Friday, April 30, 2010

Margaret Egerton: Ninety-Nine

Flowers for Margaret
Margaret loved poetry, and often quoted her favorite poems in the pieces she brought to class. The little poem that begins her piece "Ninety-nine" is from a book of poetry given to her by a friend on her ninety-ninth birthday, last October. The poem at the end is copied in the beautiful handwriting she learned as a student of calligraphy. She was very interested in people, and insisted that I bring my own writing to class, making a special effort to get there on March 30, when I had promised to read a few pages of my memoir-in-progress. The following week, we heard that she had been in the hospital. The last time I saw her, she was sitting up in bed with a beautiful barrette in her hair in the shape of an exotic flower. She had just been Skyping with some young family members. We had a lovely visit, and at the end, she said, "I think I'll see you again."

Instructions for Living:
Pay attention
Be astonished
Tell about it

—from Red Bird Poetry, by Mary Oliver

Last week I celebrated my birthday. It truly was a celebration with my family and friends and I was very grateful to keep going, but by the end of the week I was so tired. I slumped into my favorite chair and began opening my birthday cards, many loving expressions, all very encouraging about this “special day.” I could not believe that I was feeling so sad! With Sheri purring in my lap and nuzzling my hands with the cards, it was an hour of repose when I was reminded of my comfort and many blessings.

A day or two passed, I renewed my energy, but the mood of sadness continued until I telephoned my friend who had given me the book of poems for my birthday present. She and I have been friends for many years, and we have shared many thoughtful weekends together where we had learned to pray and reflect on our most deeply troubling as well as enjoyable experiences together. We had never known each other prior to our meeting in Vermont at a Christmas party twenty years ago. It was at the party that we discovered we had been working with the same agency in Connecticut, the Child and Family Services. She cared for babies born to unwed mothers and I helped the mothers make the terrible decision of choice, i.e. to keep the baby or release it for adoption. We had never met while working in different offices of the agency. However, that evening at the party began a natural and mutual loving friendship as we were both “flatlanders,” having retired to Vermont recently but ready to continue our good intentions as social workers wherever we found the need to serve. It was not many months before we were truly engaged in creating Randolph Area Hospice in Vermont. We followed this organization as volunteers until it was established as part of a national service with the Visiting Nurse Association and Hospice of Vermont and New Hampshire. At the time we retired as volunteers we continued to keep in touch.

Sadly, my friend and I have been separated from our usual link of fellowship for the past year as she has been totally disrupted and engaged this past year in making a major shift in her life style, leaving her beautiful home, and placing her dear husband in a nursing home and finding her own place near enough to visit him every day. Our reunion began the day of my birthday when we lunched together and we shared her favorite book of poems.

Since our visit I have read all of the poems in this small book and can quote it with her as a new beginning for both of us. Fortunately, I have had some relief from the sadness which has hovered over me since my celebration. However, this sadness has been like a shadow which has been near me during the past decade but difficult to describe in words or to share with others. Perhaps that is why I have kept journals in an effort to communicate with something ineffable and mysterious. It fills me with being alone with a secret, something impersonal, a “numinosum” which is part of the mystery, the inexplicable, the incredible experience of living.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Margaret Egerton: Living Alone on a Hill in Vermont

The View to the West, by D'Ann Fago

Living alone on a hill in Vermont gives me time
to integrate my thoughts. I’m consciously aware
of awe, growing. There’s so little time left . . .
I’m seeking to coordinate the mystery,
living the miracle. I’m pragmatic. I want to
orchestrate the experience of being.
All of it is coming into me . . .
Harmony and balance—
two words I completely adore.

A golden thread runs through
my life: each a new space affords
a panoramic view of what has happened.
There’s a driving force I couldn’t articulate
20 years ago. Just loving, without words
My husband was a business man
who didn’t enjoy being a CEO. He started
as an accountant, went into the Service, stateside.
We moved around. I didn’t put any roots down.
We bought houses and we sold them . . .
I was a city gal until I cam here
and then he left me . . . I was so frightened.
He was stricken. I called Day’s Funeral Home
and asked, “Do you suppose you could find
a place for Henry, some vacant space,
and some for me, his relic . . . or consort?”
All his ancestors were buried up here.
He had an uncle who used to live in Randolph Center.
He traced Egerton to first settlers on the ridge.
I drive by the cemetery three times a week.
I love him. He loved me in his way.

My windows face east and west.
Snow trees on my hillside slope down.
Joy wells up in the presence
of something . . . stupendous.
A big old birch is losing its branches
But it’s still reaching up,
Still reaching up, like me.

—Margaret Egerton

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Portrait of a Young Lady

A photograph of Ruth Godfrey (née Cooley) from the 1930s. I have no idea of the process—it has obviously been well worked over: the hair hand-brushed, the eyelashes mascara'ed, the cheeks pinked (and yes, her eyes are blue, but are they that blue?) It looks nothing like any other hand-tinted black-and-white photograph I've ever seen. Must ask Jack to explain . . . I wonder if anyone else at the Senior Center has one like it.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Mary Hutchinson: The Golden Age of the Randolph Playground

My generation was the last to enjoy the Randolph playground as it appears in this memoir by Mary Hutchinson, née Dustin. I remember the same craft shop, the same bath house, the same Gala Day celebration. The river was icy cold (especially at nine in the morning, when swimming lessons began), but those really were the glory days. 

Randolph Playground was where I spent the summers of my youth. I remember watching, as a small child, my dad help dig a swimming hole on the west side of the river. Why it was in that location, I do not know. Perhaps the town wanted a safe area to swim after five people drowned at Duckett’s Corner on route 12A. The new swimming pool was a bit muddy. It was fed by a trough from the river, and the river itself was crystal clear. Later, sandbags were laid across the river to form a dam. The river pool was much larger but oh, so cold!

After swimming lessons, we would rush up to the bathhouse to put on our clothes, which lay in piles on a bench or floor in each cubby. A white curtain pulled to give you privacy until some kid came along and pulled it open. We were sometimes known to wipe our feet on the curtains. My mother once took them all home to wash.

There were two outhouses with flush toilets, but little privacy. I would often run home to use the bathroom rather than risk someone walking in on me. Nearby were two drinking fountains with rusty tasting water. That was the only place to wash one’s hands.

There was no charge for attending the playground or for swimming lessons. We did pay for items at the craft shop, perhaps five or 25 cents for wooden items. The wood was donated by Webster’s mill, Savage’s mill, and Randolph furniture.

Miss Walbridge was rather stooped and wore a housedress covered by a paint-stained apron. She was in charge of the craft shop, and she kept strict discipline. No tools left out, no paint cans uncovered, no brushes uncleaned. The craft shop had two sections: one for painting and handwork, and the other for sawing and serious sanding. An opening in the wall allowed Miss Walbridge to keep track of both sections.

The younger children cut out their wooden projects held in a vice with a small handsaw, while the older children could use the pedal jigsaw, which resembled a bicycle. The saw was busy buzzing most of the day and the room smelled of sawdust, paint and turpentine.

There were other projects to make: Curtain pulls, napkin rings, potholders, cutting boards, tooled leather, belts, wallets, bracelets and lanyard made of gimp, wooden salad bowls, shell jewelry, tooled copper plaques, toothbrush holders, plaster molds, and painted jars and bottles. Our family had a toothbrush holder which four siblings each insisted was made by them.

The most popular items in the craft shop were lawn ornaments made of wood. They were painted with a flat white before the final color; last came the detail. How we hated to wait for that first flat coat to dry.
Before being painted, each item had to be sanded to perfection: Miss Walbridge insisted on a smooth surface.

One year, under the leadership of Gerry Jennings, we learned to folk dance. What fun! At the end of the season, we gave a demonstration of our accomplishments in the village square, where each Friday night the town band gave a concert. Most of the town turned out to these Friday night concerts. The town bustled with excitement! The stores were all open for shopping, and the 5-cent ice cream cones sold like hot cakes. Horns honked in appreciation of each piece, and neighbors went from car to car to share the latest gossip.

The biggest event of all at our playground was Gala Day. There were contests: running races, broad jump, running jump, horse shoes, softball games, volley ball, and my favorite, the treasure hunt. We ran from clue to clue. We must have looked like a herd of buffalo. The day ended with a huge bonfire in the open field behind the craft shop. There was popcorn and soda for sale and a hat was passed for contributions to defray expenses.

In later years, the Gala Day finale was a phenomenal circus. This was held at the alumni field, where there was a grandstand. There were clowns, acrobats, jokes, singing, and even a kid shot out of a canon. This was choreographed by our well-known Dean Rippon (later known as Birdo the Clown).
Dean was tall, tanned, very muscular, and bald. He was a gymnast and loved to be the center of attention. What a clown he was! One of the best acts was the arrival of a Volkswagon—the grandstand was full to capacity for this event. Horn honked, out came a child. Another honk, out came a child. Another honk, out came a child. There must have been fifteen in all. How he got so many children in that little car, I’ll never know.

In 1971, due to stricter standards for water testing, the town built a manmade pool beside the river and began to charge for its use. No more rolling in the sand and jumping into the river. No more workmen going to where the water flowed over the dam and washing up. No more night swimming after hours. No more picking “soap flowers” and making suds. No jumping off the bridge into the cold water. No white rocks and stones to be found on the bottom of the river. The playground was never the same again.

Patrick "Tex" Texier: Mon Enfance

Not all of the members of the Hale Street Gang hail from Vermont. Our cartoonist-in-residence was born in the hamlet of Continvoir, in the Loire Valley. I suppose this is what fashionable two-year-olds wore in postwar France. Patrick tells me he loved going to cafés in Paris with his grandmother and drinking a Diablo Menthe (sparkling lemonade and mint syrup). It was served with a real straw—the kind you find on the threshing-room floor.

"Quand je serais grand, je serais Americain et j'aurais une moto." (When I'm big, I'm gonna be an American biker!) —Marseilles, circa 1946

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Wild Leeks and Hepaticas

Grandma Small and Buddy with spring bouquet.
Spring has finally come to central Vermont, although as I was walking in the woods up behind the Randolph Center farmhouse yesterday, enjoying the sun's warmth, I was kinda surprised at how white the top of Killington looks from here. Also, if you scroll down, you'll see a picture of the farmhouse taken after a snowstorm in May 1945. So you just never know. That said, Mary Markle was talking about wild leeks the other day at lunch (baked beans and potato salad at the Senior Center): She picks, dries, and freezes them, then adds them to soup and stews. And Chef's Market was selling wild leeks and fiddleheads (the latter from Massachusetts; it's maybe a bit early here for fiddleheads). Years ago, I used to love picking spring wildflowers along the brook while my mother picked fiddleheads (Ellen Reid and my mother were great fans of wild food back before it was fashionable, and used to share information about where to find it and how to prepare it). The following is an excerpt from my mother's "Childhood" memoir, in which she reminisces about the springtimes of years gone by. The picture above is of her maternal grandmother and one of her cousins, Charles "Buddy" Sawyer:

“In the spring we loved to go into the woods to look for wildflowers. We knew where to go to find trillium, hepaticas, adder’s tongues, and violets of blue, white, and yellow. We would gather them up in limp bouquets and present them to some adult. Wildflowers don’t do too well as cut flowers, but the recipients of these bouquets always were properly appreciative. Even before the flowers, though, were the pussywillows. My father once gave me a little pearl-handled knife which I took on a pussywillow expedition and managed to cut my finger. Dad remarked rather ruefully that perhaps a jack-knife wasn’t such a good present for a girl."—Idora Tucker

Cooley Farm on Ridge Road at Randolph Center, May 1945.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Hale Street Gang Goes to College

John and Cynthia Jackson, above, were two of our readers last night when a bunch of us drove over to VTC to swap stories with the college kids. We were super impressed! The kids tackled difficult subjects with candor and compassion, and their writing was courageous and eloquent. Our own selections ran more toward the light-hearted, as the titles suggest: Cynthia read "The Night the Bed Fell In," Cookie Campbell read "A Is for Apple," and Mary Jacobs read A Day in the Life of a Country Nurse. John Jackson read a selection from "Pop." Art Jackson was one of those fathers who never lost his larger-than-life quality. Orphaned before the age of ten, he became a circus roustabout at fifteen and joined the army before his eighteenth birthday, serving as a hard-hat diver on a mine-laying ship in Panama during World War I. After he became a father he worked in a knife factory, but his body bore the marks of a shadowy past, one that John would always wonder about. He writes:
I didn't realize for a number of years that my father's tattoos were in any way unusual. I guess he got them when he was stationed on the mine layer in Panama, since tattoos are more common among sailors than among soldiers. Since they were among my earliest memories, I naturally assumed that all adult men had them. Seventy or eighty years ago, long-sleeved shirts and coats were more a part of standard male attire than nowadays, and I think I was quite old before I realized that most men didn't have tatoos. I can't imagine why I didn't question him about them, and I'm not sure I can remember all of them. The most spectacular was a large parrot, which extended almost all the way from his elbow to his wrist. Another was a wreath with his initials, AJ, within it. A line drawing of a crawling baby was one that I did somehow learn about. I believe it represented Baby Snooks, a newspaper cartoon character. I have the feeling that there were more, but I can't come up with them right now. It's not too surprising that I didn't feel that tattoos were in any way unusual on a father's arms. They were just part of my father's normal image.

John has said he is writing his memoir for his children—a motive I've heard over and over in our group. The writers are trying to anticipate the questions their children and grandchildren will have when they're no longer around to provide answers. It is a tall order, requiring imagination, honesty, and yes, courage, something the kids at VTC last night displayed in abundance. We thank them for their inspiration!

PS: The photograph above was taken at a Senior Center event last fall. Unfortunately, I have no picture of us last night with the VTC students—stupid me forgot to bring a camera.

Idora Tucker: Spring 1921

“Vermont had an early spring in 1921, the year I was born. At that time my parents had been married about five years, and I was their first child. Dad was 29, Mom 32. Before my birth my mother asked that I be named Idora Gertrude after my maternal grandmother and my mother, but that if she did not survive the birth I was to be named Gertrude Idora. I was born in what is now Gifford Medical Center, then the Randolph Sanatorium, in Randolph proper, a good five miles over dirt roads from our farm home in Randolph Center. I don’t know how my mother was transported to the hospital. I do know that she remained there for two weeks after my birth on March 23, as was customary in those days. My father visited her by walking through the fields, which shortened the distance somewhat but must have been a hard trip on wet ground at that time of year. They told me many times that when he brought us home about April 6 the season was far enough advanced that the new grass in the fields beside the road was blown into wavelets by the spring breeze." —from Childhood, by Idora Tucker

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Me and Margaret: On Building a Nest

Trees, by D'Ann Fago 
Today was a wonderful day—and exhausting! By 6:30, I was emailing friends about our Kickstarter campaign, and within a few hours, my wonderful friends—and their friends—had contributed hundreds of dollars. Emilie Daniel, the Senior Center's hard-working director, led the charge, soon followed by her cousin Leif . . . and Kelly, and Forrest, and Betty, and Becky, and Idora . . . I was overwhelmed!

Next, I proofread Margaret's memoir On Building a Nest, the first book to come out of the Tuesday group, which has been meeting since September. (Also in the Tuesday group is D'Ann Fago, creator of the lovely Trees, above, a view from her home on Christian Hill in Bethel—she and Margaret are good pals.) Our resident cartoonist, Tex—a fledgling book designer—put Margaret's book together on his new Mac as a surprise for her. Here's the cover blurb I wrote:

"On Building a Nest is the story of a spiritual journey, told from the perspective of a woman whose life spans most of the twentieth century. The daughter of British immigrants, Margaret Egerton was born in 1910 and grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. Driven by the upheaval of two world wars, the hardships of the Depression, and the demands of her husband’s career, she moved from country to country, state to state, and house to house, never putting down roots—until she and her husband settled in the small Vermont town where his ancestors were buried. There, in the latter part of her life, she found what she had been longing for. On Building a Nest is about the search for connection and meaning in a restless world, a celebration of life and love." You can read an excerpt below.

At lunchtime, I raced to the Senior Center and skarfed down a big plateful of Rose's beans and potato salad; sitting next to me were a couple of linguistics majors from Dartmouth, who had driven over to the center in search of authentic Vermont accents (they lucked out!). After lunch, the center turned into a recording studio, with one pair of linguists in the craft room, another pair in Emilie's office, and me and the writers upstairs with Greg Sharrow from the Vermont Folklife Center and his microphone. Emilie was turning in circles trying to make everyone comfortable—at one point, she jumped into her car and came back with eye drops for D'Ann, who was having a terrible time reading her "script" for Greg (it didn't help that her glasses had lost an earpiece and wouldn't stay on her nose).

Next stop: Margaret's house. I arrived at a good time—she had awakened from a nap and was feeling rested and wanted to talk. I walked in on a Skype session, Margaret's first. She couldn't hear the Skypers (some young family members) all that well, and she herself is talking in a whisper these days, but they blew kisses at each other, and when I walked into the bedroom, Margaret was smiling and I got a big hug from her and another one when I left. She had a barrette over her left ear in the shape of a gardenia. "I'm ready to go," she said. But in the short time I was there, she was very much alive and very much Margaret and thrilled with the book. I thanked her for being my student, for being my teacher, for being my inspiration and my friend, and for bringing her lovely light into our classroom and into our lives. "I think I'll see you again," she said, and I told her yes, I would come back, real soon. I shall miss her so. Here is a sample of her memoir, taken from the introductory chapter.
This morning I awakened with the same feelings as usual, a reluctance to get up and start moving, still too tired to leave the comfort of my warm bed even though I had eight hours of sleep. This feeling of ennui, or weariness, was overcome by the review of plans for my day and whether or not I had any commitments in town. Actually, there was this first meeting with Sara Tucker after lunch today. I had very mixed feelings about the commitment. I had been reading in a book about journal writing and the author had warned about the negative feeling of being “self-indulgent”—being on an “ego trip.” On the contrary, she wrote: “. . . perhaps it is quite necessary to indulge in the self in order to learn what emerges from the self and how it forms and creates” (A Walk Between Heaven and Earth, R.M. Holzer).
. . . I am now deeply involved in finding order in my life . . . my individual history, who am I now and what has been my destiny. . . . How does my history collide with world history, with two world wars in my century and the colossal upheaval in global catastrophe? Now I seem to have escaped the crisis into calmer water.
Perhaps “hindsight” can be a useful and probably pleasurable aging experience if it is approached with patience and understanding of myself and others, love, and forgiveness, if it is not scattered with too many “if onlys.” Regrets must be a small part of memories, otherwise they may distort, dismay and even digress into despair and depression. Sometimes discipline is needed to overcome this debilitating tendency.
I am sure that in most situations choices were limited by many factors—i.e., circumstances, natural ability and others—always far beyond our comprehension.
Margaret's last class was on Tuesday, March 30. She handed me her final, handwritten pages when I went to visit her the following week. I typed them up, just as I've done with all her writing—I always kid her that I feel like I'm "channeling Margaret" when I sit at my keyboard typing her words. Her book ends with these words:

"Life is always changing. Now the challenge is to live and grow in unity with the universe, in harmony and love with life."

Monday, April 19, 2010

Ruth Demarest Godfrey: Dark Confusion

During the years we lived in New Jersey, it was our custom to travel to Vermont whenever we could and spent time with my family there. In our many trips to Vermont, Harrison always did the driving. I had absolute faith that he would deliver us to our destination in good shape and expeditiously. I never paid any attention at all to the route. I felt that the dear man was capable and dedicated to the job, and I didn't need to concern myself with details, so I didn't. Also, since my very young years, I have had a habit of falling asleep when sitting. It's almost as though there is a switch on my bottom, which gets flipped when I sit down. This unfortunate reaction is exacerbated by being in any vehicle that is in motion, be it a car, a bus, a train or an airplane. Morpheus does not take over, however, when I am lying in a comfortable bed in prone position. Morpheus loses interest in me then, and I sometimes lie for hours unable to fall asleep. At any rate, much of my travel time is absorbed in sleeping, even when I try to stay awake. I am using this as an excuse for my extreme ignorance about the travel route which we had taken so frequently over the years.

Our son Charles was living in Boston at this particular time and asked us to bring up his beloved Datsun Z to Vermont. This meant that I would need to drive our family car, while my husband drove the Datsun. Harrison was more than happy to drive this sporty little vehicle. When the decision was made that I would be driving the family car, and would be the sole occupant, I voiced some uncertainty about my ability to do so. My dear husband reassured me, saying, "Of course you know the way! Anyway, I will be coming along right behind you and will be able to direct you."

About a quarter of the way up the New York Thruway, a zippy little Datsun, with my husband at the wheel, passed me and, with a merry wave of the hand, he was gone. By now suffused with great confidence, I did not worry. I drove along and made no false moves until I arrived in Rutland. This had involved several changes in direction, and each time I survived one of these, my confidence grew. However, in those days one needed to make a left turn from the middle of the city of Rutland in order to get up to Route 4 to continue the journey. When I got there I found myself uncertain about which left turn I should take. I took one, only to realize very soon that I was going the wrong way on a one-way street. I turned around and went back down into the city. The second left I tried turned out to be the correct one.

I proceeded up over Mendon Mountain and down the other side without incident or error. When I arrived at the intersection of routes 100 and 107, however, I decided on the wrong one. Very soon, in fact immediately, I realized it was wrong and I pulled over. As I sat there, wondering what to do, a car pulled up beside me. My thoughts ran thusly: "Well, here I am in the middle of the night on a lonely road, and some guy is going to kill me (or something)." Just then, the occupant of the other car rolled down his window and I heard a very familiar voice say, "Are you lost, lady?"

What a relief! My beloved husband had come to my rescue!

Feeling like an utter fool, I backed up and got on the right road and arrived at our destination safely. My husband told me later that he had known all along exactly what I was doing. He was pulled into a driveway in Rutland when I took the wrong-way street. He was pulled off the road on the mountain when I drove past, and he had followed me to the point where I chose the wrong route at the intersection. Although I thought he had abandoned me to my fate, he had been watching over me the whole time! I have since made the trip from Vermont to New Jersey innumerable times and, most of the time, have not been lost. A couple of times, at the New Jersey end, I had some interesting experiences, but that was only because my son had moved to another town, and that baffled me.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

2-Minute Video: D'Ann's Studio

D'Ann Fago's studio in Bethel, Vermont, is a peaceful, magical place. Take two minutes to enjoy it.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Margaret Egerton: Gifts

Margaret joined the Hale Street Gang in September 2009, one month before her 99th birthday. She had begun to set down her life story a few years ago, but, like so many of us, had gotten bogged down and needed some support to help her continue. Since then, she has written page after page in her beautiful calligraphic hand. Some of her finest writing is about the spiritual awakening she experienced, much to her amazement, in her later years. Above, she reflects on an event that was the turning point of her life.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

My Friend Margaret

Margaret Egerton
By Jack Rowell

Last night I awoke just before midnight to a crash of thunder. All day the air had been close and damp, until finally the sky just ripped apart. I stood at the window, watching the lightening and listening to the steady patter of rain and thinking about my friend Margaret, now in her hundredth year of life. She missed the Tuesday writing group yesterday, and we missed her. I am holding her close to my heart today. I love what she has to say in the 2-minute video we made last winter, which I've titled "A Little Light Goes On." To see it, click here.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Our Cartoonist: Patrick "Tex" Texier

Patrick "Tex" Texier
by Jack Rowell

How many writers can say they have their own cartoonist, one who gets what they're trying to say even before they do? The artist behind the drawings you see on the Hale Street Gang and Me is a relative newcomer to Randolph, having started life 65+ years ago in France. He is the author of two children's books, The Elephant Who Dreamed of Being a Ballerina, and Do You Speak Lion? According to his bio, he "speaks with a very strong French accent" (we can vouch for that), shares a branch of his family tree with Sam Clemens (aka Mark Twain), and "has been called Tex since kindergarten." Tex spent 37 years in Africa, where he was a photographic safari guide. His graphic memoir A Frenchman's Odd-yssey is an optimist's view of life in Vermont.

He also happens to be my husband. If you scroll down to the next post, you'll come to a rather long snippet of my memoir about our life in Tanzania—a snippet that I picked up off the cutting room floor, where it had been tossed after I decided the book was toooooo loooong. Rather than lose it permanently, I decided to publish it here in cyberspace. The passage chronicles one of the last safaris in a truly amazing career.

Sara Tucker: My Honeymoon Safari

The Hale Street Gang is not into revising. They like to rip it off and move on. How I long to be able to do that. My book in progress is a memoir about the year I spent in Africa as a newlywed, a year filled with happiness, possibility—and increasingly, menace. I have revised this blinking manuscript approximately a gazillion times. Following is a long excerpt that I labored over to the point of witlessness and then ruthlessly expunged, having decided it didn't further the story I was trying to tell. I offer it here as a glimpse of the life I lived before coming home to Randolph, Vermont, in the fall of 2007.

Soon after our wedding, my new husband and I took a middle-aged couple from Wisconsin to meet a small tribe of hunter-gatherers. (We were leading walking safaris at the time.) We rendezvoused at a guesthouse in the Ngorongoro Highlands, and headed south into the Yaida Valley the next morning. I was fairly useless as a guide; my main role was to keep everybody happy. Because this trip happened soon after our wedding, I jokingly referred to it ever after as our honeymoon safari:
Over dinner, we sized each other up, clients and guides. Mrs. Smither led the conversation, talking animatedly about all the other trips she and Mr. Smither had taken together. They particularly loved cruises. This trip was a departure from the norm. The camping was a worrisome element—she had bought this and that to make sure they would be comfortable. High-tech walking shoes, mosquito repellent.

Mrs. Smither next inquired about the tents—what exactly is “light camping”? I have a bad back, she explained. Trouble getting up and down. She described in some detail her experience with back pain, a subject about which I suspected we’d be hearing more in the next few days.

“But I really wanted to do this trip,” Mrs. Smither said, resolutely jabbing at a chunk of beef with her fork. “I told Carl we had to. The thing I most wanted to see was the Pygmies.”

“Not Pygmies,” I reminded her. “The Hadzabe. The Pygmies are in the rain forest, in Central and West Africa.”

Mrs. Smither stopped chewing. “The brochure said we would visit the Pygmies.”

“Not in Tanzania. Here, you’re going to meet the Hadzabe.”

Mrs. Smither swallowed, looked from me to Patrick and back to me. “Ha—what?”

“Hadzabe. Hunter-gatherers. Like the Pygmies.”

Mrs. Smither, for the moment, was speechless.

“Oh for…” Mr. Smither started to say, but Mrs. Smither silenced him with a glare.

“The brochure said Pygmies,” she stated firmly. Mr. Smither rolled his eyes in irritation.

Patrick took a long pull of beer and set the bottle on the table with a little tok. “I can take you to see the
Pygmies,” he said.

“You can?”

“Sure. But we gonna have to fly maybe two thousand miles, then go by foot deep into the rain forest. It’s gonna take time.”

Neither Mr. nor Mrs. Smither found this amusing. “The brochure definitely said Pygmies,” insisted Mrs. Smither. “I’ll show you—it’s in my luggage.”

“Good,” Patrick said. “I would like very much to see theez brochure. However, I can assure you, theez informations are wrong. There are no Pygmies in Yaida, or anywhere else in East Africa, and there is absolutely nothing I can do about it.”

Mr. Smither chuckled sympathetically, suggesting he’d had many such arguments with Mrs. Smither over the years. To her credit, Mrs. Smither reacted to Patrick’s counter-offensive by turning conciliatory.
“I’m not blaming you,” she assured him.

“I hope not. I don’t write the brochures. Well, I can barely speak English, much less write it.”

Mr. Smither shook his head but said nothing, concentrating on his food. Over dessert, we learned he was a retired state civil servant, a highway engineer, with a sizable pension. His wife, fifteen years younger, still worked for the state and loved her job; she had no desire “to sit around the house, doing nothing.” If Mr. Smither found this remark insulting, he gave no indication. He did let us know, however, that it had been her idea to come to Tanzania, and that she had done all the research. He knew nothing about Pygmies, or whatever. He had left everything in her hands. She wanted to come, so they came. He would just as soon have stayed home. (To continue, click on "Read more," below)

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Ruth Demarest Godfrey: The Teacher Who Would

In my dreams, I get to be whoever I want, and I want to be Studs Terkel. (I also want to be Beryl Markham, but that's another story.) I was twenty years old in 1974, the year Studs published Working, and perhaps because I myself knew so little about the world of work (a world I was soon to enter), I read the book from cover to cover. Working has one of the longest subtitles ever: "People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do." It's a subject I find endlessly fascinating—and though I will never be another Studs, I do get to hear a lot of good stories about life on the job. "The Teacher Who Would" is one of my all-time favorites.

Ruth Godfrey was the kind of teacher you remember—in a good way—for the rest of your life. After graduating from UVM in 1942, she taught music in thirteen small rural schools in central Vermont, driving to her appointments in a second-hand Austin (shown below). "The teaching part of the job was very pleasant and I enjoyed it," she recalls. "Not so the traveling part! Between the place where I lived and my first school, there were three miles of cement road. If I left on my chains for those three miles they would soon have broken cross chains and these would whack against the fenders and tear them to pieces. However, there were a lot of dirt roads in my district and I needed tire chains for those. I became very adept at flopping down wherever I was (in my working clothes, ski pants, and jacket) to put on the chains or take them off."

Having grown up in a musical family where recitals and "skits" were a frequent form of entertainment, Ruth had no fear of embarrassing herself in the cause of amusing others, particularly if the others were children. In New Jersey, where she taught after she was married, she quickly became known as "the teacher who would. Almost anything. Any time, if it involved assuming a role." In time, her reputation spread to neighboring schools, particularly after the following incident:

Halloween was a great time for me. My objective was always to make myself unrecognizable. I was usually successful. I would go into my office and don my costume after the kids started their classroom parties. They did not see me do this, and after I came out they did not recognize me. One time, however, a kid got really close, stared through the holes in my head mask, and said, “Those look like Mrs. Demarest’s eyes!” 

One year, while the kids were busy with their Halloween parties, I decided to visit one of the other schools. I think I looked really ghoulish. I had stuffed my mouth with cotton so my voice would be unrecognizable. Walking into the office of a secretary I knew well, I started poking around without saying anything. She was terrified and called the principal on the phone. She said:

“There’s something in my office and I don’t know what it wants. Please call the police.”

I left the office and met the principal hurrying down the hall. He stopped me and demanded that I identify myself. I tried, but I had stuffed my mouth so thoroughly that I could not make him understand what I was saying. I persisted, and finally he realized who I was and shouted with laughter. Poor Kay had really been terrified. She told me later, “I didn’t know what kind of thing had got in the school or what it would do to me.” I went outside on the playground and watched the kids doing their hobgoblin parade. I was standing right next to a man I knew well, but he had no idea who I was and I didn’t try to tell him.

For the rest of "The Teacher Who Would" (starting with the "medicine man" incident illustrated by Tex, above), click on "Read more," below.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Barbara "Cookie" Campbell: My Annie

I first met Cookie Campbell when she came to the Randolph Senior Center one Monday morning and explained that although she didn't really consider herself a writer, she had "a story that needs to be told." Over the next 18 months she set down an extraordinary memoir—excerpted below—about raising her daughter in an era that called for parents of children with Downs syndrome to be pioneers. Ann was born fourteen years before Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975; children like her were routinely denied a public-school education. Many were institutionalized. In making the decision to raise their daughter at home, Cookie and her husband could count on little support apart from family and friends. But the story Cookie had to share is one of triumph: Today, Ann Campbell is a loving and beloved member of the community, and if opportunities for children with Downs are far greater today than they were when her life began, it is in no small part due to families like the Campbells.

In 1961 "politically correct" had not been invented, so my poor friend and doctor had to come to us and say, "I'm sorry. She's Mongoloid."

Our long road began.

Stunned? Well, yes. Speechless? Oh, yes. So speechless I fell asleep and spilled my ice water. Prepared? Is anyone ever? These things happened to other people.

We were given choices which really were no choices at all. We could take her to Brandon and leave her or take her home. There was no way in God's world that I could put her in Brandon, so when she was five days old we bundled her up and headed for home.

Ann. Easy to say, and easy to spell, if the time ever came.

Hank and Clayt, at nine and eight years, were in school, but Herbert was four and a half and came to help fetch us home on a sunny Friday. He hardly made a sound, but watched and listened and every once in a while he gave a little pat. By the time the school bus rolled in at 3:15 he was feeling fairly comfortable and a bit proprietary.

The two big boys came in, gave me a hug and took a quick peek at the little sister before snacking, changing and going outdoors.

The next morning they were ready to ask questions and more importantly, to hear the answers.

She's Mongoloid. It means she is retarded. She'll be slow. She won't be able to learn as much as you. I don't know if she'll learn to walk. I don't know if she'll talk. I just don't know. We have to take good care of her. Love her. Teach her everything she can learn. We've got to wait and see.

My sister came that day—Saturday—and immediately fell in love with Ann. Since I wouldn't give her Ann to take home she took Hank, saying it would lessen my work load. I think he was anxious to go (he who had never been away overnight) because he was unsure about his feelings for Ann and maybe thought he could sort things out if he had time alone. He was supposed to stay for two weeks, but by the first Friday he was homesick and miserable and happily came home to all of us.

Clayt was much more accepting and hopeful. "Well, if she can learn a word, fine, and the next day she can learn another word. She should be okay." And so went about his business.

Herbert, meanwhile, is still watching and listening and doing kind little things.