Mary McCallum

Commentator

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

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.

McCallum: Fireflies

Jul 10, 2014

One recent warm night, as I sat on my back porch listening to the final evening song of the hermit thrush, I was delighted to see the woods twinkling with lightning bugs.

Also called fireflies and glow worms, these light emitting insects carry the scientific name of Lampyridae, which I cannot help but notice has the word lamp in it. But while there are about 2,000 species throughout Asia and the Americas, these small blinky beetles immortalized in poem and song are becoming less plentiful.

Mary McCallum / VPR

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Miss Rumphius, a well loved picture book for kids published more than thirty years ago. Its fictional heroine, Miss Alice Rumphius, found a way to make the world a more beautiful place by scattering five bushels of flower seeds around the roadsides, fields and lanes of her New England seaside village at the end of summer.

The symphonic sound of peepers is what I think of first when I get itchy for spring and its rewards for having come through another winter. This year, that poetic notion was temporarily edged out by a most unusual craving to clean.

Not windows, carpets and cobwebby corners. No, this was a piercing desire to pitch possessions, a lifetime of accumulated detritus that I hold affection for but don’t need. Just one unplanned hour spent searching through overstuffed filing cabinets provided enough juice to launch a sifting frenzy that continued for weeks.

McCallum: GMO Law

Apr 23, 2014

First, bright blue and green signs cropped up in neighborhood yards atop winter snowbanks.  I passed them daily without giving them much thought except to register the message:  Label GMOs Now!  Without thinking much beyond the surface, I gave it an internal nod of approval since I generally don’t support genetically engineered foods and I want to know where my food comes from and what’s in it. Then, I visited with a neighbor who owns a small specialty food business and began thinking more about how the GMO labeling law may affect her livelihood.

Eleven neglected animals were seized from a St. Johnsbury property where nineteen others died. Three emaciated horses were discovered in a filthy barn, nearly blind and unable to walk. Two dogs were left to freeze when their owner abandoned them in subzero weather. These are disturbing images with a common theme - animal cruelty in Vermont .

I’ve occasionally had passing fixations for things that amazed my friends because they don’t seem to align with the politically correct, organic food eating, pop culture loathing person they think I am. I’ve had brief but full-blown passing fancies with shooting guns, fast-food fried chicken and Michael Jackson. And now bingo.

On a recent late January afternoon sixty people gathered in a tiny church in my town to listen to stories. The cold winter light was turning dusky, but the church inside was warm and decorated with twinkly white lights. When the straight-backed pews filled up the overhead lights were dimmed and, one by one, eight local folks took the stage to tell a story sprung from their own lives.

One winter afternoon I was shelving books in the library of Vermont’s high security prison with my inmate assistant Frankie, when I realized that I hadn’t seen the copy of War and Peace in weeks. It never moved because no one ever checked it out.

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