“I have an unshakeable faith in people,” said Bruce Stephan. We were standing in Martha Swan and Vito’s kitchen Saturday evening for their “A Bringing” celebration, a gathering of friends, each asked to bring a dish to share, canned and boxed goods for the Food Pantry, and a poem, song or paragraph to read or perform. Bruce and his wife Joan, I was to learn, had reason for his remarks as they both survived the collapse of the World Trade Center Towers, he working in an office on the 65th floor of the first tower struck by a plane and she on the 91st floor of the other. Even more than that, he was a survivor of the Loma Prieta earthquake that hit San Francisco in 1989. At that time he was driving across the upper deck of the Bay Bridge when the roadway upon which he was traveling dropped fifty feet to the span below. “I am going to die,” was his last thought as the falling span took himself and his car with it. When he woke up the front end of his car was suspended in space and he could see the cold waters below.
My Thanksgiving began Thursday morning at the Keene Valley fire hall for the annual Thanksgiving Day Pancake Breakfast sponsored and cooked by Lola Porter of the Noon Mark diner. Pancakes might not seem the fare of choice on a day when the main meal is usually eaten mid-afternoon and includes an array of artery-clogging dishes and desserts. On the other hand, I have learned as a judge for the annual BBQ festival in Lake Placid that many see such a start as a way of training for the main event. In Keene the tasty reputation of Lola’s cooking, coupled with it being for a good cause, attracted over 75 people to tuck in.
“The pancakes were excellent,” said Warren Radcliff. “The service was fantastic as was the company, as usual, and it is for a good cause. This afternoon we will be going to the Jacques for Thanksgiving. Frank and Bonnie Keeler are coming over from Vermont. We will be joined by Andy and Elizabeth Derr. It will be fun.”
Barbara Strowger was starting the day off with her son Ryan, daughter-in-law Susie and grandchildren Hayley, 6, Lindsey, 4, and Adrian, 2, who were up from Fairfax, Va. “I’m here because I am tired of Virginia,” said Hayley. “What I like best about being up here is the snow and that it is almost December. Yesterday we tried to make a snowman. We made some snowballs and threw them at mommy and daddy.”
“Adrian, do you like playing in the snow?” asked Barbara. He nods. “I love having my family here,” she continued. I love it because they are so well behaved, they are so beautiful, and they are so helpful.” Adrian nodded his head again, more vigorously this time.
“I’m thankful for the turkey,” said Hayley.
“I’m thankful for the leaves,” said Lindsay.
“I’m guessing this is my twelfth year,” said Lola as she flipped another batch of pancakes. I can’t remember for sure. I have it written down at home. It may be thirteen. We have served seventy-five breakfasts so far today.”
“The money raised today supports the food pantry,” said Karen Glass, which is organized by the Congregational Church. People can drop off food or get food contributions on Wednesdays at the Keene Library.”
Supporting food pantries was much on the mind of Martha, Vito and their guests at their home on Saturday evening. “I love Advent,” said Martha. “I love that period of dying so spring can come. I love that sense of renewal. I hadn’t really thought of food pantry as part of it. I thought food pantry, food pantry. I didn’t really get it until Kathryn and John Preston introduced me to the need. I am so grateful to them. I am so thankful that so many people have come and brought so much.”
“There has been a marked increase in requests for help,” said Kathryn Preston. “The stats are not all in, but there is about a 77 percent increase in requests for help since last year. These are our neighbors. They have to make choices at times between food and fuel. What you do makes a difference. These are our neighbors. Some are hidden and some are not. Some are people that you do not expect to be coming through the door. They need your help. Thank you for giving it.”
With a large contingent from Keene, and others from Essex, Wadhams, Westport, Willsboro and beyond, and following a potluck every bit as good and varied as those in the North Country are known for, people gathered in the living room to share poems by Frost (several), Wendell Berry, Emily Dickinson and others, words by John Brown, and song.
“…but not just joy comes of immersion,
In a town where you know each person
For if they are ill or pass away.”
“It matters more than you can say,” read Bruce Stephan from his Ode to Essex, a poem he wrote about the hamlet where he and his wife Joan moved after their appalling experience on September 11 — words of love about our small-town way of life, the ties that bind us together in an area where every life matters.
Later he told me how they were both at work the morning when the planes crashed into the Trade Center. His building was hit first. He described the terrible circumstances and that he had to walk down the 65 flights. Near the 15th floor he met many firemen walking up. His wife had an outside window and saw the fireball and felt the intense heat from the first plane crashing into her husband’s building. She immediately grabbed a girlfriend and headed down, first by elevator (they were working, as her building had not then been hit) and then by stairs. She was about two-thirds of the way down when the second plane hit her building. When she got outside she saw that it had hit her office floor. None of her other officemates or those she met in the upper elevator lobby survived. Memorable to Bruce was the lack of panic, how orderly the people were coming down, first in two rows and then in one to allow the firemen space to climb up. In particular, he remembered meeting a man in the basement level directing people toward the exit. The man pointed to the number on his uniform, told Bruce his name, and asked that he pass on to his wife what he was doing in case he died. A horrific scene awaited Bruce, when he was to exit out into the street of falling bodies, burning fuel and ash, a plane crashed into the floor where his wife worked, the certainty that she must have perished and the exploding sounds of floors collapsing. Yet it was the calm sacrifice and efforts of strangers that left him with his now “unshakable faith in people,” truly a faith in the light of Advent to come.
Throughout this Thanksgiving week, in efforts of many to support food pantries, and in the prayers and words spoken at meals and at church, was an acknowledgement that we are in a very dark time, a darkness that may well be with us for a while, and that we need to help each other, to change and act upon a new set of shared priorities, and that there is light ahead. It may take awhile. The future may look darker for a while, but spring will come.