September 2019


Today my Uncle Tom is on my mind. Last night I was explaining to my friend how my family told stories, how I was surrounded not so much by books, but by tales told by uncles, aunts, cousins, parents, grandparents, sisters, brothers, friends.

The one I was thinking about first was my Uncle Tom. When I was small, Uncle Tom lived in the basement bedroom of my grandma’s house. My grandma lived in a little house she and my grandfather built for their retirement. I was born when my grandma was sixty, shortly after they moved to the new house from the farm across the road where my mother and Uncle Tom and the five other sisters and brothers grew up. My grandfather died when I was small. He was hit by a car while driving his tractor along the road between the small house and the farm and did not recover.

There’s one photo of me and my grandfather, who had a fine sense of humor, according to the stories I was told, holding me and maybe my cousin Pete, who was two weeks older, one on each knee, if I remember correctly, with a cigarette in my mouth. I wonder now if that’s correct. I was a plump, round baby with a velvety scalp, a big smile, and a sweet little baby dress, bouncing on his knee. My mother lost her father just as she was becoming a mother, then her husband shortly after, all in her twenties, but that’s another story.

My grandmother lived in that small house forty years after my grandfather died, until she was nearly one hundred and I was nearly forty. For most of that time my Uncle Tom looked after her and her place, first living in the basement where there was his bedroom, the half bath, the root cellar, the laundry area, the dining room set that must have come from the farm, where we laid out food when we had family picnics, and the storage area where Grandma kept empty jars and a cardboard box full of toy dishes that had belonged to my mother and her sister Judy when they were small, which came out whenever children visited my grandmother all those forty years. Some may be in my basement now or my mom’s, waiting for the great great grandkids to take them out.

When I was small one of my favorite things to do was to spend time with my grandma and my Uncle Tom. They were a fine pair of grown ups in my life. We would ride around the country in Grandma’s sedan, or in Uncle Tom’s pick up truck, with me in the middle of the bench seat between them, collecting fruits and vegetables, stopping at yard sales, going to lunch in a roadside cafe, buying plants.

In the evening they would make dinner and I would help. My grandmother had a way of frying white rice in butter in a skillet no one else has ever made for me, which I ought to try someday. We would set the table with a cloth, my favorite one was terry cloth with pink and orange flowers, and the brown dishes and brown wood handled silverware now resting in my drawer. My grandmother loved all flowers, roses especially, and often had some growing in her yard and cut in vases on her kitchen island or dining table. Her favorites were deep pink multilayered roses, like the ones blooming along the side of my house now.

During dinner we might wheel the tv stand around , turning it to face the dining area, and watch the news. Even that would be fun with Uncle Tom, who would make the news into a funny thing to watch. Other times he would tell stories. I can see his mouth, the way he talked out of the side of it and rolled his eyes at the outrageousness of someone’s business or way of handling something. I can’t remember a particular story. What I do remember was sitting across from him and smiling broadly, laughing as he laughed, and Grandma well cared for and caring, sharing life with him.

My Uncle Tom worked at Attica Prison, Attica Correctional Facility if one speaks more formally. In the years I was growing up, Attica was not a place to speak of lightly when one traveled the world. The uprising happened when I was small and Uncle Tom was one of those to respond the day after, something I learned of recently as I was reading Blood in the Water, a relatively recent history of the uprising/massacre/riot and it’s aftermath.

That book haunts me still. It’s full of my childhood memories, twisted and turned into something mean.

From where I played with tractors with my cousin Pete under the chestnut tree on the farm where my mom and then my cousins grew up, we had a clear view down the hill and across my grandmother’s fields and yard and the creek behind it to the rodeo grounds, the cemetery where my father was buried, and the prison rising up between them, looking to my children when they were there years later most like a castle, with its tall walls and turrets (watchtowers).

From where we played there was no evidence of the prisoners inside. I can only imagine them now from the images depicted in Blood in the Water and from the men I’ve come to know so well in the Sharing Circle, whose lives in and out of prison have become real to me.

When my Uncle Tom came home from work early in the morning after his night shifts I was asleep in the twin bed in the spare room across from my grandmother’s room with the bathroom in between. I would hear my uncle’s truck in the driveway and if it was winter I’d see the glow of the headlights slide across the walls of my room. He’d get out of the truck, crunch across the gravel drive, open the wooden gate between the house and detached garage and close the latch quietly, walk around the back of the house, passing my bedroom window, open the screen door and the wooden door to the house, come into the kitchen for a drink, then head downstairs to sleep. Or maybe he’d join us for breakfast and sleep later. I was aware he’d come home and I was small. It was a long time ago and certain pieces linger.

Later, he moved to his own small house up the road from Grandma’s and the farm. He built an A Frame on a hill just outside of town and filled it with antiques and art. I stayed there once or twice, sleeping in his loft, looking at the novels on his bookshelves, where I found Joyce Carol Oats waiting for me, and John Gardner, both Western New York writers who let me know people from Western New York had stories to tell the larger world. Those are the only books I remember borrowing from my family. I kept them on the small nightstand beside my bed in high school, when I read them late at night, took them with me to college and on to my first apartments and may still have them now. My uncle didn’t talk about books, and if I hadn’t stayed there in his loft, I don’t know if I would have known he read them.

These days Uncle Tom lives in Batavia. He took care of my grandmother as she was aging, mowed the lawn, brought groceries, made dinner and shared meals with her many times a week, and slept in the spare room nights she was too frail or old to be alone. Those two kept fine company and cared for each other well.

When I was home last year, my mom took my sister and me to visit Uncle Tom. I was reminded of the artful way my family lived when I was growing up. Uncle Tom chose antique chests and art to decorate Grandma’s house and then his. His latest home is a gallery of paintings and collectibles and furniture. Each room has the feel I remember from visiting his A-frame on the hill, though now instead of his dog Schultz, he has a bevy of cats, who have their own room and run of the place, and are his companions.

His back fence is a work of art, too. He painted big yellow flowers on it and hung decorative pieces of pottery there. He looks out for his neighbors and has stories to tell. He works out at the Y twice a day and is fit as he’s always been, and funny.

Today the children were aware of fall, and it was hot and summery. On the walk to the park, my nearly three said, “what’s that brown stuff, Maria?” I looked across Broadway to see a tree’s worth of leaves had turned brown, realized at nearly three my gal does not likely remember this change of seasons from last year. “The leaves on the trees are changing,” I let her know.

When we arrived at the park, there were fallen leaves in the spray pool area, mixed with water the kids were playing in on this 85 degree day. Later, children were playing a game, carrying buckets around the park on sticks. “It’s a lantern parade!” my three said. “We are lighting up the dark.”

When he brought his bucket near awhile later, I photographed a little collection of yellow seeds or leaves. “Those are the lights (he actually used a more precise word I’m now forgetting). They light up the lantern.”

Soon his friend, another three, came, also with a bucket of yellow leaves, from a different tree. “Look, Maria, the leaves are changing. They’re on the ground.”

My four pointed out, “Maria, fall is just beginning. It’s turning into fall!”, as he marched around in his wet bathing suit.

Two of my threes wished for sticks their friends were using to carry the bucket lanterns. I suggested they find their own, then realized they didn’t have a clue. I asked a four to help. She pointed in the direction of some bushes, but was too busy marching to stop.

I suggested to one three that she might find a stick under a tree and pointed across the play yard at a nearby tree. “Oh!,” she exclaimed, picking up a stick there, finding my guidance useful.

Another two/almost three spent much of park time stirring a bucket of water with a stick. She stirred and stirred and stirred. I asked what she was making, think it was a cake with multiple berries in the frosting.

The children relate to nature in so many ways, reminding me of how new the seasons are to them, how much ritual is part of the turning, how fully these little humans are part of our relationship to the earth.

After a weekend in which my daughter organized fellow teens from her school on a walk out to the Climate protest in Boston on Friday and I drummed at and participated in the Annual International Day of Peace with a focus on Climate Change and Social Justice yesterday, I felt especially grateful to be with the children of WFDC today who were celebrating the earth’s importance and their connection to it in their ways.

This morning I think of how I’ve been connected to the birds the last many years, as images for spiritual connection, is my guess, and I extend that image of birds to the empty nester experience I’ve been living, watching my babies fly away.

From where I sit on my porch, the trees are quiet today. The birds aren’t making themselves known. I’m home alone, having slept in rather than spend the entire day with the Quakers, as I otherwise would have done and did last Sunday. Soon I’m off to the Boston Common with the Drum Circle, to play for the International Day of Peace. This evening I’ll attend the Clerks Meeting at the Meeting House.

All week I’ve kept company for more time than I expected. I’ve seen each of my kids, a banner week for me. I’ve met someone new who I’m getting to know, who loves the life of a Somerville porch as much as I do, and we’re seeing how it goes. Today the solitude feels important, a pause in a full week of others.

I’m not sure what else to say, except life surprises. Life evolves. If we are lucky we evolve and find new ways of being known and making meaning, through and beyond and even toward loss.

It feels good to be in a more centered place after years of a lot of instability, to have a comfortable home, and loved ones who come and go, who I connect with here and elsewhere, to have work that matters and aligns with my beliefs, to have enough financial security that I can make choices without as much constraint, to have an inner life that is important, and a spiritual community to which I belong, to be strong enough to put myself out there again, to imagine another significant relationship, to remain in hope.

I’ve resubscribed to The Sun, a gift that last month arrived with stories from prison, this month arrived with the Readers Write theme of Worship and a host of pieces on climate change.

I’ve been reading a fair bit, this week a book I learned about from a Quaker wise woman who talked about the author, Tara Brach, in Meeting for Worship and who recommended the book I’ve been reading, Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of the Buddha, when I spoke to her at Coffee Hour.

I’ve listened to Tara Brach in the night when I’ve had trouble falling asleep and read her words slowly throughout the week, letting them sink in. Today’s pause was in part her good idea, a place to center and listen and break old patterns, a practice both practical and spiritual, as she described the pause from her psychologist and Buddhist practitioner perspectives, a good combination of perspectives for me to apply.

Time for drumming. International Day of Peace, Boston Common, Stone of Hope Drummers, here I come:) From the pause comes renewal, if all goes well.

For years in my thirties and early forties I had a recurring dream. I had returned to school. My children were with me. We had no place to live, or the place we were living was absurd. In one of these dreams I was living with my three young children in a frat house, nursing my baby at night, wondering what to do with the children when I went to class. In another of the dreams we lived in a shack with deteriorating walls and little furniture. My husband, their father, was no place to be found in those dreams.

In some of the dreams I would arrive on campus, sometimes a version of Cornell, where I went for undergrad, and no one would know who I was or why I was there. Often, I would say I had deferred, and the administrators would try to find some record of that.

In some of the dreams I had not shut down the day care, and I would be on campus, not belonging there, with my children, not knowing how to care for them while I was in class, also aware I was leaving the day care children and teachers and caregivers in the lurch.

All of this came back to me as I arrived in Northampton this weekend, preparing for a four nights/three days all expenses paid exploration of the Smith Social Work MSW program. ‘

This week I got coverage for the day care. I told the parents I was leaving, let them know about my explorations. My daughter is in boarding school. One of my son’s lives in Somerville with his fiance, not with me. My other son lives in New York. This week/end nobody at home or at the day care needs me. I’m here for me, to figure out how to make a life I want to live as my children make their own, apart from me.

What I always felt in those dreams was the draw to return to school, the sense that I was meant for something more, something new, and that returning for another degree would get me there.

For the last ten years, I’ve been focused on transitioning out of a marriage, into the life of a single mom, on raising my three kids to adulthood, on building and creating a life in Somerville, with stints in long distance relationships in New Hampshire and Northampton, always wondering what next.

This weekend the social work option feels real. The Smith option feels possible, if not clear. And it is wonderful to be back in school, if only for a few days, to sit and think and feel and listen and grow with others who share my yearnings in this direction, to get to know new people, to stretch and imagine life focusing on a change in a new and positive direction.

Time for class. Wish me luck! I’m breaking up with the disaster dream, making a new one, following intuition and gathering information, sensing and calculating my way towards a future I hope will build on my past and allow me to flourish and to do more good work and to continue to support myself and to stay connected to my children.