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Little City

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Glancing over at my customer, Trudy McLaren, as she calmly worked on her needlepoint, I thought, This used to be known as one of the "feminine arts." The term probably carries a condescending connotation now, I postulated to myself, because you hear it less frequently these days. In any event, as a pastime, her needlework seemed über-relaxing. (I'm on a mission to reclaim the word "über" from its appropriation by a certain taxi company.)

"What ya sewing?" I asked. "It looks lovely."

"Why, thank you," Trudy replied. She was probably about 70 and stylishly put together. Older women who are not caught up in the desperate and inevitably self-defeating effort to emulate the young can embody a beauty all their own, and Trudy certainly had her own glow. "I think it's going to be a throw pillow," she continued, "but I haven't decided yet."

As we motored along Route 7, the day was sunny and brisk — everything you want in a Vermont early-autumn afternoon. We were on our way to a B&B in Vergennes, and here and there a few trees had begun their seasonal transformation. It would be a couple of weeks before the foliage achieved its ooh-la-la peak, but I've always felt that, like sex, the whole shebang is a delight: the prelude, the peak and the wind-down.

"What brings you to Vergennes?" I asked. "A little getaway?"

"I'm up here for a wedding next week," she replied. "I'm rendezvousing with a friend who's driving up from Cape Cod. The wedding itself is taking place in Berlin, which is outside of Montpelier, I'm led to believe? Anyway, I wanted to stay at the Basin Harbor Club, but they were all booked for tonight and they recommended this Vergennes B&B. Then, for a couple of days before the wedding, we'll transfer over to Basin Harbor."

"Oh, that sounds marvy. Who's getting hitched?"

"Well, he's a great young man that my late husband and I used to mentor who grew to be one of the family, and now he's marrying this lovely and accomplished Vermont girl."

"If I may ask, in what capacity were you mentors?"

"My husband was an executive with Merrill Lynch, and the company sponsored a program helping out underprivileged city kids. Through the years, we mentored about 25 children. We frequently had them up to our home in Greenwich, Connecticut, for the holidays, and often other times of the year, as well. We'd try to help them out with their home lives, which were often atrocious.

"I'm still in touch, all these years later, with maybe a dozen of the kids — well, now of course they're adults," Trudy went on. "Many have gone on to lead productive lives, like Steve, the young man who's getting married next week."

"How did that go over with the community in Greenwich, bringing the kids into town?"

"Not great, to tell you the truth, especially as they were all black and Hispanic. Mostly from the Bronx."

"Well, that took guts on your part. I admire folks who use their own good fortune in life to help out others, particularly kids in need."

"It was our privilege to get involved with these kids. As Dick used to tell me, 'What are we going to do — buy another boat? Take another vacation?' He was a good man."

Nodding my head a few times, I said, "He sounds like one."

I used to take the position that individual charity is not the answer, that poverty and other social ills can only be effectively addressed systematically through governmental action. With age, however, my thinking has grown less limited. I still favor programmatic change, but I now believe everything helps. Life has shown me that each one of us can change the world for the better when our better angels inspire our actions.

"So, are you a Connecticut girl from childhood?" I asked.

"No, I grew up in Chicago, where my family owned an Italian restaurant. My parents immigrated there in 1919. It's kind of a good story, if you'd like to hear it."

I shot her a smile, saying, "I would like nothing better." Good stories are my catnip.

"My parents were both from Tuscany and came to Chicago for their honeymoon. My father had an older brother who owned a restaurant, and this brother, my uncle Sal, had been asking my dad to come into the business for years. Well, he did — they arrived and never left! My mother always complained that, if she had known they were not returning to Italy, she would have taken her linens. My dad swore that it wasn't a premeditated plan, but my mother thought differently. It all worked out, though."

"That's a terrific immigrant story," I said. "Did you have a big family, lots of brothers and sisters?"

"Only nine," Trudy replied with a laugh. "I was the youngest by five years — 'my surprise gift from God,' my mom would say. To be honest, I was quite spoiled. Every day I would get a present. I was the little princess."

"Well, you seem to have recovered from that upbringing," I observed, chuckling. "You don't strike me as the least bit imperious."

Trudy smiled wistfully, saying, "You'd have to check with my husband about that, and he's been gone three years."

We swung onto 22A and entered the über-quaint city of Vergennes. "This place has a unique claim to fame," I explained to my customer, breaking into tour-guide mode. "Vergennes claims to be the smallest city in America at just two square miles."

"Yes, I know it well," Trudy said, letting out a sigh as she tucked her needlepoint back into her sewing bag. "When the kids were young, we used to regularly vacation at Basin Harbor. And every winter, we'd come up to Vermont for skiing. I'm going to miss it when I move to California to be near my children and grandchildren."

"Are you keeping your Greenwich home?" I asked.

"No, it's already on the market. I'm planning to be in California by Christmas."

She didn't sound enthused by the prospect. It's not just a cliché: Change is hard. Even positive change, particularly late in life.

"I'm sure it will be great living close to your family," I said, by way of encouragement.

"It will," she agreed, "but I'll miss New England, especially my time in Vermont."

"Well, these Green Mountains aren't going anywhere," I said, easing into the driveway of the B&B. "So I'm officially inviting you to come back and visit all you want. And bring the grandkids, too."

All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.

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