, and on and on. And with reams of paper to go with them, colorful construction paper, plain newsprint, fingerpainting paper for the pots of washable fingerpaints, and an easel outfitted with kraft paper to serve as a canvas for washable tempera paints. I never tried to stymie my kid’s imagination and in fact always encouraged it—I just wanted his burgeoning creativity to find its way through his fingertips to the paper, and not to the walls and furniture.

But despite all those lovely resources at his disposal, his obsession with permanent ink grew with every passing month of early childhood. For years, in fact, my bedsheets were marked with blobs of Sharpie ink, the misguided strokes of a pen carried into the “big bed” in the early hours of the morning. Vigilance on those occasions gave way to a desperate need for sleep: Yes, babe, go on and color while mommy rests a little while longer.

One of my best friends understood him, not only because she was a parent herself and one of a handful who’d watched him grow and develop almost from infancy, but also because she was schooled in the principles of Maria Montessori, who championed giving children access to the genuine article instead of some lightweight knockoff. Child wants to vacuum? Forget the pretend one—let ‘em have the real thing! So, on one sunny Christmas afternoon when my friend and her family stopped by for a celebratory visit, she got right down in my kiddo’s face and handed him a gift bag filled with Christmas-themed rubber stamps, lots of them, and a threesome of colorful ink pads. “The stamp pad ink is permanent,” she explained to him with solemnity and a bit of measured drama.

And there it was in that moment: the allure of permanence (now assuaged), vexation right on its heels. Thanks so much, I said to her. Really.

That chapter unfolded in Knoxville, in my erstwhile home state of Tennessee, and makes a fitting metaphor for the notion of the thumbprints places leave on us: Alluring, vexing, permanent thumbprints. It is a notion I’ve noodled around in recent weeks as The Chef and I continue to settle into our new chapter in North Carolina, already with some distance now between it and the last chapter in Vermont.

But there is also something reassuring about permanence; for example, a home, a job, a marriage, an exceptional life, even, can be predicated on permanence. This is where I live, where I work, where I’ll raise my family, and will serve as the monolithic foundation for fantastic things, and it will always be thus. And when the center does not hold in full or even in part, it is possible, I think, to yearn for the permanence now upended, the Sharpie marker pried from one’s fingers. It was surely how I felt when I moved to Vermont more than a decade ago after my hellish divorce.

Once there, I spent a little while awestruck by new surroundings, filled with equal parts adrenaline and hope. And when the newness wore off, most especially when winter set in, and when I paused to reflect on my situation more as truly fraught than as the grand adventure in my mind’s eye, I started second-guessing the decision to move north and instead yearned to return south, where I was born, grew up, was educated, and then raised my own family. Anytime I heard a dialect that sounded remotely southern, I struck up a conversation. I lamented the absence of spring in New England when the southern states were already halfway through it. I was ill prepared for the steep cost of living and the higher taxes and I had no friends, none, in the beginning, to commiserate with. Had I not found The Chef soon after my arrival there, I’d surely have thrown in the proverbial towel. I harbored no desire for any kind of permanence in Vermont—nothing written in Sharpie—just washable Crayolas, thanks.

Anyway, conventional wisdom in Vermont suggests you can’t genuinely be a Vermonter unless you can count family going back at least three generations. If you can, it is your birthright, but if not, you ain’t a true Vermonter. Fine by me, went my thinking, no argument here and I’m just passing through. But a crisp, sunny fall day a few years after my arrival found me following a home inspector (and genuine Vermonter) around the house The Chef and I would soon make our own, our first, the two of us chatting lightheartedly as we went. When I said I emphatically could not count family going back three generations in Vermont and thus supposed I was not in earnest a Vermonter, without missing a beat he quipped, good thing a lot of Vermonters can’t count. It was one of those thunderbolts I wish had struck me in my first week there as a newly minted Vermonter, and not six years later, shaking me out of the fear of uncertainty and knocking some sense into me.

There is also this: Irritatingly, if you hail from outside the state, some Vermonters call you a flatlander. I found this far more irksome than the Rule of Generations, given that I’d just traveled up the eastern spine of the Appalachians to arrive at my new home, where the mountains followed me but insisted on going by Green Mountains, the state’s namesake mountain range, and not Appalachians (a term I soon discovered television and radio personalities in New England can’t pronounce: to can’t count, add can’t read). Call me a flatlander if you insist, but it sounds an awful lot like the teapot calling the kettle black to me, if you know I came here from…the mountains. The truth is, Vermonters bake much more than provenance into the term flatlander—which makes its true implications still more vexing: You are not one of us.

All I can say is, Well, bless your heart.

Despite these flaws in the local population, which you could ascribe in some iteration or other to people anywhere, including (and perhaps especially) the South, I didn’t live my decade in Vermont bitter, just wistful for what I’d lost and what I had to leave behind. I grew to love many things about the people and the state and finally did emerge with many friends, not at all friendless; I even found my way into a rewarding career I’d not likely have enjoyed in Knoxville. Other aspects of Vermont life I tolerated but could never appreciate the way the natives do. Anyway, bitterness is a waste of energy that robs you of living your life if you let it.

Not even two years now into our tenure as North Carolinians, I realize Vermont left its indelible mark on me and I am glad of that. For years during my first, failed marriage, I yearned for just a trip, a vacation, to New England. There was always an excuse and never time for it. Once I became a citizen of New England, the refrain careful what you wish for played at times on continuous loop in my head. Life can be hard there and I still stand in awe of the grit New Englanders possess; I sure as hell didn’t have it. But I hear a little Vermonter in my voice every time I say “yep” reflexively when somebody here says “thank you;” I don’t feel out of place in the presence of the good people in Vermont when we go there to visit (and after all, now I have family there); and I have adopted some distinctly Vermontish values mainly to do with frugality, and a few other character traits a little more elusive. I’m certainly more tolerant of people who’ve moved to the South from elsewhere and may be pining for “home,” because I’ve most definitely walked a mile in those shoes. They’ll be marked permanently, too, with y’alls aplenty and sweet tea and cicada song and pastel linens for days. And maybe a few other things they’ll find vexing.

Vermont is a permanent part of me as surely as my southern upbringing is and will always be, no rule of generations required. Like an imperfect rendering in Sharpie pen, a little unsteady in places and struck through here and there, but undeniably permanent.

3 thoughts on “Reflection: The Places That Mark Us Indelibly

  1. A very lovely reverie on permanence and what constitutes belonging and where we call home. And now I’m going to go think a bit about that permanence as I dust in an effort to remove the impermanent which is attempting to become permanent!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This blog reminds me of Snuffy Smith’s label for city folk’s who somehow wound up, by
    accident usually, in his mountain community of Hoot and Holler as “Flatland Touristers”.
    The fact that I still love to read Snuffy’s hillbilly antics and folksy wisdom each morning
    in our local paper is the essence of permanence. Our different dialects and accents prompted
    Snuffy to demand that these interlopers should “Talk Newnited States”.

    Liked by 1 person

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