Ambling Along

Commentary: In Exile

I’ve never really been to church before. My family always went skiing instead. I grew up in northern Massachusetts, not far from the White Mountain region of New Hampshire where my dad was raised. Back in the ’60s, when he was in his 20s, my dad helped construct the first ski lift on one of the mountains in this range. The mountain was called Attitash, and the lift was named Old Reliable.

By the ’90s, Old Reliable had started to look like a crazy anachronism. In the 30 years since my dad worked that sweltering summer building it, the mountain’s management had added several high-speed quad lifts; updated the lodge into a flashy new ”pub and grille” with portabella mushrooms and microbrews; added dozens of new trails and miles of additional parking lot; and even bought the mountain next door, Bear Peak, and made that into a ski area as well. Old Reliable was a creaky, old two-seater that moved at the reluctant pace of a novice on the bunny hill (only up instead of down). It was charming, but ridiculous. It literally moseyed up the mountain.

The management finally got rid of it a few years ago and replaced with a high-speed quad. We still ski at Attitash every winter on account of the lifetime passes we all own. My dad got free ones back when the ski area first opened, when they were essentially worthless. The town where he grew up has changed significantly. North Conway used to be a Podunk village of a handful of people who all knew each other. Today, it’s a frenetically paced tourist destination known for its visible-from-space outlet shopping.

We spend every Christmas up there in a big house that my grandparents built back in the Podunk years. Most of my extended family — about 14 people — pile into the house and live in it together for a time. It’s the kind of house that was built specifically for drinking and carousing, since that’s what my parents and grandparents did a lot of back then. Today there’s still plenty of drinking, but the carousing has been toned down. The days just amble along.

Lately I’ve been sort of depressed, and I’ve found that I’m really excited for the holidays to start so I can go to New Hampshire and hang out with my family and do a lot of sitting and lying around and lazy chatting. I was pretty lucky to have been born into a fairly normal, boring family with only minor dysfunctions: good-natured functional alcoholism, not too much divorce, the gay son here and there.

I cherish the easy repetition of the conversations about how cold it’s been, and will we get snow, and what sort of ski season everyone thinks we’ll have, and boy hasn’t it been cold lately? The case of the disappearing firewood: Which neighbor is stealing it? Did you hear that Aggie’s Sunoco station on Main Street is closing? She’s run it for 30 years! We should remember to stop and get gas and give her our best.

A couple weeks ago I was home visiting my parents, and we took a walk. We stopped to talk to Mr. Damigella, who was out working in his yard. We talked to him for an hour — this is someone they see almost every day. His daughter recently opened a bakery in Salem, Mass., and Mr. Damigella spoke at length about the history of the town.

”It’s not just witches,” he insisted emphatically. ”Filene’s started there…. It was an active seafaring port.”

At this point the mailman pulled up to put catalogues in Mr. Damigella’s mailbox, and put his truck in park and joined in the conversation from the driver’s seat. With the engine idling, he spoke to us for a good 20 minutes about hunting season, and how Mr. Damigella was letting him hunt in the woods behind his house, and how crossbow season just ended and rifle season was about to begin, and that they hold them in that order because once the guns start firing, the deer all get spooked.

After a while, the mailman pulled away to finish his route and Mr. Damigella sent us off with a story about his Chrysler, and how the acorns from his oak trees had made hundreds of little dents in its hood, but he got the insurance company to cover it (acorn damage!) and they gave him a check for $1,800. ”So I cashed the check, kept the money and sold the car a couple of months later!” he hollered in his great New England accent. Everyone laughed hysterically. Then we went on our way.

It’s amazing to me how much more slowly my parents’ daily lives move than mine. I can hardly remember what I had for lunch because I ate it while walking down the street or while having an instant-message conversation. My days are like a serious ski run: a blur, filled with tiny little anxieties here and there. But they’re not as much fun. Lately, I’ve been wondering if that’s part of the cause of my depression — too much doing, not enough enjoying. If there was one nice thing about the Old Reliable — other than the fact that my dad helped build it — it was that it forced you to slow down your day. As eager as you were to get back on the snow and schuss, you had to mosey first.

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