Well, I meant to post a few weeks ago, but I had two big projects that needed my writing time, so I put this off until now. I hope to be more regular with posting stuff but right now that’s more hope than promise.
Last time I wrote how my mother was a strong, ambitious woman who accomplished many things in our community, but wasn’t able to give what babies and toddlers needed. I also think there was awful pediatric advice that told parents not to hold their children because they would be spoiled. As a baby I had to be in the hospital at a time when docs didn’t know babies needed their mothers to be with them. I suspect many Baby Boomers were hurt by not being held as much as we needed. As a girl I often walked into the woods behind our house and cried for someone to hold me. The passage where Jesus says he will wipe away our tears seemed like heaven to me, well, it is a description of heaven. And it was healed when young men broke through my reserved space, held and kissed me.
When people say it’s better off children were not brought into the world because they might be abused, I think, well, we’re all going to be abused in one way or another because there are no perfect parents. We are all broken human beings, likely to hurt each other enough that we send someone to a therapist’s office or we end up there. And hopefully we work towards forgiveness. And healing that sometimes needs to be worked through like an archeologist digging through layers of occupation, discovering things that need to be catalogued, bagged and put away. Maybe a pattern will shape itself into a story, a history, maybe it won’t.
Enough of that.
There is much grace to be found if we open ourselves to people who can stand in for our parents.
After we celebrated our marriage at a reception my aunts gave us in New York, we drove to Cape Cod to visit old friends of my mother’s and parents of school friends. I’d had crushes on both men that I translated into prayers for their salvation. Some how that infatuation and those prayers drew them to me years later, after my brother died. Both visited us in Illinois. But that’s another story for another time. It’s a mystery and an awe how some people thread through your life. The Proctors are such people.
Soon after we visited them, the Proctors moved to Bath, Maine, finding a tear down right on the coast. They could rebuild but they were required to build on the footprint of the house. Their son Ron was a carpenter and built them a very fine house, that was the epitome of hospitality.
On this visit, My husband, Bruce, and I had just driven five hours from Albany to Bath, Maine. We’d almost bought farm three times when semis merged into our lane with us in it. Our nerves were shot. And we were headed for our second family, the Proctors.
I’ve known them since I could think. Gene has told the story that she met my mother when my brother started kindergarten with her son Bruce. I had to be two, so I’m not kidding about how long I’ve known them. I remember one day Gene was baby sitting and we saw black smoke on the horizon. We jumped in the car and drove up to the Helderbergs, an escarpment that bordered the west end of Albany county. Below we could see the billowing flames. A lumberyard had caught fire. We drove to Altamont to get a closer look and saw embers raining down and the fat bellies of oily flames. The Pauleys and the Proctors often played together after school while our mothers worked on the Helderberg Workshop, a summer program that showed children how learning can be an adventure.
When we all moved into high school, my brother Clayton and Bruce Proctor played chess and guitar together. I wrote letters to him about poetry and God. He’d become a Buddhist and practiced days of sitting meditation. After my mother died Bruce drove me to the Helderbergs. We sat on the other side of the low stone wall overlooking the Hudson valley, the cliff dropping below us. When my father died Bruce took me to his parents where Gene served her famous cinnamon rolls. When Clayton died Bruce said he was the only person he knew who lived the same room he had when he was a child.
One time my father tried to talk Bruce into Jesus, Bruce leaned back and said, “I don’t know about that, but you’re my second family,” which flipped when my parents and brother died and suddenly the Pauleys weren’t a family and the Proctors became my second family. It was Bob and Gene who took in my husband, Bruce, and I, giving us a second shot at the kind of love parents give—the-pot-of-soup-waiting-at-the-end-of-a-long-day-kind-of-love.
The wind was catching the sea at Birch Point, and the water was amber and the wind caught us as we got out of the car, whipping our shirts with enough chill that I didn’t want to walk out to the point. But Bruce settled himself as the wind and the waves blustered around him as joyously as a barking golden retriever.
Bob and Gene weren’t going to be home when we arrived because they had a wedding to attend. There was a slow cooker of vegetable soup and a pan of chocolate cake, and a Post It note telling us to eat up and enjoy. Which is what Bruce and I did. We took our bowls to the table and looked out their window at the amber light and point jutting across the way with a dock floating at high tide. Opposite us was a lobster boat tied to a buoy. We stared out the window hoping to see the funnels of the Scotia Princess below the horizon as the ship plied her way from Portland to Haland to Halifax. On the window ledge was a carved wooden fisherman, a wire hanging down, a line into the air, a line into water that reminded me of an earlier visit when Bruce caught a striped bass as big as he was in the Kennebec in the shadow of the Bath Iron works.
Part of hospitality is the home a family sets around themselves. That empty space where people live and move and have their being. The Proctors’ house is bigger than it looks even though it’s built on the foundation of a cabin, Maine’s rules for building on the coast, holding the Proctors to that footprint. It’s full of nooks and crannies with little things Gene has found at garage sales and flea markets. When I’m there, I delight in looking at the dish full of sea glass, delight in the glass frog I sent one Christmas. I sit in the covered easy chairs, staring at the wooden ships and grandfather clock standing straight like a tall person who doesn’t have to stoop, standing tall under the cathedral ceiling, the moon in its face.
Part of hospitality is the home a family sets around their guests—two bathrobes hung on hooks in the bedroom, and orange juice on the front porch, the ocean as glassy and quiet as it was chopped the night before, the air balmy. Gene has stepped into a mother’s role, taking me shopping at Renys, a Maine department store or buying me a necklace and earrings because that’s what moms do for daughters. Bob has told stories of when he worked as a civil engineer in Alaska and New York, family stories that don’t belong to me because I didn’t grow up with them, but stories that welcomed us to the hearth. (My family stories are pretty much lost to me. Sometimes it takes age to know what questions to ask about what happened when. I was thirty two when Clayton died.)
The Proctors have welcomed us into a solitary space and listened when we’ve needed counsel for our lives. And they have delighted in the gifts we’ve sent, the bulb garden that bloomed in January adding color to the front window, and the black raspberry jam Bruce made from wild bushes in the field across from our former home.
There’s something about simple loving hospitality that helped put me in my skin after a winter that was as close to a dark night of the soul as I’ve come, that began with a sentence small as a lemon twist from relatives I wanted to visit, saying in essence, you’re family, but not for Christmas, not even the Christmas right after September 11, when I wanted to be with my family. Amazing how a sentence can twist open a whole bottle of loneliness. Amazing.
It didn’t help to be reading Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross, wishing I wouldn’t go through a dark night of the soul. But sure enough I did. The details aren’t important—my cousin on my dad’s side died–a cousin who gifted me with my father’s family’s stories and lineage, who wanted me to come that Christmas. And when my students didn’t come to my classes, I felt gut punched. It felt no different than inviting people to a party and they wouldn’t come. A poet colleague reminded me that in the scheme of things my class is not that important, which was comforting. My writing turned me inside out so much that I felt like an emotional burn patient thinking nobody wanted to be my friend I was so dark. It was a bad winter. What is important is how mourning shall last for the night, but a shout of joy will come in the morning.
And somehow that pot of soup and cake and wind tossed evening changed everything. Somehow Gene and Bob throwing their arms around us, saying, “It’s so good to see you” stopped the rule of darkness in my life. Stopped it dead in its tracks. Everything flipped, and I found joy and light and quiet in the simplest of things. And the people I felt were far away suddenly drew near without me doing anything. Maybe that’s why Jesus says whether we are herded to His left or right, all hinges on a cup of water or should I say a pot of soup.
There is much grace to be found if we open ourselves to people who can stand in for our parents.
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