Mary McCallum

Commentator

Mary McCallum is a freelance writer and former prison librarian who now works with Vermont elders.

It began with slight rustlings over the winter. I ignored them until I found evidence of a mouse in a bureau drawer. Out came a snap trap and the next day the unlucky intruder was dispatched to the great cheese shop in the sky. The walls remained quiet for months until one early spring morning.

McCallum: Cleaning Up

Mar 17, 2016

A friend recently called while I was working outside and asked me what I was up to. “Picking up sticks,” I said. He knew instantly what I meant since he’d been doing the same.

Vermont State Parks

The Stone Hut on Mt. Mansfield was a rustic cottage built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1936 as a shelter for crews working on Vermont’s highest mountain during the Great Depression. There were no ski lifts, and ascending the peak to build trails or ski down meant trudging steadily upward first. But when the hut went up in flames this winter, local firefighters used a quad ski lift to haul equipment to the summit to fight the inferno that nevertheless gutted the building and devastated a Vermont landmark.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the first radio FM broadcasting system was unveiled in January, in the dead of winter, when life turns inward, isolated by cold and dark.

Thirty years ago I left my university career and moved to Vermont - for love. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” I thought, as I ditched suburbia for life in a drafty farmhouse and embraced it all: wood stacking, gardening, canning, mowing. And chickens.

This fall’s been one of the warmest in years, with weeks of blue skies and bright sunshine inviting us to indulge in lots of hikes and leaf raking. But I had other plans. I was among the thousands of people in the U.S. who opted for an arthroscopic partial meniscectomy after one routine step up my stairs created a tear in the protective disc of cartilage between the femur and tibia, called the meniscus. It felt like being stuck in the knee with a pitchfork.

McCallum: The Porch

Sep 22, 2015

It’s been a challenging season. Western wildfires, desperate refugees massing at European borders, weather calamities and disturbing terrorist activity worldwide have driven me, not to my wit’s end, but to my back porch.

While biking at sunset recently, I stopped for an impromptu visit with a neighbor, relaxing in a lawn chair overlooking her sweeping green meadow - a glass of red wine glowing in her hand.

At the end of a summer Sunday afternoon, while walking toward the Dartmouth Green in Hanover, N.H., I heard the plaintive call of a trumpet. Across the busy intersection, a young woman blew her instrument toward the center of the green.

Shortly before my mother passed away in a nursing home she leaned toward me and said confidentially, “I’m going to have a baby, you know.” She was pushing ninety-nine and was never one to crack jokes or share secrets. Unfazed, I chalked it up to just another day in the locked memory care unit where she resided. “That’s great Mom,” I replied, and redirected her attention to the small dog sitting on her lap.

This month marks the 196th birthday of one of America’s most celebrated poets, Walt Whitman.

I grew up surrounded by the same deep woods and rich Long Island farmland as Walt did, near a two-lane highway named after our famous native son. It was lined with mom and pop stores, and nothing stayed open all night, not even gas stations. Summer nights, my brother and his friends drag raced down Walt Whitman Road, perhaps rattling windows of the old farmhouse where Walt was born in 1819.

McCallum: Jury Duty

Apr 27, 2015

This spring I was summoned for jury duty. I’d happily fallen through the cracks for decades but now my number was up. A letter arrived that instructed me to report in two months to the county criminal court for jury selection. Honestly, my first reaction was dismay over the inconvenience it would cause in my personal and professional life. But that morphed into curiosity about a process I’d witnessed only on television and the big screen.

I recently ran into an old student of mine. But because all of my former students are also former inmates, I tactfully waited for him to identify our connection.

I’ve just shoveled my porch roof for the first time this winter - after glancing through the large bedroom window overlooking the expanse of flattish hip roof and noticing the snow level at an astonishing three feet. Clearly, I was so busy shoveling paths at ground level I let the roof get away from me.

McCallum: State Dog

Jan 28, 2015

Most Vermonters know the Morgan horse, hermit thrush and honeybee are three critters currently on the list of “state things” that represent Vermont, along with the apple and painted turtle. And if a Vermont lawmaker has his way, a bill recently sent to the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee could add a new face to the mix.

McCallum: Waste Not

Dec 5, 2014

On Monday mornings I sit with three elderly women and do hand work in the cozy library of their assisted living home. They’re residents, I’m the Activities Director, and this stitching circle is an activity that they like. The oldest is a hundred and the youngest 91, which makes me the spring chicken. While one embroiders, another knits perfect cotton dishcloths and the centenarian crochets blankets like nobody’s business.

If a quirky friend announced her plan to visit Vermont’s 251 towns and record in scrupulous detail the history, politics, geology, literary life, eccentric residents, strange animal skirmishes, plagues and religious life of each one - well, you’d likely be skeptical . But back in 1860, Abby Hemenway one of Vermont’s most persevering and idiosyncratic women, published the first volume of what would become the celebrated Vermont Historical Gazetteer.

I love October for its crisp air, colorful hillsides blanketed in autumn haze and its almost melancholy sense of endings. But because October is National Adopt-A-Shelter-Dog Month, it’s also a time for new beginnings – a time when shelters across the country unite to educate the public about the joys of pet rescue and encourage us to save a life while enriching our own.

McCallum: River Sweep

Sep 26, 2014

Vermont's scenic Black River, beloved by fly fishermen, begins in Plymouth and rushes south for 41 miles through Windsor County villages, recreational lakes and a dramatic gorge until it finally joins up with the mighty Connecticut River at a place called Hoyt's Landing. I got to know this popular little boat landing and fishing spot up close and personal when I participated in the fifteenth annual Black River Action Team River Sweep this September.

My sister in Florida sent me a recent photo of three boys floating a homemade raft down the canal behind her house. Seeing them poling along on a lazy afternoon, I felt a pang of nostalgia for a vanished time – not the antique days of Huck Finn perhaps, but rather a not-so-long-ago era when kids were allowed the freedom to create and explore their own worlds beyond parental supervision.

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