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Andree Harivel, my friend

July 23, 2020

Arromanches, Normandy

11 August 1994

To James

“Just to let you remember from Normandy and your Friend Dédée.

            A woman of no importance who will not forget—1944.”

–Dédée

One of my life’s greatest friendships began in Paris, France one evening as I exited the Métro (subway), a bottle of Côtes du Rhône wine under my left arm.  I was ready for a dinner with friends of friends who had rented an apartment in the Quatorzième Arrondissement, a charming section of the city a bit further to the South than the Sixième where my rented room on the Rue Boissonade was located.  (The 14th is known for not only the entrance to the Catacombs of the city, but also fine restaurants and shops serving food in the style of France’s western most province, Brittany.)  It was crowded on the train that night, and as I was leaving the iconic turquoise green and white striped RATP subway car, a woman attempting to carry a particularly heavy suitcase on her own found herself, a bit winded, next to me.  I interrupted her attempts to regain her forces and said, “Ma’am, could I be of help to you with that suitcase?”  “Oh no, she replied,” a look of fear on her face, which caused me to say, “Oh, it’s ok, ma’am, I am not here to rob you.  I am an American student living here in Paris.”  I pointed to my bottle of wine, and continued, “I was invited to dinner not far from here this evening.  I am not in a hurry.  I could lug that suitcase for you, if it would make life easier for you tonight.”  “Well, alright then.”  “Do you live far from here?”  “Not really, but you don’t have to do this.”  “I am fine, really.  Shall we get going then?”

That short walk across the clear-skied evening in one of the Squares of Paris forever changed my life.

As we walked, Andrée, as she introduced herself, explained that she had just returned from Germany where her work had taken her for several weeks.  She worked for an American company, General Electric, in their industrial diamonds’ division.  I explained that I was living in Paris as part of my studies and that I was enjoying the city very much, though wishing I knew more about the other regions of France.  I explained that I had arrived about six months earlier and had spent some time in Brittany (Sables d’Olonne with my friend Raphaëlle at first and later in Quimperlé with my penpal, Delphine, whose family had invited me for Christmas).  Brittany, I told her, was a wonderfully beautiful place which reminded me of my home, Maine, back in the States.  As it turned out, Andrée was born in Brittany, and still had family there near the provincial capital, Rennes.

We walked for not more than twenty minutes as Andree told me about her Mom, who had encouraged her to go to the city to find work, make something of herself, and be able to retire comfortably.  At that point in her life, Andrée had done just that, and was a Cadre in the company.  She enjoyed her job very much, especially when interacting with her American counterparts in Ohio, but openly wondered to me if her accent might use a little work.  I told her that there were indeed exercises that she could do to work on her American accent, and wow her work friends.  We arrived at the door to her Immeuble and she offered me one of her Cartes de Visite and said that she would enjoy exploring those exercises further, if I didn’t mind being paid to share ‘state secrets’.

I don’t recall much about the dinner that I eventually made my way to that evening.  I was quite excited at the possibility of having a new friend, and even better, one who was offering to pay me a little for some language lessons, money which would allow me to more fully enjoy the city.  I point out that I didn’t grow up in a place where there were bars (my hometown is still ‘dry’ and no alcohol can be bought or sold there) and where restaurants included the local pizza shop and a place one step up from a Mom-and-Pop diner, so going out on the town was not really in my makeup.  When I say that I wanted to enjoy the city more, I mean that I would make a mad dash each Saturday morning, quite early, to the Marché Brassens, an open-air market specializing in secondhand books!  I would take my fresh 100ff bill, pick up a small sachet of pains au chocolat (what my friends in the South of France call chocolatine) at the boulangerie at the exit of the Porte de Vanves, and make my way up the hill to the park where on Saturdays and Sundays book collectors and vendors from all over the region assembled every week.  It was like a giant version of the little used bookshop, Pro Libris, in Bangor, ME, that my mother so enjoyed.  One could find anything at that market from leather-bound volumes edged with real gold, to art books, to official government proceedings.  After a while, some of the vendors recognized me by name and would have some paperbacks of classic French literature set aside for me.  “You just have to read this—this book IS France!” one vendor would say, only to be contradicted by the one next to him stating, “Eh, oh, if it is the true France that the jeune homme wants to know, he needs THIS book in his collection!”  I would purchase each week a handful of Livres de poche for between five and fifteen francs each (a short Camus novel, probably 5ff, but one of the twenty-plus, nice thick Zolas that I bought, that was more likely 15ff each).  The vendors would sometimes put my purchases in a little paper sack which I stuffed into my blue knapsack which I carried everywhere.  When I would get back to my room and haul out my market finds, there were at times, other books which had been snuck in, a little note reading, “You can’t trust that other guy—he is a communist.  You need to read this one instead!”  My books, which soon would no longer fit on the two little shelves that I had in my rented room, helped me to keep my abibliophobia (fear of not having enough books) in check.  And since I was largely alone in the city, these books were my constant companions when I could not be with friends from my classes at the Université de Nanterre.

I called Andrée the afternoon following our first subway encounter since she said she had the day off, and I arranged to meet her again outside of her apartment the following Thursday.  When I arrived next at her home, she was just returning from the Marché Edgar Quinet, near the Tour Montparnasse, and had picked up some nice farm fresh eggs and fines herbes to make an omelet for dinner.  She invited me to join her, offering, if I would accept, to pay me about 100 French francs and a warm dinner in exchange for the language lessons each week.  I would have accepted to work with her just for the dinners, mind you, but graciously accepted the multi-colored currency as well.  We would cook together (which turned out to be cooking lessons for me since Andrée was fearful that I would be condemned to a lifetime of eating hamburgers) and speak in English to help her with her accent.  We would then enjoy our meal with a lovely bottle of wine (she had excellent taste), in French so that we could get to know each other better.

            That Spring, I expressed an interest in going to see some of Normandy and asked if she had suggestions for places along a train route that I could go visit cheaply.  She squealed, “Why don’t you come to my other house!?”  Andrée’s mother had, beside encouraging her to work in the city, inspired her to buy a townhouse out on the coast of Normandy in a town called Courseulles-sur-Mer, known since the Second World War as Juno Beach, a landing beach for the Canadian troops on D-Day.  We met later on Friday afternoon at the Gare St. Lazare, the rail station in Paris which fed trains out to the Northern parts of France, where Andrée instructed me to buy an SNCF Modulo Pass so that I could enjoy a significant price reduction on my weekly tickets to the coast.  Weekly tickets!?  I had trouble scraping up enough to get the one ticket to Caen, and here she was telling me that I would need to get a frequent traveler pass!  I did, of course, and we began a weekly adventure to the coast.  And when it came time for me to end my scholastic year in Paris, she offered to let me stay in her home during the week, and she would join me there on the weekends.  We had so much fun together!

            Living in France was lonely at first.  I didn’t tend to hang out a lot with my American classmates who were also on the program with me.  I tried whenever possible to either be reading or listening to something in French if I couldn’t be with one of my friends from the University.  I dated for while and had the circle of friends that came with that (and later disappeared just as quickly when we broke up), but otherwise, there were a lot of hours for me to wander the city.  I would sit alone in a park with my book to read, being careful so as not to step on the grass (completely forbidden in Parisian parks).  I would at times, take myself to a Gaumont theater and watch a movie.

Dédée, as she implored me to call her, insisting then too on the informal Tu form of the verb (which trust me, is a big deal in France) and I began our traveling adventures in and around the city of Caen, home to William the Conquerer, whose chateau can still be visited.  (From Caen, we could take a regional bus out to the coast where Dédée had her résidence secondaire.)  On one trip, we selected some nice table cloth fabric at a local shop and when her sister, Thérèse, and brother-in-law, Michel, arrived with their little dog, Mumuse, to spend the weekend with us, we dug out Dédée’s Mom’s war-time Singer sewing machine and put a hem to them.  Thérèse was quick to point out that my sewing skills were not any better than Dédée’s, who she said “sewed like a knitting cat”.  Their Mom had made some money during the war, washing clothes for the GIs, and sewing French style collars on their shirts by shortening the lower hem and repurposing the fabric.

            Dédée’s family, sisters Jeannine and Thérèse, adopted me as one of their own.  My visits to Normandy now included trips to the city of Rouen, where Joan of Arc met her demise, and stops along Haute Normandie (as opposed to Basse Normandie where Courseulles is located).  Members of the FFRP (la Fédération Française de Randonnée Pédestre), Thérèse and Michel loaned me all the equipment I would need to join their group of friends on bike rides across the French countryside.  They graciously offered me lodging and meals along the way.  We would visit Brittany, Normandy, the Massif Central, and more over the course of the spring of 1994 and later when I would return to France in 1995.  Dédée also introduced me to some of her work friends like Sonia, whose Dad had left Spain during the Civil War there and never returned.  Sonia lived not far from the cloistered community where the Sainte Thérèse of Liseux had spent her life as a nun (Thérèse has been a highly influential model of sanctity for Catholics and for others because of the simplicity and practicality of her approach to the spiritual life).

What was best about my friendship with Dédée and her family is that our time together afforded me the opportunity to live, really live, in France and come to understand their way of life.  My experiences there were greater than those that I would have had by remaining in my Paris rented room.  Learning a language is one challenge, for which I had excellent training with Middlebury College, but learning to be a part of another culture is quite another.  There is so much to know ‘under the surface’.  Thanks to my time with Dédée, I could tell you about French films which are quoted in everyday language, the cherished ‘cul noir’ pottery of the region, no longer made today, set an elegant table with Faïence from the Henriot company in Brittany, and enjoy a leisurely five or six hour meal among friends as they celebrate a Premier Communion, or follow along behind a family as they walk from the chapel to a cemetery plot to lay to rest one of their own.  I came to understand that life didn’t have to be ‘Métro, Boulot, Dodo’ (Subway, work, sleep, to the exclusion of all else, as life in America tends to be).  I got to see how the social plans of France included proper vacation time for ALL workers and not just those who were happy enough to work for a generous boss.  Jeannine was a hard worker; she cleaned the common areas for any number of buildings and businesses.  She, even as a maid, was afforded five full weeks of vacation every summer.  My dad, who had by then worked more than 30 years for the same company, had to beg for a few days off each year.  He had to beg the bastards for a few days!

When my parents sought to come to France to visit me, it was Dédée’s family, and friends from the village of Courseulles who welcomed them as though we were all members of Eisenhower’s D-Day landing party itself!  They chipped in so that my family could afford to rent a large van to accommodate the four of them and the three of us and tour the sites related to Le Débarquement.  They treated us to picnic lunches and delicious warm meals at night.  At one point, on the Sixth of June, we would end up in the Canadian Cemetery near Banville-sur-Mer, a neighboring town to Courseulles, where we would meet Bernadette and Jean GALTIE and their family, including Bernadette’s Mom, Marie CHIROT, of whom I was so fond.  I would spend a lot of my time with Marie, especially, when I returned to France for my graduate studies.

What I treasure most about my time spent with Dédée is that I always felt respected and valued.  She would come to visit me a pair of times in the United States in the years after our first meeting.  She was a part of my ‘chosen family’, and I couldn’t have loved her more than I had my own Mom, also gone too soon.

My dear Dédée passed away recently; she was in her 84th year.  She had some neck and spinal cord issues which caused her quite a lot of pain, and obliged her to spend some of her final days in a nursing care facility in Ouistreham.  I have not had the chance to speak with her sisters, and I hope that I can soon, but am relieved to know that her nephew, Yannick, will be taking care of her final wishes.  In 1994, when she was there to shower me with love and kindness, she offered me a photo of a GI’s helmet resting on the sea foam of Normandy’s coast.  She dedicated the back of the photo with the inscription which opens this essay.  For me, at least, Andrée Harivel is certainly NOT “a woman of no importance”.  My heart, broken with grief today, is fuller because of the kindness that she willing shared with me all of these many years.  She embodied FRIENDSHIP.

Holiday Greetings, 2019!

January 4, 2020

This year proved the importance of learning what we did not already know.  While most of you are aware that we live in an old Victorian on the banks of Lake Monona, on the isthmus of Madison, some of you may not be aware that this grand old home had been turned in to a condominium duplex in the early 1980s; the other owner, a nonagenarian German woman, decided a year ago December that she was ready to sell and had her realtor contact us with the news.  Being friendly guys (and continually caught off guard by this old Nazi—not a euphemism, she escaped Berlin in 1945 when the Russians invaded) we wrote back with Christmas greetings and acknowledged our interest in making the purchase.  Little did we know that in writing a few simple lines, it would be seen as relinquishing our right to have independent realtors working solely on our behalf.  Clearly that could not stand and we did indeed hire our own realtors, Wil and Robin, who guided us through an array of inspections and the ‘rules of the road’.  They were wonderful and we were glad to have such competent help on our side!

With that, we undertook a seven-month odyssey, which ultimately resulted in our purchasing the second and third floors of this old structure; the process also tested the limits of our patience and forbearance.  Under the condo by-laws, we had the right of first refusal but that did not mean that the seller would not attempt a number of truly illegal maneuvers to deny us that right.  That said, we also sought the help of a skilled attorney, Ethan.  An incisive writer, he helped set the process back on track. When the attorney asked how the opening salvo should sound, Gregory gave the Midwestern desire for “something pithy and with verve”.  James said he wanted to (in this very cleaned up version of events) “shuck it down to the cob”.  The lawyer smiled, said he could meld the ideas.  In a few weeks the seller saw the situation differently; we think the very serious threat of lawsuit seeking both punitive and compensatory damages helped her cataract-laden eyes to see more clearly.

She capitulated.  We signed the documents for ownership on July 31st. and handed over a check for more than the place was worth and have never been happier.  We thank here our friends Jennifer, Anne and Rolf who each in their own way helped make various aspects of this project come together.  They are our unsung heroes in all of this.  They helped us to ensure peace and tranquility in our future; it does seem that you can indeed put a price tag on happiness, as our closing statement proves.  Purchasing the unit meant we were no longer plagued with the old woman (they didn’t all go to Argentina!), nor would we have a lifetime of dealing with her drug addicted children and grandchildren (also not an exaggeration).

But what do either of us know of carpentry?  James has often told friends that he knows a lot of the theory about home repair, but that he lacks the practice.  These skills, as Providence would have it, are not in fact hereditary.  After two gallons of spackle and thirty gallons of paint, countless repairs to this and that, replacing all of the appliances and more, the upper two floors now resemble the ground floor where we have lived for the past twelve years.  Over a six-week period, John, Frank and Jeremiah of Isthmus Electric completely rewired the unit, bringing it from nob and tube (which in many cases was fished through the walls next to the gas lines for the lighting system in use prior to that) up to modern codes.  When Gregory asked the head electrician to explain the dangers that had been found, he rounded the answer by stating “You no longer have anything to worry about”.  James had already informed the man that Gregory’s fire-phobia runs deep, and that less information might be best when talking on that topic.

In reality, dangerous situations were bountiful since the former owner, a thief, had not only duct-taped Christmas light wiring into a nob and tube circuit to function as a kitchen light, but also removed all the operating dials and thermostat from her GAS stove so that there was no way to regulate it, and then to top it off, had eleven different circuits tapping into our electric lines so we could pay for them—she did though put the neutral lines in to her own box, generously.  For years she had been a constant source of harassment:  she had attempted to hire a lawyer so as to remove our American flag from flying atop a pole on the lawn; we found post it notes in her office with the numbers and complaints she had filed against us at THIRTY different government offices.  In short, our main goal starting on July 31 was to remove every trace of that nightmare; James went so far as to ask students familiar with Harry Potter how to hunt for horcruxes, just in case.  In other words, there is no way to express our joy about removing every fingerprint of that woman from our home.

The complete second floor, minus the balcony which we refurbished and painted a Porcelain Blue, will be rented with our target demographic being professors teaching a semester at UW-Madison, those on sabbatical, or businesspeople who wish for a rental part-time.  We are renting it furnished as we worked too long on making everything look nice to allow for anyone to cart furniture up and down our front U-shaped staircase and spoil the walls or woodwork there.

We call the third floor (attic) the Annex (the Anne Frank reference not to be missed) with James taking the unfinished 400 square feet of space and insulating them, staining the wood floor, and carpet tiling a section.  With the genuine carpentry skills of the fellow, Eliott, who redesigned our office a year ago, he will add some bookshelves and a day bed.  James is thinking that the addition of a grand leather chair by a window will make for a perfect reading nook.  We gain access to our private third floor hideaway via a winding wooden staircase in the back of the house.

In the other 600 square feet of the furnished third floor an uplifting yellow along with some period pieces, such as a round hewn oak table, and chiffonier from the 1890s make up, in part, the broadcasting studio which Gregory has wanted for a number of years.  With microphones, mixer, and a computer dedicated solely for Audicity he has started a pod cast, Doty Land, which comprises long-form interviews with people about ideas and interesting topics.  The first show is to go live as soon as the rest of the distributors, such as iHeartRadio, have linked to his RSS feed http://dotyland.buzzsprout.com/ .  James Doty, a land speculator, was the first European person to own our land in 1832.  The historical connection makes for smiles behind the microphone.

In professional news, James enjoys his retirement from teaching and continues to grow his guardianship business with new clients, and employees who give assistance to ensure the needs of those not able to make their own decisions are met.

We send our warmest wishes to you all this holiday season.  Stop by for a visit and share in our good fortune over a cup of joe, or a nice glass of red.  Merry Christmas!

A Half a Lifetime Ago

June 21, 2019

My mornings are sacrosanct.  I don’t get out of bed early unless absolutely necessary, but I am almost always up before Gregory.  I have to be—he is a chatter box; if I am not fully awake before he is, his life risks being seriously cut short.  I like to ease into my day.  I don’t like being peppered with questions or feel the need to make decisions beyond what breakfast (my least favorite meal of the day) should entail.  I like an hour of “me time” to read my emails, check out what crazy things my friends near and far on facebook are getting up to, research a bit of genealogy (a fantastic hobby), and more.  I have developed these habits of mine over the past few decades and I am sticking to them for as long as I can.  When asked in a conference about what I would miss the most were I be obligated to go and live in an assisted living, as most of my clients do, I responded quite openly, “Peace and quiet”.

Peace and quiet may seem to many as a death sentence, but I tend to consider it a perk that only people who never had children get to enjoy.  In fact, most of the people with whom I was in high school have children who are old enough to either be looking at graduate programs or young enough this year to be considering colleges and universities to begin their formal post-secondary education.  My friend, Mary (Goulet) Beeman, and her daughter came to Madison to visit recently for just that—her daughter is an upcoming Senior in her Indiana high school and is contemplating her future path.  As a pretext, I invited them here to tour our university.  The daughter was simply awe-struck by the experience.  My real mission, though—to compel my childhood pal, Mary, to drive seven hours out of her way to come and visit me, even though some twenty-five or more years had passed since last we hugged and told each other in person how much we missed the other.  I was not disappointed, and Mary, to this day, still gives a great hug!

Mary came into my life when we were in middle school.  Her family lived in Bradford, one of the least populous of the five towns which sent students to the schools in our district.  My graduating class of kids from those five communities in rural Maine had but sixty-nine students, a number we liked to joke about at the time.  Mary was, at least for a while, in the band with me, she played the trombone and I the trumpet.  She was in a group called “peer helpers” with me, and took Spanish classes from Mrs. Deal, a teacher who was a true inspiration to me at the time.  She was a member of the Upward Bound program, a TRiO foundation program designed to help us be the ‘first generation’ of our families to go to college.  Amusingly, she dated, at least briefly, one of the boys who had been a roommate of mine in that program.  (He was a great guy, but no housekeeper.  I had threatened to burn his laundry in the middle of our dorm room if he didn’t wash it.  He laughed.  I hauled out a zippo lighter.  He borrowed several dollars’ worth of quarters, opting to remedy the situation post haste rather than tempt my good nature!  I was called a lot of names growing up, but no one ever doubted my sincerity, nor did they make the mistake twice of finding out that not only was I smart and creative, but at times, just a little mean.)

James with Mary Goulet Beeman

It was years after I had left high school, that Mary and I were speaking on the phone and she said to me, “You know, I was really quite heartbroken when you turned down my invitation to Prom.”  I had to admit to her that I had no recollection of the invitation.  I had told her that I was not going to be available because I was scheduled to participate in All-State where I had been selected to sing as a tenor in the choir.  That was true and I had a wonderful experience.  What I must not have told her at the time was why I was more interested in singing with a group of strangers rather than exploring a deeper friendship with her.  For that, I am sorry.

I have written before about growing up in a small community in rural Maine.  I was the smart kid, and I never fit in with my peers.  And to be honest, I didn’t always make a lot of effort to do so either.  That would have meant that I would have had to feign interest in some sport, which I still can’t do, or pretend that I cared about cars, which I still to this day have never owned, or any number of other activities that simply did not interest me.  My classmates, as Mary alluded to this past week when she visited, were exceptionally cruel in their treatment of me, and seemingly there was no way to put a stop to it as an observer from the outside—in part out of fear of having the same treatment metered out toward them, or because I was good at giving the illusion that everything was ok.  Nonetheless, the bullying was relentless and hurtful.  I spent years dreaming of becoming a millionaire, returning to my hometown to start a major industry of some sort and hire an HR firm to ensure that no one, nor anyone related to someone who had abused me ever got a job in my company… it was the related part that would teach that town of inbreds the biggest lesson, I thought.  (I don’t waste energy on these kinds of thoughts any longer, even though a few years ago, just after my mother had passed away, I was fired from all of the volunteer positions I had held in that town because the former school secretary’s bastard of a husband had learned that I am a gay man.  Apparently, gay men should not be allowed to fundraise on behalf of the school’s alumni association, nor should they be allowed to work in any serious way with the critically understaffed historical society in town.  That would just be too much, I guess.  Even as someone who lived outside of town for a pair of decades at that point, the black ball of politics in those small towns is real—what is worse is that the two women from the historical society who came to tell me that my services were no longer of use to their group couldn’t even look me straight in the eye, the treacherous wenches!)

Rather than slink away in some sort of depression, I was very busy as a high school student.  I went back this evening to my college application to see what I had felt important enough to list as ‘extracurriculars’ as I wrapped up my time in Maine.  I was very involved in twenty-eight clubs or organizations!  I am not talking about the kinds of activities where one could attach one’s name and claim it on a resume; I was genuinely involved, and more often in a leadership role in those things.  At one point, in my junior year, one of my teachers made note to me that it had been a long time since I had attended a full week of classes.  I asked, seemingly innocently, if he felt my grades were suffering as a result.  The discussion stopped there since I was still at the top of my class.

I recall being in meetings and attending conferences and doing everything that I could just to keep myself busy.  I still have some of my supercharged pocket calendars from the time—though mine were much more of a mature read than Justice Kavanaugh’s were at his Senate confirmation hearings!

The guidance counselors at my school were worse than useless and were often quite degrading.  Once, as I was fighting with one of them to get an advanced class that I wanted, I was told that perhaps I shouldn’t really set my sights beyond being a plumber or a carpenter.  I replied, angrily, “I am your f-ing class valedictorian!  If I couldn’t make in college, who of my idiot classmates could!?”  There were kids in my class who genuinely feared that the school would not sign a diploma on their behalf because of their poor performance.  One, after all of the ceremonies had ended, my valedictory address concluded, caught me examining my diploma closely as well.  “What gives?” the guy asked me.  Coldly, I stated, “I am not coming back to get them to fix the error if they didn’t sign it!”  It was the closest that kid and I had ever been in spirit.

I have thought a great deal over the years about what makes me most angry about the years I lived growing up in Maine.  Don’t get me wrong.  I still consider Maine to be my home and Wisconsin is where I live, in large measure because I feel that my parents were fantastic role models who gave me a solid moral compass.  But I do still harbor resentments in my heart for the abuse that I suffered at the hands of my peers and much of the faculty of the school I attended.  Once, when I was home on vacation to visit with my folks, I had apparently ignored one of my former classmates when greeted at the then new grocery store in town.  The classmate corned my mother later in the week and expressed the following, “Wow, James has become such a snob!”  Mom replied dryly, “Oh no, dear, he has always been a snob; he just isn’t faking it for you any longer!”  Mom was so right.  I lived a total of 19 years in Maine, some 8 years in places like Vermont, New Jersey and Virginia as well as in France in Spain, and finally the last 19 years here in Wisconsin.  I think what makes me most angry is that TIME was stolen from me.

In short, I spent so much of my youth thinking about what else to be DOING rather than thinking about just BEING my best self.  I was raised well-fed and cared for but mired in dissatisfaction.  I came home from the first day of kindergarten, if my mother’s journal is to be believed, and said, “I am so bored!”  It never got better.  I tried reaching out to those who might listen and often had the impression that there was no one there.  I craved challenge—once, when an English teacher handed me back my paper with an A at the top but not a single comment, I marched it back to her and demanded she do a better job.  She did.  I even, with what limited foreign language skills I had at the time, went so far as to collect pen pals the world over with whom I regularly corresponded, just to be able to see beyond the outer limits of our town.  (International postage stamps were $.52 apiece then; I spent a lot of money on stamps).  With my epistolary friends though, I felt at risk of feeling conditioned to look toward ‘somewhere else’, to be eternally convinced that real lives happened in that ‘somewhere else’—I later resolved that by always attempting to make wherever I was home for me.  Some have said that I am good a creating a ‘nest’.  I realize too that some of this may seem to others to be a ‘first world problem’, especially since my thoughts of leaving home weren’t because I were fleeing war, nor the kind of poverty that crushed the human soul.  We weren’t rich, but we did ok, especially since my mother was so resourceful and knew her way around a farm and garden.  What was I hoping for?  I did, as a teenager, understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness that my hometown represented.  I was hungry, if not starved, for options, and certainty.

I visited Middlebury College when I was a junior in high school.  I knew that I wanted to study languages, and Middlebury even had a “Chateau” where students agreed to live in French.  I knew that was the place for me.  I applied early decision, contrary to the wishes of my imbecile of a guidance counselor, and was readily accepted.  I refused to let him mail the other applications to ‘safe schools’ that he felt the need to write on my behalf.  When I got to Middlebury, I was laser focused on my studies.  College was for me that ticket out of the hell that my hometown represented/represents.  I was not going to be forced by geography or any other circumstance to work in a field that did not mesh with my heart and soul.  I was going to go to the top of my field and be away.  That means, in the process, that I wasted time that I could have spent forming friendships and having relationships with people in college because I was working so hard to escape the people from home who had prevented me from forming friendships and having relationships.  The wretches at home had, in effect, not stolen just four years of my time, but the many that followed as well.

What I learned this past week, with Mary here and by my side, is that there were, in fact, people out there who did care.  She told me that she had at one point in those high school years yearned to be my girlfriend.  I would have welcomed that, had I been in an emotional space to be able to open myself up to that kind of vulnerability.  Instead, I was centered in my mind, creating an escape route, and seeking to build a protective wall around myself just to survive.  Just to survive.  Think about how that must have felt.  I have.

I am grateful to have reconnected with Mary, and to have met her daughter who is ever as much a loving and kind soul that her mom was all those years ago.  More than a half of a lifetime has passed, and my childhood friend has reminded me that no matter how bad it was then, I did still have love in my life.  I am done with those other kids stealing my TIME.  Thank you, Mary, for polishing up some of the bright spots from my past and not letting me relegate them to the bin of tarnished memories that I am still trying banish from my heart.