Faith Gong: Lake Willoughby, Part 2: Sharing Stories With Tom

In my most recent column, I began writing about the weekend getaway my husband and I — and our 22-month-old son — took to Lake Willoughby in northeast Vermont. This is a sequel to that story.

The weather was unseasonably warm and humid when we got to Lake Willoughby, just as it had been for the past week (although I’m not sure what “seasonal” is more in this era of climate change). But when we woke up the next morning, we were greeted with a chilly rain that lasted for the duration of our stay.

We were not put off. Whenever the rain stopped, we took walks or canoe trips around the lake. Fifth time parents, we learned the rhythm of walking and canoeing with a 22-year-old: he is a cheerful participant for the first 15 minutes, he screams for the next 15 minutes, and then he falls asleep. So everyone was happy – except for the plumbing in our rented house. The plumbing was definitely not Merry.

Everything seemed in order when we arrived at the modest cottage that had been converted from the inside into a rustic hunting lodge (complete with wood panelling, carved bear and moose figures, and plenty of antlers). It was clean and comfortable. But on our first night there, we noticed that whenever we turned on a tap or flushed the toilet, the pipes seemed to burp. The water would fizz and pop. We assumed there was some air in the lines and hoped it would pass.

On our second day at Lake Willoughby, the problem got worse. The water kept fizzing and popping, but the intervals in which air came out of the pipes instead of water became longer and more frequent. Then hot water came out of the cold water tap.

My husband went to the basement and looked at the pump, but it didn’t look right. Fearing that we would all lose water, we filled some large pots in the kitchen. Then we sent a text message to the owner of the house. It was a Saturday night, so our best hope was that a plumber might be called the next day.

Minutes later, my husband’s phone buzzed. He looked at the text and said, “A man named Tom is passing by.”

Tom was a friend of the owner of the rental house who apparently helped maintain the property. Was this his steady job, or just a favor? We never knew.

Tom arrived in his pickup truck and knocked on our door wearing a headlight and a face mask. The face mask caught our eye: Although Orleans County had (and still is) a high rate of COVID-19 transmission due to its delta variant, and indoor masking was highly recommended, Tom was one of the few people we had seen with a mask all weekend.

“Sorry about the mask,” he said as he walked through the door. “I think we’re all scared again.”

Tom was found to have had COVID before in the pandemic. He said he had lost a lot of weight and continued to experience symptoms of prolonged COVID, including monthly bouts of “brain fog.” He lamented the fact that so many of his neighbors wouldn’t wear masks to protect each other.

Tom was tall and thin, probably in his sixties. Everything about him was in a blue-gray palette: his worn and wide pants, his sweatshirt, his skin, his hair. He spoke in a quiet, whispering voice.

“Lucky for you, I just had surgery on my esophagus,” he rasped. “The doctor said I wouldn’t be able to talk too much. He also said I wouldn’t be able to sing for a while – lucky for you.”

Tom then continued to talk as he tried to fix the plumbing. His words filled the spaces between trips to the basement, trips to his truck, and a trip to the well.

Like an ancient prophet, Tom lived on top of Mount Hor on a 35-acre tract of land. It looked like he grew up in the area, left for a while, then returned. He had two children, now grown: a boy and a girl. The girl was the tough one, who had once chased her older, bigger brother while holding a handful of snakes. “He’s in the Marines now,” Tom said of his son, “and he’s not afraid of anything, but I’m pretty sure he’s still afraid of his sister.”

Tom had his children later in life. His wife was a doctor or a diplomat – my husband and I heard two different things; maybe she was a diplomatic doctor. She certainly traveled a lot, so Tom was often the only parent. “I was never the kind of guy that people would give a baby to,” he said, “and then suddenly I had to raise these kids.”

He thought the problem with our water had to do with the drought that Orleans County was experiencing. This house, originally the farm on a larger plot of land, got its water from a well and the water level in the well had dropped dangerously low.

“You’re from here, aren’t you?” he asked—by which he meant Vermont. When we confirmed this, he started criticizing the maintenance calls he gets from out-of-state visitors.

‘Can you do something about the grass? It touches me!’” he said, mimicking a high-pitched voice and rolling his eyes. “They’re worried about ticks. They’re concerned about our local wildlife,’ he joked, gesturing sardonically at the sculpted bears in the room.

We apologized to Tom for bringing him out so late.

“No problem at all. If I had known what you were dealing with, I would have brought you some weed. It’s legal here now, you know,” he chuckled.

Tom, in turn, apologized to us for the inconvenience. When I assured him that we understood that things are falling apart, he said, “’Things are falling apart;’ reminds me of Chinua Achebe’s book.” And then he was gone, out the screen door and into the night.

You may be wondering: did Tom solve the plumbing problem?

Well, there was some improvement. The water was still fizzing a little, but we were no longer afraid of losing it altogether, and the cold water was cold again.

But the plumbing was no longer the point; Tom had repaired so much more. When he left, my cheeks hurt with laughter, my sides hurt with laughter, and I felt a little better about people. Because regardless of whether Tom was a great plumber, he was a great storyteller.

When he walked through the door and started talking, he invited us into his story. And once you step into someone’s story, you can’t help but marvel at the prodigious complexity of people, like a mountaintop handyman from a remote northeast corner of Vermont who cares about public health, raising his children well, reading Nigerian novelists. and (maybe) sometimes smokes a little weed.

When we get to know them, people defy our attempts at categorization.

Driving to and from Lake Willoughby, I had noticed the variety of signs people hung on their homes. These ranged from vaguely hostile (“Don’t tread on me!” and “Come and Take It” over the silhouette of a gun) to questionable and crazy (“Free Raw Milk!” and “Aura Photos”). I wanted to categorize these houses: doors that I would knock on and doors that I would not knock.

But behind each of those doors is a fellow Vermonter with a story. Perhaps the key is to live together in peace, move beyond the signs and slogans and spend more time listening to each other’s stories. Tom taught me that.

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, freelance photographer and non-profit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, several chickens and ducks, a feisty cat and a fearful labradoodle. In her ‘free time’ she writes for her blog, The pickle patch.

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