It is Saturday morning in Bristol, Vermont. I rise and meditate over a cup of coffee, the flavor of hazelnut, softened with cream. I enjoy this quiet, slow time, which has become more plentiful since I moved here last summer. Hunger pangs tell me it’s time to venture into the village center for a cinnamon roll from the bakery café. This morning, I notice a buzz in town especially from the kids, the noise a few decibels higher than usual. It reminds me of the clatter one hears from an audience shortly before the curtain opens and a hush falls over the crowd.
Main Street bursts with activity – more cars on the road and more people milling about on the sidewalks. The weather is cool and calm, the sky a mix of clouds and sun, and the trees are now bare. It is Halloween, and everyone is out to enjoy the last good day of the year.
I’ve felt it before, autumn in Vermont, years ago when I visited my sister, long before I came to live here, too. This subtle beauty must be experienced in real time, no calendar or post card will do for they don’t convey the scent of apples or the jumbled reds, golds and greens of the hills. It’s best just to give yourself over to the spell. Fairs and festivals display sheep’s wool, demonstrate apple cider-making, and sell arts and craftwork. But as fall wanes, events and activities that have filled our days diminish along with the fading light.
The bustling of today mimics the activity of a squirrel gathering nuts in the wild as it prepares for hibernation. Rest follows flurry, but before it is all over, Vermonters celebrate one more time on All Hollow’s Eve. I recall the thrill as a child when I found the right costume. I hoarded treats obtained from my door-to-door pilgrimage. But here, now, in Vermont, Halloween rises to a higher level of anticipation.
During the afternoon I walk back into town to the “Sip n Suds,” my weekly laundry in tow. I’ve never used a laundromat in my life, and if you told me before I moved to Bristol, that I would be carrying clothes in a basket like a laundry lady and shoving coins into a machine, you might as well have told me I’d be beating my clothes on a rock by the river. But I find the task enjoyable for it forces me to pace myself. I read a book, or take the opportunity to speak with people whom I might not meet otherwise. Passers-by notice me sitting in the big storefront and wave. On this afternoon, my friend, Jen, stops by to keep me company while I wait. I tell her how sometimes I feel lost despite how much I love my new home. She asks me if I consider returning to New Jersey. We pause – a weighted sigh hovers between us because there is no way I want to go back though I feel the pull of family left behind. Jen is a good confidant, but ultimately, all decisions are mine, and with that, she continues on her way, and I finish my laundry alone.
I gather up my basket and step outside. Townspeople stand together, conferring as if they are synchronizing watches, or are spies working on a secret mission. I walk back to my apartment and fix a small dinner for myself. Afterward I step out into the evening and set off to explore.
Main Street is desolate except for diehard diners enjoying an evening meal at the only two restaurants open, but as I walk deep into the grid of streets, most of the homes are decorated in honor of the night. One porch is rigged with dressed-up dummies that move about seemingly of their own accord. Eerie moans emanate from an old farmhouse, and there are carved pumpkins everywhere, one display more elaborate than the next. Taiko drummers perform on a front lawn; the exotic beat makes me crazy. It’s like a Yankee Mardi Gras,.
Throngs of children and their parents roam the streets. Few people nod at one another, for maintaining secret identity seems essential. I’m not wearing a costume, nor do I escort little ones. I feel like an illegal gawker. I stop at new friends, Rob and Aggie’s – we share warm cider in their kitchen.
I retrace my steps back toward the center of town, and arrive at a house on the corner of Spring and Mountain where a woman sits on her doorstep. At least forty carved pumpkins surround her crowded small plot of front yard. I stoop down and introduce myself, complimenting her artwork. Is this another woman who lives in Bristol alone? She looks so contented sitting among them, a beaming earth mother. There are angels and devils, screamers, monsters, cartoon characters, and even a pumpkin baby, all of them lit from within by votive candles. She must have toiled for days. Did she work alone or did she have helpers? I see no children nearby, no baby carriage, no swing set, no husband, and I can tell that she is close to my age. This is not the first lone woman I meet in Bristol, for we all seem to gravitate to one another.
The town takes Halloween seriously with its celebrations, bonfires, and music. After all, it’s a feast day according to Celtic history and myth. The noise and activity is enough to scare away the dead because the citizens of Bristol know that once winter comes to Vermont, there is the sense that, indeed, everyone is dead. You’ll be lucky if you see your neighbor twice before the end of April.
But as the new girl in town, I sense life. And the beginnings of belonging.