Saturday, December 1, 2012

Turning the Page

Breakfast in Fontainebleau.
In November 2012, I packed my bags, left Randolph, and flew to France. I'll be here, in Fontainebleau, until May 2013. This hiatus seems like a fitting time to bring the Hale Street Gang blog to a close. It gives me pangs to do so, but there is such a thing as hanging on to a good thing too long. Even as good a thing as the Hale Street Gang and Me. My new blog is called Sadie and Company. I hope you will visit me there. Thank you, dear readers, for your support of the Hale Street Gang. The gang, by the way, will be featured in my next book, which I'll work on during my winter in France.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Saying Good-bye

D'Ann Fago and "Bootlegger's Daughter" at SPA.
On Monday, three days from now, I'll leave Vermont and head to NYC, then to France. I've been saying good-bye to old friends this week. Yesterday I paid a visit to Ellie Streeter and D'Ann Fago; today I'll have a trio of girlfriends here for lunch and a little band of high-school classmates in for evening pizza. Ellie is a contemporary of my mother's; we've shared a fence line for over 50 years. Two days before my mother died, Ellie came over unexpectedly for a little visit. "Did you have a premonition?" I asked her yesterday. She thought for a moment. "No," she said. "But I told myself I shouldn't put it off any longer." Maybe "intuition" is the better word. We sat on her couch and held hands; I shed a few tears. "I love you dearly," she said. "It's okay to cry." D'Ann is a member of the Hale Street Gang's Tuesday group. It is hard saying "so long" to my friends, especially the old-timers. "You won't be here for my birthday," said D'Ann yesterday. She said it twice, in fact. "Just stab me in the heart!" I yelped. We discussed the ramifications of Skype—both she and Ellie knew the term and had ideas about what it meant. In the end, I promised to send them postcards. 

SPA director Sue Higby (center) reviews coverage of D'Ann's show.

PS The pictures here were taken at Studio Place Arts in Barre last summer; I drove D'Ann there to see the show a couple of weeks after it opened. Her work, which spans 70 years, has been touring New England since 2010, when a retrospective opened at the Governor's Reception Hall in Montpelier. For the record, a pile of credit for the tour should go to our friend Jack Rowell, who is a fan of D'Ann's work (and of D'Ann herself) and knows the gallery folks in this part of the world.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Countdown to Departure

"Jan 4, 1921: I did not go to school today for I was sick."
Antique ankle weights.
Eighteen days from now I'll leave Vermont for New York, thence to France. (Pardon the archaic language; I've been living in the nineteenth century for the past week.) Meanwhile, I'm saying my good-byes. Last week it was the Tuesday group at the Senior Center, which will meet without me through the winter. The group has acquired some new members, including Bob Soule, who used to tune John Jackson's piano; they would have enjoyed hearing each other's stories. Yesterday I spent the afternoon with Cynthia Jackson and we had a fine time comparing family memorabilia—she definitely has me beat in the antique serving-spoon department. I didn't even know such things as tomato servers existed until she pulled one from a drawer yesterday. Fascinating. Then there was an odd-shaped thing that we guessed was made for serving asparagus, and an elegant trident that the Jacksons refer to as "the toad stabber." We talked about John and Idora a little (they died less than two months apart), but mostly we joked around and had fun. It was a warm, sunny day and we sat on the porch until we got too hot (!) and had to go inside. That's when Cynthia pulled out a box of old letters. I'm talking old-old—we even found her grandmother Lily Hazwell's handwritten guide to the flag signals young Lily and her next-door neighbor devised in the late 1800s. The red, black, and white flags hung in the windows of their respective houses, in various combinations, transmitting such messages as "Can you come for tea this afternoon?" and "We've got extra butter if you want it." The photographs here are relics from my own family's past. The little diary, above, was kept by my aunt at age eleven. It tells a sad story. The first entry, on October 18, 1920, reads "This is a beautiful day. My birthday is today. I got 2 books from Mama, a dairy, and a bottle of perfume from Marion a tabet (sic) from Ransom and a hair ribbon from Grandma and twenty five cents from Aunt Manda and a dollar from Auntie and a banner note book from Grandpa." On Christmas Eve, Madeline listed her presents, which included two handkerchiefs and a bottle of "perfumery." On January 4 and 5, she noted that she didn't go to school because she was sick. The next two weeks' entries record a visit from her sister Marion, who was attending school in Waitsfield, a visit from the doctor, and her father's purchase of a milk separator. The last entry was made on January 19, 1921. It records her grandfather's trip to Waitsfield, where he "saw Marion." Fourteen days later, on February 2, 1921, eleven-year-old Madeline died of rheumatic fever. My grandmother kept the diary, which was given to my aunt Marion, then to my mother. The ankle weights are of a newer vintage—mid-twentieth century, made by Elmer's of Lubbock, Texas. How they found their way into my mother's attic I have no idea. I am drowning in memorabilia! Maybe it's time to open an Etsy account.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

France and the Attic

South-facing window, overlooking Highland. Spool bed in foreground.
Today is my last day at the Randolph Senior Center until next spring. Soon, I'll be leaving for France, to spend the winter in Fontainbleau, in the lovely apartment of my mother-in-law, who is now in a nursing home. In preparation for leaving, I've been straightening up my mother's house, where I've lived for the past five years (and where she lived for 67 years, until her death in July). Last week, I ventured into the attic. Wow. Lots of dusty old boxes filled with treasure (and some junk). Among the finds: photographs of my father's family dating back to the 19th century, a letter that my mother wrote at age eight (saved by her aunt), a 100-year-old button collection, lace made by Grandma Tucker, and 1960s costume jewelry (remember mood rings?). The rescued boxes are piled in the front hall, awaiting their photo shoot. Note: Grandma Tucker (née Lamb) wrote names on the backs of every one of the hundreds of ancestral portraits, bless her. More pictures on my Facebook page (click here).
College text books: Anthropology, philosophy, art history.

Soccer shoe, mateless mittens, cap gun, 1970s best seller.
Button collection started by Grandma Tucker a century ago.

Contents of the Dingo boot box.

19th-century graphic novels!
Wartime letters from my father to his mother.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Kitchen Sink: Pictures of My Mother's House

From the album "House," a documentary for my brothers and sisters.
Soap dish and miniature plastic flower arrangement. 
Glass bottles and leaf.

Clock and owl.


Mid-morning, September 14, 2012.

A Lasting Legacy

The Randolph Herald's "Editorial/Comment" this week is a tribute to Hale Street Gang alum John Jackson. Herald editor M. Dickey Drysdale gave me permission to reprint it here:

Not many people leave a mark on their communities as clear and imposing as the Main Street monument left by Randolph's John Jackson, who died Saturday at the age of 83.

Jackson accomplished many things, as his obituary on the opposite page makes clear, and he was also one of the most fascinating conversationalists Randolph has seen, a man who never lost his sense of adventure. And his greatest adventure came in rescuing Chandler Music Hall from the decay and neglect that nearly led to its demolition.

His fascination with Chandler began soon after he moved his family to a first house on School Street. His 11-year-old son came home one day with the exciting news that there was an old music hall next door.

From that moment, Chandler Music Hall became John Jackson's passion and compulsion. Under his leadership, the brand new Randolph Singers agreed to produce the musical "Brigadoon" in the hall in February. Snow was coming through cracks in the walls and had to be swept from the stage before rehearsals. The electrical system was so inadequate that Jackson had to supplement it by using flashlights for stage lighting, as he described in a memorable 2002 interview with Greg Sharrow for the Vermont Folklife Center.

In the next few years, Jackson plunged into the nitty-gritty of renovation, tunneling through four feet of concrete to bring upgraded electric service, building an orchestra pit, driving to New York at 20-below zero to procure used stage curtains from a Broadway show.

But he also devised a long-term strategy. By convincing the Randolph Singers to stage yearly musicals at the hall (with the constant help of Francis "Red" Hartigan), he created a fundraising stream while at the same time developing enthusiasm and loyalty for the hall among audience members and participants. He organized that enthusiasm into a new organization, the Friends of Chandler.

Jackson also displayed a sharp political acumen when faced with the reluctance of the town-appointed trustees of the hall, who were uneasy about the Friends' ambitious agenda. All of the trustees resigned within a year, and Jackson was asked to replace them with people who shared his own sense of adventure.

In the restoration of Randolph's cultural gem, John Jackson eventually had lots of help from other talented and dedicated people, including Chandler's current leadership, but he's the one who got the ball rolling and pushed it well along the road. The community owes him its thanks.
—The Herald of Randolph, September 13, 2012

Monday, September 10, 2012

Our Friend John Jackson

A 2009 reading at the Senior Center.
Our dear friend John Jackson, one of the 12 founding members of the Hale Street Gang, died Saturday at his home in Randolph. His wife, Cynthia, and their two children, Mindy and Chris, were at his side. John wrote two years ago about the hard choices he was facing after being diagnosed with prostate cancer. Two weeks ago, I learned from mutual friends that his time was running out. It is hard to believe that the youngest member of our original group has left us, and so soon after my mother's death.

John was only 81 when he joined our memoir-writing group in the fall of 2009. He was in what we always refer to as "the Tuesday group," which also included Charles Cooley, Ruth Godfrey, D'Ann Fago, and Margaret Egerton. Margaret was then 99, almost a generation older than John, an age gap that was especially obvious when they compared memories of World War II: John was a mere teenager at the time, and remembered helping his dad, a WWI vet, watch for enemy planes from a lookout station on New York's Walkill River; Margaret was in her early thirties, unmarried, and so desperate to leave home that she was preparing to join the WACs.

John's life story touched me deeply. He never seemed to hesitate before an opportunity to enjoy life to its fullest. He often wrote about the influences that caused his world to expand—a steamboat trip with his grandmother, an unforgettable date with the pretty girl who worked behind the Fanny Farmer candy counter. He wrote about travel and music, key friendships, and, most moving of all, his experiences as a son, a husband, and a father. The last time I spoke with him, in July, he called to say he had nearly finished his book-length memoir and was wondering if I'd have time to print it this fall.

The Tuesday group had loads of fun together. How I miss those days. There's a little 4-min video on YouTube that we made during the winter of 2009–10, in which John comes in at the end with a joke about two bears and a nudist colony. (To see it, click here.)

I remember one Tuesday when John and Margaret just happened to mention the same Irish folk song in their readings. Pretty soon, we were all sitting around the table, spontaneously singing:

Just a song at twilight, when the lights are low,
And the flick'ring shadows softly come and go,
Tho' the heart be weary, sad the day and long,
Still to us at twilight comes Love's old song,
Comes Love's old sweet song.

I can still see and hear us—D'Ann, Ruth, Charles, Margaret, and John—sitting around the table in the craft room on a gray winter afternoon, swaying slightly from side to side as we sang the refrain of that impossibly sentimental old song. It is one of my favorite HSG moments.

Thank you, John, for the tremendous spirit and dedication you brought to our writing group, and for the many ways in which you graced our community. Your capacity to enjoy the good things in life—jazz! fish! love! corny jokes!—is an inspiration to me.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Behind the Scenes: Travels with Lynne, Part II

This account of my Alaskan road trip with open-water swimmer Lynne Cox, author of Swimming to Antarctica, was first published in Westways magazine in 1993. In Part 1, an editor for Four-Wheeler magazine taught us how to drive off-road. Then, for some crazy reason, the folks at Mitsubishi entrusted us with a brand-new Montero, with which we set out from Anchorage on a 2,000-mile road trip just as winter was setting in. In Part 2, we are on our way north toward Fairbanks, and starting to go a little nuts from the tension and boredom of all those lonely miles with no one to talk to but each other. Mad Dog and Booh were the names we gave ourselves when we wrote up the piece. In reality, we referred to each other most often during the trip (and still do) as "Lynnems" and "Sarams," because of the honorific "Ms." that was printed on our plane tickets: CoxLynnems and TuckerSarams.

The George Parks Highway is a lonesome stretch of road, especially in the winter. On its way to Fairbanks, it crosses mile after mile of barren tundra and hundreds upon hundreds of creeks, many with sinister names: Troublesome, Slime, Hard Luck. Mad Dog and Booh stopped only once—for gas and coffee and a trip to the outhouse (temperature: 0 degrees F) at a little store right next to a white igloo-shaped building the size of a barn, which someone told them had been for sale for the past 10 years.

The sun began to set when they were still a hundred miles from Fairbanks. Except for an occasional truck, they were pretty much alone on the highway. They were just outside of Ester (an old mining town and home of the Malemute Saloon) and whiling away the time by practicing dog and cat noises, when a giant shape—no, two giant shapes—loomed from the side of the road.

"Moose!" yelled Mad Dog, swerving to the left and stomping on the brakes. The moose vanished into the black of night. Mad Dog was furiously blinking her headlights.

"What are you doing?" asked Booh.

"I'm warning other motorists. Get on the radio."


"I want to report a moose sighting."

That was when they realized that neither one of them knew how to work the CB.

Lynne is fearless in the water—sharks, ice floes, nothing fazes her. But she was right scared of the many dangers presented by the Alaskan wilderness. Moose were high on her list of things to watch out for. Another footnote: By this time, we had spent hours alone together in the car, and were both starting to get a little unhinged, not to mention testy.

When they came to the Ester Volunteer Fire Department, Mad Dog pulled over.

"We ought to tell somebody," she said, cutting the engine.

"They're going to laugh at you. People around here see moose all the time." But Mad Dog had already sprung from the driver's seat.

"Don't you want to come in?"

"I'll wait here."

After 10 minutes, Mad Dog came back out. "They weigh between a ton-and-a-half and two tons, and it's common to have them up there on the road."

"See? I told you."

At the Sophie Station Hotel in Fairbanks, they asked the desk clerk if he knew how to operate a CB radio. He threw up his hands: "Just press the button and yell "Help!"

The next day, they paid a visit to Mad Dog's cousin Brenda in Fairbanks. "You should take the Steese up to Arctic Circle Hot Springs," Cousin Brenda said. North of Fairbanks, the Steese Highway—gravel except for the first 44 miles—runs 150 miles through gold country before dead-ending at Circle (30 miles beyond the hot springs), on the Yukon River. Circle is so named because the miners who founded it erroneously believed it was within the Artic Circle, which is actually 50 miles to the north.
The road expires at a sign that reads The End of the World.

Cousin Brenda told them about 80-mile-per-hour winds that could flick a car off Eagle Summit, the road's highest point, and weather that could turn suddenly, stranding travelers in a blizzard, their cars clinging to an invisible road on the edge of the mountain with nothing ahead but a wall of white. Mad Dog flashed Booh a big grin.

Cousin Brenda frowned. "The more I think about it, the more I think you'd better not try it," she said. "I wouldn't want to be responsible."

"We'll be fine," said Mad Dog.

Suddenly, Cousin Brenda was pleading. "Don't go," she said. "It was a stupid idea. I'm sorry I suggested it." She was practically wringing her hands.

"We'll think about it," said Mad Dog.

They said good night and climbed into the Montero. Booh turned to Mad Dog. Mad Dog turned to Booh.

"Let's go!" they shouted in unison. They rolled down the street toward their hotel, yipping and yowling.

Before Lynne and I left L.A., a friend of mine, a woman travel writer who had spent a lot of time in Alaska, had given us three pieces of advice about how to comport ourselves in our nation's northernest state: (1) No table dancing, (2) don't accept rides from strangers, and (3) beware of men with initials for names. By the time we finished our trip, we had broken two of the three rules. Read on to find out which two.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Behind the Scenes: Travels with Lynne

My friend Lynne Cox is the author of the memoirs Swimming to Antarctica and Grayson. She is also one of the best open-water swimmers of all time. In October 1992 we went on a driving tour of Alaska together, and wrote up the story for Westways magazine. At the time, Lynne was well known as a swimmer (she had swum the Bering Strait a few years earlier) but not as a writer. Her goal, she said, was to publish something in The New Yorker. Sure, I said (name a writer who doesn't want to publish something in The New Yorker). In 1994, she spent a few weeks at my apartment in New York, working on a memoir about her swimming career and shopping for an agent. The latter was a frustrating experience and the manuscript languished. I moved to Tanzania, and we lost touch. Then, in 2003, I opened up The New Yorker—and there was Lynne's byline! Read on for the behind-the-scenes story of our Alaskan road trip, for which we gave ourselves the pseudonyms Mad Dog (Lynne) and Booh (me). 

The Alaskan Adventures of Mad Dog and Booh
By Sara Tucker and Lynne Cox

It was Booh who first proposed that she and Mad Dog take "the trip that Thelma and Louiseshould have taken." But Booh had been picturing something along the lines of a vintage Thunderbird convertible, equipped with a CD player, speeding across the Arizona desert. They would spend a week or two catching fish and frying them over a campfire, rafting down the Colorado, and shooting pool with gentleman cowboys.
  It was Mad Dog who said, "That's too boring. What about Alaska?"
  Their plan was to make a loop that went north as far as Fairbanks and south as far as Homer before returning to Anchorage. Using a map and a calculator, Mad Dog figured the trip would be about a thousand miles. (It turned out to be twice that.)
  For the first two days, they drove around Anchorage, which in mid-October was cold and sleepy. They ate mounds of succulent crab claws at Gwennie's and juicy halibut at the Hilton. They got an introduction to Alaskan culture at the Museum of History and Art and an advanced course at Mr. Whitekeys' Fly-by-Night Club, where a musical revue billed as "the Alaskan show that the department of tourism does not want you to see" was packing 'em in.
  Now the two of them were ready for the open road.

Here I must confess that both Lynne and I had flunked the off-road driving course that we'd been given prior to our Alaskan adventure. The instructor, Joe, was an editor for Four-Wheeler magazine, and Lynne, who is real good at talking people into stuff, had arranged for him to give us some driving lessons in an ATV park in the high desert east of L.A. Off-road driving sounded like fun, but it was actually pretty hair-raising. You can get into a lot of trouble with an electric winch if you don't know how to use it, and neither one of us did, despite the how-to video that Joe loaned us. The reason our Montero didn't have a stick shift was because Lynne backed that one into a Subaru, a fact that did not make it into the Westways article. The article actually got us in big trouble with the folks at Mitsubishi, who felt we didn't talk enough about the car they had loaned us (which we nicknamed "Buddy"). It was a nice car. 

They were driving a borrowed four-wheel-drive Mitsubishi Montero. With fog lights on top, extra gas cans mounted on the rear door, two spare tires and a high-lift jack—not to mention a winch, a CB radio, a package of flares and a first-aid kit—it was ready for just about any challenge the back roads of Alaska had to offer. But neither Booh nor Mad Dog knew much of anything about off-road driving. Booh could drive a stick shift while eating a cheeseburger and wearing a silk blouse, but that would hardly get them out of a ditch.
  On their first day out of Anchorage, they drove Buddy as far as Palmer, 40 miles north in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, and checked in at Glacier House. The bed-and-breakfast inn was built into the side of a butte facing the Knik Glacier and thus had a stupendous view. The Mat-Su was settled 5,000 years ago by ancient Athabaskans and, more recently, homesteaders, miners, railroad workers and Depression-era Midwestern farmers. The region is famous for its giant vegetables (75-pound cabbages, 16-pound stalks of celery). But since it was after harvest, there were no cabbages to be seen, and there wasn't enough snow yet on the valley floor for dogsledding. So Mad Dog and Booh contented themselves with hiking to the top of the butte behind Glacier House. 

Our host in Palmer was a guy named Wayne who took one look at Buddy and said, "Nice car; let's drive it out on the glacier." Getting Buddy swallowed up by a crack in the Knik seemed like a sure way to piss off the folks at Mitsubishi, so we declined. Wayne was so disappointed that we offered to let him drive Buddy up onto the roof of his B&B, which was dug into the side of a gently rising slope. We handed Wayne the keys. He drove up onto roof as if he'd done it a million times. We took some pictures. Then Wayne pointed out a 100-foot dropoff at the edge of the slope, a few feet from where Buddy would ideally come to rest after rolling back down off the roof; funny how we hadn't noticed it earlier. To come to a complete halt before hitting the dropoff would take some very nimble maneuvering. Wayne started to pace around, looking nervous. He suggested that one of us might want to take the wheel. No way. Buddy made it off the roof without a scrape, but Wayne managed to sprain his ankle. Until then, I hadn't realized it was possible to sprain an ankle while driving a car. We left Palmer a little more sober than we'd been when we arrived.

To be continued.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Oh, the Thrill!

Oh, the thrill of opening up the September issue of Condé Nast Traveler and finding one of its writers id’d as “Sara Tucker, author of Our House in Arusha; married to a Frenchman.” I cannot claim credit for the Frenchman (beyond having had the good sense to marry him). The book, however, is all mine, and the labor of bringing it into the world was long and hard.
            After retrieving the magazine from my mailbox, I spent the rest of the afternoon on the porch swing, slowly turning pages. The September issue celebrates 25 years of publication, and it’s as sweet and ripe and juicy as a late-summer tomato. Kevin Doyle (my editor, xoxoxo!) wrote the cover story about Hillary Clinton, after hitching a 19,000-mile ride with her to China, India and Bangladesh. There's a story on extreme birdwatching by Jonathan Franzen, and an adorable piece about Couch Surfing by Bill Sertl (rhymes with "girdle"), and, and...well, you'll just have to see for yourself.
            I remember putting together the first issue of Condé Nast Traveler. I was a roustabout in those days, working for two or three magazines at a time. I liked Traveler because it paid well ($15 an hour; Vanity Fair was only $12). Plus, it was a class act.
Moments like this—the arrival of the September issue—are bittersweet these days. Whenever I get good news, I want to IMMEDIATELY share it with my mother. Only she isn’t here any more. People say, “She knows.” But I miss seeing the joy on her face.
And she would be so pleased. My mother, though not much of a traveler, was a voracious reader, and she appreciated good writing. She was also a small-town person with a giant social conscience, which Traveler has. For me, the magazine is a great landing, and I’m proud and tickled to be part of its twenty-fifth anniversary issue.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

That Cosmopolitan Girl

Helen Gurley Brown in 1964.
In 1989, Helen Gurley Brown sent me a four-leaf clover that she had plucked from the lawn of her sister’s house in Shawnee, Oklahoma. I was living in Los Angeles at the time, and we had been exchanging letters off and on since I left my job at Cosmo, four years earlier, to begin a nomadic life as the wife of an itinerant actor.

After hearing the announcement yesterday of Helen’s death at age 90, I looked through some boxes of memorabilia in search of that clover. I didn’t find it. Maybe it went the way of other HGB mementoes, like the blue-and-white Tiffany plates (a wedding present) and the party dresses (we were the same size). Instead, I found a letter of recommendation that was produced in 1985 on Helen’s clattery old manual typewriter. The voice is distinctly hers—breezy, confidential, and opinionated. “To Anyone This Might Concern,” it began: “Sara Tucker has worked in the copy department of Cosmopolitan for six years, the last two years as head of the department (copy chief). She is really terrific. You know how harried copy departments are. Well, this one has worked the best it’s ever worked because Sara is dedicated, conscientious, gifted and a perfectionist but she is also calm and pragmatic. I am devastated that she is leaving … some lucky company will get to hire her next!”

The words I’ve italicized (Helen loved italics) were actually underscored—her old typewriter didn’t have an italic font. And I’m a little disappointed that I rated only one exclamation point (“screamer” in industry slang), a punctuation mark that Helen adored!

I went to work for Helen in 1979, when she was 57 and at the height of her powers. Cosmo had three million readers then and was thick with ads. I was 26 and knew nothing about copy editing—the task I had been hired to do. I had to learn on the job—just as Helen had done, years before, as an advertising copywriter. There were six of us in the copy department and we went through tons of paper, colored pens, and White-Out—desktop computers were years in the future. It was not a glamorous job, and I worked like a dog—we all did. But nobody worked harder than Helen.

On my last day at Cosmo, Hurricane Gloria struck the East Coast and New Yorkers stayed home. I went to work, because I couldn't not go--I had to clean out my office. Helen was there and she was irate that her entire staff had deserted her on account of the weather. A few of them had rushed out to Long Island to see if their vacation homes were still standing. I remember Helen poised, ramrod straight, at the bulletin board outside my office, posting one of her typewritten notes to the staff. "You're all pantywaists!" she had written. Imagine staying home because of a hurricane.

In my search for the clover, I rediscovered another artifact from those years: a letter that Helen had dictated to her secretary, Ramona. It was dated two weeks after I left the magazine and moved to Louisville, where my husband’s work was then located. “Sara dear,” she wrote. “Thanks for your darling note. We miss you badly—those were such halcyon (because everything worked!) years with you. That is such a tough job and nearly everyone in it goes slightly mad but you never did. Of course you may have Got Out In Time! I’m quite serious – you can always come back.” There’s another paragraph, and then the closing, which reads “Sara, tell me about your life down there when you have a chance. Love, Helen.”

During those six years when I worked for one of the most successful magazines ever published, I often felt like I was wasting my time and talents on a product that had nothing to do with me. I felt utterly disconnected from the Cosmo reader, and the magazine—indeed, the entire magazine industry—inspired in me both fascination and loathing. But the more distance I put between myself and Cosmo, the more I came to appreciate what I’d gained from toiling in Helen’s shadow. In fact, I was developing myself as a writer, an editor, and a human being. I learned skills that I would rely on throughout my career. Helen’s letter of recommendation opened countless doors for me. Maybe the clover helped, too.

Despite Helen’s kind offer to keep the door open, I never went back to Cosmo, and eventually she and I lost touch. The 1989 letter containing the four-leaf clover was my last communication from her. Over the years, I have repeatedly thanked her—in my imagination—for the opportunity that she and Cosmo gave me. But I never expressed my gratitude to her. I became one of many young people for whom Cosmo was just the beginning, not the main event. We gulped the experience and fled, never looking back.

So thank you, Helen, for the Tiffany plates and the Givenchy dresses, the underscores and the screamers (and the passion to go with them!), the lucky charms, the lessons learned, the glamour and the grit. Above all, thanks for the weather-be-damned chutzpah to Get Out In Time and embrace the Next Big Thing, whatever that thing might be.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Thinking About the Future

Last weekend, the house where my mother, my husband, and I have lived for the past five years was filled with flowers, food, and family members. Now that the flowers have faded, the food has disappeared, the family has dispersed, and I've had a few quiet days to myself, I've begun to think about the future. I've thought since June that this summer would be my mother's last, and I therefore cleared away most of my commitments to allow time for her. Now I find myself using some of that time for reflection and musing. What do I want my life to be like, now that she is no longer at the center of it?

I've made one decision so far, having to do with the immediate future: Patrick and I will host a fall session of the Writers Studio @ Korongo, then we'll close the gallery and flee to France for the winter.

Over the past year or so, the Writers Studio has developed a core group—people who've taken at least one eight-week class and indicated that they plan to continue writing. This fall session will be an attempt to keep us motivated and inspired. We will read and discuss each other's work, whether fiction or nonfiction, and learn from each other. We'll meet on Wednesday mornings for eight weeks, from September 12 to October 31.

I wasn't sure whether I would have the energy and the will to host a group this fall. I will miss my mother's presence. I would miss her more, however, if I didn't get together with her writing friends to share her lifelong passion for words.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Remembering Idora

"Idora C. Tucker, 1921–2012"
Close to 300 people gathered at Bethany Church on Saturday morning to celebrate my mother's life with songs and stories and prayers. They included all the grandchildren, who came from as far away as California, Wyoming, and New Zealand. The singing began with "For All the Saints" and ended with "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" (Mom was a Red Sox fan). Among the speakers were a former student, a fellow teacher, and her tree guy; later in the week I'll publish some of their words. My mother's decline was so swift that she didn't have time to pick out an urn, but she had often said that she wanted one "like Fred's," her longtime neighbor, who died a few years ago. So that's what I told Lindy at Day Funeral Home the morning after she died. He then left the parlor where my sister and my aunt Ruth and I were sitting and went back into his records to uncover the details of Fred's funeral arrangements. Sometimes things are easier in a small town, and this was one of those times. (By the way, Fred's wife Ellie makes a cameo appearance in Our House in Arusha—it was she who startled the folks at St. John's Episcopal Church with the news of my second marriage.) The urn is a simple oak box, and I can see why Mom and Fred liked it. The day after the memorial, about 20 family members gathered at the Randolph Center Cemetery, where we shared more stories and laid flowers and trinkets on the urn, which then went into the ground near my father's casket.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Springtime in Paris

Sneak preview of my trip to Paris in May 2012 for the September issue of Condé Nast Traveler. This trip was planned with the help of my Facebook friends as an experiment in "social travel media." In this video: The murals of Vitry-sur-Seine, Musée des Arts et Metiers, Fat Tire Bike Tours, La Rotonde, Le Littré, E. Dehillerin, and the Black Krim Tavern in Randolph, Vermont. Music "April Showers" remix by ProleteR, courtesy of Creative Commons.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Correction from a Reader of "Our House in Arusha": Kabye, NOT Ewe

A reader of my memoir "Our House in Arusha" has written to point out a factual error that occurs in the section on Togo. I wonder if this would have been caught before publication if I had gone the traditional publishing route. Well, too late for that. My thanks to Emily Gilkinson for noting the mistake and bringing it to my attention, and my apologies to the entire Ewe tribe. Emily wrote to me three weeks ago, and I vowed to make the correction ASAP. With all that's happened in the recent past, the earliest opportunity came later than expected. So today, I will upload new files for the printed volume. I also need to correct the e-book version. Meanwhile, here is the letter from Emily explaining the goof. Pretty mortifying. It's an unfortunate illustration of the Alice-in-Wonderland struggle I had to comprehend what was happening around me in Togo and Tanzania.

Dear Sara,
I recently read your memoir Our House in Arusha. I greatly enjoyed it. I thought it was beautifully written and the content brought back memories of my own. I have been to Arusha twice - once in 2005 when I went on safari and just recently in February 2012 when I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. I've had my own adventures and love affairs with safari and mountain guides. :) Your story became even more exciting to me when the story line included Togo, a country that I deeply love and where I lived for two years. I was a teacher at the American International School of Lome. I was surprised to encounter an error in your description of Togo and felt compelled to write to you so that you could correct it. The Gnassingbe family - former dictator Eyadema and his son, Faure, the current president are from the Kabye tribe,from the north of Togo in the Kara region. The Ewe tribe is in the south of the country and is known specifically for being supportive of the opposition. Togo is divided politically north vs. south along ethnic lines. The north supporting the RPT - the president's party and the military. On behalf of my good Ewe friends, who have been the victims of horrible violence at the hands of the government, I encourage you to make the correction. I'm sure few people would catch this error but anyone with a connection to Togo would be offended by the mis-characterization of the Ewe people. Even the Kabye I'm sure would be disappointed not to get the credit. All you have to do is step foot in Kara and people will proudly tell you that this the home of Papa Eyadema - as if that weren't obvious enough by their t-shirts featuring his picture and the beautiful boulevard and parliament building - investments that rightly should have gone to the capital. Perhaps someone else has already brought this to your attention, but I felt compelled to get in touch with you about it.
 Thank you again for sharing your wonderful story.
 Emily Gilkinson

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Idora Cooley Tucker: March 23, 1921–July 15, 2012

“I have said many times that my life has divided itself quite naturally into three segments: childhood and growing-up years, married life, and life since my husband died. It is the years of my marriage that stand out the most clearly in my memory.” —Idora Tucker, Wife and Mother (2009)

Idora Cooley Tucker, a retired educator who spearheaded special education in Vermont public schools in the 1960s and, in her 88th year, started a memoir-writing group that became known around the state as the Hale Street Gang, died at her home in Randolph on July 15. She was 91.

The eldest of five children of Harry H. Cooley, a lifelong farmer and Vermont’s secretary of state under Governor Philip Hoff, and Gertrude Small Cooley, a farm wife and music teacher, Idora graduated from UVM in 1941. Her first teaching post was a one-room schoolhouse in Randolph Center.

As an itinerant reading specialist in the Randolph schools in the early ’70s, Idora used innovative methods to help children who were not being served by the standard curriculum. “Working with struggling learners is hard work,” she wrote in an account of her teaching career that she penned in her eighties, “and sometimes not as successful as one would wish. Add to that the fact that at first I didn’t really know what I was doing or should be doing. Gradually, over a few years, a combination of trial-and-error experience and graduate level training gave me more strategies to use with my pupils and brought with it more confidence in my ability to help them.”

Idora’s work in Randolph was closely followed by Jean S. Garvin, the state’s director of special educational services, and in 1975, when the Education for All Handicapped Children Act was passed into law, Garvin tapped Idora to help schools implement the new regulations at the local level. With the Orange Southwest School District as her proving ground, Idora developed an administrative model that would be used by future special-education coordinators around the state.

“The laws about special education were new and were much resented by almost everyone except parents of the children who needed special education,” Idora wrote. “I was often bitterly attacked in meetings. At first I felt very threatened. Later, I realized that those who gave me such a hard time were merely venting their frustration at doing something they didn’t want to do, and I was the person telling them that the law required it. After that I stopped taking it personally and just went about doing my job to the best of my ability.”

In 1980, Garvin recruited Idora for a job that would bring her skills to other school districts. “In 1980, the federal law was only two years into implementation and there was a lot of groundwork to be laid,” remembered Judy Eklund, a former colleague in the Department of Education, in a phone interview last week. “Idora was at the forefront of making that happen. She was a visionary and an organizer, and she knew how to get the job done.” Over the next six years, Idora traveled some 120,000 miles over Vermont roads to arrange teacher training around the state.

Born on March 23, 1921, at Gifford Hospital in Randolph, Idora grew up in a family that prized education. The Cooley farm in Randolph Center was a place where one might mow hay or put up beans all day and then sit down in the evening to play Mozart for a gathering of friends and neighbors. “Mom and Dad were very courageous to send me off to college that fall of 1937,” she wrote in a memoir that she entitled Childhood and published in 2008. “We were still not quite out of the Great Depression, war in Europe was imminent, and I was the first of five who would be expected to acquire an education.”

As the wife of Dr. Ransom E. Tucker, a Randolph obstetrician, Idora raised five children and did what she described as “the kinds of volunteer teaching that mothers did then: Brownie Scouts, church school, junior choir, ski instructor.” She and her husband also served on the board of Randolph’s first special-education class, a local initiative that was funded and supervised by the state at a time when the 1975 federal law mandating a free and appropriate education for all school-age children was a decade in the future.

After retiring from the Department of Education in 1986, Idora mentored young teachers through the Upper Valley Teacher Training Program, then returned to the classroom as a volunteer at the Rumney School in Middlesex, where her three granddaughters were students.

An accomplished pianist and a voracious and wide-ranging reader, Idora inherited her father’s love of books and her mother’s passion for music. The shelves behind the Steinway in her front parlor bulged with sheet music, and get-togethers at the Tucker house often turned into songfests with Idora as accompanist. In her eighties, she shelved books as a volunteer for Kimball Library and participated in three different book groups that met monthly.

In November 2011, at the age of 90, she stood up at the speaker’s podium in the Vermont State House, a small figure with a bright smile and sparkling blue eyes, and read an excerpt from her memoirs to a gathering of Vermont historians. With her were members of the Hale Street Gang, the memoir-writing group she started at the Randolph Senior Center in the fall of 2008.

Like Harry Cooley, a farmer, teacher, and politician, she did not hesitate to state her beliefs. Her memoir Wartime ends with a passionate warning about the “futile and wasteful endeavor called war,” and members of her church remember the quiet firmness with which she urged the congregation to adopt an “open and affirming” attitude toward all, regardless of sexual orientation. She was still articulating her ideas about education reform at the end of her life, and in her final days she advised young family members to “go your own route.”

As the family matriarch, Idora kept in touch with relatives all over the country and was the magnet that drew them together. She continually expanded her circle of friends even into her nineties, taking a special interest in newcomers to the Randolph community. As news of her death spread and messages poured out on Facebook, a friend who met Idora when they became neighbors in 2008 remembered her as “honest, caring and curious . . . the memoirs she shared with us tell of a life that admitted it all—the good and bad, the joy and sadness, the breath and death.”

Although people sometimes worried that she took on too much, especially after Ransom’s death, Idora herself believed she had nothing to complain about. On the contrary, she considered that she had led an interesting and fulfilling life.

A woman of many accomplishments, Idora considered her most important role to be the raising of her children and grandchildren. She spent her final days with them, as well as two of her siblings and their families. She experienced no pain and although “very tired,” she was able to enjoy home-cooked meals, bouquets of flowers cut from her garden, and keeping up with the Red Sox. Her last outing was to join family and friends on her front porch as the Fourth of July parade marched down Highland Avenue.

On Wednesday, July 11, she told her doctors and her family that she was ready to go and she hoped that she could manage a graceful exit. Practical, wise, and dignified to the end, she died four days later in her home of 66 years with family members at her bedside.

She is survived by her daughters Ruth Tucker of Bomoseen, Sara Tucker of Randolph, and Martha Tucker of Montpelier; her sons James Tucker and John Tucker, both of Randolph Center; her sister Ruth Demarest-Godfrey of Brookfield; her brothers Charles H. Cooley of Randolph Center and John H. Cooley of Baldwin, Michigan; and six grandchildren: Shawn Ingram, James R. Tucker, Thomas Texier, Hannah Phillips, Courtney Phillips, and Sara Phillips. She was predeceased by her husband, Dr. Ransom Tucker, in 1972; her sister Marion Stouder; and a grandson, Douglas Ingram.

Memorial services will be held at 10 A.M., Saturday, July 28 at Bethany United Church of Christ in Randolph, with Rev. Robin Junker officiating. There are no calling hours. Private burial will be in the Randolph Center Cemetery at a later date.

Arrangements are under the direction of the Day Funeral Home, Randolph. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the Kimball Public Library, N. Main St., Randolph, VT 05060 or to REECH, POB 303, Randolph, VT 05060.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Randolph Parade

One year after Hurricane Irene, towns along the White River celebrate the Fourth with a parade in Randolph, Vermont. Here, the parade moves down Highland Avenue. The gray house with the white columns is my mother's; that's her on the porch at the end of the video, surrounded by family and friends.

Friday, May 25, 2012

How to Be Maude Stokes

The following piece is a collaboration by the residents of Joslyn House (where I just finished a six-week workshop), several of whom had Mrs. Stokes as a teacher many years ago. I asked them to tell me about her, and I jotted down their memories. Then I put them together in the form of a "how to be" portrait.

How to Be Maude Stokes

Begin and end your teaching career in the village of Randolph, Vermont.
Teach third grade—and only third grade—for approximately half a century.
Teach long enough to be able to say to one third-grade boy on the first day of school, “I hope you behave better in my classroom than your father did.”
Get to know the habits of third graders better than any other teacher in the history of Randolph Elementary School.
Watch out for the boys.
When a third-grade boy misbehaves, march him to the coat closet, otherwise known as the cloakroom.
Take a ruler with you.

Adopt a certain style of dress and never change, no matter what happens to women’s fashions during your lifetime.
Wear your hair in a bun.
Pin a cameo to the (high) neckline of your nondescript blue dress.
Give the impression of being exactly what you are, a schoolteacher, not a fashion plate.
Give the impression of being large and bulky and not to be messed with.

Speak with the voice of authority.

When the children are quietly working, leave the classroom and talk in the hallway with Mrs. Simmons.
Train the children to behave themselves while you talk with Mrs. Simmons.
Begin their training in the second grade.
Make sure that the name “Maude Stokes” inspires awe and fear in every second-grader.
Especially the boys.
Establish a reputation.

Allow no child to enter fourth grade without having mastered his multiplication tables.
Believe that every child is capable of success.
When a certain third-grade girl of average intelligence refuses to learn her times-twelves, bang her head against the blackboard.
Do not actually injure her.

As a regular part of third-grade education, read aloud the interesting bits of news in the Boston Herald.
Follow in particular the Boston Trunk Murders.
When a mother complains that her daughter is having nightmares, decide to skip some of the gory details in your classroom updates on the Boston Trunk Murders.
Continue reading the headlines.

Never be seen driving a car.
Whenever a home visit is called for,
Get Mr. Stokes to drive you.
In the fall, when you go to the Annual Teachers Convention in Montpelier,
Get Mrs. Simmons or Mrs. Murray to drive you.

Look forward the Annual Teachers Convention with great excitement.

Divulge nothing about your personal life.
Keep them guessing.
Never speak of Mr. Stokes in front of the children. Make them wonder if he exists.
Make them speculate, years later, that if he existed he must have been very small.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Cookie Comes to Lunch

Cookie Campbell talks with her longtime friend Mary Jacobs at the Randolph Senior Center on Thursday. Wendy Ross (left) helped serve. We dished up some 50 helpings of Rose's corned beef and cabbage and had a rockin' good time. It was Cookie's first time at the Senior Center in many weeks, following an injury that laid her low through much of the winter. When she walked in the door on Thursday, it was like Spring itself had arrived. We also celebrated the return of the Center's executive director, Emilie Daniel, back from a trip to Panama. Welcome back, Emilie and Cookie. We missed you.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

So long, AVA, and thanks for the memories

Our final event at the AVA Arts Center was a poignant occasion for many of us: Two years have passed since Jack made the portraits of the Hale Street Gang, Margaret is no longer with us, and of the original twelve memoirists, only five were able to make it to the closing reception. We wish to thank Bente, Margaret, Victoria, and the rest of AVA's staff for providing us with a truly memorable experience. The closing reception was attended by several children and grandchildren, some of whom had driven many miles on what luckily turned out to be a beautiful sunny winter day. 
Hannah Phillips, above, reads from a memoir by her grandmother.
D'Ann Fago and Idora Tucker. Rear: AVA's director Bente Torjusen.
Artist Joan Feierabend and friend. The cast is a souvenir of an icy fall.
Project leader Sara Tucker. That's Margaret  in the distance.
Lydia English, author of A Woman's Legacy, and Pat Menchini.
Some people were too shy to read their work. Not this lovely lady.
Bonnie Willis, junior gangster. 
Hannah and her grandmother, Idora Tucker. Cupcake, Gram?
Mary Jacobs, Hannah Phillips, Lydia English, Pat Menchini.
D'Ann Fago's Retrospective, in the adjacent gallery.