My wish for returning home to New Haven was two-fold. I grew up on a 150-acre farm in New Haven Vermont. My father was intensely homophobic and when I formally came out to my parents at age 20 while living in Norway, (I’d been making verbal declarations about my sexuality to everyone but my parents since about age 13), the process with my parents went horribly. They wanted me to come home and do what sounded like conversion therapy. I resisted, moved in with my partner of the time and simply stopped talking to my parents. Thankfully, they didn’t yank their portion of my college funding, but I knew my relationship with my father was over. As soon as I finished my schooling, I moved as far away from the East Coast as I could while also ticking off three other goal marks. I wanted to live in a city with a vibrant contemporary arts scene (which at the time seemed like a choice between NYC and Los Angeles) as that was my educational focus and I wanted contemporary art to be my professional focus too. Second, I wanted to live in a queer friendly and queer latent place. Third, I badly needed the company of family. My sister lived in Los Angeles so midway through May 2006, off I went, moving across the country 3 days after graduating college.
Right away I started thinking about home, about Vermont. I fantasized about taking a month away from the West coast and renting a cabin in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. In particular I loved the Greensboro area with its high pasture and hay fields and the Caspian Lake in the valley. Over and over in conversations with friends I’d say, I just want the chance to return and live there momentarily as an adult.
From Los Angeles, late in 2008, I moved to Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound of Washington state. There I met Amy, who was on island from Seattle building boats and learning to farm vegetables. Our relationship burgeoned to the rhythm of the growing season, meeting in May over mustard greens and headed towards curing pumpkins and digging frosted carrots in November.
From the start, Amy said she’d head out anywhere, which I thought was nuts (a friend pointed out that Amy’s offer was actually brave), but we bought a map of the United States to spur conjectures of a life together. I was 24. Amy was 32. At the time, I’d quit my cooking job on Whidbey Island and was doing less and less art related work. I was living off a small bit of inherited money. Eventually, Amy and I made the conservative choice to move across the Puget Sound into Seattle. I got laser focused on cooking, landing a job in a high end Seattle restaurant, but the idea was firmly planted in our brains, Amy liked to grow food and I loved to cook what she grew.
The first 3 years of living in Vermont for me was about remaking my relationship to home. Amy and I moved here with the idea that it was a “forever move”, but I feel like I’ve only started the forever part recently. Moving back to Vermont wasn’t an option until my father passed away in 2012. It might feel brutal or cold to write or read, but there was no place here for me or Amy until he was gone. Since my early twenties, I had assumed that I eventually would return to the farm where I grew up in Vermont. For a while I thought I’d return to create an artist residency on the farm, but that vision changed about the time I met Amy. I knew I wasn’t a farmer. I hated the forced work of the farm as a child, the outdoor work, the haying, though I did love the animals. But I felt an intense draw to the piece of land where I grew up. I pictured myself there. To explain my sentiments to friends, I’d pose over-wrought questions like “I don’t have religion, I’m not sure I’ll have children, so what’s this life for?” The first part of the answer came in my twenties. For me, living made the most sense when I focused on relationships, with people, but also with place; making a commitment to a place and rooting down into it. Being on this piece of land in Vermont is the most positive way I can interface with the memory of my father and the love and spirit of my parents.
I approached working in restaurants and all the professional development I sought in my twenties and early thirties, through the lens that I was collecting the skills I needed to move back to Vermont and eventually take over stewardship of the family farm. When I met Amy she said was working on collecting the skills necessary to thrive anywhere; knowledge of building protective structures and finding/growing food. I didn’t have a firm picture (I still don’t) as to how we are going to keep this land in production after my mother is gone. But I know that combined, Amy and I have the skills and interests to take a whole approach to the land.
A couple months after my father’s passing, Amy and I began to articulate the idea of moving to Vermont together. We’d traveled back East first for my brother’s wedding and then several weeks later, my father’s memorial service. Amy liked it here. I felt whole, happy and free being here. I was excited to live near family. In Seattle, I couldn’t picture a long term vision. It’s difficult to work on the restaurant line for many years. At 26, I was an older line cook. The physical toll of the repetitive work didn’t look like a future. And rising through the kitchen ranks? I’d dreamed of working for myself since I was little, but by the time I found a kitchen comfortable (emotionally and physically) to cook in, I’d decided that my route to self-employment wasn’t the kitchen ladder, but starting an ancillary business.
I started V Smiley Preserves, a jam company that preserves and sweetens with honey instead of sugar in 2013 knowing that it was a business I could start and run while working full time as a restaurant cook and a business I could move across the country when we did go to Vermont. Further, it was a business that could really find its reason for existing upon moving to Vermont because the family farm would supply an increasing amount of the ingredients because there was fruit here and Amy was going to add more. And we have! Each year we plant more tree fruit and shrubs like Honeyberry, currants, gooseberries, jostaberries and in the field, we are focused on aromatics (herbs and flowers that I use in the preserves), pollinator friendly perennials, and loads and loads of tomatoes and rhubarb for jam.