Helena Clare Pittman, one of the Center’s most dedicated teachers, has written, painted, and taught her entire life. In her monthly Helena Writes series, she shares a lifetime of wisdom, one pearl at a time.
In her 26th post, Helena steps back in time to the life-altering moment she arrived at her country home.
A Green Circle
In my pantheon of memories, there are two I particularly cherish: My mother, smaller than my hand, across the grassy circle of girls’ campus at summer camp, returning my wave, 1956, and, looking up at the starry sky, in front of Bunk 12, summer, 1954.
When I was a child, we lived in Brooklyn. We spent summers in the Catskill Mountains, upstate New York. My father was a teacher and had the summers off. The years I was nine and ten we went to camp on Breezy Hill Road in Parksville. My father worked as Arts and Crafts Counselor. My mother was Camp Mother.
My sister was an athlete. She loved camp. Not me. I suffered through, an artist. Groups and sports even then were not my thing. My solace was arts and crafts, and my best friend, Ellie. And that my parents were there.
When I had my own children I moved to Long Island. In the summer, I felt nostalgia, trapped in the airless frenzy of traffic, the earth paved over, asphalt heat waves, car exhaust. I dreamed of moving to the country, but didn’t see how I could uproot. I wished it would happen miraculously. Then it did.
Nostalgia is a curious thing. I was miserable as a camper, but the fields, the trees, woods, lakes, the smells—the country had gotten into my blood. I built my own country in my small backyard, derelict with car parts and old plumbing when I found the house, overgrown with bittersweet, buried in gravel. Slowly I cleared it, picked up bags of grass clippings and leaves around town, left for town pickup in front of houses where people had no use for them. For me, they were gold. They became my soil. I grafted grass from the small patches that had survived the neglect and blindness of the house’s previous residents. I planted it with gardens. I could dream there. Car alarms, sirens, radios intruded. I was stuck but made the best of it.
And every spring the expectation, encoded in me from childhood, rose as longing.
My sister expressed her nostalgia by finding a place, a little funky, but its road not two miles from Breezy Hill. A lawyer, she spent weekends there, writing legal briefs helping the elderly, the environment, and animals.
My relationship with my sister had an aspect of magic, synchronicity. I could sometimes see her calling me in a dream, then the phone would ring and wake me. “Hi there,” she’d say.
It was her second Yartzeit, the anniversary of her passing by the Jewish calendar, when her husband called to give me their country house. I saw stars. Something whispered, “Your life will never be the same.” My mouth was open. I couldn’t say no. But struggling to pay the bills of one house how could I say yes?
“Uh—yes,” I heard my voice tell Michael. “But—I don’t know how I’ll pay the taxes.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” he answered. My brother-in-law is a prince of a man, and I think he would have paid the taxes himself. “Let’s go up to see the place, she’d be happy,” he said.
I slipped into denial to cope. It kept surfacing making me jittery. But a warm feeling was growing deep inside.
We drove up Route 17 listening to Mel Brooks, “The 2000 Year Old Man,” laughing, my sister’s presence keen in her absence. We wound through farm fields and back woods roads, me trying to take photos with my eyes so I could find my way back there alone. We turned in at the driveway. Michael undid a rusty chain. We pulled up the hill past the falling shed. The place looked like its odd self—a hunting camp built by a few guys. Bathroom-size windows, never finished. A place where I didn’t like to sleep when my sister and Michael were there. I slid into a panic.
We opened the front door to a cloud of mold. The place had been empty for three years. Squirrels had eaten through the ceiling. A mound of plaster sat nicely on the floor. “We always hoped you’d decorate,” said my brother-in-law. He turned to me. “You’re the artist,” he said.
I began by weekending, siphoning every penny I could to improve the place. Took down the shed, dug a garden, brought up a statue of St. Francis. Then two things happened: my chairman retired, and I lost my bread and butter employment, sixteen years as an adjunct at a university. I had two houses and two grown kids, the youngest ripe to start his own life. Inside me, the earth was moving. It was time to start my own—again.
I watched in disbelief that spring as I put the house I’d lived in for 25 years on the market. It sold in August. I gave away four fifths of my possessions, threw away 20 years of publishing files, wads of rejection slips. I kept the acceptances and moved to Liberty with pastels, paints, word processor, and two kitties. It was winter 2000. The moving truck barely negotiated the driveway hill, seriously iced. My basement was flooded by torrential rains in the two days that followed, destroying a third of 20 years of journals. I wasn’t there to rescue them, having returned to Long Island to close on my house. But I’d sold it, and now could renovate and build a studio after painting for 25 years in my dining room.
Soon after I moved in, a cousin and I drank a champagne toast to my sister. The lamp next to us blinked off and on. That year, on my sister’s birthday, a woodpecker flew into my window pane. It lay stunned in the leaves. I picked it up, cradled it in my hands. It shook itself and flew off between the trees. There’s something else—the deer didn’t eat my garden for the first 10 years. After the years my sister spent worrying about them, fighting for them in court to stop the hunt on Fire Island, they seemed to have an agreement. Ten years is a long time to have a garden uneaten by deer, in the country.
When three feet of snow that doesn’t melt until April covers my woods and gardens, I admit I question what I’m doing here. Until St. Francis peeks out, and the tree frogs sing, and fiddlehead ferns pierce the mat of old leaves, and pink trillium appear in the woods, and an owl calls, and I inhale the mushroomy, loamy smell of the hemlock woods and witch hazel bushes, same as the summers in camp, and the cool air rolls in off the beech trees about nine on a sweltering day.
Here’s a list of my memories of summer camp: Red salamanders on rainy days. Hopping toads. Fishing Sacket Lake with safety pins for hooks. Sneaking to Milt’s Luncheonette, down the road from camp, with my bunkmates. Heat misery, group misery, athletic misery. Seeking refuge in my father’s arts and crafts shed—smells of fresh clay and enamel paint. My mother delousing the whole girls camp, campers in towel turbans, smelling of kerosene. Performing: belting out “Only a Rose,” from Brigadoon on the Rec Hall stage, the hush of the audience—I can sing. Eating a peach my mother saved for me, in my parents’ room in the Guest House. Lying under the stars, unsettled by a sudden perception of the immensity of the universe. My tiny mother across the green circle of grass.
I’m on another point on that circle now. The sudden movement of a red salamander startles me into memory. And the sky surprised me one night when I came home late. I took a deep breath and looked again at those outrageous crowds of stars, and something inside me gave way—the immensity seemed to rush through me. I felt free.
Like freedom, Childhood is a place one carries inside. A place where one’s family forever lives.
The sky moves slowly, we move fast. Memory connects two points in time. I’m there.
These are hard and lonely times. Hope so delicate a thing in the face of the injustice of the world, yet it is, I believe, the stuff we are made of. Our element. I am grateful for the moments I feel my sister’s presence. Remember freedom. My sister Jo devoted her life to democracy; she was a fighter. I talk to her, of course. The days are up and down. But when I’m quiet, I feel the promise—hope is real, freedom is real—democracy, not a word or a political construct, but the destiny of humanity: to know and live the truth that every person, every living thing, is the embodiment of the divine. I think of the year that beautiful downy woodpecker lay stunned in my hands—came to—and flew away—free.
One night I came home to my woods house late.
Had neither porch light nor lamp.
Floated through dark velvet air,
Over my lawn, up my stair,
Groped for the door key.
Who turns my eyes
From unimaginable size
Opened to the skies.
Black cascade of light
Streamed into me at last.
At long, long last.
Related reading: Helena Writes
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