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.

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.

Boiler House Poets’ second reunion begins

Whilst I have been busy with grandbaby ABC and my parents and the fall activity start-up schedule, I have also been preparing for the second reunion of the Boiler House Poets at the Assets for Artists residency program at MASS MoCA in North Adams MA. You can read about our first residency as the initial group of poets in the partnership between Tupelo Press and MASS MoCA in my archives for November 2015 and our first reunion in early October of 2016.

I should probably rephrase that. I should have been preparing, but I was too distracted with everything else going on, so I threw things together last night and this morning, complicated by my printer still thinking it is British rather than American and not being able to cope with printing on 8.5×11 inch paper.

Even though my older sister has arrived to help my parents and B is back from his business trip to help E care for ABC, it was very difficult to leave, but fortified by hugs and kisses from E and a last snuggle with ABC, I set off for the 200-mile drive back to North Adams.

I grew up near North Adams and went to high school there, so it does feel like coming home when I visit, yet, so much has changed that it feels like there are discoveries to be made, too. I am looking forward to visiting the expansion of MASS MoCA that has opened since our last reunion. And there is no shortage of work to be done.

Today, though, was about re-establishing bonds with the other poets and greeting a new member, as well as a visual artist who is also participating in a residency this week. We had a lovely welcome dinner together at Grazie, which is just below our apartments. We talked and talked and ate and talked and had gelato and talked some more, catching up on what has happened over the last year and laying the groundwork for our time together this year.

Stay tuned…

final gathering

Yesterday, we reached another milestone in our process of saying good-bye to Grandma, gathering together with extended family for a graveside committal service back in Grandma’s hometown in Massachusetts, where her ashes would be laid to rest beside Grandpa’s in a plot that had been a wedding gift to them in 1953.

Grandma had been a member of the First Congregational Church since she was a girl and had retained her membership from afar over the last 6+ years she lived in a senior community near us. She had not wanted to have a wake and funeral, preferring instead the simplicity of a graveside service of her cremains. This gave us the ability to set a date well in advance, allowing travel plans to be made for the more far-flung relatives, including a cousin from Washington State.

This also afforded the opportunity to gather all four grandchildren, working around college and graduate school commencements. It was especially important to arrange flights for our elder daughter E and her spouse L, who were able to stop on the East Coast while flying home to Honolulu from visiting L’s family in London. It also gave E the opportunity to introduce L to our Massachusetts/Vermont extended family and B and I to show him where we had grown up, met in high school, and fallen in love.

As the family member with the most liturgical planning experience, I took on the duties of making arrangements for the service and for getting the information out to the relatives. We were blessed to have Rev. Carolyn of First Congregational preside for the service. Though she had never met Grandma, having come to pastor the church after Grandma had already moved out near us, she thoughtfully wove together some favorite Scripture passages, including psalm 121 and 1Corinthians 13, with references to Grandma’s life as a mother and grandmother, aunt, cousin, teacher, friend, and community member.

To close the service, I had asked our daughters E and T and son-in-law L to sing the traditional round, “Dona Nobis Pacem”(grant us peace). E and L have degrees in music and T is a long-time choral singer, including collegiate level. Everyone so appreciated the lovely sound of their voices, singing Grandma off to rest. I had forgotten that their relatives had not heard E and T sing since Grandpa’s memorial service almost eleven years ago; they were struck by how beautifully our family trio sings.

We were also blessed with a gloriously sunny, warm-but-not-hot morning for the service. Given the time of year and outdoor location, we had decided to forgo men in suitcoats and women in dark dresses for more spring-time clothes. I’m sure Grandma would have appreciated the floral prints and lace-accented tops we wore, which complemented the multicolor carnations we had ordered from her favorite florist shop.

After the service, we gathered for lunch at a favorite local restaurant. We had reserved a private room and had three tables of six, which made conversation easy. Although the reason we were together was sad, we appreciated the opportunity to catch up with family that we had not seen often in recent years. I was especially grateful for our daughters to spend time with their first cousins; given that their geographic distribution is about to be New York, West Virginia, Arizona, and Hawai’i ,they may not see each other together for years.

I’m sure Grandma would have been pleased and proud to see them all sitting together, chatting about their now-adult lives, even though she would still think of them as the children they once were.

Rest in peace, Grandma.

Binghamton Poetry Project – Spring 2016

On April 15, as I was preparing for dress rehearsal for the Binghamton Philharmonic concert (https://topofjcsmind.wordpress.com/2016/05/10/brahms-beethoven-and-binghamton/), the Binghamton Poetry Project was holding the Spring 2016 reading and anthology release. I was not available to read due to rehearsal, but here are my poems from the anthology. Enjoy!

*****
After May, 1982
by Joanne Corey

At baccalaureate, we
Smith women were instructed
to hire good help.
It was the only way,
we were told,
to “have it all.”

I didn’t do it,
didn’t want to “have it all” –
at least, not all at once.

I gave up paid work
for the unpaid work
of caretaking
          of a younger generation
          and an older generation
          of a school
          of a church
          of a community.

Feeling judged
for not making money
gaining promotions
being an example
of a modern
educated woman
for my daughters

Deflecting comments
about wasting my education
          my brain
wearing my Phi Beta Kappa key
for courage in challenging times

Taking years to come
to see my choice
was right for me…

How different would it have been
had our college president said,
“Here is your life,
now what will you do with it?”

*****
Tanka: Hundred-Year Flood
by Joanne Corey

The red house crouches
behind a wall of sandbags
as the water sneaks
forward like a thief to steal
all that the family owns.

*****
Vestal
by Joanne Corey

Names tend to stick.
It’s Five Corners,
even though now
it is only four.
It’s the Old Junior High
even though it hasn’t
been used as a school
for decades.
It’s Main Street
even though it isn’t
filled with shops.

Vesta is goddess
of home and hearth.
Our one-and-a-half story
cedar-shake Cape, tucked
near Choconut Creek,
is what matters,
what makes a home-
town.

Mass MoCA Poetry Residency: Aftermath

The Mass MoCA/Tupelo press workshop ended yesterday morning, but I’m not home yet.

One of our cousins picked me up and B met us later at their home in Stamford, Vermont, which is his hometown. For the weekend, we are staying at the home of a high school friend, who was my classmate and B’s lab partner for physics.

The local connections and tour continue.  Today, B and I went on a car trip back to my hometown, Monroe Bridge, MA. We stopped and took some photos of where my house used to be, where Rowe Yankee used to be, where Sherman hydro station, the dam, and Tower Brook still are, where the town office and library still are, although the rest of the building which was my elementary school up through eighth grade is now offices for whichever power company it is that now owns what was New England Power when my father was superintendent for the upper Deerfield.

I keep having ideas and little fragments of poems pop into my head, so I scrawl them in my journal. I have also had some chance to tell B some of my experiences, which is helping me to process. I am looking forward to talking to some of my poet friends at home. I also want to share some of my drafts of Monroe Bridge-North Adams  poems with my mom and dad. There are some details that they can provide to help me be historically correct.

I realized that the chapbook I had hoped to write from this experience probably needs to be a collection instead. I find myself thinking of prospective titles and ways to organize the collection into sections, even the placement of some of the poems I have already written which will fit into the collection.  It’s exciting! It will be a big project and I’m not sure how long it will take to write, revise, and assemble it.

I told Jeffrey he could be the first one to reject it when it is done. 😉