Ravi Zacharias passed away yesterday.
For him, it was going home. But for us, it’s a time to remember how he touched our lives.
In 1982 (or thereabouts) Ravi Zacharias came to Syracuse and spoke to the college-and-career group at the Christian & Missionary Alliance Church where Bud and I were members. Using the creation story, he spoke about the two different types of thinkers — collative and creative.
A collative thinker, he said, gathers information and puts it in order, while a creative thinker gathers information and uses it to create something “new”.
My sister collates. She sat one day last fall in the family room with a box that contained a mish-mash of papers from my mother’s desk. Patiently she sorted through the whole thing, making neat little piles and clipping like things togethers.
“This is what I do,” she said to me when I poked my head in. “I bring order.”
And she does. Really well.
She’s also creative. She once wrote a series of articles for her church newsletter from the perspective of the church’s cat. I think she would agree with me though that on the spectrum that runs from Collative to Creative, she falls on the Collative end of things.
Andrew Peterson is first person I think on the Creative side. Singer, songwriter, author, artist. The man has creativity oozing out his pores.
But he’s also collative in the sense of learning from others. In the Wingfeather Saga (his book series for young and old alike), I see bits and pieces of Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, two of his literary heroes. In his songs, I sometimes hear shades of Rich Mullins.
I have pondered the collative-creative spectrum for years.
When I heard Ravi Zacharias speak the second time, some 14 years after the first, I talked to him about his collative-creative talk. I said, “I’ve been trying to figure out since then what kind of thinker I am.”
He smiled at me and said, “One thing is clear — you are a thinker.”
We were at Sandy Cove (or was is Harvey Cedars?), a Christian retreat center, when I heard him that second time. As clearly as I remember the collative-creative talk, I remember him standing on a stage reciting Percy Shelley’s poem, Ozymandias. It was part recitation and part performance. I remember the timbre of his voice enhanced by his accent as he raised and lowered the volume at which he spoke, his gestures perfectly marking these words:
…And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
I can still hear it.
In that same talk, he read a prayer.
“Who wrote that prayer?” I later asked him.
He told me her name (which I don’t remember), and then said, “She’s a French mystic.”
It was the first time I had ever heard of Christian mysticism. I felt like a door that I didn’t know existed had been opened for me.
Since then Christian mysticism has been a growing interest. I have an ever-expanding collection of prayer books and books about prayer. My ears perk up when I hear (or read) about any Christian mystic. Because I long to experience the presence of God in my small life, reading about others’ encounters with Him thrills me — and mystics have the most interesting stories.
That tiny spark started by a few words from Ravi Zacharias has since been fanned into flame.
Today, I remember Ravi Zacharias. I remember his warmth, his intellect, his sincerity, and how my brief encounters with him have helped me in my personal walk with God.
A few days before everything shut down, we went to dinner at the Doubleday Cafe to remember my father on his birthday. It had been his favorite restaurant.
My son’s girlfriend works with a tourism group in Cooperstown. She told us that night, “They said if the Dreams Park closes, it will kill Cooperstown.” The Dreams Park hosts over 100 Little League teams every week over the summer for tournaments and a Cooperstown experience.
Two days after our dinner, the Baseball Hall of Fame announced they were closing until further notice due to the pandemic.
The next week, Governor Cuomo put the state on “pause.” All non-essential businesses closed.
A week later, the Dreams Park announced that they were closing for the summer of 2020.
Last week the Baseball Hall of Fame announced that the Induction Ceremony for Derek Jeter would be postponed until 2021.
On the day before the announcement, USA Today ran this headline:
Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony expected to be postponed, as Cooperstown weeps
Without downplaying the economic hardship — and it IS a HUGE economic hardship on the community — can I show you what Cooperstown is REALLY doing? It isn’t weeping.
1. Cooperstown is working. More than baseball, the backbone of this community is medicine. Bassett Medical Center is a teaching hospital that has received national recognition for its care to rural communities. What started in a fieldstone building in Cooperstown is now the Bassett Healthcare Network: six hospitals and a large number of smaller clinics covering eight counties. The people at Bassett worked hard to prepare for this pandemic and have worked hard throughout.
2. Cooperstown is showing appreciation. Signs like this one started showing up in yards around the village.
The flip side thanks our first responders.
And people haven’t stopped there. People have made their own signs. They leave their front porch lights on during the night as a thank-you to all the essential workers who haven’t “paused” but have been working harder than ever.
3. Cooperstown is maintaining a sense of humor. Andrew Solomon in his book about depression said, “A sense of humor is the best indicator that you will recover.” I know this isn’t depression, but a sense of humor has a way of steadying the boat in any storm.
The other evening I was feeling a little grumpy and irritable. Mary asked about going for a walk and I reluctantly agreed to “just a short one.”
I burst out laughing. “Let’s go see if James Fenimore Cooper is wearing one, too,” I said, and we raced to Cooper Park.
He, too, was protected — as was the WWI Doughboy statue:
My short walk turned out to be longer than intended, but my spirits were so much lighter having seen Cooperstown lean into the new face mask mandate.
While Cooperstown itself has not suffered many deaths from coronavirus (4 according to the Johns Hopkins map today 5/6/2020), the entire population of Cooperstown has been lost at least twelve times over in the state. The number of deaths in the country couldn’t fit into Yankee Stadium. It’s a sobering thought. I think that’s why it was a unanimous decision at the Hall of Fame to postpone the induction ceremony this year. In addition to all the safety concerns, Derek Jeter played for the New York Yankees. His fans have lost family, neighbors, co-workers, and friends to this terrible pandemic. It’s no time for celebration. Today we mourn. Next year we will celebrate.
5. Cooperstown is pulling together. “Support local business!” is the rallying cry. I know I’m not alone. As a family we have chosen to spend our stimulus check at local businesses. We “dine out” — aka take-out — from local restaurants once a week. The waiting area at the restaurant we ordered from last night was hopping — spread out, of course, but hopping.
At Easter, I called the local chocolatier and arranged to purchase homemade fudge from her for our Easter baskets. It was a luxury, I know, but if my buying fudge can help one woman stay in business until business-as-usual returns, I’ll buy fudge.
Some businesses have signs in their windows offering video-shopping. Other businesses have simply chosen not to reopen this summer.
It’s going to be a tough year.
But I’m confident we’ll get through.
Cooperstown will pull together for them, too. Whether it’s a graduation parade in cars down Main Street or some other way to honor and recognize them, we’ll do it.
Safely, of course.
All these closures, cancellations, and postponements won’t kill Cooperstown.
In the wake of the Great Depression, the idea for a baseball museum in Cooperstown was born. At the time no one could imagine where that would take this little village.
It makes me curious as to what could be around the next corner.
The sympathy cards have slowed to a trickle. In the beginning it was a deluge.
Many of the cards said things like this:
Your dad was an amazing man, and I consider myself very lucky to have worked with him.
What a class act!
Don was a wonderful person: friendly, compassionate, smart and extremely generous…
I felt privileged to know him.
Here’s a sampling from his church:
Don and Elinor were two of the first people I met at church and I’ll never forget how welcome they made me feel.
His church will miss him much. I think he held at least every position twice and always took on the most challenging parts.
And a few of the many from the hospital:
He was one of the “Old Guard” at Bassett and embodied all of the wonderful good things of a medical career.
He was the one who recruited me to Cooperstown. He looked after me at work and worked so hard to make sure that our department ran smoothly. I’ll always remember how much he cared about the patients and making my early years there successful.
The more specific people were in what they wrote about my father, the more it touched me. For example, this story made me laugh because it captured his frugality:
Many years ago he asked me (chairman of building and grounds) to help him dig a trench across the driveway from the church house to the manse. If we put in the wires to connect a new manse computer to the one in the secretary office ourselves, we could save a lot of money. Although he was much older than I was, he outworked me with his pick and shovel!
After I graduated from high school I learned that my father had followed each one of his little league players all the way through graduation and had given each one a baseball necktie as a graduation gift. Apparently, he continued that baseball-themed gift-giving pattern into his later years as this person mentioned:
Our son loved baseball and Don often gave him baseball-accented gifts.
The words and stories people shared became a salve for my grieving heart. I read stories of him making housecalls, of mentoring, of swapping “sappy stories,” of his Red Sox fanaticism, of his sweet tooth.
I also received cards from people who had never met my father but who only knew him through me. People who read this blog but that I never met in person. People I met at Hutchmoot or on other travels. Even people here in Cooperstown who know me through my church or my involvement with the swim team, but never met my father. I was so grateful. I felt so loved.
Two cards that especially touched me were from people who had also recently suffered loss:
Deepest sympathies and equally deep gratitude for all the love and care you shared with your dad. I know firsthand that is a gift that goes both ways and lives in memory always. (from another caregiver whose father had recently died)
We have a wonderful hope of resurrection, but the grief is still so real right now. (from a grieving spouse)
Blessed are those who understand for God will give them words to ease another’s pain.
The hardest thing about swimming laps is —
1.) Leaving the house. Walking out into the real world is cold.
2.) Getting in the water. If leaving the house is cold, getting into the water is doubly so. Changing in the locker room. Taking a shower. Walking, dripping wet, out onto the deck. Cold. Really cold. Finally sitting on the edge and sliding into the water.
3.) Counting the laps. I’ll come back to this one.
4.) Leaky goggles. It’s annoying to have one side fill with water so that you swim like Popeye the Sailor — with one eye closed.
I asked Laurel what was the hardest thing about swimming laps. She said, “when you can’t see where the wall is because you’re crying because it hurts so bad knowing you’re not gonna make the interval even though you’re trying so hard and your legs hurt and you can’t move your arms any faster :)” She’s a teenage girl, a little overly dramatic, but speaks from her heart. Swim team workouts are rough.
Back to counting laps, though.
Swimming can be monotonous. It’s also very zen. A lap swimmer — and here I’m talking about the adult lap swimmer who isn’t trying to make the interval and crying and can’t see the wall — can get lost of the rhythm of the thing.
I wrote the vast majority of my college papers in the pool. I organized my thoughts, sifted through ideas, tried out sentences, rearranged the words. All the while I was splash-splash-splash-breathing.
Sometimes people would ask me how many yards I did and I would have no idea. I was more worried about words than yards.
When I no longer had papers to write, I tried to count my laps the old fashioned way — with numbers. It was a struggle. I finally settled on my own system: the alphabet plus the Ten Commandments.
You may laugh, but it worked. 36 laps in a 25 yard pool comes out to just over a mile.
Each letter of the alphabet got a whole lap. I would think of words or people that began with that letter. I would pray or think on things that began with that letter. Then I would move on to the next.
I did that for years.
Until, about 15 years ago, life got in the way of my lap-swimming.
Recently, I started lap-swimming again. I was so out of shape that I didn’t try to count laps at first.
The third morning I realized I needed to focus on something other than simply reaching the wall. My mind was overactive, my body tired.
I decided to work on memorizing scripture — Isaiah 61. Each length got a word.
Lap 1: The Lord
Lap 2: has anointed
Lap 3: me to
Me to. Me to. The words rattled around with familiarity because of #metoo.
The #metoo movement had stirred up memories, memories of experiences that gave me common ground with many women.
But #meto — that involves purpose.
The Lord has anointed me to… Isaiah 61 lists seven things. I found myself pondering instead, what does the Lord want ME to do?
My life is changed. To care for my father had been my purpose — and it was so fulfilling. I confess to being a little lost now.
Blessed is Too — the common ground we share with others through experience.
Blessed also is To — as in an infinitive verb suggesting purpose.
Like a college paper, I’ll use the pool to sort through my thoughts and figure things out.
First I have to leave the house, though — and sometimes that’s the hardest part of swimming laps.
I once had a pastor who loved to talk about stretching.
Not like downward dog yoga stretching, more like standing-on-tiptoes-and-reaching-a-book-off-the-top-shelf stretching.
Stretching, as in, moving beyond what you thought was possible.
He was generally talking about being uncomfortable in a situation and choosing to do the right thing. That stretches a person.
Or hardships. Those are stretching experiences — when we don’t allow them to make us brittle.
I was thinking about stretching the other day at a swim meet while watching swimmers coming into the wall. The person who won the race — often by a mere fraction of a second — was the one who reached the longest and fastest, stretching their fingers to touch the pad first.
Regular stretching can lead to increased flexibility.
An interesting thing about flexibility is that of all the types of fitness, it takes the longest to gain, but it also stays with a person the longest. A person can build up cardio ability relatively quickly, but, when aerobic exercise is abandoned, cardio gains leave fairly quickly. Flexibility, on the other hand, can take months to years of consistent stretching to improve, but that increased flexibility also lasts a loooooong time.
The other day I read this:
When the monasteries of the Middle Ages lost their fervor, the last observance that ceased to be properly carried out was the choral office. (Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer)
Regularly-practiced liturgy sticks.
And yet, liturgy is certainly NOT flexibility.
Liturgy is like the roots of a tree that stretch down, down, down to water in the driest of seasons.
Flexibility is like the tree branches reaching up, up, up, reaching for the sun and sky and rain, moving with the wind.
Blessed are those who stretch both up and down. They gain both flexibility and roots.
Side note: this piece has sat in my draft folder for, um, I don’t know how long. Part of me wants to finish strong — finish these darn beatitudes that sounded like such a good idea at the time, but now feel like a weight.
Golly, it’s been a tough few months!
Perhaps, sometimes, finishing strong simply means finishing. I stare at my drafts and don’t know how to finish them.
I’ll be that girl crawling across the finish line —
So forgive the upcoming half-written beatitudes.
But, dog-gone it, I’m going to finish.
It’s a stretching experience, I suppose.
When my father passed away at home, I didn’t know what would happen next — so I went for a walk.
That Sunday spent watching him decline, decline, decline — sitting by his bed — pacing — calling hospice and family and hospice again — trying to make the best decisions based on what he had said he wanted — it all made for an incredibly long day.
Yet, at the same time, the day was too short.
Suddenly he was gone.
I cut across the yard when I left the house, walking past the red maples he had planted 40 years before. Their burgundy leaves were half on, half off — trees caught mid-way through their fall undressing.
The oak tree I passed was barer. Its brown leaves and acorns littered the ground. Many of the acorns were cracked and broken. I wondered if the damage had been done by squirrels or the fat woodchuck I often saw in that corner of the yard or the heavy equipment that had driven through there earlier in the week to replace our septic system.
The acorns held no promise of a mighty oaks, just broken pieces with jagged edges.
The walk refreshed me, but, back at the house, we moved in a thick fog.
While I had been walking others had left, or come and gone, or stayed, waiting to say good-bye to me.
My two grandsons had been in the house when my father passed. When I heard them playing in the other room, I thought about an article I once read about Irish wakes and how healthy they are for children — to be around death and see that it is a part of life.
In the midst of life we are in death.
Book of Common Prayer
I said good-bye to the grandsons and to my oldest son who looked so weary and so grown-up. I wished he was the size of his boys and this hurt was a boo-boo a bandaid could cover.
A knock on the door surprised me. The man identified himself as a hospice nurse. “I’m here to clean the body,” he said.
I showed him to the room where my father lay. My father’s face looked ashen and waxy.
“Do you have some clothes I could dress him in?” the nurse asked.
My father was still wearing his old red Fenway shirt. He liked to wear Red Sox apparel when he watched their games, and the last game of the season had been on when he passed away.
I chose a favorite flannel shirt and a pair of corduroy pants that went with it.
Leaving the room, I re-entered the family fog. Pea-soup fog, my mother would have called it, so thick you can’t see your hand in front of your face. People may, or may not, have talked with me. I may, or may not, have responded.
The nurse finished. He ushered us back in the room with my father.
My father’s hands were folded on his abdomen. It was a pose I had never seen him in before. He looked so dead.
I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.
It has now been 3 1/2 weeks since my father passed. When I close my eyes, I see that dead body. I see my sister coming out of his room, closing the door behind her, at 2 AM. She had just arrived and wanted to see him. I see the funeral director arriving at 8 AM and using the front door to remove the body.
I close my eyes and see death.
Ah, but the Nicene Creed. “I look for the resurrection…”
When I look for resurrection and life, it’s there.
The new grass pushing through the straw where the lawn was dug up for the septic. The two stubborn Shasta daisies that refuse to give way to fall. The geese flying south, calling my attention to them with their noisy honking.
It’s a beautiful sound.
At the memorial service, my son Owen read Wendell Berry’s poem, Wild Geese.
… Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. …
I am surrounded by life in all its beautiful and terrible stages.
Many trees in the yard are already bare, but I’ve lived long enough to know that, in the spring, new leaves will appear.
I know the geese will return, too.
On my walks I see woolly bears hurrying across the road. Sometimes I help them along — picking them up and watching them curl into a ball in my palm, then gently placing them on the other side of the road. I figure it’s one less death for the day.
And I sort through a few of my father’s things.
Life goes on.
I turned the monitor off Sunday morning not knowing it would be the last time.
For three and a half years I have slept with one ear open, listening to the monitor, learning the sounds of the different creaks of the hospital bed in the room below me.
One creak meant he was getting up. It was followed by the shuffle-thud of him walking with his walker into the bathrooom.
A different creak meant he was getting back into bed. I could hear the soft rustle of the bedding as he rolled onto his side and pulled the blankets up above his shoulders.
If I didn’t hear the back-to-bed creaks but heard the click of the light switch, I knew I needed to go down and redirect. He would be heading to his closet to choose clothes for church — no matter what day of the week it was. Sometimes that happened at 11:30 PM and sometimes in the wee hours of the morning. Sometimes it was every hour throughout night.
The monitor sat on my bedside table where its yellow light showed me it was on and its faint buzz served as a secondary reminder.
Now I hear the deep breathing of my husband sleeping beside me.
Just the other day I had been telling someone that I hadn’t heard the coyotes all summer. With the monitor off and the insomnia on, I could hear them, their long lonesome howls coming from somewhere farther away than previous years, but still there.
I hear a bird I can’t identify.
I hear gentle rain hitting the wide leaves of the hydrangea.
I hear the obnoxious sounds of vehicles driving on wet road. I can identify the milk truck, the speeding pick-ups, the cars. I can tell it’s foggy because everyone drives so much slower.
It’s so quiet, though, without the monitor.
I want to hear the bed creak and the shuffle-thud.
My father passed away Sunday night.
He had dressed himself Saturday morning and eaten a bowl of cereal. Mid-afternoon he vomited brown-black — a sign of a GI bleed. He went to bed before dinner, and never got out of it again. The next day he was gone.
Thomas Merton said, “Prayer and Love are learned in the hour when prayer has become impossible and your heart has turned to stone.” (Seeds of Contemplation)
Prayer and love are learned in the quiet of a monitor that been turned off.
Merton also said, “The monk faces the worst, and discovers in it the hope of the best.” (Contemplative Prayer)
I’m facing the quiet.
I’m looking for the blessing.
Blessed are the Painters of pictures for their work brings joy to others.
Blessed are the Painters of chicken coops for they beautify the world, or at least a tiny piece of it.
Blessed are the Preservers of the Past; blessed are those who Push for Progress;
And blessed is the balance between the two.
I recently went to Boston with my daughter, Mary. We walked the Freedom Trail from Faneuil Hall to the Massachusetts State House. Along the way, we saw the large medallion pictured above, telling us to “Look up and see the North Church Tower.”
“One if by land and two if by sea…” My mother could recite Paul Revere’s Ride well into her dementia. Earlier that day, I had attended worship at the old North Church, where the usher let me into my own private box. I read the sign on wall there that told of Charles Wesley preaching there. I was in awe.
But I could barely see the North Church from the site of medallion. Oh, it’s there. It’s spire rises above whatever that blue-green thing is.
Boston is a city that works hard to preserve the past.
It’s a balancing act, though.
For instance, the Old Corner Bookstore, built in 1716, is now a Chipotle restaurant. Mary bemoaned its fate. On the other hand, I pointed out to her that the building was going to be demolished in 1960 and turned into a parking lot, but investors purchased it and revitalized it. It’s still standing.
Preservation versus progress.
Both are necessary.
Blessed are the Perseverators.
I can’t remember exactly what my father was doing at the time, but I remember Helen telling me that he was perseverating. It was a new word for me,
but certainly not a new concept.
The repetition that goes with dementia, or autism, or brain injury may be all too familiar to some of us.
Lately my father has been perseverating over church. Our conversations go like this:
Dad: So are you going to take me to church?
Me: No, Dad. Today is (fill in the weekday). You go to church on Sunday.
Me: Because that’s when they have worship services. If we went there right now, nobody would be there. You go on Sunday.
Dad: Ok. (short pause) Are you going to take me to church now?
Me: No, Dad. Today is (fill in the weekday). You go to church on Sunday.
And so on.
He wants to go to church, and I remind myself what a blessing that is. He perseverates over a positive.
Blessed are those who Persevere.
I admit that I get frustrated with the perseverating.
It happens all day.
It happens all night.
I’m getting tired.
Yesterday I had to re-certify my lifeguarding. For the first time, the pre-test — a 300 yard swim followed by a timed brick retrieval — was daunting.
I knew I could do it, but my body wasn’t so sure.
Had I thought of it, I could have sung the Dorie song — “Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming…”
Instead, I did the Little Engine That Could — “I think I can, I think I can,” and slowly, slowly I completed the swim. (Okay, well, not too slowly. I swam it well within the allotted time.)
Perseverance sometimes requires a series of inner pep talks.
Each time I had to climb out of the pool at the wall, I had to remind myself that I could do it.
Each time I start feeling frustrated with the perseverating, I also have to remind myself that I can do this.
I love this man and I can answer the same question 257 times.
In one day.
Blessed are those who persevere, who run the race with endurance, who finish the swim test, who live with perseverators, for they shall hear, “Well done.”
Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with my hands clenched and guarding my heart. I’m sure it’s stress, but it doesn’t change the little exercise I go through — opening my hands wide and spreading my fingers, willing them to stay open while I fall back asleep.
Open hands feel vulnerable. I have to be very intentional about it.
My son Sam went to British Columbia for school and adventure. Adventures like climbing sheer rock faces.
But not ones like this:
Once he called me and said, “Mom! The coolest thing happened this weekend while I was climbing!”
“What?” I asked, thinking it would be a wildlife sighting or a beautiful vista.
“”I fell!!” he said.
My heart stopped. I felt my stomach squeeze.
“It was so cool!” he continued. “The rope caught me!”
“Don’t tell me stories like that,” I said.
Really. I can’t handle them.
But while Sam was out there, I learned to pray with open hands. I could do nothing to change what would happen — just pray.
And let go.
It felt very vulnerable.
I emptied a drawer in my mother’s dresser a month or so ago.
It was still filled with her things and the smell of my mother overwhelmed me when I pulled the drawer open. I don’t know that I can accurately describe what that smell is. Powder? Tussy deodorant? Sachets? Tissue?
I pressed my lips into a grim line and dumped the contents of the drawer into a large tote.
Then I did the same with another drawer.
Nearly four years after my mother died, I finally emptied her dresser.
When my sister came to visit, I pulled the tote downstairs for her to sort through.
Letting go of my mother’s things felt vulnerable. But right.
I’m worrier by nature.
And a breath-holder in stressful situations.
I don’t like change.
My tendency is to hold on.
Blessed are those with open hands, for they shall know peace.
Early in the year I began researching the Alfred Corning Clark Gymnasium, a building in Cooperstown where I spent many happy hours as a youth. In 1986, the new Clark Sports Center, located on the outskirts of town, opened and replaced my beloved gym. The old building was converted to offices for the Baseball Hall of Fame.
I went in once for a meeting with a Hall of Fame person. He saw me looking around, trying to orient myself to where I was in the old building.
“I think we’re sitting in the girls’ locker room,” he said.
I think he was right.
But I digress.
Research, I have discovered, is like wandering through an extensive cave system with people waiting at various junctures throughout. Each person has a story. If I listen, and follow their story, I may not end up where I was originally headed, but I always end up somewhere interesting.
I started researching Alfred Corning Clark. It seemed the logical first step.
Research today is a far cry from research when I was in college. While I still miss the old card catalog at the library, where my fingers walked through names and topics, now I often sit in the comfort of my living room, while my father is reading out loud or doing a word-find, and type search terms in various sites. It’s pretty amazing how much is available.
Well, Alfred Corning Clark led me to Mrs. Alfred Corning Clark. In the old newspapers, that’s how they refer to her. Even as a widow. When she remarried, her new name was Mrs. Henry Codman Potter.
Somewhere along the line, though, in the vast web of local history, I ran across a man named Strong Comstock. I confess, I liked his name. I could picture a young mother giving birth to a sickly child and naming him Strong, willing him to live up to that name. Or a woman giving birth to such a robust baby that the name was obvious — Strong. However, neither of those theories was correct. Strong Comstock’s first name was a family name. It had been passed down through generations, mostly as a middle name. “Strong” became a family name when Nathan Comstock married Bethiah Strong in the early 18th century.
I jotted down his name, just like I’ve jotted down other names that I find interesting.
Once I encountered a young woman named Orchestra Stevens, born in 1800, died in 1822. I really want to know why her parents, Josiah and Mary, named her Orchestra. Did they love music? Did they dream of hearing an orchestra? She was the fifth of nine children, the rest of whom have more mundane names — Lucy, Betsey, Catharine, Josiah, etc. Some day I’ll pursue her story.
She died in Cooperstown in 1894. Two weeks later Strong Comstock moved from Cooperstown to Danbury, Connecticut.
I didn’t learn Mrs. Strong Comstock’s name until I searched her husband on Ancestry. She was Mary Jane Atwood.
Ah, the opaque cloak of a husband’s name.
Which brings me back to Mrs. Alfred Corning Clark.
As I researched, I found places where she had signed her name — Mrs. Alfred Corning Clark. I read any number of accounts of good, generous things she had done — all credited to Mrs. Alfred Corning Clark.
It wasn’t really a question of knowing her name. I already knew it. I’ve walked past this plaque a thousand times:
She did indeed build the building for the people of Cooperstown.
Her son, Robert, gave it to the village in a purge of all things Cooperstown. I don’t think that negates the generosity of the gift, though. It certainly doesn’t explain the plaque.
Nicholas Fox Weber, author of The Clarks of Cooperstown, made Robert Sterling Clark seem almost spiteful in the wording of the plaque, “Sterling saw to it that the … library would be named for their mother, while making it clear which of her sons had funded it.”
I prefer to think better of him, and of the plaque. I think he gave the village a building — a generous act — and he gave his mother her name. The greater gift was to her.
Thomas Merton wrote an essay called “Ishi: A Meditation” about the Yahi tribe in California, a tribe that was totally wiped out by white people. The last surviving member of the tribe, a member referred to as Ishi, died without ever revealing his true name.
In the end, no one ever found a single name of the vanished community. Not even Ishi’s. For Ishi simply means MAN.
Blessed are the Nameless
for they shall receive names
and they shall be known.