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Column: Over the river, through the woods, and beyond

  • Will Lange. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

For the Valley News
Published: 11/30/2022 10:50:38 AM
Modified: 11/30/2022 10:50:23 AM

“Over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house we go! The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh through the white and drifting snow.” How we sang those words in Music class as the end of November and Thanksgiving approached! (Our churlish school district didn’t give us the Friday after the feast day). Yet even in those days just before the war, the sleigh had been replaced by Grandpa’s 1939 Chevy, and if there was snow, the sound outside wasn’t of sleigh bells, but spinning tires. It was before the days of winter tires, and if you wanted to go in snow, you wrapped tire chains around the rear wheels. They were another distinctive sound of the not-too-long-ago urban winter.

I couldn’t help but notice the differences between then and now, as on Wednesday morning before the big day I prepared to tackle the 185 miles to Nahant, Mass. In the old, old days I’d’ve prayed for some sleighing snow — just enough to keep the runners afloat, but not enough to trouble the horse. Now I anxiously scan the weather forecasts as the travel day approaches. A nice dry road is what I pray for. Also, we never lived so far from Grandmother that we didn’t know the way by heart. Now, faced with the intricacies of the roads leading from Interstate 93 to the entrance to the causeway leading to Nahant, swarming as they usually are with traffic, I have no horse or personal memory of the route.

Instead, I rely on the direction of a person whom I’ve never seen — a person who, in fact, doesn’t exist. He’s only a voice, prompting me to go where the little map in the middle of the dashboard is indicating. He was originally a female voice, to which I one day gave an Irish accent. That was lovely; but her voice was in the treble range, where very little comes through to me. So I changed it to masculine. But the Irishman now giving directions sounds rather like a toff. Quite off-putting. I asked some Irish friends if there was such a thing as an Irish toff. Apparently there is; so his name now is Toffee. And I must say he’s led me accurately through some pretty trackless urban tangles.

The trip takes a bit over three hours, depending on traffic and weather, either of which would test the mettle, sometimes, of a saint. I make a pit stop at Warner, N.H., where there’s a good McDonald’s and the cheapest gas on the route. Then it’s on to Concord and a right turn onto I-93. I start digging in the coffee cup holder for four quarters to pay the toll a few miles ahead and brace for ever thicker traffic. Eventually, I’m starting and stopping past pizza parlors, ethnic grocery stores and rooming houses with stoops. And then the wonderful words, “At the roundabout, take the first exit onto Nahant Road.” Now the horse knows the way. This old horse; the one driving.

Nahant Road is a four-lane divided highway on a lighted causeway built atop a tombolo, a geologic term that not even many geology students know. It’s a mile-and-a-half sand dune with popular beaches on both sides of the roadway, leading to a couple of rocky islands studded thickly with houses. At its Nahant end, the speed limit drops considerably, and on busy weekends like Thanksgiving the local constabulary are active and alert — which Toffee considerately happened to mention. But I was already slowed down.

When finally I turn onto the causeway, I ask Toffee (who insists upon being called Siri if I want anything) to call my hostess. When she answers, I sing my latest version of “Hi-ho, hi-ho, I’m on the tombolo.” This time I recited in rhyme the list of goodies in boxes and casseroles just behind my seat, and then urged whoever was within hearing of the phone to get onto the porch. I’d need help getting stuff into the house.

Wednesday afternoon and evening were getting-acquainted time: an old friend of the hostess whom I’d never met. Then preprandials, followed by supper at a restaurant located less than half a mile away. Early to bed; my days of driving several hours and square-dancing till two in the morning are past. The weather, as if to thumb its nose at the forecasters, stayed clear all weekend. But the wind was brisk every day of my visit. The house, set only about five feet behind its seawall, was filled with the sound of surf around the clock — a very pleasant background for drowsing — and in the morning my car was white with salt.

The women, two old friends from way back, toiled together over the turkey during Thursday morning. The kitchen’s east window, part of it stained glass, cast colored sunlight on the two gray heads close together in concentration. The house filled with the aromas of stuffing and roasting turkey. Ever unwilling to be in the way, I picked up a copy of Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage and read myself to sleep.

Two more guests for dinner. The hostess had gotten out her fancy china and silver; I had cut up the turkey with my antique electric carving knife; the gravy was dark and hot. We sat around the table, five survivors, one way or another, of previous relationships, from five different backgrounds and traditions, utterly unrelated to each other except by bonds of friendship and affection. I was moved to recite the Anglican General Thanksgiving, but given our differences and its complete inappropriateness, demurred. It was just as good simply to feel a deep, unfocused gratitude for our preservation and situations as to ascribe our great fortune to any deity. Afterward, for the first time ever, I felt privileged to do the job I’ve always hated, reducing the carcass of the turkey to soup bones.

An utterly unremarkable weekend; walks by the sea where once the hills bristled with defensive artillery; a visit to a crafts fair; My Cousin Vinny on the TV monitor; advice on hearing aids; Mexican food at La Hacienda Corona. One last sunny breakfast while the surf boomed; affectionate good-byes; back into my salt-peppered car. I plugged in the phone, clicked on Maps, and selected “Home.” Three hours later we chugged thankfully up our driveway with bags of leftovers and a head full of lovely memories.


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