I'm riveted by personal stories of Vermont's rural past, perhaps because, as a city boy, it's so foreign to me. And it's part and parcel of my lifelong love affair with my adopted state.
Leonard "Lenny" Kailash was sharing his family history with me from the back seat of my taxi. Now in his seventies, he still resides in Milton. On this sunny, warm afternoon, we were en route to his home after his successful heart surgery and week in recovery.
Lenny grew up on a Milton farm started by his grandfather and passed on to his father. "My dad was determined that me and my brother follow in his footsteps and keep it going."
"So, did that happen?" I asked. "Is the farm still in the family?"
"Nope, my brother and I sold it off piece by piece after our dad died. I had actually left the farm years earlier when I was first married. My brother did his best, but the economics of farming were making it near impossible for a small operation like ours to break even, let alone make a profit."
"What were the circumstances of you getting out when you were a young man? That must have been a wrenching decision."
"That it was," Lenny said.
In the rearview mirror, I saw a faraway look come into my customer's eyes as he seemed to gaze back in time.
"I'll tell ya the story if you're interested," he continued. "In my mind, it's like it happened yesterday."
"I'm totally interested, Lenny. I'm, like, you know, all ears."
"OK, then," he said, chuckling at my enthusiasm. "Like I said, I had just gotten married. Darlene, my bride, was a city girl from Connecticut."
"From Connecticut?" I interjected. "How'd you two — as the kids say — 'hook up'?"
"We hooked up while Darlene was vacationing here with her parents one summer. This was back when Vermont was just getting popular with tourists. In fact — and this is kinda funny — that's how we learned about this thing called a 'vacation.'
"Working on the farm was a seven-day-a-week job. We never took time off. Except, yeah, in the winter we had off every third Sunday. This was on account of the cows keeping in the barn during wintertime, so we didn't have to chase them around outside."
I could relate, I thought, chuckling to myself. Not to the cow chasing but to the lack of vacations and time off. I've been an inveterate seven-day-a-week guy for too many years to mention.
"When we first got married, we lived on the family property," Lenny continued. "For a year, I kept working on the farm making essentially no money. Darlene got an administrative job in Burlington at what was then the DeGoesbriand Hospital. That was, like, our only real income.
"This was the time when IBM was just getting going in Essex. I applied for a job and somehow got hired. When I got my first paycheck, I could hardly fathom how much money I was making! My leaving the farming was tough on my dad, but ultimately he understood. And I put in 30 years at IBM before I retired.
"My wife passed a few years ago," Lenny went on. "You know, 50 years together, we never had one fight. OK, we mighta had a few arguments, but no fights."
The two of us laughed together at his parsing of the terms. I thought, If it takes a little verbal gymnastics to stay happily married for half a century, I'm all for it.
We reached Arrowhead Mountain Lake, Milton's reservoir, and hung a left onto Lake Road. After years of being the subject of redneck jokes, the town has developed mightily over the past 20 years, with business and housing development galore. But there are still a few working farms. The long and winding Lake Road, which traverses the town's northwest territory, offers a snapshot into Milton's largely bygone agricultural past.
"You see that old farmhouse?" Lenny asked, pointing to the left. "That used to be the Towne Farm. They used to hold a high-stakes poker game in the farmhouse every weekend, and big-time gamblers would drive down from Montréal. They never got hassled by the authorities because the local sheriff was a regular player."
About a half mile east of Lake Champlain, we pulled into Lenny's driveway. His home was situated on a small, unsold corner of the old family farm. Standing by the front door was a petite and winsome older lady with short blond hair. At her feet sat two filled supermarket paper bags.
Lenny gingerly exited the taxi and said, "Aw, Sandy, thanks so much for meeting me here, but you didn't have to go shopping. I just appreciated your checking in at my place while I was at the hospital."
The woman smiled, and I thought I detected a touch of coyness in her countenance and stance. "Now, Lenny," she explained, "I did check in, and I saw that your cupboards and fridge were nearly bare. What you did have in stock was mostly stale, spoiled or just junk food. Let's get you settled inside, and I'll cook you a proper dinner."
I carried the bags as Sandy walked ahead of us into the house. Sotto voce, I asked, "So, what's the deal here, Lenny? That's a good-looking woman. She single?"
Chuckling, Lenny smiled and shook his head. "I know, but it's not like that," he explained.
"You know what? I believe it is like that, or could be. Like they say — time's a-wastin'. If I were you, I'd scoop her up while I still can."
"Jeez, could you cut it out, please? She'll hear you."
"Hey, I'm just sayin'," I whispered.
No extra charge for the matchmaking, I wanted to add but managed to stifle.
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.