Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Frustration, Fury, Fear... and Hope

Greed-driven policy enabled by power, ignorance, and ambition is dangerous to us all.  When Mr. Trump leaves the White House and returns to his chosen career in development, he will have – literally – cleared the way for his projects. 

Trees and plants once protected by the National Environmental Policy Act will be flattened. Impervious surfaces once limited by regulations will pave greater swaths of land. Wetlands that collected and absorbed storm water will be filled. As homeowners and townspeople around the world grieve while flood waters surge, unchecked, through their streets, towns, and houses (unless they live in a zone consumed by flames) the president is seeking to diminish the very systems Earth has in place to minimize disaster. When discussions with Trump supporters invariably turn to their satisfaction with the economy, I want to scream, but what about our grandchildren? What about our fellow creatures?  What about the PLANET?

What to do?  What to do?  What to do when scientific evidence, extreme weather, and the president’s bullying, incompetent, childish actions and words are ignored? When honor and dignity, endangered species, immigrant children and families, treaties, alliances, and hope for peace are sacrificed?

You march. 

So, on Saturday, Dave and I took the train to New York for the closest massive group hug and support system around, the Women’s March. We bundled up in multiple layers, the coziest of socks, sweaters, and coats.  Of course, I wore my pink pussy hat, my talisman, uniform, and sign of solidarity. 

The soft-white skies promised snow, and the thermometer read 24 when we left the house, but we never felt the cold as we joined the thousands gathered in Columbus Circle. With cries of “Shame!” we admonished the local structures that symbolized this administration’s hold on our country: Trump Hotel and the FOX News building. A drum corps roused us to exuberant dancing while we chanted, “Tell me what democracy looks like!  THIS is what democracy looks like!” It was a raucous sea united in anger and worry, but also, in a belief in equality, justice, love of the planet, and hopefully, in a broad sense, love of each other.  

Right on time, 1:00 PM, a light snow began to fall, a benediction of white confetti, swirling from the heavens, dusting shoulders, scarves, banners, and pussy hats. Men and women of every age and color brandished signs reflecting my own frustration, fury, and fears, yet the vehemence, energy, and optimism of the young gave me hope as they held high their declarations: “Respect Earth” “Not my America!” “If you build a wall, my generation will knock it down,” and “Little girls with dreams become women with vision.”

As Trump careens forward, blundering into increased hostilities with Iran and trashing decades of alliances and environmental protections, I (correctly accused of being a bleeding heart liberal) am stymied by loyalty to labels. What could be more conservative than demanding clean air and clean water? What could be more Christian than compassion toward others? What could be more universal than the wish for a nonviolent future and healthy planet for our grandchildren? How can voting for a party mean more than these? 

The Senate impeachment hearings are underway, and my prayer is that the senators will be humbled by the solemnity of their duty. That they will assume the mantle of responsibility, honor their oath before God to be impartial jurors, call witnesses, and consider the testimony presented. As one sign at the March entreated, “Silence now is not a privilege… it is a betrayal. Listen. Be brave. Speak out.” 

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Walking Home Together

My email inbox is a daily delete extravaganza. I’ve signed countless petitions since the 2016 election thus granting email access to every hopeful Democrat running for office in every state; and every climate, immigration, animal rights, and environmental organization striving to keep me apprised, active, and donating.  So, I click, click, click… delete.  Click, click, click… delete, stopping occasionally to sign another petition or make a small donation.  Yes!  I know! I’m only encouraging them, but our times are dire, and I can’t totally check out. 

As a result, I’m impatient with emails; I just want to get through them.  Sheepishly I confess that when I get animated cards, I often “click to the end.” What a sad metaphor for life.  I can’t even take a few minutes to watch sweet lovebirds string ribbons into a heart on a Valentine’s Day card?  To watch buds sprout and daffodils bloom on Mother’s Day?  To watch deer and squirrels gather beneath reddening oaks at Thanksgiving?  How many smiles have I sacrificed to more quickly empty my inbox?     

True to form, when in early December, my Farmington friend, Whip, sent me and Jen, my junior year roommate, the Jacquie Lawson Cotswolds Advent calendar, I thought I’ll take a quick peek and move on. Wisely, Whip sent a heads-up text first, with an added, “BTW, in your ‘Cotswold home,’ click on the various objects for games – and every day you can click on the bookcase to read a little about the theme for that day.”

Bookcase?  Games?  My Cotswold home?   Hm. Still. I wanted to zip through emails and get back to my To-Do list. I clicked on the link, followed instructions, and the calendar opened… with music, a horse-drawn cart clopping down the street, and a gentle snow fall.

Ohhhhhh.  Something pinched and rushed eased inside me as, using the slide bars on the side and top of the computer screen, I “strolled” through the village past cottages with leaded windows and peaked dormers mounded with snow.  I followed a nice couple over a stone bridge and gazed at the Christmas tree on the other side of the river. Chudleigh’s Tavern beckoned from a side street. It looked like my kind of place: I’d like to grab Dave for a beer and glass of wine there sometime soon.  

When given the option to “decorate” a woodland tree, I chose from an array of ornaments to drag and drop in the boughs of a bushy pine.  I clicked on my garland of choice and tried to drag it to the tree, but it wouldn’t move. I tried again, nothing. Suddenly, the tree lit up… and shimmered.  It was beautiful,and the surge of elation filling my chest took me by surprise.  If that weren’t enough, when I clicked the blue star to go into “my house,” my tree was there in the corner, exactly as I’d decorated it. 

With clicks, I lit the candles on the mantle and set the fire ablaze. Two kittens curled in a snug nest by the fire, and a friendly dog lying near the sofa lifted his head and looked at me. I was flooded with giddy wonder.  I felt like… like I did when I was 8, opening the tiny door of an advent calendar, yearning for Christmas to hurry up and get here, a feeling I hadn’t had in decades.  I had to share this with others, so I went to Jacquie Lawson’s website and sent off calendars to a few friends, my daughter, and daughter-in-law. 

Soon, Casey texted, “So fun! I JUST WRAPPED PRESENTS!”  How delighted she’ll be when she sees her wrapped gifts under the tree in “her house.” 

When Carey opened her calendar, she wrote, at 2:00 AM, that she was getting a kick out of coordinating fireworks with classical Christmas music. No doubt, given my post-menopause affliction, I was also awake at 2:00 AM, but not looking at my calendar.  So the next morning, I was fascinated when I saw her message.  Fireworks? I pulled up the calendar and clicked like crazy, but again, nothing. Clearly I don’t have instinctive computer skills. 

“How did you activate the fireworks?” I texted. 

“I’m not sure,” she responded. “Maybe they only happen at night?  Am I right that the calendar has day and night?” 

Whoa. Day and night? I want to write Jacquie Lawson a thank you note and applaud her brilliant creativity.  

Once darkness fell, I whipped out my computer, and opened the Cotswold scene.  The sky had darkened since I checked in earlier that day, and a silvery light bathed the village.  The calendar moon was in the same phase as the moon rising beyond the barn across our street. Amazing. I clicked on the sky and boom!  A bloom of red lights! Click.  Boom! Green!  Click. Boom!  White!

I emailed Whip.  “Did you know about the fireworks?  Only at night.  Click the sky!”

Forty-five years ago, Jen, Whip and I lived in the same dorm and were close as sisters. After we graduated, we went to different colleges.  We wrote letters for a while, then our correspondence petered away to Christmas cards. Eventually, I dropped that too. About seven years ago, Meredith, the third in a junior year three-room with Jen and me, coordinated with Jen to plan a mini-reunion. Meredith has lived in France for decades, returning to the US in the summer. She is tenacious about traditions and friendships: she does not let them slide. That summer gathering has become an annual event, renewing friendships long dormant, bringing Whip, Jen, and Meredith back, actively, into my life.  
                     L to R: Andy, Meredith, Lea, Maurita, Vickie, Whip, Jen, 1971

Turned out Whip, the Giver-of-Cotswold-Joy, did not know about the fireworks. She passed the discovery on to Jen who looked forward to trying it later, noting that she was addicted to the calendar’s Solitaire game. Whip confessed to a similar compulsion, but added, “I shouldn’t be playing. I don’t have time to get addicted – work and Xmas stuff, plus my mom just got home from rehab, etc.”

Jen texted, “Hope your mom is okay.  Rehab?”

“Mom was in the hospital, and then was so weak she was in rehab for 3 weeks getting her strength back. Now she’s home, but too scared to get out of bed for fear she’ll fall.”  And she added, “Lea, I’m sure you’re remembering your wonderful mom with love this Christmas, and missing her a lot.” 

Jen texted, “I was just saying to someone the other day that getting old is REALLY hard… [My mother] absolutely refuses to use a cane or walker, though she is afraid of falling too. So she ‘furniture walks’ and is not nearly as active as she could be.”

By the time I checked my phone, the threads were long, a mix of calendar high points with a comforting purge of common worries and frustrations. Whip’s mother had become grouchy with age, adding to the difficulty of caring for her. Jen commiserated, “Sorry Whip!  I know how tough this is. I pray I’ll always be nice to my daughters.“

Late to the exchange, I chimed in,  “Hi! First, the happy thing… the calendar! Even on this rainy day, I woke up thinking Ooooo!  What will today hold? Last night I was able to click on the darting elf – a moment of triumph! – and he did a little wiggle dance! And the fireworks were such a discovery… how lovely to “walk” thru the village in the moonlight!  Thank you Whip!  Such fun!

“As to aging, Dave’s Aunt Cam, who was feisty and vibrant ‘til she died at 94 (her friend came to pick her up for Bingo and found her dressed and ready, but dead… THAT’s the way to go) Anyway, she always said to me, ‘Lea, do yourself a favor and don’t get old.’” 

Whip answered, “Aging is truly terrifying… I’m so grateful for my daughters, and hope I’m decent to them when I’m elderly. I didn’t know the elf did a dance when you click on him! I’ll try that!” 

“Age truly, is not for sissies,” I replied.  “Now I recognize how much courage it takes to age gracefully.  And re. the elf, not sure if it’s related, but when I clicked on the stockings, 2 little guys popped out and the elf ran thru soon after.  Hopefully we know more than our parents did about diet, exercise, and involvement in people and causes beyond ourselves.” 

As if on cue, Jen picked up the thread having returned from Pilates.  “I am SO grateful for my friends, more than ever in past years. I guess it’s partly age and partly circumstances that have really made me think about priorities. Now I’m going to get my calendar back up and try to find that elf!” 

Believe me, the elf is not easy to catch. But I loved the weird, wonderful weaving of calendar magic and… friendship magic; the comfort of facing life’s phases with women who have known me, and each other, for decades and decades. As teenagers, boys and schoolwork consumed our conversations, now, health, parents, kids, grandkids, and politics absorb us. Crazy. 

My favorite quote – a plea in today’s fractious times! – is that we are all here to walk each other home. The holiday season is expansive in its means to help us do that, through the spirit of giving, the smiles of strangers, the pull of home, the poignancy of memories, years-long bonds, and even shared glee over a Cotswold calendar. 

                                L to R: Whip, Meredith, Lea, Jen, Fall 1970

                                   L to R: Meredith, Jen, Whip, summer 2019
                                               (You all know what I look like!)

Monday, December 9, 2019

Who' s There?

Baby Eleanor gazes over Casey’s shoulder into the empty room beyond. Her sweet face brightens as something attracts her attention, and she waves.  Who is she waving to? No one is there.  “But I want to think they are there,” Casey says,  “Greemie and Grandy, Byeo and Poppy, Colombo and Cam, all grinning and blowing kisses.” 

I want to believe it too. 

When Casey’s daughter was born, I gave her a framed photograph taken in 1954. It portrays a circle of guardian Eleanors: baby Lea, my mother, my grandmother, and her mother, Jessamine - not an Eleanor, but hopefully a willing, watchful guardian all the same.  The photo sits on a shelf above the baby’s changing table, and now, at age one, this fourth Eleanor correctly points her chubby finger when asked to identify Mom and Byeo. 

At nap and bed-time, Casey sings “Byeo, Bye” to Eleanor, the lullaby my grandmother sang to me, that I clamored for, begging “More Byeo, more!” such that the title became her name. When first I stood in the dark of Eleanor’s nursery, my arms around my daughter and her new baby, swaying with them as we softly sang this special lullaby together, tears closed my throat after the first verse; I could not get the words out. How I hope these beloved women were nearby, maybe singing with us, knowing how much they are missed, how often they are evoked.  

In Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, the ghost of Jacob Marley tells his former partner, “How it is that I appear before you in a shape that you can see, I may not tell. I have sat invisible beside you on many and many a day.” For Scrooge, “this was not an agreeable idea,” but on my own sad days, I have gazed wistfully about me, wishing the wraiths of my grandmother, Mom and Dad encircled me. 

In October, Dave and I planned a trip to the Old ’76 House in Tappan, NY, drawn not by ghosts, but by the tavern’s notorious history.  According to Adrian Covert’s Taverns of the American Revolution, the food was good, the d├ęcor authentic, and the backstory, intriguing. In September 1780, British Major John Andre was captured with the plans for West Point, provided by Benedict Arnold, secreted in his boot. The major was imprisoned in the tavern and hanged as a spy in a nearby field. Exactly the sort of tale to entice us to dinner. 

We were late for our reservation as it turned out, and the two tables of guests already seated finished up and departed as we ordered. “We’ll eat quickly!” we promised Laura, our server, as she led us to a table in front of the fireplace.

The tavern was exactly what we’d hoped for with its massive hand-hewn wooden beams and wide-plank floors, two blazing fires, and tables set with pewter chargers and blue and white Delft china. The cocoon of antiquity enfolded us, a haven from the havoc of current events. 

Laura was gracious and friendly as she jotted down Dave’s charred salmon platter and my pasta with wild mushrooms and asparagus. We were the only guests, so Dave said, “Can we buy you a glass of wine?  Will you join us?”

“Let me submit your order and take care of a few things… and I will!” Shortly after, she poured herself a beer and pulled up a chair at our table.  Judy, the hostess, wandered over as well. Other than the four of us, only the chefs remained, wearily preparing our salmon and pasta in the kitchen. 

Conversation skipped over Major Andre, and drifted toward odd occurrences at table #2, mysterious thumpings on the second floor, and an ethereal little boy who often sat on the stairs with his dog. 

“In fact… wait ‘til you see this,” Laura said, as she pulled out her phone, swiped to a picture, and leaned over to show me.

An attractive young couple smiled at the camera, cheek to cheek, the young man’s arm around his girl. They were seated at the table right next to ours: the setting was exactly as it appeared before me. Except immediately behind the couple was a hooded figure, slightly blurred as if in motion, but as distinct as the young couple. Eyes wide, I passed the phone to Dave and turned my incredulous gaze to Laura. 

“I know.  Crazy, right?” she said.  “As guests often do, they’d asked me to take their picture. The next day, they called the restaurant to contact me and said, ‘If you’ll give us your number, we’ll text the picture you took of us last night. You won’t believe it.’ But, I did believe it. That old woman behind them?  She often appears over there.”  And Laura pointed to the snug table for two, just feet from us, tucked to the left of the fireplace. 

The door of the tavern opened and a short, burly man entered. Judy’s husband, come to pick her up. In jeans, a sweatshirt, and a cap, he appeared to me a no-nonsense kind of guy, rough and weathered, a man who worked with his hands.       

Well! We’d detained these indulgent people far too long, so Dave and I finished the final morsels of our tasty dinners, paid the bill, and put on our coats. As our hosts rose to wrap up business for the day, Judy said, “Feel free to check out the other rooms. We have plenty of stuff to do before closing.”

So, Dave and I played ghost hunters, snapping shots of the stairs, table #2, and the old lady’s cozy corner table, hoping for spectral images, or at least floating orbs, but no luck. Then Dave chatted with Judy’s husband by the bar while I peeked into the adjacent dining room. After reconnoitering, I joined them. Dave turned to me and said, “Listen to this.”

Judy’s husband said, “You’ve been hearing some ghost stories I hear.  Well, this one’s about my mother, and believe me, I wouldn’t make something up about my mother. 

"She'd had a stroke and was paralyzed before she died. Several years later, my brother came to visit the family home with his kids. The children were young, and after dinner, were tucked in early.  Hours later, after we adults had gone to bed, we heard a ruckus upstairs and rushed up to see what was happening.

“The lights were on, and the kids were whirling around the room, all excited.”

“My brother said, ‘What’s this about?  Get back to bed!’”

"But the kids were wound up. 'Grandma was here! She was twirling in her blue dress!  She kept saying, ‘I can dance again!’

“My mother loved to dance,” Judy’s husband said solemnly, his gaze steady. “And she was buried in a blue dress.”

“We tried to trip the kids up,” he continued. “We didn’t believe them. They’d never met my mother, so my brother pulled out an old photo album and pointed to pictures of my aunts thinking the kids were messing with us and would go for that. But they said, ‘No, no, no’ until… ‘That’s her!  That’s Grandma!’ and sure enough. They got it right.”

Maybe little ones retain a toe-hold in the Other Side, enough to more easily spot doting guardian Eleanors or a grandma in a blue dress.  At times, I’ve imagined settling in on the heavenly couch when my time comes, and my loved ones there regaling me with tales of efforts to alert me to their presence. Not that I've been totally obtuse, mind you, nor have friends and family who have wondered about the butterfly flapping persistently at a window or staying, content, on a cheek; feathers in unlikely places; a Mr. Steak matchbook; “Build Me Up Buttercup” broadcast at moments most-needed; a bald eagle’s treetop landing; or “NOSE” painted in white on a rooftop. 

Is it so surprising that despite so many signs, we’re inclined toward doubt when every day we are surrounded by the miraculous and barely notice?

“Faith is what someone knows to be true, whether they believe it or not.”  Flannery O’Conner 


Sunday, November 3, 2019

We are Women, We are… Witches?

With stick brooms, gauzy capes, and flowing black dresses, witches hunch by the fireplace, perch on the mantles, and glower from the kitchen counter. My sisters and I have always reveled in Halloween, and when the scent of the Earth supplants summer’s flowers, when daylight’s vibrant colors flame then give way to early darkness, we welcome the images of these mystical women into our homes.

Every Halloween, when I don my grandmother’s black Victorian cape, a sweeping velvet dress, and yes, a peaked hat, I am a different person. When I am The Witch, I feel powerful. Still, when I stand in the circle of warmth at the edge of our town’s annual Halloween bonfire, entranced by the swirl of sparks and pulsing embers’ glow, I never escape a passing shudder in imagining being staked at its center. 

It seemed to explain some sense of connection when my uncle’s research into our family’s genealogy uncovered a Salem witch. 

When witch hysteria possessed the Massachusetts towns of Salem and Danvers, Zerubabel Endicott and Richard Carr recalled an “experience” of twenty years prior. The two men and Richard’s father, George, had ridden by the Thomas Bradbury property where, the men claimed, a blue boar ran from the house and attacked the senior Carr’s horse. In 1692, the men reported to the authorities that Mary Perkins Bradbury, my ancestor, had, through Satanic means, taken the form of that boar. Despite testimony on Mrs. Bradbury’s behalf from over 100 neighbors and townspeople, she was sentenced to be hanged. 

From a modern perspective, such an accusation seems absurd, although one might see a parallel to current hatreds, fears, and scapegoats, where desperate people seeking asylum are branded “criminals and rapists” and imprisoned. That aside, Dave and I recently toured the Witch House in Salem, and an informative docent impressed on us the fever of terror that fueled the virulence that led to the hanging of nineteen women and the crushing of one man.

No witches, real or imagined, lived in the Witch House; rather, it was the home of an affluent magistrate and judge, Jonathan Corwin. When Judge Nathaniel Saltonstall resigned in protest over the hanging of Bridget Bishop, the first “witch” execution, Corwin was appointed in his place to the Court of Oyer and Terminer. While it’s impossible to know how Judge Corwin viewed the trials, our docent made clear that he, like the townspeople he served, lived with sorrow and fear, as well as the weight of his responsibility.

Crop failure, mortality, and disease were haunting enough, but the possibility of Indian attack was also a nightmarish specter. Only two years before his Salem appointment, Corwin was sent to Maine to evaluate Colonial security and found it sorely lacking. Response to his report lagged, and just weeks after his visit, the town of Casco was assaulted by Indians, many residents murdered, and the town reduced to cinders. 

Surely Satan and his minions were directing such horrors, and everyone was suspect. Corwin’s mother-in-law had already been accused by a servant, and of the Judge’s ten children, only five had survived childhood; three of those yet living were young women. The heartache of such losses is paralyzing to fathom; the urgency of deflecting attention from oneself and one’s loved ones apparent. In a community crazed with terror, no one was safe.  

In truth, those accused and convicted of witchcraft in 1692 were women guilty only of being wise, healers, strong, weak, ugly, or enviable.  In Mary Bradbury’s case, she had spurned the wrong man.  She was 77 at the time of her conviction, a pious woman, a pillar of the community, but in her youth, she refused George Carr’s offer of marriage and chose Thomas Bradbury instead.  That snub stung, and Carr's bitterness simmered for decades. Mary was fortunate that the Court of Oyer and Terminer was suspended before her sentence was carried out, and she was spared.

While the Salem hysteria was rooted in the ravings of impressionable teenagers, and the grudges and concerns of its time, the persecution of women in the Middle Ages spread from different seeds. In her article, “The Thirst for Spirituality and the Rise of Witches,” Julie Peters points to the rise of capitalism as its genesis. “Before the witch hunt era, women held jobs of all kinds. They were bakers, alemakers, smiths, doctors, and even surgeons. The capitalist structure required that these women give up their lives to the service of creating children, the future labor force.” In particular, healers with skills in contraception and abortion were targeted, as they offered women the means to “bodily autonomy and the right to keep their jobs.”

Too familiar. Centuries later, rebellious women have abandoned black peaked hats for pink ones and Senate seats.  As they fight for bodily autonomy and equal treatment in their jobs, they gather and resist, acknowledging continuity with the struggle and injustice faced by those who came before them.  As one sign at the Women's March read, “We are the granddaughters of the witches you weren’t able to burn.” 

From the exhibit at the Witch House:

Saturday, October 19, 2019

A Vision from Pain, Rocks, and Refuse

Toni is blond, animated, and about my age. Her hair is caught up in a ponytail under a baseball cap. Despite the gift of this mild day among a string of those gray and chilly, she’s wearing a fuzzy black vest over an orange turtleneck and jeans.  Dave and I are standing with her in the gravel driveway that circles before her home. As our tour begins, she gestures behind her and says, “Pete brought me up to this rock and said, ‘I’m going to build a castle here, and I want you in it. Will you marry me?”

Our eyes travel the rough stone face of the castle before us with its turrets, balcony, and arches; its walkways, crenellations, and green copper pinnacles.  Toni grins at our awed expressions and says, “Of course, I said ‘yes.’”

Ten days ago, Dave and I were sofa-snug, watching “American Pickers” on TV.  Frank and Mike, the Pickers, rove the country seeking their idea of treasures in attics, dilapidated barns, corroded trailers, and obsolete warehouses.  Their primary interest is vehicles of every kind, and Mike goes into paroxysms over rusty handlebars and seemingly worthless headlights if he knows they’re rare and he has the right collector or a bike they would fit.  Even watching from our sofa, Dave and I share the Pickers’ thrill when the beam of their flashlight passes unexpectedly over the chrome grill of a vintage Rolls Royce or catches the snarl of a carousel lion stored in a tumble-down shed.  

On this particular TV night, Mike and Frank steered their white van into a curving, wooded driveway. As they rounded the bend and broke through the tree cover, they gasped.  “Omigod!  It’s a castle!”

From the couch, Dave and I echoed, “Omigod!  It’s a castle!  Where is it? Back up the tape!  There was a sign at the foot of the driveway!”

Lord knows, TV remotes are not my friends and I would have no clue how to “back up the tape,” but Dave does. Still frame, still frame, still frame….”There! Stop!”

“Wing’s Castle,” said the sign, and as Mike and Frank explored the property and 
out-buildings with Toni Wing, I tapped in a search on Google to find out where it was. “It’s a Bed & Breakfast in Millbrook, New York.  An hour and a half away!  We can GO there!”

Just over a week later, Dave and I stand in Mike and Frank’s footsteps chatting with Toni.  How I love the openness of retirement!  The ability to say “yes!  Let’s go!” And do it! 

“80% of the materials are recycled,” explains our host as we pass the moat that winds from our cottage, the Annex, and under an overhead walkway to the main castle. “Pete grew up on the dairy farm down the hill and knew all the farmers in the area. He’d make the rounds buying decrepit barns in order to use the beams and planking.” Periodically she points out farm implements and tools incorporated into railings and rooflines. We peer more closely and spot iron cogs, wrenches, and augurs used to purposeful and decorative effect. “Often the farmers would say, ‘If you’re taking the barn, take all the crap inside too. What am I gonna to do with it?’”

“Back in the seventies, you were allowed to poke around at the dump, and we acquired all kinds of broken materials – tiles, glass, wrought iron. Pete figured out uses for all of it. He wasn’t an architect.  He’d never done tile work or built an arch. He was a farm boy… and he just learned how to do what he needed.”   

Pete is everywhere and nowhere.  We’d learned from American Pickers that he died in an accident four years ago, but as we tour his castle and marvel at his vision, humor, and craft, he is walking with us, and I surprise myself in tearing up, grieving at the loss of this man I’ve never met.  I miss him. 

From the top of the turret, we gaze out at waves of low rolling hills and distant mountains beyond the winery that was once the Wing family’s dairy farm. Toni leads us down a twisting, narrow stairway, and once outside, draws our attention to a sinuous dragon with glossy tile scales snaking along a half wall. Nearby, a former water tower dome serves as the roof to the meditative Buddha room.  Out front, massive stones rise from the Earth, Stonehenge, overlooking the vineyard.  Familiar items, cast-offs reclaimed and re-imagined, are transformed into gargoyles, weathervanes, heraldic shields, and yes, dragons and Buddhas. 

In the living room of the main house, too, what appears to be the prow of a ship is actually a railing from a Victorian porch.  Colorful carousel horses gallop from wires suspended from the ceiling. “We’d get them at flea markets and tag sales for $25.  No one wanted them.”  In fact, it was a carousel creature that captivated Mike and Frank during their visit. 

Toni leads us down another stone stairway to an underground passage that connects the Annex, where we are staying, to the Dungeon.  I stop and angle my head to better see the floor tiling.  “RIP PETE WING” is set in jagged white letters against a dark background. The letters seem to emanate light in the dim passage. “Pete had completed the exterior of this section,” Toni says.  “He was going to walk through that door to start on the interior the next day.” 

But he died in a car accident.  His son, Charles, is continuing the work, tuned into Pete’s medieval vision as surely as if his father were handing him pieces of tile and directing his next move.  My heart aches for Charles, as I picture him kneeling here, imbedding this tribute to his father.

                                    *                      *                      *

After browsing the so-called collectibles and mid-century relics in the Millbrook antiques mall, Dave selects a primitive wooden mallet, and I find a weighty black mortar and pestle. It would look great on the mantle at home and I hope it dates from the nineteenth century as the label states.  The vendor is chatty and friendly when we approach the desk to settle up. “So, where are you staying?” he asks.

To our response, he says, “Mmm. The owner died in a car accident a few years ago.” We tell him we’d heard, but he has a story to tell and continues. “He was driving a rare three-wheeled car to the vintage car show in Rhinebeck. Lost control of the car. Maybe hit a pothole or something? The last words he spoke to the EMS guys were, “Don’t tell my wife…’” 

My eyes fill at those words, and as we head to the next shop, I reflect on Pete’s message. Beyond the obvious, what did it mean? Had Toni asked him not to go? 

When we return to the castle, we Google Pete’s obituary.  He’d been driving a 1936 Morgan Supersport.  The article said speed was not a factor in the accident… perhaps a malfunction of the rear tire.  The Morgan does not have a seat belt, and Pete was ejected. 

We continue to discover that Pete is a legend in Millbrook. At Nooch’s for dinner, we sit at the bar and order bourbon-glazed salmon, broccoli and mashed potatoes. Jim, the bartender, is about fifty, attractive, tall, and graying.  “Where you folks staying?” he asks after establishing we’re not locals. We tell him, and his eyes widen. He says, “I saw the castle in its earliest stages. I was about four. I took my kids over to visit when they were little and they loved it. That man, Pete, was crazy talented.  He could do anything.”  

Our dinners are served, and Jim waits on other patrons. A balding man sets up an electronic trivia game in the corner.  Jim comes by to check on us and, without prompting, remarks, “I’ll tell you, Viet Nam was not kind to him. Pete came back from the war and disappeared into his basement for about six months. He dealt with it eventually. He carved life-sized statues for a number of stores in town. Not sure where they are now. Maybe you can find some old pictures?”

                        *                      *                      *

Morning sunlight slants through a slice of window as Dave sits reading in an antique straight-backed chair.  Beside him, the front door is gothic in design, one of many doors salvaged by the Wings. “We had a whole shed full of doors!”  Toni has told us, and each one is unique.  Even our bathroom door is beautiful, made of deep red cherry wood carved in gentle folds to emulate curtains. 

I’m writing at the long dining room table before a brick fireplace. A full suit of armor stands guard at his station by the door to our tiny Tuscan-style kitchen. Pete imagined everything that surrounds me.  With Toni’s constant help, that of their kids as they grew, and occasionally from friends, he conveyed the castle in his mind to paper, and then, to reality. Toni labored and lived the castle’s creation too, hauling barn beams, hefting rocks, and clambering over refuse in search of finds at the dump, yet Pete is always the one acclaimed. I wonder… has it been hard for Toni, to be cast so often as supporting player in Pete’s production?    

And there were many acts to Pete’s story, eagerly offered at the mere mention of his castle. Enthralled as we were, we never sought information, but with each trip to town, we learned something new.  Pete built a haunted house that still opens every Halloween. During the summer, he ran a theater camp that specialized in Shakespeare. During our initial tour, Toni had directed our gaze to a window above a walkway that had featured in many performances.  She recalled a rehearsal, and a young thespian’s complaint that, as Juliet, she had to appear on a balcony.  “Pete said, ‘Don’t worry.  You’ll have your balcony in time for the show.’” 

“As you see,” she said, “he was as good as his word.” 


Monday, October 7, 2019

Strangers No More

The soft glow of candlelight.  Well-worn plank floors.  Low, beamed ceilings tinged by centuries of smoky fires. A blaze leaping, orange and hot, beneath an ancient mantle.  The clatter of glassware and pewter, a murmur of conversation. With ease, I mentally garbed our server in Colonial mop cap and apron while I settled into a seat across from Dave in the 1700’s tavern with a sense of cozy familiarity. 

Dave has hazy memories of robes sweeping sandy soil, and his feet, sandal-clad, during a former life in Medieval times. My comfort in Revolutionary settings is so total I feel I must have worn that skin before.  A guide to castles and dungeons of the Middle Ages might have been a fitting Christmas gift for Dave, but I’d chosen “Taverns of the American Revolution” by Adrian Covert instead. 

Over the following months, Dave and I have snuggled up with Mr. Covert, charting future jaunts to battle sites, historic homes, and taverns. The Griswold Inn in Essex, featured in Covert’s book, is only an hour from our home, and has become one of our favorite destinations. 

Open for business since 1776, The Griswold Inn (fondly known as “The Gris” to locals) survived a sneak British attack during the war of 1812 that left 27 ships aflame, decimating the town’s shipbuilding industry.  The inn is gracious, beautiful, and comfortable, and beyond its history, boasts several unique features.  

One of the inn’s dining rooms is made of wood salvaged from an old covered bridge, and the Taproom is a repurposed 1738 schoolhouse.  Among the antique firearms displayed in one dining area is a musket, and with it, an aged handwritten note dated July 7, 1776, that was discovered in its barrel:

“My dear son Jared,
I send you this my gun,
Do not handle it in fun,
But with it make ye British run,
Join ye ranks of Washington,
And when our independence is won,
We will take a drink of good old rum.  

In a way, my own past seems almost fiction, as hazy and unreal as Dave’s stroll through dusty medieval streets in the thirteenth century, so grasping history as the lives of real people is a stretch for me.  But as I read Jared’s father’s note, I could picture him putting quill pen to paper, squinting in the dim light of a candle at a scarred wooden tavern table. Most likely, he quaffed some ale or rum as he urged his son to join the cause of independence two days after the Declaration was approved. I hope Jared survived the war and lived to share that celebratory toast with his dad.

On this evening at The Gris in 2019, without threat of British interruption, Dave and I sipped red wine and beamed at each other as our server set down platters of salmon with creamy leek, mustard, and wine sauce, and trout over beans with roasted tomatoes.  Heaven. 

Meanwhile, we could see from our fireside table that the adjacent Taproom was filling in.  The crowd was a mix of ages and predominantly male.  Regulars, I guessed, by the grins, greetings, and glasses raised high.  The Gris boasts live music every day of the week, year round, and while we couldn’t make out the words, it was clear from all the “fare thee well, me lads” and talk of tossing seas that we’d happened upon chantey night with The Jovial Crew. 

Dave and I finished dinner as robust bass voices rolled and rumbled in unison, swelling in waves to carry us toward the Taproom as sure as fair winds bear sailors back to their families.

“Remember Lad, he’s still your dad, though he’s working far from home…”

As we inched between the companionable patrons, a muscled, portly, skinny, clean-shaven, tattooed, and flannel-shirted lot, I noticed all of them were singing. All of them!  No one checked cell phones, and no TV distracted with the shriek of a referee’s whistle or the squeak of sneakers on polished wood. Every face was turned toward the five musicians up front, and every person knew the lyrics.  Each song was hallooed as an old favorite as guitar, fife, vocals, and concertina* spun tales of homesickness, travel, good rum, and women. The Old OhioRunning down to CubaFishin’ for a Whale, and The Girls of Old Maui begged that we bemoan and bellow, and the singers supplied the chorus in a call-and-response so newcomers like us could not plead ignorance and stay silent. 

Eventually, I managed to snag a seat near the door, and saw that new arrivals edging into the bar picked up whatever song was underway, joining in as they shrugged off coats and raised a finger to order a beer. 

During a break, the man in the seat across from me said he learned the chanteys when he was a Boy Scout. “The scoutmaster used to come here on Mondays and then teach us scouts the songs around the campfire.”  He gestured toward the lead vocalist, a sturdy guy with a close-shaven beard and white hair.  “Cliff has been singing chanteys at The Gris on Monday nights for 47 years.” Soon thereafter, Cliff, having spotted us, the only strangers in the crowd, sidled over to introduce himself.  “So, first time here!  Where you folks from?”

Much as it’s always been in convivial taverns – even when revolutions were being planned, tea parties hatched, and drafts of broadsides and pamphlets scribbled – conversation flowed freely between sets.  Members of The Jovial Crew and those around us made sure we didn’t feel like outsiders. Tim, the tall, white-bearded vocalist for the band, told us,  “These are work songs. I can hear chanteys sung in foreign languages and know the job being done by the nature of the rhythm. Think about it.  Most of those sailors were 14 to 17.  Boys. They missed their moms and girlfriends.  They were homesick and horny!  The chanteys tapped into that to perform the work of keeping them synchronized while hauling up sails or anchor.” 

Indeed, the songs chosen for the third set were clearly created to keep those lusty boys focused. The lyrics were joyously raunchy and the crowd belted them out with grins and gusto.  A slew of verses I’d never heard in that innocent old ditty She’ll be Coming Around the Mountain would certainly fuel a young lad’s fantasies while he swabbed decks and hauled ropes. “You had to hold those boys’ attention!” said Tim.  “That’s what interested them!”

It seemed we could all sing together forever, but ways must surely part.  Lynn Anne, the server, bustled about, smiling and singing along, but probably ready to call it a night. Chairs scratched across the floor. Empty glasses were set on the bar and tables. But instead of leaving, people circled the room and linked arms. Obviously, it was the thing to do, so Dave and I rose, a bit befuddled, and searched for a spot.  There was a gap near the door so we angled that way.  A hubbub of protest from around the room rang out, “Wait!  No! You can’t leave now!”

Oh!  How lovely to be so welcomed! “We’re just trying to find a place in the circle,” we stammered.  Room was made for us, and we squeezed in.  Swaying together, we all bid farewell, strangers no more, singing, “Rolling home to old New England. Rolling home across the sea.”    

*concertina: small bellow-like instrument with buttons for keys and handles on each of the two hexagonal ends.  

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Skin Deep

The young woman bent at the waist, camera held to a squinted eye as she turned the lens for better focus on a pink hollyhock.  On this sweltering sunny day, Dave and I had taken refuge under a shady trellis in the Edgefield Inn's garden, and had noticed her, a colorful blossom herself, amid the profusion of flora.  

Her head was partially shaved, the remaining hair dyed magenta and pulled in a ponytail. Her arms, chest, and shoulders were a swirl of tattoos.  While her look was exotic, her partner appeared scholarly. Dark-haired, bearded, and be-spectacled, he, like us, sat beneath a trellis, and was absorbed in the large book open on his lap. 

We’d seen the couple in passing before, and now, as we had then, as everyone did at Edgefield, we nodded and said hello as we left the garden. 

That afternoon, it was studious John and tattooed Clarissa who settled in at the steamy river pool, close enough to us that conversation was a given. We were not surprised to learn John was a physicist, a scientist like his father, and Clarissa, a tattoo artist. We reminded them of our brief encounter earlier in the garden and Clarissa said, “Lots of people like flower tattoos, so I keep a portfolio of possibilities.  I like to offer a wide range.”

While floating idly or sitting neck deep in water on seats carved into the sides of the pool, we covered John’s degrees and aspirations, but found we had more questions about Clarissa’s field. What was your favorite project? How deep does the needle go?  How do you control the depth? How do you promote speedy healing? And how do you handle a drunken request for a girlfriend’s name inscribed on a butt?

“I never tattoo someone who’s been drinking.  Alcohol thins the blood and there’d be too much bleeding,” Clarissa stated firmly.

Huh. I’d never thought about blood as a complicating factor in tattoo art, but of course it is. Not easy to “paint” with a needle and ink while swabbing up gore.  

“Plus, the image can change some during the healing process, so I include a follow-up to make any adjustments necessary, “ she explained. 

Dave asked, “What do you practice on?” 

“Humans,” said Clarissa.

“Husbands,” corrected John. We laughed as he lifted the leg of his swim trunks to reveal a graceful, flowing image of a bear and two ravens on his upper thigh. Wow. Truth is, although I’d heard the term “tattoo artist” before, I confess I’d not given much credence to the “artist” part; meeting Clarissa and seeing her work convinced me.  If she lived in Connecticut, I’d get a tattoo.

When Dave asked her, “How’s business?” Clarissa mentioned the spike in requests for tattoos around mastectomy scars. I have not sought that route, but told her I’d had the surgery.

She was thoughtful a moment and said, “Do you mind if I ask about the length and process of your treatments?” 

I did not and gave her a run down.  

“My father had a brain tumor,” she said, and described his surgery and chemo, and the gallows humor he employed to keep the family’s spirits up. 

“How’s he doing?” I asked.

“He passed in December,” she said.  Her sunglasses masked her eyes, but she was quiet and still in the water.  She was about 28 years old and had just lost her father. I was tempted to tell her about Mom’s recent death, but I’m never sure when “I know how you feel because I…” builds a bridge of common experience, and when it’s an intrusion into someone else’s story. I decided to hold back, but I knew her pain, and oh, how I felt for her. 

Tattooed, retired, or trying to be trans; liberal… or even more liberal; aware of the fear of a dread diagnosis; bereft of a father or mother: all of us are doing our best in the hot tub of life. If everyone were required to strip to near-naked and spend time together in a warm, salty pool, maybe we’d be gentler with each other.