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Maybe the pandemic has helped us rediscover community

There were two facts about my small town in the early 1950s that stand out in my memory: one, we believed there was a missile in a silo in Russia with the name of my hometown written on it, just waiting to be launched; two, our parents lived in a different country, one we would migrate to someday.

They celebrated the post-war prosperity by buying houses and making babies. This included my older parents who, with a son born in 1937 and a daughter born in 1942, added me in 1947.

It was an over-the-rainbow kind of town we lived in, there in the New Hampshire hills, on a fertile plain next to the Connecticut River; a town with a college, a medical center and only one murder in 150 years.

Mail was delivered to our kitchen table. No one locked their cars. Many left their keys in the ignition. In summer people left their windows rolled down.

My father’s garden plot at a community garden was always the weediest. His philosophy was to weed three times to give his plants a head start then the heck with it. He preferred to visit and smoke cigars. He always shared his bounty with friends and neighbors and perhaps with complete strangers. My father more often than not would have a basket of veggies on the front seat. If he spotted a car of a friend (or thought he did) he would pull over and leave them some bikini squash, (known to everyone else as zucchini), and perhaps a few tomatoes.

Within understood boundaries, we were Tom Sawyers on bicycles, exploring town and college and playing sports without the interference of adults. Next to our newly built neighborhood were hundreds of acres of woods owned by the college. We chopped down trees, (every boy in the neighborhood had a hatchet and a pocketknife) dammed creeks, engaged in imaginary warfare of various kinds, and the older of us wooed fair maidens in mossy glens.

When I was 10, and an innocent 10 at that, Christmas was not just presents — it was snow. The first three weeks of that December were cloaked by low clouds, murky, without snow. The whole town seemed to fall into a funk, waiting. However, the skating pond had frozen solid and smooth. We played tag and crack the whip and drank hot chocolate around a bonfire. The sound and feel of the skates cutting the ice, the glide, and the smell of the ice and wool clothes, the puffs of breath were all good, but still the gray overcast persisted until one night, walking home, my skates slung over my shoulder, there was a shift in the wind, a new heaviness in the sky, and I could feel the coming of snow.

In the darkness between streetlights, with a sigh, snow fell onto my upturned face and I watched in awe as it cascaded down into the halo of the next light.

That was the year I decided to have my own personal Christmas tree. I have no idea why this was important to me. Nevertheless, I remember very clearly heading into the woods with my trusty hatchet (“a sharp hatchet is a safe hatchet”) pulling my sled. This is one of those crystallized memories; a vivid image of seeing myself from a bird’s eye view.

I had no regrets for sacrificing a tree to what might have been latent religious desire. I set up the tree in our pine-paneled den, always my favorite room in the house. It was not about presents. I decorated the tree and spent time sitting next to it reading. My parents were mystified. Was there something going on here that might have steered my life in a different direction? I don’t know. My memory and understanding are no greater than the words I just put down on paper.

I write about a time that now seems as vanished as the residents of Machu Picchu and yet, under the hovering, poisonous cloud of the pandemic, perhaps some of us have found a new sense of community, of trust in one another.

Warren Carlson lives in Medford.

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