A Vermont homecoming

Becca Balint tells how she and her wife made a long journey to owning a home in Brattleboro — and building unlikely trust with a wary neighbor

So have you ever been really homesick? So homesick that you can feel it in your chest or your stomach? Well, I felt that the year I lived abroad in the very mysterious kingdom of Wyoming.

My wife is from Wyoming, and when we got married, she had warned me that “living in Wyoming is like living in a time warp. It's really 20 years behind the rest of the country.” And she said it's “sort of like the cowboy land that time forgot.”

When Elizabeth was graduating from law school, she said, “I have an opportunity to go clerk for a federal judge in Wyoming, and I'm wondering if you would be willing to take a leave from your job and move out to Wyoming with me.”

Because her family was out there, there was an opportunity to be with them. And I was up for an adventure.

But I wasn't fully prepared for the first time a group of men in big hats and belt buckles smiled and said “Ladies” in this odd mix of chivalry and absurdity. I thought, “Oh, what have we done?”

I also wasn't prepared for my wife getting back in touch with her Wyoming roots.

We were standing in Thermopolis, Wyoming, the site of the world's largest hot spring. Of course, nobody wants to go in it because it's 115 degrees in the desert, and who wants to get in a hot spring when it's so hot? We were standing on a hot sizzling sidewalk, and my wife said, “Wal, shoot! That see-ment sure is hot!”

Who are you? Did you just say “see-ment”? And “wal, shoot”?

And she gave me this look like, “Yeah, that's how we do it out here.”

And I thought, “Oh, my god, this is going to be a long year away from home.

* * *

It was a long year away from home, and after we celebrated Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, that we would celebrate Rosh How-we-made-it, which was a celebration each month that passed by that we had survived another month in Wyoming. So the first of each month, we would make a pie and celebrate Rosh How-we-made-it! We were getting there!

It was a gorgeous place, absolutely gorgeous. And we made good friends. But we were one of the only out gay couples that we knew, and we were an anomaly.

People couldn't believe when we showed them the album of our wedding in the Dummerston Grange. And they would say, “We can't believe your family came. We can't believe your friends came.” They were still so far in the closet - not just with their families, but with their friends, with their colleagues.

And it was incredibly painful to watch the extent to which they felt like they had to hide themselves.

The other interesting thing about living in Wyoming is as a dark-haired person with olive skin that tans easily in the summer, they did not know what to do with me. No offense to my wife, but there's a lot of pasty people out there. Random people all over Wyoming would stop me on the street and say, “What are you?”

They were trying to figure out how to sort me. And so they would get more bold and they'd ask, “Are you Native American? Are you Mexican? Are you Italian?”

And I was working in a school as a sub and a woman came up to me and she said, “We've been talking about you in the teacher's room” - which is always a really great introduction to a pleasant conversation - “and we're wondering: Are you from that Eye-ranian family that moved down the street? Because you look just like 'em, but your English is better.”

I should have said, “Unlike the Iranians, I only speak one language, and not very well.”

It was a year of being - even though my wife had grown up there, she was from a different part. We definitely felt like strangers in a strange land, and we desperately wanted to get home to Vermont.

Vermont started to take on this sort of mythical quality. If we could just get home, everything would be better. Everything would be right with the world.

So when we said our goodbyes to Wyoming, we did have dear friends. We learned a lot about ourselves, and we learned a lot about our community and what it means.

* * *

When we first came back to Vermont, Elizabeth took a job clerking at the Vermont Supreme Court and we thought “Vermont is Vermont. You know, we're going to love Montpelier just like we love Brattleboro.”

Not true at all.

There was a few months when I couldn't find a job, and I would go down to the coffee shop downtown in Montpelier. I said to Elizabeth, “This is insane. There are 8,000 people in this town, and everyone's talking like they're on The West Wing.” It was like it was the most exciting place ever. And, of course, now I work there - so the joke's on me.

Even in Montpelier we were so, so homesick. We just wanted to get back home. So we started to look for houses in Windham County.

This was about 10 years ago, and it was a very tight housing market. We didn't have a lot of options.

My wife said to me, “So ... I found this really neat house with beautiful wood floors and this great hardware, original hardware on the doors. And I'm just wondering: What are your parameters for neighborhoods in Brattleboro that you would say that we could look at?”

I thought about it. I'd live anywhere in Brattleboro but not on South Main Street.

And there was this long pause.

“Where's the house?”

“Ummm... South Main Street?”

So you know what happened. We bought the house. On the day we closed, Elizabeth went right from the lawyer's office to the house, still in her suit and heels, crowbar in her hand, and started ripping up the carpet. It felt so good. We were home in Brattleboro.

We made it.

* * *

For months, we traveled back and forth between Montpelier and Brattleboro to fix up the house or move in our stuff. And the day we finally made the big push, we pulled up to the house. I was taking in the maple trees and the perennial gardens and the classic slate roof. I was just so happy, just so relieved, to be home.

And I looked behind me. The neighbors had their garage door open. Spread across the back of the garage is a gigantic Take Back Vermont sign.

Welcome to the neighborhood.

Our relief turned to panic, and our panic turned to nausea. In my head, I had that lyric from the Talking Heads song: “And you may say to yourself: My god! What have I done?”

What was going through my mind: We have just bought a house. We're not renting. We bought a house next to somebody who has a giant Take Back Vermont sign.

Now, Take Back Vermont meant a lot of different things to Vermonters, and it was not just about a pushback against civil unions - but, at its core, it was about a pushback against civil unions.

And the fact that the sign was still in his garage, years later, was very upsetting to me. Every time the door opened, we would see it. And I thought: How is this going to work?

I was pregnant at the time. We had a house to fix up and wallpaper to deal with and paint to strip. And Elizabeth started a new job.

And you just put one foot in front of the other, and you say, “We don't have money saved for closing on another house. This is our house, and we're going to have to make it work somehow.”

And we did what all neighbors do in Vermont: get to know each other across your fence.

* * *

Year after year, month after month, day after day our neighbor, Kevin, would come over. He was a big, burly guy with beard and glasses; he always had a cap on and he had a wheelbarrow always in front of him. It was like an appendage; I think it was a bit of a security blanket.

He wasn't a stupid man. He knew that we were a gay couple with a baby on the way. He knew that he was someone who had a Take Back Vermont sign in his garage. And he still made an effort to connect with me.

We talked about history, and he told me about how he loved to fix up old motorcycles and about what a Beatles fanatic he was.

We were the most unlikely conversationalists because we disagreed on most everything politically. As we got to know each other, I told him that I was thinking about running for office.

He said, “You know, no offense, but I'm never going to vote for you. I'm a lifelong Republican.”

I said, “I know. I'm not asking for your vote, actually. I just wanted to let you know because of the signs and, you know, everything. It's pretty obvious, so I thought we'd talk about it.”

And he was very sweet. He just said, “You know, it's just I would never never vote for a Democrat.”

“That's fine, that's fine,” I said.

* * *

So life went on, and shortly after I got elected to the Senate, Kevin came down with cancer - terrible, terrible cancer that wracked his body. He was in terrible pain a lot of the time.

After a while, he just became a shell of who he was. He stopped being able to move the wheelbarrow, and he stopped being able to rake. And he stopped being able to hang out his little maple sap bucket that he used to put onto the telephone pole to fool the tourists - his most favorite gag.

He got sicker and sicker. I used to go over to their house, and I would help his wife move the furniture because he was too sick to do so. I went over to help move the air conditioner in for them. At one point, his wife saw this scene and realized how absurd it was, this tiny woman helping them move this air conditioner. She just burst out laughing, and she said, “What are you doing?”

“I'm scrappy! I can help! I'm scrappy!” I said.

And he thought that was hilarious - that what had become of him was that he was getting help from the little lesbo next door.

* * *

He got sicker and sicker, and his wife took him up to Dartmouth-Hitchcock. He came home one weekend.

“You know, I had to get out of there because I told my wife I sure as hell am not dying in New Hampshire, right?” he said. “Get me home.”

I think about that a lot. Kevin saw the neighborhood change; he saw Vermont change. It was very difficult for him to see how much it had changed, but he still felt at his core: “I'm a Vermonter. My political values might be more aligned with New Hampshire, but I am a Vermonter, and damn it, I'm going to die in Vermont.”

New Hampshire and Vermont have that funny yin and yang going on there, right? Sometimes, when I see what's happening in legislature in Vermont, it is the polar opposite of what happened the week before in the legislature in New Hampshire.

When you look on a political map of Wyoming - Wyoming is like the deepest red. Vermont is the deepest blue.

And you think, “How will we ever be able to communicate with each other?”

One day, I was out in the yard raking leaves. I could hear my neighbors from behind a fence and a hedge.

And they were talking to potential tenants who would be renting out their upstairs to help them pay their mortgage.

“Yeah, but how are the neighbors?” the tenant asked.

I peeked through the hedge because I was very curious about what my neighbor would say.

He was a laconic man. He just tipped his head, nodding toward our house.

“Those are the best damn neighbors you will ever have,” he said. “They are good people.”

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