"Oh, man, let me tell ya — this whole experience has left me a changed man. For me, it's always been all about work, work, work. You know, pinching the pennies, trying to get ahead.
"My wife, Darlene, she's like, 'Ted, I love that you're a hard worker and all, but you got to enjoy life, honey! You know, stop and smell the roses from time to time.' Now, after all these years, I finally understand just what she means."
This customer is nothing if not voluble, I thought as we cruised through Swanton in my taxi. We were en route to the Rouses Point Bridge and, ultimately, Ted's home in Ellenburg, N.Y. He was sitting in the "way-back" seats of the minivan, my strategy for maintaining the "six-foot rule" during these fraught times.
"Your wife sounds like a smart woman," I half-shouted over my shoulder. (Since the virus arrived, I've learned that a half-shout is generally what it takes to be heard by my fares sitting in the wayback.) "Those roses ain't gonna smell themselves," I added, driving home the point.
I wasn't sure about the life-changing "whole experience" he had referenced but assumed it had to do with the circumstances that had landed him where I'd picked him up: the UVM Medical Center. A bout with a life-threatening illness has been known to trigger the come-to-Jesus moment to which he alluded.
"So, Ted — have you always lived in the North Country?"
"Nope, but I was born there and grew up in Brainardsville, where my father was on the town road crew," he explained. "When I graduated high school — that would have been in, let's see, '74 — I moved to Connecticut, where I eventually landed a good job with International Paper in Hartford. I lived there until 2016, when I took early retirement and me and Darlene moved back north to help care for my mother. My dad passed away in 2010."
"What was life like in Brainardsville back in the day? Were the area's big factories still humming, or were they already beginning to falter?"
"The latter. The North Country industrial belt has been faltering, like you say, since as long as I remember. I'd say the peak was probably during the postwar years in the '50s, and since then it's been a slow and steady decline. It's a shame, really, but what can you do?"
"It is a shame," I agreed, and thought about a town like Malone, with its once proud and elegant downtown buildings now largely vacant and boarded up. That tableau is all too common across the upper tier of New York State.
"But don't get me wrong," Ted continued. "I had a great childhood. I was an only child and my mother doted on me. I mean, not to the point of, like, smothering." He paused to chuckle, I imagined, at some old memories. "Yup, my dad would hold her in check when she would get overprotective.
"Anyways, my main point is that I loved being outside, even in the dead of winter. At age 13, I began to work at the local farms. By my senior year of high school, it was nearly a full-time job for me. I never did play any sports. I just preferred the farm work, me and my best bud, Tommy. We would be out there in the sun, baling hay, tending to the cows — whatever needed to be done. Plus, we both were able to buy cars with all the money we earned. Hey, a buck-60 an hour added up back then!"
We reached the Rouses Point Bridge, where I always look for the sign in the middle (at least I assume it's the middle) that marks the New York-Vermont border. I noticed, also, that the ice was all gone, taking with it the colony of ice-fishing shacks that pops up every winter. I guess spring has actually arrived, I thought. Virus or not, nature proceeds.
"So, you mentioned leaving the area when you graduated high school. That must have been a tough decision for you."
"That it was, my man. We were a tight little family, me and my folks. I remember it like yesterday, the discussion I had with my dad at the time. Keep in mind, he wasn't exactly a big talker. He sits down next to me on the porch and asks me what my plans are after graduation. I tell him that the manager of the milk-processing plant said he'd offer me full-time work whenever I want to start.
"My dad nods his head a few times slowly and doesn't say a word for, like, a couple minutes. He then says, 'Nothing wrong with that, Teddy. That's some good, honest work. But with a high school diploma, all your skills and ability to operate just about any kind of heavy equipment, I think you could do better than that. Maybe you should check out what's out there in the rest of the country. I'm grateful that I've had steady work with the town all these years, but you've got a bigger horizon. Just think about it, OK?'
"The thing is, I knew how hard it was for him to give me that advice. He knew that if I moved away it would break my mom's heart, and that was the last thing he wanted to see. But I guess he felt a bigger responsibility for my future. And, reflecting about it later, I think I had been planning to stay in the North Country on account of my mom. What my dad said gave me the permission I needed to move on with my life."
"To me, it just sounds like you had two great parents," I said. "What a blessing. So, tell me — did it break your mother's heart?"
In the rearview mirror, I could see Ted chuckle. "It did," he replied. "But she got over it, especially when I promised I'd be back for every birthday and holiday — a promise I stuck to with few exceptions. And, of course, for these last four years, we're back permanently."
"It seems it all has worked out nicely for you," I said. "How did your wife feel about leaving your home in Connecticut?"
"It was tough for her. She comes from a big Italian family with deep roots in the Hartford area. We could never have kids, but we were always visiting with the extended family. It was different for me, but I learned to embrace it. Darlene really cares for my mother. To my mom, Darlene is like the daughter she never had. And her family often comes up here for visits, which is great."
I got the sense that Ted had always been an open and emotional guy by nature but that his experience at the hospital — his epiphany — had put him deeply in touch with the things that truly matter in life.
Here's hoping, I thought, that this precious insight remains close to his heart. And, as a secondhand beneficiary of that timely slice of wisdom, I hope it stays close to mine, as well.
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.