A Blog of Personal Thoughts
Leaf of Life
Once upon a time over six billion years ago, I began but did not exist. Now my life is minuscule in the 1.2 million galaxies of the universe. Do I exist now? Did I begin with a bang, the Big Bang? Or did I begin with the Lesser Bang of a sperm and an egg? If it is true that the universe began with a big explosion, what existed before the explosion? Nothing? How does something come out of nothing? Who might I have been if a different sperm had found that egg? Where will I go when I die? Into ether? Into the stomach and cells of a sea lion and some crabs, lobsters or wolffish? Fertilizer for spruce trees or roses? I am but a miniscule leaf of life in this universe.
I love my life and feel as if it is significant, but that’s only because the planet I grow on is the one I have known since before I was born. From my beginning, I have taken my miniscule portion and created something with much help along the way from family, teachers, friends, and strangers.
Detail 1: Born in Boston probably because my mother was shopping and I thought it was a good idea to be near her at the time. Since it was midnight, it seemed undecided whether I arrived the 29th or 30th. All the hospital information said the 29th, but my birth certificate announced I arrived on the 30th. So be it, I’m here. Also undecided was my name as everyone was named after someone in the family. My father’s sisters all died as very young children, one of whom was Dorothea Isabella. His aunts were Carrie Hughena, Sadie Willamena, and Lillianna Benn. I was lucky when they skipped those and went to my great-grandfather’s sisters, one of whom they had named Abigail.
Detail 2: I grew up a geriatric New Englander since on my father’s side an ancestor arrived on the Mayflower. A century and a half later, the Crown offered 500 acres of free land to New Englanders who moved to Nova Scotia. Move they did and I have no US relations on my Calkin side.
Detail 3: My mother’s ancestors came later, one of whom was buried in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania in 1651. Her tombstone shows four centuries of wear from wind, rain, sun, snow, and air. I recollect there may have some lichen on it too. Some of those relatives fought in the Revolution and helped form the government of this country. I wonder if any of my father’s ancestors came down to fight the eighteenth century colonial guerillas.
Detail 4: I have writers on both sides of my family from The Federalist Papers to books on religion, education, history, chemistry, geology who merged to influence my creative writing of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction as well as my writing about behavior and feelings.
My mind is usually a filter not a vault. Vault minds run in my family though—my father, cousin George, and I seem to have a capacity to remember details. I don’t know how my father and George did it, but I see information simultaneously in pictures and words. I stayed in this ancestral home, now an inn, for a few days and sat in one of its parlors listening to the innkeepers tell stories about the house and the Witmer family at the time of the Revolution. When someone tells me a story of General Washington spending a few days with one of my great-great-great-great grandfathers, I picture a very homely (his portrait says he was) David Witmer sitting in his parlor discussing current events and the Revolution, which did not have a capital R then. I see the two of them sitting in a room of muted red, Washington’s long legs outstretched and crossed at the ankles. He captures a few moments of relaxation between discussion of battles and the food and wool needed for his troops. This grandfather’s neighbor, Eshleman, also an ancestor with the marriage of his daughter and Witmer’s son, provided Washington and his troops with grain. The general left with more guns and ammunition from another neighboring ancestor, Joel Ferré, whose daughter married another Witmer son.
What does all that have to do with me? I value the history of my country. It helped make me who I am today.
Growing up in a large house in Massachusetts, not far from where Paul Revere rode, I imagined the scenes I heard about. We saw Old North Church every time we went to Boston. In my imagination, I saw the lantern swinging inside the tower and watched Revere mount and ride off. This began the filter of my mind…storing the information in the vault, filtering it into my life and stories.
Our house was on the side of a hill and I walked out of my bedroom to the deck porch to look up to leaves of the maples and oaks and at night to the stars, and down the slope to the railroad tracks and broad expanse of fields. My friend Peggy and I walked the steep slope behind her house down to the railroad tracks and waved at the engineers and caboose men. My sister remembers watching the troop trains roll by and she waved at the soldiers coming or going. I also lived in the trees at the front of the house and gazed across its roof toward the expanse of the world. It was a tall roof—four stories in the front and five in the back, but because I lived there, I never thought that was special. It was a simple sanctuary of home.
Where does all this lead me? I grew up with the sense I owed the world something for all the privilege I had had. My parents kept the house in Framingham Centre as we moved with my father’s work to New Hampshire, Maine, and New York City. I did not know then that Fifth Avenue, where we lived, was the wealthiest address in the world, and still is. It was a long time before I knew how privileged I was. Yet something intrigued me, perhaps even appealed to me, about the walk to school past bums sleeping on the sidewalk. My sense of compassion grew.
Eight years before Elizabeth’s and my journey into the life of bums in New York City, my father and I went to Union Square to hear Truman speak during his run for his second term as president. Later that month, my second grade class voted for president. Sixteen of us voted for Dewey, and six of us for Truman. The New York Herald Tribune had a front-page article about Friends Seminary’s election. At breakfast that morning, my father asked me whom I voted for. I proudly said, Truman, knowing since he’d taken me to hear him, he’d be pleased. He was horrified, but to me the statement was that he would take his daughter to hear someone he adamantly disagreed with: Always listen to your opposition. A year later, as my parents and I drove through rural Maine, past an unpainted, rundown farmhouse with chickens in the front yard and on the porch, I piped up from the back seat of the Cadillac, “Daddy, you sound narrow-minded.” My mother was driving. He turned around and said, “You bet I am!” I thought I’d get in trouble for being rude to an adult, but instead he gave me a lesson in honesty. Honesty, compassion, inductive reasoning, and, yes, always remembering to think about things are the gifts he gave me, this small leaf of life.