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Turning points

June 1, 2016

On Memorial Day weekend in 1977 my stepfather Mike drove off the side of the Saw Mill River Parkway in his Volvo station wagon after suffering a fatal heart attack on his way to our country house in Connecticut’s Litchfield Hills. My mother was still at her office in the Graybar Building on Lexington Avenue in a cavernous part of Manhattan in the shadow of Grand Central Station and the then Pan Am Building. He was 50 years old; she was 52.

My mother and I had been estranged for nearly a year by then. Still, I rushed to be with her from my home in Boston, when I heard the news that day. In the ensuing days and for more than a week after, as we planned and carried out the funeral and huddled with old friends at their home in Litchfield, my mother and I spoke nothing of our previous battles. A sad but enduring detente ensued.

I spent those days enjoying the relative quiet of everyday life in the country after having worked at unfulfilling and barely sustaining jobs in Boston and New York City, and sometimes getting an acting job that paid little or nothing at all. My mind flickered with possibilities as I followed our host and friend Tom Hoben around the county on his rounds as an appraiser. Tom had built a substantial practice and had a great reputation in Litchfield and beyond. His life had taken a turn in that direction after the sudden tragic death of his daughter Sally in her freshman year at college. An alcoholic and a Catholic, Tom had seen Sally’s death as both a challenge and his penance, and he overcame his addiction, staying sober until his own death many years later. Tom’s wife Rosemary ran a nursery school, The Little Brick School, from a building attached by a porte-cochère to their brick home on Chestnut Hill. It was fulfilling and important work for Rosemary, who had a degree in early childhood education, and I think it kept Sally’s spirit alive in their life.

I know I fantasized about staying there in Litchfield and building a life, perhaps learning Tom’s trade or following Rosemary’s lead. But I was not brave enough to follow a path so foreign to me then. And I had no idea how important country life would become for me. My summers had always been spent in nature, either at Grandfather Collins’ home in rural Ontario or in Connecticut cabins my mother rented or on Fire Island with my Aunt Nell and her family. Those times were idyllic. But real life was conducted in the dark gritty neighborhoods of Manhattan. I had an inflexible imagination then.