To Johnny: A pilgrimage to a poet becomes a saving grace 

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In the tangled gloaming of the evening, just hours after the season’s first significant snowfall, we find ourselves searching for a great poet among the clapboard colonial homes and church spires of a historic Vermont neighborhood.

Robert Frost was never a member of the 259-year-old First Congregational Church in Bennington, but his connection to the historic meeting house – mostly known as Old First Church – is what propelled state and church elders to push the site into the modern-day tourist destination it’s become.

Frost spoke there in 1937 and read his poem, The Black Cottage. (“Most of the change we think we see in life / Is due to truths being in and out of favour.” He bought a family plot there in 1940 and the state designated the church “Vermont’s Colonial Shrine.” The graveyard, became “Vermont’s Sacred Acre.”

Let the pilgrims come!

My daughter knows none of this, of course, as we take the long walk down from Bennington Monument Circle to find the stone of the poet she calls Jack Frost and understands mostly in terms of the man who picked apples and mowed his meadow. 

Ever since a visit to Frost’s house in Derry, N.H. a few weeks ago, our evening reading sessions have involved a variety of the poet’s poems. Little Bean likes his nature or animal poems the best, though as accessible as Frost can be, there’s still quite a bit of explaining that needs to follow for a 6-year-old to wrap her head around the poet’s use of symbolism and analogy. But it’s fine. Our studies have given me a chance to brush up on my own connections to the poet.

Today, though, my daughter is mostly concerned with the new-fallen snow. She spent an hour up the hill in Monument Circle, playing in the white stuff under the shadow of the stone obelisk that commemorates the Battle of Bennington during the Revolution. And now, she’s somewhat interested and somewhat humoring me as we make our way down to pay our respects to the poet that’s occupied many of our recent evenings.

She and her momma slowly make their way down into the cemetery. Everything is white; the stones, the trees, the ground. The sky is blue. Every so often, Little Bean will scoop up a handful of snow and toss it casually over her head, a self-created snowfall, amid the snow, surrounded by the snow. 

Frost would love how this all looks, I think. He’d write about it perhaps.

We find Frost’s flat table stone, fully covered in several inches of snow. The famous inscription “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world” is buried. There’s a plaque in front with his most famous poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, not one of my favorites if I have to be honest. It all feels a bit anti-climactic, and Little Bean, looks up and me and says, “Daddy, I’m getting cold.”

So, the profound revelation I had hoped to discover will have to wait. Or perhaps the snow IS the revelation. Or maybe just the fact that a 6-year-old knows who Robert Frost is, can be revelatory. Maybe just being here on this “Sacred Acre” with the two people in the world I love the most is enough. 

But on our way back to our car, Little Bean stops randomly at a small stone, jutting up out of a family plot at an odd angle. 

“Can I see this one,” she asks.

“Of course.”

She kneels down in the snow and brushes off the tiny marker, running her hand over the front until a single name is revealed: Johnny.

“I thought maybe it was a pet, I thought maybe they buried their pet,” she says. “What does it say?”

“It’s a name,” I tell her. “A little boy, really, a baby. His name was Johnny.”

And just like that, our casual search for a poet has become poetry itself, a moment of deeper understanding about our place on this spinning ball; here in this beautiful place of finality with my wife and my daughter. I give her space. I don’t want to crowd whatever understanding is filling her head. We wait.

After a few moments, she simply stands up, brushes off the snow, and begins to walk back to the car. My wife and I look at each other and follow. The day is coming to a close, my little girl has taken one more small step toward the light, and we still have miles to go before we sleep.


 

About this Author

dan-szczesny

Dan Szczesny

⇒ Transcendental Dad archives Dan Szczesny is a longtime journalist and writer who lives with his wife and energetic daughter in Manchester. Learn more about Dan’s adventures at www.dan-szczesny.square.site