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This has been a Handsome Chef Boyfriend weekend through and through. I am writing from his place this weekend, hanging around an extra day on the chance I can meet a deadline in a foreign and yet ever familiar environment. It is messy and inconvenient for everybody concerned; tomorrow morning will come early, and I know I will feel at least a litte underfoot as we all launch for the first day of our work and school weeks.

Mainly, though, I feel privileged to be here.

Yesterday I felt privileged to be with HCB’s sweet mama and two of his out-of-town sibs for the afternoon and evening. HCB and I had a purposefully unhurried morning drive to Brattleboro, hoping to hit a few tag sales on our way. I am not ashamed in the least to say that breakfast was a bag of apple cider doughnuts from Clear Brook Farm, eaten straight from our laps in the car, washed down with hot McDonald’s coffee and jokes about lawsuits. We licked the sugar from our fingers and swept crumbs to the floor. Could breakfast be better?

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The cool and  slightly rainy day had prompted merchants to begin breaking down their tents by the time we arrived at the big farmers’ and flea market in Wilmington but we still scored some beautiful yellow mums to take to Brattleboro, along with two gorgeous pepper plants for ourselves, and probably the best tomatoes I’ve seen all summer. Gracie would approve.

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The trees are starting to show color now, especially at higher elevations. We stopped on Hogback Mountain and took in stunning views of the Greens stretching all the way into Connecticut and Massachusetts. I still have a long way to go before I will feel accustomed to Vermont winters but I can never tire of this, which in so many ways reminds me of the mountains of East Tennessee and Western North Carolina, where I spent the last three decades of my life:

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Time stands still when we are with HCB’s family, a reality that is nice in so many ways. In the last two years I have had occasion to meet many of his extended family members during holidays, at one big wedding, and a summer reunion, where I have tried like crazy to remember names and get a handle on which baby belongs to whom, how many cousins and aunts and uncles there are, how they are all connected. These occasions are loud and happy and push me outside my comfort zone. But I welcome the chance to sit quietly and chat with HCB’s mama and his sibs with no distractions. Yesterday was like that–lots of conversation, a few household chores, a rainy day of watching scores of birds avail themselves of an abundance of seeds in the backyard feeders.

We finished the day in the company of a crowd of hardy Vermonters gathered at the Evening Star Grange in Dummerston for a chicken and biscuit dinner, courtesy of HCB’s mama. This multi-generational phenomenon–the chicken dinner–was new to me on my arrival in New England. You can find them in churches and community centers all over the place (and in this case, the grange, which you will see has its roots in agriculture as a social, community, and political meeting place, if you Google it). I have observed signs scrawled in marker and poked in the ground on street corners announcing these dinners, which are open to anyone inclined to go. A modest fee gets you a ticket at the door; once inside you hand it over and in turn receive more food and dessert than you can shake a stick at, as Gracie would say, second helpings offered generously while supplies last. We sat at long tables dressed in checkered tablecloths and enjoyed the kind of dinner I could easily imagine a group of people a century ago might have also.

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There is also a palpable, down-home sense of community. Lots of people know each other and shout friendly greetings. Last night a gentleman asked a woman in line ahead of us whether she had ever gotten her new bathtub installed. Nope, she smiled, it’s not time for my annual bath yet! That, friends, is deliciously Vermont. There are also plenty of folks who do not know each other, but who make each other’s acquaintance by the end of the evening if they’ve broken bread together at the same table.

The singular experience of immersion in a social network of this sort, or a huge extended family gathering, was never really part of my childhood. My brother and I had a few cousins, none of them close to our age, and we really only had limited exposure to them and to other members of our extended family. A week in summer and the occasional Christmas away from home–that pretty much describes our extended family life. It was not a bad experience–just a different one.

Now I find myself coming into a different kind of fold. I sat with a very close friend of HCB’s family at a wedding brunch a little over a year ago. We talked for a long time about varied topics, but the conversation ultimately found its way to family, to this family.

“They absorb you,” he told me, with a broad smile.

I’ve never been happier to be absorbed.

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