On My Loss of Ann

Arguably, our mothers connect us to each other, to this life and to this world more profoundly than any other thing or person. At any rate, the sense of being uprooted in the wind or unmoored and adrift at sea has been one strong element of my own experience with the loss of my mother two years ago and now also with the loss of my second mother, Ann, who came to me as a mother through my wife, Elizabeth. This world’s bleakness and harsh realities can take on a vivid and all pervasive presence in the void left behind by the absence of a mother.

I’m torn between describing something of the experience of loss and describing Ann. Now that both my wife and I are motherless in this life, I’m freshly convinced that our lostness is the most obvious of two realities that can only be seen with quiet attention. Most of the time, during most of our lives, we do not know that we are lost. When mothers are present for their children, mothers are one of the greatest shields that exist against this sense of being lost. However, a truly wise and good mother will not shield her child entirely or forever. It is critical that we learn how vulnerable, helpless and lost we are in this life. I’ve struggled with many profound weaknesses and failures in my own life, but one of them is not (I’m grateful) depression. I’m sure that much of what I think about the value of recognizing how lost I am is particular to me, will be unhelpful to others and is highly problematic even for myself. However, what I sense is that all of my fellow humans, all of our fellow living creatures and this entire cosmos that sustains us all is profoundly lost. We are lost people within a lost universe, and all of our best stories tell us this loudly and clearly. My recent loss of my two mothers has clarified this for me, driven it home.

I said in the last paragraph that our lostness is the most obvious of two realities that can only be seen with quiet attention. The second of these two realities—the less obvious one—is that we have a home before and beyond this world. This entire lost world came from somewhere that it belonged to and will only be healed when it is once again united with this other place. I don’t have images or words to describe what I mean by this home or even what I mean by being lost and separated from this home, but I can say that being entirely motherless now in this latter part of my life has left me more fully aware of these two realities, more fully than I was before. This is, I suspect, a bitter gift. It is also a gift that I owe—to a large extent—to both of my departed mothers. They both knew these twin realities.

But these large realities are beyond my powers to describe. Happily, if I turn to Ann herself, her own life will point toward these realities more clearly than any further words of mine. There is no better way to see the whole universe and its Creator than to look closely at what we have surrounding us each day. Emily “Ann” Stocker (née Gilman), left a treasure trove of such examples behind her for those of us still making our ways through this life. Ann, although constantly in motion and full of exuberance, was a woman who paid the closest attention to all that surrounded her. Her burial service in an old cemetery on the mountainous border between Maine and New Hampshire brought together a crowd of people. They came from many hours in several directions and over miles of rural roads to stand on a hillside together beside her grave.

Ann came from several older Chatham and Stow families on the side of her mother Ruth. On the side of her father Gordon, Ann came from less settled folk. Gordon’s mother was French Canadian, and he had been raised by several deeply devout Catholic women after he lost his mother early in life. Gordon’s father called many places home but had settled long enough in Stow, Maine at one point to set up his young adult son with a small farmstead. They got started with hens and honey bees before Gordon was left alone with his plot of land and livestock. This was more than enough for Gordon, however. He married Ruth, the daughter of a local dairy farmer, and they raised a family there with plenty to provide for them between their long hen houses as well as their bees, sheep and expansive gardens.

Of Gordon’s decision to make this life with Ruth, she herself gives this account in a few verses written before their marriage (signing it “by Ruth Sarah”):

Do you remember last Saturday night
After the bees and chicks were put to bed
And we had so very hurriedly put out the light
And the smell of spring; had entered our head.

When we travelled to Fryeburg to the movies
With Hilda and Fred by our sides
And were thinking all evening like all lovers
That we must let our consciences be our guides.

However, you cuddled and squeezed my hand,
And kept my mind in a whirl
‘Till I thought you the nicest man in the land
And I a fortunate girl.

At last the movies were over
And away we started for home
Thinking that we would never
Another Saturday night roam.

We’d sit at home in the parlor
Without any Hilda or Fred
And patiently wait for the hour
When all would be going to bed.

The first thing we knew it was morning
And father called down from above
Why waste all this time on courting
There is no such thing as love

So you jumped into your Plymouth
And started home to your chicks
And made up your mind forever
You would keep yourself in the sticks.

Although never moving back to her childhood home as an adult, Ann told vivid stories throughout her life of the country surrounding Stow and Chatham. Ann remained close to extended family in the area and took her children and grandchildren back to visit the beautiful rivers, mountains and homesteads of her childhood. These places certainly lived in her heart.

She took us up Baldface and to Emerald Pool. When she showed us where her mother was buried, she pointed out Eastman Mountain and the name Eastman on many of the headstones. Ann’s maternal great-grandmother was Sarah (Eastman) McKeen, the mother of Glenora McKeen Hanscom. Eastman Mountain is named after the family of an early settler to the region—Asa Eastman or his father Jonathan. Asa was born in Concord in 1770 of Jonathan and Mary, married in Concord to Polly Kimball in 1795. Asa and Polly were the parents of at least 4 sons and 3 daughters, and Asa was buried in Chatham in 1818. Although the Eastman family of Sarah (Eastman) McKeen is distantly related to that of Asa Eastman (with Asa and Sarah being fourth cousins, twice removed), Sarah’s family came to Chatham much later. Sarah was the daughter of Lorenzo Eastman, born 1808 in Bartlett, New Hampshire. Lorenzo’s son Loren Eastman settled on Butter Hill Road in Chatham in the 1870s, and Lorenzo came and lived with Loren in his old age. Sarah would likely have come to the Chatham area around the same time as her brother Loren.

Ann clearly felt this sense of generational rootedness in the place where she grew up walking down the road from her father’s farm to attend a one-room schoolhouse. Sale of eggs were a staple source of income for the family, and Ann remembered fondly the sound of sanding eggs to clean them as well as the cooing of hundreds of hens at once while they settled down for the night in their large and well-kept hen houses. Among his many labors, Gordon had to regularly defend his honey bees from bears. Ann remembered her father rushing out the door once without any gun and charging straight at a bear that he sent fleeing into the woods. There were endless stories about Gordon in action. Like his daughter after him, Gordon was always in motion and responded to any need around him with an immediacy that often left others struggling to catch up. Gordon was also a singer, and Ann remembers his voice carrying clearly through the thick walls of farm buildings and across their wide pastures as he worked. Ann also had a beautiful singing voice. As a graduate of Fryeburg Academy, she loved the opportunity to sing with their choir, mentioning in particular what a joy it was to participate in Handel’s Messiah. All of those in the church where she served and worshipped for the last several decades of her life spoke of the blessing of singing with her.

As a teenager, Ann loved to catch a ride with friends to climb Baldface and to jump into Emerald Pool on the way back down. She remained a hiker and walker long past the point when physical disability would have stopped most people. As a young girl, she recalled packing lunches to wander alone—following the tops of old stone walls through the forest as far as she could without touching the ground and stopping only to enjoy her solitary picnic.

Attending the University of Maine Orono, Ann studied English and made lifelong friends. She also became an outspoken follower of Jesus Christ in college, having grown up with the quiet Catholicism of her father and the old New England pragmatism of her mother. There is even a story that she witnessed to her fellow English student Stephen King. Ann met and married Richard “Rick” Stocker in a Bible study that Rick was attending while living in the Twitchell Hill commune of Montville, Maine. Joining the Bible study group, Rick and Ann ended up teaching in a school together that was attached to the community. They wanted to get married and needed the blessing of their community. A prophet sought a vision and confirmed their plans to marry with a vision of two pigs eating from the same trough. Bear meat was served at their wedding. Early in their marriage, Rick came to love the verse in Proverbs saying that “whoso finds a wife finds a good thing.” Rick called Ann his Good Thing, and Ann playfully called him Whoso in return.

Ann lost her mother Ruth to cancer shortly after her marriage to Rick. Ultimately, this community took them far from family to Pink Mountain, British Columbia where Rick built the log cabin in which their second child (my dear wife) was born. They eventually joined a few other families who recognized the community as a cult and undertook the difficult journey of leaving and returning home. Ann and Rick worked hard to reestablish lives in Maine, where they had a third child, joined the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and raised their family. Rick eventually earned a living as a Maine state investigator and Ann as a supervisor and director within the regional HeadStart program.

When I first met Ann, I couldn’t believe what I had found. I was wearing a jaunty tweed cap that I’d picked up at a Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Canada, and I was very much smitten with her daughter Elizabeth. Ann complimented me on my cap as I recall, and only a few minutes was all it took to see that this was a delightful and formidable lady. When my brother and I made a visit to the Stocker home in Monmouth, Maine a few years later, I was left with a vivid impression of life and goodness amid their sprawling vegetable gardens and the laughter around their breakfast table. Laughter was a staple in this home where I was eventually blessed to call Ann Mom. She loved to laugh at herself for years over her realization part way into one of my first meals in her home that she was serving me a fish for dinner that shared my name—Hake.

Mom enriched and sustained my own love of life in every time that I got to spend with her. Since her loss, I’ve stopped my car a few times to listen to the spring peepers whose evening song she loved so much and which she always noticed again on the first evening of its return each spring. Over the years, mom and I would spar over the names of trees and flowers up and down the east coast from the Carolinas to Maine. She was always alert, observing and sharing.

Her wealth of stories and life experiences came from her generosity and joy. In virtually each of the many historic places and museums that I fondly remember visiting with her—from the Biltmore Estate and Colonial Williamsburg to the Norlands Living History Center and Popham Colony—I can remember Mom exclaiming over one after another of the household devices from colonial and earlier American homes as items that she remembered using during her own years growing up in Stow, Maine or living under the Northern Lights in British Columbia.

Mom could also describe people with such love and delight in their every character trait and feature. With all of her colorful and lively love of life and outspoken energy, in the end, however, what I will carry most closely was Ann’s tireless service to others and her delight in the small details of daily life. At her graveside service, many people testified to her extraordinary love for children and her ability to meet them and enjoy them each for who they were. Later in life, Ann’s father remarried, and Ann spent months traveling to Arizona where she loved her new branch of extended family and where she loved to help with the care for her new mother even after her father’s death. Ann cared for all people with a kind of fierceness and cheerful delight, and she tended tirelessly to their every need. This can only have flowed from a selfless love.

Her love for people ran deep, and I’m sure she would have wanted it noted that her love for others was the grace of God at work in her. In this topsy-turvy world, it was always God to whom she clung with a fierce hope and an infectious gratitude. She knew we were all lost but she also knew that everything can point us back toward home.

Photos below are of the poem by Ann’s mother before her marriage and some of the rock walls around the farm where Ann grew up (the ones that she walked as a girl).

Note: These passages from two short stories that I read out of a book on mom’s bedside table reminded me of many things that she loved.

a non-existent country, with laws alien to earth and man

The Return of the Exile

George Seferis (translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)

‘My old friend, what are you looking for?
After years abroad you’ve come back
with images you’ve nourished
under foreign skies
far from you own country.’

‘I’m looking for my old garden;
the trees come to my waist
and the hills resemble terraces
yet as a child
I used to play on the grass
under great shadows
and I would run for hours
breathless over the slopes.’

‘My old friend, rest,
you’ll get used to it little by little;
together we will climb
the paths you once knew,
we will sit together
under the plane trees’ dome.
They’ll come back to you little by little,
your garden and your slopes.’

‘I’m looking for my old house,
the tall windows
darkened by ivy;
I’m looking for the ancient column
known to sailors.
How can I get into this coop?
The roof comes to my shoulders
and however far I look
I see men on their knees
as though saying their prayers.’

‘My old friend, don’t you hear me?
You’ll get used to it little by little.
Your house is the one you see
and soon friends and relatives
will come knocking at the door
to welcome you back tenderly.’

‘Why is your voice so distant?
Raise your head a little
so that I understand you.
As you speak you grow
gradually smaller
as though you’re sinking into the ground.’

‘My old friend, stop a moment and think:
you’ll get used to it little by little.
Your nostalgia has created
a non-existent country, with laws
alien to earth and man.’

‘Now I can’t hear a sound.
My last friend has sunk.
Strange how from time to time
they level everything down.
Here a thousand scythe-bearing chariots go past
and mow everything down.’

the future is eating us alive

That’s the most interesting question in the world. How big is big enough? The Amish pretty much have solved it. Industrialism doesn’t propose a limit. David Kline, my friend, went to a Mennonite meeting. They were asking what community meant. And he said, “When my son and I are plowing in the spring, we rest our teams at the highest point on our farm. And from there we can see 13 teams at work. And I know that if I got sick or died those 13 teams would be at work on my farm.” Rightness of scale, you see, permits obedience to the Gospel’s Second Law.

…I like my physical life. I mean, I’m committed to live my physical life. I want to live my actual life, my body’s life, and die my body’s death with as little interference as possible. But I think that life for most people is getting less physical all the time. There’s a sort of death wish now operating among us. The future is eating us alive. If you’re obsessed with the future you can’t live in the present, and the present is the only time you’re alive. If you’re alive in the present, however bad the world is, goodwill still has scope to operate. You still can do a little something to make it better. Now is when the butterflies are flying and the flowers are blooming and the people who love you are putting their hands on you. That’s where it’s happening.

…If the teacher thinks that the place she’s teaching in is a good and worthy place then certain things are going to be communicated. “I’m teaching you things that could make you a powerful person. I don’t want you to start from here and get an education and come back here and desecrate this place.” Now most teaching has been done by people who think, “Coming from here is no advantage. I’m trying to give you something that will help you go to a better place.” Nowadays we easily forget that education makes bad people worse. But if you’re teaching for homecoming you can’t forget it.

Wendell Berry in this interview.

teaching long of rest and waiting

These are thoughts that I put down as I sat with my Grandma and other family members near the end of my Grandma’s life. She was in her own bedroom and surrounded by loved ones:

My body holds me closer hourly
It will have me know it fully before I’m fully known
Jacob wrestled the Lord’s angel
I have my gasped breaths and throbbing heart

This morning, my eyes bring less daylight
But this less of sight, less of hearing, heralds more
And I have let go, almost, of saying

Today’s snowfall blankets my roof and windows
Without my knowing now
Still, it joins the many here over months and years
Teaching long of rest and waiting
These small white bodies
Carry downward flames from heaven
Without heat but made of fire still
That banks and burns
In quiet

My body cradles its own light as a treasure carried far,
Carried up, soon, past a snow that I’ll know newly,
A flame to lay down before my loving lord

Among her last words to me (the day before) were: “My little Jesse, you brought me tadpoles.”

And here also are the two passages that I included in my remarks at my Grandma’s funeral:

And following that train of thought led him back to Earth, back to the quiet hours in the center of the clear water ringed by a bowl of tree-covered hills. That is the Earth, he thought. Not a globe thousands of kilometers around, but a forest with a shining lake, a house hidden at the crest of the hill, high in the trees, a grassy slope leading upward from the water, fish leaping and birds strafing to take the bugs that lived at the border between water and sky. Earth was the constant noise of crickets and winds and birds. And the voice of one girl, who spoke to him out of his far-off childhood.

From Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card.

A man may say, “I like this vast cosmos, with its throng of stars and its crowd of varied creatures.” But if it comes to that why should not a man say, “I like this cosy little cosmos, with its decent number of stars and as neat a provision of live stock as I wish to see”? One is as good as the other; they are both mere sentiments.

…I was frightfully fond of the universe and wanted to address it by a diminutive. I often did so; and it never seemed to mind. Actually and in truth I did feel that these dim dogmas of vitality were better expressed by calling the world small than by calling it large. For about infinity there was a sort of carelessness which was the reverse of the fierce and pious care which I felt touching the pricelessness and the peril of life. They showed only a dreary waste; but I felt a sort of sacred thrift. For economy is far more romantic than extravagance. To them stars were an unending income of halfpence; but I felt about the golden sun and the silver moon as a schoolboy feels if he has one sovereign and one shilling.

From “The Ethics of Elfland,” chapter III in Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton.

God alone can understand foolishness

“Neither do I understand you; I can read neither your heart nor your face. When my wife and I do not understand our children, it is because there is not enough of them to be understood. God alone can understand foolishness.”

“…Then,” I said, feeling naked and very worthless, “will you be so good as show me the nearest way home?”

“…I cannot,” answered the raven; “you and I use the same words with different meanings. We are often unable to tell people what they NEED to know, because they WANT to know something else, and would therefore only misunderstand what we said. Home is ever so far away in the palm of your hand, and how to get there it is of no use to tell you. But you will get there; you must get there; you have to get there. Everybody who is not at home, has to go home. You thought you were at home where I found you: if that had been your home, you could not have left it.”

Nobody can leave home. And nobody ever was or ever will be at home without having gone there.”

George MacDonald (Lilith)

what is there to secure me against my own brain

“If I know nothing of my own garret,” I thought, “what is there to secure me against my own brain? Can I tell what it is even now generating?—what thought it may present me the next moment, the next month, or a year away? What is at the heart of my brain? What is behind my THINK? Am I there at all?—Who, what am I?”

From Lilith: A Romance by George MacDonald.

public life is not larger than private life, but smaller

From G.K. Chesterton’s “Turning Inside Out” in Fancies vs. Fads, 1923:

The passage from private life to public life … is always of necessity a passage from a greater work to a smaller one, and from a harder work to an easier one. And that is why most of the moderns do wish to pass from the great domestic task to the smaller and easier commercial one. They would rather provide the liveries of a hundred footmen than be bothered with the love-affairs of one. They would rather take the salutes of a hundred soldiers than try to save the soul of one. They would rather serve out income-tax papers or telegraph forms to a hundred men than meals, conversation, and moral support to one. They would rather arrange the educational course in history or geography, or correct the examination papers in algebra or trigonometry, for a hundred childrcn, than struggle with the whole human character of one. For anyone who makes himself responsible for one small baby, as a whole, will soon find that he is wrestling with gigantic angels and demons.

In another way there is something of illusion, or of irresponsibility, about the purely public function, especially in the case of public education. The educationist generally deals with only one section of the pupil’s mind. But he always deals with only one section of the pupils life. The parent has to deal, not only with the whole of the child’s character, but also with the whole of the child’s career. The teacher sows the seed, but the parent reaps as well as sows. The school-master sees more children, but it is not clear that he sees more childhood; certainly he sees less youth and no maturity. The number of little girls who take prussic acid is necessarily small. The boys who hang themselves on bed-posts, after a life of crime, are generally the minority. But the parent has to envisage the whole life of the individual, and not merely the school life of the scholar. …Everybody knows that teachers have a harassing and often heroic task, but it is not unfair to them to remember that in this sense they have an exceptionally happy task. The cynic would say that the teacher is happy in never seeing the results of his own teaching. I prefer to confine myself to saying that he has not the extra worry of having to estimate it from the other end. The teacher is seldom in at the death. To take a milder theatrical metaphor, he is seldom there on the night. But this is only one of many instances of the same truth: that what is called public life is not larger than private life, but smaller. What we call public life is a fragmentary affair of sections and seasons and impressions; it is only in private life that dwells the fullness of our life bodily.

Brewed from decades of agony

Poem by by Emily Dickinson.

THE RETURN.

Though I get home how late, how late!
So I get home, ‘t will compensate.
Better will be the ecstasy
That they have done expecting me,
When, night descending, dumb and dark,
They hear my unexpected knock.
Transporting must the moment be,
Brewed from decades of agony!

To think just how the fire will burn,
Just how long-cheated eyes will turn
To wonder what myself will say,
And what itself will say to me,
Beguiles the centuries of way!