Rosemary Ducharme was a fireplug of a woman: short, stocky and muscular. She was sitting next to me in my taxi as we drove to her home in Richford after the completion of some arthritis-related medical tests in Burlington.
Richford sits in the northeast corner of Franklin County, just a stone's throw from the Canadian border. With a population of some 2,300, it's a good-size town by the standards of rural Vermont.
I've been through Richford before. As I now approach 40 years of hacking in the Green Mountains, it's the rare Vermont town about which I couldn't say the same thing. While I don't quite qualify for the 251 Club — folks who've visited all 251 Vermont towns and cities — I'm easily within the "Well Over 200 Club."
Rosemary was telling me about her career as a home-care worker, which helped explained her hardy exterior. Caring for the elderly is a physically demanding job often involving serious lifting.
"For the past few years, I've been working for a lady, Belle Martin, in Montgomery. She just turned 99 and, with my help, is able to maintain her home. Belle was well known for running an ice cream and candy shop in St. Albans up into the 1970s, I guess. I even remember it from my early childhood, an old-fashioned place with the penny candies and such. Little did anyone know that she was a wealthy woman! You should see her house — it's a fancy Victorian on a large parcel of land."
"What an interesting person," I said. "How is she to work for?"
"She's a lovely lady, always generous and appreciative in her dealings with me. But here's the thing: Given her age, how much longer will I have this job? I've been through this before, though. It's just the nature of this line of work. You do get attached to the people you care for, especially when they're nice folks, like Belle."
We drove north on 105, past the dairy farms and through the small towns. After a wet and chilly spring, we were now well into summer and the landscape was lush and verdant. As a kid who grew up in a big city marked by concrete and asphalt, I never take Vermont's nature-infused vibrancy for granted. I feel it palpably, even within the confines of my moving taxi.
"So, do you have any kids, Rosemary?" I asked.
"Nope, I've never had kids. I got married late in life to a man 15 years my senior. I guess we could have started a family, but we're content just the two of us. We do have six cats, and they're like kids to us."
As if on cue, Rosemary's cellphone came alive playing "Sweet Caroline" by Neil Diamond. "Excuse me," she said.
"Yes, Joe — I'll be home in about 20 minutes ... I see. Well, tell her I miss her, too."
"That was my husband," she explained to me, hanging up. "He told me that Pumpkin is pouting. She gets that way when I'm gone for the day."
"Pumpkin is one of the cats? What are the names of the other five?"
"Well, there's Trixie, Luna..." She was counting them off on her fingers. "And Fluffy, Baby Girl and Oscar. Oscar is the oldest. He'll be 22 in August."
"Twenty-two?" I asked, doing my best to dampen the incredulous tone. In cat years, that would make Belle Martin look like a spring chicken. As much as I liked Rosemary, I was a little dubious. "I didn't know a cat could live that long," I added.
"Ayup, he's that old, all right. I had him since he was a kitten. I think he's practically deaf and blind at this point, but he's still my lovebug, and I wouldn't dream of putting him down."
I am so not a cat person. It's not as if I actively dislike our feline friends; I'm just indifferent. To be perfectly frank, I'd just as well cozy up to an iguana. That being the case, I was surprised just how much I was enjoying Rosemary's cat tales. It was as if, through my customer, I was vicariously experiencing the delights of cat ownership.
We reached Richford where, below a bridge, the Missisquoi River runs through the downtown. This is the site of a charming municipal feature. On one end of the bridge, the town erected a green archway with yellow letters: WELCOME TO RICHFORD VT. Centered above the arch is a clock.
For at least 20 years, I have been lobbying a succession of Burlington mayors to fund the construction of a similar arch at the southern gateway to the Church Street Marketplace, where it intersects with Main: WELCOME TO BURLINGTON VT – "THE QUEEN CITY." So far, no mayor has bit, but I won't stop trying. (Miro, I'm looking at you.)
As we made our way toward her house, Rosemary was describing the dietary preferences of her cat menagerie. Apparently, each individual kitty favored a specific brand of cat food and mix of dry and moist. I'm pretty sure she used the word "finicky" twice. I savored every (to me) esoteric detail.
Pulling into her driveway, I could make out at least four little cat faces gazing out at their mistress from the front window. It looked like they were perched on the back of a sofa.
"Is one of them Pumpkin?" I asked.
"Nope, Pumpkin is mad at me," she replied. "But she'll get over it. She always does."
As soon as dinnertime rolls around, I thought, chuckling to myself.
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.