Real Vermonters

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(HOST) March is a month filled with Vermont traditions: town meeting day, sugaring, mud season. It’s also a time when commentator Helen Labun Jordan is thinking about what it means to be a part of the state.

(LABUN JORDAN) I’m not a real Vermonter. Sure, I grew up here, and I’m not from anywhere except Vermont, but being a “real” Vermonter requires three generations in the state. My Dad’s
family comes from Dexter, Maine, which is almost like Vermont. My Mom, on the other hand, spent her formative years in Los Angeles, and there’s just no way to fudge that.

Not being a real Vermonter bothered me a lot when I was a kid.
In fifth grade, when we studied the U.S. government, I sent an impassioned letter to the president, asking if “he” felt bad about not being really from D.C. I received a glossy White House brochure in reply.

Our nation’s leader was evidently not sympathetic to my concerns, but it’s always seemed as though Vermont, a leader in grassroots democracy, ought to be open to a rule change. My parents don’t support this idea. They question whether I’ve done anything to qualify for real Vermonter status.

“You mean, besides being ‘born’ here?” I ask.

My mother sounds only a little sheepish when she reminds me that I’m a Connecticut River baby; technically I was born in New Hampshire.

My father hasn’t been helpful either. He’s the one who introduced me to the idea that real Vermonters don’t milk goats – that there is, in fact, a whole book to this effect. And while I don’t personally milk goats, I do support goat milking as a profitable form of specialty agriculture. Which is probably worse.

My parents seem completely without remorse about the years around 1970 when they and their c-horts moved to the state, started paying a premium price for goat cheese, and doomed countless children like me to being neither flatlander nor real Vermonter.

Of course, I could solve the whole problem by simply not caring. It’s difficult to see how, in practical terms, those missing local ancestors could hurt me. The catch is that I’m beginning to appreciate the rules for becoming a real Vermonter.

It’s a peculiarity of Vermont culture. We may be suspicious of newcomers, but at the same time if you’re going to show up in the Green Mountains, we’d prefer that you and your descendents stay put. For at least three generations.

This attitude comes in a time when people equate opportunities for success with high mobility. Americans are on the move, going places. We’re striking off to seek our fortune, not hanging around to find our fortune. When my husband and I bought our house, relatives immediately speculated about how quickly we could sell it again for a profit. After all, weren’t “we” going places, too?

The truth is I’m not going places. I’d prefer a tradition of people creating opportunity where they are, in communities where a three-generation outlook isn’t ridiculous. And if I stick by that plan and play my cards right, then some day my grandchildren will be around to report on what it’s like to be a real Vermonter.

This is Helen Labun Jordan of East Montpelier.

Helen Labun Jordan works at the Vermont Council on Rural Development.

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