“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.
“You can never get a cup of tea large enough
or a book long enough to suit me.”
― C.S. Lewis
The highs today have only reached, if we round up, about ten degrees Fahrenheit. It somehow feels better knowing that we were in the double digits today, at least for a few minutes. I was out this morning long enough only to collect the papers off the front steps. That was more than enough time outside. What’s worse, though, is that we are expecting it to get far worse over the next number of days. Today may in fact feel thirty to fifty degrees warmer than what they are predicting with the wind chills on Monday. Schools are already cancelled in advance of the arctic blast. I may never get the opportunity to be outside and breathe fresh air again. I am grateful though for the projects I have going in the basement right now; plenty to get done in anticipation of warmer days, or the month of March, whichever comes first.
Right about when I was heading off to Middle School, we had a particularly cold Maine winter also. As always, the frigid temperatures gave way to the warming days of spring and things seemed to return to a more comfortable norm. Mom was working at the woolen mill that spring; I was watching too much daytime television. In an attempt to get me a hobby, my Mother packed me off early that summer for a number of days to visit with my Dad’s folks over in Stetson. Dad was one of eight kids and Dad’s youngest sister, Grace, and perhaps his kid brother, Scott, must have still been living at home then, so I was given the fold-out bed in the couch to sleep on during my stay. Aunt Sheila lived not far away and she had just had her first baby that March; despite the feedings, she would spend a day or two with me also.
Grampy Wilson, or Lyfie as everyone called him, had been retired for a few years by this time. He had spent much of his life working the family farm, or tending to the State of Maine’s roads as part of a faithful crew of men who patched holes and other tasks intended to keep us safe. He loved people and enjoyed talking with anyone who would listen. In short, Grampy was an all-around good guy.
Grampy Wilson had a long and documented reputation for a fantastic sense of humor too. One afternoon a hopelessly lost tourist pulled his car over to the side of the road to inquire of Grampy as to some directions to Newport and the highway. At the conclusion of their brief but meaningful conversation, the man asked if Grampy had lived in Maine all his life; Gramp replied dryly, “Not yet.” He wasn’t lying; he wouldn’t pass away until 1993. Born in Mars Hill, Maine (otherwise known as “The County”), Grampy had moved to his Stetson home in 1954. Before leaving the potato fields of the north, Grampy was a 1937 graduate of the Zion Bible Institute in Rhode Island. He seems to have been absent the day of his class picture, though, but there was a character sketch about him in the small-paperback, in-house yearbook. The sketch read in part: “Lafayette Wilson: Every circus has its clown, but not every class has a comedian. Here is one, in every sense that the title conveys. At the beginning of the term who could look at Laffy and not be wreathed in smiles? And who could create a greater stir by their wit and humor?” Lyfie was, as the sketch continued, a “most zealous altar worker”, and was “always so earnest for God and ready to pray at all times”. His love of God was steadfast; I admired him for the dedication.
Grampy was a devoted fan of Red Rose tea as well. A simple orange pekoe tea blend in little sachets, Red Rose was nothing too extraordinary. It was a good tea for the price, and worthy of a decent man who worked hard all of his life. Grampy drank a cup or two of tea every afternoon I was there. I loved him very much; I insisted on having some with him. A good cup of tea, served in a little porcelain cup and saucer, really warms from the inside on frosty days.
I never did develop a taste, or even a liking, for coffee which has always seemed bitter to me. Gregory keeps hoping against the odds that I will come around and see that his afternoon mug of black tar doesn’t, as it always seems to me, smell burnt. He isn’t having much luck. My parents never drank coffee either. Mom might, with enough sugar added, but not the kind you would write home about—she always had a Taster’s Choice instant coffee on hand for the guest who might request it. Dad, as recently as the other day, told me that when he is invited to share some time at neighbor Ralph’s place, he prefers a mug of hot cocoa to coffee. A good molasses doughnut, and he is all set.
In any case, Grampy had his spot at the head of the family table, right by the window overlooking the driveway. He occupied his chair, sitting in it with an imposing posture. His family was well trained. He could just point at things and the article desired made its way down to his end. Dad tried to get this level of compliance out of us kids when we were small too, but what he didn’t realize was that he had brought a group of wisenheimers in to the world. When we kids needed something at the table, we had to ask politely for it. Mom insisted on it. “Please,” we would ask; “Thank you,” we would respond. Dad seemed to follow a different set of rather unjust rules than the rest of us. One day, I organized a mutiny with the other kids. We agreed before dinner that night that if Dad pointed at things and expected them to be passed to him, that we would sit silently and do nothing. True to form, Dad first pointed to the salt. Nothing happened. Missy budged, but then thought better of it. Todd and I gave her the evil eye. It was a matter of solidarity or nothing. Dad seemingly gave up. He later pointed to the white plastic pepper shaker that Mom had bought at a Tupperware party some years prior, and still nothing moved. “Are you going to pass me the G-D pepper or not?” he shouted at us. “Oh, did you need something?” I replied, grinning. I was lucky not to have the smile wiped off my face since I sat closest to Dad, who was by then beside himself with frustration. Mom, seeing her teachable moment, stepped in to remind him that he could ask for things politely like the kids had to do. He was unamused, but the behavior was corrected. Dad never relied on pointing at things he wanted at the table again. We kids felt quite victorious.
While my Dad too occupied the head of the table, Grampy did so in a way that was quite distinct. Sometimes, Grampy would sit with his chair at an angle to the table, with one foot raised on the rung of his chair. He always appeared to be holding court. He would often lean on one elbow and prop himself up with his other hand firmly planted on the edge of the “board” as he called it. It rather gave him the same kind of stance as a sympathetic judge might have at the bench. Grampy was in charge, at least for a while. Laughter filled the little dining room at tea time in the afternoon. Like Dad, Grampy would practice his own jokes before sharing them with the rest of us assembled. Tea time was a raucous and special time of day. I am glad to have gotten the chance to participate in it.
As a side note, Mom would never have allowed Dad to sit at her table with the same posture as Grampy was allowed. It seemed smug to her, and off putting. Once, we had dinner with a pair of Dad’s brothers, who both behaved as Grampy did. They held their forks like shovels, Mom pointed out. Mom was quite pleased with the result of that mutinous meal we shared all those years ago. Her husband, she liked to remind us, had manners that she perceived the other men in his family as having lacked.
When I returned home from Gramp’s place, later that summer week, I set myself to counting the little green stamps that my Mother had collected as a part of her weekly shopping in the Corinth village. I carefully glued the little stickers in to the booklets until I had enough to buy a “poly hot pot”. I had read the catalog. I had my eye on an electric tea pot which I could use in my room in the new house. I didn’t want anything too fancy, just attractive and functional. It just had to boil water safely. (The 1970s were known for the greens and oranges in decorating, as well as a stylized floral pattern. We even had green and orange flower-shaped refrigerator magnets. The poly hot pot which I purchased at the Green Stamps store in Bangor was a much softer color—beige, and has on the side three of those stylized flowers painted in shades of brown.) With some money that I had saved, I bought my first mug (and still my favorite) to go with the hot pot. I have it here in my office–an eight ounce porcelain mug with a brown base and adorned with a row of painted striped birds. It is an elegant mug in its simplicity of design.
Mom thought me a curious kid, but she always supported me. The day I picked out my hot pot, and my mug, she allowed that I could buy a box of Red Rose tea too. Up in my room, behind my bed where there was an electrical outlet, I sipped tea that I had steeped with water boiled in my Green stamps’ pot. I sat on the floor, alone, grasping my little bird mug in my hands. My Red Rose was just as tasty as the tea I had shared at Grampy’s place. I sat and reminisced.
As time went on, Mom helped me to get a tin canister in which to store my tea. We had saved the UPC codes off the tubes of Quaker Oatmeal and bought a tin with the Quaker Oats man (and a recipe for oatmeal raisin cookies) painted in bright red and blue on it. She filled it with little packets of Bigelow tea. My favorite of all the flavors that came in that initial variety pack was “Lemon Lift”. It was a nice pekoe tea, with a hint of lemon. I always have some on hand, despite my affinity today for the loose leaf teas we now buy.
Those Middle School years were particularly difficult for me. Prior to getting to the sixth grade, our activities with the other kids at school were rather limited. That also meant that we weren’t all focused on being “cool” and keeping up some appearance of independence, even if we didn’t really have any in the literal sense. I was picked on relentlessly and wished quite sincerely that things would change; if they wouldn’t change, I wanted to make things happen on my own. On television, reruns of Bewitched with Elizabeth Montgomery and I Dream of Jeannie with Barbara Eden came on at the four o’clock hour, hosted by local star, Eddie Driscol. I never missed an episode. In 1984, we were building our house and Mom and Dad let us have quite a lot of control over what we wanted our rooms to be like. I secretly harbored the desire to have a wall with a moving panel, and a small room or nook hidden behind it so that I would have a place to which I could escape. Dad let me know that that simply wasn’t going to happen. I also wanted a small kitchenette in there, but I was informed that the plumbing for that sort of project would be stopping on the first floor rather than the second. I also practiced earnestly twitching my nose (which I couldn’t do) so decided that wiggling my ears (which Mom and I both could, but the other kids couldn’t) would have to do. I also tried focusing my energy in to a good blink just in case the odd spell I would cast didn’t work out. Grampy Wilson, for his part, encouraged me to put my faith in God. He assured me that God had everything under control and that I would never be given more to handle than I could manage if I just put my faith in Him. I wasn’t particular. Whichever method worked the best and first was good enough for me.
Through all of that, though, I did drink many a solitary cup of tea in my room. I used that time alone to meditate on my problems, find solutions that were a bit more practical and consider ways to implement them. I would read back there behind the bed, in the alcove created by the dormer in the roof, and drink my tea. While I didn’t have a moveable wall, I did have a space to call my own and to which I could escape o afterall. If only, though, I could have achieved the level of power that Samantha and Jeannie enjoyed, I could have made all the other mean kids disappear. That would have been bliss.
My little poly hot pot, bird mug, and Quaker Oats tin joined me at college. My best friend Dan and I enjoyed many an afternoon of conversation and laughter over mugs of tea. If I ran out, we’d bring bags of tea back from the dining hall. Middlebury also served Bigelow teas, it turned out. Since then, of course, I have lived in places with proper kitchens and stoves and haven’t needed my electric tea pot. It mostly sits and collects dust in my office now.
The poly hot pot, and little bird mug, remind me though that with faith, there really isn’t anything that can’t be overcome. I sometimes pour myself a mug of tea in winter and just sit, and think. I sip my tea and reflect on the past as well as the future now. I am not focused any longer on making the hurt stop, as I was in 1984 when I shared my first cup and saucer full of Red Rose tea with Grampy Wilson.
It is cold outside, but deep in my heart, I feel the warmth of those first cups of tea that Grampy and I shared. Grampy would have been 98 this year, had he survived; his widdow, my Grammie Avis, is 95 years old. (My Aunt Sheila wrote to tell me after Christmas that she and her family had begun their holiday at the nursing home with Grammie, who was up finishing her breakfast and very alert! The only way she could have been better was if she had a donut, Grammie had told them. I am glad to report that they were able to make that happen for her.)
I think tonight I will enjoy my tea in a cup and saucer, for a change. I’ll be thinking of Grampy as I refill the cup and sip.
While writing Walking Up The Ramp Gregory Humphrey often reflected on the words President Nixon said upon leaving the White House in 1974. “Nobody will ever write a book, probably, about my Mother.” Nixon could have said the same about his Dad.
Humphrey has constructed homage to his parents, a moving and sentimental journey in book form not meant to provide a detailed genealogical history but the story of their lives. Instead Humphrey shows how Royce and Geneva Humphrey provided a solid foundation on how to live life, and instilled bedrock values aimed to last a lifetime for their son.
As Humphrey turned fifty he decided to compile his writings on various aspects of life and synthesize them into a narrative that combines stories of laughter and also heartache.
“When I was a kid Dad would drive me every Friday night to the local library, where I found so much comfort in the books,” Humphrey said. “Books were a real refuge for me. After I left home Mom said given what I enjoyed I should write a book someday.”
With respect but candor Humphrey’s first book takes readers not only inside the Humphrey family home, but also through the contours of his own life. Humphrey writes about what a cup of coffee really represented in Geneva’s kitchen, while Royce demonstrates what ‘paying it forward’ means when helping motorists with a flat tire, refusing payment for his efforts. We read of Mom showing the virtues of a rainy day while Dad explains why a perfectly shaped Christmas tree is not the best one to select. We learn lessons about life in stories about plowing snow.
The pace of life slows down in the Hancock of Humphrey’s youth. We revisit the barber’s chair, and the lady who staffed the local library housed in a small white building on Main Street. Memories of road construction in front of the family home, the sounds of water sizzling on Grandma’s cast-iron stove, the sight of Grandpa’s hay-baling operation—all are events recalled with joy. A newspaper arrives every day in the mailbox, the phone is a party line, and news of President Truman’s death is heard over the radio. There was no television at home.
Humphrey weaves the tale of a lanky kid who loved to read books, was not sports-oriented, and was continually bullied in high school. Stripped of his self-confidence, he enters the darkest time of his life. His best friend commits suicide. Humphrey writes clearly about his own feelings of utter despair as a teenager who felt isolated in a small town and without the resources to heal.
Humphrey writes about the strength of the human spirit, and how hope appears in the most unexpected ways. This part of the story is meant to lift the sails of anyone who has struggled to overcome burdens in life.
With Humphrey’s acceptance to broadcasting school came the opening to life in which he so long had hoped to participate. From working at WDOR to employment at the Wisconsin State Capitol, a continuing series of stories and reflections makes for a compelling read. Put life into perspective. Prioritize what is important. Live authentically. These things take time and come from the most painful and unsettling chapters of life.
“Writing a book like this often felt like leaving my raw emotions on the keyboard,” Humphrey said upon completion of his project. “There was no way to start my story and not add the parts that made me sad or contemplative.”
With honest appraisals comes a book about living genuinely. The larger story it tells is meant to provide hope for those who struggle to find their way, and need to know there can be a better day ahead.
“No one needs to cast off the better parts of the past just to move beyond the rough times,” Humphrey writes in the book.
Over and over Humphrey goes back to those early years and warm memories of childhood where a loving foundation was created at home by two parents who helped raise a boy into a determined man.
The Boston cream pie isn’t really a pie at all. Its misleading name befuddles many, just as a light year is confused as a measurement of time rather than distance, or the foot pound which is a measure of energy and not of either distance or weight. No, the Boston cream pie is a cake rather than a pie, and it is simply delicious.
In New England, the pie is legendary. In fact, the Boston cream pie was proclaimed the official Massachusetts State Dessert on December 12, 1996. A civics class from Norton High School sponsored the bill. The pie beat out other candidates; including the toll house cookie and Indian pudding.
In my childhood home, the Boston cream pie was one of my Mom’s very favorites. Since July 9th would have been my Mother’s 65th birthday, had she survived, I decided to make her a cake and celebrate with her just the same. The last time I made one, I was still in high school, probably a sophomore. Right about then, the Labree’s bakery started making them and selling them in my Mom’s area, so she just bought one of theirs from time to time. (I think that the Labree people tended to cheat a little. Their pie was really only one cake, sliced in two and then filled, where mine was always two cakes stacked on top of one another—a much more satisfying cake to filling to decadently rich chocolate ganache ratio.) As a nice variation to this recipe, I can say that Mom and I used to add a layer of raspberry preserves to the cake before scooping on the pudding filling. The chocolate and the raspberry flavors are heavenly together and we always had some homemade raspberry preserves on the pantry shelves from the previous season.
Feeling a bit nostalgic and wanting to recreate this more than twenty year-old food memory last year at this time as well, I set myself up in the kitchen and began to bake before Gregory was even out of bed. Cooking from memory (and then sitting down to write the recipe, which is how I generally come up with my material for these essays) sometimes leads to unintended results. In this case, I had forgotten to take in to account that my Mom was always cooking for five people, if not six if you counted my much taller and then athletic older brother in for two portions. When I was finished, I had a real cake on my hands. I only really wanted one piece, my own Proustian mnemonic if you will, but here on my counter sat this more than adequately sized confection. Oops. I am glad that my longtime friend, Carmen, was available to stop by on the spur of the moment that afternoon and enjoy a slice with Gregory and me as we watched sail boats cruise by our view. The cake was amazing, as friend Linda (who took a piece as a ‘leftover’ later in the evening, can attest. Mom would have really enjoyed it.
Some of the recipe books in my collection describe the cake as consisting of two layers of sponge cake, filled with thick vanilla custard and topped with a sprinkling of confectioners’ sugar. While I am sure that some make it this way, it isn’t the Boston Cream that I recall. It would seem to me that using sponge cake as the base of the recipe would be risky. The custard filling would likely make the cake so moist that it would be about the same as though you drug the cream pie through a car wash. And, not putting a chocolate ganache over the top, opting instead to sprinkle confectioners’ sugar, well anyone who would do that deserves to be pilloried!
No one is a hundred percent certain when the Boston cream pie made its way on to the American culinary scene. Some websites suggest that it was made in 1856 at the Parker House Hotel of Boston by the French chef there. Sounds reasonable. This cake was probably called a pie because in the mid-nineteenth century, before Fannie Farmer helped American to standardize our country’s recipe writing using proportions instead of weights, pie tins which could be used for savory main meal dishes as well as the sweet dessert pies of today were more common than cake pans. The first versions of this cake then were likely baked in pie tins. I know that I always make mine in two pie plates instead of cake pans. I grease and flour the plates just as one would for a cake pan, which makes it very easy to remove the finished product later. Using two cake pans with their square, angled sides would allow you to have a uniform shape to the cake with nice straight sides; this sort of plan would make it just like any cake your grandmother went to classes to learn how to decorate in the 1970s. But I tend to like the two pie-tin prepared cakes instead so that you can see the pudding center scoot its way out mischievously and the ganache hang precariously over the top edge—I think the “texture” of the two uneven edges adds to the overall esthetic.
No matter what the pie’s true origins are, when served, the Boston cream pie is cut in wedges. Some of the recipes I read this evening said one of these pies would serve 12 to 16. Oddly, my seemingly oversized cake only had 8 pieces in it when cut properly! None of my taste testers returned any portion of their allotted share; of course, no one dared ask for seconds either!
This recipe requires some advance planning, as the cake has to cool completely before it’s filled and covered with the ganache. As with many of my recipes, I will let you in on a few secrets.
Boston Cream Pie Recipe—the modern convenience method:
If you don’t want to take the time to make your own cake from scratch, Use a purchased yellow cake mix instead. Prepare one Betty Crocker’s Super Moist yellow Cake Mix according to manufacturer’s instructions. Divide the batter in to two prepared pie plates, or spring-form cake pans and bake. For a quick filling you can always prepare one (5.1 ounce) box of Jell-O Vanilla Instant Pudding and Pie Filling using only 2.5 cups of milk rather than 3 cups. I would not recommend using a canned version of chocolate frosting for this recipe. Those cans generally taste pretty industrial and also are rather thick—unlike the sleek look of the ganache. Don’t cheat yourself on the chocolate experience, even if you have taken the two previous shortcuts.
Boston Cream Pie Recipe—the old-fashioned way:
2 cups sifted cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 large eggs
3/4 cup milk
* It is important that you sift the cake flour before measuring as the weight will change. The weight after sifting will be approximately 7 ounces for the sifted two (2) cups.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Butter and flour a 9-inch round pie plate or springform pan. NOTE: You may use two 8-inch cake pans instead, but it is a lot easier to use a springform pan. Adjust oven rack to the center position of your oven.
In a medium-size bowl, sift cake flour again with baking powder and salt; set aside.
In a bowl of your electric mixer, cream together the butter, sugar, and vanilla extract until the mixture is light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the sifted flour mixture to the butter mixture in three (3) batches alternately with the milk, beginning and ending with the flour mixture.
Pour the batter into the prepared pans and bake for approximately 25 to 30 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean and the top springs back when lightly touched; remove from oven. NOTE: It will take less time if using 2 cake pans. Let the cake cool in the pan on a wire rack for 10 minute. After 10 minutes, remove from pan and let cake cool completely.
When cake is completely cool, carefully remove cake from springform bottom, if that is the option you chose. If your cake is slightly domed, level it with a long-bladed serrated knife. Using a serrated knife, cut the cake in half horizontally, and arrange the bottom half, cut side up, on a plate.
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
3 large egg yolks, beaten
In a large saucepan over medium heat, add the milk and split vanilla bean; heat to just below boiling and then remove immediately remove from heat and set aside to infuse for 10 to 15 minutes. After the infusing time, remove the vanilla bean and, using a sharp knife, scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean, reserving the pod for another use.
In the top of a double boiler over simmering water, place sugar, flour, and egg yolks; stir until mixture is smooth. Add warm milk and scrapings from inside of vanilla bean. Continue cooking, stirring constantly, until mixture begins to thicken. Remove from heat and stir. Let mixture cool completely.
Chocolate Ganache (Icing)
1/3 cup heavy or whipping cream
7 ounces semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
In a small, heavy saucepan, add the cream and bring just to a boil; immediately remove from the heat. Add the chopped chocolate and corn syrup, stirring with a whisk until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is completely smooth.
Use the Chocolate Ganache while still warm. NOTE: If you Chocolate Ganache has cooled, gently re-warm before using.
Assemble the Boston Cream Pie:
Top the bottom half of the cake with the custard, spreading the custard to the edge.
Carefully place the remaining cake half, cut side down, on top of the custard; gently pressing down.
If you think it is necessary, refrigerate for 1 hour to help keep the cake together.
Spread the Chocolate Ganache on top of the cake, spreading the Ganache to the edge and down the side of the cake. Some people like to let the Chocolate Ganache drip down the sides of the cake (your choice).
Refrigerate the finished Boston Cream Pie approximately 1 to 2 hours before cutting and serving.
The Boston cream pie may be made 1 day in advance and kept covered loosely and chilled.
To cut the cake, wet a sharp knife in hot water, and shake off any excess water before making each cut. Let the cut portions stand at room temperature for approximately 10 to 15 minutes before serving.
Can you think of a sillier holiday than one celebrating the shadow-spotting talents of a rodent? “If the Groundhog sees his shadow, it means that there are still six more weeks of winter. If he doesn’t see his shadow, it means that spring is only six weeks away.”
Can you think of a holiday that is more pointless than this one?
That means it is the perfect excuse just to do something fun.
And even better if you can do something ridiculous with someone else. Share the hilarity!
My Mom and I used to celebrate Ground Hog’s day together—we made a great team. What made the day special was the fact that we celebrated it together, even if everyone else thought we were just a little bit crazy for doing so. Everyone. But oh how we would laugh it up!
Not being one of the traditional Hallmark holidays, finding a card or some other recognition of the holiday was always difficult. In January, the stores swapped out their holiday ornaments for big red boxes of candy and greeting cards for kids to share with their kindergarten classmates. Roses could be found anywhere, even if looking a bit tired and faded, but not a single store carried a line of appropriate Groundhog’s Day product. Not one. They still don’t. If you want something for Groundhog’s Day, you have to make it yourself. But that is ok. Everyone knows that if you make it by hand, it is an instant heirloom.
Yes, Mom and I would anxiously await the prognostication of Punxsutawney Phil, of Philadelphia, because he was the nation’s Prognosticator-in-chief. No other Groundhog would do. And getting the prediction correct was difficult business, the sort of feat about which the minstrels would sing. Or at least the amateur prose poets. Like me.
I was determined to be among those who roamed the land singing laudatory praises of our friend Phil. I learned a real gem in Mike Thibodeau’s third-grade class at the Morison Memorial Elementary. (Mr. Thibodeau, who is gone now, was a great teacher. He used to have us copy in to our notebooks the poetry of Shel Silverstein as a way to practice our cursive handwriting. Sometimes, he would bring in other valuable quotations or life’s lessons for us to copy and recopy as we struggled in our penmanship lessons to make our letters slant toward the right, or to the left depending on one’s dominant hand.) Yes, on Groundhog’s Day 1982, we learned this little ditty.
Little Groundhog down below
Underneath the wintry snow,
Come out and tell us true,
Is Spring Coming?
Is Winter through?
We were given a paper sandwich bag, some manila paper, a popsicle stick, scissors and crayons and shown how to create a Groundhog pop-up puppet. To the front of our creation, we attached a neatly tri-folded copy of the poem we had just learned, expertly written on the good white penmanship paper (not that ugly yellow kind that was rough to the touch, but far cheaper). I still have mine. (Keep in mind that at the time, the u’s and the w’s weren’t all that evident to string together with the other letters!)
For Mom and me, Groundhog’s Day was a great day for story-telling. It was usually too cold to really go outside and enjoy the usual games anyway. Mom told me once about a surprise that had once befallen her grandmother, Marion Rowe, as she went out to chop a bit of firewood for the old black stove in the kitchen and for a small fire she intended to build in the yard.
Grammy Rowe, as she was always known to Mom and us kids, once owned the land upon which my Dad built our home in 1984. The picturesque old homeplace sits not so high up on the ridge that it leaves one with the aftertaste of judgment in one’s mouth—though as a good Baptist, Grammy Rowe sometimes had that effect on people. Having passed away in 1975, my personal memories of her are few, but her nephew Robert Parsons recalls her outspoken disdain for the hippies of her latter days. In reality, Grammy Rowe’s house was romantically placed just out of reach of us, owned by another family by then, a few hundred yards away from our home. Its front door and driveway opened on to the Marsh Road, a left hand turn from our place as you head in to town, off the Hudson Road where I grew up. It was a grand old white house, a Victorian with an imposing stature. Looking out from its back lawn, one sees the panorama of the whole valley spread out like a picture, with all its varied terrain (garden, pasture, woodland, etc.) stitched together like split-oak fences resembling nothing so much as a green-hued quilt in summer. For Groundhog’s Day though, the view was of a cold and chilly expanse of white.
On this one particular Groundhog’s day, the temperatures had climbed just enough that Grammy Rowe had decided that it would be a good idea to go out in to the back yard, chop a bit of wood, and fire up the lye pot to make some new soap, fearing of course that she wouldn’t have enough to make the winter without it. Out by the old tree, she used a fallen stick to get under the upturned old pot, getting ready to add her supplies when all of the sudden, a brown furry creature dashes out from beneath it.
Little Groundhog down below,
Underneath the blackened kettle,
How dare you, sir,
Frighten and unsettle
Our little Grammy Rowe?
Startled and caught off guard, Grammy Rowe, then in her seventies, stumbled backward and landed in a bed of white snow. Harumph! “Oh you silly beast,” she shouted, amid the raucous laughter of her granddaughter, Marion, who had stopped by for a visit that day.
Tell a story. Write a poem. Do something you wouldn’t normally do. But above all, have a little fun and think of Mom and me—fans till the end of a silly little holiday of no consequence. And if you should feel inclined, feel free to send me a hand-made card celebrating the best of all of our holidays. I will cherish it as the heirloom that it undoubtedly was intended to be.
Happy Groundhog’s Day!