It’s a sunny day out this morning. The sky is blue and from the sound of the birds in the yard, all is well. In some ways, I suppose it is; in other ways, not so much. My sister, Melissa, has called for the third time in as many weeks with news from home. It hasn’t been good news. About ten days ago, my grandmother’s brother, Arthur, passed away. He was 86 and a longtime resident of Ohio; he had spent much of his working career as a truck driver hauling freight. His wife, Nancy, had called Sherwood, my step-grandfather, to let us know. Nancy and Sherwood are both 81 themselves. Today, Melissa called to let me know that shortly after midnight, Grammy Sweet, Arthur’s older sister and my grandmother, had ended her struggle as well. She had just turned 88 on the twelfth.
Grammy had been ailing for the last number of years. A nick in her vocal cords during a surgery a number of years back left her impaired. Breathing was challenging, swallowing impossible. Conversation with her has been limited in that time. She has had, much to anyone’s delight at a time like this, a faithful and compassionate set of caregivers. Sherwood, who she had married in 1982, has been by her side each and every day. He is heartbroken this morning; his new role as a widower is not one he is likely to accept easily. His brother, Merrill, in a similar situation, will undoubtedly help him through this; I doubt though that it will be easy. Chris McCorrison, Gram’s devoted neighbor, has done so much. There is no way to thank someone for that kind of generosity. Melissa, too, has dedicated much of her energy in the past few years to keeping Gram company, and helping out when Sherwood needed to be absent from the home for a period of hours. She is to be commended for the friendship she brought to that little home on the Hudson Road where my grandparents had retired from farming.
(Melissa has not been having an easy time of it, and so if you have a few extra thoughts and healing energy to share, you are welcome to send some her way. On top of all of this, she lost her cat, Piglet, this week. Piggie, as he was affectionately called, was named for a habit. Piggie loved to eat. In a stroke of irony, he passed away, from an apparent heart attack, sprawled out right there in front of his food dish. There was a bare spot at the bottom of the bowl. That was probably too much for him to bear. We are delighted though that he went doing what he loved the most. Isn’t that something we all want?)
Grammy’s cousin, Robert, who is 93 now, is the last of his generation. His younger brother, Phil, has been gone some 24 years now. Grammy’s younger brother, Ashley, was lost to a tragic accident some years back, and with the passing of Arthur and Marie both this Spring, Robert is all that remains of that generation which survived the Great Depression on rural farms in Maine. We pray for his continued good health, and for that of his lovely wife, Bev.
It’s a sunny day out this morning. The sky is blue and from the sound of the birds in the yard, all is well. We have plans to help Gregory’s aunt rehabilitate a flower bed this afternoon. We may stop at one of the gardening centers and buy some gladiola bulbs, my grandmother’s favorites, to plant and enjoy later this summer in her memory. I love the alter-cloth purple Maine lupine; Gregory is most fond of the blue morning glory. My Mother enjoyed the red rosa rugosa that surrounds so many of Maine’s lighthouses and her Dad, who would have been 101 this year had he survived, enjoyed the pink and white bleeding heart the most. My great grandmother Rowe, named Marion like Mom had been, had lemon lilies in her flower patch, and her father treasured the white Dutchman’s breeches. I’ve some of each of these in my yard. While the neighbors all think we are competing with the local botanical garden, we’re really cultivating memories. Perfectly renewable and restorative nostalgia. Join me, if you will, in planting something beautiful today. Do it in memory of someone you’ve been missing.
My grandmother isn’t well. I am sure she would appreciate your prayers, if you’ve any to spare. Or even just some nice thoughts, really. It isn’t easy being sick. Her husband too would welcome your support.
Grammy Sweet, as we grew up calling her, has led a nice long life. Sweet? Because that was my Mother’s maiden name. Not because of a personality trait. Her name would likely have been Stoic, had that been the root. Grammy was born that spring just before the stock markets crashed in 1929. (She’s an Aries while my sister and me, well, we’re of the more bull-headed Taurus variety from later in the month of April.) Think of how she was sixteen years old when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima; she had no more idea than Grampy, who helped construct the Tinian airstrip which took out Nagasaki, that history of that gruesome sort was about to play out. (Grampy didn’t find out what the airstrip was used for until long after he had returned stateside.) She didn’t have personal contact with the war, in essence. Grammy was not all that helpful when the history teacher sent us kids home with the instruction to interview a survivor of the war. She was, after all, just twelve years old at the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; she was just five years old at the beginning of the year that radar was invented. Both changed the world, but she was doing homework and chores.
Grammy was raised, initially any way, on a farmstead now no longer standing, on a road no longer in use, in a small rural town in central Penobscot County. You would not be able to find the place any longer. The logs once used as paving in the soft parts of that road have rotted away and the road itself has been largely reclaimed by scrubby trees. Oh. You can tell the trees are younger than the ones surrounding them, but when there are so many, you have to be paying attention pretty well to understand what time has really accomplished. That old house, where Grammy Sweet was a tike, is today, just a cellar hole that was mostly filled in with rubble some years back. The outline of the house is easiest to spot in springtime because the flower bulbs that my great grandparents left behind when they moved to their larger home at the top of the hill from where I grew up still remain. Daffodils, tulips and snow on the mountain greenery dot the landscape. Dutchman’s breeches and bleeding hearts fill the area under some now large oaks. Some lovely white lilac, and the gladiola bulbs Grammy Rowe (Grammy Sweet’s Mom) loved were brought to the Corinth home on the Marsh Road, as were some of the apple trees and a current bush that got to be the size of a tree when I was young. The grapes, the gooseberries, the rhubarb, they too may have come from Garland at the home where my Grandmother’s Grandparents resided, but it is hard to say with only one left, an elderly cousin of Gram’s, himself now in his nineties, to tell the old stories again.
Grammy Sweet’s upbringing was modest. She was raised in farm country. Her Dad, formerly the town clerk, among other duties he held in town, was the son of a school teacher and took the lessons he learned as a child at his Dad’s insistence and made a hobby of them. He’d sit and calculate math equations for the fun of it, assuredly more challenging than making sure the town’s birth, death and marriage registries were neat, legible and orderly. Her Mom was a strong Baptist woman who kept order in her home and farmette. She didn’t allow for waste, writing on the backs of old envelopes as scrap paper and prohibiting my Mother, in her youth, from “hanging out of the icebox”. Stray emotions were not free range in that household either, from what I have understood over time. Good Old New England stock. Grammy Sweet had a strong work ethic and never suffered from idle hands. She was one of three kids. The eldest. The only daughter. They all worked hard. She would go on to have two kids of her own.
My Grandmother knows a thing or two about devotion and caring. As role models go for relationships, I would say she ranked world class. She was married in 1947 to a farm boy returned from the war, Gene, who admired how nicely she looked bent over in the potato field. They were married some thirty-three years when he passed away in the winter of 1980, the year I was seven, and not long after he had bought me my first ten speed bicycle. A red one. From the Western Auto store. It was a warm Christmas that year.
She was remarried two years later to a different sort of farmer. They have been together ever since. That was thirty-five years ago now. And, if you are doing the math, you have discovered that my Grammy Sweet has spent sixty-eight of her eighty-eight married. She wouldn’t have missed those two in between had she been able to choose. She would have done all seventy. She’s never complained of it though. She has been happy twice, and differently. With her first, she was a Mother, and a generally good one. With her second, she was a farmer’s wife who had a bit more freedom to travel and spend the cold of winter in Florida. Different. Not necessarily better. We have always been grateful to both of the men who have loved her over time. We mourn the first. Her second has his own health travails, but he is by her side day and night and cares for her deeply. You can’t pay for that level of compassion anywhere. He’s a good husband. In short, Grammy celebrated twenty-five years of marriage on two separate occasions. Many can’t manage to get to once. Sadly, I was not able to attend either of her parties.
Grammy Sweet has been since shortly after she was first a bride a member of the Methodist church in town. She never really said, at least not to me, why she left the Baptist Church her mother attended. Her friends, like Helen, were Methodists. I suppose that is what explains it. Grammy dedicated much of her adult life to working with the Couple’s club there. She served countless dinners and suppers at the church. Catered weddings. Hosted funerary luncheons. She bamboozled more than just me with her large pots of hard boiled eggs at the church kitchen. Just come help Grammy peel a few eggs, she said slyly of the small bowl of eggs on the counter near where she and her gal pals gossiped. Oh, my, look how well you did with those. If you take a few more eggs out of that pot, you can show me how well you can do with those too. Do you know how many eggs it takes to prepare a feast for a small town festival? I do. Too many. We should have been watching our cholesterol anyway. She was also a “worthy matron” of her local Order of the Eastern Star. Quite an honor. She made several of her friends quite jealous with that election.
Born nine and one half pounds. Graduated salutatorian of her class where she was in sports (almost unheard of), dramatics, prize speaking and editor of a school publication, she and I had a lot in common that way. We never managed to bond over it all though. I can’t say why. She was one of the town’s very first librarians, holding for many years ‘card number one’; I held card number thirty-four for a spell as a child. I don’t know who has that card now. Those were the days when your card still slid in the back pocket of the book when you checked it out. Perhaps they don’t use cards any longer; I bet they do though. She held jobs as diverse as clerk for a local auto parts store, to school bus driver. She used to do secretarial work for the undertaker, retiring from that job when Clarence appeared to have kicked the inside of his box while she was recording the flowers recently arrived for his funeral. (Turns out that the undertaker’s youngest daughter was getting drum lessons at school. She should have warned Grammy she was going to practice.)
She made the best peanut butter cookies. Criss cross fork design on the top. Golden brown. And, before people started tampering with Tylenol and kids’ Halloween treats, she used to make popcorn balls that were simply to die for: good and sticky! She combined 1 cup sugar, 1/2 cup molasses, 1 and 1/2 tbls. butter and 1 tsp vinegar. She brought that to a boil and added 1 tsp. vanilla. Poured over two quarts of popcorn. Stir and from the balls. She got mad when Grampy let us kids help him shell two large pails of peas for dinner, but only end up with about a pint of peas in a small pan. We weren’t allowed to ‘help’ after that.
We’ve not had much of a relationship, Grammy and I, since I left for college. I’ve missed out on that last quarter century. Lots of reasons, I suppose. Stoicism being one of them. My being too much like my Mother, and she in turn “Just like your Father”, as Grammy used to yell at Mom in frustration. We both took the screams as badges of honor. Mom and Me.
I am grateful to the people who have played a larger role in her life though. Neighbor, Christine McCorrison, has been a God-send. Her fresh out of the oven ‘left overs’ have sustained Grammy’s husband throughout Grammy’s long illness. She claims that she does it just because Grammy was the one who introduced her to her church family. The rest of us know it is because Christine has a saintly side we can’t quite appreciate fully. Helen True has given her more than seventy-five years of friendship. Helen Parkhurst, who just lost her husband recently, wishes her well even though they haven’t seen each other in a number of years. There are kind and generous souls out there. I wish I could recognize them all.
With all that said, if you have a bit of extra time for thoughts of kindness and compassion, send a few my Grammy’s way. She sure could use them right now. While she can’t make you a baked good in appreciation, I will gladly send you some of her favorite recipes which sustained us as a family over time instead. And if you run in to any of her friend’s, give them the hug you might have offered Marie. Tell him or her that the hug was from me.
Certes, je suis né avant que je ne puisse me rappeler, pourtant cela a dû être un évènement très marquant dans ma vie parce que tout le monde m’en parle souvent. Quoi qu’il en soit, je suis plus certain que mes parents m’ont conçu quelque peu de temps avant ma naissance, même si je ne me rappelle plus de cela non plus. J’aimerais bien savoir ce qui m’est vraiment arrivé en ce moment-là. Ne serait-il pas intéressant?
Quelqu’un m’a dit une fois qu’il avait déjà oublié plus que je ne sache. Il n’est point seul; c’est tragique. Je trouve parfois que j’ai, moi aussi, d’énormes trous dans la mémoire. Ce n’est pas que ma naissance dont je ne me rappelle plus. Il y a toute sorte de chose dans ma vie dont j’ignore l’origine.
D’abord, je n’ai, par exemple, ni le moindre souvenir de l’époque où il est supposé que j’ai connu mes parents. Ai-je le droit de dire que je les connaisse vraiment? Qui me les aurait présentés? Est-il possible que l’on avait oublié de le faire? (Si cela est vrai, ce n’est pas très poli! Je n’ose impliquer personne car il se peut que je me trompe.)
De même, je suis loin de suggérer que personne ne m’avait consulté avant ma circoncision. J’ai dû être très jeune, certainement, et ils ont dû penser le faire pour mon bien. Sans aucun doute, le résultat de cette décision me dérange très peu aujourd’hui; j’aurais simplement souhaité qu’ils m’en eussent parlé avant.
Ensuite, un jour lorsque je me suis mis à réfléchir, je n’ai pu parvenir à trouver le moment où j’ai mangé de la nourriture solide pour la première fois. Est-ce que je n’étais pas content de ce que je mangeais auparavant? Et pourquoi, pour l’amour de Dieu, aurais-je voulu marcher tout seul quand tout le monde me portait gentiment sur ses épaules? Et, j’ai honte d’admettre que je ne me souviens plus du jour quand mon premier nounours, Fred, est entre dans ma vie. Nous sommes devenus, pourtant, de très bons amis. (Je suis désolé, Fred.)
Finalement, par quel moyen est-ce que j’ai appris à parler l’anglais, ma langue maternelle. J’ai choisi d’étudier le Français ainsi que l’Espagnole. J’en étais très conscient. Peut-être ai-je décidé de parler l’anglais aussi? Je ne suis pas tout à fait convaincu que mes parents savaient me l’apprendre, eux seul. Cependant, ils ne savent parler autre, je suis donc persuadé que cela a été aussi leur décision. (Si j’avais fait attention à ce qui m’est arrivé en ce moment-là, me rappellerais-je mieux?)
Je ne suis laissé, alors, qu’avec des traces de souvenirs de ces temps-là, Pourtant, mon expérience dans la vie, ne transcend-elle pas les limites de ma mémoire et les limites du langage dont je me sert pour l’exprimer? N’est-il pas possible que je me rappelle mais comme j’ai appris à parler, à penser, à m’exprimer après ma naissance, je ne sais décrire ces faits qui ne sont plus qu’un trou de mémoire aujourd’hui?
Certes, je suis ne avant que je ne puisse me rappeler, pourtant cela a dit être un évènement très marquant dans ma vie parce que tout le monde m’en parle souvent. Quoi qu’il en soit, je suis plus certain que mes parents m’ont conçu quelque peu de temps avant ma naissance, même si je ne me rappelle plus de cela non plus. J’aimerais bien savoir ce qui m’est vraiment arrivé en ce moment-là, ne serait-il pas intéressant?
2015 was a different kind of year. We didn’t travel much outside of our neighborhood. We didn’t receive a lot of guests. We didn’t even go out of our way to shop, letting the power of the internet work its magic through the hardworking men and women of the U.S. postal service. What we did do, though, was enjoy just being home and taking part in the little things. What we did do was to use down to a nub an impressive amount of sidewalk chalk, drawing and skipping countless rounds of hopscotch with the neighborhood kids, Priska and Kuno. Those same kids helped us to blow bubbles, large and small, and watch the wind carry them away. We basked in the peace and calm of summer breezes, and we listened to raindrops beat against the plate glass windows. In short, we found a rhythm and pattern to our days that allowed for the small moments to shine; our slow pace this year was a tonic for the soul.
We bravely met the first hints of the waning winter with rakes in hand. So anxious were we to see the snow melt that we helped it along, pulling the piles down little by little, observing the ice crystals as they seeped in to the lawn or formed rivulets on the sidewalk as they made their way to the storm drains which feed Lake Monona, only a number of yards away. The previous autumn, we had undertaken one of those huge gardening projects that is required every few years to make sure the hosta plants are thinned and that the ever-spreading day lilies get placed back behind their borders. We transplanted bulbs in the hopes that the squirrels would leave them in the ground long enough for them to burgeon and become spring blooms. Impatient to be outside, we cleared the area where the blue Adirondack chairs sit, spread out some cardboard so as not to mar the ground as we luxuriated on those above freezing afternoons and welcomed the vernal warmth back.
Our yard is full of life. Over the months, our Adirondack thrones permit us to eavesdrop on the comings and goings of the world around us. The robins tug worms out of the ground; the yellow finches perch upside down on the heads of sunflowers and eat until their bellies are full. Monarch butterflies and honey bees gathered plentifully on the zinnias. And, then there were those ‘friends’ we invited in to our lives, getting to know them one page at a time.
James adventured out with Andres Viestad to taste the flavors and the spices that Marco Polo encountered on his journeys; he set out on the high seas with the likes of Herman Melville and Mark Kurlansky, not so much to capture the Great White Whale, but rather to pay homage to the lowly cod fish so treasured by the Basques. Tranquilly he listened to Nancy Houston recount tales set to the harpsichord tones of Johann Sebastien Bach. And he lamented to decline of our English language with Steven Pinker and celebrated the polyphonic conditional tense of French and the complexities of the indicative past of Spanish with Pierre Patrick Haillet and Maria Luz Gutierrez, both of Middlebury renown.
Under a new hemlock green cantilevered umbrella in the yard, thus making sure that the heat of the day is blunted and those with thinning hair are not burned, Gregory reclined on fire engine red and sunflower yellow cushions and was consumed with a tome covering a twelve-year period starting in 1788. He visited the Potemkin villages, symbols of the imperial power of Catherine the Great and cringed in horror along with the peasantry of the French Revolution as Louis XVI lost his head. Positioned under the sugar maple of our yard, a wave of nostalgia led him to re-read the Ian Fleming series on James Bond which he had first read under the large oak tree back at his family home as a boy. All of this is to say that we aren’t at a loss when asked to give recommendations on a good read.
Good reads and good eats go so marvelously well together. One never knows what might be happening in James’ kitchen, though. And if Gregory isn’t careful, James’ list of “secret ingredients” (those things that Gregory claims to hate, but James sneaks in to the food anyway because of their umami qualities) appears to be growing.
If he had his druthers, James would be a first-class forager. Our attorney friend, Jennifer, comes to eat about once a month. While she is delighted with the gourmet fare offered here, she has been reluctant to write or to sign a waiver indemnifying James from all loss as a result of his “discoveries”. No matter. A tort is a torte.
Risk taker that he is, James now cooks our meat according to the new USDA recommendations which means that lower temperatures can be used affording safety while enhancing the flavor. Gregory has even caught him vacuum-packing our beef to cook in the gentle waters of a “sous vide”, what looks like a fish tank heater, a rather costly instrument now a favorite of the foodies and the gastro-pornographers he watches on television. He sprinkles the meats with ‘lilac sugar’. Gregory walked in to find James creating this by meticulously removing lilacs pedals and grinding them in sugar. There was a small pile of petals assembled on the table that day and when asked what was happening James smiled and retorted, “Secret Ingredient”. But it wasn’t until James came back from Maine that he truly had Gregory flummoxed. James brought out a bag of birch leaves which his dad and friends, Gary and Barbara, had helped him to gather. The leaves were carefully washed, added to sea salt and pulverized in the food processor. While worrisome, they do make for a most impressive food flavoring.
In late August, James traveled to Maine. It was a busy “working vacation”, the end result of which was a U-Haul pod of stuff being shipped across the country. The pod arrived about ten days after James’ return, delivered to our place by a ‘moving company’, two young men and a mini-van, who didn’t know how to back up with a trailer hitched on. James offered to back the rig up for them, but they declined, preferring to aggravate the entire neighborhood for a pair of hours as they unloaded the pod in to the basement from the center line of Paterson St.
For the first time in years, all of James’ belongings are in one place. Everything from awards and certificates from his childhood to antique rocking chairs that his great-grandmother had rocked ‘the kids’ in, to James’ mother’s collection of crystal dishes and serving pieces were loaded in to that plywood box.
Most impressively though was the new old bed that James brought back from his familial home. In 1977, when ‘the twins’, as he and his sister have been known for much of their lives, needed a new bed, James’ Dad tore a couple of pages from the Sears Catalog to use as inspiration and went to his woodworking shop and built matching ‘Captain’s Beds’, a left and a right, which he modified recently to make one king-sized bed for us to use here. Robert must have been given a router for Christmas 1976, as the wood edges were sculpted and decorative. The Captain’s bed has book shelves in the base and head board and two large drawers for storage on each side. After cleaning them up a bit and reassembling them here in Madison, Gregory now has even more reason to stay upstairs in the event of a tornado or severe weather which would normally send the wise to the basement for cover. He states that he will now just tether himself to the massive and heavy bed and keep on reading.
As you know, we are political junkies and as we tune in to our daily dose of insanity and hate-filled rhetoric from what passes for presidential candidates these days, we try hard to think about what it really means to have a home. It isn’t just the place where we live—it is the whole ensemble of memories and emotions that link us to our pasts. While some would deny others of the chance to establish a home of their own here, we want the US to be a place where others can relish in the simple pleasures of life, where others can hopscotch, read good books, share in meals and friendship, get a good night’s sleep. We wish you a restful year ahead and thank you for being a part of our lives.
“Hey! Hey Mr. Wilson!”
“Oh, hi Jeremy, what can I do for you?”
“Can we talk for a second?”
“Sure Jeremy, but let’s make it quick; it has been a long day.”
“Can I ask you a personal question? I mean… you don’t have to answer if you don’t want to…Really, it will be ok.”
Jeremy stands there looking at me with doubtful countenance. It had been a long day, one in which the only thing that was challenged for me was my patience; and, I still had to look anxiously to driving a wintery forty miles through the woods from the small Maine town where I was a French teacher to home. My car had been having troubles and the prospect of making it without having to test out the new cell phone bought just for that purpose—insurance—was not one to which I looked forward with anticipation.
“No, no problem, go ahead,” I replied with my keys in hand poised to open the car door, hoping sincerely that this encounter was not going to go on all evening. “Ask your question.”
“I have this friend who is coming back to town. Mike is great. We have been best friends for years. He has been away in the military and then stayed out of state for a while but is coming home and has to live with his folks. He isn’t looking forward to that so much, considering he lives here in the sticks like the rest of us; but gosh, am I ever happy. Mike is the greatest.”
“That is great for you Jeremy; I am sure you guys will have a great time together when he arrives” I said, all the while thinking that I had just been trapped and that the day was never going to end. “But you said that you had a question. Were you intending on asking me that question now or later?”
“Oh, sorry.” Not willing to miss his opportunity, Jeremy blurted out his question, “Are you gay?”
Stunned. I was absolutely stunned.
“Well, I must say that is a hell of a question to be asking. Why would you need to know, Jeremy, if I am gay or not? How would knowing something like that about me make a difference in how you learn French?”
Memories of my first day in teaching only three years earlier when my principal sat me down in his office to “explain a few things” suddenly occupied my mind. Jeremy’s question became very secondary to me right then.
There I was, fresh out of graduate school with no experience in front of a classroom, and my principal, a young athletic man in his forties who had managed to become head of campus after only a short while, was telling me that no matter what happens, I was not ever to have contact with a student behind closed doors. “Always keep the door open; and probably it would be best if you arranged your classroom so that your desk were always visible from the door. No students. Not girls or boys. In fact, it might be best if you arranged your meetings in the lounge out here [in front of your classroom], even if it is a bit noisier and less productive.” My eyes must have betrayed me; they read, “Why is he telling me this? What must he think of me?”
He responded to my inquisitive expression by stating matter-of-factly, “James, You are young, single and teach foreign languages.” He paused and gave me a knowing look, except that I didn’t know what he was referring to exactly. When I failed to respond adequately, he continued, “People are going to assume that you are gay, whether you are or not. I mention this for your own good since I think that you are going to be a fine teacher: the people in this school are very litigious. They love a good suit. If you are accused of something, it is hard to disprove a negative. So, just don’t have any closed-door meetings, OK?” Very brief pause. “Well, it was good to have this talk with you. Barb, my secretary will show you out.”
I was escorted out of his office, confused but knowing that I had not come out of any closet in my interview of a few weeks previous, and certainly had not, in my first day of classes, had the chance to lean one way or the other in my discourse. I hadn’t even, in my personal life, come to any conclusion about my sexuality—I only knew that it had been a long time since my last date, which I, of course, attributed to all the work I had been doing.
I was feeling just as stunned then as I was feeling with Jeremy now in front of me, awaiting some discussion.
“Oh, Mr. Wilson, I am sorry. I didn’t mean to ask you that way. Don’t worry I would never tell anyone. Your job wouldn’t be in trouble because of this. It’s just that. Well, it’s just that my friend Mike likes guys and his parents have had a hard time dealing with that. I was just thinking that, if you are, and I am not saying anything, but if you were gay, and could go out with him, and his parents could see you and get to know you… well, I am sure that they would be better with things. Just think about it. Mike is a great guy, like you, and if he could date someone who has gone on to become someone successful and bright, and then maybe they would ease up on him. Mike’s parents aren’t bad people; I just think they are a bit confused. You’d be perfect for them—so they could see that being gay is ok, that they can still love Mike like they used to…”
How do you respond to something like that? First of all, I hadn’t even come out to myself at that point, so I had to wonder what Jeremy sensed that I wasn’t willing to just yet. Secondly, affirming something like being gay to a student of a tiny rural high school could have easily jeopardized my situation at the school, and I was in no position to spend any time unemployed. Not to mention the fact that my then principal had already almost given me a favorable review, attenuated with comments like, “Never turn your backs to the students” and “Be mindful of your surroundings”. (Of course, as a Vietnam veteran, he was having me protect myself from the enemy, which high school kids can often appear to be!) I wasn’t sure how to read his comments yet.
Finally, and more importantly, Jeremy had paid me one of the finest compliments. He thought I was a great guy, and the kind that, if given the chance, parents who want the best for their son would find not only suitable as a companion but also find as an excellent role model.
Jeremy did not press for an answer, but I knew that he felt let down: not so much in me as he felt badly for his friend Mike who was going to have to listen to his parents extol the virtues of the “straight life” when it was already too late for that.
I, of course, spent the evening in quiet taciturn mediation. Why had I gotten myself into teaching in the first place? Underpaid, overworked, forced to confront many issues that had everything to do with my students and that had nothing to do with my subject matter. What was I thinking?
I didn’t need a course to teach me methods of teaching. I didn’t need class work in second language acquisition, as I had experienced all of those things for myself. I also realized that the students didn’t necessarily need someone skilled in foreign languages—after all, living in the deep Maine woods, one is very infrequently called upon to speak something other than English.
What I was challenged to see that day was that my students needed me. They needed an authentic me, ever so much as I also needed that person. I learned, over time, that what the kids in my classroom needed most was a role model. “Teaching from the seat of my pants”, as my friend and mentor had once described it, grew to mean to me that I needed to be willing to give of myself, not just give of my expertise. My students needed to hear, if just for a moment, the path that led me to them.
Indeed, I had let Jeremy down, and wonder how many others too from those first years of teaching. Jeremy was looking for a positive role model, of which he was, and all the other gay kids today continue to be, deprived.
I am not speaking of just “gay” kids; I am speaking about a fisherman’s daughter, a carpenter’s son, a nurse’s son, a postal worker’s daughter. I am speaking about all the kids with whom I have had the pleasure of working. Young people all need good role models and there is no reason why even the gay kids can’t have them, especially when one considers that they are the fisherman’s daughter, the carpenter’s son, the nurse’s son, the postal worker’s daughter. The only thing that keeps them from having the role models they need is the institutionalized hatred that is shown them by administrators who dare to tell new, suspected homosexual, faculty, and “We cannot tolerate gay people working with the kids in our school. The parents would never accept that.” The loathing is cloaked in statements like, “I don’t mind if gay people want to be Boys Scout leaders” while all the while hoping that their child never has to come in contact with one. The hurt comes from hearing fellow students say, “Oh that’s so gay”, to express their dislike of a classroom policy; or any of the other anti-gay slurs that fly by, masked in acceptance, unlike how racial slurs are frowned upon by everyone.
Jeremy was a student different from me, not in that he belonged to a different minority group or that he spoke a different language, or because he was differently-abled. Jeremy was different from me in that he was courageous. He eagerly sought out the role models that he needed to be able to live, assured that his uniqueness as a gay man was really as ordinary as having blue eye, freckles, or being left-handed. I wish I had had that same courage and that I had accepted then his challenge to become the man he had hoped that I could be—a great guy, and the kind that, if given the chance, parents who want the best for their son would find not only suitable as a companion but also find as an excellent role model. I am working on that challenge still.
I love a good book. And I love getting a good deal on one even better. Half Price Books and I have a bit of a love affair going on. I admit it. I stray emotionally in my other relationships when I get in to that store and browse the cookbooks, the dictionaries, and the novels. And, I think that Half Price Books loves me too. Every year in October, they give me a discount card, entitling me to a bargain all year round. Trust me, in teaching, there are very few perks. It is the hardest job in which everyone is seemingly an expert. Let’s be honest about something. On the one hand, if it were as easy as having visited a doctor’s office a few times for us all to become doctors, we would all be doctors. If though you are among those who think because you had been in a classroom as a student, then you are qualified to teach then you are able to achieve a level of miracle work that I cannot fathom and ask that you keep your distance from me. (I am the jealous sort and I couldn’t handle your greatness, frankly.) On the other hand, Half Price Books, they know how to treat a teacher right. They lure us in with the promise of a good bargain by selling quality books at a reasonable price, and then they seal the deal with an additional discount. It just makes you feel warm inside.
As I was shopping there recently, a former student of mine approached me to thank me for the understanding and compassion that I had shown in the classroom. I teach a class that is required of most students transferring to the university nearby. It is considered a gateway course—in essence, you can’t get in to a program at the university without having come through my classes first. As I stood there at the checkout counter, with my Teacher’s Appreciation Discount Card in hand, I listened to how this person felt that even though she never mastered Spanish as I would have hoped, she did walk away with valuable lessons about learning and education. She reminded me of how often I tell my students that higher education is as much about endurance as it is learning new material. Being a good student takes perseverance, and just a bit of moxie.
Being a good student also takes someone who shows a little faith in you on a personal level. A friend of mine on Facebook, Leslie, has helped me to track down one of my favorite teachers from my childhood. Mrs. Nina Hansen. Mrs. Hansen was my second grade teacher in 1980. In the spirit of Teacher Appreciation, I have sent Mrs. Hansen a letter today to express my admiration for the hard work that she did on my behalf as a child. Teachers never tire of hearing people tell them that they made a difference. I thought I would share my letter here, and encourage you, my readers, to send a letter to one of your former teachers who made a difference.
November 12, 2014
Dear Mrs. Hansen,
I trust that this letter finds you well and in good spirits as yet another Maine winter (all too) quickly approaches. I can say that when I spoke with my father, Robert Wilson, just after Halloween and he recounted his tale of struggling to remove more than ten inches of heavy wet snow from the yard, I felt no pangs of homesickness whatsoever! May you be in a well-insulated house, sheltered from the worst of the cold.
Before I go too far, please allow me to apologize in advance if this letter comes as an intrusion in to your peaceful retirement; if my sleuthing has led me in the right direction, you were formerly a primary school teacher for the MSAD #64. I desire only to express my sincere thanks for a lifetime of fond memories and fine mentoring. To that end, I hope you will accept this letter with my sincerest gratitude.
I grew up in (East) Corinth, Maine, and was a student at the Kenduskeag Elementary School from 1978 until 1981. I was in 1980, the year Ronald Reagan swept his way in to Oval Office, a pupil in your second grade class, having come to you from Mrs. Gloria Hopkin’s first grade group. (I will remind you that I was the only one in my class NOT to have voted for Reagan in the straw poll that fall; my parents could have joined the circus as ‘oddities’ for being Democrats in the very RED Corinth. I still much prefer President Carter’s vision for a more just and fair world!) My twin sister, Melissa, was in Mrs. Johnson’s class across the hall.
Second grade was a magical time. In the classroom that year, we had visits from the nursing staff at the EMMC, a marine biologist who brought the ocean to us one day, and Bethel Dearborn (a delightful church friend of my grandmother) came with some regularity to share the gift of music with us. I can’t hear the song “Let there be Peace on Earth” without being launched back in time to singing with Bethel, and seeing you grade papers at your desk in the back of the room. Second grade was a time for exploration. We were learning to read aloud smoothly and with expression; to work out new words independently; to lose ourselves in good books at least for a little while every day. You had us keep a reading journal, to respond to the literature we had chosen from the collection of books in your classroom, the local Atkins Memorial Library, or from home where Mom kept a steady supply of reading material on hand. When it appeared that the Ginn Level 8, where I had begun the year, proved not to be as challenging as I needed in order to keep my interest, you formed a small group from those of us in the class striving to do more and we read from a text called “The Purple Turtle”. With two different curriculums at play in your classroom, you must have felt more like a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse; I know from experience that those feelings are real and exhausting. I am, though, forever appreciative.
What I cherish most from that time when I was a student in your class was the way that you made me feel valued and encouraged me to be the best James Wilson I could be, to worry less about what the others around me expected me to be. You encouraged me to find my own path to happiness. Moreover, you wrote in my report card at the end of that year that you would miss me for two reasons: first, because I was so eager to meet every new challenge, and secondly, because I was so dependable. I would have done anything for you because you went out of your way to make me feel like being one of the “smart kids” was laudable, not something that should be reproached.
You gave us real lessons in living honestly and authentically. My Mom truly made every effort to be there for us three kids (I also had an older brother, Todd). She participated as chaperone on all school outings; she made cupcakes and other treats for any class bake sales we had. She also tried to make sure that we ate well, even going so far as to send me to school with plates of celery sticks cut up and peanut butter stuffed in to their middles to share with my classmates when we had parties. One day, Mom got a phone call from the school. You were on the line, asking her if she were aware that I was not in the least interested in celery. She admitted that she was unaware of this, and asked how you had ascertained the fact that I (still to this day) have an aversion for the stuff. You replied, “Well, Mrs. Wilson, I have just now caught him burying some of it in the rocks out on the playground!” Mom and I had a talk that night, at your behest, about being honest about things, about being willing to express one’s feelings. She never sent celery to school with me again; I got apples (my favorite) after that.
More importantly still, you also encouraged (and expected) us to be good citizens—to believe that by working together, we could indeed make the world a better place for all. In fact, I still have hanging in my office two little awards that you gave me that year—handmade signs of your appreciation. They are framed now on field of blue with a hint of red trim around the openings.
In the years which have intervened since 1980, I have built a life for myself which I enjoy very much. After graduating high school in 1991, I enrolled as a student at Middlebury College, a private liberal arts college in Vermont, where I specialized in French and Spanish literature with minors in sociology and religion. I remained with Middlebury’s Language Schools where, under their rigorous auspices, I sought a Masters of Arts, later studying for a Doctorate of Modern Languages. My studies led me to live in Paris, France, and Madrid, Spain for a period of years, and afforded me the opportunity to travel and see much of Europe. I am forever changed as a result.
I began teaching in 1996. I have taught the fourth grade, middle school, high school, and since 2000, I have been on the teaching faculty of a technical college in Madison, Wisconsin. There, I give classes in Spanish mostly. I live with my partner of 15 years, Gregory, in an old Victorian on the banks of Lake Monona in the heart of downtown Madison. I am greeted each morning by the sounds of mallard ducks and Canadian geese out on the water; one would hardly know that I am in the center of a city almost four times as large as Portland, Maine (eight times as large as Bangor!).
My teaching style is unique from that of my colleagues. I never managed to master the little square boxes of chronometered activities that my supervisors wanted me to use as a lesson plans. I don’t teach language “one verb tense at a time”; I prefer to layer the exercises on so that they are more organic and build one upon the other. I design lessons based on the “big picture”—my activities are planned for the whole unit and not for the date specific. I encourage my students to build their language skills in meaningful contexts and in ways in which the language is actually spoken.
There isn’t a day that goes by in my job when I don’t think of you. I encourage my students to do their best, to live up to their potential, and to think on their own. I design lesson materials based on the students’ needs and not my own desire to have a well-structured plan book. In short, I too teach in what seems like an open classroom, providing all the tools necessary for learning while demanding that my students rise to the challenge and take charge of their own learning. My students write reading journals at times and practice reading aloud for smoothness and expression. While they may be between the ages of 19 and 70 (since I teach nights), they are involved in many of the same exercises that you had us doing when in your class I was first learning to be a better reader. I hope, in all of my efforts, that I, like you, can instill in my students a love of the written word, and for learning as a lifelong student.
You know only all too well how much those formative years of learning are crucial to the future of children, and also how little thanks comes from the job that you did for so many years. Over time, I have had letters from former students who have felt changed by the work that I did with them, but they are rare. If you’ll permit me, then, let me me be among those who celebrate the good work that you did, and for the positive and meaningful role you have played in my life—even almost thirty-five years later.
I wake up each morning and feel in my very core that I am no longer the eight year old boy with whom you were acquainted, but I hope that the spirit of good citizenship and love for learning that you shared with me then will be with me for the rest of my days. I thank you for all of that, and more.
For all of those hundreds of kids whose lives you touched, but who have never taken the time to write and express their gratitude, know that I value the life lessons you shared with me, and wish you many more years of happy retirement.
Your forever pupil,
February 14, 2014—Happy Valentine’s Day!
Dear Leopold and Lincoln!
You won’t remember today like I will, and that’s ok. It’s meant to be that way. I’ll introduce myself again just the same—My name is James, but you can call me Uncle James if you like. More importantly still, I hope you will always think of me as a friend. We’ve so much in common, you and I. If you’ll allow it, I will be excited to share in your joys and sorrows, triumphs and failures. I also offer my love; it isn’t much, you might think, but it’s pretty special and I hope you’ll like it.
What a wonderful day it has been, getting to meet you both and welcome you in to our family and circle of friends! My partner, Gregory, and I have just spent a delightful afternoon at the Meriter Hospital in Madison just to be with you, and your Mom. She’s a lucky lady, your Mom, and has been greatly helped by your Grandmother Linda (to whom we took a bag of treats for her to share with your Mom—organic apples, oranges, carrots and celery; oh, and I snuck a few items of contraband in to the bag as well—homemade brownies, cookies and 7-layer bars! Shhh. Don’t tell Grandma and get me in to trouble!). Your Grandfather Roy won’t make it to Wisconsin to meet you until later this evening, but that’s a surprise for your Mom and I’ve been sworn to secrecy about that visit. The other guy there visiting with us today? Well, that’s Jim. He’s been pretty special to your Mom for a number of years and we’re glad to have become his friends too. Let’s get back to the reason why I’m writing to you now, though. Our first impressions of you? The two of you are just adorable and so handsome with all the dark hair, beautiful little eyes which followed the sound of our voices, and tiny little fingers and toes, waving at us as we left. We’re honored to be among those first few to have gotten to see you and hold you in our arms and close to our heart.
Your Mom has been a blessing in my life for near twenty-three years. We met when we were eighteen years old, or so, and had just been admitted to study at Middlebury College, a wonderful school in Vermont. I grew up in Maine, and your Mom in California. We’ve shared so much in the years since we met in college as freshmen, me living in Hepburn Hall and your Mom in Stewart, next door. We’ve laughed together, played together, and cried together—we’ve been the best of friends and I can’t imagine my world without your Mom in it.
We’ll talk later about all of this, I am sure. I will be among those who “knew your Mom when…” My name will come up in stories about shamelessly stealing (or rather “borrowing”) towels from semi-private bathrooms of the Chateau in Middlebury, bundling in a second floor dormitory room when the cold of winter had set in, and even skinny dipping in New York State—I have a small scar on my left arm to prove it! But, you’ll also hear my name invoked when it comes to food and drink. Oh, how many mugs of tea did your Mom and I share then as we took breaks from our studies and the stresses of being away from home? And, when your Mom was writing her thesis about the infamous Baba Yaga of Russia, she didn’t always make it to the cafeteria on time, and I was forever smuggling food back to her room for her. Your Great Grandfather, who I had met a few times by then, loved your Mom very much, and made me swear to do it, even if she protested! I wasn’t one to argue with a persuasive fellow like your Great Grandfather. He was a wonderful man.
Since then, your Mom and I have shared in many celebrations, and in sorrow. We’ve rung in the New Year in Boston, attempted to get a progressive President elected by going to caucus in Iowa (and meeting the late Sen. Ted Kennedy). I’ve hugged your Mom as she climbed out of the freezing Lake Monona after a polar plunge, and seen bald eagles fly over the Mississippi River with her by my side. Your Mom was once married to a fellow we both knew from Middlebury. I stood up with them at their wedding in California. When that relationship didn’t work out as she would have hoped, I sat next to her at the courthouse in Madison. (I was happy too that she found Jim to give her companionship when she needed it then. He’s a good guy.) When my own Mom died in 2011, perhaps the saddest moment of my life, your Mom was there for me with cards and letters filled with loving thoughts and touching embraces.
I know for a fact that you two are among the luckiest little boys in all the world. Your Mom is a very giving person, and that is why we are still friends all these years later—I value and honor those who are generous at heart most of all.
When I was living and teaching in Virginia after I had finished my graduate schooling, I taught in a private school there. I didn’t enjoy that job, or my living arrangements. I was miserable. Your Mom called me one evening around Thanksgiving and as I recounted my tale of woe, she offered me the spare bedroom in the apartment that she and her then-husband shared at the University of Wisconsin. I accepted, and moved there to live with them on New Year’s Day, 2000, and my world was forever changed. It was a very confusing time in my life. I got to know myself better while I was living there, and found a liberating acceptance in your Mom. I met Gregory that spring, fell in love, and stayed in Madison; none of that would have been possible without the caring and the home that your Mom offered to me.
You’re likely to understand soon that your presence here, your very existence now, comes straight from a loving and devoted place in your Mom’s heart. With the help of her friend Gail, who I wish you could have met, and a team of talented scientists and researchers, your Mom was able to give Gregory and me two very special new friends two days ago. Our gratitude can’t be expressed.
My Mom wrote to me a letter before she passed and in it she said, “When you feel sick at heart and weary of life, or when you stumble and fall and don’t know if you can get up again, think of me. I will be watching and smiling and cheering you on.” My Mom was amazing and we were the best of friends. I miss her very much. I know, though, that she is not nor will she be the only really great Mom. You’re soon to find out that yours is also your best cheerleader, like mine was for me. Both were and are strong, bright, resilient women who believe in the goodness of others. Your Mom’s heart, like my Mom’s, has room for lots of love, and she’s willing to share.
May your days be long and filled with happiness, boys, and know from the start that there are many of us out there who will keep you in a special spot in our hearts and very souls.