How Does JC’s Mind Work? #1

For months/years, I have threatened/promised to write about how I got to be who I am today and what shaped me along the way. This sporadic series will try to unpack my personal history and influences and, I hope, set people to thinking about their own.

So, I seem to have developed a bad habit of starting a new series here at Top of JC’s Mind at the (almost) worst possible time, as I did when starting JC’s Confessions. (Shameless plug. See link to those posts in my main menu.)

Some readers have expressed interest in knowing how I evolved into the creature I currently am and, particularly during these fraught times, there seems to be new impetus for examining our viewpoints and how we came to hold them, so I thought I’d try to break open some of that for readers.

It seems logical to start with one of the early, fundamental parts of my life, which is that I have rural roots.

And I mean, really rural.

I grew up in a town along the Massachusetts/Vermont border with a population of about 200. We had our own grammar school, grades one through eight when I entered, expanding to kindergarten through eighth when Massachusetts mandated kindergarten when I was in fifth grade or so, housed in three classroom in a WPA-built building that also had the town office, small public library, and a gym that was used by the school and for town meetings and events. There was a small general store that included a post office, which we visited every day to get our mail, but we usually shopped in North Adams, which was twenty miles away and offered more grocery selections at lower prices. We also attended high school in North Adams. It’s where my spouse B and I met, although that is definitely another story.

Although the town was small, it had two distinct sections. Down in “The Bridge” lived the people who worked in the mill, which made specialty paper products, like the wrappers for Necco wafers. They were mostly European immigrant stock, drawn to the area to work in the mill. Up on “The Hill” were the older Yankee stock, some of whom farmed or worked for the town itself, doing roadwork, plowing, etc. They also got Rural Free Delivery of their mail, so they didn’t need to come down to the post office every day, which was a blessing especially in the winter when the unpaved road from The Hill to The Bridge shut down for months and could only be traversed by snowmobile.

My family did not live in either section. Our house was about a mile from The Bridge and was owned by New England Power Company, for whom my father, known here as Paco, worked. It was located near an unmanned hydroelectric station so Paco could reach it quickly if needed. It, an observation stand, and one of the first commercial nuclear power plants in the United States which shared the hydro reservoir with the much older station were our closest neighbors.

Like other small New England towns, everyone knew everyone else and co-operated in running the school and the town. For the most part, people took care of themselves and their families, although everyone kept an eye out for a few townfolks who had special challenges due to age or health.

Then, the mill closed.

A few people re-located to Georgia where the company had another mill, but most lost their jobs and, because the whole area was having similar closures in the manufacturing sector which was the backbone of the economy, many moved away. Certainly, people in my generation moved to other places where they could get work. The population dropped to under a hundred. The school closed when they had only seven students in K-8.

Last August, I was back in the area and wrote this post, which includes some photos from the town and a bit of additional backstory.

So, what does all of this have to do with who I am today?

Growing up in the country gave me an appreciation of the natural world, its beauty, and power. I knew the names of the trees and plants and birds in the woods around our house and knew to respect the bears that sunned themselves on the rocks on the hill opposite our house, the deer that came down to drink from the reservoir, and the porcupines, that, for some reason, liked to chew on our back steps. Especially because Paco worked in hydro, we payed attention to the weather; it was important to know how much water was in the snowpack to handle the spring runoff and how high the winds might be with a storm, in case they threatened the power lines. Also, when it is twenty miles and over a mountain to get to a doctor or store or other services, you have to know how much snow is coming and when.

Like most rural folks, we gardened and bought food from local farmers. We did some of our own canning, including making bread-and-better pickles, and freezing fruits and vegetables. We always had a well-stocked pantry and freezer because you couldn’t easily run to the store if you were out of something. We did most of our cooking and baking from scratch and, like most rural New Englanders, made sure to use everything, like making stock from poultry carcasses. A lot of these skills have come in handy during the pandemic when shopping has been difficult and supply chains unreliable.

Living in such a small town gave me an appreciation of community, of working together to accomplish a task with people who hold a range of opinions and viewpoints, and to always watch out for the needs of our most vulnerable neighbors. While there was seldom overt reference to it, you usually knew what struggles families were facing and were respectful of them.

I admit that I also learned what it feels like to be an outsider. I didn’t live in The Bridge or on The Hill. Because my family was Irish-Italian, instead of just having one ethnic background, I didn’t fit in a category, not that this was a detriment because it averted the “dumb (insert ethnicity here) jokes” and what would now be heard as ethnic slurs from getting lobbed my way. I guess I also learned that people can make divisions among what would look to some observers to be a racially and economically homogeneous group. My grade in grammar school was relatively large. Although we had a couple of people move in and out, our core was four girls. The other three were all cousins who lived on The Hill, so I was destined to be an outsider. This was compounded by some academic decisions of our teachers that sometimes had me working with the grade above ours or on my own. I see this tension between community and solitary pursuits continue to play out in my life over time.

Because of what happened to my town when the mill closed and because I have continued to live in an area with a similar loss of long-standing industries, jobs, and population, I can sympathize with other folks who face similar situations in their towns. In my days of frequent interaction over issues around fracking and other energy/climate issues, I would often run into people with fears of what was happening with jobs in their towns. I could certainly sympathize with the issues, but I think where I differed was that they expected that their children and grandchildren would stay in town and have the same jobs with the same company as they, their parents, and perhaps even their grandparents had had. I, on the other hand, always knew that I would need to leave my town and make a life elsewhere.

Some people growing up in small towns dream of big-city life, but I am not one of them. Large, busy cities are overwhelming for me. The traffic makes me so nervous I don’t even like to look out the windows of the vehicle. I’m uncomfortable being in crowds and feel hemmed in with large buildings adjoining each other on both sides of the street. Still, I like the opportunities for shopping, restaurants, medical services, and cultural activities that a city can provide.

I think that is why I am content with the Binghamton NY area, where I have lived for close to forty years. There are small city opportunities nearby, but also rural landscapes, hills, trees, and wildlife. Given where I grew up, I don’t think of this area as “small town” but that is a matter of perspective. People that grew up in or near New York City talk about Binghamton as though it is “the country” but, for me, an actual small town girl, it’s plenty big.

How about you? Do you see your environment while growing up as impacting your life and decisions now? Comments are always welcome here at Top of JC’s Mind.

what today calls for

There are some days when you just need to make a spice cake.

Wait. That is probably not true. Let me re-phrase.

Today, I needed to make a spice cake.

This afternoon, while driving home from a trip to deliver a medication to the nurses at Paco’s assisted living unit and stopping to have a document notarized stating that my power of attorney for him is in effect, after a morning spent with him at a new specialist, I was seized with a desire to eat spice cake.

It’s not one of those things you can easily buy at the supermarket or bakery, so I pulled out my Betty Crocker cookbook when I got home and set to work.

Why spice cake? It is an old-time favorite that fills the kitchen with a wonderful aroma as it bakes. When B and I were married in the early ’80s, I chose a spice cake with buttercream icing as our wedding cake, a daring choice in the age of white wedding cakes with sugary white icing. I still love the taste of cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove and find them comforting.

Spice cake stands on its own. It doesn’t need to be layered and frosted. A simple, square pan suffices.

A bonus bit of nostalgia was also involved today.

One of the things I brought home from cleaning out the kitchen in Paco’s apartment in independent living was a set of RevereWare metal bowls that Nana had used when we were growing up and kept all these years. While I had my own set from when B and I first set up house, my mother’s were heavier and the largest bowl of the three was larger than my own set.

It was this largest bowl that I used today to mix my spice cake.

It’s in the oven now.

I have several dozen other things I should be doing right now, but I am instead writing this post, thinking about my parents and home and the passage of time and what is important and the meaning of making spice cake for my family.

And breathing in the scent of cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove.

SoCS: for the birds

We have been feeding the birds in our backyard for years. We also wind up feeding the squirrels, who eat the seeds that fall from the feeders.

We do our best to not have the squirrels eat the bulk of the seed we put out for the birds, so we have some safeguards in place. This year, though, some of our safeguards failed.

We store our bags of birdseed in our backyard shed. In the warm weather, we leave the louvers on the windows open so it doesn’t get too hot inside. This year, an enterprising squirrel chewed through the (metal) window screen to get into the shed, where it chewed through the plastic bags holding the seed and proceeded to eat a lot and make a mess!

We had a metal can inverted on the pole that holds our birdfeeders to act as a squirrel guard. It had worked well for years, but now at least one squirrel – not sure if it is the same one that breached the shed or not – has managed to learn to jump on the side of the can and quickly scramble to the top, whence it can get to all the feeders.

Our large hopper-style feeder is its favorite.

So, in order to keep feeding the birds, we needed new options to protect our seed from ravenous squirrels.

We closed the windows into the shed. The squirrel, remembering there was lots of food in there, then tried to chew its way through the wooden door. Fortunately, the door is too thick, although it does now sport edges that have had the green paint gnawed off.

For the feeders, we went to our local bird feeding store to look at options.

We tried to get an additional cone squirrel guard to put on top of our can one so the squirrel couldn’t get over it to the feeders, but our pole diameter was too large to attach it.

We moved onto option B – to buy a new pole system. (Our original one had been out there at least twenty years and was beginning to have some rust showing, so a new system with a smaller diameter pole seemed to make the most sense.) This also gave us an opportunity to relocate the feeders. When we had placed them initially, they were centered to be seen from the sliding glass doors in our dining room. Since then, we added an addition that houses our kitchen, which has large windows overlooking the backyard. B was able to place the new pole centered in those windows, so our view of the feeders is much better.

The birds are loving the new feeder placement! Some of the birds we see regularly are cardinals, blue jays, chickadees (my favorite), tufted titmouse, downy and hairy woodpeckers, nuthatches…

None of which you can see in the photo I just took, but at least the squirrel is on the ground.

*****
Linda’s prompt for Stream of Consciousness Saturday this week is “opt.” Join us! Learn more here: https://lindaghill.com/2020/11/27/the-friday-reminder-and-prompt-for-socs-nov-28-2020/

Old haunts

This is my last full day in the North Adams area. MASS MoCA is closed today, so I planned to go back to Monroe Bridge, Paco (my dad) and my hometown, and Hoosac Tunnel, Nana’s (my mom) hometown. I thought it would take a couple of hours this morning and I’d be back to the hotel by noon.

I got carried away.

I wound up stopping at a lot of old-but-changed haunts and taking tons of photos. (Don’t worry. I’ll only share a few.) Many of the ones I won’t show are unlikely to be meaningful to anyone without long-standing personal history in the area, as there is a lot of “what used to be here” in play. Warning: There will also be a lot of dams and reservoirs and hydroelectric plants. Paco was superintendent of the Upper Deerfield River (southern Vermont/western Massachusetts) for what was then New England Power Company and my sisters and I grew up traipsing around powerplants and such.

Sherman Reservoir – our house, which is no longer there, was near the dam that created the reservoir
Sherman Station, the hydroelectric plant just below the dam and our “neighbor”

The building in the photo below was built by the WPA in the 1930’s. My father and some of his siblings attended school there when it was new. It also housed the town office and library. They are still there, but most of the building is now offices for the current successor of New England Power Company. The array of mailboxes is a poor substitute for the post office, which was the center of town life for many years. Olga, the postmistress was a good friend of my mom’s; they saw each other nearly every day and stayed in touch after retirement and moves put them at a distance.

Front of the former school with tree dedicated to Olga Simonetti, former postmistress
Olga’s memorial plaque

I went down to the river and crossed the bridge; our town’s name was Monroe, but the mailing address became Monroe Bridge because they would leave the mail at the Monroe bridge. This iteration of the bridge was built in 2015. The dam is quite a lot older. Part of the old paper mill was torn down and replaced with a little park. The rest is still there, although the worse for wear.

I continued downriver. I visited the Dunbar Brook picnic area, which was deserted except for a toad that I startled as I walked across the grass. I got to take a ride on a swing, which was refreshing and nostalgic. When I went back to my car, I was surprised to see that the old road along the river leading toward the Bear Swamp lower reservoir was open. I drove all the way down to the gate just before the Number 5 Station.

Number 5 Station and the Deerfield becoming the lower reservoir for Bear Swamp pumped storage

When I went back up to the main road, I stopped to pay my respects at the Legate family cemetery. When Nana and Paco were first married, they lived in the old Legate House, which was then owned by New England Power. The house was torn down decades ago, but the little cemetery is still tended to.

I wish I could show you a decent photo of the lower reservoir for Bear Swamp. I wish even more that I could tour the underground powerhouse that we visited with Paco so many times as it was being built and after it was completed, but it is all fenced in for safety and security reasons. I will close, though, with a photo of the Hoosac Tunnel. Nana grew up in Hoosac Tunnel, a part of the town of Florida, Massachusetts, because her father headed a maintenance crew for the Boston and Maine Railroad. At the time it was built, the Hoosac Tunnel was an engineering marvel. This is the less-fancy eastern portal. The North Adams side was more decorative, befitting a growing city in the late 1800s.

I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to revisit my roots. I hope that the sense of connection and the energy and the comfort of familiarity will stay with me so that I can make progress on my poetry collection after I am home.

If not, I may have to come back.

Or, maybe, I’ll come back regardless.

Retreat in progress

I wrote here about heading to North Adams on a private writing retreat and wanted to give an update.

I have made two visits to MASS MoCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art), concentrating on exhibits that have arrived since the Boiler House Poets Collective’s last residency in early fall 2019. I’ve taken a lot of photos to help me with my work on my collection and have even been able to sit in the galleries and work on some first drafts for poems. I have a growing sense that I need to center the collection on place, on what it means to be from and of this part of the world. To help with this, I’ve also been taking photos of the plaques scattered around the museum about the history of buildings and people’s remembrances. I even bought a book from the gift shop by Joe Manning, an artist/poet/author/historian, filled with interviews from people in the area.

While I miss my Boiler House poet-friends, I am enjoying the freedom of being totally on my own. I watched a long video about Sol Lewitt and spent time writing in the galleries, which I probably wouldn’t have done if I had our usual studio access, workshopping schedule, and shared meals. I certainly miss the immediate feedback on my poems, although I can sometimes hear echoes of their comments from prior years and feel that this is helping me in my writing and edits now.

The Museum is very responsive to the COVID dangers. Everyone has masks and distances appropriately. The Museum itself is huge, given that it is located in a series of old factory buildings, so it is easy to not be close to other people. They are leaving some windows open to increase air exchange and there are abundant hand-sanitizing stations. The cafe has expanded its indoor and outdoor seating to safe distances. Admission is arranged in advance so that there are not crowds trying to get in at the same time. During the shutdown, B and I became members of the Museum, so I am making good use of my free admission privileges.

Today, I decided not to go the museum. I did practical things in the morning and spent the whole afternoon writing and editing. It felt like a luxury. This evening, I’m catching up on reading, blogging, and email.

I’m also getting to visit some of the people I know who still live in the area. I got to have outdoor and distanced dinner with a high school friend and will have a cousin visit tomorrow in B’s hometown, Stamford VT. On Tuesday, when the Museum is closed, I will most likely drive to my and my dad’s hometown, Monroe Bridge, and my mom’s, Hoosac Tunnel. They appear in some of the poems in my collection.

I am more than halfway through my time here and am feeling like I have accomplished a lot. Perhaps, the most useful thing I have learned is that this time away is fruitful and a possibility to repeat in the future, COVID and family obligations permitting.

Looking out on part of the Ledelle Moe exhibit “When” https://massmoca.org/event/ledelle-moe/

tree trimming

Today, we had a tree service come and trim the large trees in our backyard. They are all at least seventy years old and some of them had some dead branches that threatened to get blown down during storms. There are two maples, an oak, and a cherry.

The company we hired was recommended by the landscapers who are going to give our yard a major makeover this fall. They have certified arborists and we were impressed with their work and their observance of safety protocols. T’s environmental science background informed her appreciation of the helmets, rigging, ropes, chaps, etc. involved. Bonus: They did a great job with cleaning up after they were done.

It’s nice to have a bit more sunlight making it down into our yard, especially where we have my mom’s heirloom rosebush, while, at the same time, still having these big shade trees on the south side of our house.

It’s also nice not to have to worry so much about being impaled by javelin-sticks when it gets windy.

Good-bye, Bob!

Over the weekend, I was serendipitiously at Paco’s senior living community on an errand when a special event happened.

Residents – in masks and safely spaced – were lining the lane and parking lot with signs, flags, and noisemakers, awaiting a drive-by farewell to a long-time resident.

Like my parents, Bob and his wife were early residents, moving into an independent living apartment shortly after the community opened ten years ago. Sadly, both Bob and Paco are now widowers.

Bob’s daughter, who lives locally and who I met years ago through church, and her husband are re-locating to Tennessee and Bob decided to go with them. In preparation for the move, his things were moved out of the apartment and now the new house is finished and it is time to go.

In pre-COVID times, there would have been a going-away party, but instead Bob was chauffeured through the streets in a vehicle decorated with signs and balloons. With the windows rolled down, he could shout out thank yous and receive well wishes from his friends and neighbors. A second decorated vehicle held his family, who, like mine, were frequent visitors over the years.

We’re happy that Bob will be with his family, but sad to see him go. There are getting to be fewer and fewer residents who moved into the community in the first year.

Another reminder that time marches – or drives – on.

how things are here and there

I know there are other things to write about than novel coronavirus status at the moment, but it’s hard for me to write about them without doing the update first. It’s top of mind for millions upon millions of people around the globe.

I live in New York State in the Northeastern United States. Our state is very hard-hit right now, although the majority of the cases are down near New York City, about 150 miles (240 km) from Broome County, where I live. As of this moment, there are 32 known cases in the county and three deaths. The health department is trying to quarantine contacts, but we are seeing community spread.

B is working from home and will continue to for the foreseeable future. We are staying at home, other than for walks in the neighborhood, during which we keep our distance if we happen to see someone else out, and for necessary food and supplies shopping, which is usually my job. I haven’t shopped for a few days, but the last time I tried to do weekly shopping I had to go to several stores. There aren’t real shortages of anything; it’s just that some people are still panic buying and the stores run out of categories of items until they can get their next shipment from the warehouse.

The biggest change in the last week is that we aren’t going to Paco’s everyday. Because my dad lives in a senior community – in other words, a collection of people who are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 complications – we are trying to restrict our visits to only the most necessary ones. Even though I had tried to set up things so that Paco can manage with just telephone reminders, it is difficult not to be able to be there. I’m afraid, though, that it will be many weeks before it is considered advisable to visit frequently.

Meanwhile, daughter E, her spouse L, their daughter ABC, and L’s parents live in one of the global hotspots, London, UK. They were all exposed to the virus the last Sunday that people were allowed to go to church. E and L have both been sick with something that, symptom-wise, could be COVID-19, but they don’t know because tests are only being run on people sick enough to be hospitalized, which, thankfully, they are not. Once this outbreak calms down, E, at least, will probably have an antibody test to confirm if she has had the virus, because she will be having a baby, most likely in August. (This is what is known as burying the lead.)

We are all very happy that there will be a new member in the family. ABC will be three by the time her new brother or sister arrives. We had hoped to visit this spring and then again after the baby’s birth, but all travel plans are on indefinite hold because of the virus and travel restrictions.

It will certainly be very different than having ABC living with us for her first two years, but at least E, L, ABC, and Baby will in the same country and under the same roof. I’m sure L’s parents will enjoy having so much time with the new baby, as we did having ABC on this side of the pond when she was little.

Wishing everyone good health and safety in these difficult times.

SoCS: Aunt Dot’s desk

Beside me when I read this prompt was a maple desk. It is part of a bedroom suite that once belonged to B’s Aunt Dot. Actually, Great-Aunt Dot. B only had one aunt, but he had a bunch of great-aunts, several of whom lived close by enough that he saw them often when he was growing up. Because we were high-school sweethearts, I also had the privilege of getting to know them.

Aunt Dot had lived with B’s mom and her parents and grandmother when B’s mom was young. When I met her, she was still living with B’s grandfather, who was by then a widower. She was retired from Sprague Electric and knew one of my aunts who worked there.

Aunt Dot loved to travel. I remember there being many souvenirs in B’s home that she had brought back from trips in the US and Europe.

She was also a force to be recognized with! She was a no-nonsense sort who had her own ways of thinking about and doing things and didn’t really feel compelled to change them – thank you very much! She was good-hearted and generous, though, and a good caretaker. Though she had never had her own family, she was certainly used to family life in a multi-generational household.

When she was in her 70s, she developed liver cancer. She was ill when I was pregnant with my first child. She bought a teddy bear as an early gift for the baby. He had a tam and scarf in tartan and was named Angus. E was born on April 6, a bit earlier than expected. By then, Aunt Dot was in a skilled nursing facility because she was so ill. She passed away on April 29, E’s original due date. I remember thinking at the time that maybe E had arrived early so that Aunt Dot would know that she had a new great-great-niece before she died.

For many years, Angus lived on a shelf in E’s room. When a pregnant E moved home while waiting for her spousal visa to come through, B and I moved into E’s old room upstairs, so that E could be on the first floor near what would be the baby’s room. Given that E’s old room was still outfitted with a twin bed, we needed to have a double bed. We moved Aunt Dot’s maple bedroom suite into E’s old room. It had come to us via B’s mom who had inherited it and was using it until she had passed away. It has a double bed, a tall dresser, and a desk with drawers. I use the desk for storage and as a nightstand.

See, I did eventually stream-of-consciousness myself back to object that started this whole thing…

With E and ABC now in the UK, B and I will eventually reclaim the downstairs master bedroom. We want to do some re-decorating before we move back in, so we had delayed moving in. It’s just as well because it has now been re-purposed as B’s workspace during the coronavirus shutdown. We have the feeling it will be his office for months, so I think it will be a long time before Aunt Dot’s maple bedroom suite becomes available for guests.
*****
Linda’s prompt for Stream of Consciousness Saturday this week is to write about whatever was beside you when you first read the prompt. Please join the fun! Find out how here: https://lindaghill.com/2020/03/27/the-friday-reminder-and-prompt-for-socs-march-28-2020/

2019-2020 SoCS Badge by Shelley! https://www.quaintrevival.com/

Family time in London

One of the great things about going to visit family living in a historic and dynamic city is that you get to experience non-touristy, neighbourhood life. (I hope all my UK and Commonwealth friends will appreciate my remembering to put the u in.) L, E, and ABC live with L’s parents in Plaistow. The row houses there remind me of ones that you see in some US cities.
Larry's parents' house in London
L’s parents love gardening. The weather in London is mild enough for flowers outdoors in the winter. There were definitely no flowers co-existing with Christmas wreaths at our house in upstate New York!

We were surprised to see a tree full of parakeets! Apparently, escaped parakeets have led over the decades to thousands of these birds flying about London.
parakeets in London!

We learned that while most of the utilities are underground, the phone lines are not. Londoners get a lot of use from one utility pole!
London telephone lines

While we sometimes went in a family car, we most often got around by train or bus. Never having lived in a large city with good public transportation, I appreciated the extensive network of routes. While people in the US tend to think of double-decker buses as tourist vehicles, they are the common bus on most routes. They can carry twice as many people as regular buses and there are definitely a lot of people on the move.
London bus station
ABC loves to go on the buses and trains, especially when she can sit in the front of a train car or the top level of a bus. She likes to pretend she is driving.

Another advantage of being with Londoners is that they can direct you to phenomenal neighbourhood fish ‘n chips shops that a tourist would never find. We decided on haddock and there was so much food it overflowed the plates!
London fish 'n chips
It was also great to have so many home-cooked meals, especially when we had Filipino dishes. Given that most of us came down with a cold, it was especially great to have homemade soup.