Coming Back to Life: A Carding Chronicle

Did you ever have the experience of starting a task that looked like it would take no time at all—like getting at the cobwebs in that really hard-to-get-at place in your kitchen—only to have that task lead to another and another until you’ve spent half a day on it?

Well, that’s what happened with this story.

It started with a knocked-over newspaper box at the top of Agnes Findley’s driveway and then morphed into a conversation among members of the Bennett family and now I’ve discovered a new-to-me character in Carding whose name is Frank Dixon.

I like him and I thought you would too. But my introduction to Frank got a bit more involved than I originally thought and…well…this story now has four parts, the fourth coming next week.

In the meantime, let me introduce you to Frank.

And thanks for stopping by.

In Carding, Vermont, Frank Dixon is considered something of an institution. Among his peers in the Social Security set, he’s best remembered as the high school’s star quarterback. He was chosen for that position not because of his dazzling footwork or peerless throwing ability but because nothing ever seemed to rattle him.

It didn’t matter to him if the Carding Cubs were down five points in the fourth quarter with just a minute on the clock. Frank would calmly take the ball on the snap, step back as though he had all the time in the world, and then find the perfect place to throw the ball to win the game.

After spending time in the Navy and in college, Frank returned to Carding so he could marry his high school sweetheart, Coralee Carter. They built a house out on Jefferson Road when that byway was still unpaved, adding to it as their family grew from one daughter to four. 

Over the years, the street built up around them as more young families chose to raise houses houses and children on Jefferson Road. All the kids played together in the nearby brook, biked furiously up and down the road after it was paved, and piled onto toboggans to slide down the hill in the Dixons’ backyard in winter.

After trying his hand at selling insurance and cars, Frank happily settled into working for the post office. He was Carding’s only letter carrier for a couple of years and then the postmaster retired. When Frank took over that position, his status as a town fixture was cemented.

Now you can imagine how much a postmaster can learn from the coming and going of envelopes but Frank made it a point of pride to never, ever gossip. But he nurtured an uncanny knack for knowing what neighbors needed help and what neighbors were in a position to do the helping.

His former classmates were the first to pick up on his initiatives.

“Oh, I saw Coralee Dixon at the Sutter house this morning carrying a basket through the front door,” someone would remark in the produce aisle at Cooper’s General Store. “Anyone know what that was about?”

“Yeah, Herb broke his arm falling from a ladder at the warehouse. He’s gonna be out of work for a while and he and his wife have a new baby,” a second someone, primed by Frank, would answer.

And then the casseroles and the babysitting offers and the discreet help with a mortgage payment or two would start to flow.

When Frank retired, the younger generation of Carding-ites figured the post office would fall down without him. But the new postmaster, Ted Owens, made the transition seamless, even going so far as to keep an eye out for folks who needed help but would not ask for it.

Frank and Coralee had made extensive travel plans, even buying an RV so that they could tour the national parks in style. And that’s what they did for Frank’s first three years of retirement. But then Coralee, who had been plagued with a hereditary form of heart disease, finally succumbed.

The people who loved and cherished Frank, which numbered in the hundreds in Carding, didn’t see him for months after Coralee’s funeral. He rarely ventured into his yard, his gardens became a weedy mess, and no one ever saw him in Cooper’s General Store.

Then his mail started to pile up in his mailbox and Coralee’s best friend, Vivian Smart, finally had enough. She rounded up a small group of like-minded folks and they showed up one spring morning to cut Frank’s grass, prune his bushes, and weed his gardens. 

The next day, the same people plus a few more showed up with food and wine and sat on Frank’s porch to eat supper, talking and laughing as loud as they could until they drove the man out of his house.

Gradually, Vivian coaxed and cajoled and lectured and sometimes even nagged Frank to become part of Carding’s life again. 

Over time, her gentle arm-twisting worked. Frank is now a regular volunteer at the library and an avid trail keeper on the many walking paths that crisscross Carding. He’s one of the best rose-growers in the county, and regularly lends his hearty baritone to a barbershop quartet.

But there are times when he misses the spontaneous chitchat, conversations, and friendly waves of the folks he used to see when he worked for the post office. You know what I mean, the daily rubbing up against the folks you live among, the exchange of sentences that can make life oh-so-pleasant.

That’s why Dave Muzzy’s offer of a small paper route appealed so much to him.

Sometimes, the ramifications of small decisions can have large consequences.

Sonja Hakala lives on a river in Vermont and is the author of the Carding, Vermont novels and an upcoming mystery, The Education of Miss Ruby Royce.

The Carding, Vermont novels, in order of appearance:

The Road Unsalted

Thieves of Fire

The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life

Light in Water, Dancing

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