Seven Days
June 17, 2009

This is the thing about the Green Mountains: Every season, year after year, I perceive something new that astonishes me and leaves me thinking, How is it even possible that I never noticed this before?

En route to the Trapp Family Lodge in the blush of spring, the newly leafed trees along the highway appeared to be tinted red. I’d heard the Vermont Public Radio weather guy speak of this, but I couldn’t recall observing the phenomenon for myself until this trip. Apparently — science has never been my thing — the leaves are minted with all the boisterous fall colors, but quickly go green as the chlorophyll kicks in. I’ll buy that.

“This is so exciting,” said my customer from the shotgun seat, one Sue Gunderson. She was middle aged and wore a light-pink cardigan sweater. “It’s my first time back to Vermont since the ’60s. I just can’t wait to see the lodge again.”

“What brings you back?” I asked, brimming with anticipation of some juicy von Trapp morsel. I’ve been fascinated with stories of the family and the lodge ever since I saw The Sound of Music in my childhood. Julie Andrews was the first woman I had the hots for. Climb every mountain, indeed.

“Oh, my goodness,” Sue said, her blue eyes shining. “I worked at the Lodge when I was just a teenager. I waitressed — first at the teahouse, and then they moved me up to the main lodge.”

“Did you get to interact any with Maria?”

“Oh, yah, all the time — or at least when I got my courage up. You know, at dinner, she would sit and talk with every guest. The other thing I remember is how fast she drove around the property. One evening she must have mixed up drive and reverse, or something, and smashed her car into the side of the lodge. I remember we were instructed to never, ever mention it.” Sue paused and chuckled out loud, adding, “I don’t think I’ll get in any trouble at this point, wouldn’tcha think? The statute of limitations has surely passed.”

“That is a great story,” I said. “If I may ask, why is it you’re coming back now? Are you meeting people up there?”

“Yes, it’s a special event. One of the von Trapp grandchildren is getting married. It must be a big wedding, because I’m merely cousins with Lynn, the wife of Johannes, who is, I believe, the youngest of the 10 children. He actually met Lynnie the summer I worked there, on a trip down to Boston.”

For a while we rode in silence, broken only by the whooshing of the air through the slightly cracked rear windows. Behind us, the afternoon sun slid through the western sky. As we turned off the highway and began the trek north on Route 100, I got nosy again. “So, where’d you fly in from?” I asked.

“Oh, I’m from Minnesota. Yah, me and my husband — a couple of Norwegians.”

This was no surprise to me. Every since seeing the movie Fargo, I can pick out folks from the “You Betcha” State. I asked, “So, how’s life in Minnesota these days?”

“Well, I own a B&B, so that keeps me busy, then. Before that — for 25 years, actually — my husband and I had a farm. I think that was Ben’s greatest passion. He just loved the land. Farming gets a little much as you grow older, though, and neither of our daughters was interested in keeping it going.”

“Well, that’s real sweet,” I said. “You and Ben and the B&B. Sounds cozy.”

My customer’s face dropped. “Unfortunately, Ben’s had Alzheimer’s for a few years now. For a couple years, I was able to keep him at home, at the inn. I told the guests to lock their doors at night. ‘Ben’s harmless,’ I’d say, ‘but he does tend to wander a bit.’ But then he began to get aggressive. It’s so heartbreaking, because his whole life he was the sweetest, kindest man. He was a guidance counselor when we were first married, and how the kids loved him. Now he hardly knows who I am.”

“Oh, jeez,” I said. “I’m sorry. That must be tough on you. I can’t even imagine.”

My seatmate turned and smiled, bravely, for sure. This is the thing about life I cannot fathom, despite giving it a lot of thought. Bad things happen to bad people, it seems to me, at roughly the same rate as bad things happen to good people. I grasp that we’re all here to work out our destinies, for our souls to evolve, to learn the sometimes difficult lessons of compassion. But all too often, the seemingly arbitrary lesson plan can break your heart.

We were on Barrows Road, passing Stowe High School, when my new friend from Minnesota turned and spoke again. “Ya know, sometimes the smallest thing makes all the difference in the world. Like, the last time I visited Ben, I walked into the lounge area and found him sitting in his wheelchair. His face lit up in a big smile and he announced, clear as a bell, ‘There is the love of my life.’”

The blue-eyed woman shook her head and choked up a little.

“Just that little thing,” she continued, her voice quiet but no longer quavering, “made the two-hour drive to Sioux Falls all worth it.”

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