"Our bishop is evicting us!" Paul Bachand, 39 years old and a lifetime parishioner, cried as police led him from the broad and high brick-faced cathedral that some have called "the most beautiful church in Worcester." Though the order actually came from a judge, in their minds it was the bishop who was forcing them from the church they had built, paid for, cared for, and intended to keep. When they refused to comply, they were blocked from leaving, held inside the church, and 27 hours later they were brought out, one and two at a time, escorted by police, whose pained faces betrayed feelings of reluctance. Ken Desautels, who is still working on what is now a 1,300-page history of St. Joseph’s, was brought out, defiantly clutching a wooden cross. Janet Prunier, who with her twin sister had kept the vigil almost day and night, wept as she came out. "Are we a viable parish yet?" she cried, referring to the bishop's frequent statement that the people of St. Joseph's needed to prove they were a "viable parish." Terry Turgeon, divorced mother of four, whose coordinating efforts for the Committee to Save St. Joseph's Church had earned her the title of Command Central, and Ron Fortin, former custodian of the church and eloquent leader of the 450-member committee, were silent, brought out alone. The last to leave was Deacon Joe DuVarney, the only member of the Catholic clergy who on this day dared to cross the bishop's line. In tears, he turned to the reporters. "You people can investigate this! I beg of you, for the love of your fellow man, find out the real reason behind the closing of this church."
Outside, the crowd filled the street, a busy four-lane thoroughfare that passes through this section of Worcester known as French Hill. Two hours before, noting the size of the gathering at the 67-year-old church, the police had blocked off traffic. A white-haired woman waved a hand-painted placard: Jesus Wept. Et Tu Bishop? Some had been there all night, sleeping on the stone steps at the foot of the rough wooden cross the committeee had set there. Now with everyone removed from the church, a handsome young man took up the heavy cross. A ragtag line snaked after him through the lunch-hour crowds of the busy city to the bishop's office building. He laid the cross on the steps and then took coins from his pocket and threw them on the sidewalk, like in the Bible, the 30 pieces of silver paid to Judas after he betrayed Jesus. The crowd threw more coins. They knelt, weeping, and kissed the cross. And they waited on the doorstep of the man many in this city address as Most Reverend and His Excellency, the man before whom all priests of the diocese must kneel and promise absolute obedience. They waited. At last Bishop Harrington appeared. Throughout his protracted legal battle he had never met with them. Dressed in black, the sleeves of his suit jacket shoved up to his elbows, he stepped into the heat. But at once his attention was diverted. He spotted the coins. He stooped and began to pick up the money.
* * *
I first came to St. Joseph's on a Sunday in June. Passing through Worcester on my way to somewhere else, I was curious, that was all, and I had a bit of spare time. The newspaper stories I had read were brief, referring to an "unsafe" building and steadfast parishioners, who had kept an around-the-clock vigil for 13 months. I knew that churches, especially Catholic churches, were closing around the country. There are so many, 30 in Worcester alone, large and expensive to maintain. It made sense to close some. But it was the lengthy vigil that intrigued me.
St. Joseph's was not hard to find. Bright purple ribbons streamed from the entryway. Hand-painted signs moved lightly in the breeze: "Come in and pray with us!"; St. Joseph's Belongs to the People!"; and "We believe in miracles!" Clusters of people gathered near the huge oak doors. I started up the steps. A pretty woman with dark, soulful eyes approached. This was Terry Turgeon, the one who many say started it all. With the pride of a mother, she invited me inside. Knowing now how many strangers have found their way to St. Joseph's, I can only imagine how many times she has done this, but as we stood in the back of the hushed sanctuary, she spoke with a whispered passion, as if I were the first she had told this story to. The bishop had ordered the church closed a year ago, claiming it needed some $400,000 in repairs. By May of 1992 they had received $620,000 in pledges, but he would not change his mind, nor would he meet with them to talk about it. "This church was built by my parents, my grandparents," she said. "We all share this story. He can't take this from us."
People came in and out, walking soundlessly down the polished marble aisle, genuflecting and then kneeling to pray in one of the heavy oak pews. Shiny yellow pillars broke up the huge space. White alabaster frescoes illustrated the Stations of the Cross. They were narrated in French (Jesus Tombe Pour Le Deuxième Fois) and bordered with tiny red-and-blue mosaics. A slender crucifix centered on a white marble altar dominated the front of the sanctuary.
"Where is the danger?" I asked. Terry took me outside and pointed up to a corner of the bell tower where a small section of the brick facing looked precarious. "That's it?" I asked.
"That's the dangerous part," she replied. "We had one fellow come here and tell us he could fix that for us for $2,000."
"But that's only cosmetic," I said. "Not structural."
"That's right," she said.
None of this made any sense to me. In time I would learn that other repairs were needed, but none seemed insurmountable. In fact, the building had been certified safe through 1995 by the Worcester building inspector. It was a beautiful church filled with passionate congregants who were apparently ready and willing to do what needed to be done. Why would any bishop want to close such a church?
* * *
It wasn't long before I returned to St. Joseph's. Terry led me to a back room of the church where the core members of the committee gathered around a big table. She introduced Ron Fortin and David and Giselle DesRoches.
A few things were clear. This was a unique parish. The parishioners of St. Joseph's Church had purchased the land and, in 1926, paid $500,000 to have the building erected. According to the committee, the parishioners had paid for all maintenance and alterations made to the church, without seeking loans from the diocese. This is the heart of the lawsuit that is still to be heard, one that will establish legal ownership of the property, which constitutes a full city block in downtown Worcester. The block has an estimated value of from $4 million to $6 million. The building's insured value is $2.25 million.
However, the bishop holds the deed to St. Joseph's, as he holds the deeds to all church properties in the diocese. No one at St. Joseph's ever thought that meant that he could sell the church out from under them. They firmly believe that is what the bishop did. And that is why, no matter how much money they are able to raise, they believe the bishop will not change his mind. "Because it's a done deal," Terry said, "and it has been for a long time."
* * *
The story of St. Joseph's should have been clear-cut: the need to consolidate the churches in a shrinking diocese. But no one was talking about that. Much was made, in the press and on the streets, of the possibility that the Irish-Catholic bishop favored the Irish-Catholic parishes. St. Joseph's has French-Canadian roots. In addition, people were telling me heart-rending stories of cases in Worcester of priests convicted of sexually abusing young boys. And they told me of other priests still to be tried. I also heard about activities that, if they were not crimes, were a decided breach of faith. Reporters told me of their exasperated efforts to pin down leads. The diocese does not have to abide by the same rules as a publicly owned corporation. Many of its activities are confidential, sealed in files few can see. Which may account for the rumors. The rumors of misconduct that I heard during my stay in Worcester could fill a notebook. My ears grew weary of the stories. True or false, they were a clear indication that all was not as it seemed.
* * *
A week before the final eviction in July, I sat on the steps of St. Joseph's with ten or 12 parishioners. It was nearly midnight, with a cool breeze and stars winking from beneath thin clouds. They reminisced about the past year. Every morning, five dozen doughnuts appeared in the vestibule before anyone was awake. No one yet knows who brought them. They told me how, during the December blizzard that had crippled much of the Northeast, the vigil at St. Joseph's continued, neighbors pulling pots of stew on sleds. "After we'd been here a couple of weeks," Terry said, "one guy drove up and called out, 'What do you guys need?' and we told him we could use a couple of air mattresses. A couple of hours later he came back with two boxes of air mattresses, brand-new. This happened all the time." Very early on, a group of women came into the church, their arms loaded with food. When they came out, they said, "We can't say what parish we are from, but we want you to know that we are with you."
Many of the parishioners told me that this had been the most beautiful experience of their lives and that even if the bishop succeeds in taking their building, he would never be able to take this greater feeling from them.
The diocese had forbidden priests to enter St. Joseph's. Instead, parishioners were invited next door to celebrate Mass in the basement of the rectory, sitting on old school chairs next to the washer and dryer. Few went. They regarded this as an insult. Though they held services every night, Mass, which requires a priest, had not been said in St. Joseph's in over a year. When priests came to St. Joseph's, they came in T-shirts and shorts and rarely identified themselves. The people of St. Joseph's learned to spot them – the ones who wear black socks with absolutely everything, one told me. The ones with the shiny black shoes, another said. Once, inside the church, I fell into conversation with a sharp-eyed older man who spoke passionately about the situation there. When I told him I was a reporter and asked him for his name, he drew back, "Oh no," he said. "If anyone knew I was here, it would be explosive." Later, I learned he, too, was a priest.
The people of St. Joseph's know, because the Worcester diocese is ultimately a small world and because some of their brothers and nephews and cousins are priests, that at least a few priests have implored the bishop to reconsider and give St. Joseph's back to her people. But still, no priest will publicly proclaim his support for those the bishop called "dissidents."
Linda Shea, a big, expressive woman who slept every Wednesday and every Friday night in the church from the beginning of the vigil, objected to the term. "I'm not a dissident," she said. "I'm a wife, I'm a mother, I'm a member of this church, but I'm not a dissident. That's demeaning." She had a T-shirt printed up that said, "I am not a dissident. I'm a DESCENDANT of St. Joseph's Church."
Earlier in the evening an old woman made her way up the steps and took my elbow. She looked into my eyes and spoke with a terrible sense of urgency. "I never thought I would go against the bishop," she said. Those are the feelings of many. The Catholic hierarchy may seem like an anachronism to many in this free-wheeling 1990's society, but nonetheless it remains a powerful presence in this city. It is the abuse of the power inherent in this hierarchy that the people of St. Joseph's said they are fighting against, not their faith. They had written, individually and as a group, to Cardinal Law in Boston, asking for his help, but he offered none. Clara Papagno, a feisty 80-year-old who throughout the year had kept her Monday-night vigil, wrote to the Pope. She had saved up her money and offered to send him airfare so that he could fly to Worcester. She received no reply. Above all else, they felt abandoned.
At midnight, we went inside, the air filled with the smell of snuffed candles. A single light illuminated the crucifix at the altar. Terry liked to sleep up in front of the first pew. I spread my sleeping bag beside her. The sounds of zipping and the clank of cots unfolding resounded throughout the church. Some simply stretched out along the hard oak pews. Terry zipped her flannel sleeping bag around her and lay still. The great arched ceiling loomed above us, the chubby faces of angels faintly visible in the weak light. Terry talked quietly for a while. "The first nights we spent here, for the first few weeks, no one slept. We all sat up in the pews, and many of us cried. I cried all night, for nights." She spoke of her divorce and the death of her mother two years ago. All her trials and all her joys intersected here at St. Joseph's. She was silent for a while, lying on her back, looking up. And then she said, "Lying here at night, I've seen details in the ceiling that I've never seen before. I remember one night we tried to count all the angels. We walked around, and everywhere we looked, we found more. We tried to count them all, but we couldn't. You could never. You'll never find all the angels here."
* * *
One afternoon, television news reporters had come to St. Joseph's. That night we sat in Terry's small living room, chatting quietly, our eyes steadfast on the screen waiting for the St. Joseph's segment to come on the ten o'clock news. After scenes at St. Joseph's, to everyone's surprise, the bishop appeared. A reporter had stopped him on the street. The people say they have raised enough to make the necessary repairs, he asked, why isn't that good enough? The bishop answered that it would take a million dollars to fix that church. The only money the parish had come up with was pledged money, the bishop continued, and he raised his hand and stretched it out toward the camera. Rubbing his thumb against his forefingers, he said, "We want cash, the bread, you know, the moolah."
The next morning, as the parishioners gathered to share doughnuts and coffee on the steps of the church, they were wide-eyed. "Mon Dieu, now he's up to a million!" cried one. "Did you see our bishop last night on TV? The bread, the moolah," said another. They imitated the way the bishop had rubbed his fingers together. "We ought to make a copy of that and send it to the Pope so he can see what we have to deal with!" one said.
The following Sunday, a special service was held at St. Joseph's. Hundreds attended. Afterward, Arthur Couture, a life-long parishioner, stood up and said, "We finally know how to speak the bishop's language. He wants the moolah. So here is my moolah, a check for $1,000 in hard cash. I urge you all to do the same." Within two days the committee had collected $35,000 in cash and the next day another $20,000. A man who attends another church came to St. Joseph's and wrote them a check for $10,000. The bishop, on hearing this, was unmoved. Apparently nothing would change his mind about closing St. Joseph's.
* * *
In all that I heard, it really wasn't the money or the bishop or even the building that everyone wanted to talk about. There was a growing faith at St. Joseph's. I witnessed this myself. People coming and going at all hours of the day and night, kneeling in prayer. Ordinary members of the parish, who had never imagined leading a congregation in prayer, got up and led their neighbors with the assurance of the most practiced spiritual leaders. Obvious love passed among the people, the laughing and the hugging and the way they fed each other and shared what they had with each other. It was an alive and happy place, a safe place. "There are a few things that are going to come from all this," Terry whispered to me one day as we sat in a pew. "One is that churches should be open all the time."
It was the faith of the few at first, the faith of Terry Turgeon and Ron Fortin and all the others whose lives had unfolded inside the heart of this building – and who refused to let go of it. But then there were others, many others, who came to join them as the year progressed.
Randy Pryor, a 24-year-old youth counselor, slept regularly at the church and attended the rosary services as often as he could. "I had been to Catholic churches before," he told me. "I found what I thought was a lot of hypocrisy. But then I came up here and I met these people. I could not not come back." He told me about his French-Canadian grandfather who died when he was little, how strongly he feels his Papa's presence here at St. Joseph's. "It's been a major conversion for me, and my little story is just a drop in the bucket of water that fills up what St. Joseph's is."
Sean Redrow, an 18-year-old organist, heard about St. Joseph's. When he visited the church with other organists, he slid behind the organ's keyboard and pulled open the stops. They were astounded by the purity of its sound. "We ought to have a concert," he said, and a month later they had one. There wasn't an empty seat in the house. Sean's friend, Richard Jones, also an organist and an eminent Worcester historian, enjoys telling this story because he believes, as do many others, that it was at this concert that the word got out about St. Joseph's. "You see, people came and they saw what a beautiful church it was. All these years and only the people of St. Joseph's knew what it was like inside. It was like their secret. Once you've seen it, you don't just walk away from it."
Richard also believes that St. Joseph's has become such a rallying cry because it more or less survived Vatican II, a universal effort to bring the faith closer to the people. Richard told me that during the sixties, major renovations had been made to all of the Catholic churches. "It's an unfortunate chapter in Worcester's history," he said. And he told me that they painted over murals, took sledge hammers to marble altar rails and at St. Paul's, the city's main cathedral, they drove a crane down the center aisle to knock out the enormous marble altar. "The theory was that ornamentation distracted the worshipper," he explained. The people of St. Joseph's fought hard against major alterations in their church. And in that battle, they won. Some changes were made, but the miracle of St. Joseph's was that it survived, emerging unscathed, like some priceless antique plucked from the debris of a tornado. Undoubtedly some of the fervor people experienced when they got involved in the fight to save St. Joseph's is linked to nostalgia, a longing for things to be as they once were, including the strong moral rod of the Church.
Randy and Richard and Sean are just a very few of those who were gradually drawn into St. Joseph's struggle. Paul LeBlanc visited St. Joseph's and was so moved that he wrote a letter to the local paper, urging the bishop to close all the churches. "Five years ago I walked away from the Catholic church," he wrote. "If the parishioners at St. Joseph's decide to remain together [after their eviction], I will seek to join them. I never felt so welcome and at ease in any church, anywhere. Jesus had to die to conquer death. Maybe all the Church has to do is close so that all the disenfranchised Catholics can return."
Geraldine Dudley, the spunky grandmother of 13, said to me, "You wait and see. There is going to be a revolution inside the Catholic church, and it's going to start right here, at St. Joseph's."
It was not a place where the spirit could be dismissed. In the end, virtually everyone was visibly moved. The judge who ordered the eviction called it "an unbelievably unfortunate, sad situation." Reporters found it hard to maintain objectivity. Some wept. Some knelt in prayer. The police who stood guard that final day fought back tears and silently mouthed the words to familiar hymns as the people sang their way through the last hours of detention. Moments after the detained parishioners were removed, Ed Gardella, the city's hard-edged police chief, stood on a box and silenced the chanting crowd by shouting that he empathized with them. "You have rendered unto God all that is humanly possible, and now we must render unto Caesar what is Caesar's!" he cried out.
* * *
If he is Caesar, Bishop Timothy J. Harrington does not care to admit it. I went to his office to ask him my questions. "Nobody wants to hear my side of this," he said wearily. He was in his shirtsleeves and black suspenders. I sat with him from late in the morning until late in the afternoon while he talked about the situation at St. Joseph's, which he abhors. "Who wants to be made out to be a guy who's beating up on old ladies?!" he cried. And he expressed surprise, "We have closed other churches, and not a word! I never thought they'd go to this extent."
Bishop Harrington is an emotive man who sometimes uses salty language and who, at moments, made me think of Archie Bunker, a father who can't understand his children, a father whose children have rejected him. He couldn't seem to get beyond his horror at how unfairly he had been portrayed. It seemed to him as if nothing he had done had come out looking as he would like it to. "Did you see that on television, with the coins?" he asked me, referring to the day of the eviction when he had stooped down to pick up the money. "I thought somebody dropped some money, and then one of the [reporters] says, 'I wonder what that means?' and I thought about the 30 pieces of silver, and I thought, oh jeez. A lady called me Judas Escariot." The bishop gave a cry of disgust.
"That must have hurt, to hear that," I said.
"Oooo, what do you think I am, a turnip?" he said.
Bishop Harrington said he had closed the church because it needed too much work. "I didn't want to put a burden on these people," he said. He implied that the people of St. Joseph's were not people of wealth. He dismissed the support that they were now receiving as "passerby support" and somewhat bitterly acknowledged that one of the members of the parish, three or four years ago, had won more than a million dollars in the lottery. "He could take care of the whole parish right now, if he wanted to," he said, his eyebrows raised.
I pointed out that the figure kept escalating, in accordance with the money the parishioners had raised. "Where did the figure of a million dollars come from?" I asked.
"I know, from experience, that when we get into the walls of a building, it usually doubles [the amount of the estimate]," he said.
"If they handed you a million dollars, in cash, tomorrow, would you change your mind?" I asked him.
No, he said, no, that still would not be enough. "Who's going to maintain it afterward?" he asked, adding yet another dimension to his argument.
I asked him about other churches in the diocese, ones that needed similar repairs, ones that were receiving financial help from the diocese of the kind St. Joseph's had never received, ones that had far fewer parishioners. He had reasons for keeping those churches open, but they all seemed arbitrary and left no doubt that if he wished, he could reopen St. Joseph's tomorrow.
I asked him if he had already sold St. Joseph's, and he said, "There are lots of reports, every one of them false. Rumors!" he said. "I don't know where they come from. It's like grabbing smoke. If I answered every one of them in the newspaper, I'd be buying space."
Much of the time he seemed exasperated, groping for words. At one point he asked me if I realized what a dangerous job he had. "They talk about the shepherd's crook! You know what that crook was? It was a weapon to guard off the wolves! Shepherding is a dangerous job today. The sheep, they get you in trouble!"
Many people had told me that what this was really all about was power. Deacon Joe DuVarney had said to me, "You see it on the TV, evangelists gathering money, the ones who have gone to jail, the ones who have done these terrible things, you see them falling. And now we see bishops, falling, falling from the love of Christ because they don't want that love. They want power. They want control. That is the falling star."
At one point, when I pressed Bishop Harrington on his reasons for boarding up the church even before the parishioners had been removed, he leaned across his desk toward me and pointedly tapped his fingernail against the top of his desk. "You see," he said, his voice a rasping whisper, "the reason I don't think your story will ever hit print is because I am the cheese. I am the big shot. I am the one holding all the cards."
* * *
A couple of weeks after the eviction I returned to St. Joseph's. They had told me they would meet on the sidewalk if they could no longer meet inside their church, and there they were, in force. The church windows were boarded up. The purple ribbons had been cut down, and the welcoming signs were gone. The fence had been extended to the sidewalk and hung with No Trespassing signs. Grim-faced police stood guard at the doors. As evening approached, more of the St. Joseph's family arrived.
Some things had happened since the eviction. Cash had continued to roll in. They were up to $130,000. Meanwhile, the diocese had spent an estimated $200,000 to secure the church and many thousands in legal fees. The irony was noted in the press and on the street. The committee had its first meeting with the bishop, though neither side expressed hope of a compromise afterward. Ron Fortin's brother, Roger, had received an anonymous phone call from someone at one of the city's most powerful law firms, claiming that he knew that the land had long ago been sold or placed under agreement. Deacon Joe had been officially reprimanded for speaking out in defense of the parishioners. "I haven't been excommunicated – yet," he said. Many requests came from strangers who wanted to join their "church."
The Catholic faith is a demonstrative faith, reliant on signs and symbols. They look for signs where others may not. On our last morning inside the church, after the sun had risen, one of the parishioners beckoned me to come down the aisle with her. "I want you to see our miracle," she said. The day before, the windows had only been partially boarded up. The men had left at dusk and were now unloading their tools to complete the task. Air and ventilation had been sealed out, but light still shone through the upper portions of each of the dozen windows. "Look at each one and tell me what you see," she said, her face brilliant with hope. "The face of Jesus in each one," she went on, before I had time to see it myself. "You see, they cannot shut Him out!"
Now, on the sidewalk, the people of St. Joseph's huddled together. It was time to start the evening rosary. A woman took the microphone and began. "Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with Thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus." In the gathering, I saw Terry. I saw Ron. I saw Richard and Sean and Randy. Deacon Joe DuVarney stood near the fence, his eyes shut, his hands tight around a string of rosary beads. "Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen." The murmured words of the people of St. Joseph's could be heard up and down the street. I saw the man who had told me that if I printed his name it would be "explosive." His head was bowed, and he was praying with the others. "O my Jesus, pardon our sins. Save us from the fires of hell. Lead all souls to heaven and help especially those most in need of your mercy."
* * *
The parishioners' case is on appeal and will be heard by the state Supreme Court this fall. A canon lawyer in Rome has been chosen to present the parishioners' case to the Vatican. On December 19 Bishop Harrington turns 75 and is expected to retire. And parishioners by the hundreds continue to meet on the sidewalk in front of St. Joseph's.
Often, throughout my 45 years, we had been at odds. As I was growing up, we were often at war, my mother and I. Nothing I did could please her – nothing she said made sense to me. After I grew up, there had been long periods when we had not spoken. There had been a lot of hurt between us that confounded everyone who knew us.
My mother was small, a diminutive woman who never seemed to believe that she had grown up. She wore her fawn-colored hair short, turned up at the ends with bangs to shade her blue eyes. She dressed like a schoolgirl, in plaid kilts and blouses with Peter Pan collars. In the winter she wore a beret, a camel’s hair coat, and woolen scarves. A lot of people thought this was cute, but when I was growing up, it embarrassed me. I wanted my mother to be more sophisticated, more like my friends’ mothers.
She was small and I was big, almost from the moment I was born. I grew fast. By the time I was eight, I was taller than my older sister and I looked much older. Soon I was taller than my mother, who barely reached five feet. This seemed to enrage her, who despaired of my growing up, perhaps in the same way she despaired of it in herself. I think of that now, but then it seemed simply perplexing. The result was that the battle lines were drawn around food. Perhaps she felt that if I ate less, I wouldn’t grow up so fast. In the mornings when I got up, she would summon me to her room and weigh me on a baby blue bathroom scale that she kept beside her bed. She recorded my weight on a chart that she had made herself, drawing the lines on it with a wooden ruler. Even a gain of half a pound provoked a scuffle. Similarly, she prevailed over my food. She apportioned me tiny bits of food, which left me starving half the time. To satisfy my hunger, I stole food and squirreled it away under my bed or behind the bureau, anywhere I thought she would not look. She would sometimes find this stash and fly into a rage. There were days of silence between us and then days of reconciliation.
Mealtimes were agony for all of us. My father, who was quiet and reserved, stayed clear of the battlefield. If he had an opinion, I’ll never know what it was. The only thing he insisted on was that I show my mother respect, which I found hard to do. When I left home for college, I never returned except for brief visits. I am sure this hurt her very much.
I came to live in New Hampshire for many reasons, but certainly one of them was to put distance between my mother and me. My mother could not fathom my reasons for moving here, which I did in 1973, and for the first five years we rarely visited. We kept in touch, mostly through letters, but saw very little of each other. Holidays were always spent elsewhere. In fact, I can’t remember the last time we spent Christmas together. I think it must have been when I was a teenager.
Yet she kept pictures of me, most of them taken before I turned 18, throughout her house. She was (embarrassingly) proud of anything I’d written and made a fuss whenever a story was published. She was, in fact, my number-one fan. But we couldn’t be together for very long before words grew sharp and tempers short. It was as if we needed the distance of photographs and words on paper. Physical presence was almost impossible.
I might have, but my mother never gave up. She found ways to communicate her profound love for me – mostly through phone calls and letters. If we argued, she would put it aside and let it blow away. When I got older, it began to dawn on me that my mother had a lot to teach me about forgiveness. As I made preparations for her arrival, I vowed to make up for my part in this storm-tossed relationship.
In my house in New Hampshire, I don’t have a bedroom on the first floor, but my living room has doors on it, enough to make it into a private room. The night before she arrived, friends helped me move furniture out of the living room. We moved in a borrowed hospital bed, a commode, and a wheelchair. I kept the couch in the corner for I suspected the time might come when she would need me close at hand all night long. On the walls I hung her favorite pictures, and outside the windows I suspended a bird feeder from the low limbs of the blue spruce tree. I called my friend David, a sheep farmer who lives nearby, and asked if he might pasture his sheep in my field while my mother was here, and he said that he would.
On the day of her arrival, I made beef stew and set it on the back of the stove to simmer. I whipped up a custard, using her mother’s recipe, and put it in a slow oven. In the past year she and my father, neither of whom ever carried an ounce of excess weight at any time in their lives, had become alarmingly thin and frail. To see them walk, side by side, I sometimes thought they were like two leaves, to be carried off in the next strong breeze. I think meals were too much trouble for them. At mealtime, they would both agree that they weren’t hungry and let it go at that, or sometimes they might eat at a nearby fast-food restaurant. By the time she came to live with me, my mother weighed only 85 pounds. I was hoping that if I could do anything for her, I could maybe build up her strength. I could at least give her something good to eat.
In the wake of my father’s sudden, and to her, inexplicable death, my mother began to walk again, which the doctors were not able to explain. Tumors in her brain had left her paralyzed as if by a stroke, unable to get out of bed by herself, unable to walk, unable to write her name. On the news of Daddy’s death, she began, one step at a time, to walk, determined to go to his funeral on her own steam. In those brief three days, she did not quite accomplish this. On the day of his funeral, my sister and I dressed her in black velvet, wrapped her in black furs, pulled black gloves onto her trembling hands, and wheeled her to the front of the church. Friends and family smothered her with hugs and kisses. I returned home after the funeral to prepare my house for her while my sister, who had flown in from Seattle, stayed behind to drive Mom to New Hampshire in a special van. I stood in the driveway to welcome them, and when she saw me, Mom lifted her hands in delight. She took my hand to help herself down from her seat in the van, but then waved me away. “Look,” she said, “Watch me!” and she carefully walked into my house – no cane, no walker, no wheelchair, not even a guiding hand to steady her. Her incredible recovery didn’t last long, but this was my mother: determined, stubborn, impish, and mysterious.
Hospice volunteers came to talk with me before my mother arrived, and in an effort to introduce her to them, I took her picture down from the wall. It is my favorite picture of her, taken in 1944, while she was in the Marines. “The Marines?” everyone responded, incredulous. “Your mother was a Marine?” It is hard to believe, even for me. I took a second look at the picture: a beautiful, tiny woman with a radiant smile and the stripes of a corporal on her sleeve. It was the first thing everyone wanted to know about when she arrived – Tell me about the Marines, they would ask. And she would.
There was nothing my mother loved more than telling a story. When I was growing up, I couldn’t listen to all these stories – I wished she would be silent. But I make my living now listening to people’s stories, and I never tire of it. I am constantly amazed at peoples’ lives, how the most ordinary people come alive with the most unusual stories. Now my mother sat in her new bed in the front room of my house and told stories I had not heard in years and years. I listened with new ears. I realized how hungry I was for these stories. She told about the officers, all men, who barked in her face and sent fear into her heart. She told about her 99 female roommates and how they all wore pajamas – she alone had arrived with a suitcase full of lacy nightgowns. She told about marching in formation, getting the giggles when the woman in front of her (with the unseemly name of May Moon) continued to march valiantly as her stockings slowly inched down her legs.
I found Mom’s Camp Lejeune boot camp yearbook among her papers and brought it out. The book had not been opened in decades, but within the weeks that followed, it became dog-eared. There was a tiny picture of her in a line of other women in uniform. I could recognize her only from her height, so short compared with the other women. In the back, many of her friends had inscribed their sentiments. One of them read: “To Dee, a whole lot of fun and a great little leatherneck.” We read this out loud and cried with laughter. My tiny, aging mother with her schoolgirl hairdo, sitting in bed with her pink lace-edged flannel nightgown, didn’t look much like a leatherneck.
She had another story about the war. She spent the summer of 1939 in Scotland, visiting a friend. Just as she was about to depart for home, war was declared. Passenger ships were halted or commandeered for troops. With U-boats lurking everywhere, there was the possibility that she would be stranded in Scotland throughout the war. A frantic search was made for passage home, and finally she found a cargo ship in Glasgow, headed to New York. Along with 200 others in similar circumstances, she boarded the ship, carrying her luggage, plus a blanket, a pillow, a book, and a box of chocolates. To escape notice of German warships, the boat, which had room for 10,000 tons of cargo but few accommodations for passengers, could use no lights and could not tell anyone, crew or passengers, when they would leave the harbor. So they sat aboard this ship, sitting on mattresses in the cargo hold, for days while the ship coyly played the new game of war. At near to midnight in a heavy fog, without a word or a light or a sound, they moved away from the dock and headed down the River Clyde toward the Atlantic.
My mother’s mattress was in a hallway next to the engine room. For the next 12 days, as they stealthily crossed the Atlantic, this was her world. To pass the time, she read, smoked cigarettes, and played cards. On the sixth day the weather turned nasty, and within hours they were in the grip of a hurricane. Forty-foot waves battered the boat and blew them to within three degrees of the Arctic Circle. Seasickness was the least of the ailments as passengers went into shock or hysteria. Several were badly injured from the force of the storm, and most waited to hear the bell to signal them to get into the lifeboats – because it was a cargo ship, there were only enough lifeboats for a fraction of those aboard. My mother told of spotting the Statue of Liberty in a way that could bring tears to your eyes. After her safe arrival home, she signed up to serve in the Marine Corps, one of the first women to serve in that branch of the military. All these years and I had never given much thought to her service in the Marines. Now I realized what it must have meant when she stepped up to the recruiting desk, a petite woman of means who wasn’t afraid to go to war. I was hooked on her stories.
In truth, though, my mother and I had had a preamble to all this. A few years ago I traveled to Poland on an excursion. When I told my mother my plans, her voice lifted over the telephone lines. “Do you think you could find Sophie?” she said, in tones that defied refusal. Sophie had been my mother’s nurse from the time she was born until she was eight years old. Sophie had come to the United States from Poland at the age of 17, and her father had tricked her into returning to Poland in 1923. Seventy years had passed. The letters between Sophie and my mother had never stopped. Every Christmas my mother gathered up a collection of gifts to send to Sophie – sweet-smelling soaps, candies, instant soups, paper goods, and aspirin (for her arthritis), and my father would carefully wrap the package for its journey to Poland. This had been a ritual for as long as I could remember. My mother said that she loved Sophie more than her own mother, and there remained a great longing in my mother’s heart for this faraway woman.
When I left for Poland, my mother pressed a small envelope into my palm. For my dear Sophie, she had written on it in wavering letters. Inside was a hundred-dollar bill. So even though my destination in Poland was not very near to where Sophie lived and even though at that point we did not even know if Sophie was still alive (after all, she was 96 and my mother had not heard from her in several months), I sought her out just the same, and to my mother’s everlasting delight, I found her. Sophie opened her door to me, covered her face with her hands, and wept. She, like my mother, was an elf of a woman, tiny and frail. “Seventy years!” she cried.
After I returned home, Sophie wrote to my mother, an excited jumble of words about our reunion. “Edie’s visit was as the sunrise on our dark days,” she concluded at the end.
I wrote a story about finding Sophie. It was published by the international edition of the Reader’s Digest – in 27 different countries and almost that many languages, including Sophie’s. In her parlor in Tarnov, Sophie read the story and wrote to say how much she loved it. These foreign editions piled up on my mother’s table. She was so proud of this that she practically stopped strangers on the street to tell them about it. “Imagine! They are reading about Sophie in India! They are reading about Sophie in China!” she said, over and over. “You’ve made us all famous – you’ve made Sophie famous!”
It was through that journey and through that story about Sophie that I began to realize who my mother was, just how interesting her life had been, and how loved she was by others.
When she first arrived at my house, Mom spent the days sitting at the table by the window, writing letters to friends. She was delighted to be able to write again, and we called it her “miracle.” This kept her busy during the day. New medication had steadied her hand, and her handwriting was better than it had been in years.
We also went for rides. It was our favorite venture together. She’d bundle up in her wool coat, her gloves and beret, and I’d help her into the car. She liked the back roads that lead to farms and orchards. She especially liked views of Mount Monadnock, and so we’d set forth, a different direction each time. I drove at a snail’s pace, pulling over to let impatient drivers pass us by. Mom sat happily in the passenger seat, a woolen blanket on her lap, watching the scenery pass by the window. “Look,” she’d say, pointing to a cluster of blooming yellow daffodils by the side of the road. The delight in her eyes was childlike and innocent. Sometimes we’d pull over beside the lake and watch the sunset reflect up in the water.
We were both widows. It is something we shared, an odd joining of circumstances that gave us common ground. She wondered how I had stood it, being alone all this time, and she said she worried about me, how I’d make out by myself. She grieved for Daddy, her lifelong companion. They had known each other since childhood and had rarely been apart except during the war. Something would come up about Daddy, and her face would contort and tears would squeeze from under her lids. “I miss Daddy,” she would wail, and I listened while she tried to make sense of his absence. But her grief was sporadic, like squalls, dark storm clouds racing across her horizon – they came and they went rapidly. Perhaps the change in scene had distracted her. In my house, there were only a few reminders of Daddy. And many new faces to absorb. Most of the time she spent with me, she seemed content, even happy. It was often reported to me by hospice volunteers or family members that, when I was not there, she would lean over and in a conspiratorial whisper say, “I think Edie likes having me here.” And I did.
A lot of our time together, we spent alone. There were many, many people who came to help and spend time, including her sister and brother-in-law and her niece, but our time together was more, much more. I came home at five to relieve whoever had been with her in the afternoon. The house quiet and the driveway empty, I’d pour us each a glass of sherry. I’d make hers light, a small glass full of ice, a splash of sherry. She’d hold her glass aloft and make a toast. “To us,” she’d say, and we’d clink our glasses. Together, while we sipped, we watched the evening news, a grim report from which she would solemnly conclude, “The world is coming to an end, dear. I’m sorry to have to tell you that,” which would make us both laugh. At the commercials, I’d tend to supper. We had made a list when she first came and all of her favorites – chicken and dumplings or liver and onions or corned beef hash – emerged from my kitchen during those last weeks of her life.
Her mobility did not last long. She began to fall, and gradually she made the transition to the wheelchair and finally to bed. Once again, her hands lost strength, and she once again could no longer write or even hold a fork. Each phase, she bridged gracefully. When she finally began to spend each day in bed, she continued to get up and come to the table in her wheelchair for meals, but even that fell by the wayside quickly and without despair. “I’d like to eat in here,” she said one day, matter-of-factly, sitting up in her bed. So I made a tray and took it in to her. I’d tie a bib around her neck and settle onto the stool beside her bed and feed her. “We’ve gone full circle,” she said, smiling, the first time I fed her custard.
The spring opened in front of her outside the window. Daffodils bloomed and maple trees went from red to green. David brought the sheep, a big flock of burly black and tan ewes and rams, butting and stomping with spring fever. Her hospital bed was on wheels, so sometimes I’d position it so she could see them grazing outside the window. We were no longer able to take drives, but I could take her out in her wheelchair, which I did, lifting her gingerly out of bed. To do this, I had to reach my arms around her in a bear hug and she would put her arms around my neck. That way I could brace my knees and lift her without hurting either of us. (When I bent to lift her, she would purse her lips and make smooching sounds, an endearing greeting that harked back to goodnights of many, many years ago when I was very little and she would stand in the door of my room at home, and as she shut the door, she’d mouth these airborne kisses.) Once she was settled into the chair, I tucked blankets about her, Indian style. All wrapped like that, I’d trundle her out across the lawn to the garden. We could sit there, in the sun, until she grew chilled and I’d wheel her back inside. It was never a long stretch, a half hour at the most, but she would sink back into her bed and fall asleep, exhausted but happy from the excursion.
Several nights of each week, a woman named Karnaki came to watch my mother. Mom had become increasingly restless at night. Many nights she was up all night, calling for me, asking for water, or asking me to lift her onto the commode. Or just calling. It was exhausting me, especially since I needed to be up at six to give her the first medication of the day. Karnaki was a member of a meditative sect and lived at a retreat in a nearby town. She came first to meet me and talk about the job. I opened the door to find Karnaki dressed all in white – white sweatpants, white sweatshirt, and a ring in her nose. She smelled vaguely of incense. Oh, no, I thought, Mom will never go for this. But she did. Her first night, Karnaki came at ten in the evening and sat in the chair beside Mom and stitched silk envelopes for what she called “angel cards.” She talked quietly with Mom in soothing tones that lulled her to sleep. In the small hours of the night, Karnaki lit a long-burning votive candle in a tall glass tube and left it on the table like a night-light. My mother began to call her the “night angel.”
Over the time my mother spent with me, I tried to muster the courage to tell her how sorry I was that our lives had been so disconnected. At last, one Sunday afternoon, we were watching a golf tournament on television. She was an avid golf fan and had begun to educate me about all the players. She had an opinion about all of them. Greg Norman was striding up to the green. “Australian,” she said. “Don’t you think he’s handsome?” I laughed and said I did. I waited for him to take his shot, a birdie that put him in the lead. It seemed as good a time as any. I turned to her. “Mom,” I said, “I’m sorry we have had so many difficult times.”
She reached over and took my hand and gave it a squeeze. “We’re having a good time now, dear. That’s all that matters.”
I carried such sorrow in my heart throughout those brief days she spent with me, as I observed her from afar with new eyes. In her I saw not only the mirthful, somewhat eccentric woman who was my mother, but also a sweet and gentle lady who truly cared for others and thought constantly, in her last days, of those whom she loved so very much. That list happened to be very long. When she could no longer speak but only whisper, she turned to me one evening and whispered, “June was so very special!” speaking then of her childhood friend who had come to visit just a few weeks before. Another time, my friend Sandy came to visit her, just two days before she died. Mom was semicomatose by that time, but when she saw Sandy, she perked up. “Sandy,” she said and raised her head slightly, studying her with deep eyes. Finally she said, “You have such beautiful hair.”
I was deeply touched by her ability to reach out, at that late hour in her life. In a way, I fell in love with her, with that invincible charm and beauty that had always served her like a double-edged sword. Did this newness negate all of my experiences with her? Did it make a liar of me, who had always been so angry with her for her need to control everything about me, most especially my shape? I don’t think so.
Maybe we are destined to walk through some paces before we learn what we need to learn. I thought it deeply ironic that during my mother’s last days we became once again locked into the issue of food. Though throughout her life, Mom’s appetite had been remarkable absent, she ate robustly and without restraint while she was with me. She enjoyed everything that I prepared for her, whatever it was, and I loved cooking for her. Toward the end, everything had to be pureed or creamed because she had trouble swallowing. The last thing I made for her was a cauliflower cheese soup. “Oh,” she said, “delicious! The best soup I ever had.”
It was this soup, which looked for all the world like cream of wheat, that she choked on the Saturday before she died. I was feeding her, teeny bits on the end of her spoon. She had already passed the point where she could swallow water. I hadn’t really comprehended what that meant. What it meant was that her throat no longer had the strength to channel water into the stomach rather than the lungs. We stopped giving her water, but thick liquids were OK, which was why I made the soup. It was lunchtime, a rainy day. I had the Messiah, her favorite piece of music, playing on the stereo beside her bed. The tray was in front of her and she reached from under her blankets and grasped the spoon, much more than I would have given her, but I didn’t resist her attempt to feed herself. I should have. She took it in in one mouthful and began to choke. Her face reddened and then tears streamed down her soft cheeks. Tears streamed down my cheeks as well. I had been coached by the hospice nurses: If she chokes, you must not call for help. If you call emergency, they will do a tracheotomy and put her in the hospital with feeding tubes, which is what we were working to avoid. We wanted her to die at home. “O death, where is they sting!” the wonderful duet swelled forth from the speaker. I leaned her forward in the bed and patted her back. She went on, wheezing and gasping for breath, her hands grabbing at air, at me.
At last, she settled back against the pillows, breathing normally. I sat beside her and held her hand. I told her how much that had scared me. She nodded her head. I didn’t know what to do if this happened again. Was I supposed to watch her choke to death? Or starve to death? Later I called hospice and voiced my concerns. It was a cry in the dark. I knew that. I knew that what they were telling me was the only answer. Yet I kept asking, as if I didn’t hear the answer. She can no longer be given food or water. This is what they kept telling me. “But she is starving,” I told my mother’s hospice nurse. “She wants a hot fudge sundae.”
“No, no, she is not starving.” She said the word as if I had it wrong, as if we were talking about a dieter who feels hunger but is in fact robust. I heard it again: She is not starving. I couldn’t get it through my head. She weighed maybe 75 pounds by that time, as small as a child, just a slight rise between the sheets.
I think not being able to feed her was much harder than the moment that she died. There was real hunger then, and thirst. It was heartbreaking to have to turn from her and give her nothing. At that point, I called my sister, Chris, on the West Coast, and my aunt (my mother’s sister) and uncle to come to stay. We sat beside Mom, holding her hand, stroking her forehead. Using a small sponge on the end of a stick, we dipped this in water, wrung it dry and brought moisture to her lips. Sometimes she would bring her tongue out to greet the little sponge. Other times, she would shake her head, no, no.
Karnaki suggested we set up a small altar for Mom, and I liked that idea. It was meant to be something for Mom to focus on, a collection of treasures to represent her life. I found a linen cloth that had belonged to my grandmother and covered a small table with that. On the cloth I arranged the framed photographs of my father and of my husband Paul, who had also died at home and who was Mom’s pioneer in this journey. In the center I put the curled, aging snapshot of the young girl, Sophie, that my mother had cherished all these years. Mom’s morning nurse brought white orchids, a single stem with multiple blooms in a narrow vase. From the bottom of her jewelry box, I brought out Mom’s dog tags from the Marines. Karnaki added her Bible, and we put Mom’s prayer book on top of that.
For six days, we sat in vigil. Aunt Peg and Uncle Jamie, Chris and I, taking turns sitting with her, holding her hand and stroking her hair. After four days, Karnaki’s candle burned out, and we lit a second one, transferring the fire.
The day that Mom died, I sat with her. It was dusk, suppertime, and there was activity in the kitchen. Chris was folding laundry from the dryer. Aunt Peg was mending a nightgown of Mom’s. As each of the six days passed, Mom drew further from us. She spoke only our names when we entered the room and then she only blew us tiny kisses and then she only watched, her eyes large and reddened. At last, her eyes closed and her breathing, rapid and shallow and rhythmic, was our only clue. I kept all her favorite music playing, the Messiah, Mozart’s Mass in C, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. For a while, sitting beside her, I meditated on the image of a bird in a wooden cage being released into blue sky over a field filled with wildflowers. She was turned toward me, her eyes tight shut, and I leaned close to her and told her that I was going to be all right, that she did not have to worry about me. “Fly free, Mom, fly free,” I whispered to her. “Everything is going to be all right. Daddy’s waiting.” Her breathing geared down, slower and slower. She gave two tiny yawns, like the yawns of a newborn infant. Her breathing slowed even further. There was a gap. A few breaths. Another gap. Her eyelids moved and seemed to be opening. I said, “Her eyes are opening!” Everyone heard and came into the room. Gradually as if coming out of a deep sleep, her eyes opened and she looked into mine, a burning gaze. They were very blue, the pupils sharp black points. She murmured something, but none of us could understand what she said. After perhaps a minute, she closed her eyes. Like a clock winding down, she stopped.
It was still light outside, the sun gradually setting behind the trees at the edge of my pasture. The sky grew dark, and the candlelight grew brighter. This light and the light from the streetlight outside the widow shone on my mother’s face. She looked almost iridescent.
We brought chairs into the room and sat in a crescent at the end of Mom’s bed. I was amazed at how peaceful she looked, as if napping. We sat together and held hands. We sat in prayer. We sat and cried into our hands. We sat in stupefied disbelief at what was before us. Mother, this slight, tiny, child-like person, lying on her bed in New Hampshire, far from home, far from Daddy, far at last from her disease, looking at peace at last.
The mysteries of my mother will most likely escape me until the day that I die. I have no way of understanding why she was the way she was when I was growing up, why we clashed so tragically. I think now about the events of her life and believe she was a brave, kindhearted, and unusual woman. Because I have never borne children, the idea of a mother’s love has only one dimension for me. And I must say that it confuses me. Neither do I have any way of understanding why the lives of my mother and me conjoined for that brief time at the end of her life. I can only voice that I am grateful that they did. My mother did indeed have a great deal to teach me about forgiveness. I believe that we only ever get glimpses of the truth, and I did get the briefest flash of this just as the sun was setting, just as she was leaving me, on that evening in May of 1994.
Their tears this summer day are tears of joy, different from the bitter tears they wept on the day, more than three years ago, when policemen took their elbows and led them out of this building for what they at times believed was the last time.
Four and a half years ago Bishop Timothy Harrington told them their church would be torn down, a decision that had mystified everyone from the start and bred bad blood all over Worcester, especially within the Worcester Diocese, the second-largest Catholic diocese in New England. Grafton Hill, the French quarter in Worcester, is crowned with the spire of St. Joseph’s, a huge brick building built 69 years ago. The parishioners were horrified, and they felt betrayed. They refused to leave, and for 13 months they kept a round-the-clock vigil inside the church. No one, not even a bishop, was going to take their church from them.
The day after the eviction, with sheets of plywood nailed over the brilliant stained-glass windows, the parishioners of St. Joseph’s were back on the sidewalk, where they prayed and sat and stood, like eternal flames. Just as they never left their church after Bishop Harrington declared it “unsafe,” they never left the sidewalk, hanging purple ribbons on the fence and hand-lettered signs declaring “We Believe in Miracles.” They were there, every evening at seven, to say the rosary. In summer they brought cold drinks to refresh themselves. In winter they wrapped themselves like mummies and wore socks heated with batteries to keep their feet from freezing. Some, in their eighties, declared it would be the last thing that they did – to see the inside of their church again.
Sometimes as many as 250 people gathered on the sidewalk outside the church to say Mass. Sometimes only ten or 20. But there were always some. They kept their choir and their church committees intact. The only thing they were missing was a building, not just a building but their building, the beautiful structure known as St. Joseph’s. A year and a half passed while they worshipped on the sidewalk, creating something of a traffic hazard on the days when their numbers swelled.
At last Bishop Harrington retired, and a new bishop, Daniel Reilly, who came to them from Norwich, Connecticut, was installed. Their hopes soared that he might reverse Bishop Harrington’s decision to demolish St. Joseph’s. Soon after his installation, Bishop Reilly took pity on them, standing out there in the heat and in the cold and in the rain and in the snow, and he allowed them to go into the gymnasium of the recreation hall next door to the church, also closed. They could worship there, he said, while he studied the situation.
This was new life, new hope. The parishioners found an old altar and painted it white and trimmed it in gold and put it up on the dark old stage beneath the basketball hoops. Olive Goulet stitched long white drapes to hang behind the altar and hide the old stage curtains. Every Saturday night a few of them went over to the gym and rolled out the altar and set up 200 folding chairs for the faithful. On Easter, Bishop Reilly came to the gym and helped them celebrate Mass. There were tears, even from the bishop, who was beginning to see their faith and who was moved by their determination and by their numbers.
Linda Shea, one of the original members of the Save St. Joseph’s Committee, had slept on the marble floor of the church every Wednesday and Friday nights of the 13-month occupation. A year after the eviction, she was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease. Gradually she lost her mobility. Gradually she lost the ability to speak. Gradually she lost the ability to do anything on her own, even to feed herself. She wrote a letter to the bishop. She asked to go into the church, one last time – please. The bishop went to visit her, and he sat with her and he saw her faith and her love for her church. He agreed that he would go to St. Joseph’s with her. The word went round that the bishop was going to take Linda into the church.
It was a bitter cold day when nearly two feet of snow fell on the city of Worcester. When Linda arrived in her wheelchair in a special van, hundreds of supporters had gathered outside the church. With her came her family and Terry Turgeon and Ron Fortin and a few other members of the committee. It was January of 1995, the first time any of them had been inside St. Joseph’s in more than two years, and it was the first time the bishop had ever seen the inside of this magnificent building. Terry Turgeon remembers the day as clearly as she remembers the births of her four children. “I was so afraid that there would have been damage, that somehow the church would have deteriorated from neglect. But it was like someone had been in there cleaning. There wasn’t even any dust. I thought it was miraculous.”
They saw tears in the bishop’s eyes as he moved down the aisles and visited the carved alabaster stations of the cross. He climbed the stairs to the organ loft, where the oil paintings in the ceiling can be seen more clearly, and he asked if anyone there knew how to play the organ. A nun who was with them sat down and played. Music from the grand Casavant organ, known to be one of the most beautiful organs in the entire city, swelled into the vaulted ceilings. Those who gathered inside sang “How Great Thou Art.” The bishop sang, louder than anyone. Someone opened the window in the choir loft and the music filtered out through the driving snow, down to the parishioners below. Snow was piled high on their hats, their shoulders, their eyebrows. They looked like snow people, but they were elated and they sang, their mouths open to the falling snow.
Linda Shea died six months later. Her other wish, that her funeral be conducted inside St. Joseph’s, was denied. But some believed that by leading Bishop Reilly inside St. Joseph’s, by showing him the beauty of this unusual church, Linda Shea started the wheels turning that eventually reversed the decision to close St. Joseph’s.
Her final wish, of course, was that St. Joseph’s would reopen, that the church come alive again. This wish, shared by so many others, even those in distant parts of the country who by now had heard of the struggle at St. Joseph’s, is beginning to come true on this night. Bishop Reilly has given his permission to reopen the church. The red tape of the city occupancy ordinances is slowly being hacked through. The parishioners have not yet raised all the money needed to make the necessary repairs – some $600,000 – but they are confident, and tonight they have gathered in anticipation of their first Mass. Lou Dagostino has brought her ironing board and her iron, and she sets it up in the aisle and snakes a cord out from the sacristy. From the drawers they bring the pink and white Easter banners that they made years ago for their Easter Mass. They have chosen to hang these banners for symbolic reasons. Lou irons, Dutch Demers gets out the 12-foot stepladder, and Lou’s husband, Dan, helps him carry it down the aisle. A human chain is set up, and as fast as Lou presses a banner, she passes it to Dutch, who carries it up the ladder and, using a yardstick, hangs it. Four women below eyeball it and tell him when it’s straight. Dutch’s wife, Helen, the organist at St. Joseph’s for more than 15 years, goes upstairs, unlocks the organ, and quietly begins to play. “I don’t want to disturb them,” she says. “But I want them to hear the music.”
Ron Fortin is on his knees, sweeping between the pews. “I always believed this would happen,” he said as he entered the church. Now he sweeps with gentle strokes, as much in prayer as in gratitude, for he knows even better than he did four years ago that every gesture he makes for this church makes a difference. A month ago the boards were taken off the windows. The man who came to remove the boards got down from his ladder when he was finished and said to Terry, “The light is back inside.”
“I don’t think he knew how really true that was,” she said later. Terry has kept her own vigil, a small table in her bedroom on which she placed objects from St. Joseph’s – a stone from the yard, three rose petals she found in the street one day in front of the church, a pigeon feather she found on the floor the day they went in with Linda Shea, a candle, always lit. From her porch, she can see the steeple. She has given an inordinate amount of time to this hope in the past four years. Tonight she is effervescent. “I had times when I was discouraged. I had times when I was very down. But I never gave up. I couldn’t.”
Sunday, August 4, 1996: The banners have been hung, the sanctuary is filled with bouquets from their gardens and massive arrangements donated by local florists. The sign outside, which once read, “We Believe in Miracles,” has been painted over to read, “Welcome Home. Thank You, Lord.”
The opening Mass, to be read by Bishop Reilly, has been scheduled for 2:00 P.M., but by noon the church is already filling. They are coming in their best dresses, the men wearing ties and jackets. This is no ordinary Mass. The children are dressed as if for Easter. Many come to the side building first, laden with trays of sandwiches and cakes and cookies for the reception afterward. Ron Fortin is out front, greeting everyone. He is wearing his best suit and a red carnation in his lapel. Priests, who dared not come inside the church during the occupation, come forward now, some of them bearing cameras, and before they settle in a pew, they take pictures of the glorious sight of the altar decked with flowers and the tabernacles bedazzled with garlands and with lights. Clara Papagno, one of the stalwarts who kept the nightly vigils and slept on the hard floor to save her church, is in the front pew. Pinned to her dress is a photograph of Linda Shea and a note that reads, “Thank you for helping us save St. Joseph’s Church.” As the crowd grows, she puts her head in her hands and she weeps.
By one, the church is filled, and the late-comers sidle down the aisles and find a place where they might be able to see. The noise inside the church is deafening, and those who kept the vigil on those silent nights inside the church listen in wonder. Inevitably, the crowd spills out of the church, toward the sidewalk.
When Bishop Reilly arrives, there rises a cheer. In his brilliant green robe he starts down the aisle. A powerful cloud of incense precedes him, mixing with the already strong fragrance of the lilies. It is as if the pope had come to Worcester. They hold out their hands to him, some stand on the pews and on the kneelers, waving and shouting. He takes his time, greeting as many as he can, squeezing their outstretched hands and giving hugs to those, such as Terry Turgeon and Ron Fortin and Clara Papagno, with whom he has worked toward this day. The cheers and the applause, the shouts and the whistles last for more than five minutes as he comes down the aisle.
At last he is there, and he kneels and places a gentle kiss on the marble altar, the true altar of St. Joseph’s Church. He turns to the silenced crowd, and he says, “Your prayers have been answered….The hard hearts have softened….Welcome home.” And then, in French, he cries out, “Bienvenu chez vous!” They answer with a joyful noise.
The Mass is long and full of meaning, and when it is complete, Bishop Reilly stretches his arms toward the congregation, and he says, “Let us go forth from this church filled with the spirit of St. Joseph’s Church and bring that spirit to the rest of the world.”
And together they go forth.
My life alone intensified five years after my husband, Paul, died; both my parents passed away, and sometime later, my Aunt Peg and Uncle Jamie left this world as well. It’s sobering to be this alone in the world. Being without a spouse, without parents, and without children leaves one in a kind of dangling solitude from which there truly is no rescue. It’s simply a state of being. And I figured either I could continue feeling I was at the end of that perilous rope or I could find a family of my own – a family without the traditional ties but one that nevertheless provides everything the traditional family does and, in many cases, probably much more. So one thing I figured out was the benefit of being able to choose this family.
A lot of the rest of what I figured out had to do with food. I realized that by inviting someone to join me for dinner – and on occasion that “someone” may be as many as 21 people – I’ve accomplished a lot. I love to cook, so I’ve brought to my home people for whom I can cook. And I may presume that I’ve been able to provide these people with some good food and company as well. Though I can’t be absolutely certain I’ve done that for them, I can be certain about the pleasure it brings me.
It’s a mystery to me why I haven’t remarried. I suppose there are many reasons, but I do recall that in those first confusing months after Paul’s death, I felt certain I would marry again. I’d been happy in my marriage to Paul, and so I reasoned that I would find that again. I wished we’d had children, but life is so complex, and to those who truly believe that everything in one’s life is a result of a deliberate decision, I can only say that I wish that were really true.
Most of what any of us encounters is such a complex stew of circumstance and happenstance that we’re truly fortunate if we can choose what we’ll have for dinner that night, much less our own destiny. Anything more that seems deliberate is simply illusion. Paul was 39 when he died. I have many friends who have lost their spouses at a young age, and I know people whose children have died, and friends who have had accidents in which they’ve lost their legs or their minds. No, it seems to me that in many cases we’re asked to react to circumstances, not choose them.
And so, for whatever reason, I’m still alone. But I’m not alone in any real way. For one thing, the renovation of this house has consumed me, as much as any marriage with at least three children would have. Constantly, there were decisions to make, budgets to balance, supplies to pick up or deliver – and all for the ultimate well-being of the structure as well as my soul. I needed this house in a way I’d never needed anything.
After I bought the house, the pace of the project quickened, and once the first few boards were torn from the side of the building, it didn’t slow for nine long years. And so, within that storm of activity, I found a compelling heart to every one of my days, a rhythm that kept beating and never slowed, until just recently. With the work still unfinished but so close, I can rest a bit now and reflect. For a long time, reflection wasn’t possible. Or even desirable. The work was a kind of frenzy; if it had been set to fast motion, as is popular now on house-building shows, you would have seen siding and roofs flying off, additions and dormers magically appearing, walls disappearing, doors moving from one opening to another, and windows vanishing as new ones zoomed into place. If Mary were to come back from the dead for a visit, she’d be lost in her own house.
But within all of that, there was always time for a meal. The first really new parts of this house were the kitchen and the dining room. And so these two spaces became almost sacred as other spaces were pounded into place. And there were meals, gatherings, parties – something for which I wasn’t particularly well prepared. My Aunt Peg had given dinner parties on occasion, and as a child, I sat there uncomfortably as the erudite conversation wafted high above my head. But the food was good. That was always something to look forward to.
And there was something else, something much harder to grasp. The dining room in that old Colonial house had a big fireplace; in the winter, the fire was always lit, as were the candles, which gave the room a glow and a cozy feeling, as if we’d all come in out of the cold to gather there. Of course, we had, in a sense, but to my way of thinking there was something more primeval about it – a kind of bonding together against the rigors of the wilderness of an ever-more-confusing world. Maybe, in some vague way, that’s what I’m reaching for when I invite friends to dinner.
My first bit of fortune came with the table that my parents left me. It had belonged to my great-grandparents. My great-grandparents, I should explain, had a lot of money – money that never made it past the year 1929. The money was gone, but the furniture stayed with us, passed down and down into ever-smaller homes. In our modest house in New Jersey, the table was a circle with four grand chairs around it. Two of the chairs had arms, and with their high, ornate backs, they seemed somehow out of scale against the table, which had a beautiful mahogany finish. As a child, I loved to hide under the table and was always slightly awed by the fierce nature of what held it up: a grand base carved into fearsome eagle’s claws, grasping big wooden balls.
In the basement, my father had stored four more chairs to match the set and four leaves that could be set into the expandable table frame. I’d never seen it with more than one leaf in it, because my parents’ dining room had been too small. But, once the table made its way to this new house, I was able to expand it completely and set all the chairs around it. I’d already envisioned it many times as the workmen were demolishing two old bedrooms and putting the new wainscoting into place: This is where the table will go. This is where the fun will happen.
The appearance of my new dining room and the banquet-size table must have seemed absurd to anyone watching this process, as this was a home for one person. Who was going to sit around this table? I’m sure it’s a question poised on the lips of anyone who enters this house, especially all the men who come to do various jobs, wiring and plumbing and flooring. I can see them glance into the big room and then glance again.
My dinners began some years back when, weary of trying to figure out what to do for Thanksgiving and Christmas, I hit on the idea of what I called “orphan holidays.” Gradually, I noticed that I wasn’t the only one around who was alone at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Not only were there those who were truly alone, but there were others who weren’t technically alone but were in transition – friends whose spouses had died, friends in the midst of divorce, friends in some other kind of despair. I realized we could all come together on those days, and hosting the holidays fulfilled my need to cook a big meal for many hungry friends.
At the most, I’ve crowded 25 people around that table (with an extension), and at the least, I’ve hosted seven – all grateful for a good place to go to share what can otherwise be deadly days of remorse or sadness while (you’re certain) the entire rest of the world is happily celebrating with their big families. An exaggeration, of course, as I know there are people with large families who grit their teeth through the whole ordeal – but, truly, holidays can be so difficult for anyone alone.
I love the holidays as a way to try out new recipes and to re-experience the joy of bringing out old favorites. I also love this time as a way of loving my house. You could look at it as something very similar to dressing up – that wonderful outfit just hanging in the closet, waiting for the right occasion Well, I love dressing up my house. It’s a chance to decorate. (I’d never unpacked even a single Christmas ornament before I started hosting the orphan holidays. It seemed so pointless. Decorate for what? For whom?) And it’s an opportunity to get out the good china and silverware, use the gravy boat, change the tablecloth, put new tapers into the candlesticks…whatever.
It’s no different from what everyone else loves about having family over for Thanksgiving and Christmas; it’s a chance to change gears, see the house through different eyes. I love every part of a party: planning the menu, cleaning the house, setting the table, cooking the meal – which I insist must be almost completely ready before the first guest arrives. All I want to have to do once the party starts is put the food on the table. After all, I want to attend this party, too. That’s why I’m giving it!
And so, out of the somber puzzle of how to cook for one came the joyous process of cooking for 20 and more. I recommend it highly. My favorite moment of all comes at the height of the party: to sit for a moment and listen…listen to the talk, the laughter, the joy within these walls.
He is not a young man, but he is not old. His uniform is worn and a bit faded. He is my neighbor, Rodger Martin. I know him as a teacher and as a keeper of horses. I hardly recognize him, dressed as he is, brimmed hat set square on his head, ribbons on his chest. He stands on the bridge that crosses the canal, and he speaks to us, reminding us first that this bridge, which we cross thoughtlessly many times in a day, was built in the significant year of 1918; and second, that the Bible from which he intends to read was presented to our town’s church in May of 1861, just three weeks after the first shots were fired in the Civil War.
We gather around. Beside him are members of a local VFW post, their uniforms taut against their soft bellies. They carry the flags and the rifles. Also there are two high school students, in their band uniforms. They are both girls and tucked under their arms are their trumpets. Off to the side, Elaina, who runs the restaurant in the next town, stands with her fiddle. Steve, who tends bar for her, has his guitar. And Diane, who lived next door to me for several years, also has her guitar, by which she makes her living. A quotient of townspeople are here. We stand together. This is not a parade. This is a Memorial Day service, a quiet moment in the life of our town’s 981 residents.
Rodger begins: “It is my hope that in these next few minutes, we once again recognize the immensity of the sacrifice of these soldiers who but for the grace of God could be you or I. . . .”
And then come the names. We are a small town, and even inside of our long history there is time today to read the names of all the men who have died in the wars we have fought. Rodger begins with the name Micah Morse, who he tells us died in the service of the Continental Army, shortly after the Battle of Bennington, August 16, 1777. And he continues down the list of the men from the Revolutionary War and then to the Civil War. I recognize some names, for their descendants still live among us. I hear the name Pvt. Levi Willard, who, we are told, was killed in the Second Battle of Bull Run, August 29, 1862. There is a stained-glass window in our church inscribed in his memory, and I have often stared at that name. It was his son, perhaps, who built my barn. I had not known how the man with that righteous name had died.
The service leads us through the wars, all the way to the most recent sacrifice of our town, a young staff sergeant named Richard Robinson, who was killed in action over Iraq, in April of 1994. At certain names, Rodger chokes up and he stops, unable, for a long moment, to continue. At once, I place Rodger on a field of battle. The losses he may have endured come into focus, losses I might otherwise never have supposed, seeing him move about town as we all do, in the business of our unhurried and unthreatened lives.
In between the centuries, Elaina and Steve and Diane lift their fiddle and guitars and give us sad songs. Beribboned black laurel wreaths, which were made for this service by our town clerk and her daughter, are dedicated and prayers are offered, and the men from the VFW Post 799 stand outside the church and fire the blanks in their guns into the air of our quiet, peaceful Sunday morning. The two high school girls (one is the daughter of my physician) bring their trumpets to their young lips and play “Taps,” each note drawn out into the sadness of the end of a day that these girls have yet only to imagine.
And so I am happy when I am invited to libraries to read from my work. These ventures take me to a variety of libraries that range from the grand city libraries, all echoing marble and mosaic tiled floors, to the little places in towns I have sometimes never heard of. One winter, for instance, I traveled to Post Mills, Vermont (an outpost of the larger village of Thetford, pop. 2,617). From the outside, the library was small, wooden, with white clapboards, black trim, and ornate pillars holding up the gable front. A painted sign swung from hooks on a post near the road: The Peabody Library. I parked, tight beside snow banks and crept up the icy path to the shelter of the porch, lit by a single bulb. I opened one of the double doors and stepped directly into the 19th century.
The room was long, wide with high ceilings and stairways on either side that led to balconies lined with old books, spines dark brown and solemn with new bestsellers near the front desk. In front of me was a very long library table, not unlike a banquet table, and around it sat a good number of people, mostly women, some young, some older, some ancient, all regarding me with curiosity and warmth. They welcomed me and indicated that they had saved me the seat at the head of the table. I made my way past the stacks to the throne-like chair. I looked around me at the ornate woodwork, railings and figural enhancements, all freshly painted and polished. I felt totally embraced by this little temple and all it held inside.
As I began to read, the lights were somewhat dim, giving me the feeling of a séance or the meeting of a secret society. Many of the women were busily knitting or doing needlework so their heads were bent over their work as if in prayer. Occasionally, they looked up to smile or laugh, encouraging me with their eyes. At the end, they asked questions and we sat and talked as if we had all just shared a good meal together.
The evening at the Peabody Library came to a slow end as everyone there was suitably proud of the library and gave me a brief rundown of its history. All around me, there was no shortage of love for or pride in this unique library. I crept home along the icy roads to New Hampshire, suddenly curious why libraries exist at all in this new world of the internet and books subscribed to on Kindle. In the current economic and technologic climate, I wondered what keeps a library like that alive.
In the case of the Peabody Library, the answer is (somewhat) simple. Above the door, there had been a huge, gilt-framed portrait of a man in suit and vest, hand inside his vest in Napoleonic stance. I learned that he was George Peabody, the man who had endowed this building and its upkeep even to the present day, even though he only ever spent one boyhood winter with an uncle in Post Mills. He never returned but he felt strongly enough about that place to give them that long-lasting gift. Many other libraries in New England and elsewhere are funded by Andrew Carnegie’s devotion to the idea of public libraries. But most libraries exist on taxpayer’s money, which varies widely with each town.
Libraries in New England lead stubborn existences. I know of a library that exists in what would otherwise be the downstairs living room of a house. When you go in, ring the bell and the wife of the house will come down and take care of you. Once when I went there, her hair was in curlers. I recently went over to the little library in a neighboring town and asked for a certain book. The librarian didn’t have it handy so she asked me to wait while she drove home to get it. On her way out, she locked the door and flipped the sign from Open to Closed. Another one-room affair, the library had invested in computers, which sat blinking, and new titles which lined the oaken bay window. A wide selection of magazines fanned out beside them. I sat in the rocking chair beside the window and read while I waited for her to return. I didn’t mind being locked in. It was warm in there. I thought it would be a lovely place to spend an afternoon.
My own town library is a little brick Gothic gem that was built as a church for the millworkers to attend. A bigger church was built and the earlier one was abandoned and eventually fell into ruin, losing its roof, floor and windows. The building sits lakeside so the basement filled with water and the children of the town used it as a swimming pool during the summer and a skating rink in winter. But the building itself, being brick, survived those times and eventually became the sweet little one-room library it is today.
The library, as an institution, was once a place strictly reserved for learning. That was what was behind Andrew Carnegie’s passion, to create a place where anyone, no matter how poor, could pursue learning, at a time when just reading books was considered to be an education. Bookstores were scarce and the purchase of a book was a major expenditure. Private libraries were the domain of the wealthy.
Robert Pike, author of Tall Trees, Tough Men and Spiked Boots, grew up in Upper Waterford, Vermont, observing the river drives and the drivers which gave rise to the books for which he was noted in his later years. But first he had to get beyond where he was raised. The library in Upper Waterford was part of the local saloon and Pike claimed to have read every book in that library in his very young years, while river drivers quenched their thirst at the bar. Bolstered by that unusual beginning, Pike went on to Dartmouth and then to Harvard for his Ph.D. but his early education took place in that rough saloon/library combo. He never forgot that the library provided him with his education, something that all libraries were intended to do, in the towns fortunate enough to have one, in those early days. That was the gift that men like George Peabody and Andrew Carnegie intended to give these communities.
Many libraries have a Friends group that organizes book sales and other fundraising events. These events range from the standard book sales to talks by local celebrities to story circles wherein the older residents tell stories about the days gone by. Often, the Friends provide cookies and punch to make the event more festive. If nothing else, the evenings liven up a town, summer and winter, give it a stronger sense of community and make it seem like a great place to live.
But savvy librarians have seen the future and brought it to their patrons. Recent innovations at many local libraries include the investment in a satellite dish which affords patrons the use of high-speed internet and wi-fi. These are popular additions in towns where cell phone signals are sometimes nil and access to high-speed is still widely sought. As a result, people can sit in the library parking lot and log onto the internet, which they cannot do at home. Many librarians have reported to me, with amusement, that their parking lots are often filled after hours as folks come to make use of this free and mysterious service.
So the small-town library, once a place of sometimes dusty books, has found a way to not only survive in this new world but to be indispensible. The idea that books are or will become obsolete is a bit premature. What they have always given us will remain, even though the delivery system might have changed. So far as I can tell, the library can still take us not only into the 19th century but to the 21st and beyond.
Morning light revealed my car, every tree, every branch, every blade of grass imprisoned in ice. Icicles hung from branches and power lines like prisms from a chandelier. The power and phone lines that connected my house to the utility pole on the road lay on the ground across my driveway.
Soon, my neighbor who lives about a mile down the road called to ask if I had lost power. Her house is all electric. I invited her to come to my house where I have woodstoves and a gas range. She said she would be right up. I waited a while but she did not come. I pulled on my ice creepers and set forth onto the newly arctic landscape, everything coated in ice white. I traveled about on my tundra, every step resounding in the still air, careful to avoid the wooded areas where trees continued to fall. It was a completely new world. Tree bowed, trees broken. Limbs lay about as if a tornado had come through. On the icy sheath I crept out onto the road. For the first time I could see tree after tree lying in the way. I knew then why my neighbor had not come. I was completely cut off. From where I stood, it looked like Armageddon.
For two days, I sat at my kitchen table, watching out the big window that faces the mountain. Rain hammered the house like a summer storm but the thermometer was stuck on 30 degrees. Every ten minutes or so, a branch or a tree snapped, giving that dread sharp crack, and then shattering on the ground like broken glass on a concrete floor. Rain continued. I felt like a captain on the bridge of a ship keeping watch in a big storm. Visibility was poor, navigation pointless. On the second night the rain ended and a full moon rose, lighting up the crystalline world like a stage set for Fantasia. I strapped on my ice cleats and walked out into the welcome, almost blinding light. The shortest day of the year was only a week away and the darkness brought on by the storm had felt punitive. The beauty of this ice-covered world seemed magical, suspending reality.
Driving was a unique experience, slaloming around felled trees, broken telephone poles and downed wires. The tops of many trees had snapped off, leaving naked trunks standing like so many raised swords in the forest. Trees, too big around for me to hug, had been snapped in two like twigs. Some had been reduced to a bundle of splinters, the tree torn as if by the huge hand of a giant. Enormous splinters stabbed the ground like javelins thrown. Of all weather phenomenon, ice is the most serenely destructive. No shrill wind, no thunder or lightning or shuddering of the earth. Just silence but for the piercing reports of the breaking trees.
So many back roads were closed it was easier to tell us which roads were open than which ones were closed. Out on the main highway, I saw a tractor trailer loaded with generators parked by the side of the road, selling generators out of the back like a street vendor. When I reached the town of Peterborough, I found what looked like an abandoned village, stores dark, few cars parked on the street. It turned out that some stores were open, in spite of their lack of power, and customers could come in, using flashlights to scan the aisles and cash to purchase their items. At the post office, workers sorted mail in their heavy coats by the light of big flashlights. The impression of End Times continued.
Shelters were set up in schools and in fire stations. Volunteers, most of whom did not have power at home, cooked for their neighbors in the school kitchens. Bathrooms with flush toilets were much appreciated but hot showers were the scarcest commodity. A mobile trailer with stall showers was set up at the town fire station, offering showers to anyone who needed them.
I hauled water in five gallon jugs from the local spring into my kitchen. I read by candlelight, gathered hunks of ice fallen from the trees and melted them in pots for wash water. I cooked and washed dishes by the light of my (indispensable) headlamp and fed all my woodstoves an astonishing amount of wood. My bedroom went cold so I slept beside the stove in the living room, a considerable gift. The real meaning of a three-dog night became apparent.
The days went by. My hand-cranked radio worked well but the radio stations seemed clueless. The public radio station continued with their usual programming, referring listeners to their website for information about the storm. Who among us had a hand-cranked computer, I wondered. We were also warned to “stay away from downed power lines,” but they were everywhere, scattered across the icy roads like so much spilled spaghetti. Most of us had become used to driving over them and even walking over them. There was no such thing as a live wire for miles and miles. Those toxic cylinders known as transformers lay about as well, some of them sitting in the middle of the road day after day. It was not only a physically frozen world but everything else seemed frozen as well. If help was on the way, we had no way of knowing. Shipwrecked sailors, we waited for rescue. I read in the paper that crews from as far away as Ohio and Florida were coming into the region, arriving like an army, some 500 trucks in all, here or on their way to help. Power in some of the towns around us had been restored but for us, they said it was simply “unknown” when we could expect to return to normal. All my basic needs were met and yet I was falling into a pit of despondence. I felt that unreasonable fear that life as I had known it might never return.
Routinely, I get up at 5 in the morning and start to write or read. It’s the way I live. Five o’clock in the morning is as dark as midnight at that time of year so, during the outage, I would get up, light candles and resume the vigil of the night before. The wait seemed endless. I pride myself in being self-sufficient, how well-prepared I am for storms and emergencies. I was stunned at how this outage had crippled me. In all the years I have lived alone, I never felt so isolated as I did during this time, deprived as I was of my phone, e-mail and the internet, all of which I use to stay in touch, 24/7, with that huge world outside my small, purposely remote life. I felt like a junkie, communication my drug.
Then one day, I was coming out of my neighbor’s driveway, after a visit. It was the tenth day of life without electricity. I looked down the long downhill stretch of my road. In a blur of orange and blue whirling lights, a literal armada of trucks was parading up the road toward me. I thought I was seeing a mirage. The town’s cruiser was in the lead – a police escort. It turned out that there were some thirty-five trucks in this rescuing army, all of them from Hydro Quebec. Apparently the high tension wires that run behind my house held the key to much of the outage in our area, as two of the towers had toppled over in the ice. I had seen helicopters buzzing around back there but had not realized they were lowering men and equipment to the affected areas, otherwise inaccessible from the road. In addition a fleet of smaller vehicles, carrying men who were organizing and directing this operation, buzzed around these big lumbering trucks like agile animals. In the history of this road, which dates back to the 1700s and which even today experiences only the occasional car, I can safely say there have never been so many vehicles on this road at one time.
They were here for two days, working from dawn to dusk. These men from Montreal, as I came to call them, did not speak English and worked with a translator. It was just days before Christmas and they, along with hundreds of other linemen from all over, had come such a distance to help us. I waved, clapped my hands and blew kisses at them to express my profound gratitude. In town, someone hand-painted a big sheet of plywood that read, simply, Merci! and leaned it against a tree. I was happy to see them and watch them work but all this excitement had not, yet, restored my power. They declined my offer of meals or warm refuge – they were here to work, they said. The damage was so complete they had to rebuild the entire grid from the ground up. They ran out of telephone poles, they ran out of wire, they ran out of transformers. Rumors flew. When a tractor trailer loaded with transformers was seen rolling through town, a cheer went up. I was told only: Soon!
On the twelfth day of life without power, I went out to buy more candles. Coming home, turning into my driveway, I saw a light on in my house. I wept at the sight. Inside, the house had come back to life without so much as a burp. Water ran from the tap, the oil burner rumbled on as if it had missed only one interim, rooms were illuminated with the flick of a switch, toilets flushed, my cellphone could finally be recharged. When my phone rang the first time, I was startled.
In the days that followed, I cautiously put away the lanterns and water jugs and cleaned out my refrigerator, humming again at last, and brought the cold food up from the basement, which had served as my makeshift refrigerator throughout the outage. Two days later, I went to Vermont to celebrate Christmas with friends and on the way home, I saw Christmas lights and decorations for the first time and realized that our dark December had shuttered Christmas as well.
By February, enough snow had fallen to cover the massive array of fallen trees and branches that littered the lawn and fields all around my house and along the roadsides, everywhere in this region. When the snow melted in the spring, we were faced again with the memory of the time most of us would rather forget. We were fortunate: no one was injured, no one lost their home. But for months afterward, many people shared how long it had taken to recover from the experience of the ice. We were somehow changed.
It would be nice to think that there were lessons to be learned from all this. I think back on the isolation but I also think back on the lively and spontaneous community supper that gave everyone a hot meal and lifted our spirits. I think back on choir rehearsal at the elementary school, we wrapped in our heavy coats, our scores illuminated by our headlamps. And on the evening I spent playing Scrabble with friends, something none of us had done in a long time. I think back on the afternoon I spent with two friends, an older couple who chose to stay in their house, even though their generator had failed them. The house was chilled, into the 40s, but we sat together in their upstairs parlor, a cheery hearth fire their only source of heat. A table of Christmas gifts and wrap sat in the corner – no matter what, their grandchildren were getting their gifts! We pulled our chairs closer to the fire and threw logs on the flames. Ancestral portraits looked down on us from the walls and the candlesticks stood ready to be lit as the afternoon waned. Outside the window, snow sifted down, covering the tiresome glare of ice. We talked and told stories. We laughed. As darkness set in, I made my way home, past the fire station where the men and women of our town were standing by. They waved. I fed the woodstoves, lit the lamps and cranked up the radio one more time. When it was all over, it was this that I missed and would love to have back, all over again.
Roxanne Quimby: Queen Bee in the North Woods
by Edie Clark
for the March/April 2008 issue of Yankee
In the early summer of 1974, 24-year-old Roxanne Quimby arrived in northern Maine, having driven across the country with her boyfriend, looking for a place to homestead. Between them, they had $3,000. Their journey had taken them to Northern California (too expensive), Oregon and Washington (they didn't like it and no one liked them, bearing as they did those nasty California license plates), and Vermont (too expensive). Northern Maine, they were told, was the last place to find cheap land. In Guilford, a mill town fifty miles northwest of Bangor, they found 30 acres of woods on a back road for that sum. Like thousands of other young people at that time, they planned to build a cabin and live off the land, there at the edge of the fabled North Woods. On that day of their arrival, as Roxanne stepped out of that road-weary Volkswagen bus onto the carpet of pine needles that was to be her home for the next 20 years, you might, if you were paying keen attention, have felt the earth tremble just slightly beneath her feet, for the state of Maine would never be quite the same again after that moment.
Just a short while later, in 1976, the last logs of the North Woods tumbled down the Kennebec River. This last log drive brought to an end a legendary world that late in the 19th century and all through the 20th had been alive with teams of oxen, timber cruisers, camp bosses and river drivers wearing spiked boots, a place that resounded with the ring of the axe, the stomp and snort of the horse or ox, and the smell of fresh sap. When those last logs drifted into the boom, it is possible that no one quite knew the changes that lay ahead for the 10-million-acre kingdom called the North Woods. Rather than seeming like an end, the end of the log drives seemed like progress. Logs would move on rail cars and on trucks, as they had been increasingly for many years. It seemed as if nothing much else would change. That chapter of the Maine woods was over but the framework that had supported it all those years – the paper companies who owned all that land – would remain. The woods, everyone assumed, would continue to regenerate and the need for wood and paper would never end.
The purpose in owning this vast timberland was to harvest the trees. Whatever else went on on that land didn't much matter to them. While these rugged Paul Bunyons labored in the woods, creating myth and legend in order for the rest of the world to build shelter and read newspapers, another, less predictable, but very durable culture was forming. Men came to hunt and fish, brought their sons to bond and search for wild game, a search not only for meat but for roots, the kind that bring us back to our ancestors, some say to our nature. Later, as the fist of the man's world loosened its grip, daughters and wives came too. Guns and kayaks, canoes and fly rods packed into the Jeep, the perilous trip up the Golden Road became a rite of passage. The Golden Road, which supplanted the river drives, carried logs downcountry to the mills. Thousands of hunting camps rest between those pines and those spruce and at the edges of those ponds, there by virtue of the hundred-year lease, given out by the paper companies to whoever staked a claim. Hunters and their families built camps, often of logs cut from the property, and knowingly at risk of someday losing the land beneath their efforts. But nothing ever happened. The paper companies allowed a special kind of privilege: public use of private land. Their only law: logging trucks have the right of way.
Roxanne knew little about any of this at that time of her arrival. She was not a woodswoman but an aspiring artist. Having just graduated from art school in San Francisco, she envisioned a life in the woods where costs would be low enough so that she could paint canvases and sell her work. But first, there had to be shelter. She and her soon-to-be husband, George St. Clair, used a bow saw to clear enough of the trees to build a 20x30 cabin. There would be no running water, no electricity, no phone, which they did not regard as a hardship so much as a challenge to their spirit. They opened a space in the woods for a garden, which would feed them. And life began for them in a place unlike anything they had ever known. “We were very idealistic. We did a lot of wood splitting, a lot of bow saw work, a lot of hauling of things. It was very different from the way I had been raised,” Roxanne says now. “It was really important for me to be able to prove to myself that I didn't have to live the way my parents lived.”
Roxanne had grown up in Lexington, Massachusetts, and had gone from there to San Francisco. So there was much to learn, about the place and the culture of northern Maine. Roxanne found work as a waitress and George worked occasionally as a disc jockey at a local radio station. The old VW bus died and so they walked where they needed to go. At the end of each year, they had enough money to pay their taxes and buy the small things they needed. Four years later, Roxanne gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl. After a few years, George found a life elsewhere.
So it was Roxanne and the twins, in the cabin. Roxanne needed more money than what she was making. One day, she stopped to buy honey from a pickup truck parked by the side of the road. She became friendly with the man selling the honey, a gruff, bearded beekeeper named Burt Shavitz. He was older than she by 15 years and was having trouble with his back. She offered to help him, lifting supers and moving hives, and he gladly accepted as he could use a woman with a good strong back. So, for that summer, she worked for Burt, learning how to keep bees, learning how to render honey. “I was really inspired by the bees, the way they all worked together, I thought, oh, what good little communists they are. Well, except for that queen in there,” she says.
She and Burt became partners, partners in life and partners in business. She put the honey into prettier jars, pouring the golden sweetness into little bears and hive-shaped containers. Packaged in this way, their honey business picked up.
In his barn, Burt had a lot of wax. Burt saw it as waste from the hives; Roxanne saw it as candles. “What are you going to do with that wax?” Roxanne asked him one day. “You can have it if you want it,” was Burt's reply. So she started making candles and decided to take these two products, honey and candles, on the road to craft fairs.
The honey sold steadily and the candles sold well in the fall and through the Christmas season but people didn't seem to want to buy candles in the summer. They melt. They have no allure. So Roxanne looked around for something else to do with the wax and found an old book with some recipes that called for beeswax. On her woodstove, she made up cauldrons of boot polish and furniture polish and poured the substances into little tins. She liked the tins. They looked old-fashioned and homey. And then she discovered a recipe for lip balm. She labeled the products Burt's Bees. Burt had all his hives stenciled, Burt's Bees, and when Roxanne was out there working the hives, “I used to think that was so funny, as if anyone could actually own a bee!” So she put it on the tins. She found that when people came by her table, even if they didn't buy anything, they liked the name. “People would go, 'Look, honey, Burt's Bees!' and they would laugh and keep walking, saying things like, 'Burt's Bees, Burt's Bees! Mind you own beeswax!' They seemed to love to say it. It was so simple, down to earth, two syllables, nothing fancy, sort of like Burt, sort of like the product, sort of like the lifestyle I was trying to paint. So I thought, OK, yeah, that's a good name.”
Some may have chuckled over the name but most of them bought it. Once she put the lip balm out onto the table, it flew. She couldn't make enough of it. She moved all her wax and the cauldrons to the abandoned schoolhouse in Guilford. It didn't have running water or electricity either but she barely noticed, setting the cauldron onto the woodstove and working sometimes till midnight by the light of kerosene lamps. She added a drawing of Burt onto the label, his bearded face representing anything but beauty. Buyers embraced the product even more, enjoying the straightforward approach.
This was the beginning of Burt's Bees, which today is the best-selling natural personal care brand of cosmetics in the country, a brand market researchers call “lightning in a bottle.”
But this little handcrafted product was hardly so back then. Roxanne followed the destiny of her creation one step at a time, a road without a map that led her, after 20 years living and doing business from this remote Maine town, to North Carolina where she felt the business climate was more favorable than it had been in Maine. Maine was high on taxes and low on accessibility. Shipping her products now all over the country and beyond, she discovered Raleigh, North Carolina, was exactly halfway between New York and Miami. It was 1994. Her twins were in boarding school. As much as she hated to leave, Roxanne left Maine for the south, where she had never been. She had seen Easy Rider back in those days and she had clung ever since to the idea that the south was a scary place. Now she was not only going there but she was moving there, not with a backpack but with a 3 million dollar business of her own creation in tow.
The same year Roxanne left Maine, Scott Paper, one of the two largest landowners in Maine, sold everything they owned to SAPPI – South African Pulp and Paper Inc., which represented, if anyone was watching, a shift in the global market and a shift in the life of the Maine woods at least as significant as the end of the river drives. Four years later, in 1998, SAPPI sold the land to a Seattle-based company called Plum Creek. In all, it was nearly a million acres surrounding Moosehead Lake, New England's largest lake. If the arrival of Roxanne Quimby caused a tremor, Plum Creek's arrival caused an earthquake throughout this, the largest expanse of wilderness east of the Mississippi.
Apparently no one foresaw that opening the world to free trade would one day steal away the North Woods. Markets in China and South America became easier places to find wood and paper. And much cheaper. As if by the work of a thief in the night, the North Woods went up on the block. Suddenly, the ringing silence of those wilderness woods shouted for attention. Tracts of thousands of acres of land came up for sale. One of the early buyers was Plum Creek, a timber company from Seattle. Shrine to many, Moosehead Lake is a place almost as stoked in memory and legend as Katahdin.
“Plum Creek is now the largest landowner in the United States,” Jym St. Pierre says. Jym is the Maine Director of an organization called RESTORE: The North Woods. In 1994, RESTORE put out the idea of creating a 3.5 million acre park they decided would be called the Maine Woods National Park (MWNP). “I saw the signs on the horizon, even back in the 1980s, that things were going to change. What I didn't predict was the speed of it. I didn't think it was going to happen this fast. This is not a evolution. This is a revolution.”
By 2005, Plum Creek had proposed a plan to develop 400,000 acres surrounding Moosehead. The plan would include 2 large resorts and nearly a thousand residential lots. “This is the largest, most controversial project ever proposed in the history of Maine,” St. Pierre says.
Unable to gain approval from the state's LURC (Land Use Regulatory Commission, which acts as a zoning commission for the unorganized townships of Maine), Plum Creek has revised the plan three times. The current proposal is under review. Plum Creek has emphasized that much of the land will be placed under conservation easement, a move to calm the fears of environmentalists. St. Pierre explains that the easements, which will continue to allow forestry activity, road construction, sawmills, cell towers, herbicide spraying, mining, even subdivision, are not for conservation but for continuous forestry. “You can shape these easements any way you want. Some of them are very good. These Plum Creek easements have no value.”
Plum Creek, however, has forced the hand of many in these perilous times in a state where employment is way down and poverty is on the rise. St.Pierre quotes statistics: 5,000 people once worked in the mills of Millinocket and E. Millinocket. Today, only 500 are employed there. “I don't blame people for clinging to the hope that some of those days will come back. The forestry industry will survive but it won't be the driver anymore. The biggest industry in the state of Maine is tourism and Plum Creek is trying to tap into that in a way that will give them maximum profit. They buy land cheap and sell it high. They still make money by cutting trees but they make most of their money cutting up land.”
The debate in Maine over what should happen to this abandoned kingdom gets louder with each passing year. RESTORE has been vocal in their efforts to create the Maine Woods National Park (MWNP) but their proposal has been rebuffed by many an independent Mainer. One bumper sticker reads: RESTORE BOSTON: Leave the Maine Woods Alone. “For a long time, we had this big place, over 10 million acres, as big as the whole rest of New England, that people just forgot about. It was a big blank spot on the map and now everybody's scrapping for it. Everything about this is big. It's the last big place. Look around the country. I don't know of any other place that's in play like this. Even Alaska. We're all trying to figure out what the brave new world will be up there.”
St. Pierre cites the paper companies indulgence in allowing the public to use their private lands. “The biggest reason we don't have a national park in Maine today is because we've had a defacto park for generations. People feel entitled to that land, just because it's always been there.”
St. Pierre's father and grandfather worked in the mills and in the woods. “People thought this land was like a permanent institution, like the US government. They thought it was going to be there forever and always be the same. Well, no matter what happens, that is not the case.”
Roxanne, who has never worn a wristwatch and never will, was by then surely the most unorthodox CEO in America. In her corporate headquarters in North Carolina, she conducted herself, no surprise, in the spirit of who she had been, back in those hippie days. Dogs and children were welcome in the workplace. She didn't have a private office, but instead kept her desk in the art department, making herself available to any of her 300 employees. She shunned focus groups: “They only confirm what you already know. A consumer cannot vocalize what is missing in their lives. You have to give them something they don't know they want.”
She never advertised Burt's Bees. “I always felt it was much more important what people said about us than what we said about ourselves,” she says of the product that sold mostly by word of mouth. Roxanne found that a key to the success of her products was the process of discovery. “Once (the consumer) found Burt's Bees, they felt like it was theirs, it became personal. They put their flag in, as if to say, this is mine, I discovered it! And they became really loyal.”
Burt accompanied Roxanne to North Carolina but lasted only two months. He kept losing his car in the parking lot. And so Roxanne bought out his share of the business and he returned to his converted chicken coop in Guilford, where he still lives, an abandoned bee hive in the front yard, goldenrod growing high all around it.
In 2003, having grown the business to a phenomenal 60 million dollars a year, Roxanne Quimby sold Burt's Bees to AEA, a New York investment company, for nearly $200 million. When she sold it, she retained 20% ownership. Not exactly overnight but in the comfort of time, Roxanne Quimby, she of the long skirts and wood-heated spaces, had become a vastly wealthy woman. “At that point, I said to myself, 'Now what, Roxanne? You are only 56 and you've got another 20 years of life on this earth, what do you want to do?'”
She went to Hawaii and to Antarctica and all the places she had always wanted to go. She shopped for a home in Palm Beach. She bought six. “I was questing,” she says now.
And then she returned to Maine where the fight for the North Woods was on.
She came to realize that “money itself is totally worthless. You can't eat it. You can't cover yourself up with is at night and stay warm. Money is only what it does and so I was trying to find the most meaningful thing I could do with the money I had.”
And so she began to buy up the North Woods.
Maps spread before her on the long table, Roxanne Quimby draws red outlines onto the map of northern Maine. Roxanne is formidable, tall and imposing, dressed in black, her long dark hair hanging loose. It's as easy to see her swinging an axe as it is to imagine her in command of a large platoon. “Everything in red is mine,” she says.
On the map, Baxter State Park cuts a clean, elongated block right in the center of the big ragged cranial head of the state of Maine. Baxter State Park is the creation of Governor Percival P. Baxter, who served as Maine's governor for only four years (1921-1925), during which time perhaps his most controversial act was to lower the flag at the statehouse when his beloved Irish setter, Garry, died.
A bachelor and a tireless supporter of animal rights, Baxter also appeared to be a tree-hugger. During his administration, he tried and failed to make Mt. Katahdin, which he regarded as the state's crowning glory, a state park. In spite of that failure, “Mr. Maine,” as he was sometimes known, never lost sight of that goal. Not a particularly vigorous outdoorsman, Baxter once climbed Katahdin and became feverish and ill. Through his fever that day, he vowed to himself that, if he lived, he would ensure that one day, the mountain, which then belonged to the Great Northern Paper Company and to one other private owner, would belong to the state of Maine forever.
Starting in 1930 and ending in 1969, Baxter quietly purchased 32 separate pieces of land, a crazy quilt of mountains and streams, ponds and waterfalls that he put together to form what is now known as Baxter State Park, 202,064 acres, more than 314 square miles of stark wilderness, a place Baxter willed to be “forever wild,” and which will remain so through the deeds of his trust. These were not simple purchases, given over for the asking price. As he bought more and more land, angry citizens raised their voices. He was taking their favorite hunting grounds and closing them off to wilderness. People, especially from Millinocket and Patten, showed up to protest. A park, Baxter discovered, was not something everyone embraced. At the end, he conceded a section of the park to hunters and forestry. He realized the passion of these people and made these concessions.
Roxanne's red rectangles are to the east of the park. She is starting her own crazy quilt. These are plots of land she has bought. There are others she hopes to buy. Some are scattered and separate. By bargaining and swapping, she is trying to put together a whole. In concert with RESTORE what she has in mind is a park, a national park. “I feel like my reason for being put on this earth will have been fulfilled because this will live on after me,” she says. “A park is a demonstration that there is something in America that I can love,” she says, her counterculture re-emerging. “It's very democratic, a Mexican immigrant or a millionaire, for ten bucks, they both get the same experience.”
She is sitting in the front room of one of her many homes, far from the cabin in Guilford. This particular house is in Portland and it so happens to have once belonged to Governor Percival P. Baxter, whom she admires a great deal and from whom she has learned a few things. “He is very inspiring to me but there is a difference between the two of us. Governor Baxter inherited his money. He didn't earn it. That makes for a whole different outlook. The way Percival Baxter went acquiring his land must have been different, spending someone else's money. I fight tooth and nail for every dollar. I'm a business person. I don't want to be taken advantage of.”
That Roxanne Quimby and Percival Baxter live and lived at the opposite ends of the American spectrum is true. The North Woods are Roxanne's passion now, as once were the bees. “It was part of the culture of our family, to be out in the woods. Both my kids hiked the entire Appalachian Trail. The fact that the paper companies were downsizing came at the right time for me. There were all these opportunities. They used the woods and owned the mills and that did, in some ways, preserve the wilderness because they never cut it up into pieces, so it's still fairly intact. Chesuncook, Northeast Carry, Kakadjo, people carry those places in their minds and even if they don't get there, it's important that it's there, that they could be there if they wanted to.”
By the summer of 2007, Roxanne Quimby had spent $39 million of her fortune to purchase some 80,000 acres of wilderness. Nearly 65,000 acres of this surrounds the East Branch of the Penobscot River and substantially abuts Baxter State Park. To her mind, a park is the only reasonable destiny for this land. “If we leave this to chance, we will not have the opportunity to make decisions about what happens next.”
In the process of making these purchases, Roxanne gobbled up hunting grounds, snowmobile trails, a significant portion of the East Branch of the Penobscot River and some beloved primitive camps families and hunters have passed down through generations. “I own it now,” Roxanne proclaimed. “Buying the land also means I am buying the right to call the shots. I can do what I want with it.”
Like a general planning her offense, Roxanne returns to the map. Her strategy is ironclad. “These two pieces of land here effectively stop all east west traffic. This bridge, the Whetstone Bridge, here. It's one of the very significant nails in the coffin because it's the only way to get across the river for something like 30 miles. OK, you can go over the bridge but you can't go across my land with a car. So you can have your bridge but it ain't doin' you any good. I'm closing in and I'm doing this to demonstrate that you can not leave this to chance.”
She is speaking broadly to those who oppose a park, those who ironically also claim they believe in property rights. “Yes, it's a private road but it's been in such permissive use for so many years, people forget that the state does not own that road.”
Up there, where she is pointing, people slapped bumper stickers onto their cars and they fashioned t-shirts emblazened with the slogan, “Ban Roxanne.” Letters to the editor condemned her. (Quote)
This reaction shocked her. “I couldn't believe it, I was really blown away. I could not believe people would come after me like that, so personally and with such venom. I thought I would be appreciated. I mean, doesn't everybody love a park?”
At the time, Roxanne was on the board of RESTORE. “People up there hate RESTORE so I put some distance between us at that point. I didn't need that.”
But Roxanne and RESTORE work in supportive ways. “We are not a land trust,” Jym St. Pierre clarifies. “RESTORE does not buy land. Rather, we are an advocacy group. We promote ideas. The idea of this park is still being hotly debated more than 13 years after it was first proposed. MWNP remains robust, in part, because Roxanne Quimby has made it tangible. There is nothing more real than real estate and Roxanne has repeatedly said she would like to see the lands she has acquired become the seeds of a new national park. What she owns now would be a very credible beginning.”
When Roxanne was growing up, she often played monopoly. “I loved that game. I had two sisters and a brother, all younger, and they were always available to play. I hated to lose, so I always made sure, one way or the other, that I won.”
This is how Governor Baxter got his park, one piece at a time with many setbacks and disappointments. But, in the end, he won.
Roxanne's plan is somewhat counterintuitive. She returns to the bees of her past. “To me, ownership and private property was the beginning of the end in this country. Once the Europeans came in, drawing lines and dividing things up, things started getting exploited and overconsumed. But a park takes away the whole issue of ownership, it's off the table, we all own it and we all share it. It's so democratic.”
But first, she has to own it.
“It's becoming increasingly clear that I can chase them all over the place. I think they see now that I am not going to be stopped.”
The muscly Piscataquis River runs through Guilford, a town of simple people, about 1500 of them, most of them working at the local mills, mills that have made for years such hardwood products as golf tees, toothpicks, popsicle sticks and wooden nickels. Guilford's town manager Tom Goulette leans on the counter where a local couple are waiting for the deed to their land and talks about the time when surprised townspeople watched the long-haired Roxanne and her company outgrow his town. Everyone has a story about her, like that Burt used to always come over and borrow the town shovel and take it over to Burt's Bees to shovel their walks, like as if they couldn't afford to buy a ten dollar shovel for themselves. Same with the town broom, even the town fly swatter was borrowed. Burt's Bees stood out for their long-haired ways and for their unorthodox ways of doing things. “For all the make-up she made, I don't think she's ever worn any,” he notes dryly. “She made so much money in Maine, she had to leave the state to make more money,” he adds, somewhat sour that she took her business to the south to take advantage of a superior business climate. But he corrects himself. “She was different. Hard-nosed, successful. She's made it and she deserves it, just like Bill Gates. I don't agree with her but I do respect her.” He stops. He's a tall man, bearded and probably the same age as Roxanne. For some years, they shared this town. “Now she's one of those kingdom holders. She's kicked out all the leaseholders. This doesn't go over very well.”
With her purchase, Roxanne closed these lands to snowmobiles, hunting and gave notice to the camp owners. It was hers now. She made outrageous statements in the press that fueled their fire (quote) but then she realized this was not the right path. “I needed to meet with them and hear what their needs were. I feel like we are both at the table as equals, I've never felt I'm entitled to anything more or less than anyone else so I think that puts me in a unique position to work with these folks. And they really like me, I don't feel any antagonism from them. They keep shaking their heads and thinking, you are just like a regular person, aren't you?”
Terry Hill and her husband Craig have run the wilderness resort known as Shin Pond Camps in Patten, Maine, for some 30 years and were among those who felt steaming outrage at not only the fact of Roxanne's acquisitions but at her, this woman who came charging into the woods like a Sherman Tank, money on her belt like repeating ammunition.
“When this started, we were outraged, ready to fight,” says Terry. Their 100 acre resort includes campgrounds, cottages and a hundred miles of snowmobiling trails that cut right through Roxanne's land. Meetings were called. Anti-Roxanne groups formed. But Roxanne came to listen. A year of meetings has made a huge difference. “In the past year, I've done a 180 degree turn in this process,” Terry says. “She's listening. She's extended our rights for the snowmobile trails for another year. She's working hard to be a better neighbor. We don't know what the future of the Maine woods will be, none of us do. But we do know that we all love the woods, we love our land and maybe, in the long run, we all want the same thing.”
The old North Woods opens up like a trunk full of memories, smelling of camphor and pine needles, wood smoke and melting snow. When a river driver died, riding a log or busting up a jam, they would find his spiked boots downstream and hang them on a tree near the river. The shoes would hang there for years as a memorial until they disintegrated. We have nothing to hang on the tree now, no vestige of that life gone by. The Lumbermen's Museum in Patten, Maine, is as close as we will likely get. Exhibits of the way things were in these woods fill nine buildings at this quaint and homey roadside attraction. Bud Blumenstock has been a docent there for several years, having retired from his work as a forester, managing wood lots from Fort Kent to Kittery. He sees these changes in the woods more optimistically than most, retaining the hope of a forest that will always support the people of that area. “Logging and lumbering have always been a big part of our economy. It's changed in that Maine is now a village woodlot in the global economy. We're up against Brazil and China. To be competitive, we have to be efficient. It's a very complex situation.”
And the players have to bring themselves into that competitive mix: “A logger is no longer a man with an axe on his shoulder. It's not unusual for a logger to have a million dollars invested in his work. When people like Roxanne Quimby come along, they have a lot of money and they want to buy land. I once told Roxanne that I'm a tree hugger and a logger and she said, 'How do you do that?' Well, I told her, I hug the tree and then I cut it down. Parks are nice but they don't produce any lumber.”
The great trees of these woods are long gone and much of the newer growth, thinner and less substantial, are not good enough for lumber. These trees are chewed up for wood chips or used in pulp mills to make paper. The country of the pointed fir is no longer – most of the pointed firs are lying on the beds of the logging trucks, zooming south to the mills. Most of the land Roxanne and Plum Creek have bought has been damaged by extensive logging. Plum Creek is proposing trophy homes and resorts. Roxanne wants her land to heal and return to wilderness.
Like many people around here, Blumenstock keeps his opinion of Roxanne to himself. “I don't want to say anything negative about Roxanne Quimby. She has her plan. It's her choice and her prerogative but logging is an important industry to the state of Maine. Trees grow. That is my one-liner. As long as we harvest them wisely, we'll always have a strong working forest in the state of Maine.”
“Oh, Roxanne Quimby? She is my hero!” Wallis Drew is at the check-in station at the Matagamon gate of Baxter State Park. Inside the log-built ranger station, Wallis, in her earth-brown uniform, makes out the ticket. Free for a Maine resident, $12 for the out-of-stater. “We compare her to Governor Baxter. When Baxter was buying up the land for this park, people were mad about that too. He has it in the deeds: forever wild, that means no paved roads, primitive campsites. Most of us understand that these lands need to be preserved. Otherwise, they would be cut and cut forever.”
The big woodstove in the kitchen warms the log structure on this cold, rainy day. The curtains in the log-framed windows are decorated with salmon, tail curled in, emerging from the water, hook in mouth.
From the station, you return to your car and leave this earthly world. It is almost impossible to describe the feeling. With grass growing between the dirt tracks, the narrow park road wanders, twists and turns, mile after mile, edged tightly by trees and canopied with their branches. At openings, there are marshes or streams, and eventually, the majestic Katahdin. The silence is prayerful, the treetops like spires, the park nothing less than an open-air cathedral, worship to nature, to the way things were.
Baxter's struggle to climb to the Katahdin summit remained his single experience on the big mountain, which rises nearly a mile high from the bogs of the lowlands. Instead of returning to the park in climbing boots, Baxter often visited the mountain in his chauffeur-driven Cadillac. This must have been a strange sight, the old man viewing his most important legacy from the back seat of a black limousine. He thought about that park every day, his chauffeur reported.
That is true for Roxanne as well. But her struggle is a sharp contrast.
Once, years ago, Roxanne came home from selling candles and lip balm at a craft show. It was midnight and she was very tired and very discouraged. She had not sold enough to even pay for her gas home. When she got home, the wind had blown the windows of her cabin open and there was two feet of snow inside. “Sometimes you feel like giving up. I did that night. But then you pick yourself up again. You lose a lot of battles but you just have to win one more than you lose. That's all there is to winning.”
In November of last year, Burt's Bees was sold for nearly a billion dollars to Clorox, who stated they were anxious to “grab market share in so-called green products.” Twenty percent of that sum went to Roxanne. (Quote from her here.)
It is early evening and in the basement of the Catholic church on McQuan St. in Hanson, Massachusetts, a small group of people sits around a table, discussing their cancers. Phyllis, a thin, fragile looking woman, perhaps in her forties, is a newcomer to the group. She has been in remission from lymphoma but has recently had a recurrence. She has come here in hopes of learning something new. Next to her is a young man in a hooded sweatshirt, hands stuffed into the pockets, as if in attempt to restrain his energy, coiled and ready. His name is Billy Best, a name that has meaning here beyond its winning sound. There are others around the table. Whether or not they realize it, everyone is slightly facing Billy, who does not speak until he’s asked a question and then it spills, a warm rush of hopeful words.
This is a scene that is likely being enacted in thousands, perhaps millions, of other churches, halls and living rooms around the globe. If nothing else, cancer is global and knows no boundaries, nor does it discriminate or make false judgments. Here is no different from anywhere else. Except that they have Billy. And because of him, they have a new kind of hope.
Phyllis has recently begun drinking Essiac tea as part of her regimen. “My family thinks I’m nuts and ooh, do they hate the smell of that stuff! I’m in the kitchen there, mixing up a batch,” and she makes the motions of stirring a big pot. “I call it my witch’s brew!”
Everyone laughs and nods. Yeah, that’s what I call it too, some mutter.
She has really come to ask Billy about 714X, another esoteric remedy. It will require her to inject herself once a day, in the lower abdomen and she is extremely apprehensive about these injections. She would like to hear from Billy how to do it.
“I never had any trouble,” he says, reassuringly. “Once you find the right spot, it’s easy.”
Again, everyone nods and says things like Yeah, you’ll see, it’s really not hard.
But is it painful? she wants to know.
“I don’t know, you get used to it, I guess,” Billy says. “Sure beats the alternative!”
Billy’s mother, Sue, is the only one here who does not have or has not had cancer. On the table in front of her, Sue has a bottle of Essiac, nothing like what one expects of a “tea.” Packaged as it is in a green, round-shouldered bottle with an old fashioned looking label, the substance has the quaint appearance of a folk remedy. Alongside the Essiac are copies of newspaper articles and books about Essiac and 714X.
Both of these substances are legal in Canada but are not approved by the FDA in the United States. Technically, what Sue Best is doing here this evening is illegal. However, most everyone who comes to the Bests, who operate under the umbrella of Best Enterprises, do so after trying many other treatments. Sue Best has no compunction about referring cancer patients to these products. She considers herself a conduit, a passage through which these people can pass if they need to. “A lot of people who use these alternatives have tried just about everything else. It would look pretty sad if they (the authorities) started hassling them at this point in their lives.”
As for the money, there is not much involved here. A bottle of Essiac costs $18 and a month’s worth of 714X goes for $300 – not much when compared to the many thousands of dollars involved in the accepted methods of cancer treatments.
The meeting lasts about an hour. These do not seem to be ordinary cancer patients. For one thing, everyone has a full head of hair. For another, they appear to be healthy, even vigorous. For that evening, Phyllis’s anticipation becomes the focus. Billy speaks mostly to her, though everyone else listens intently as he calmly tells her how to make injections, the kinds of things he eats (vegetarian, no caffeine, whole grains), and the importance of taking vitamins. He speaks with the assurance of someone well educated in the topic. His soft black hair and his dark skin reveal his Native American roots, which somehow match his softly spoken words.
There is a reluctance to break but at last the members begin to rise and climb the steps out into the big parking lot, fragrant with the blossoming trees that shine in the late May moonlight. Phyllis turns to Billy, who she has never met before tonight. She hugs him like a brother.
“Good luck,” he says.
“Thank you so much,” she says. “See you next week!”
Ten years ago, Billy was on a different mission. On October 26, 1994, the 16-year-old cancer patient pulled his backpack out from under his bed and tucked his skateboard under his arm. His father was in the basement and his mother was not home. Quietly, he walked out the door of his family’s home in Norwell, Massachusetts, hopped onto his skateboard and skated away.
Since July of that year, Billy had been under treatment for Hodgkin’s Disease at the world renowned Dana Farber Cancer Institute (DFCI) in Boston. Each week, he received another round of chemotherapy. Each week, he became sicker, weaker. To his mind, this was not the way to be healed. Like a prisoner waiting for the right moment to break away, Billy began to sell some of his belongings, a video here, a stereo there, skateboards parts, athletic shoes. Whatever he thought his friends might want to buy, he sold. The money began to build. Soon he had several hundred dollars in cash. And a plan.
Billy knew he was going to die. His aunt Judy had recently died of breast cancer. He had watched her go through the same treatments he had, gotten just as sick, just as weak and then she died anyway. So, he thought that if he could find his way to California, where he used to live with his parents, he would be happy. He thought that if he could just watch the sun set and then go to sleep, what could be better than that? That was the way he pictured himself dying. So he kept this backpack under his bed. He had four pairs of shoes in there. Of course, he would take his skateboard, the heart of his life. But he thought he might end up having to skateboard across the country, which made him think he would need a lot of shoes. And socks. He did not want to end up being one of those homeless people with smelly feet. So he felt a good supply of socks would be a good idea. He kept the money hidden. Maybe he had enough for a bus ticket to California. He wasn’t sure.
So that morning in October, when he got to the bus station in Boston, he found out he really didn’t have enough money for a trip to California so instead he bought a one-way ticket to Lake Charles, Louisiana. He liked the way it sounded, like it would be pretty when he got there. Once he got on the bus, a feeling of intense peace came over him, like nothing could touch him now. He was safe. No more treatments. No more being sick. With his skateboard stashed in the overhead, he put on his headphones, sat back in the seat, and let the music roll.
When the bus arrived in Lake Charles, Billy was disappointed to find it was a big industrial place, not what he’d expected. So for another twenty bucks, he bought a ticket to Houston. That seemed like a good place, at least it was warm. Once he got there, he put his stuff into a locker at the bus station and took off on his board. Pretty soon he met some kids, skating. He told them he had had a fight with his parents and that he’d run away. That’s pretty much what he told everyone, even though it hurt him to say it. He loved his parents and already missed them and his sister, Jenny, too. But even that couldn’t change what he’d been through. He had begged not to have to go back for the treatments, but his parents were firm: no, you have to do what the doctors say because it’s the best thing there is. Dana Farber is the third best place in the world and it’s right here next door to us. Your only chance is to do what they say. So it wasn’t any use, talking to them. They didn’t understand. He just wanted to be free, to skate, to die without feeling so sick.
So there he was in Houston, skating and making new friends. Every day he felt stronger and better. The boys he met up with – Kris, Kush, Marshall, Pat – had a kind of a clubhouse in a storage locker they had broken into. They had furnished it with some old furniture plucked from the dumpster and, since there wasn’t any electricity, they used candles for light. They told him he could sleep there if he wanted to. During the day they skated all over Houston. At night he often went home with one or another of them and they fed him. A couple of weeks went by. One night, they were over at Pat’s house. Pat’s father was in the living room, watching TV. All of a sudden he called out, “Hey, you guys, get in here. Billy’s on television!” So they all went in to see and there was Billy’s Mom on the screen, crying and saying, “Billy, just call us!”
Billy ran, out the door and onto the street. He put on his sunglasses and put the hood up on his sweatshirt and ran for his life. He found a pay phone and called his mother and told her he was all right but that he wasn’t coming home, not ever, if it meant he had to go back to the hospital. Then he ran again. People started coming to the storage locker, looking for him because the word was out that the boys were hiding him there. So he found another boy to stay with. He stayed hunkered down. Every once in a while, he called home, just to tell them that he loved them.
At home, Billy’s parents, Sue and Bill Best, had been besieged by reporters, following Billy’s story. He continued to call from time to time, never revealing where he was. They didn’t want to tell Billy about the media circus that had pitched its tent on their lawn. They were afraid that would give Billy – such a private boy – one more reason not to come home. Finally, they promised him that if he came home, he would not have to go back to the hospital. Using money donated by a sympathetic observer, Billy flew home from Houston, almost a month after he had left on that Greyhound bus. A visit to Dana Farber revealed that his cancer was worse than it had been before he left. The Bests told reporters that they promised Billy he would not have to resume treatments. They said that they were going to research alternative treatments.
It was terrible, waking up to all those microphones but the exposure had a positive side. People who had toughed it out on the chemo and won the battle had watched Billy’s drama unfold on the television and in the newspapers. They wrote to Billy, telling him to hang in there, it’s worth it. And people who knew about alternative treatments wrote them too, telling them there are other ways. Sue and Bill read all the suggestions and studied the various alternatives. Everyone who wrote maintained that the method they had tried had worked for them, so there was some conviction behind each suggestion. It was all very confusing and hard for them to make a choice. They were also under a lot of pressure. When they told the doctors at Dana Farber that they were going to seek alternatives and stop Billy’s treatments, the hospital reported them as unfit parents to the state’s Department of Social Services and tried to have Billy taken away. This only compounded their sadness. If they forced Billy to go back to Dana Farber, he would run away again. They did not feel like unfit parents. They loved Billy, a Native American boy they had adopted at birth. This chapter in his short life was not what they had expected, not what any parents expect in the life of an otherwise healthy, and in this case, handsome young man.
The Bests were religious and prayed for the solution to come to them. In fact, they always say that prayer had as much to do with Billy’s healing as anything else they tried. So they prayed and they studied. In all the information they were sent, two things kept coming up that sounded reasonable. Both of them were from Canada. One of them was called Essiac, a tea. The other was 714X, which promoted itself as a “nontoxic treatment for cancer and other immune deficiencies.”
While the authorities investigated the possibility of removing Billy from his parent’s home and putting him into foster care so that he could resume treatment at Dana Farber, Billy and his father went to Canada to meet with Gaston Naessens and find out about these intriguing treatments. “I was here alone,” Sue recalls. “I was scared that I might be arrested. Nothing like that had ever happened to me in my life. Since then, we have heard of kids who were forced to take chemo or else the child would be removed.”
The nationwide publicity that surrounded Billy at the time seemed to blow away the state’s desire to get involved with Billy’s case. “I think they would have looked pretty bad and they knew it. But if Billy hadn’t run away, he might have had to stay on the chemo and I wonder where he would be today. That stuff is poison, even the doctors tell you that.”
And so, in January of 1995, Billy began drinking nine ounces of the foul-smelling Essiac tea and injecting himself with 714X every day. He also began eating a diet of whole grains and organic foods. No red meat. No caffeine. The Bests were not a whole grain family – hot dogs and macaroni and cheese had been their daily fare until then. “I wasn’t involved in anything like this, ever,” Sue Best says today. “When Billy was diagnosed, we knew nothing about alternative medicines. I was never the medical kind. I wasn’t much interested in things like that.”
They read everything they could get their hands on about diet and exercise and vitamin therapy. And the entire family continued to pray, which they had been doing ever since he had been diagnosed. Within two and a half months, his cancer was gone.
714X stands for the seventh letter of the alphabet (G) and the 14th letter of the alphabet (N), which are the initials of Gaston Naessens, a Canadian biologist who developed this method of treatment. The “X”, the 24th letter in the alphabet, denotes Naessens’ birth year, 1924. 714X is, basically, a substance derived from camphor, nitrogen and mineral salts. Unlike many medicinals, 714X is injected not intra-muscularly or intravenously but intra-lymphatically – into the lymph system, via a lymph node or ganglion, in the groin. Instead of attacking the tumor, the substance is designed to boost the immune system, which is why it is said to be effective in other immune deficiency diseases such as AIDS and Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Among the many controversies surrounding 714X is the issue of this type of injection. Medical professionals claim it is impossible to inject anything into the lymphatic system. But Billy says it is “easy,” once you know how.
Essiac is an herbal infusion, originally formulated by a Canadian nurse named Rene Caisse in the 1920s from a recipe given to her by an Ojibway shaman. The “tea” contains burdock root, sheep sorrel, slippery elm and Indian rhubarb root, a brew unlike any kind of tea we are familiar with. Even those who swear by its efficacy admit it is vile smelling and difficult to swallow. But many have swallowed. And lived. Like Naissens, Caisse gave her substance a name that bore her likeness. Essiac is Caisse spelled backwards.
Initially dismissed as quackery by mainstream medicine, both 714X and Essiac have established themselves in that gray, slightly murky periphery of mainstream medicine as having had some success, enough to puzzle and intrigue American doctors. Naessens claims his substance has a 75% success rate, with thousands of cures. In her lifetime, Rene Caisse made similar claims, though both of them were arrested at one time or another in connection with this “practice of medicine,” for which neither were authorized.
The business of cancer treatment is shot through with potential fraud because of the position of the buyer. Anyone seeking a cure for their disease is, right out of the gate, in a somewhat desperate situation. In addition, most people seeking help have little or no background in medicine so it is difficult to understand the way the various treatments do work. Those who consent to any kind of treatments, be they traditional or alternative, must take much of what happens to them on faith. Certainly Billy’s logic was not incorrect when he concluded that his Aunt Judy had been made very sick by the treatments she had been given and then she died anyway. Anyone who submits to standard chemotherapy does so because it is the most accepted method of treatment now available. But it’s not guaranteed to succeed. Before undergoing treatments, cancer patients routinely sign disclaimers which not only point out that the treatments may have no affect on their disease but which also acknowledge that the treatment itself can cause illness or death.
What was exceptional about Billy’s remission was the fact that he had received so much publicity. He was one patient among millions until he ran away. Once he became a fugitive, he became something of a celebrity. The question of whatever happened to Billy Best is a broad one that operates on many layers. The fact that his cancer disappeared while using these four elusive elements – Essiac tea, 714X, healthy eating and prayer – made the newspapers once again. Which caused these same desperate people to turn to the Bests for help. A girl who lived in the nearby town of Duxbury came to them, near death.
Her name was Katie Hartley and, like Billy, she had been treated at Dana Farber. She was 8 years old at the time, and, like Billy, Katie is alive today to tell her story, 17 years old and perfectly healthy. These two cases gained enough publicity so that the doctors at Dana Farber, in collaboration with the National Cancer Institute (NCI) began clinical trials of 714X in late 1999. Altogether, they were given the cases of 16 cancer patients who had had success with 714X. The trials were repeated again last summer.
It’s hard to discern what happened with these trials. It is perhaps best summarized by saying it all collapsed into a dispute between Naessens and the NCI, which sounds as if it might be more of a dispute over profit than whether or not the substance is a successful way to treat cancer.
In July of last year, after more than a year of testing and hearings, the National Cancer Institute returned their verdict: they saw no need for further testing on 714X.
“That was frustrating after the long wait,” Sue Best admits. “But I still have hope. It’s the right thing. It should happen and so I feel that eventually it will happen.”
The NCI’s decision was discouraging for Billy, as well, but it hasn’t altered the fact that his life changed dramatically as a result of his decision to run away that day in October ten years ago. The futures of the cancer patients who gather weekly in the basement of St. Joseph the Worker are as tenuous as is anyone’s who suffers from this relentless disease. It’s just that they’ve taken a different path. Billy also frequently gives talks at various conventions where the focus is alternative medicine.
The Bests’work distributing the forbidden Canadian substances continues, sometimes thwarted by customs and other agents. “The boxes are now ripped open at the border, and sometimes they arrive with just a few bottles left in the box. This never used to happen but things are getting tighter now, after 9/11,” Billy says.
These setbacks do not diminish the ultimate satsifaction they find in their work, which came to them so strangely and so unbidden.
Billy is a healthy, handsome man of 26 now. The dark eyes and skin of his Native American heritage give him a natural countenance of wisdom. He moves around from job to job, bartender, ski bum, auto mechanic but his mission in life seems to have been preordained. Recently, I sat with him in the kitchen of his parents’ modest home in Rockland, Massachusetts. While Billy ate a cabbage leaf stuffed with tofu and rice, we talked about how the last ten years had unfolded, at first so fearfully and eventually so unbelievably. Perhaps the most moving experience for him was not his own healing but the healing of Katie Hartley, who came to him in what were supposed to have been the last days of her life. “She could not walk, she had a stomach tube in her, she looked like a skeleton. She had a tumor the size of a grapefruit on her face that they said they could not treat. I thought she was going to die right in front of us. I was like, whoa! So I told her all about what we had done. And her mom was shoving carrot juice and beet juice down that stomach tube and all this organic stuff and putting the Essiac tea down there and giving her shots of 714X. Eight months later, she’s still doing it, and she’s starting back to school and getting better and better. And eventually, they went back to get the scans at Dana Farber. And the tumor was gone. That was about 10 years ago. She’s still fine.”
Ironically, through his own struggle, Billy has found his way. He went from the desperation of those days before he ran away to bravely trying the alternatives to becoming a mentor for many. “All these people were calling up and I was on the phone all the time. Everyone wanted to know what happened to me. I just kept telling people I’d be dead on a beach in California if people hadn’t seen my story and been touched by it and called to share their experiences. So I felt like I needed to pass this along too. This is my purpose in life now.”
And Sue’s as well. “It’s very energizing,” she says. “When you are able to help someone, there’s no money that you could pay me for an experience like that. No sir.”
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