I live within a few blocks from the Canadian border and the bridge that connects New York State and Vermont. It is a small village, but a busy thoroughfare, which is exactly what attracted me to this scenic spot on Lake Champlain. My move up to North Country from the bustling downstate metropolitan area was the forty-second one in my lifetime, but only the first move I personally had initiated. I was a recent widow, with children just out of college settling into their careers. They were both a bit dubious when I announced that I would be moving this far north (not south as might be expected!) and that I had no specific plans other than to spend my time working on something that I would find meaningful and enjoyable.
Six years later I have completed a two-year term as an AmeriCorps member, tutoring learners and training tutors, and presently serve as outreach coordinator for a literacy agency in Plattsburgh. The learners are both native speakers who are working on literacy skills, and English language learners from all parts of the world. Our small staff is made up of people from three continents, so that makes me feel right at home, since I speak four languages and have a hard time figuring out just exactly where I myself am from.
My Swedish parents left for China as pioneer missionaries just after the end of WWII. By 1948 when I was born, the Nationalist forces lost control of “Peiking” (as it was then called) and my parents along with other foreigners were given twenty-four hours to safely leave the city. After many moves and travels they ended up in Japan, but never stayed very long in any location there either. When our family returned to Sweden on regular furlough visits, it was always via the United States, where we would spend months visiting churches that wanted to know about my parents missionary work in Asia. We stayed in the homes of church members and travelled by Greyhound bus. It was a great way to see the country, but it definitely was a “fish bowl” existence: Always on our best behavior, or at least expected to be, and always saying “Good Bye”! That’s what I remember the most. It got more and more difficult with age.
One of the things I am grateful for is that I was able to complete my four years of high school uninterrupted, in an international school in Japan, even though my family changed residence four times during that period. Until then I had attended eight schools on three continents, and, as one often hears said, “it was time.” In my tenth grade English class, all students were assigned a Shakespeare sonnet to memorize and recite to the class. Mine was the sixty-fifth, and I did fine. Fifty years later I can remember only the first few lines of that sonnet, but in the same volume (12 Poets) I came across the poem “Sweetest Love, I Do Not Go” by John Donne. All I had read by him until that time were sacred verses, or meditations like “No Man is an Island,” so it surprised me to find this love poem: “Sweetest love, I do not go / for weariness of thee, / nor in hope the world can show / a fitter love for me; / but since that I / must die at last ‘tis best / to use myself in jest / thus by feigned deaths to die.” The poet goes on to assure his love that he will make “speedier journeys” to return than the faithful and predictable sun. He then reflects on “how feeble is man’s power / that if good fortune fall, / cannot add another hour, / nor a lost hour recall!” He pleads with his love to stop breaking his heart with her “unkindly kind” sobs and sighs, and tries to convince her to look at their separations only as brief interruptions in their lives: “ But think that we / are but turned aside to sleep; / they who one another keep / alive, ne’er parted be.” I cried when I read the poem that first time. I was a teenager, and had left favorite babysitters, close cousins, bosom buddies, and a few boyfriends behind, always with the feeling that I would never, ever be that close to anyone again. It seemed that I was always the one to leave; everybody else got to stay where they wanted to be. I never had to terminate a friendship or break up with a boyfriend, I always had to leave while the relationships were good, which made the parting all the more painful, and of course, idealized. I had no trouble memorizing the poem, and that volume of poetry has been a permanent fixture on my bedside stand ever since.
It was not until years later that I learned what it was like to be the one left behind. I was not present at the deathbed of either one of my parents, though I had visited them shortly before they passed. Then, my thirty-seven years of marriage ended abruptly when my husband was away on a business trip on the West Coast and suffered a massive stroke.
The small community I live in now demonstrates how different human relationships can be, depending on the physical setting. People know each other from childhood to their funerals. I remember my high-school friends fondly as we parted, decades ago. Our experiences and escapades are untarnished and permanent in my mind. Here, high-school friends have grown gray over time, friendships eroded by disappointment or blossomed into permanent warm relationships. Their heartaches of parting are not spread over a lifetime as mine are; instead, they hit them with a vengeance as they all age together. I have attended more funerals in these past six years than in all the sixty before that.
Those special people I had to leave behind, or who had to leave me, are in my mind continually. I am learning more about them as I reflect on our times together. As the poet said: “They who one another keep / alive, ne’er parted be.”