Thursday, May 13, 2010

Read Kingsbury, Elder

This little yellow flower in my fingers is wintercress. I found it last Monday in the field preserved by the Block Island Conservancy off Beach Ave. There's a little wooden sign marking the path that I biked by for years until one day I finally stopped and walked down to take a look. Now it's one of my favorite places to forage, with a multitude of plants and secret views of the inner ponds.

Wintercress is one of the first edibles to pop up in the spring. It is related to watercress and looks and tastes like its cousin--sharp and peppery. The flowers are edible, too. I ate a few petals of this one, enjoying the pungent bite on my tongue. I had a wonderful time in that field, photographing young milkweed shoots, exclaiming with delight at two-foot high stalks of asparagus, noting thistles and spring onions, wondering when wild carrots were going to make their appearance. I wasn't thinking about Read, who I'd last seen the end of March, when the wintercress was the first sign of life pushing its way up through the dead grass, but when I biked home with my sack full of asparagus and milkweed Neva's email was waiting for me. Read, who, if you don't know him, was engaged in a process with cancer, was close to dying.

He couldn't speak anymore, but she believed he could hear her. She was holding his hand. The hospice nurse told Neva he'd told her he was content with life and was comfortable with dying. I cried of course, and kept busy, because that's what Read would do. Roasted my asparagus, double-boiled my milkweed shoots, and went to bed knowing I would never see him again, strangely peaceful, wishing him well on his journey as I dropped into sleep, hoping that Neva could feel me by her side as she held his hand on what would be his night on earth.

I don't know what they talked about at the end, but I'm sure it was interesting, even if there were no words involved, because I don't know of two more engaging and interesting people in the world than Read and Neva. I was fortunate to live with them at The Bellevue House for six years where we formed what we called "The Bellevue Family." There were a lot of us coming and going over the years, but all the chambermaids and their friends and boyfriends really were treated like family members. Like all children, we got up to all sorts of shenanigans. Some of them we got away with, some we didn't, but everyone who lived at The Bellevue knew it was more than just a job, it was a home, that Neva and Read were mom and dad, grandma and grandpa, friends and mentors. 

I was thinking about all these roles Read played in my life. Yes, he was a father figure to me. Yes, he was my mentor at The Block Island Times--but it was more than that--for me and for many others in the community who connected with him at the newspaper or in some other capacity as he did his "civic duty" Read was an elder. A person who had earned his wisdom and generously shared it with anyone who wanted to listen and learn. He didn't beat anyone over the head with his opinions. He grew up on a farm, working dawn to dusk. He was sensible. As an editorialist, his words had such an impact because he lived them. It's called integrity. Read had it in spades. Everybody felt it, from the guests at The Bellevue breakfast table who relied on him for morning weather updates, to the young writers and reporters he mentored at The Block Island Times. He also had a good sense of humor and enjoyed a Gennessee Cream Ale at the end of the work day. He had a mini-refrigerator stocked with them in his work room in the basement. Those who were invited to imbibe one at dusk considered it quite an honor. He had to import them from the mainland because you couldn't buy them on the island.

There was something incorruptible about Read. He was a man who couldn't be bought. He took a stand. He did it quietly, without a fuss, but it was a firm stand that had results. One of his "civic duties" was to serve as a member of The Block Island Conservancy. He might have even been the president. I'm not sure. All I know is that when I walk down that enticing path into my favorite field for foraging, from now on I will always think of Read. I will always remember he had a part in preserving this beautiful field that supports so much life, and when I read the sign that says "Walkers Welcome" I will remember his dedicated spirit, and the will power to match which enabled him to sit through a thousand and one tedious meetings to make it happen. Most of all, every time I walk down that path, I will ask myself--what can I do to make the world a better place? What work is needed from me now?

The last time I saw Read he was standing in front of the woodstove in his and Neva's house on the Cape. The three of us had taken a walk together on the beach. He felt a little chilly and wanted to get a fire going. He had carried a big armload of wood in and was down on his knees cleaning the glass doors so they'd be able to see the flames. I walked over and gave him a hug. He laughed a little. It was hard to turn my back and walk to the door, leaving him standing there. Neva walked to the door with me, but stood inside, waving goodbye from the window. I knew I would never see him again.

I don't know if he knew. I think he did. He was quiet that day, but still shared some stories about how he first came to be a journalist. I enjoyed listening, always amazed at the depth of his experience, but I didn't need stories to learn from Read any more. I learned from his quiet dignity when he got up from his knees so I could say goodbye to him. It wasn't easy. He'd told me earlier how hard it had been to get up yesterday when he was gardening.

It wasn't easy, but it was necessary. That's why we did it. Said goodbye. Standing up--because that's how people know they can count on you.


  1. Jen - I hope this beautiful post made you feel closer to Read because it had that effect on me. I, too, alwyas respected his quiet, confident way of presenting topics and am definitely a better person for having made his acquaintance. Thank you for putting your words to such good use.

  2. Thank you. that was lovely.