I flew into Boston in a snowstorm Sunday, coming in low over little white houses in the gray murk, and my connecting flight to Vermont was canceled, so I rented a car and set out into the storm. I had told Vermont I’d be there, and once you start canceling things, where do you stop?
It’s three hours from Boston to Vermont ordinarily, and I made it in six, nonstop, 35 mph, through the prettiest snow landscape you can imagine, yard lights of farmhouses glowing in the twilight, the Main Streets of Norman Rockwell towns lined by lit store windows, and thanks to GPS, the gift of big government, navigation was a cinch; I just stayed in the tracks, drove slowly, listening to a CD, the DiGiallonardo Sisters singing Beatles songs and old swing tunes. I heard it eight times and pulled up to my hotel just over the New Hampshire border.
It was one of those economy hotels with a big TV in the lobby, two heads on the screen, a man and a woman, talking, about the news, I guess, though the sound was low and nobody was listening. It was a background murmur, like ocean surf or the wind in the trees. For this, these faces are paid millions a year and I suppose they imagine they play a large role in the life of the nation, whereas their function is more like houseplants. They’re decor.
I checked in at the desk and a man at a nearby table said, “So how are you doing tonight?” and that seemed to be an invitation. So I sat down. Two other men and two women at the table. A cheerful group, as people tend to be in winter once they’re warm and in off the road. “How was the drive?” he said. “Almost rear-ended a snowplow,” I said. Other than that, I had listened to the Beatles’ “Because” eight times, which I never cared for because of the dumb lyric, but now I do. A woman at the table didn’t know the song, so I sang her a little of it. “Because the world is round, it turns me on. Love is old, love is new. Love is all, love is you.”
Two of the men and the two women were couples and had met last summer at a memorial service for a mutual friend of the two women. Those two had grown up within 10 miles of each other in Vermont and had never met before. They bonded over the death of the woman, in her 50s; faced with a dreadful diagnosis, she committed suicide. She had seemed rather elated the day before, making phone calls, reminiscing, and had spoken to these two women and told each of them that she should meet the other — “You’d like each other” — and so they had become friends. They had come up to Vermont from Boston this weekend to put flowers on her grave for her birthday and they couldn’t find the grave under all the snow. She had been an English teacher, and one of the women, a banker, had memorized a Shakespeare sonnet about old age for the memorial, “That time of year thou may’st in me behold, when yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang,” and she said it there at the table, and we all knew the ending: “This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong, To love that well which thou must leave ere long.”
Their story beat mine, hands down. Near-neighbors who are strangers, pulled together by the suicide of a mutual friend. We sat contemplating the lost friend and the poem, and then the conversation dwindled onto politics, and we said goodnight.
To love that well which you must leave ere long. The beauty of a long, slow drive through New England hills in a snowstorm. Because the world is white, it’s filled with light. The faces on the TV screen talked about politics, but none of it matters unless you love this world and the people you find in it. You drive into the storm and meet five friends you didn’t know before, you feel their mortality and your own, the snow is falling. Love is here, love is there, love is drifting through the air. And the people in these lovely little towns, how are they doing tonight? Do they have medical insurance? Can they afford to go to the movies? Do their kids learn poetry in school?
Garrison Keillor is an author and radio personality.