In October, I gave myself an incredible gift, and signed up for a workshop in Wellsboro with a former professor. It was called, "Your Heart, Your Name, Your Prayer," and one of the instructors, Judith Sornberger, was among my favorite professors at Mansfield University. I gave myself this gift for my 37th birthday, desiring to reclaim an old version of myself. Wellsboro is a town that is steeped in deeply personal history for me. I first moved there when I was 17, a student in college. I lived there with my ex-husband and his mother. Over a decade ago, I fled the town and the life I had there. I visited only once afterward, to file for divorce.
I thought it would be easy to go back, since the workshop was in a new place, one that I had no real memories attached to. The Deane Center for Performing Arts is a recent renovation that changed an old storefront building into a vibrant community gathering place. I cannot remember what used to be in the storefronts. Even so, a forlorn weight sat in my heart as I drove to Wellsboro. It hit me somewhere just past Mansfield, at the place on the route where I once saw an amazing fireball shooting star streak above the hillside. I was such a girl back then, easily struck by awe.
Approaching the town, I felt the weight lift somewhat. I drove slowly and let my eyes search out the changes. The Time Saver is no longer there. The hardware store on the corner, across from the diner, went out even before I left. Dunham's, it seems, never changes. I did not search out the Penn Wells, the site of a hundred memories of drunken nights at the bar.
I shook off my memories as I went up the elevator on the way to the workshop. Walking in, I recognized no one except for Judith. She has retired, but her deep love for teaching and sharing radiates outward still. She had chosen for me some ancient calligraphy of my initials. T.R. The initials I reclaimed when I divorced in 2004. Looking at them, I felt empowered and stronger. I settled in for a magnificent day.
And it was. Judith's friend and co-leader, Jenny Garrison, led the group on guided meditations that had us searching into the wellsprings of our hearts. My timid heart did not burst open. But it was gladdened and emboldened by the sharing of the women of the room, all of us of different ages, life-stages, and personal paths. When a meditation guiding me to my heart's "spirit animal" led me to a very green and happy frog, I was puzzled. But then one thoughtful and wise woman in the group suggested that it was perhaps significant that a frog is a transformational animal.
I paused and thought about this, letting the memory of my intense transformations in this same town settle over me. Shortly after I was married, I converted to Catholicism here, at St. Peter's. I went through my first confession and felt reborn as new moral being. I fled my new-found faith when I fled the marriage. Thinking on this made me renew my commitment to read Judith's new memoir, "The Accidental Pilgrim," a book about another transformation. I bought a copy of it there that day.
For our lunch break, we were instructed to follow our heart's desire. I pictured myself taking my lunch and my book to the Green to sit on a park bench. But when I stepped back out onto the sidewalk, the day was chilly and gray. The sunshine I was feeling was strictly an internal shining. I headed toward the park, but as I approached it, I knew that I would not stop there. Coming upon the Wynken, Blynken, and Nod fountain, I circled it fully as I recalled many late and drunken walks home in the still darkness, silent except for the sound of its spray. I continued on up Pearl Street, to the site of the home that welcomed me once, long ago.
A lifetime ago, I was seventeen and wanted to be worldly. I fell in love with an actor from Long Island and thought that by loving him I would escape life in the tiny village of Big Pond. When I left home, I moved in with him and his aged mother. A place to live was a tremendous gift that I did not appreciate at the time. They lived in a gorgeous Victorian-style home, with ornate decor and a gaslight in the front yard. It was beautiful, but old and run-down in places. The antique floorboards in the kitchen gave me countless splinters while a dazzling teardrop chandelier lit up the dining room table.
The house, like my old life, is gone. It was destroyed in a fire in 2002, just a few months after I got married. The three of us fled the burning house during the coldest part of a night in February. We had no working smoke detectors, and we barely got out with our lives. Nonetheless, the loss of the house was the knell that sounded the beginning of the end, sending my then-husband into a spiral of drinking and depression that no young marriage could ever survive.
The fine old Victorian house was replaced with a small pre-fab even before I fled this town, running as fast from my ill-constructed married life as I could. The pre-fab was too long for the lot, and the new house had to go in sideways. Coming upon the little house, I saw that it had been much improved by some sophisticated landscaping. Even so, it looked out of place to me still. The tall pines in the back were familiar to me though. Morton, the big old orange cat who died in the fire, lies buried beneath them. Peering around the side of the house, I almost expected to see the statue of the Virgin Mary still sitting in the flower bed, her blue robe chipped and cracking. But she is not there, and I knew she would not be. My ex-husband's mother, Valerie, had brought the statue with her from Long Island. Valerie had died a few years ago. She is gone now, like the Virgin, like the old Victorian. Thinking of her, I flashed back to the night of the fire. Of scurrying down the hedge to escape the second floor as flames devoured the rooms below. Of running through the frozen spikes of the grass in my bare feet to the driveway below the window of Valerie's room. Of screaming her name piercingly through the frigid and acrid darkness. Mrs. Berry. Even then, after knowing her for seven years, I never called her by her first name. It never felt right.
Somehow with her grace and charity, her blissful faith, honest grit and hopeful naivety, she seemed always above me. That night, as a neighbor helped her pull herself through her bedroom window and on to the carport roof, she seemed all of her 81 years old. I remembered how she stood for some time arguing with the firefighters when they arrived. Where is the net? she wanted to know. Wasn't there a thing to jump into, like in the movies? No, no! they told her. You have to climb down the ladder! She did climb down, painfully slowly. Standing there, I smiled at the memory.
Valerie was my friend once, and a true inspiration for me. In 2001, in the wake of 9-11, she set an example for me with her steadfast faith and unwavering prayer. Standing with her at St. Peter's on that September afternoon, I felt deeply afraid. But when I took her hand during a prayer for those lost in the attacks, I was bolstered by hope. She had been born in 1920. She had sent her husband off to war in Europe and known several men who had never come home. She had suffered loss and lived as a widow for longer than I'd been alive. Yet here on this day of profound uncertainty, her hope was fearless.
I lost my connection with Valerie when I left my marriage. She is Valerie to me now that there is no one to question what I call her. I would have liked to tell her how much she influenced me. I stood in the gray damp that October day and remembered her old house, with its stained glass windows and curving master staircase. I pictured the ornate parlor with its marble mantlepiece and heirloom furniture, the sleigh that sat on her porch each winter. The ghosts of these things remained as I continued my walk up the sidewalk. I had one more place to visit, a place that was like another former home.
Turning right toward Main St, I spotted the graceful curving architecture of the Green Free Library at once. I worked as a clerk there from 96 to 98, while I was attending Mansfield. Almost every work day, I left the old house on Pearl Street, crossed the parking lot of the Tussey-Mosher Funeral Home and walked across Main St to get to work. I loved my job, being surrounded by books and meeting fascinating people. I found that I excelled at locating materials and finding answers for patrons. The work set me on a career path that I still walk today.
I studied the library building as I approached. Recently, the director, Leslie, had told me at a librarian's meeting that the porch was newly redone. From where I approached I could not tell. I so rarely took the sidewalk back then, and I suddenly thought of one particular time that I did take it. I was walking home for lunch, and there was a funeral that afternoon. Not wishing to be disrespectful, I took the sidewalk, a much longer way around. As I walked, a man drove up beside me in a white van and got out of the vehicle. He walked up and asked for directions, but before I could reply, his idling van began to roll backwards. It increased speed as it rolled through the stop sign. Somehow, it crossed the median and rolled into the side of a co-worker's car. The co-worker was my friend and mentor, Sandy Webster.
Thinking of Sandy, I smiled and picked up my pace. Leslie had told me that Sandy still worked at the library when I inquired about her. Perhaps, I thought, she was working today. If so, I wondered, would she be happy to see me? I had not kept in touch with her after I left Wellsboro. I always thought I disappointed her beyond healing. For Sandy was more than my mentor at my first library job, she was also my guide when I decided to convert to Catholicism. She had converted years earlier, and was bringing her children up in the faith. The priest, Father Sullivan, asked her to lead me through the process as my spiritual mentor. She came to RCIA meetings with me, and was one of the first to console me after the house fire. She answered my questions about the faith in her way that was quiet and serious, with an undercurrent of humor. When I asked her why she had converted, she told me that the Catholic church was where she found God.
I feel that Catholicism failed me when it could offer me only prayer as a solution to my disintegrating marriage. I know I failed at being Catholic, and I accepted that failure and embraced it when I fled. But, feeling as though I had also failed Sandy, I did not approach her again. Once, a couple of years later, I had to call the Green Free on library business, and I shamefully hoped she did not recognize my voice. She did, though. After a short beat, she said softly, "I know this is you." She did not have to say my name. She had held my hand during countless prayers. She had stood with me in front of the congregation on my confirmation day and shyly, softly, traced the sign of the cross on my forehead, on my lips, and over my heart.
I was filled with an overwhelming urge to see Sandy on this day. I wanted to tell her that I am well and happy, that I have three amazing sons and a husband I am grateful for. I wanted to know if she had forgiven me for walking away from our faith. Nearing the library, it seemed as though nothing had changed in the last 12 years. The new porch looked just the same. The heavy wrought iron-laden door was still heavy. Even, it seemed, the color of the paint was unfaded and unchanged. Walking through the inner door, it was as though time had not passed at all. Sunlight streamed in through the windows above the circ desk, setting off the bright pattern of the oriental rug. And there behind the desk was my friend, Sandy. She too, was almost unchanged. She had gained some weight perhaps, but her shoulders were rounded in her same well-known posture. I noticed too, that her hair was longer and her dark fly-away curls were now tinged with silver. Standing there, I imagined for a moment that I had walked into a scene from 1997, only everything, books and building and people alike, was covered with a fine dust that shimmered like the gray in Sandy's hair.
Sandy's expression registered no surprise as I greeted her. I asked about her family and wondered at how the library remained so unchanged. Her eyes sparkled behind her glasses as she told me about her kids, all grown, and about a grandchild on the way. She glowed with happiness as she spoke. She saddened to tell me that the library now has to keep its local history room off-limits to casual visitors, due to the theft of a rare atlas. I wandered around and admired the stacks, making mental notes of titles my library should probably also have. I paused and looked into the local history room, at the antique grandfather clock that once belonged to governor William A. Stone. The clock had to be wound weekly with an old key, and I remembered countless times I had tried to wind it, but failed. Sandy had a special knack with that clock. I wondered if she still did.
But I did not ask Sandy about it. Just like I did not ask her if she still went to church at St. Peter's. I instead talked about my family and my job and, as time grew short, about my need to get back to the workshop I was attending. I smiled and said a casual good-bye. I did not give her a hug. As I walked back downtown, I hoped that my sons would get to meet Sandy someday.
Back at the workshop, we were asked if any of us wanted to share the place where their heart's desire took them. Slightly overcome with memory and emotion, I chose not to share. Perhaps I instinctively knew that the sharing was to come later. At the close of the workshop that day, I felt productive and accomplished, yet full, as though I had eaten just a bit too much at delicious feast. Before I left Wellsboro, I stopped in at the shop on the ground floor of the Deane Center. I bought a hat. A classy, retro hat with a narrow brim and a gray felt flower. Something I could picture my ex-mother-in-law, Valerie, wearing back when she was the young and gorgeous woman in the portrait that once hung over the mantel in her old Victorian home. But this hat was all mine, and all for me. A tangible reward for walking through the belly of my symbolic beast. Perhaps Wellsboro would be a place of all good memories on my next visit.
Life is brutal and funny. As my son Cyril would say, "Not funny haha, but funny, hmmmm?".
About a month later, I was sitting in the office at work when Steve, the van driver for the county library system, told me he had something to tell me. It was the Monday after Thanksgiving and I expected him to launch into a story about his grandkids or relate some library-related news. I was shocked as he told me that my friend Sandy had died the week before.
My shock gave way to intense grief as he relayed the details. She was asleep when her house caught fire. Perhaps her smoke detectors failed or were in need of new batteries. She and her two dogs did not make it out of the house. They found her just inside the door. I wept to learn of Sandy's terrible fate. Her funeral was to begin in just a few hours, and I left work early so that I could go. As I drove, I cursed the irony of losing Sandy in this way. She, who held my hand in the days after I escaped from my own burning home over a decade ago. I felt deeply ashamed that I had not connected with her sooner. I wondered if, in her last moments, she had her faith by her side. Driving up Pearl Street, I felt anger at this tragedy for bringing me back to Wellsboro again so soon. I approached Tussey-Mosher, but then found myself unable to park in the lot that I had walked across hundreds of times. I parked on the street and walked inside, just barely able to hold back tears.
I did not know Sandy's family. Inside the funeral home, I discovered I knew practically no one. I recognized Leslie, but felt unable to speak to her, lest my tears come unleashed. Sitting in a chair, I listened to the murmurs of “why” that echoed throughout the conversations in the room. A photo display showed images of Sandy through the years, filling in for me the changes and the time that I had missed. I sat, knowing that nothing would bring back the opportunity to give Sandy one last hug, or to ask if she forgave me for walking out on a spiritual quest that, for a time, we shared. When a female minister came forward to lead the service remembering Sandy, I knew that she too must have left the Catholic faith. Here was another thing we could have shared, had I only reached out to her. But my regrets were surely nothing compared to all those that remained unspoken and hanging heavily over the mourners in the room.
I am still coming to terms with the loss of Sandy. I will someday carve a place for that loss next to the loss of my faith. Perhaps I will examine them both together from time to time, just often enough to discover if that place is still sore. But as I sit here, I know that I will never revisit the Green Free Library in the same hopeful way. With Sandy's passing, I acknowledge that the last vestiges of my long-ago life are gone, fallen away like the fragmenting corners of an old, worn book.
Governor Stone's grandfather clock still keeps time, being wound by some other hand. The memory of Sandy's touch remains on everything, including me.
Untouched too are the memories I keep of a life that has fallen away, that of the carefree student and writer who longed for transformation and loved the wrong man. So too, the memories of an aging Catholic woman comforted endlessly by her faith as the world changed endlessly around her. Perhaps someday, I will visit Wellsboro without feeling a trace of sadness. Perhaps someday, I will feel again transformed by religious faith. But for now, I am left feeling only grateful that I gave myself the gift of following my heart's desire.