Frequent readers of this space may be aware that I returned to my hometown last week for the first time in twenty-six years to pay my respects to a dear family friend who passed away suddenly.
While I'm no George Webber, I've been away and out of touch for so long that I wasn't sure what I'd find. Many important things, such as the lighthouse at Old Field Point, are exactly as I remember them:
I stopped by the old neighborhood and knocked on every door where I recognized the name on the driveway. This led me to two houses, and some wonderful time catching up with two wonderful families. Both were as kind and vital as I remember them; Flax Pond, and our old house at 8 Flax Pond Woods, are also much the same:
Long Island Sound and the Setauket Mill Pond were also timelessly gorgeous (notice also that I figured out how to set the date on my daughter's camera about this time):
The last (lower right) picture in this set shows the Setauket Mill Pond with the Setauket Neighborhood House in the background. It was there that we gathered on Thursday evening to remember our beloved, departed friend, Tun-Hsu "Martha" McCoy. There were probably a couple of hundred people there, and the memories flowed thick and full for over three hours. Not only did I relive a profoundly formative period of my adolescence through the eyes of many people who were there, but I also learned many new things about my friend -- such as that she founded an organization which has sponsored over 100 teachers in China, many years after she smuggled ten pounds of manuscripts out of wartime China.
She cooked much more than the spaghetti and apple pie I remember, and she touched hundreds if not thousands of people in all walks of life. To hear her classmates, several of whom came all the way from China to attend, was wonderfully humbling. Martha's impact truly spanned the planet.
A veritable Who's Who of Democratic politicians and precinct workers recalled her ferocious energy and insistence on inclusion in all matters; one friend recalled her remarking about her cat, "I will not tolerate abridgment of Michael's rights just because he has four legs!"
A number of my old cronies from the Smithhaven Democratic Youth Caucus were present, and spoke. Elizabeth Lorris-Ritter, now channeling Martha's spirit as an activist in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan. Phil Schiff, a lawyer who honors Martha's example by providing pro-bono representation to those who cannot afford his considerable expertise. Peter Pierce, who's working in public access television, an incredibly democratizing force of which Martha would entirely approve. Florence Boroson read a remembrance from her son, Marty, who was unable to attend; Marty's father, Louis, was also in attendance. Margalit Fox shared a remembrance from Elizabeth Rogers in addition to her own moving remarks. Eileen Sandberg came up with a sick child at the last moment and couldn't be there.
And your local database geek recapitulated the thoughts he'd shared online a week before.
It was like a high school reunion occasioned by the passing of a favorite teacher. It was sad and wondrous to share these event with Barry, and to wind up the evening by performing the musical number he asked for.
Oh.. and Martha's brother Gordon lives five miles away from us. Yes, we'll be getting together.
Margalit, her husband George, Elizabeth, and I moved very slowly towards the rented Dodge Magnum, and I shepherded this hardy crew back to Washington Heights. I spent a restful night and morning with Margalit, George, their cats, and their view of the Hudson River:
I hopped the A train and had lunch with another dear, albeit apolitical, friend from high school, Ron Iwersen. We spent a couple of hours catching up before he had to get back to work and I had to get back uptown to the Magnum.
I had only one more stop I wanted to make, so I headed up Sixth Avenue from Ron's office above Penn Station, turned onto Broadway at Times Square, and after another ten blocks or so, I found my destination:
One t-shirt later, it was on to Columbus Circle, the A train, an all-too-brief farewell to George and Margalit, and a narrow avoidance of the Pope's entourage as I got off of Manhattan Island on my way to JFK.
So, what about Thomas Wolfe? Can you go home again?
Well, no way could I afford to live there these days.. but not many of us could. There were lots of big, new houses in places that were better off without big, new houses. The lasting memory I'll take is of the people I saw.
If people like Barry McCoy and JoAnne Young and Margaret Sullivan and Rita Sakitt and Ken Wishnia and Simone Adams and Clifford and Barbara Swartz weren't still there, it would have been incredbly hollow; a two-dimensional, funhouse version of my childhood. While rampant development and growth have rendered the community of my childhood a memory, the area's fundamental beauty remains, and wonderful people are still wonderful people, no matter where they live.
To see Barry and the old SDYC crowd.. and my Cub Scout den mother, whose name I've sinfully forgotten.. and Ron the next day.. felt like a return rather than a discovery.
If that's not home, it's close enough for me.. and a far sight better than it had any right to turn out after I'd been away for twenty-six years!
To everyone named in this post: thank you, dear friends, for your many kindnesses during an intense and unforgettable thirty-five hours.
Farewell, dear Martha.