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Abigail B. Calkin

A Blog of Personal Thoughts

City Girl vs. Country Girl

October 2019

During our seventh grade discussion of A Tale of Two Cities, Marie Antoinette’s utterance “Let them eat cake” came up. This was her response to being told that the peasants had no bread. Poor naïve Abigail. I had no idea why her statement received such attention. I grew up in a house that offered a piece of toast as a part of breakfast. Period. No sandwiches for lunch. No bread with dinner. Cake wasn’t much of an item in my home either. My mother made two cakes—strawberry shortcake and coconut cake, but only when strawberries were fresh or the grocery store had a whole cocoanut. We all know the story of the city mouse and the country mouse, but I was not one or the other. I grew up as both a country girl and a city girl. The opposition lay within me and not between two mice.

We had a twenty-room house in a suburb of Boston where my sisters, brother, and I grew up, often with an extended family that expanded us to eleven. At the time my class read Dickens’ book, I was twelve years old and attending Grace Church School in Greenwich Village. We lived in an apartment on Fifth Avenue next to Washington Square. We ate oatmeal or cold cereal for breakfast, salad for lunch, meat or fish, potatoes, and a vegetable for dinner.

I listened to the discussion in Mrs. Bonté’s English class. Even though asking what was wrong with Marie Antoinette’s question was on the tip of my tongue, I knew that if I uttered it, I risked my twenty peers laughing at me. What I didn’t know was why. It took me several years to learn what poverty was.

I learned it from the bums I passed on my way to private school every day. I learned it from the time Elizabeth and I interviewed a group of bums in Union Square when we were fifteen. I learned it by donating to charities when I was still a teenager. I learned it when my father died and I wanted some money beyond my allowance to buy records for when I went to college. My oldest sister politely and quietly told me my father had died with a $50,000 life insurance policy from which he had borrowed $30,000. It wasn’t hard to figure what my mother’s portion was. In addition, my parents had a second mortgage on the house and no savings. All this I learned on a summer day standing in the eleven by twenty-two foot second floor hallway. My mother was an aphorism master and one of hers was “You can’t measure a snake until it’s dead.” My father was an intelligent man of fine character, but it didn’t take me long to realize the snake of this inheritance was very short. We had given up our Washington Mews duplex in New York’s Greenwich Village. I knew that $20,000 was a lot of money, but also very little. My heart broke, not for the silly records I wanted but for the potential loss of our wonderful home in Massachusetts.

Even though I’d been admitted to Dalhousie University, a dream of my life to go there, I now knew it was out of the question. I applied to a public university—the University of Colorado (CU)—and left the life of my childhood. Within two months of my first semester, I was bored. My SAT scores had exempted me from the required freshman classes of English and algebra. Good, because the English literature course used the same text I’d had at Friends Seminary in tenth grade. I took German, graduate Latin, fencing, English history, and geology. In Latin we read Virgil’s Aeneid, which I had just read the previous year, my last year of prep school. That was okay because I loved Virgil, poetry, and wanted to major in Latin. One afternoon in my dorm room, I had completed my homework for the day when once again boredom hit me. I read the university newspaper, The Coloradan, cover to cover. There was a job advertised—counselor, 3-9, M-F. Call this number. I called and got an interview. I wore a red jumper, a white blouse with puffy sleeves, red flats, black tights with red fleur-de-lis up the sides, and pulled my waist-length hair into a ponytail. I got the job although the director, who interviewed and hired me, told me years later that she hated the color red, flat shoes, tights, long hair, and puffy-sleeved blouses. When offered the job, I didn’t care that it was thirty hours a week. I had a fulltime job, my first job, and I was eighteen-years-old. Now my mother didn’t have to support me. I had entered the working world. Some of the children at the school came from wealth and some were wards of the state from poverty and depravity straight out of Charles Dickens’ London. During my first week on the job, the fourteen children in my charge, ages eight to eighteen, sat around the piano. I played and they sang. Harriett refused to do something I asked. I told her a second and then a third time to sit down. The third time she again said no, but this time she also slapped me across the face. I told her to sit down and she sat down. End of story as far as I was concerned. I now had control of Harriett’s behavior for, as it turned out, the next three years. I was, however, on a very steep learning curve. Some of the students told the director Harriett had slapped me and she was disciplined. Lesson one: tell your supervisor if a student hits you.

When I graduated from CU, I moved to Edinburgh, Scotland for graduate school. My boyfriend there lived in one of the worst neighborhoods down by Leith Docks where the rent was very cheap and the shared toilet was on the floor below and the bath on the floor below that. When I visited him, I spoke to the alcoholics on the bus and at the stops. I watched mothers let their children pee off the curb into gutters. We went to a friend’s flat once. It was the first time I’d been in a tenement. He shared the toilet with six other flats and it stank and was filthy. He shared his flat with other university students, but I noticed that families also lived like this.

Maybe it was because of how I grew up, my education at Grace Church School and Friends Seminary, and my family, probably all of the above, but I’ve always had the feeling that I need to give back to the world more than it has offered me. We have ten amendments in our Constitution, including our Bill of Rights. However, I have always felt that we have duties in equal measure. One evening as my husband and I sat in our Topeka, Kansas home, I told him I feel a responsibility to make the world a better place than it was when I arrived on this planet a few months before Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.

The response from my very practical husband: I feel sorry for you.

This from a man who spent 34 years in the military, worked in surgery during his three deployments, had a fifty-year career in medicine as an operating room tech and a nurse, and takes great personal pleasure in helping others. His practicality keeps him from any such lofty goals as making the world a better place. Instead, he patters through life doing just that, including bringing strangers home because they had no place to sleep that night or week.

When we first moved to Alaska we chose to live with no running water and an outhouse. I went out to the deck and filled three five gallon buckets with water from the hand pump, put them in a corner inside by the door. Those fifteen gallons lasted for three or four days for drinking, cooking, and dishes. We had a place where we could go for showers and laundry. After four years we got running water in the house. After fourteen years, we finally decided where we wanted the bathroom and got an indoor flush toilet. Now we live like many others, but I still remember that two-thirds of the world lives without running water and flush toilets.

Fast forward to when my siblings were in their sixties and I in my fifties. In a series of phone calls within a week or two, we shared the same realizations. We were incredibly fortunate. We got along. Our parents had provided us with excellent educational opportunities. We were successful because of what they had given us. We all had maintained deep lifelong concerns and care about people on the planet and the environment. I’m sure it helped that my father and three of us were scientists.

Today, I live far from any city—four hundred miles from Anchorage and a thousand from Seattle. I live where people take care of one another. No one locks their car—we don’t even take our keys out of the ignition. A person can leave the checkbook on the dashboard or money lying around. I flew home from Juneau once to see my pickup wasn’t at the airport. My husband picked me up and as we drove home, I saw my vehicle at the Dray, what others not in our town call a gas station. Someone must have borrowed my car…probably Julie or Elise. Perhaps they’re putting gas in it before returning it. That’s much better than living in New York City in a building with 400 apartments where I exchanged hellos with only two other residents.

On a December morning I read my email quickly then turned to The Guardian. I feel comforted when I see the main story is not about international conflicts. This morning I read one about homelessness. I am reminded of Elizabeth’s and my bums in 1957’s Union Square. It was the beginning of our junior year at Friends Seminary. Jon Beck Shank had given us an assignment to write something about New York City. As we walked the mile home we puzzled, New York? What on earth would we write about New York? I’d just spent four months living in England with relatives and family friends and she had probably spent the summer at Premium Point in Westchester County, an enclave of wealth. True, we lived in the city, but we knew little about it except for our privileged nook that we thought normal. This day we did not walk past the firehouse on 13th Street, Grace Church School, Wanamaker’s, and down our beloved 8th Street to our Fifth Avenue homes. No, we walked down 14th Street that would lead us to Fifth Avenue with a view of Washington Square Arch the last six blocks. What would we write about? As we passed Union Square, we looked at one another. We can interview the bums and write about them! Whoever suggested it, the other thought it a great idea.

I don’t remember how we started the first conversation, probably something naïve like ‘We’re working on an English assignment about the city and decided to interview people in Union Square.’ In the fifties, only bums frequented Union Square. It didn’t take long before we had a group of seven or eight around us, each eager to tell his story. We listened. We took notes. These men were once well dressed and now wore mismatched jackets and trousers from someone’s long ago. They had been businessmen who worked on Madison Avenue, lived in the suburbs, and commuted between home and office, but had succumbed to alcoholism and lost their marriages, homes, and jobs. They lived and slept on the streets of the city, a life and world two fifteen-year-old girls could not comprehend or imagine. One man bought a rose. We may have held it while we were there, but left it with them. We weren’t after gifts and they needed beauty more than we did.

Elizabeth lived at 1 Fifth Avenue and 64 Washington Mews and I had moved across the street from 2 Fifth Avenue to 4 Washington Mews. There we sat, fascinated by their lives.

One showed us a photo of his wife and children standing by the family car in front of a middle-class suburban home. The green lawn behind them sloped down to the street. I had always eschewed that lifestyle. Why couldn’t ‘those people’ live a more unique life? Yet how could you, my dear drunk man, give up your life—your wife, your children, your home, your job—for swigs from a bottle? How oh how could you give up that love? We heard many stories, but that is the one that has stuck with me all these years. I now wonder if some were Korean or World War II veterans with “battle fatigue.” After about four hours of listening to their stories and heartbreaks, we headed home. These men were incredibly polite—all their good manners were still there. In retrospect, I see that they were honored with the sincere and simple attention, honored to have someone take an interest in their lives.

The rest of the walk home centered on the men, their stories, and how each of us would write our essay. Knowing we were late, we walked fast.

That afternoon I learned that bums had lives and this huddle of men had once lived the American businessman-family dream. They were eager to tell us their stories of success and downfall to living on the streets of New York. Elizabeth’s father owned an international chain of hotels. My father was president of a chemical company. This was a new world with a ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ moment. Oh, we had gathered great stories from our New York! So fascinated, we were late home…very late, over three hours late. Our parents were worried and calling one another to see if either had heard from one of us. I’m sure they pictured us kidnapped and held in the basement of a derelict building along the Hudson by some terrible criminals.

“Where have you been?” greeted each of us as we walked in our homes.

“We have an assignment from Mr. Shank to write something about New York and we stopped at Union Square and interviewed some bums!” Surely the excitement in our voices let our parents know we were thrilled with what we’d done and knew we could write a good paper.

Squash that. Our parents, neighbors on this short, one-block long, private Manhattan street, moved in different circles. On this day, however, they became close in their concern for their daughters who were very late home.

The next morning, Mr. Wolf and Mr. Calkin each called the school to report this supposedly inappropriate assignment. No sooner were we all seated in English class than Mr. Shank informed us the assignment about New York City had been cancelled, no word why, but Elizabeth and I knew and glanced our disappointment at one another.  

Perhaps if I had written the paper, I’d have tucked the experience away as an assignment completed. Instead, this morning I read The Guardian story about homelessness including Frank Ryan and his stepsister, Danielle Lent, reconnecting decades later. I burst into tears, couldn’t see the computer screen, and went to get another cup of tea, and give myself time to contemplate.

I’ve been a school principal and have had some homeless children in my buildings. They are strong people. Kathy, age 16, came to school one morning not her usual happy self. I asked her want was wrong. She’d gone home the previous day to find the house empty. Her mother had moved in the middle of the day with her three younger ones and left no note, nothing. Kathy didn’t know where her mother and siblings had gone or what she was to do. In astonishment I said, “Why didn’t you call me? I’d have come and gotten you and you’d have spent the night in a bed at my house.” It never occurred to her to call anyone, let alone her principal, to say she’d been abandoned. When André’s mother could not pay the rent, they moved to a homeless shelter across town. Because they both liked the school and he was doing well, I went to fetch him and bring him to school then took him back to the shelter each afternoon. After three weeks, his mother said they were not able to move back into the neighborhood and she couldn't let me continue this ten-mile trip anymore. I would have been willing. The last day I left André off, I drove to the neighborhood school and told my fellow principal the situation. I wanted him to know he was getting a good person in his third grade, even if the boy was homeless. Or Jason and his family of five…the secretary noticed the van looked packed every morning and evening and although they “lived” on the bus route, the parents always drove the children to school. The secretary and I drove by the address and it was a vacant lot. We were supposed to report that, but colluded not to. After all, they were caring parents who later acquired custodial jobs. The next year, they rented a house to live in.

Compassion. It’s called compassion for fellow human beings on this planet. If I am fortunate enough to be fortunate, then I must help those in distress. I only do it one by one or sometimes if I’m lucky family by family.

After college and with a master’s degree and good job in hand, I moved thirty miles out of town to a small two bedroom cabin next to a river. I loved the silence, the remoteness. It reminded me of being on my aunt and uncle’s farm when I was ten. It reminded me of living in different parts of New England, of climbing trees, riding my bike, sauntering about the countryside. One day, quite by accident—his accident not mine—he came to my cabin to use the phone. That first four-hour conversation developed into a relationship of almost fifty years now. One of its foundation posts was that both of us wanted to live in the country. We bought twenty acres down a mile-long dirt lane and twenty-five miles from town. Life interfered and we put our country dreams on hold while I went back to graduate school and he to nursing school. Then the opportunity came to move to a remote place in Alaska off the road system, a community of a few hundred people . We all get here by plane or by boat.

My husband and I go outdoors when the daily summer jet flies overhead at suppertime. Just now I went outside to watch a Coast Guard helicopter fly by. My husband beckoned me outside this morning to see a squirrel in a nearby tree. This week I’ll pick wild blueberries from the large patches on our land and then make jam and perhaps a pie or a pudding with lemon sauce. The varied thrush wakens me with his teakettle whistle around 3:00 a.m. and the robins, hermit thrushes, juncos, and various sparrows chime in a little later. In winter, I walk in the dark to my studio to sit and write. I frequently write poems about silence, mountains and glaciers, about the ocean. We’re glad we worked for twenty years to earn the privilege to live far from any city, to live in the midst of silence and the warmth of good friendships. Ten days ago we lost a nineteen-year-old neighbor from an aneurysm. She was a very new mother. The town was there at our service for her, more than all the people in town because people from two neighboring villages came across in their boats to celebrate her life, comfort her relatives and one another.

One person who spoke said, “We don’t have free-range chickens in our neighborhood. We have free-range children.” Yes, we do, always about twenty of them and we all keep track of them as they wander about playing and riding their bikes. In the dark of winter evenings or the long light of summer days, they break the long silences with their melodic chorus of voices.

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