This is not a blog about New Year’s resolutions.
This is not a blog about Covid-19.
It is the story that came to me in the early hours, today, as I lay in bed, knowing that it was the first day of the New Year… and also a Friday. (“First Fridays” are when I offer new entries on my blog. It used to be that I’d post something every Friday, but these days, I’m usually making a short video for release on Fridays and the writing has waned to a monthly effort.)
We all have iconic stories of our formative years. Once, when working with a church consultant from Boston on a re-development project, she asked me to tell her a story that said something about me, a story that defined me. Without hesitation, I offered her the story that I’m about to share in these pages- not because it is heroic, or filled with adventure or even a fun story to tell- but because it is a story that I’ve carried around for a long time (57 years) and I’m still learning from it. (My hope in that last sentence is that I’ve both set the bar for expectation pretty low and, at the same time, cast some intrigue.) It is a short story- more of a “scene,” really (its action is pretty limited)- that takes place in the year 1963 when I was five years old.
When I was five years old, I lived in the bucolic town of Kent, Connecticut with my mother, two brothers and my grandmother. We moved to Kent from Rye, New York, when I was four. My mother had gotten a job teaching English at the Kent School following my father’s sudden and tragic death from a surprise heart attack- a literal “widow maker.” My mother was in her 30s. My grandmother left her comfortable retired life in Larchmont filled with bridge club, yacht club and altar guild activities to move in and raise her grandchildren while my mother put her Master’s degree in English literature from Columbia to use and got on with teaching Shakespeare and Faulkner and the Book of Job to fifth and six formers at a boarding school with a campus that looked like it was picked up out of the English countryside and dropped near the Housatonic river in hills of Northwestern Connecticut.
In 1963, the town of Kent could have served as the set of the Andy Griffith show. There wasn’t much that separated it from the fictional Mayberry: a quaint town with market, saloon, train station, dentist, and Episcopal and Congregational churches all lining the main street. A war monument in the shape of an obelisk stood at the end of Main Street and created a neat obstacle to drive around, forming a natural traffic circle. There was a lumber yard, a pack of stray dogs, and one house that was scary to walk past with overgrown weeds climbing the rusted fence and a gate that squeaked in the wind.
We lived about the distance of three city blocks from Main Street, but there were no blocks, per se, just a couple of lovely maple and elm lined streets with houses dotted along either side. There was the local garage, and a rest home with a broad, curving porch that intersected with our residential street; if you turned left and walked about ¼ of a mile you reached the single story, Kindergarten-8th grade Kent Center School (it backed onto a corn field) and if you turned right, you entered our neighborhood.
We lived in a Dutch colonial house set far back from the road at the end of a long gravel driveway. It was a house owned by the Kent School. There was a long kitchen that ran the length of the house from front to back, a generous living room with fireplace, a dining room, glassed-in back porch, and, upstairs, four bedrooms. The stairway was broad and gracious with a landing halfway to the top with a large window that allowed afternoon light to spill in on the carpet. I spent many hours playing in the pools of sunlight on that landing. In spite of the tragic event that landed us in Kent- my father’s death- these were happy days and, except for the gaping hole of “no dad” in a time when it seemed that just about every family had one, we got on fine.
My mother went to work each morning bearing an empty metal milk jug with “Hunter 5” painted on it with red nail polish. The name and number indicated the owner and number of people in our household; we would get fresh milk each day from the school dairy. My grandmother kept the house- cooking, hanging out the wash, raking the leaves in our large yard, and playing her parlor grand piano.
The story. What’s the story?
Yes. Here it is.
We had a chicken coop at the end of our backyard just at the place where the grass ended and the ground began a fairly sharp descent down an uncultivated hill to the edge of the Housatonic river. The yard itself was lovely- tree lined at its sides, with a swing set to play on and broad back steps off of the back porch where we blew bubbles, drew with chalk and played with toy cars. But the allure of the overgrown hill and the old chicken coop with its rusted metal roof was greater than the safety of the cement pad at the bottom of the steps or the swing set with its two-seated glider or shiny slide.
My brother Peter- two years older than I – got it into his head that if he and I climbed up onto the roof of the chicken coop and he threaded a bit of rope through the belt loop of my blue jeans, that he could sit at the top of the pitched roof and lower me down safely to the far edge where a large patch of raspberries grew, just out of reach, in the brambly undergrowth of the hill. I bought this idea without hesitation. But neither of us had expected that the strain of my chubby body against the rope would be too great for the flimsy beltloop, and so it was at about the halfway mark of the descent that the beltloop let loose, and I tumbled down the rusty roof and into the prickery bushes below.
That’s the story.
I don’t remember being hurt, or getting mad, but I do remember no small amount of shame as I blamed my chubbiness on the failure of the beltloop.
I also don’t remember questioning my brother about the idea of lowering me off the roof, or making any calculated decisions in which I weighed the risks of climbing on a slanted, rusty roof suspended over pricker bushes.
And I don’t remember getting off of the ground, dazed, or running inside to have my grandmother dab at my scratches with a wet dishcloth.
It’s just a scene. A scene that has stayed with me for 57 years.
I think it’s about finding my way. About my deep and unfailing love for and trust in my brother which abides to this day. I think it’s about making sense of a terrible tragedy by carrying on and doing the stuff of life. And it is about kids being allowed to be kids- to explore, to experiment, to fail and to get hurt. The second iconic story-scene from that same era is about when I made a habit, at five, of walking in the backyard knee-deep in snow in my bare feet, wanting to be like an Indian. These days, there’s a fancy name for the practice: “winter grounding.” But back then, it was just imaginative play.
I think, too, that the story is about God. Because everything is about God, if you are a believer. Where do you see God in this story?
Is there an iconic story of your childhood?
No New Year’s resolutions today.
No despondent stories of pandemic loss.
Just a kid and her big brother playing.