Friday, August 11, 2017

ONE IN A THOUSAND

“They say it’s haunted, you know.”
He mentioned it between bites of his tuna fish sandwich.
Ted had met us at the dock in Alexandria Bay, NY, and shuttled us to the island two days ago. By now we are friends, and I know he lives in the off season in Seattle with his wife and four-month old baby girl whose Japanese name means ocean. He spends his summers as part of the small staff on the island.

“They say it’s Mrs. Miller, the woman who donated the island to the club. But I’ve been here nearly every summer of my life and I’ve never seen her, though I do admit there are doors that slam when no one is there, and windows that are mysteriously opened. The floorboards creek when the house is empty.”
Dave and I are situated for three days in the Yellow Room, Mrs. Miller’s room, in the Hemlocks Lodge on Deer Island; one of roughly 1500 little islands in the Thousand Islands region of New York. An invisible line in the water divides Canada from the US.
This particular island was donated by the Millers and is now the property of the Knights of 322, secretly or not-so-very-secretly known as Skull and Bones, a very old society of selected students at Yale University. At the end of Dave’s junior-year he and 14 other students were tapped for the club. Their last year at Yale they spent regularly gathering to philosophize, fraternize, feast and otherwise make memories with each other. They have been brothers ever since. Now, over four decades later, they are still friends and continue to make memories. This is their first reunion on the private island since they graduated in 1974.
In their day the club was an all-male organization. This weekend we are sharing the island with a club that graduated in 2014. Half of that club is female. The dynamic is different, but the friendships seem to be as true among them as they are with these fellows.

I’m not sure who they are, individually, in their homes or workplaces, these brothers of my husband. They are all accomplished, dynamic men, with stories to tell that set them apart. But when they get together, they seem to become boys, full of dreams and adventure and camaraderie. And yet there is a depth to them that makes them able to weep with each other. Last year they lost their first brother, Jon Bellis, right about this time of year. He and his wife were driving home and hit a massive longhorn bull that had escaped the fence line near their home in Texas. Jon was killed instantly.
Brian Kelly went back to Yale two years ago to earn his master’s degree in Divinity. His searching soul was led there after his wife Billie was killed in a tragic hotel fire.
As Dave and I drove here from Michigan, where we had spent the last two weeks at our cottage near Tawas, we got a call from Brian, asking where we were at that moment. Dave answered that we were about a half hour from Toronto. Turns out another brother, Larry Bisaro, was stuck at the Toronto airport when his flight to the island area was cancelled. We picked up Larry and brought him with us the remaining four hours to the island. As we drove we caught up. Larry told us about the tragic passing of his wife, Diane, two years ago.
These brothers share their joys and sorrows. I have learned from them the beauty of presence, of ties that bind regardless of time and space, and I have also learned about acceptance, and embracing each other just the way we are. I think of them, collectively and individually, each time the clock in our study at home chimes. They gave us that clock the night before our wedding, at the Blair Mansion in Washington DC. It reminds me, thankfully, how our greatest treasures are timeless.

I sit today in the old easy chair, situated in the corner of Mrs. Miller’s Yellow Room in the Hemlocks on Deer Island, listening to the water lap against the shore, hearing the musical hum of small engines conveying people to and from various surrounding islands, feeling the chill of the breezes wafting through the trees and into the wide, screened windows lining the walls of this space. The place is quiet today. All the boys have gone on a fishing expedition. Only Julia Barge and I remain, and I am holed up in this room making preserves of the season, stirring the images and memories into my computer so I can savor them later, like late summer berries put into jam to spread on toast on a winter’s day.
This island is full of charm and history and mystery.
About 40 acres of wooded, rocky landscape, with paths and shrines and boats and tubes and swings.

The water is exceptionally high this year, so much so that the regular pathways to docks and lodges are covered in water and we have to make our way across the island though woody pathways to get to Beebe lodge, where they serve our meals. The ground is spongy soft, like we are walking on fairy dust topped with mulch and moss. Someone, through the ages, has laid down stone stairways, and rocky bridges over small tributaries. My poor neuro-challenged legs are suffering.
But the rest of me thinks it divine, though humid and hot. Today is has cooled to the point of closing some of the windows in our room. The pine tree just outside the window by my chair creaks as she bends gently in the breeze, her branches raising and lowering in a gracious wave to neighboring islands. Her bark is spotted with a colony of muted green moss making its way up to her branches, where the sunlight dances and dapples through slender emerald needles.
I pretend I am a work-worn executive from Manhattan who has made his way northward for a reprieve, and these trees sweep across my worries and whoosh them out to the waters. They float away toward the sea. I imagine how refreshing this would be to a city mouse.


Yesterday, Simone shuttled Dave and me on the small boat over to Boldt Castle on Heart Island, the island just beside us. You can’t really walk to your neighbors in this place. Dave recalls the year he graduated, when the whole club came up to the island. They loaded all the gang into a boat, to where it was almost below water, and the motored late at night, with not lights on, across the channel, miraculously avoiding freighters and other vessels, over to Boldt Castle. 
 

The castle had been built in the late 19th century by George C Boldt for his wife Louise. It was massive, and elaborate. Just before it was finished Louise died, and George, brokenhearted, abandoned the project and never returned to the island. Through the years, it fell into tremendous disrepair, to the point that vandals removed most everything of value and left their names and dates as scars upon the walls.
About twenty years ago the state took over the island and its buildings and rebuilt and finished, according the architectural plans, the castle as Boldt had intended it. It is fabulously re-done.
Dave was in awe through our whole tour. “Over there, by the grand staircase,” he said, “a full-sized tree was growing, right up through the center of the house.” I was reminded, as we walked through the beautiful home and grounds, how it is sometimes a gift to use one’s money to create something massively grand. Not always, mind you. Money can be used in so many helpful ways, for mankind. But once in a while, man-made grandeur is magical, and I am grateful that someone supplies it for us.
Simone returned and took us back to Deer Island in time for a chat with friends and a refreshing nap. Dinner was steak and rhubarb pie.

Afterward the knights gathered round a circle in the lodge, in the room lined with bookcases full of musty summer paperbacks and board games, with a non-playing player piano on one end, a stone lined fireplace on the other,
and a cubby-cove lined in wood where someone has displayed a rather large collection of stuffed wild birds, probably a hundred years old now.
Here and there you’ll find skulls sitting on shelves, or 322 scratched into a rock.
Long Devil (Brian Kelly) and Chip and Larry, on a dare, clomped across the roof of Beebe hall and jumped two stories down into the cold water.


Bruce sat next to me in a reclining lawn chair, icing a torn hamstring from a tennis game earlier in the day. Dave and I decide to leave the dining hall early in the evening, knowing that the light of the day would soon be gone and my uncooperative legs might not find the pathway home. We take the inner-island path we had discovered earlier in the day, when we visited the honeymoon cottage and the burned-out ruins of an ancient stony mansion.
We tiptoe through tender ferns and soft mint colored moss, past where acorns are turning into new trees and fallen trees are being cut for firewood.
There is an outdoor oven made of stone and mud, the broken statue of Buddha and the engraved shrine to Mrs. Miller, and so many more treasures we have not found in this short adventure.
When the fishermen return this afternoon, Dave and I will gather our goods and load them into the Mistress (one of the island’s boats) and return to the mainland. We will make our way South in New York, to the home of our Kate, then later in the week on to Manhattan, where Dave has judicial meetings.
For now, though, I will close this page and make my way across the island for lunch. I have to remind myself, as I walk, to inhale, and to pause in my journey to look up.
One day we will return to this island, perhaps with our own little treasures, and let them discover what once was, and what still is, and whatever will be.


Sunday, July 23, 2017

MY MARGARET

She is mine.
I say this with all deference and courteous regard to those who share her bloodline, her name, or more hours of her life than I. I know how gracefully she sits on that holy throne of matriarchal power, where masses of people surround her with love and reverence… people who have deep roots that have grown under her seat and wrapped themselves around her. I was a stranger who popped into her already-full life less than five years ago.
Margaret's family at the 50 year anniversary celebration for
Margaret's School of Custom Dressmaking and Design
Still, without apology, I claim her as my own.
I know, just about everyone else who knows her feels the same, at least those who know her well, but we have our very own recipe, Margaret and I: simple, and relatively plain, and uniquely ours. I suppose the beauty of it comes out in the context, much the same way two notes played on the piano can be rather boring alone, but sparkle and pop when wrapped in divine orchestration.

Margaret Bingham Farmer and I met in her safe place, which soon became my safe place, down there under the garage, tucked into the eastern ridge of the foothills of Centerville, Utah, nearly five years ago. My mother had passed away that summer, and my heart was heavy with absence and longing. My friend Suzanne suggested one day that I join her in the sewing class she attended Wednesday mornings. I looked at Suzanne and chuckled, reminding her that the closest I came to ever sewing anything, past the age of thirteen, was the Fuzzy Wuzzy Bear costume I glued together with a hot glue gun for my five-year old’s tap recital. Suzanne reassured me that this was not your typical sewing class, that I would fit right in, and I would especially love the teacher, who had taught Suzanne how to sew forty years ago, and was still teaching. Plus, I could learn how to alter the blouses that never fit properly around my hips. I agreed to give it a go, partly because I was curious about this ancient sewing guru, but mostly because I wanted to spend a bit of time with Suzanne.
Eight-thirty Wednesday morning Suz picked me up. We wove through the streets of Farmington and Centerville up to Margaret’s house; a funky vintage-y looking place which had to have been super hip when it was built in the early 1960’s. The separate two car garage sat at road level, as did the entrance to the house, but the lot sloped down to the west, offering awesome views, and a walk-out basement under both structures. We waddled down a flight of cement steps between the house and garage, opened the screen and plain wood doors and entered the sacred space. I knew right away it was holy. It smelled of clean laundry starch and faint machine oil, the air was soft and warm on our skin, moist with the steam from the commercial grade steam iron sitting always at attention there in the hallway. The room buzzed with conversation, sentences rising with questions and falling with answers. There were sounds of thin brown pattern paper rattling, round metal weights clunking down on the cutting table, scissors snipping, and always underneath everything, was the faithful churning of machines working in earnest. The room was filled with women, probably seven or eight of them, some sitting at machines, some standing at tables.
In the center of it all was a white-haired Yoda-like-guru-master-of-a-woman, with a yellow tape measure hung around her neck along with a black lanyard at the bottom of which was attached a small sharp pair of scissors. A blue denim apron hung from her waist, filled with marking pens and seam rippers and hem chalk. All the energy in the frenetic, colorful space swirled around her, like bees in a hive.


I try, at this moment, to recall that very first meeting; the moment itself when I first met Margaret face to face, but I have lost it somewhere in my brain. Instead I see her eyes light up when they see me, her lips turn readily upward at the edges, and her soft, able hands rise to embrace me. It seems to me that this has always been our welcome dance, but I know logically that it cannot be true…that there was once a time when we were strangers to each other, but it must have been so short lived that it disappeared like the flash of a lightening bug on a dark summer night.
For her 90th birthday I got her a selfie stick.
Suzanne made her famous  almond cherry cake
 topped with very cool Hanukkah candles
My Margaret is full of stories, and always interested in mine as well. We sit knee to knee, sometimes sewing, sometimes not, because sewing was always secondary to me. We sit and talk and talk and talk: about Preston, Idaho when she was small and fatherless, the youngest in a big ole batch of sisters; about Traphagen, the design school in New York City where she mastered her craft, with its eccentric schoolmistress whose large portrait hung in the entrance to the school – a woman dressed in strange ornate male medieval garb. Escapades in the big city, designing Boy Scout film costumes, long trips on the subway, getting the best wool in the Lower East Side by being the first to purchase in the morning from immigrant shop owners. My Margaret told of dinners in elegant places with elegant people, chance encounters and streets filled with returning soldiers at the end of WWII. Stories of that character she married named Jay; of her boys covered in tar and trapped in phone booths, of her girls, at least one of whom was born in that very sewing room when it first served as a temporary home until the real house was built. Unwed mothers nurtured privately and shamelessly in her home. Goats milked daily in her back yard. A pear tree chopped down by her young son in the neighbor’s yard which Jay insisted be used as a Christmas tree later that year. The day another neighbor boy’s horse foaled and they all watched. Mornings memorizing as she laid her feet in her chi machine, and seven push-ups every night, even at ninety years old, after prayers. “I’m already down there you know, on my knees, so I just do my pushups then go to bed.”
Each year, in early fall, Margaret begins the monumental task of creating the Christmas gifts for her large brood. When you live to be nearly a hundred, the number of ducklings following you becomes herd-like. It became a team project to figure out those fabric banks she designed and stitched for all her posterity. None of us touched them, but we all owned them emotionally, we who called ourselves her sewing minions. (Few of us can figure out how to use that computerized machine. We all, except for Linda, default to those trusty Bernina’s that line the classroom.) Then there were the sweatshirts, which used up maybe half an inch of fabric out of the miles and miles she has in the fabric room.
Last year I suggested to Margaret that she record some of those stories and give them as her Christmas gift. Her kids had bought her a newfangled iPhone. Each Wednesday she taught me a little sewing and I taught her a new thing to do on her smart phone. “Here’s how you take a picture.” And… “If you push this icon then you can record your voice and the phone will write it out for you. Or if you push this one you will have a recording of your voice, and you can label and save it like this.” I was always amazed at how much she could retain, and how quick she was to learn this technical stuff when she had been born in the days when the preferred mode of transportation was horse, and maybe a buggy.
Look at those sparkly eyes!
Each Wednesday I set my phone on the table in front of her and let her talk, or we asked her questions. She was a storyteller extraordinaire, and part of her charm was that she didn’t know it. By late November I made an appointment in the recording studio to download, mix and master all those stories from my phone and her phone. I picked Margaret up and drove her to the studio. She had not been feeling too well. Her ankles were awfully swollen, and they thought maybe something was wrong with her heart, because it wasn’t doing its regular stellar job of pumping for her. She was recovering from pneumonia perhaps, though I don’t remember clearly, because every time Margaret wasn’t feeling top notch, she knew what to do, what voodoo concoction to assemble, or Klixi took her to the doctor, and she came out of it good as new. I sat her next to me on the couch in the studio while my friend Mark engineered. It took hours. I lifted Margaret’s feet onto the coffee table in front of us and placed a pillow behind her head. She dozed while we worked. That’s when I knew that someone holier than any of us was tugging at a thread in the fabric of her supernatural life. It caused a pit to grow in my stomach.
Not Margaret. Not Margaret! Margaret represented…I don’t know… something endless… ageless… never changing. She was that room under the garage, where nothing looks like it has changed since 1963, where we are all young girls and she is our mothers, and time is kind and gentle and nothing hurts, at least not for very long, and we might have to pause and be sick for a minute but no one is allowed to die!
The recording of Margaret’s stories required two compact discs. I think her family really cherishes that Christmas gift. We who shared the time and space when she recorded them certainly do. Those stories make us laugh out loud, and clutch our hearts at the same time. They make me feel like we are right there in the sewing room, listening to our teacher show us how to live, and maybe how to sew as well.
Three months ago … was it three months ago? I am messed up by the way time hurled itself into our sacred space under the garage! Something like three months ago Margaret announced, matter-of-factly, that the doctor had told her she has cancer. Colon cancer, to be exact. And she had decided that she wasn’t going to do any of that stuff to fight it off. “No one can say I didn’t live to be ninety-one, can they?” she said. We threw our arms around her and wept like schoolgirls. She patted our backs and reassured us that she felt fine and she trusted that God would do what he needed to do and we shouldn’t fret too much about it, and now let’s get that seam surged!
Wednesday mornings, like sacraments, came rotating through, and I found myself inhaling my moments with Margaret … almost hyperventilating with the inhaling. Each week her clothes hung looser, and her steps shorter, until two weeks ago she walked up from the sewing school and never walked back down.
A few days later, after Margaret took a bad fall in the driveway, Linda arranged a schedule for her sewing minions to take turns sitting with her. I spoke for Wednesday mornings. It was a holy day anyway, by now. Klixi-of-the-golden-heart, Margaret’s youngest who had been born in the sewing room, spent every morning helping her mom rise and dress and eat breakfast, along with her first dose of Morphine for the day. When I came into the kitchen, regardless of where she was physically or emotionally, those eyes lit up and her hands lifted to my neck. I realized, just this past Wednesday, that the sparkle in her eyes was that of my own mother, and somehow I suspected that there was a pact divinely orchestrated where God allowed me an extra five years of shimmer.
My friend Carla, who sewed beside me on many a Wednesday morning, and whose voice and musicianship is beyond compare, came to spend this past Wednesday with Margaret and me. I pulled the long black zipper on my gig bag and released my guitar, and Carla did the same to her autoharp case. We planted ourselves at Margaret’s bedside and began to sing. How Great Thou Art, and Nearer My God to Thee. Idaho Wind, and I’ll Fly Away. Song after song we breathed our love into her room. Klixi, for reasons known only to God’s angels, could not bring herself to leave her mother that day and go to work. Instead she sat beside her Margaret, stroking her hair while we played. Carla’s Margaret turned to her and thanked her. Marsha came into the room for her afternoon shift, and the chaplain from hospice. We all huddled there around her bed, exhaling our love. Carla and I left at 3 pm.
The next morning, while the cool air of the night still hovered at her windowsill, Margaret let the fabric of the veil tear in two and leapt into Heaven.
Two weeks ago my daughter Kate called on Sunday evening. We had just cleaned up after a delightful evening with Margaret’s family, where our sewing class had made dinner and Carla, her husband Dave, and I had put on an intimate acoustic house concert, all in Margaret’s honor. I told Kate about the lovely gathering, and how sad we were to think of losing Margaret.
“What’s wrong with Margaret?” Kate asked.
I know these hands.
Kate lives in New York, and I had neglected to tell her about the cancer. Kate became silent, and when she finally spoke again, I could hear the tears over the phone. That’s when My Margaret appeared. I felt her voice rise from my aching chest, her reassuring hands reaching across all those miles of America, patting my daughter’s back.
“It’s OK Kate. Margaret is OK. She says no one can ever say she didn’t live till she was ninety-one. And I mean live till she was ninety-one. Something has to kill us, or we’d never get Home.”
That next Wednesday, at breakfast in Margaret’s kitchen, I told her about my conversation with Kate. Margaret nodded, reached her hands up to pull me in, gave me a kiss, then whispered in my ear, “Thanks for being here. There’s no one I’d rather die with.”


Wherever she is, whomever she is with, and whatever stories she may be telling at this moment, I think somehow this woman who changed my life is changing someone else’s. Somewhere. And that person will end up thinking that this is their Margaret, because of her power to possess hearts. But I tell you, unequivocally and in all honesty, she is … and always will be… my Margaret.



For her birthday one year I ordered these tags for her creations.
I am a Margaret Farmer original, too.
My friend Suzanne could never bring herself to call her Margaret, “Margaret”. To her she was always “Mrs. Farmer”. I always thought it was a sign of respect, but looking from a distance, I suppose it could also be that when Suzanne is in that space, she is twelve years old, her father is still alive and she will have a groovy new pair of plaid bell bottoms before school starts next month. The girl in her who is still a vulnerable, hopeful, well-loved child feels at home there, like I do. 

Thank you, Margaret.