Wanda Goodyear had one of the great names of all time: A name that wouldn’t surprise you if you found it residing at the end of a line in a limerick or in a novel of serious merit. I can see the name in my mind in a book by Dreiser. Or Capote. Or even J.K. Rowling. There she is, Wanda Goodyear, a student traipsing in her robes through the cold stone corridors of Hogwarts.
Wanda died the other day at her home high on the gap here in Lincoln, a neighbor and friend who I will miss greatly. She was 81.
Wanda appeared with some frequency in this column. (Technically, I know, I should be calling her by her last name. But when you’re a writer and you have at your disposal a name like Wanda, you simply have to use it.) There was the little girl who once was stuck up to her knees in the muck that days earlier had been a dirt road; there was the harried mom on the dairy farm who on one occasion buried her eyeglasses in the box with the dead family cat, and on another, baked them in the oven in a casserole full of beans; there was the senior citizen who had the audacity to try to bring her sewing scissors onto an airplane; and there was the library trustee who held a book sale at the end of her driveway all summer and fall, year-in and year-out, to raise money for her beloved Lincoln Library. It wouldn’t have crossed her mind to lock her door or not offer a cup of coffee (or dinner) to any neighbor who dropped by for an unexpected visit.
Wanda was part of a generation that was still vibrant when my wife and I moved to Vermont 20 years ago, but is now disappearing all too quickly. These were the women and men who ran dairy farms that didn’t have bulk tanks, who sugared religiously, and who could describe precisely what it was like to clear out the furniture, get out the fiddles, and have a good old-fashioned kitchen tunk.
In the last decade we have said goodbye once and for all to a great many of Wanda’s peers. Among the litany here in Lincoln? The brothers Brown (Don and Fletcher), a pair of women named Lois (Sargent and Perfect), Paul Goodyear, Gyneth Hartwell, and a pair of writers who weren’t born in Vermont but understood the Green Mountains as well as anyone: Ron Rood and Roger Shattuck. Every small town on the chain of mountains that bisects our state like a spine has endured similar losses: The death of folk who are resourceful, hearty and independent. Stoic. Too smart to be sentimental. A generation that remembers what hardscrabble Vermont really was like.
I try not to romanticize people just because they know how to repair a 1923 Fordson field tractor or can recall the days when the postman might not have been able to make it to a village’s outlying farms in a blizzard. But I can’t help it: They impress the hell out of me.
Two months ago I was talking with Wanda at a birthday party for one of her grandchildren. (Wanda had a lot of grandchildren. And great-grandchildren. She had 14 of the former and 16 of the latter.) She was sitting in a chair, and I was kneeling on the carpet beside her. I felt a bit like a pupil at her feet, but the truth is I always feel like a novice Vermonter when I’m conversing with the serious elders of Wanda’s generation. She was frail, and I sensed this would be one of the last times we would chat. It was.
But our conversation wasn’t especially wistful: Wanda was far too plainspoken to ever get maudlin. Besides, there in the room with us was her infant great-granddaughter: Wanda Grace Goodyear.
Young Wanda Grace won’t remember her great-grandmother, and her Vermont will be very different from even the one I first witnessed two decades ago. But I am confident that it will still be an altogether inspiring world. Why? Because, thank heavens, there are still parents among us with the confidence to name their girls Wanda.
No one would ever want Wanda Grace to replicate her great-grandmother. Given her parents and her older siblings, there is no doubt that she will grow into her own woman.
But it’s a wondrous name to carry in our corner of Vermont — and a beautiful reminder of another Wanda from another era.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press, January 8, 2006.)