Julia Alvarez on Weybridge, VT

Other towns get more attention says novelist Julia Alvarez, but this is a place where things get done

We don't have a town center, Alvarez says, but we're "rich in characters and talents." (Corey Hendrickson)
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As for our elementary school, the principal, Christina Johnston, will tell you it couldn't operate without volunteers. Parents run the ground maintenance, the bake sales, the book fair, the bottle redemption, the talent show. They help out with the breakfast and hot lunch program. They even clean the hallway goldfish tank. At the annual appreciation lunch, the list of volunteers is as long as the list of students. All the money the school saves means that the 80 percent of the town's taxes that go to education go to educating. As I said, we haven't forgotten that a 10-year-old saved our town.

We keep an eye out for one another as well. Sometimes it brims over into snooping, but we're working on that. Ida Washington, our dynamic octogenarian town historian, claims her neighbors "know what I've had for breakfast before I've even eaten it!" We know the skeletons in each other's closets, but Ida will also tell you, "Never have I known folks to use it in a mean way." Mostly we just want to check that everyone's all right. Our selectmen, Peter James and A. J. Piper, make the rounds in winter, just to be sure our old folks are OK. When there's an illness, Glenna Piper goes down her phone tree and rouses up a week's worth of donated meals. We've seen each other through the best and worst of times, our weddings and our divorces, our babies' births and our parents' deaths. Nobody stays on a high horse for long around here, but nobody gets stepped on either.

What holds us all together is unspoken, sturdy and as deep as the limestone and marble once quarried from our hills. A love and respect for the land—that's our abiding bond. After a childhood in the Dominican Republic and a dozen addresses in half a dozen states, I got offered a job teaching at Middlebury College. I came and fell in love—both with my husband and the land we settled on. When I'm asked where I'm from, I'm as likely as not to say, "Weybridge." And in fact, the 19 years I've lived here is longer than I've lived anywhere else. Although that doesn't make me a James or a Sanford or a Wright (whose bloodlines go back to the late 1700s), the town welcomes anyone with the good sense to settle here, wherever they came from.

We've got all kinds now, college professors who moved here for our great elementary school and beautiful rolling hills, as well as farmers working on that land, keeping it beautiful for everyone. We disagree with one another, but we're not disagreeable about it. In fact, starting with those Quakers, we've got tolerance in our civic genes. We've needed it, as we've been a quirky, interesting bunch since 1806, when Miss Charity Bryant—aunt of the poet William Cullen Bryant—and Miss Sylvia Drake moved up here from eastern Massachusetts. They were crack seamstresses and made our menfolk's clothes. Bryant wrote that these two ladies "in their youthful days...took each other as companions for life....They slept on the same pillow and had a common purse." Miss Charity particularly liked her nap after dinner, so she had a neighbor build her an adult-size cradle, over six feet long, so she could be rocked to sleep by her companion after a heavy meal. Folks knocked on her door to have her write the verses for a dear departed's tombstone. Like her nephew, she could versify.

The town's still rich in characters and talents, folks who use what they've got to enrich the rest of us. Stanley James just stepped down from being town moderator for 33 years. Before that, his father did the job for 26. Between the two of them, that's 59 years of volunteer moderating, longer than some of us have been around. Art Gibb was another one who stuck around because there was work to do. A New York banker, Art moved to Weybridge in 1951 for health reasons. I guess it worked. He lived to be 97 years old, and a rich life of service it was. Besides farming and serving in the state legislature for more than two decades, Art crafted Act 250, a groundbreaking environmental law that stopped the spread of sprawl and set up criteria for sustainable development. This was the late '60s, mind you, when green was still slang for money or the color of envy. One of the reasons you can still see Vermont is Art's foresight: he worked on the legislation that forbids billboards on our roads and highways.

What's nice about these public-spirited folk is they also have a refreshing sense of fun. Elder statesman Art Gibb used to campaign on a bicycle, walking the talk or rather riding it, door to door to get your vote. Our local state's attorney for some 25 years keeps bees. His honey label reads: "Collected from trespassing bees by John T. Quinn, Addison County State's Attorney. Bees required to pay their fines in only the finest Vermont raw honey! 100% GUILT FREE." Meanwhile, our town clerk, Karen Brisson, is a former world champion arm wrestler. She started out as a local girl doing chores on her daddy's dairy farm, until he noticed she sure had a strong arm and signed her up for a state contest when she was 15. She won and went on to win the world title four times. Not a bad thing to have a town clerk with a scarecrow skill that keeps us all in line.

Along with the pacifist streak and the volunteer spirit, we've got an artistic temperament that makes us, finally, real interesting to one another. It's our people, warts and all, that we treasure most. One of our communal warts is our button-bursting pride in our small, seemingly unremarkable town. But we're trying to work it off the only way we know how, by volunteering some more. Come spring cleanup, I'm heading for those rocky ledges. No telling what I'll find.

Julia Alvarez's nonfiction book Once Upon a Quinceañera: Coming of Age in the USA is in paperback.

Photographer Corey Hendrickson lives in Vermont.

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