Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Galloping Up Dory’s Hill

Of all the bridle trails in Bradley Palmer, the one that my riding friends and I called "Dory’s Hill" has the most special meaning to me. Dory, otherwise content to let other horses lead, go faster or slower than him if they wanted to, had a special need to conquer this hill with a warring spirit I never would have known he had. It took a lot of trust and balance for me to just let go and let him gallop without interfering. I finally learned that if I stopped holding him back, I could find my balance in two-point without clutching the reins for dear life. I began to look forward to it, even when I was out riding alone in the woods, and we headed for Dory's Hill. Writing about this experience while it was still a part of my life helps me now to remember much better than any photo or video could do.

From 2001 with some edits:
We trot steadily along the Ipswich River in that one-two, one-two rhythmical beat with only a few glances and swerves at the sawn logs on either side of the trail. Ahead it turns to the left behind the trees, we can't even see the hill yet, and Dory's ears are already pricked and he readies himself to pick up the pace.  “Okay,” I say nonchalently, always a little unsure, but you can't let a horse know that, “you can do whatever you want.”  We take the turn and he slides into the canter of his own will, the transition so smooth it is barely detectable.  The hill rises in front of us, and he lowers his body, getting into the stride now, his hooves pounding the drum-tight dirt and we fly, oh we fly, right up that hill, faster with every stride. The gallop is smooth; there is no undulation of his strong back under me. Each foot touches the ground for just a split second, never a wrong step. I just have to be still and balanced securely over my feet in the stirrups, my knees like shock absorbers, riding in what is called two point or a half-seat.  This way I move in harmony with him; all I feel is the power of his shoulders and haunches and the pull of his legs as they cover the ground. 

The wind makes my eyes wet with tears, and I laugh out loud, for once you learn to let go you acquire a weird sense of dangerous fun, and his ears pivot back to the sound.  Dory is a medium-sized Morgan horse, not a racing Thoroughbred, but the thrill of a burst of speed comes naturally to him nonetheless.  Only when we reach the top do we come to a challenging stance, standing at the halt, his dark chestnut mane and tail blowing in the wind, his nostrils distended more because he is feeling a sense of machismo than because he is breathing hard. 

Together, we survey the grassy fields below the crest of Dory's Hill.  No one else is in sight, and for the moment, we own this hill and this field.  He walks gingerly down the slope, letting me pick the path, satisfied that he has blown all the cobwebs out of his system, all the dirt out of his carburator, and all the kinks out of the complex and massive muscles that synchronize those four legs, reaching and thrusting, powering his thousand pounds up the hill. He blows softly through his velvet nose, the way horses do to say, that was good. I'm happy. 

Saturday, February 6, 2016

A Simple Book Carved in Stone
Pamela Mansfield 

It’s rare that you’ll run into another human being in Dogtown.  Though its rocky footpaths and ancient roads -- some dating back three hundred years -- are easy to follow, the blueberries plump, and the craggy terrain intriguing, it seems when you are in these woods as though all civilization has vanished.

Vanished but not forgotten.  Not here in desolate Dogtown where the early setters who came to Gloucester, Massachusetts, in the late 1600s to fish and farm cleared the rocky land for pasture and tried to cultivate the soil.  Failing to scratch a living from such an unlikely spot, the menfolk returned to cultivating the sea, where Gloucestermen have gone to earn their livelihood – and sometimes met their untimely end -- ever since.  In their wake they left their wives and families behind under the protection of guard dogs, from which the community eventually got its name. 

As Dogtown’s sixty houses were deserted one by one, only widows, spinsters, and a few aging men stayed behind with the dogs.  People living in town, near the busy fisheries and shore, no doubt nodded and winked at each other when they referred to the tenacious inhabitants of this failed community, for the reclusive women were thought to be either crazy or witches who could cast spells.  Anyone passing by Tammy Younger’s house was subjected to a tirade of insults, and only by giving her food or aid could one safely continue on.  Granny Day, whose name was given to a swamp that swallowed wandering sheep, was another straggler who ended her days in this forlorn place.

The last of the Dogtown residents died in the early 1800s.  Gloucester historian John Babson recorded in his book published less than fifty years later that the last inhabitant, Abraham Wharf, crawled under a rock in 1814 where he “sought relief from poverty, and the accumulated sorrows of more than threescore and ten years, by putting an end to his existence.”

It is an eerie, almost other worldly feeling one gets walking here, especially when the wooded pathways open to the dry, grassy spaces where a carved granite post marks the site where some swaggering villager fought a bull on a bet and was gored to death.  This is Dog Town Square, so named by the ghosts of this village long ago.  It is identified by a boulder carved with the letters D.T.SQ.  Such natural markers are everywhere, for granite abounds -- huge boulders raked up long ago by the glacier that left a terminal moraine and oddly shaped outcroppings in its path. It carved one such outcropping, aptly named Whale’s Jaw, into the shape of the head of a whale poking up from the sea, its giant mouth open to catch sustenance from the sky above it.

I never come to Dogtown alone. Its three thousand acres are terribly remote although just outside the edge of the woods is a busy community of more than thirty thousand people.  Dogtown has a reputation for attracting unsavory characters, including one about ten years ago who stepped out of the woods and crushed a woman’s skull with a rock.  It is a wild, untamed part of the town I have called home for most of my life.  A vast green jewel in the heart of picturesque Cape Ann, thirty miles north of Boston, the town lines of Gloucester and the more resort-like tourist town of Rockport pass through it.  It remains a silent testament, however, to what this country must have looked like generations ago.

Just about everyone I know has picked blueberries here in July and August as a child or knows about the crumbling cellar holes of the ancient houses that once flanked Dogtown Common.  It must seem peculiar, though, to visitors who venture here and walk past boulders carved in relief with numbers to mark the cellar holes.  Even more odd are the boulders engraved in capital letters with sayings that admonish the passerby to “GET A JOB,”  “HELP MOTHER,” or “BE ON TIME.”  Some residents know the origin of these old carvings, but many do not.

I never knew much beyond the folklore of Dogtown myself, until one Earth Day a few years ago.  The high tech company I worked for, housed in a 200,000 square foot facility firmly anchored in the industrial park that abuts the woods and located just steps from the ancient hamlet, chose this annual celebration to return a crucial piece of land to Dogtown.  As the company’s marketing writer and a member of the Environmental Team, I was writing a newsletter explaining to the other twelve hundred employees the significance of our land grant.  I wanted to weave in some of the historical as well as ecological importance of the area. 

During the Environmental Team meetings to plan the Earth Day celebration, I met members of Gloucester’s ad hoc Watershed Committee, including the colorful Joe Orange and long-time activist Carolyn O’Connor.  They were elated about the grant and hovered over the land during its transfer, guarding the entrance and helping to plant trees on what had been a lifeless roadbed.  They shared their dogged enthusiasm for the unique interior of our community with me, and I filled in more history on my own with the help of some dusty old books and a couple of recent trail maps.  Slowly the story of this abandoned community came into focus.

The land grant settled a nearly twenty-year dispute about a planned roadway that would have sliced through Dogtown and connected to yet another industrial park.  Part of the dispute had to do with disrupting this historic area, while the other part had to do with the threat to the fragility of the half-million square feet of land.  The path to expansion could have scratched a swath into the watershed and threatened land so fragile that the main source of Gloucester’s drinking water, Babson Reservoir, located just down the hill through the woods, would suffer.  The roadbed had already been dug back in 1979, but by the late 1990s further work remained stalled.  The dirt road had lain hidden between a large vernal pond and the Dogtown woods.  A mound of dirt dumped  at the entrance concealed its controversial secrets.  While waiting for further development, the area silently bore the assaults of illegal dumping and forbidden dirt bikes, which tore their way through the old roads in Dogtown.

The dirt bikes were not only desecrating the land, they were noisily intruding on a spot that is almost sacred. Throughout Gloucester’s history Dogtown has been spoken of the way one would speak of a crazy great-great aunt once locked upstairs in an attic.  It has inspired paintings of its rugged landscape and poems about its mysteries.  To commemorate the three-hundredth anniversary of the town, one unnamed resident wrote these verses in the “Historical Poem to the Sons of Old Cape Ann”:

A mile or two back from the shore
There is a lonely spot,
Called “Dog Town,” in the days of yore,
Where each abandoned lot
Makes mute appeal – with feelings strange
And with soft voice and step
Over the hills we slowly range.
We’re told, in early days
When pirates roved the stormy seas
The fishermen were wont
To leave their loved ones hid behind
The rock surmounted hills
In safe seclusion, guarded strong
Each by a faithful dog.

Only the empty cellars now
Remain to tell the tale.
Where once was life, can now be found
But rocks and vacant swale.
‘Tis said, that on bright moonlight nights
Weird spirits stalk about
And point their shadowy arms to sea,
But that most people doubt.
This though is true beyond dispute,
From those rough rocky heights
Where the great “Whale’s Jaw” lifts its head

Up to the sky, are found

Grand views of the vast ocean wide
That girds the earth around.

Gloucester’s poet laureat, Charles Olson, wrote of Dogtown in the Maximus Poems.  Marsden Hartley, an American modern painter and member of the avant-garde movement in the early 1900s, captured it in oil paintings and in poetry.  The first book written about the area appeared in 1826, when local newspaper reporter Charles E. Mann became caught up in its history and was compelled to capture it for all time.  Since then, several guidebooks have been published, including one by the Appalachian Mountain Club entitled “More Country Walks Near Boston.”  The author describes this curious area bordered by sprawl in a picturesque way:

“America’s Technology Highway – Route 128 – fizzles out within a stone’s throw of the 17th century, near a place where Lear’s mad scene could be played without investing a penny in sets.” 

Standing on this ancient stage, the A.M.C. scribe says he felt a sense of Walpurgis Night, or the eve of May Day when folklore tells us that witches rode on their appointed rendezvous.

Though more than two hundred years have passed since it was abandoned, Dogtown still has the power to speak of the past.  It clearly stands as a memorial to a vanished civilization.  The boulders carved in relief forever mark its history and lend it the hushed mysteries of a cemetery. Who carved these numbers and these “sermons in stone,” and why?

It helps to know that these trails are the ancient roadways and walkways used for three hundred years.  Old Rockport Road, which cuts across a corner of Dogtown, was once a major thoroughfare trodden by Indians and European settlers.  It quietly leads walkers now along its wide clear path away from the booming industrial park.  It takes a straight route to the back of a three-hundred-year-old stone building, now the Babson Museum, where an ancestor of the man responsible for the carved boulders once made barrels.  The barrels were assembled to store the alewives, or herring, that were caught in Dogtown’s Alewife Brook after swimming upstream from their ocean habitat to spawn.  This brook was dammed to create the Babson Reservoir.

The entrance to the reservoir lies on the other side of the industrial park, accessible by heading back out onto “America’s Technology Highway” and exiting at the rotary that bewilders most drivers unfamiliar with Gloucester.  (Hint:  the car in the rotary has the right of way.)  Somewhere back behind all the houses on the main road to town are a series of side streets that lead to Linskey’s Junk Yard, an unlikely portal to such a pristine area.  Carolyn O’Connor, of the Watershed Committee, took me there one rainy April day and I was surprised to see, next to heaps of ruined cars and scraps of metal, two stone pillars, obviously erected long ago.  They bear bronze plaques that read: 

“Babson Reservoir and Sanctuary.  This reservoir, watershed and reservation are for the people of Gloucester, the land having been given in memory of my father and grandfather who roamed over these rocky hills.  They had the vision that someday it should be conserved for the uses of the city and as an inspiration to all lovers of God and nature.”

Roger W. Babson, landowner, environmentalist, entrepreneur, candidate for president, and founder of three colleges, gave 1150 wooded acres of Dogtown to the city of Gloucester in 1930.  Roger, himself a descendant of Dogtown’s settlers, loved this land and knew its secret places and its odd stories.  In his pamphlet “Gloucester’s Deserted Village” he wrote, “There is something inspiring in the huge barren hills and great boulders of Gloucester’s Dogtown. At the same time, there are pathos and tragedy in the old forsaken cellars of the original inhabitants…”  He referred to Dogtown as one of his hobbies, and he painstakingly located and identified forty of the sixty ancient cellar holes, recording them by number then carving the number into stone next to each site.

It was also Roger Babson who inscribed the sermons in stones.  Not personally.  He hired thirty-six unemployed Finnish stonecutters to carve them during the depression.  Why?  It was part of his philanthropic nature, for one thing, providing employment to the men left destitute by the depression and subsequent closing of the Cape Ann granite quarries. And, he had a few things to say.  If you ever wanted your words carved in stone, this was the way to do it.  While his relatives accused him of “defacing the boulders and disgracing the family with the inscriptions,” he argued that “the work gives me a lot of satisfaction, fresh air, exercise and sunshine.  I am really trying to write a simple book with words carved in stone instead of printed on paper.” 

Exploring Dogtown is almost like visiting a natural theme park without the tourist trappings, though a real theme park was once proposed for the site by someone from off the Cape.  An adventurous hiker can walk for miles and exit Dogtown at a variety of spots anywhere in Gloucester or Rockport.  Along the way, you can try to locate some of the boulders, some now hidden by the wild overgrowth of brush, others appearing silhouetted on the barren landscape.  There are reputed to be a total of thirty, give or take a few.  They proclaim “USE YOUR HEAD,” “IF WORK STOPS VALUES DECAY,” and “KEEP OUT OF DEPT.”  There are single words standing in testament to Babson’s values:  “KINDNESS,” “COURAGE,” “LOYALTY,” and then there are the five “I’s”  “IDEAS,” “IDEALS,” “INTELLIGENCE,” “INITIATIVE,” and of course, “INDUSTRY.”           

Finding some of them is a challenge, says a coworker who shared his interest in Dogtown with me after reading my newsletter piece.  A mechanical engineer, he has mapped every one of Babson’s boulders that he can locate and has entered the coordinates into his global positioning system (GPS). Stan, whose last name ironically happens to be Stone, ventures into the woods from time to time to verify his data and to search for the missing boulders.  The thirty or so of Babson’s maxims are recorded but their individual locations are not.  While Babson did indicate where the cellar holes were located, he had no reason to mark the sermons in stone on the map he made, perhaps not realizing that one day they would be just as interesting, if not more so, than the cellar holes.

“The stones always fascinated me,” Stan tells me, eager to share his enthusiasm for using satellites and the latest in technology to locate the stones.  “They are so unique.”   Though he spent a recent vacation trekking in Utah, of Dogtown he says, “nothing else compares.”  He uses GPS as part of his enjoyment of the trails he hikes, and also it helps to keep him from getting lost.  His first handheld GPS contained all the waypoints, or locations, of the stones he found during his early excursions into Dogtown. The GPS was stolen from his car in Boston one day, and so was the information stored on it.  Stan purchased a new Garmin e-Map and retraced his steps, trying to rebuild his database.  Today he is actually happier with his new data because his earlier waypoints were recorded when the U.S. Department of Defense was still intentionally scrambling the GPS signals emitted by satellite.  At that time the waypoints were accurate only to within three hundred feet.  Now they are accurate to within thirty feet. 

Before the government changed the scrambling policy, Stan would go to a waypoint and have to look around because he wouldn’t be at exactly the right place.  With the new system that provides more accurate signals, “you’re right on top of it,” he says.  There’s still some room for error.  “Accuracy is a function of where the satellites are at any given moment,” Stan explains.  GPS, he adds, is “amazing technology.  You don’t need a sextant or thousands of dollars worth of equipment to tell you where you are.  GPS is something that works anywhere in the world, and gives you access to a few billion dollars worth of military technology essentially for free.”  For the cost of a handheld GPS, that is, which amounts to about two hundred dollars.

Like Babson, Stan went to MIT for an engineering degree.  He appreciates Babson’s inspiration and finds patterns in the layout of the boulders’ messages, most of which are concentrated along the trails.  If he were to meet Babson in some time warp -- and in Dogtown anything seems possible -- Babson would no doubt quickly grasp the idea of Stan’s GPS and might possibly show him where “INTELLIGENCE” and “IDEALS” are located, two boulders on the list of maxims that still elude him.  Though five of the boulders are very near the medical center in the industrial park, Stan says two are covered by vegetation.  “If you don’t go down the right path, you’ll be mired in briars.”

The remoteness of Dogtown appeals to a cross-section of humanity.  While mountain bikers come here to challenge their skills on the rugged paths, vagrants come to set up camp and fugitives to escape the law.  Stolen cars have been abandoned or burned here, and garbage is sometimes dumped by residents who don’t want to pay the dollar-per-barrel fee for curbside removal.  At the Goose Cove Reservoir entrance, the path is strewn with fresh dog droppings, leaving one to reconsider how the area got its name.  I have seen signs of thoughtless campfires.  About ten years ago, one was built directly under Whale’s Jaw, and its intense heat cleaved the unique rock formation in half, leaving it virtually unidentifiable. Abutting Dogtown is an active shooting range, and between October and March hunting is permitted.  Gunshots ring through the woods.  There is good reason to hesitate before going in.

During the summer dry spells, the woods are closed to prevent fires but it’s difficult to patrol the area.  A constable was appointed to stand guard at the industrial park entrance and ward off motorized vehicles and chase out troublemakers.  In his sixties or maybe even seventies, Joe Orange, ex-paratrooper, ex-English teacher, rugged sportsman, and member of the ad hoc Watershed Committee was on duty for the better part of a year, wearing shorts even in winter, and exposing his hardened, impervious muscles.  He is formidable, and unafraid of marching into the woods, armed, to kick out vagrants and vandals as easily as he must have dismissed badly behaved students from his class.

Joe loves the land where he grew up swimming, exploring, hunting, and fishing.  And he knew Roger Babson.  During our meetings to plan the Earth Day celebration, he shared some of his memories with me.  “As a six year old, I was out in the woods and Roger W. Babson took me by the hand and said, ‘Promise me you will always take care of these woods when I’m gone.’  I said, ‘Yes, sir,’ and I’ve tried to do just that all my life.  He was my hero.  His love for this land was welded into the ground.”

The city of Gloucester now owns most of the land, and the Essex County Greenbelt has been instrumental in promoting measures to maintain it.  While Dogtown’s past has been a quirky, strange story, so is its present.  Set aside for passive recreation, only ad hoc committees have protected it. The Dogtown Advisory Committee was formed in 1985, but Gloucester is fiercely proud of its independent spirit and has no plans to change anything or to increase protection of the area.  In fact, the single marked entrance to Dogtown is subtly placed on a little-traveled back road.  Despite the intrusions of vehicles and vagrants, it remains much as Henry David Thoreau found it in 1858, when he walked along its paths and called them “a good place to walk.”  He found himself: 

“…in the midst of boulders scattered over bare hills and fields, such as we had seen on the ridge northerly in the morning, i.e., they abound chiefly in the central and northwesterly part of the Cape.  This was the most peculiar scenery of the Cape.  We struck inland southerly, just before sundown, and boiled our tea with bayberry bushes by a swamp on the hills, in the midst of these great boulders, about half-way to Gloucester, having carried our water a quarter of a mile, from a swamp, spilling a part in threading swamps and getting over rough places.  Two oxen feeding in the swamp came up to reconnoitre our fire.  We could see no house, but hills strewn with boulders, as though they had rained down, on every side, we sitting under a shelving one.  When the moon rose, what had appeared like immense boulders half a mile off in the horizon now looked by contrast no larger than nutshells or burlnut against the moon’s disk, and she was the biggest boulder of all.”

The ghosts of Dogtown, both its original settlers and those who explored it and cared for it in the past, lure nature lovers and explorers to this day.  In the face of progress and intervention, it still stands a timeless spot in testament to the power of nature and it has a draw that defies development.  Gloucester has seen to that by acquiring most of the land, and, more importantly, leaving it alone.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Recipe

Amazing Grace.  That’s what my father called her, with the greatest respect for this Sicilian woman whose family merged with ours more than four decades ago when my oldest sister married her son.

Her home was always open to us. She cooked and baked and when she left the house to visit, never went anywhere empty handed. When Christmas came, she magically produced honey-glazed pignalata (peen-ia-la-tha) -- nuggets of cookies that were stuck together and sprinkled with cinnamon chipped like bits of bark, and cuchidata (cooch-y-dah-dah) -- the fig and raisin filling just peeking through tiny slits in dough which was glazed with confectioner’s sugar; and chocolate drops laden with nuts. These were my favorites and I loved hearing her pronounce their names.

My sisters' families and my husband and I all gathered together on Christmas Eve back then. Before she was even through the door, Grace was directing my brother-in-law to give me a batch of her pignalata.  I always gave her a gift I hope she liked. I will never forget her kindesses to me. 

Come in! she calls when you knock at the door.  She is sitting in her brown vinyl chair, watching The Godfather on television, drawing in a breath of dismay and shaking her head when the characters swear in Italian. We laugh.  On the end table next to her is a lamp, and into its shade she has tucked wallet-sized cards from the Catholic church she no longer has the strength to attend, each a printed portrait of the Madonna. Surrounding her cloudy glass of water are the medicine bottles she picks up one by one and counts like rosary beads.  Once she has extended her welcome, she heaves herself with care and dignity onto the frame of her walker, and you follow her into the kitchen.

Sit down, sit down! she commands.  I used to think she was yelling at me.  But I was much younger then.  Coming from a small family with midwestern-German and southern roots, I wasn’t used to such outward exhuberance.  She opens a plastic container -- homemade cookies inside -- and offers to make coffee.  Mangia, mangia!  Eat, eat! 

Though she was born in Michigan and her parents returned to Terrasini, Sicily with her as a small child, all the years I knew her she lived in an apartment house on Addison Street in Gloucester. She rented out three of the apartments, one where my oldest sister lived after she married into the family. When the apartment above it became available, my father and I moved in. I was fifteen.  My mother had died just two months earlier, in February of 1971. My father was a commercial fisherman who, as owner and skipper of the Sea Breeze, a 90' trawler, was out fishing the north Atlantic waters much of the time.  My sister Sharon lived downstairs with her husband and was expecting her first child.  My middle sister Lynn lived with my father and me for a while, but would be married soon, and as an airline stewardess for Northeast Airlines, was traveling a lot.  I was the youngest and a sophomore in high school.  

Fifteen isn't an easy age even without so many changes in my life. That first Easter without my mother seemed gray and cold. Where I had been used to my Magnolia neighborhood friends and walking just blocks to the beach with my dog, Brandy, and Westie's pond where we skated in winter, I felt locked in on Addison Street. It was right in the middle of town, surrounded by busy streets. At home alone, I was surprised when Grace knocked on the back door, a few steps from her own, and delivered an Easter basket unlike any I had ever seen before. Instead of a traditional woven container, hers was shaped from braided dough and baked in the oven.  Instead of being filled with candy, it contained a single egg, colored blue, and baked into it.  Every Easter she made one for each of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and that year she included me.  

Grace and her husband Busty, short for Sebastiano, made baking and cooking a day-long project then.  There were homemade sausages and sauces, and flavorful dishes like spedini --  cheese on top of a slice of ham rolled up into a slice of cube steak and skewered with a toothpick.  Rows and rows of them were baked in the oven. The smell of tomato sauce wafted through the door.  Sometimes, on Sundays, they invited my father and me over for meals.  Mangia Franco day, my father called it.  Freeloader’s day.  Eat for free.  He had fished for thirty years with the Italians and had learned their expressions, if not the language. The street was lined with parked cars because all the neighboring Sicilians made Sunday family day.

Mangia! Mangia!  Grace would say above the shouting, talking over one another, standing up, sitting down, scraping chairs across the linoleum floor. The food was abundant. The plates were cleared quickly and removed or filled again.  I’d say my thanks and get up to leave, to go back to the sanctuary of my room and my stereo, to playing James Taylor and John Denver albums over and over. The grooves of the LPs must have been worn down. I've seen fire and I've seen rain. Years later my father called to tell me he'd heard the song and thought of me.

You should help with the dishes, my sister would say as I rose to leave Grace's table, but with more people arriving, it was hard to know where to stand, where to be.  

Grace didn’t seem to mind.  She never spoke to me about my loss nor did she ever reprimand me for being a useless girl, though I learned that, when she was just fourteen, she already knew much more than I did – how to cook, embroider, what was expected of her.  So much had been done for me all of my life.  My mother had made all of my clothes until she was too sick with cancer to sit at her sewing machine.  Her philosophy, like Grace's was It’s better made at home. She would have made my skirt for my Girls’ Drill Team uniform that year, and I knew how to sew it myself, but didn't take the initiative. The skirt that I bought was too long.  Skirts were worn so far above the knee then, all the girls had them shortened.  My sister suggested I ask Grace to hem it and when I did she gladly took the skirt back to her chair.  This short? She asked incredulously.  Aye, yi, yi.  She left a hem of about four inches in case I changed my mind.  Her cross-stitches, perfect X’s, were so uniform and tight, they would never unravel.  The length was perfect. 

For two years I lived next door to Grace, and while I spent little time with her, it was a comfort to know she was there.  Her family was not mine, but they were rock solid if you needed them.  I would never forget how her daughter Tina, two doors down the street, had insisted that my small family come to her house immediately after my mother’s funeral.  We really had nowhere to go other than back to our solemn home. That day I sat at her table in stunned silence, surrounded by the noise, the movement, and the food they offered.  What can you do?  It was God’s plan.  Mangia!  Mangia!

College was not an option after high school.  I worked at various jobs, following my mother’s lead, for she had had a career.  No one in my family had ever gone to college, and we couldn’t afford it. Finally I landed a good job that blossomed into a career in marketing communications thanks to the company paying for me to take college courses at night.  I met my future husband, Rick, at work, and we finished our bachelor’s degrees together.  Along with my two sisters and their families, we forged new traditions, spending holidays together and celebrating birthdays and graduations.

Grace remained an important part of our family.  Rick and I drove her to my sister’s house where all the family gatherings were held on the other side of town.  We took her out on Christmas Eve to see the lights.  When a special statue of the Madonna was brought to St. Anne’s Church, she was beside herself with excitement.  Pam, Pam, go see the lady.  She’s so beautiful.  Go see the Madonna.  For her, I did, and reported back that our lady was indeed beautiful.  For years I admired the afghans she crocheted for every member of her family.  At my sister’s suggestion, I hesitantly asked, could she make one for me?  She told me what yarn to buy.  Two months later, I received a phone call.  Pam, I have an afghan for you.  When I offered to pay or give something in return, her response was an emphatic wave of her hand.  Bah!  I don’t want nothing! 

*   *   *

Grace calls me a week before the following Christmas, taking me up on my wistful hint that I wished I knew how to make the little honey-covered cookies with the cinnamon and nuts, and asks, Pam, you gonna come make the pignalata? We decide on a time. 

Do you need me to pick up anything? I ask.

Eggs, a couple dozen.

How about honey?

Yeah, yeah.  But I want to pay you.

That Sunday night Come in! greets me from behind the door at the top of the stairs.  Did I really once live here?  The kitchen is ready.  Grace has already set out the enormous old yellow mixing bowl and her mixer. Mounded in another bowl is Semolina flour.  She rubs it through her fingers and explains that she has gotten the best quality flour from the local bakery for her cookies.  The apartment is warm, a comfort to an aged woman.  She had once been round and soft, and had bounced the family babies on her ample bosom to the wild dance tune of La Tarontella, for she had no lap to speak of. On her doctor’s advice she had dieted till she was now nearly half her original size.  She is cold now, not warm. 

Off comes my wool sweater and we set to work. 

Put a dozen eggs in the bowl she says from her chair at the table, the very same one I had sat at so many years before, wondering when I could leave.  Her watchful, hungry eyes miss nothing, so I crack them with what I hope is workmanlike precision.  Mix them.  Yeah, yeah.  Let me have a look.  She peers keenly into the bowl.  More, more.  Now you get the flour.  Put some in the bowl with the eggs.  Use your hands.  That’s enough flour!  Up now and leaning on her walker, she transfers her balance to the dough in the bowl, and turns it over and over, pressing with the heels of her hands.  She had always been old to me.  But now that she is really old she looks somehow more youthful, her tightly cropped grey hair curled around her face, slimmer now since her diet.  But still the heavy ornate gold and garnet earrings weigh down her earlobes the way overly-ripened fruit pulls down the branches of a tree.

See between the stove and the closet?  She points.  What does she want?  I try to be quick to comprehend while she struggles for the right word in English.  No, no.  There.  My mind goes blank.  There is the dough in the bowl before us, and something between the stove and the closet.  I am nearly forty, but feel fifteen again, trying to do the right thing.  Then, like a revelation, I realize she is pointing to two big laminated boards for working the dough on.  Get the big one and put it here.  Bring the flour.  She takes a handful and sprinkles it on the Formica-covered board – a clever use to put it to – and works the dough in pensive silence, feeling until it is right.  Then with a knife, honed by years of sharpening, she cuts the dough into three pieces.  Get the other board and put it there.   Put some flour on it.  She takes one of the lumps of dough, cuts slices off of it, then rolls the pieces into thin, pencil shapes.  You take these and put them to dry.  Don’t let them touch.

I watch in stupified silence, then realize I could be doing this, too.  What must she think of me?  The first pencil I roll out has a lump in the middle that will not behave.  This is not so easy.  But we roll the dough together, and the conversation leads to family matters and of her move here from Sicily, after she’d married Busty.  All the Sicilians in Gloucester had come here to fish these bountiful waters off the coast of Massachusetts.  They took up residence in tightly packed neighborhoods, like Addison Street, where they all knew one another and one another’s relatives in the old country, and intermarried and raised children they named Gaetano, Vito, Giuseppi.  Grace had learned to speak English very quickly.  She taught the others who were not so adept.  She returned to Sicily for a while, lost a baby or two, had many more there and here, too. Grace and Busty bought this apartment house, and had lived comfortably if not lavishly.  Her youngest son, my brother-in-law, was younger than his niece, his sister’s daughter. 

She steps over to the counter to get the oil, then pauses to open the cabinet.  Look, Pam, see what I got here.  My husband made these twelve years ago.  Everybody says, ‘Why you keep those?’ I tell them, ‘You leave them right there.’  On the shelf, holding a place of honor are quart-sized jars of homemade tomato sauce.  I recall how Busty had grown his own basiligo (basil) and tomatoes on the back porch we used to share.  I rise to take the oil from her, Spanola she had gotten on sale some time ago and laments that now it is twice the price at the local market.  We open the bright yellow plastic jug.  On the label is a vivacious Italian girl. 

How did you meet your husband?  I ask.

When we lived in Sicily he used to go across the beach in front of my house to get to the fishing boat.  I used to see him.  One day he asked if he could be engaged to me.  My father said he didn’t know him but he knew his family and it was a nice family so it was alright.

You were fourteen?  I know some of this story.

Then my husband went in the Navy and I didn’t see him for two years.  We were married sixty-two years.

I look around and imagine him sitting here at the table.  My father, too.  Each summer when he came to visit from Florida he always visited Grace, recalling the old days when he and Busty once fished together as strong young men.  Little did we know that one day our children would marry, he marveled.  The Italian fishermen, who are fond of calling one another by nicknames, called Busty Sea Bass then and my father Scotch-a-Poopa.  Even today if you mention the name, some of the old Italians know him.  Scotch-a-Poopa!  The one who takes the fish from the hold!  That was your father!  Billy.  Billy Mansfield.  He was the southerner.  They look at me as though I am a messenger from their past.  They no longer see me.  They see through me and are transported back in time. 

At the stove a deep pot waits, dented and dimpled with use.  We pour the oil into it and the level rises to about an inch or two deep.  Grace cuts small wedges off of several of the rolled out pencils of dough and I do the same till we have a cutting board covered with them.  Give me the first ones you put there.  They’re more dry.  She drops a piece in the heated oil to test it, then puts enough pieces in so that they fill the bottom of the pot and bubble in the oil.  She stirs with a slotted spoon.  When her shoulder hurts too much, I take over, but she watches from her chair.  When the cookies are golden brown we put them in a colander to drain. We set the pot on the back porch for the oil to cool, then start the process again.  She tastes a cooled nugget of cookie.  These are nice.  They’re tender inside.

It takes nearly two hours to fry all the dough, and as she picks through to remove any burned cookies, I tell her that Rick calls all her cookies by the same name – cucchidata --  a word that tumbles off the tongue and wants to be said over and over.  Even though I told him I’m going to make the pignalata, when I get home he’ll ask me about the cucchidata.  She laughs, her soft face brightened by a smile that curves in a wide arc.

By 10:30 that night we are cleaning up.  I want to pay you for the eggs and the honey, she says.  Bah!  I reply with a wave of my hand, in imitation of her.  She puts the night light on and asks me to stay until she gets safely to her bedroom.  Tomorrow we do the honey, she reminds me.  I’ll be here a little after 4:30, I reply, the earliest I can leave work, and let myself out, locking her door behind me.

When I arrive the next day, she has already started shaving the blocks of chocolate with her knife.  I take over that job while she gets out the bowl of almonds, already chopped.  It is so warm in the kitchen the chocolate melts in my hands before I can cut it, so I take it out on the back porch.  The old pot is clean and back on the stove, honey and sugar warming in it.  A mixture of sugar and cinnamon waits on the counter.  We stir the cookies in the honey, then she dunks her hands in a bowl of cold water.  Always have the bowl of water here, she advises.  She takes the cooled cookies out with her hands and forms them into mounds on a series of paper plates.  Then we sprinkle them with chocolate, nuts, the cinnamon mixture, and finally powdered sugar.  After two nights of work, we are finally done.

We cover the cookies with Saran wrap and they are ready to be given out for Christmas.  You only give these to your good friends.  They’re too much work, Grace tells me, loading my arms with several plates. And then I realized just how special her gift of the cookies had been each year. 

*   *   *

I look forward to the next Thanksgiving with family, but the night before Halloween, Grace calls for help, looks fixedly at the nurse who comes to her, smiles at something in the distance, then she is gone. 

At her funeral, I wear a black dress and for her I wear the cross I have not worn since I was a child.  I don’t understand the procession at St. Anne’s Church, the old women who walk down the aisle holding the picture of a saint in front of them, a woman who is not the Madonna but surely someone that everyone else but me recognizes.  I can hear Grace’s voice, The lady, the beautiful lady.  Family alone goes to the cemetery.  I stand by her grave when the coffin is lowered, and gently toss a flower onto it.  We all go to her daughter’s house and eat.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

If Wishes Were Horses

Pencil and paper – that’s all an artist named Sally needed to make a lasting impression on a 9-year-old horse-crazy girl with little to do one summer. Sally lived in one of the apartments in an old New England shingle-style mansion that had once belonged to a duchess, we were told. My mother managed the rentals as well as a rocks and minerals business there in the basement. The interesting collection of people and things to do lured me from our own home a block away. I often helped my mother with sorting the rocks into packages for hobby shops, and often visited with the tenants.

One was a French Canadian man who taught me French words and lived in a studio apartment that had been the duchess’ billiard room.  A second floor apartment with a mahogany-paneled fireplace was home to a family whose daughter was my occasional babysitter. She introduced me to Peter, Paul and Mary and the Kingston Trio. She took me with her once to pottery class, where I made a misshapen but shining and bubbly turquoise ashtray that I proudly presented to my mother.  A young couple in another apartment, doting parents to a tow-headed toddler, invited me in regularly to play with her and to eat warm, homemade cinnamon raisin bread. 

But my favorite tenant was Sally, an artist in her early 20s, who lived upstairs with her husband and a friendly German Shepherd. She had a new litter of puppies to show me when I first met her, but I was more drawn to her bookshelf where I discovered a series of thin matching books with pages of stories that Sally had written and illustrated. There were pencil drawings of squirrels, chipmunks, birds, flowers, and horses.  When I asked her if she could teach me how to draw like her, she let me decide what I wanted to learn first.  Without hesitation I chose horses.  She guided me in tracing the shapes of those long jaw bones, pert ears, and hooves, showed me how to shade the muscles along the neck, detail the spiral of fine nostrils, and fill in flowing manes with pencil.  I practiced constantly in my own sketch books at home and wrote stories about the horses in the drawings. Under Sally's tutelage my drawings improved, and then we added trees. To this day, those are the only two things I can draw that are somewhat recognizable. 

I was her willing pupil. Sally invited me to ride my bike with her along the quiet streets of our seaside town to some woodsy trails where we stopped to look while she pointed out different birds to me.  Later, we would talk about all we saw and heard on our adventures.  Once she showed me a Wood Thrush in her apartment. She'd named him Robbie and was caring for him until he could be released back to his family in the woods where we'd been. 

It was a great gift that Sally gave me that summer, recognizing in me an undeveloped love of nature and the need to create. She was the perfect teacher and an inspiration.

I started 5th grade and the days became shorter and more filled with schoolwork.  My birthday was in November, and my mother gave me a new winter coat she called a ski jacket, and my birthstone, a yellow topaz. A friend of hers gave me some books about horses.

And then my mother presented me with a gift from Sally. 

I was surprised that Sally had known it was my birthday, since I hadn’t been to see her for a while. I opened the package carefully, and suddenly there I was in graphite on paper, riding on the most perfect horse wearing an English bridle and saddle, tail flowing out behind him.  My pencil-stroked hair blew freely in the wind and I was wearing real riding boots.  Sally had named the drawing "Stacy and Foxtrot," but I knew it was me who was Stacy, and Foxtrot was the horse of my dreams.

For Pam, it said, and though she signed it, I can barely read her last name now. We moved away the next summer, and I never saw Sally again.  The picture hangs on my wall, framed, and across from another graphite portrait, this one of the real horse that eventually came into my life, Dory.  This portrait was also a birthday gift: my husband commissioned it from an artist we met, Gretchen Almy.  Countless, careful pencil strokes on paper – that’s all it is – yet through the artist’s skill it captures the essence of who my very own horse was – and who he was to me, my wish come true.

Two artists, both at different times in my life, have created two of my most treasured gifts. But Sally was perhaps what I would think of as my special angel when I most needed someone to give me the gift of myself. 

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Squeezed Out

This bird high above this densely populated part of the world seems to want to ask us a question. Is there any life down there besides human? Is there any room for him and those of his kind?

We've made this world what it is today. We've squeezed out every other life form but our own. Still, even the most fragile beings have learned to live around us and with us. They may not thrive as they once did before we built and bulldozed and paved and poisoned. They may not survive the dangers we present to them daily: belching smoke stacks, spinning wind turbines, speeding cars, insecticides, fishing lines and gear left to harm whatever comes into its path, and lead shot from hunters who leave carrion for wildlife to consume and ultimately sicken.

Unknowingly we kill them, willfully we kill them, and for everyone of us who protects them there is another who would feel nothing at their loss.  I know this. I have seen it with my own eyes. We all have.

Since childhood I've been a softhearted animal lover. It's ingrained in me, but still I learn each day about the lives of these others who live a hard fought life, searching for sustenance in a world that is sometimes not abundant with its resources, in a world where we have removed or revoked their right to resources.  Yet every year, birds build nests and in their own purposeful way try to raise another family to keep their kind in this inhospitable world of humans. 

Imagine if we could just all let them live their God-given lives.  Would it hurt us one little bit to have a care for others besides ourselves?  I don't know who to credit for this photo, but it made me stop to think.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The "Little World" of Lichen

Always fascinated with the idea of "little worlds" within the world that we humans occupy, I was examining a apple tree twig covered in a spring green-colored lichen recently. Lichen is everywhere, a fungus we find clinging to rocks and trees. In addition to the sage green flaky material coating the twig, there were interesting black spots that looked like little drums. I suspected they must be spores but really wanted to know what they looked like close up.  I work for a company that makes the most powerful microscopes there are - electron microscopes - so I thought I'd bring the twig into work and ask the scientists there if it would make for an interesting sample.  

A funny thing about the scanning electron microscope (SEM) is that you can look at a plain black piece of material at extremely high magnifications (5X as high as 1,000,000X for example) and see incredible details where there were none with the naked eye. Or you can look at something very curious, and put it in the microscope and it doesn't turn out to look like much at all at high magnification. 

Not so with the lichen. The images taken at different magnifications revealed the little world I suspected was in that green flaky material stuck to the dead twig.  At first the extreme close ups (in this case at 160X) were disorienting, but the scientist who took the images explained we were actually looking at the spores themselves, inside the dish-shaped, flat black area of the lichen - just one of the tiny little drum shapes called apothecia that appeared only in a few places on the twig.  Inside of that flat, dull black area of a single apothecium there are spores on stems just waiting to be released and start lichen life anew.
Looking from a little further away, (50X and 17X), the beauty of the whole colony of apothecia can be better appreciated. Of course with a scanning
electron microscope the images you can get are only in black and white, but they can be colorized in Photoshop.  And, as is the case with many biological specimens, the lichen is perfectly beautiful under the optical microscope that most of us are familiar with, and it is very colorful all by itself, even if it does look a little like frog warts.

Sometimes a closer look really can open up a whole new little world!   

Seated at the Scanning Electron Microscope.
My scientist coworkers: Vern Robertson, Dave Edwards,
and Breno Leite.

The lichen under the optical microscope. See the drums?

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Star Struck at Six

Seeing Ricky Nelson in Concert at Pleasure Island

In the early sixties, the world belonged to my two teenaged sisters. The caboose in the family, I would come of age in a different era, but for then, I watched and learned as they skipped from sock hops to pep club rallies, had first dates, and played the latest rock n' roll on our HiFi while we learned the twist. 

Their only anchor in life was their six-year-old sister, because they often had to babysit. For me, it meant tagging along on many of their adventures.  I cruised the boulevard  with them "American Graffiti" style in a someone's very big car, listening to the Supremes or the Four Seasons.  I had crushes on all of their boyfriends. One, who would become my brother-in-law, gave me a dime and told me to call him when I grew up. 

We had an older sister-in-law, too, a real southern beauty who willingly drove us places. One June day in 1962, the four of us piled into the family car to go to Pleasure Island, an amusement park in Wakefield, Massachusetts, where I attended my very first concert. 

We drove into the park through it's live-action entryway - over railroad tracks where a real train being chased by cowboys and Indians on horseback passed by. We'd come for the concert, but Pleasure Island had more than enough attractions while we waited for it to begin. I loved the crooked house, where I held on to side rails and walked through at an awkward angle; the burro ride on the little "mountain trail" which I wasn't old enough for, and alas, never would be, and Moby Dick, a mechanical whale who rose from the pond and blew water through his spout. The animals, the miniature cars...there were so many things that rivaled Disneyland, which was only some far off place we'd probably never go anyway.

When the time came, we were among the first of the crowd of crazed teenagers squeezing through the opening in the stockade fence that cordoned off the Showbowl concert area.  Embrazened by our solidarity, we were standing right at the foot of the stage looking up adoringly when Ricky Nelson emerged from behind a door with his guitar. His was the familiar face from one of my favorite t.v. shows, Ozzie and Harriet. My mouth hung open in pure surprise as I heard him play the songs we listened to on the radio, now seeing the real Ricky himself, and not in black and white. Every song he played, we knew - "Hello Marylou, goodbyeheart!" - but whenever he stopped, people would shout "Play Traveling Man!" one he was best known for. "I'm a traveling man, made a lot of stops all over the world," and he went on to single out the Polynesian baby over the sea, the sweet Fraulein, the Eskimo, and the China doll - all the lucky girls he knew in every port.  As I remember, we were right at his feet, but just seeing the television star and oh-so-handsome young man may have made me a bit faint, even at six.  He was a young girl's safer answer to Elvis, his music was upbeat and had no suggestive words or swinging hips. We had yet to experience the magical mystery tour of the Beatles and the depth of meaning in the folk rock from Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, which was popular when I was a teenager, or the showmanship of Michael Jackson. We loved Ricky.

Fast forward to 1985, and Pleasure Island was a thing of the past, but Ricky was back in Massachusetts on tour.  I had to go, even though my sisters were no longer interested. He had long ago faded from popularity, but many retro concerts were being held in Newburyport during the summer Homecoming Days, so my husband and some friends made the trek. Sharing a pair of binoculars from our bleacher seats, we could see he was still handsome. He gave a quiet almost intimate concert, playing old familiar songs one after the other.  During a break, he shared a little humor with the audience, and since it was hot he wiped his face with a towel, then threw it into the screaming crowd of girls who clamored at the foot of the stage.  It felt a little like we were at Rick Nelson's "Garden Party," where we came to reminisce with old friends, share some memories, and listen to a few old songs.  They say you can never go back, but for a little while, I relived the days when the music that underscored our lives was fun and upbeat, and life was safely scripted. Ozzy and Harriet would have it no other way. 

That was to be one of Ricky's last concerts. His D3 plane crashed on New Year's Eve 1985.  There were so many musicians killed that way, traveling from concert to concert to bring us joy and memories. When we talk about the past, it's often the music of those times that weave their way into the fabric of the story.  Ricky's music will be forever entwined with memories of my first concert and the three young women in my family who let me tag along.