If you come to New Hampshire to work on the Bernie Sanders campaign any day or any weekend during the next month, Edward and I will host you and ply you with good food, wine and conversation at our adorable and historic Vermont home on the banks of the Connecticut River. You’ll even have your own guest room.
The New Hampshire primary is one month from today. On February 9, New Hampshire Democrats will make an important decision about the very soul of our party. As most of you know by now, I’m a die-hard and passionate Bernie Sanders supporter. I believe that we are a crossroads in our country. If we don’t choose real, substantive change, our society will continue its descent toward oligarchy and the destruction of our democracy. Bernie Sanders represents our best hope for reversing that ugly and ominous trend. Hillary Clinton, sadly, represents the status quo. She is not in a position to spearhead the kind of change we desperately need. Furthermore, it has become increasingly clear to me that Bernie Sanders is in the best position to defeat the GOP in the general election, because he generates enthusiasm, which will translate into higher voter turnout.
To get the nomination, Bernie needs not only to win NH, but to exceed expectations. And he needs an army of supporters to make that happen.
Today, Edward and I did our first round of house-calling on behalf of the Sanders campaign, driving around the back roads of northern New Hampshire and knocking on doors sporting our Bernie buttons, big smiles, and Bernie literature. We are proud to be part of giant wave of committed volunteers now flooding into NH, working their butts off to reclaim our country from the banks and billionaires.
There are three weekends between now and Feb 9. Edward and I live in Vermont, just across the border from New Hampshire. We are within 10 minutes drive of Lancaster, NH and Groveton, NH and a forty minute drive to Littleton, NH. The Sanders campaign opened an office in Littleton last week and field organizers are now fanned out throughout Grafton and Coos Counties.
Come stay with us for a day or a weekend and campaign for Bernie. Go out door-knocking and phone banking. We’ll hook you up with the campaign and make sure you get the tools you need. It’s important work, it’s fun, and besides–if you come, we’ll make a nice dinner for you, put you up in style, and ply you with good conversation and wine after your day of campaign work!
Here is my mother, Altina Laura Waller, who recently made the tough decision to undergo fairly serious back surgery. Three weeks after the operation, she’s still recovering, but yesterday she went on her first real mini-hike, for a full mile! Very proud of her persistence and determination to get back to the active life that she loves.
We spent this holiday with my mom and her partner David and my brother Andrew and his partner Gina at our mom’s house in Connecticut. It had been nearly two years since we’d all been together, and we had a good time cooking, eating, drinking, laughing, watching movies and generally hanging out. Best thing of all? Gina and I played Scrabble. It was lovely.
Laura’s Baking Day, 2015
I’m fond of baking, and I’ve often wondered what it would be like to spend all my days as a professional baker. So I scheduled a pre-holiday baking day, during which I planned to do nothing else. I baked seven batches of different cookie varieties, a batch of scones, seven loaves of quickbread, two pies, a butternut squash soup, and two French baguettes. I started early in the morning with twenty minutes of coordinating the timing, then jumped right in. Everything came out well, and I had a great time baking as I listened to Ella Fitzgerald’s “It’s a Swinging Christmas.”
Hanukkah Celebration, Lyndonville, VT.
Our friends Irwin and Rachel invited us, on the spur of the moment, to accompany them to a Hanukkah celebration at Riverside School in Lyndonville. We ate potato latkes, sang songs, and best of all, danced in a circle. The synagogue arranged for two experts to come up from Montpelier and teach us the dance steps. How often in our modern, post-capitalist world do we get to stand in a circle with people, hold hands, and dance our hearts out?
Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer: Museum of Fine Arts.
We spent Thanksgiving at Edward’s daughter’s house in the Boston metro area. After the Thanksgiving festivities, we went to this stunning and intriguing show at the Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. The paintings were organized in different rooms by depictions of the wealthy, the professionals, the merchants and artisans, and the poor/indigent. I’ve never seen such a smartly curated exhibit. To learn more about the exhibit, click here.
Patrick Ross: Fiddler and Storyteller Extraordinaire, Maidstone, Vt
The talented local fiddler Patrick Ross came and performed at the Maidstone Town Office this fall (it’s part of his plan to perform at every single Town Office in Vermont). The venue is just two minutes up the road from me! This performance was so much more than a concert: instead, Mr. Ross combines music, hands-on audience demos of the instruments, and storytelling, interspersed with fascinating tidbits of local history of Essex County, where he grew up (in Canaan.) Mr. Ross makes it clear from the get go that he wants to break down the walls between artist and audience, and that’s exactly what he did. He is adorable and talented! Here is a short video of him playing fiddle that night.
The Legendary Mavis Staples: Lyndon State College
Rhythm and blues and gospel singer Mavis Staples came to the NEK this fall. What a performance! I felt myself a lucky part of history that I had the chance to see this extraordinary musician live–she seems to possess more energy at 76 than I do. My favorite moment of the night was when she sang “Will the Circle be Unbroken.”
Local Theatre, Peter Gair and Fiddler on the Roof
My friend and former colleague Peter Gair is one of the most talented actors in the North Country. (Those of you have phoned my Guildhall office have heard his compelling baritone voice on my answering machine, too). He and his wife Wendy Muello Gair and their children Molly, Nora and Nathan are mainstays of the local theatre scene. This summer, Peter performed the role of Tevya in Fiddler on the Roof at the Weathervane Theatre in Whitefield, and Peter was fabulous in the role.
The Cog Railway at Mt Washington
It’s very touristy. Perhaps even intolerably so at times. But still, it was something I wanted to do this year, take the historic cog railway ride up Mt Washington. Although I’ve lived just half an hour’s drive from the mountain for over 10 years, and even worked at the Mt Washington hotel for over a year, I just never got around to it. And it is a truly spectacular ride, even harrowing at times.
Earth People’s Park, aka Black Turn Brook State Forest, Norton, Vermont.
It was the early 1970s, and a brave group of young hipsters and iconoclasts, inspired to change notions about property and ownership came to Norton, Vermont. They had come together through experiences at the Woodstock Music Festival and other communal experiments on the West Coast, and subsequently purchased 592 acres of land near the Canadian border. The deed was held in no individual’s name, but rather by “the people.” Anyone was allowed to come and live, and no rent was required. It was a short-lived but brave and important experiment in collective ownership and cooperation. By the 1980s, the experiment had wound down and sadly, devolved into some criminal and drug-related activity. Ultimately, the federal government prosecuted some of the remaining residents for marijuana cultivation and sale (oh good grief, why? Especially now that Vermont is on the verge of legalization). As part of that process, the land was taken by forfeiture and eventually turned over to the State of Vermont as a state forest. This spring, we made our way up there, and walked the verdant meadows and the babbling brook that borders it, sensing the ghosts of the brave and youthful pioneers who once lived and loved there. Below is the people’s map of the property, then owned by everyone.
Richard Thompson: White River Junction, Vermont.
Richard Thompson, in my view, is the world’s greatest living guitarist. And this year, he came to Vermont. My friend Teri and I made the trek down to White River to see him in concert, and we were not disappointed in the slightest. My only regret is that I never had the chance to see him perform with his former wife Linda Thompson. I also consider Richard and Linda Thompson to be one of the greatest musical couples of all time. Here is a video of him performing one of my favorite Thompson tunes (not from that night, but he’s still much the same!)
My friend and colleague Connie Keresey has a condo near the Portland waterfront, and she was kind enough to offer it to my mom and I for a long weekend of visiting in Portland. We had a great time exploring the city. The best moments were the hours we spent at the Portland Museum of Art, which I think is one of my favorite museums anywhere. It’s so intimate and accessible! At the time, there was a nice exhibit of paintings drawn from a wide variety of Maine museums, including this Andrew Wyeth (Turkey Pond) from the Farnsworth.
Bernie Sanders, 2016
In an event that is now famous nationwide, Bernie kicked off his presidential campaign at a May rally on the shores of Lake Champlain, in Burlington, Vermont. My friends Teri and Jacquie and I made a road trip to Burlington for the rally. It was an exciting event all around, and we followed it up with a lovely few hours hanging out, discussing politics and drinking at Ri-Ra’s in Burlington, my favorite Vermont Irish pub. (As most of my friends know, I’m a passionate Bernie Sanders supporter. Campaigning for him has consumed a fair amount of my time since that day in Burlington, and soon of course, things will get busier, as I start campaigning across the border in NH).
Cruise on Lake Memphremagog, Newport, Vermont
You can now take cruise ship right from the Newport waterfront. I’d been meaning to do this for awhile, and this summer we finally did! There are lunch, brunch, and dinner cruises, in addition to just regular two hour cruises with a guide who provides an informative tour of the Lake’s history and geography. We drank margaritas as we circumnavigated the Lake, thinking about Rogers’ Rangers. We even crossed the border into Canada briefly, without passports.
Guildhall Elementary School: Rest In Peace
Our town’s population is in decline, as is our population of children. Our school budget over the last decade has been skyrocketing, topping off this year at over $800,000, all for a two room school that serves 21 kids, plus about 12 older kids who attend middle and high school in other districts. That’s not sustainable. The Vermont legislature knows it’s not and for years has been gently pressuring school districts to consolidate or close schools. This year, we finally reached critical mass here in little Guildhall. The School Board, seeing the writing on the wall, called a special meeting for the voters to decide whether the school should remain open or close. An overwhelming majority voted to close, but no one was very happy about it. The doors of our little school with its fabulous teachers will close in June 2016. For the first time in the Town’s 200 year-plus history, we will have not a single school within our borders.
Violin Lessons, Lyndonville, Vermont.
I took up the violin as an adult many years ago, when I lived in Boston. But despite my good intentions, violin music took a back seat after moving to Vermont. I was busy with work and then with law study and law practice. Plus, despite repeated efforts to find a violin teacher within a reasonable distance, I couldn’t find one. Finally, last year at about this time, thanks to our friend Irwin Gelber (a concert pianist), I found the best teacher I could imagine: Alvin Shulman of Lyndonville. He is smart, witty, patient, and a great mentor and musician. Every week, I trek to his house for a violin lesson and I am immensely grateful for his presence in my life. Above is one of the pieces I’m working on right now, by Telemann.
Happy New Year, to all my friends, colleagues, and loved ones, far and near!
We got a decent workout on New Year’s Day, at a beloved and familiar place, Mt. Prospect at Weeks State Park.
Over the years, we have become regulars at this beautiful preserve. It’s a walk up the Mt Prospect Auto Road–one that is relatively short and manageable for early mornings before going to work, and a little later and more leisurely on weekends. Our dogs have accompanied us hundreds of time up the mountain (past and present dogs: Simone, Mouchette, Minerva, Django, LaBelle, and Hugo).
For New Year’s Day, the New Hampshire State Park system and the Friends of Weeks State Park had organized a guided tour up the mountain. It was well-attended by dogs (we brought Django, who is our most mellow dog) and people, some on snowshoes.
At the top, there was a nice bonfire, hot cider and snacks. The crowd milled pleasantly around the bonfire at the foot of the beautiful stone fire tower. Then we hiked back down, in a fog of snowflakes.
As the summer wound down, we spent 10 solid, heavenly days at our place up in the hills of Essex County. We read books, frolicked with dogs, cooked and baked, sat on the porch staring at the mountains, read more, and went for many long walks, including one over Mt. Tug to Granby. (Granby and Victory are, I do believe, the most remote towns in Vermont. Neither town had electricity until 1963. Granby has no paved roads whatsoever, Victory has a single paved section, which lasts about a mile or less.)
The last walk of vacation was bittersweet, indeed. We paid special attention to things we hadn’t noticed before, clinging to the last hot days of summer in the hills. We collected apples and blackberries galore, and I took photos of various wildflowers and flora (and a few other things) along the length of the walk.
When we moved from Boston to Guildhall, Vermont in 2004, a big part of the charm and attraction was the town’s well-documented history. Even before we arrived, I was able to research the history of the town and our new house (the Benton Cottage) on the internet and at the archives of the Boston Public Library. (This was in part because of the historical links between some of Guildhall’s prominent 19th century citizens and the Boston area.)
After our move, I volunteered at the Guildhall Public Library and spent hours poring over old documents and photos I found on dusty shelves. When I became Town Clerk, one of the job’s greatest pleasures was organizing and becoming familiar with the old deeds, maps, school ledgers, photographs and town meeting minutes that overflowed out of the Town’s vault.
I’ve visited and photographed all of Guildhall’s cemeteries, pored over documents in the old evidence room at the Courthouse, read several histories of Guildhall, and spent many a pleasant hour in conversation with Allen Hodgdon, our assistant and probate judge and the Town’s de facto historian.
In spite of all this, for years, one little piece of Guildhall’s history had eluded me: the Monument. Since my arrival in town, I’d been hearing about a mysterious monument somewhere out in the woods, on Guildhall Hill. There are pictures of the monument in Patricia Rogers’ book The HIstory of Guildhall, Vermont. The monument was financed, designed, constructed, and then hauled up to Guildhall Hill by Everett C. Benton in 1899. There was a dedication ceremony held, with speeches at the site and then refreshments and music back at the existing (new) church and the Grange Hall in the Village.
Colonel Benton was a Guildhall native who moved to the Boston area in the 1880s, but had retained his ties to his beloved town. After making the move to Boston, he’d become quite wealthy and had shared that wealth with the town of his childhood, building a Town Office, a public library/masonic temple, and his own summer house which came to be known as the Benton Cottage. (It’s now our home!).
Most of the time, when we encounter monuments, they commemorate the war dead. But this one, curiously, has nothing to do with honoring the dead. It commemorates a particular Congregational Church, which at one time sat at that site on Guildhall Hill where the monument now stands. The text inscribed on the monument outlines the basic history of this church, starting with a town meeting in which voters appropriated 25 bushels of wheat to pay a preacher for the church. The church building was constructed at this spot around 1801-1803. There it remained, serving congregants until the late 1830s. For some reason that remains unclear, the church was dismantled and built elsewhere and ultimately was rebuilt again in Guildhall Village, where it still stands.
Yesterday, I finally decided that it was time to see this hidden monument for myself. I thought I might be able to find it on my own, since several people who’d been up there in years past had described its location, at least roughly. So I parked my car on Maplewood Farm Road and headed off on the Maplewood Farm trail. Eventually, this legal trail terminates onto Fellows Road, a Town Class 3 road. I’d been told to look for another trail veering off to the left. The problem is, by the time I’d worked my way all the way to the terminus, there had been 4 possible left hand trail turns. Two of them I ruled out, because they were level or sloped downward, and I knew that the correct trail should take me up a hill. But I followed two ascending trails for some distance without finding a thing. At that point, I knew I needed some help from someone who had actually been to the monument. Sadly, there is no sign or marker of any kind providing any clue.
I headed back to the road and called Alfred and Susan McVetty, who live up on Stone Mountain. They agreed to take me up to the Monument on a four wheeler. The left hand trail, it turned out, was one I had tried, but the monument is a looong distance to the top. On my own, without knowing if I was on the right track, I wouldn’t have gone that far. On the ATV, the trail turned out to be navigable, but a bit on the rough side–it quailfied as bushwhacking. But it was worth it when suddenly, over the tops of some smaller trees, the top of the monument peaked out. I shouted out in sheer joy to see it!
We got off our machines, walked about, and took photographs. The area is surrounded by thick forest and barely cleared, only because a few ATVs have been up there already this summer. A thick, imposing range of raspberry brambles covered what Alfred said was the old stone foundation of the church building. I wouldn’t have known this without him telling me. No one is maintaining the area around this monument. Although you can see Burnside Mountain over the forested area, in 5 or 10 years, if nothing is done to clear or maintain, the growth will overtake the monument completely.
The monument itself is a beautiful piece of architecture. Its formal beauty is somewhat surreal when contrasted with the bramble, ferns and tree growth that will soon overtake it. It’s the sort of monument that you’d expect to see on a nicely groomed town green or park.
This monument’s existence raises some very interesting questions that may simply never be answered. First, why did Everett C. Benton decide to erect this monument at all, up here on this lonely hill, in 1899? In general, we know that Colonel Benton was a benefactor interested in preserving the Town’s history. But why a monument to a Church? Why a monument to this particular church? And why place the monument at a location where there had been no church in 60 years? (Colonel Benton himself had never attended the church on Guildhall Hill when it was there, although his parents or grandparents may have.)
And why, in 1899, did all of these people (see photograph) traipse up a steeply ascending trail in their best dress and hats for a mile to a spot that in 1899 was probably as remote from the habited part of town as it is today? Why did a 60 year old church building no longer in existence matter to them?
I went looking for clues to this question in the Guildhall history books that exist, of which there are three or four. That provided some intriguing possibilities, but nothing conclusive. There is some reason to believe that in 19th century Guildhall, religious divisions were fairly sharp. The Town financed and established the Congregational Church around 1799 (I guess the separation of church and state concept hadn’t quite been tested yet in practice), and this was done through taxation. Those who submitted written statements asserting their membership in a different church were exempt from the tax.
After the Congregationalists organized, a competing Methodist Church organized, as well, and there are some references in the literature to tension between the two churches. In 1844, the Congregationalists erected a new church in the Village, which remains the only church in Guildhall to this day. (See today’s photo of the church, which is seldom used. Sometimes funerals or weddings are held there) Through the 19th century, the competing Congregational and Methodist churches existed in Guildhall, but by the 1920s, church membership in either church was in decline, and the Methodist Church disbanded. By then, the tensions or differences (whatever they might have been) had been resolved enough that the two churches essentially merged, or put a different way, the Congregational Church “swallowed” the Methodist Church.
But perhaps in 1899, those differences were still meaningful and alive for Congregational and Methodist membership. And perhaps those in the Congregationalist camp (whatever that meant) retained a sense of nostalgia for the original church. In small towns, there are always factions and they can take unexpected forms. And perhaps that was the impetus for locating a beautiful, imposing monument on top of a hill in the middle of nowhere. I concede this is all speculation, albeit educated by the crumbs of information we have. Perhaps some scholar well versed in the split between Congregationalist and Methodist theology in 19th century New England towns can shed some light on this.
The second question I contemplated as we bumped down the hill on our ATV was why that church had ever been erected there in the first place. Given the current layout of our Town, it’s an utterly improbable location for any kind of community structure. On the other hand, at the turn of the 19th century, Guildhall, like most small Vermont towns, was far more populated and had a far busier infrastructure, with a dramatically different development pattern. It’s hard to imagine now, but Guildhall Hill, lonely, remote and inaccessible as it is today, was once quite busy. The stone walls lining the criss-cross of old logging roads and snow machine trails throughout this backwoods area attest, ironically, to a much busier, complex world in this small and declined municipality.
There’s a certain sadness to the lonely Guildhall church monument. How many similar architectural beauties sit in towns around Vermont and New England, hidden away, almost lost to the overgrowth of bramble and forest, left unmarked deep in woods or at the top of hills? How long before no one remembers them at all?
(Here are the directions, such as they are, to the Monument. There are no markers or signs for it. From Vermont 102, North, take a left onto Granby Road. After Old Home Crawford, the road ascends steeply. At the top, turn left onto Maplewood Farm Road, a dirt road. At the terminus of this road, there is a house. You can park your car here or at the beginning of Maplewood Farm Rd proper. On foot, continue straight onto Maplewood Farm trail. It is unmarked, but an obvious trail. Continue until you come to a left trail turn. It’s clearly a trail, but it looks sketchy, with some logs fallen across it. It ascends up fairly steeply for about 1 mile. You can’t use a car or truck. Has to be on foot or by ATV. Below is a google map plotted out by my friend and neighbor Linnzi Furman.)
Edward and I moved from Boston to Vermont in May of 2004. That same month, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that same-sex couples had the right to marry. But Vermont had paved the way for that pioneering decision, by passing its own civil union law, back in 2001. The battle for civil unions wasn’t an easy one. It tore the state apart, liberal as Vermont is. All but one of the fourteen Republican legislators who voted their consciences for the civil union bill lost their seats in the next legislative session. To this day, in some corners of Vermont, one can still find, affixed to barns and trailers, signs that read “Take Back Vermont,”
Flash forward to 2006. By that time, we’d moved to Vermont and I’d been appointed Town Clerk of tiny little Guildhall, the shire town of the most conservative county in Vermont. One of my responsibilities was the issuance and recording of marriage and civil union licenses.
That fall, an adorable lesbian couple from Gorham, NH appeared at my office. They wanted a civil union license but they were nervous as hell about asking for it. I gave them a big smile and handshake, and they looked so relieved. They confessed they hadn’t known what to expect from any Town Clerk they might approach. I issued their license–they were to hold the ceremony in neighboring Maidstone–but they also needed an officiant for the ceremony. That proved to be a harder task. We sat down and went over the list of five Justices of the Peace from our town.
Unfortunately, one JP was out-of-town on the date planned for the ceremony. Three others, sadly, refused to officiate at a civil union. When I phoned the fifth–an elderly curmudgeonly gentleman with a soft side–and explained that we needed an officiant and that no one else would do it, there was a lengthy pause. My heart sank and I could tell that a “no” was looming. And so I did the practical–some might say cynical–thing. I offered to pay him. Nothing wrong with it, after all. Lots of officiants get paid for conducting marriages. I told him they would pay $100 and I would chip in another $50, in my private individual capacity.
He agreed. I was kind of disappointed that money was the persuading factor. But in retrospect, that doesn’t bother me much. People’s motivations can be complicated, and as later became clear, it was still an act of courage and boldness for this gentleman. Still, he was pretty apprehensive about doing the ceremony. At one point he wanted to back out and I only kept him on board by agreeing to accompany him there.
I remember driving up Route 102 in his pickup truck. On the way, he was grouchy (as he often was anyway), and he complained, saying he didn’t want to stay any longer than absolutely necessary with “those people.” By way of rejoinder, I said “well, we have to stay for at least a little while. It would be very rude to just leave.” This gave him pause, and he seemed to agree, grunting his assent.
When we arrived, he stood up and recited the vows the couple had prepared for him. I remember that one of the couple was dressed in a tuxedo for the ceremony, and the curmudgeonly Justice of the Peace’s eyes widened at that. Afterwards, we went inside for food, drink and socializing. There was a beautiful view of Maidstone Lake. My companion the officiant sat down on a couch, stiff as a board, looking around suspiciously. There was music, laughter, a few impromptu speeches. I told him I was going to fetch some food from the buffet table. “Do you want me to bring you some?” He grunted no. I brought back a plate heaped with food and started eating it, slowly and deliberately as I sat beside him. I commented how good the food was. Finally, I asked him again if he wanted any, and this time he let me go get him a plateful. After that, he seemed to relax considerably, and even made some small talk with people who it turned out he knew and with whom he had done some kind of business.
As we drove back that afternoon, he said to me “I just don’t understand it, two nice girls wanting to be like that.” I responded and simply said “well, they seemed very happy, like most people are at weddings.” He looked over at me, paused, grunted, and then said “well, the food was pretty good. Can’t argue with that.” I couldn’t help but smile. With that, he had come pretty damn close to a form of acceptance. Not that he was a paragon of gay rights activism. But hell, in spite of his trepidation, in spite of his doubts, in spite of everything, he was still the Justice of the Peace in Town who was willing to officiate at that cute lesbian couple’s ceremony, no matter what his friends and neighbors might say or think.
He passed on a few years after that, but I’ve always thought fondly of him and that afternoon in Maidstone. And I thought of him again this past Friday, when the U.S. Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal throughout the land.
Friday, June 26, 2015. The United States Supreme Court ruled that gay and lesbian couples are entitled to a legal marriage anywhere in the nation.
This is a memorable, landmark ruling. The Court took the long overdue step of applying the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and making marriage a fundamental right for same sex couples. The 14th Amendment was adopted in 1868. Section I reads as follows:
“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
The amendment was crafted in the aftermath of the Civil War, during Reconstruction, in an attempt to furnish equality under the law to the former slaves emancipated by the 13th Amendment. In the years since, the 14th Amendment has been the linchpin of thousands of legal rulings across the nation–covering issues ranging from gender equality, to affirmative action, to the right to travel, or to use contraception (to name only a few!)
The U.S. Supreme Court hasn’t exactly been the vanguard or cutting edge of change over the years. The Court has lagged behind both popular sentiment and state jurisprudence on some of the thorniest issues of our time. Likewise here: on the eve of the Court’s ruling, welcome as it was, over 70% of the states had legalized same-sex marriage, either through state or federal litigation, or through their legislatures. In a pioneering 2003 ruling, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court was the first to legalize same-sex marriage. Other state courts followed, in quick succession. In 2009, my home state of Vermont was the first to green-light same sex unions by vote of the Legislature.(Vermont had previously paved the way by enacting the nation’s first civil union law.)
A couple of months after the Vermont law went into effect, my beloved friends Teri Anderson and Rose Fitzgerald were married here in Guildhall, Vermont. At the time, I was the Town Clerk of my little municipality, and I had the privilege of issuing them their marriage license, the first in Essex County, Vermont. They were married at a ceremony at the Town offices by local Justice of the Peace Barbara Peaslee Smith, and there was a joyous celebration into the wee hours of the morning, with music and a bonfire on the Town green. Now, Teri and Rose live with the confidence that their relationship is recognized everywhere they go in this land.
In the aftermath of the Civil War and the defeat of the Confederacy, there was a moment–ever so brief–filled with promise and hope for a future of equality for former slaves. But the promise of Reconstruction withered, largely due to the failure of the Union leadership to bring the former Confederate states into line.
In spite of General Sherman’s initial plan to provide all former slaves with “forty acres and a mule,” those former slaves got nothing. And over generations, a Southern culture of racism and brutality has flourished. We live with the consequences of the failure of Northern leadership (which wasn’t exactly a paragon of equal rights sentiment) to this day.
Here are my thoughts on what should have occurred–but didn’t–in the months, years and generations after that bloody war. This program would have been harsh, but civilized, without resort to capital punishment or torture. It would have inflicted sufficient hardship on those responsible for the confederate treason, over a multi-generational period– to shape and make clear what kind of society we were–and were not–going to be. We might live in a very different sort of country now if we had fulfilled the promise of Reconstruction in this manner–by decisively crushing the southern Confederacy.
Here are the steps that should have been taken. Perhaps some of them can even be taken today.
1)Public tribunals with lifetime, or near-lifetime incarcerations for all persons involved in the confederate leadership;
2)Public tribunals with shorter incarceration periods for all individuals who voluntarily joined or otherwise supported the confederate army;
3) Near-total confiscation of land, money, and personal chattel of all those in the leadership and of those who voluntarily joined or supported the confederate army;
4) Near-total confiscation of all assets of those who owned slaves;
5) Re-distribution of that property to former slaves, who had made that wealth possible with their forced labor over generations;
6) Reward of individuals who were loyal to the Union, and who refused to participate in the confederate treason (via re-distribution of wealth);
7) Widespread, consistent criminal prosecution of violence against black people, with long prison sentences and enforcement of anti-segregation laws using the powers of the federal government;
8) A lifetime ban on any person in the confederate leadership or anyone who voluntarily fought or supported the confederate army, from ever serving in public office;
9) Ban on the display of any forms of the Confederate flag, except as artifacts in museums.
Essex County, Vermont. The snow started early yesterday afternoon, but didn’t seem particularly ominous or impressive. On the contrary, it appeared light and probably fleeting. But it continued steadily through the day and the wee hours, and this morning, we woke up to a hard snow, which by 7:30am had turned into a blizzard. Yes, a true blizzard, with howling winds and near white-out conditions. I suspect most easter egg hunts in these parts had been moved indoors.
I dutifully started and stocked our wood stove and then headed out for a newspaper and some baking items.
By about 11am, the wind died down, the snow stopped, and the sun came blazing out. The temperatures are still pretty cold, but the morning blizzard, as fierce as it was for April, is gone.
I’ve kept the fire going, however, and today’s baking project was coconut-almond biscotti. I have a little recipe book devoted exclusively to biscotti. On this occasion, I used a recipe from that book, but decided to ad lib in some sliced almonds. The spontaneous addition worked well! Biscotti is a great (and healthy) snack for late winter. We’ve been munching on it all day as we read the New York Times and play with the dogs.
This week, to my great sadness, Doug Willey passed away.
At the time of his death, Mr. Willey was the chief public defender in the three counties of the Northeast Kingdom, the region where I also practice law. He was a tireless advocate for the most unpopular among us, those accused of crimes large and small. He carried out his job with passion and conviction, but also with a healthy dose of realism. His sense of justice was profound and over the years, he and his right-hand investigator Chip Troiano have touched thousands of lives and played their role in forcing the State to prove its cases against the accused beyond a reasonable doubt, as all good criminal defense attorneys do.
He knew the ins and outs and complexities of the courts, corrections systems and prosecutors, and that knowledge was voluminous and sophisticated. He was generous with his knowledge, sharing his information and experience with newer lawyers like me, and in any encounter with Doug, I could always count on a useful–and usually hilarious–insight.
I admired Doug for all these reasons, but there was more to it than that: I’ve always felt a special kinship with him, because he’d taken an unconventional path to the practice of law, similar to my own. Like me, he never went to formal law school, instead reading, or apprenticing for the law under the Vermont’s Law Office Study program.
After serving in the Marine Corps, Doug made his living as a logger, woodsman and accomplished horseman, operating out of a cabin in Walden, Vermont. He then made the leap to working as an assistant at one local firm, and then ultimately landed at Sleigh & Williams in St. Johnsbury, the same firm where about 15 years later, I would also do my Vermont law study clerkship.
By the time I got to my clerkship, Doug had already taken the bar exam, been admitted to practice, and moved on to manage the public defender system for the entire region. In a geographically isolated area marked by high rates of poverty, joblessness, and substance abuse, the public defender caseload is high and the challenges are many. Doug handled it all with a dry wit and a steady temperament and he never sought publicity or the limelight for himself. But in the courtroom and with prosecutors he pulled no punches. He was the very first criminal defense attorney I saw in action out here in Essex County, as he aggressively tried cases or negotiated fair plea deals as needed with our local State’s Attorney.
Most people remember seeing Doug in the Caledonia County Courthouse in St Johnsbury. But for years, he was also a regular presence at our Essex County Court in Guildhall, often standing on the court house steps facing the Town Green, deep in conversation with clients or smoking a cigarette as he waited for a jury verdict or his turn in front of the judge.
I’ll never forget an encounter with Doug a few weeks after I’d passed the Vermont bar exam in the fall of 2011. He stood in his usual spot on the courthouse steps as I walked by. Outside the courtroom, Doug wasn’t one to talk much, but on this occasion, he waved and called out to me: “I heard you passed that g__dd___m exam.” When I confirmed I had, he asked “on the first try?” and when I nodded happily, he said “smart girl,” stubbed out his cigarette and went inside.