Sunday, June 10. 2018
I am about three weeks from the final burial of my sister Petey’s ashes, next to her husband Ned. This will be in the hill grave yard behind the Tyringham Union Church overlooking the meadows out to the coble. I miss having her words and thoughts with me. In the past several years we spoke every Saturday morning at nine AM by phone and if she was in Tyringham I would take my dogs and have coffee with her at the table in the middle of the kitchen. Petey was very concerned about me. I had gone through a difficult period with financial insecurity, a wife who I loved but used alcohol to excess, job changes, and moves. Sharon had undergone need for surgery after a knee replacement had become infected and we spent one summer in her care in the house while she recovered. During this time our discussions were serious, but she never withdrew her support for me.
This past year before her illness had developed, Sharon had fallen and developed a blood clot on the surface of her brain. I was scheduled to be on the phone with her two or three times a week reporting on our progress and how I was doing. I did not miss a call! During this time, I moved from our rental house in South Lee to a Condo apartment in Lenox. I am sad she did not live to see our new home. Parts of her are here. Two pineapple candlesticks we had gotten her while we were in Panama are on our bookcase. We also have her portrait of William Weyman on our Livingroom wall. He was part of the start of our Mason genealogy.
At her funeral Betsy Miller gave for me an extraordinary homily, which Petey had discussed and planned with her. Betsy was able to weave in the four goals our mother had written to us before she died, the gospel readings Petey had chosen and how these were reflected in Petey’s life.
Mother’s goals were Faith, Love, Community Service, and Courage.
This opened for me an emotional floodgate of thoughts about both my mother and my sister. I hardly knew my mother, who died when I was nine, but her writings had a spiritual impact on my life. Then my sister who in many ways took over her role as mother when she was 17, played her part and carried out our mother’s goals. It opens a lot of family history much still in unknown shadows.
Let’s start with Mother. Her father had become a successful business man and banker and, in his later years, had moved to an estate he had built on Lake Manawaska in Ridgefield, Conn. He expired in 1921. My Grandmother I remember as being very severe. I have one picture of her holding me in forward outstretched arms! My Grandfather Dixon had come from a Scotch-Irish family with a strong religious background. His G-G-Grandfather was an important minister with the Scotch church and had been forced to leave because of rules set by the Anglican church on worship that he would not follow. His Grandson had immigrated to Westerly, Rhode Island about 1720.
My Grandmother came from Van Wyck/Polhemus Brooklyn heritage: families of the very early settlers on Brooklyn. They had three children. Theodore (Teddy) who became a stockbroker, Augusta (Gusseus) who never married and would often visit, and my mother. The Depression which came in 1933 was very hard on them and much of the family wealth, invested in Railroads by Teddy, was lost. My Grandmother died in 1941 and the estate in Ridgefield was sold. Gusseus was forced to live with much less means. I can remember Gusseus well. Both my mother and Gusseus were large ladies. Not obese just big. She had a good sense of humor and was always very caring to me. My main memory is that after the sale of all their property, the one thing not sold was a 1930 Packard Roadster with huge running boards, straight 12-cylinder engine and a trunk on the rear. My joy was being driven to Lee on the running board!
Our mother, the youngest child, was born in 1895 and married our father in 1924 at age 28. They moved to a new house in Hewlett, Long Island, that was built on Cedar Avenue, and it is there that my sister and I would grow up. My sister was born in 1925 and I came eight years later in 1933 with the depression. Our father had returned from serving in France during World War I. He had been stationed in St Nazaire receiving airplane parts on ship and arranging for them to be delivered. He was an early member of the United States Army Air Force, but never got near a plane! He had returned from France with early tuberculosis an illness that would affect him the rest of his life. He lived long enough to be treated with the 1960 antibiotic programs that for the first time was able to control the disease.
I know that our mother went through a serious depression after my birth and was admitted to a sanitorium for treatment. I also know that she took life very seriously. She had a strong faith in the church, love for my father and skills to become involved in several public service projects. She had been educated to the college level and had developed her skill with writing and language. It is her writings that have stayed with me.
After World War I was over it was planned to build a memorial to the war effort at the port of St Nazaire, where my father had been stationed. My mother wrote a detailed history of the event which has been reused today as they try to resurrect the statue. She also developed several pieces on family genealogy. Her album that she put together without computer and internet and ancestors.com was a huge effort and at present is on view at the Jay Homestead in Rye NY. She was very worried and opposed to the Nazi movement in Germany and wrote her reasons for opposition to a young German.
She was concerned about her two children and how they would develop. I can remember being 7 or 8 and the star of the Christmas Pageant put on at my Lawrence school. I ended the play by giving my stuffed Teddy Bear to Jesus. After the play several people gushed over my cuteness, and my mother quickly exited me from the adoration. She did not want to let them stoke my acting ego!
About 1942 she was diagnosed with aggressive breast Cancer. This started a long siege for her with surgical procedures that really could not stem the aggressiveness of the tumor. She needed an outlet for her fears and concerns of what her death would mean and turned to her typewriter. Many letters were written to her friend which I have used to talk about death and healing. It was during this time she wrote her letter to Petey and me.
Faith, Love, Service, Courage.
Betsy in her homily spoke more eloquently than I can write about these and how Petey lived by them. Faith was so important to both. Find your faith and keep it strong, but not intolerant of other people’s faiths. I know my mother kept this and our father did too. Petey really believed and kept her realization of the harm of intolerance. What is interesting is that we were all continually exposed to rejection and humiliation of people of other faiths by people in our community. Does not work. Her talk of love was also held by her and Petey. The connection of family and need, despite what happens for continued support. Respect, mutual interest, affection, sympathy and mutual understanding. WOW! Service was part of both lives. The fact that Petey volunteered 27 years as a Pastoral Care worker at the Hospital is enough. Petey had the ability to comfort and support so many people in the last phases of their life. This without faith, love and courage would not happen.
She died on July3, 1943, when I was 9 and Petey was 17, and left me tearful and devastated.
Let’s continue with Petey. She was 17 when mother died. I believe she had just graduated from Garrison Forrest and had enrolled at Barnard College which allowed her to live at home. Ned was at Columbia Law School. At the time of our mother’s funeral a very well meaning episcopal minister, Father Urbano, said to her “Petey, you have now become our Golden BRICK.” Petey reacted to the word brick. This she did not want. But BOSS LADY emerged. Ask her children!
My role with my sister continued until the day she died. Betsy Miller had it right in her homily. “Petey clung to God as the source of her being, as hope for every day and for eternity,” Her love for me was constant. As Betsy said, “It was the sense that no matter where you lived, no matter what you did, no matter how things turned out, you were at home in her heart, secure in her love, and encouraged by her hope in you.” This was basic morning kitchen table talk.
Her marriage to Ned was so solid. He was eight years older than her and sixteen years older than me. He also had a deep faith and sense of family love. He became another rock on which I depended. In many ways he became a father figure for me. He taught me to tie a bow tie in a way I could not forget. He tried to tutor me in Latin. Our move to New York meant a new school and I was behind in Latin. Also, I really didn’t like it. He tried to get Latin into my brain and I struggled with it.
After our mother died, I think in 1945, we moved into New York City and were taken in by my great Aunt, Teddy Mason. Her apartment on 1435 Lexington Ave had three bedrooms, two full baths, dinning room, kitchen with maid’s room and I think the rent was $150 a month. Thanks to rent control! She was my Grandmother’s sister. (My grandmother and grandfather had died at an early age. My father and his brother and sister were taken in by the Mason family who then lived on 57th street between Lex and Madison. Teddy was 5 feet tall, thin, and very anxious to please all. She was an active antivivisectionist and before her time a vegetarian. My Uncle Bob used to tease her unmercifully about always wearing alligator shoes. She loved to walk and when visiting us in Tyringham would walk 2 1/2 miles a day. She also became another mother figure for me as I was left in her care for one winter.
It must have been the winter of 1946 that my father’s tuberculosis reactivated, and they found that Petey had a primary lesion as well. They were both admitted to a TBC sanitorium I believe in Islip Long Island. I was left in Teddy’s care with my Uncle Bob looking on. Ned, who was now at Columbia Law School would come for lunch every Saturday, be fed eggplant which he did not like, and leave to spend the rest of the weekend visiting Petey and our father.
They were married in the summer of 1947 in Trinity Church in Lenox with a reception at Rozz’s barn, which was next to the Tyringham house. She was 21 and one year from graduation from Barnard with a math major. (our mother had given her a math gene) Ned had graduated from Columbia Law with honors. He was employed by the New York Law firm of Cravath Swaine and Moore. I was about to start my educational wheel with Millbrook, Williams, and Cornell Medical College and then residency at St Luke’s Hospital.
And children came to Petey. Louie in 1949, Neddy in 1951, Jamie in 1954, David in 1956 and Kate in 1963. They moved to Bethleham Pa about 1952. Ned had been given a job as lawyer with Bethleham Steel.
I was married in 1960 to Adrienne Allen in Toronto, Canada while in my residency at St Lukes. My brother in law was my best man. My second marriage was in 1984 in Tarrytown, NY at St Mary’s Episcopal Church. Again, my brother in law was best man. After the service he told me “John, twice is enough and I am not going to do that again!”
Our father died in Dec 1979 at age 89 and Ned’s father died in 1983 I believe in Tyringham at age 99. (A strange note. Our mother died in 1943 and Ned’s mother died suddenly in 1945.)
One of Petey’s tasks had become the care of the Grandfathers. Both were very different and difficult people. They lived in the same apartment house: (157 east 72nd St) on different floors but the same apartment. Our father was very dependent in an independent way and Ned’s father was very independent in a dependent way. When they visited Bethleham they would sit at opposite ends of the Living Room and expect Petey’s care. She never gave up on either and was a constant refuge for both.
By this time, I had three children and with my first wife was living and practicing Medicine in Rye New York. I was going through personal problems with my marriage and other urges that would lead me away from my mother’s hope for me on Love.
Then in 1980 I bled into my subarachnoid space around my brain while running and came close to having that end my life. I survived, and Thank God recovered with no residual damage, but it took a year for me to regain my executive functioning. This was hard for all around me. My children lived with the fear I would not survive and then lived with my loss of my reasoning. One of the results of this was that my marriage to Adrienne ended.
I was married a second time in 1984 to Sharon Paino, who I had met before my divorce. We moved from Rye to Charleston, South Carolina and I worked at the Medical University of South Carolina for ten years. I was then appointed a medical missionary for the Episcopal Church and was sent to Panama to set up and run clinics in areas of need. Part of my Petey memory was her visit with the mother of Eve, David’s wife, to Panama and our taking them to our clinic in the very Western part of Panama. She helped in the pharmacy and complained about my terrible hand writing! I think part of this was that she was very proud of what I had done.
When Panama ended about 2010, we moved back to the Berkshires and Petey and I developed a much closer relationship.
I miss that Petey base in my life. Her spirit continues to be present. I have come to realize that the spirit of our lives stays even though our life ends. The examples we set often without knowing stay attached to our spirit even with our death. My mothers spirit, based on her love for us, although I often strayed from it, was present my entire life. Petey’s spirit again based on the love that she had for me was with me my entire life.
As a physician her death from the aortic stenosis and atrial fibrillation was very predictable and Petey accepted this without fear. I always knew that she was very special for me. I will miss all the contact points we had. If I have a message to my children and Petey’s children, it is to value what our mother and Petey taught us. Live your life with:
FAITH, LOVE, SERVICE, COURAGE