Saturday, February 4, 2017

Part Six: A Maker (The Last of the Letter to my Great-Grandmother)



Dear Sunny -

John gives you a bible and inscribes it with these words: July, 1927, Philippians 1:3, which is, I thank my God upon every remembrance of you. In her notes, Grandma Nancy then writes, “thus began a marriage of devotion and pain."

When the summer of 1942 arrives, the relief of heat is a tease, for with it, humidity settles, sticks and sweats. So you pack the station wagon with swimsuits and drive north to be with Baba by the sea. She has a house in Buzzards Bay, Cape Cod - a whole house all to herself.

For years,  you and John and the children escape to Baba’s in Buzzards Bay often. And when the house next door goes on the market, you buy it for real cheap and stay there during your retreats north. John is asked to lead a new mission church in Bourne. He takes the job. It won't pay very much, but you are all more than ready to leave Pennsylvania for the country by the sea.

In the fall of 1944, you and the children set off for Buzzards Bay without much of anything. The house is partially furnished from your summer stays. John cannot join you yet - he has work to finish in Philadelphia. Soon after you arrive in Massachusetts, however, The Great Atlantic Hurricane, a category-four major tropical cyclone, flies up the eastern coast of North America. They cannot predict storms in 1944 like meteorologists can today. No one sees it coming until it’s too late. Many ships are out at sea when the strong storm - as wide as 600 miles - hits. 70 years later, it is still considered one of the most destructive hurricanes in New England history.

That night, while the wind whips the water and whistles through the windows and walls, you and the children huddle inside with neighbors. Nancy hardly sleeps at all that night as she lies listening to the trees creak, crack and collapse. What do you do, Sunny? Curse? Weep? Drink? Smoke? Stalk the windows with your bags by the door - ready to run? Holler prayers in hoarse whispers: Really God? Really? After all this, after all these difficult years, I finally make it to a place I love and you send down the storm of a century to wash me and my children away? The storm passes and in the morning, you see the damage. The small sailboat is gone and the boathouse by the beach has been swept away. The bank on the bay is never the same and the power is out and remains off for days. When the lines are finally mended and the electricity is turned back on, the children go off to their new schools. Eventually, John makes it past all the downed trees to reach you.


In the fall of 1944, Nancy is 15 years old. She attends Bourne High School and soon meets Louis Fougere while on a bus ride to a football game. Lou asks Nancy if she'd like to go with him to the movies. The two teenagers start dating and 72 years later (after many wedding anniversaries, birthdays, houses, boats, babies and travels) my grandparents are back in Buzzards Bay, living in a beautiful, bright condominium.

The mission church where John begins preaching is called St. Peter’s Episcopal Church on the Canal. It's established in 1938 with services in an empty hall. In 1944, when you all come to town, John begins leading the growing congregation, which wants a permanent home. You get the idea to write a letter to the popular national radio show, Vox Pop - to see if they'd be interested in doing a piece about the church. They contact you and John, tell you that they'd like to do an entire live show about St. Peter's. After it airs, inspired listeners across the country send you donations. These gifts (along with money from church fundraisers), make the purchase of a church possible. John finds a vacant chapel 60 miles away in the town of Hull, Massachusetts. It is far too expensive to move by truck, but by water, on a big flat barge, is possible. The year is 1947 and this little white church floating down the Cape Cod Canal makes the front page of the local newspaper and settles into our family history as one of our most cherished stories.

The old church is in poor shape when it arrives, but the parishioners and you and John, beautify the building with nautical symbols, light gray shingles and white trim. The doors are painted a bold red. Mounted above the front double doors, the bow of a small shiny green fishing boat floats. In the boat, there is a man in a yellow slicker with a matching brimmed hat. He holds a net. He must be Saint Peter. With his white beard and old face, he looks out and up. Behind him, the mast of his boat is the shape of a cross.

"When you think of Sunny, do you think of someone who was frail?” I ask my mother.  
“No. Not at all.” Mom says. She tells me how capable a person you are. She says you probably just don’t have a lot of physical stamina because of all the cigarettes you smoke. "Grand smokes like a chimney too." ("Grand" is our name for John). She says.

 "Pipe or cigarettes?”
“Cigarettes.”
In the papers Grandma gives me, there is the copy of a newspaper article written about you entitled, Ceramics Grows From Hobby Into Profitable Business- Buzzards Bay Woman Gets Many Orders. It tells of a Christmas when John gives you a book about ceramics, a small hobby kiln and the materials needed to craft clay. The article reads,
She has converted a former bedroom into her own studio workshop. It is beside the garage and has an excellent view of the water. There she is able to work undisturbed. A small heater that her husband has placed there keeps the studio warm regardless of the outside temperature. She does all her modeling, firing and decorating in her workshop. There are many of her designs pinned on the wall and her work bench is mute evidence of her industry.
Gram writes,
My parents had a great relationship in their younger years. When they got to be late seventies, things fell apart a bit, not really sure why except for ill health and the weight of years. My father did not counsel Mom as you think. We were all exposed to his beliefs and teachings all the time in church. My dad was a people person, my mom more a private person.
He may not council you in the traditional sense, with advice, but maybe he helps you in other wordless ways. 

Gram writes:
….My father was very handsome and always had ladies eyeing him. I remember one Sunday in Buzzards Bay, he got up in the pulpit, with his family in the front pew, and declared he had nothing to do with a rumor about him and a local female.
In your old age, you and John go off to live in Florida - for a few winters, I think. He is a pastor. You are a painter. You love the obscurity there. You can hide out in the sunshine with all the other old ladies and gentlemen - for hardly anyone knows you. But when you're away for too long. Grand misses the gossip of the cape. So you return to Buzzards Bay where Grand writes a column for the local newspaper, preaches at St. Peter's and rides his scooter around town, visiting old pals. In Buzzards Bay, you are the pastor's wife. You help run the church, organizing social events and fundraisers, as well as hosting dinner parties and gatherings. 

I am a child when you die, but I remember your funeral. Mostly, I remember my mother weeping. We sit on the left side of St. Peter's. Grand dies in 1986 when I am three. You die in 1990 when I am seven. Before the ceremony, while everyone is slowly walking in, I sit beside my mother while she cries harder than I have ever heard a grown-up cry before. (I am still in her belly when her big brother, Steven, dies in 1983). As people pass us, many place their hands on her shoulder, pausing to squeeze. You are very special to her. Perhaps your funeral is the moment my fascination with you begins.

I have written some of your story here. There is far more that is missing, but I'm sure, you prefer it that way.

I hope that your life is full of pretty little pleasures, of purpose and wet paint and stretched white canvases, of butterscotch candies, music, books, solitude and warm conversation. I'd like to, but I can't, watch you paint portraits or landscapes or porcelain. I can't sit with you in the bedroom of your childhood helping you to squish the bedbugs on your wall. Nor can I hold your hand in the hospital, while doctors poke you with needles and tubes to drain the pneumonia from your little child lungs. I won't ever watch you stroll down the streets of Philadelphia alone in 1925 or drink with you in a smoky New York City speakeasy in 1926. That's because you live then so that I can live now. 

Here I take in your story and spit it back out as best I can - simply to know you better and to appreciate my own life better. There is one conclusion I feel I can make and that is this: you cannot possibly be sad and ill with alcoholism and depression all day every day, for you are also, for many hours of your life, busy building lovely little things, which to me is proof that you're alright. You escape poverty, the death of your parents, addiction and the suffocation of sorrow, partially, I firmly believe, because you are a maker. I want to be a maker like you. I make bread and supper and scones. I make my baby with my body and now I make her laugh and I make her fruit and yogurt smoothies, pasta and popcorn. I make pots of coffee so dark it muddies the bottom of my mug and I make letters and cards and lists and joy. And I make up songs and stories and sentences. But I want to make more. I want to sketch drawings again. I want to learn how to knit. I want to lose myself to the unlimited possibility of paper and a pallet of paint. 

This small study of your life reminds me that it is the making, the process of building something new, that is most valuable to a soul. So thank you, Sunny. 

With tremendous love and gratitude, 
Your great-granddaughter, 
Rachel