A PURPOSEFUL LIFE—
I find the word, "purposeful" so new sounding yet so profound in its meaning. I love to use it, but find it is one of the more difficult words to just plop into a sentence. It rarely fits! But somehow it comes to mind more readily, now that Fred has found his purpose and as he shares it with me.
I discovered the word and its usefulness through Fred and his way of life—a gentleman farmer with pure grit and a penchant for helping others, simply because it felt good to do so. He never asked for help himself. He never seemed to need help; and yet there came a time when his needs were too much for him to handle on his own. That time would be in the distant future and for me it would be the most heart-rending of times—but that is a long way off. Right now, I was still in the frame of mind that Fred would always be the kind, gentle sort of man who devoted his entire life and being to the service of others. Fred cared more than any other single human being I know; that made him resourceful beyond anything or anyone else. His purposeful life was a testament to the depth of his caring, and I would never forget that about him.
Fred and I have been friends for more than twenty years. We talk, but we rarely sit down to do that--it's always on the fly when we spend time talking, likely exchange of quick thoughts and ideas that flit through the air like dandelion whirly-gigs.
It’s almost as if we are racing toward each other and then running away after a blur of conversation.
It was not always like that. At one time Fred and I had been more than just friends. Those are the times that I keep in the back of my mind, tucked away like a treasure trove in my storehouse of dear memories.
My thoughts and feelings about him are so under control now, though the way our relationship ended is still an incompletion.
Fred never spoke of it, nor did I after it ended. It was just a part of the patchwork of our lives, never completed, yet stitched into our story and made permanent as a turning point for both of us.
The real “ending” of the romantic part of the relationship came months after the official cutting of the ties. Fred and I were like drug addicts when it came to our physical connection. We would find each other in unexpected places, glance away and then the “pull” of the magnetic forces would bring us together again. Our passion was still too fresh to let us forget and go our separate ways after we decided to stop seeing each other. It was way too soon to be able to forget what we felt when we were entwined and our bodies, yearning for the fulfillment that was surely there, would seek out the other if only for a few minutes.
In those unplanned intervals, we both found satisfaction, but there was a constant reminder that our lives were never going to mesh. As long as we both resisted the real pull of our connection, there was no room for making it a real relationship.
We never spoke of this. We were silent in those heated interludes. A meeting by pure accident would become the backdrop for yet another powerful and magnetic joining.
It became impossible to control the pull, and I was the first to say something. “This is so difficult for me, Fred. I can’t be jumping into and out of these trysts like this—it leaves me nothing and makes it impossible for either of us to find a real partner!”
Fred just turned away, nodding, and said, “Yes! We can’t go on like this.”
“Let’s just forget we ever got involved this way; we will both be better off if we just stop” I spoke quietly, not wanting to hurt him but knowing that we were at a crossroads and needed to make the break.
Our long meetings on projects and gatherings with architects and builders continued for years. We were solid, as friends. But we could not seem to bring about a commitment of any sort, except to the business at hand.
My life was busy as I made my living in one industry that always seemed to be strong here: real estate sales and development. I was the sort of developer who wanted to protect and restore the older Village houses, rather than tear them down, as other developers do all the time.
Developers were inclined to buy land with tear-down houses on the lots. There were so few vacant lots to build big brand-new houses, so this was what they did.
I saw the value in the smaller homes and even though these properties were quickly becoming a source for developers, the smaller houses were the source of my greatest pleasure. I had to learn how to beat the builders to a property that was ready for new ownership. Fred was a remarkable asset because he knew all the owners and he would introduce them to me.
I bought these little homes and renovated them with my team and offered them up to the more modest of homebuyers. They loved my houses, Heathway Houses as they were called, and I took that name for my company as I built it to a stable and thriving business, a great source of pride for me in addition to a very nice nest egg for my future. But Fred would disappear again and again, and it disrupted my pace, made me feel like I was going to drown from the withdrawal.
One day many years later, I would learn the real reason for his disappearances, and it would almost completely alter everything I knew and admired about Fred. His darkest secrets were buried somewhere behind his good character and his honorable life as a farmer’s son. No one knew what had happened; at least if they did know they weren’t talking—yet!
One day recently, after I had moved to my new place in Southampton Village, I had an encounter with Fred that was quite something.
It was late November and it was still warm. We had just had the most beautiful Indian summer here.
He walked up behind my house to the back deck and waved at me through the window. Fred did not have to yell for me to hear him, he was right at the open window calling out my name in his deep, full-throated voice. "Hey-Hey Holly," he said using the same tune as the famous 60's song, “Hey-Hey Paula.” He always made me laugh with his sudden bursts into tunes long forgotten. It didn’t matter that my name didn’t fit—it was a reason to break into song, a song that would give him entry to my world without the normal “Hi! How are you?”
No, nothing about Fred was predictable, even his greeting.
There was no way to determine how Fred would next appear; I was always surprised when he would come around the corner of the house and step up on the back deck.
But the best way he always astonished me was with his singing; he loved to sing but I had never heard him sing a complete song. It was always a “piece” or part of a song that came out of his mouth. There was no way for me to judge or even think he was a particular talent. He just loved to sing, and I was the lucky recipient of these impromptu offerings. A clutch at his chest and head was thrown back, he would open his throat to the music in such a way that I began to think he was an opera performer—but then he would stop, embarrassed at his own sound.
One time he even started to sing an Aria from La Boheme out of the clear blue. I do not have many friends who know opera, much less sing it. He did have a good voice, but it was just a snippet of the original aria and I did not fully recognize his range. I always thought he was a frustrated performer, someone who could have benefitted from a good vocal coach!
Little did I know that the truth about his talent held some of the biggest surprises for me.
Fred was no untrained singer. He was, in fact, considered to be the best vocalist in the Hamptons. Here again, was another secret well hidden from view and kept from the rest of the local crowd who did not pay attention. He had a following though, I found out much later, in much the same way as I found out other things about Fred: very slowly.
Fred was walking better now since his fall from his stepladder earlier in the summer. His bruises were gone from the side of his face and head and he didn't limp quite as severely as he had.
He was quite the busy man—first a flourishing organic farmer and now doing the handiwork that most homeowners here on the South Fork need. He wasn't really a handyman, just an avid repair person when needed. He loved to help all kinds of people here in the Village and always had a hammer or wrench in his hand. He seemed to have all the answers to the nagging issues that come up for homeowners, and he was always there if you needed his help. His work was considered the best you could get and for that, he charged a minimum.
Most people he would do work for knew that he had fallen on hard times and they were never questioning but always respectful of his privacy, carefully avoiding any mention of his farm or his family.
Fred had moved into Southampton Village a few years back and never really explained why he left Bridgehampton. I knew his family farm was there, but for all I knew the house was not livable since his father died.
There was a rumor that the house and farm were in foreclosure, but I didn’t want to ask such a personal question and he never volunteered an explanation. I just let it go, hoping that at some point Fred would share with me what happened.
There was another rumor that I just overlooked; this time it was about the fact that the Stevenson Farm had been sold to a big developer.
There was silence from Fred on all things regarding his farm and his family so I was just an outside observer, kept in the dark about the more daily transactions of Fred’s life and strange as it may seem, I was OK with that. Until the day comes when he finally opens up to me about the workings of his family farm, I was staying out of it.
With Fred’s quiet nature I was always acting on the side of caution when we did have conversations of any length. I did not want to pry into his life—Just wanted to share the few times when we did get together, in a light mood. We did seem to have a good interaction with one another, and I did not want to risk losing that. The days of our romance had diminished in memory but there was still a haze of something quite unidentifiable to me. It was as if a sheer curtain hung between us; neither one of us wanting to pull it back; nor did either of us want to darken it opaquely. We were there, in this distant connection that did not seem to need anything else right now, at least for me.
Hearing my name, I walked out onto the porch and pulled up a chair to the table and pointed to another one for Fred to sit down--never thinking he would. He was always on the move; very rarely did he take me up on an offer to sit and visit.
The porch was flooded with sunlight as if summer had never left this protected part of the house. We were tucked in under the eaves of the porch. The large white stained deck splayed out in front of us and, in all its splendor, the big south-facing back yard was still a brilliant, deep green.
Trees surround the sweeping grounds and though the red and golden colors of fall were just beginning to change the heavy-laden bows to their fall palette, we could still feel the privacy of the perimeter.
Nothing is private in the Village, where many of the smaller houses sit side by side on quarter-acre and one-third acre lots, but I was lucky enough to have a half-acre lot and it was very private indeed.
"I thought I would try to fix that lounge chair for you before you put it away in the garage for the winter, that way you can start using it as soon as Spring comes. You won't have to come looking for me to do it if I'm still around!"
He pulled at the chair as if he wanted to sit, but he was too busy. He leaned forward, hands resting on the ladder back of the chair and I could see the fatigue in his form. His shoulders were more forward, and his legs crossed one behind the other as he leaned heavily on the chair.
"What?" I said, my voice raised more than usual. "What is that supposed to mean? If I am still around?” I was taken aback because Fred was never a man to look for sympathy for himself or to make an issue of his health or frequent accidents.
He always picked himself up and just moved on, no matter the heavy load! He lived his full life as he always has, long as I can remember. Nothing could keep Fred down for long. “I can come back and do the lounge on Friday if that works for you….”
Now he was getting anxious to move on. I could feel the anticipation rising in his presence. His hands moved along the top of the chair as if he was smoothing out an uneven surface. He talked animatedly about the things he has been doing since he decided to get things in order. I sat there almost dumbfounded and a little worried about his frame of mind. I thought he was more than a little anxious, for what reason, I didn’t know.
"Well, you know, you can’t know what is ahead. I never think about what's ahead for me but now I need to start thinking about it because I may want to retire soon and what will I say to everybody here? What would they do if I were to suddenly just disappear? Who would be able to help them out when they need it?"
I was shocked by his comments. I never thought of him as retirement age and I don't think he is anywhere near that age, but there he was sharing something with me that we had never, ever mentioned before. I could only guess that he was talking about retirement, but maybe it was something more portentous. Maybe, he really was ill with something that he won’t survive. I shook it from my mind.
"If you retire before me, I will take it personally!" I said in a laugh. I know that he is younger than me, by more than a few years. I felt there was something behind his strange conversation so I was hoping he would share it with me.
Then he did sit down, and he looked at me from across the table and said in his low voice: "I have never planned on retiring. My Father never retired--he worked right up to the day he died. He was a farmer you know--a damn good one too. Raised cattle, chickens, and ducks, you know? He farmed almost all two hundred acres of the farm too, all on his own. He did have some help but not much and when I came back from Europe, I was able to get the farm registered as an organic farm, so that helped a bit. He worked himself to death, I guess.
“He farmed all those acres all the way up until the day he died. We found him in a furrow of one of the fields. He took a spill in the field and couldn’t get back up. He was just exhausted, and he never recovered from that fall." Fred was speaking very quietly now---almost in a whisper as he told me how he lifted his father up but couldn’t drag his dead weight to the truck. He had to go for help. That is when the police came to the property. The scene caused quite an uproar—two police cars and an ambulance soon followed to get to the scene.
There was talk around the post office and the Sagaponack General store that there was a death, but no one knew who it was until the following week after the Southampton Press wrote the article.
I tried to keep my head, keep my emotions squared away during this very touching moment. Fred shared things of a personal nature so infrequently that this was a time to just let him speak.
He stopped then; the emotion caught up to his revelations about the fact of his father’s death. He very obviously never spoke about it to anyone before me. His voiced closed down to a soft wavering groan and he stopped right there.
I knew that was it. He would not have much more to say to me about it. “I am so sorry Fred. I wish I had known you lost him that way. You were all alone after that….!” I reached out to him, but he sat silently, arms at his sides, head almost bowed.
The way things unfold in life can become quite surprising when one takes the time to look back.
In review, I saw a man in Fred who was wounded, so very deeply wounded by his early life. I had known him for so long and yet his story of family, farm-life and his early profession as a singer were relatively unknown to me. He never really shared anything with me about his early life, until now.
I felt a little more than nervous when I was around him recently. I could sense a volcanic resentment that was right there under the surface and it was raw, disturbingly visceral for me to witness. His deep blue eyes would flash with a dark light at times recently and it almost took my breath away when I witnessed it. Flashes of anger were not something I ever thought I would see from this gentle, loving man.
"I always knew you had a farm,” I said, taking a deep breath to shift the mood a bit.
I guessed it was a family farm originally. I didn't know it was always a working farm--I heard that Fred did a lot to make it into the respected, “organically grown” status and that meant so much to him; he was so very proud of his produce.
“Why haven’t you told me about the farm? What has happened to it?”
Any conversation that led there was abruptly changed, and I was always left with the idea that he was not a happy member of that family.
“Did you help your father on the farm? You never talk about it. Fred, I would really like to know about it—I love the history of the farms and the houses here.”
"Well, not really. I was away at school most of my early life." He shared this huge bit of his life with me as if it were an after-thought.
"AWAY at school?" I said in disbelief....” I.. I never knew that.”
He was still looking right at me. "Yes," he said and then he looked as far away as I have ever seen him look.
"You know, when I was a boy, my mother was very sick. She had something called Lupus and then she developed a form of cancer that no one could figure out, but they treated her for several years for this cancer before she finally up and died."
He turned back to me and said, "I never really knew her because they put me in a school in Connecticut so that I wouldn't be underfoot as she fought her battles.
My Dad couldn't care for me and the cattle. I did a lot of work round the farm, but Dad was always upset with me because I couldn't do things as well as he could. I was only eight!” He said this with such force, then “Dad said he always just had to do it all over after I did it---waste of time." He stopped for a moment and thought for a while.
"So, I didn't see her after I left--she died three years after I left the house and I never saw her again." I saw his whole frame shudder a bit. It was obviously a heavy burden and he still carried it.
"What do you think she thought about you going away while she was so sick?" I asked this, thinking it would not get an answer, but feeling he wanted to talk about her. He mentioned that he never knew her; twice he said that but he was surely ready to talk about her now, I thought.
Then he looked up at me and said the most surprising thing. "I never knew her, and it really bothers me--somehow I think that had a lot to do with me never marrying. Growing up I only knew a woman who was so sick she had nothing to do with me. That left a mark." He said that with an emphasis, and a look of deep concern came over his face. "I guess I feel like I ran away from her…
“But I didn't run away from her! There was no place for me on the farm--with my Dad!" He raised his voice, so overcome with old buried emotion that he had no idea of the pain he was exhibiting to me.
My heart stopped for a moment as I thought he was going to break down. His chin even quivered a bit and he swallowed hard. Then he said, "You know, I was a child prodigy of sorts. I was a Choir Boy in the church, and I was looked upon as the one person in the church who would amount to something someday--with my voice and all. That's why my folks shipped me off to a private school so that I could use my voice for a ‘higher purpose.’”
Silence surrounded us. I almost thought he would never speak again, just up and leave, as he did so often. But he was leaning back in the chair as if he were going to take flight.
He leaned back even further, chair legs mid-air, and broke into a long, low hum. His head was thrown back, eyes closed, and he took in a deep breath, filling his lungs.
Then he began to sing in a deep, rich voice, a voice I had never really heard from him before. He began a piece of music I recognized from many years ago. It is called “Rienzi’s Prayer,” from a very famous Wagnerian opera, Rienzi. I recognized it immediately! The piece was also called “Almighty Father,” and was the prayer after a battle lost. (Rienzi was an early Wagnerian opera, his third opera that was never completed. The original score was burned in the fires of the bombing of Dresden during World War II.)
Then, his eyes were riveted on me; I was enraptured by his look, his dark sea-blue eyes, and his song…
I had known the story so well, but it was buried deep in my memories from so very long ago. The thrill of Fred singing this precious piece moved through me like a wave. I loved that aria more than any other—I loved what it implied about the collective battles we fight in life. Battles lost are our biggest lessons. With the grace of God, we learn and move on.
Suddenly Fred stopped his beautiful solo.
When he turned away, I knew I would never fully comprehend the meaning of this haunting, even shocking performance. I had no idea of this man’s ability, his grace.
"Where did you learn to sing so beautifully?" I asked softly.
"I was a part of the Trinity Men and Boys Choir in New Haven, Connecticut. I sang with them, traveled all over the world, really. Much time spent in the UK and Germany—mostly all over the UK. My Aunt Vivian lived in New Haven and I was sent to live with her at the age of eight.
“My music learning began in the little church here in the Village, over near the train station. There was a choral group, led by a very prominent music teacher…"
I remembered. "Oh, you mean Our Lady of Poland Church, right?" He nodded, then drifted away, deep in thought, as if he were seeing something from a long distance. His whole countenance changed as he sat forward on the chair, elbows on his knees, head bowed over his clasped hands.
"It really was a calling, you know. I could not live without my music. Don't know how much longer I can do it. I am getting to an age now where I can't perform like I used to. That is about all there is to it...Never thought it would happen so fast. I want to sing as often as I can now. I’m thinking it will prolong my abilities, my vocal cords.” His voice drifted off and he sat silently, head bowed as if in prayer. He remained in this position for some time, quietly trying to compose himself.
He moved toward getting up. "Here, Fred...have some lemonade, I forgot to ask you if you wanted some." I made a gesture toward the pitcher and he shook his head no.
"I want to go now. I have spent way too much time on myself here. I need to go to Fowler's to get some shrubs for the back yard. I have to make sure they go in now so that come next summer they will be strong and thick to cover the house behind mine." With that, he got up, took a huge step off the porch and disappeared around the corner of the house. Gone! He was embarrassed that he had shared so much with me.
I felt as though I had just met him.
My relationship with Fred had been a choppy one over the years. He was an absolute enigma.
Today, he was like another person. He was a dear stranger before today, and now what was I to do with this new person?
Even in our most intimate moments, years ago, I had no idea of the man who just sang to me in my back yard.
As the day faded away into the night, I sat on the back porch, listening to the sounds of this beautiful place, so soothing to the soul. I heard the branches, with leaves unfurled by the soft wind, crickets muffled by the grasses, and the sound of the Atlantic Ocean, its waves thundering in the distance.
And then the fireflies came! The yard was dark now, yet they came, one at a time and then suddenly more and more were drawn into the fading light. I felt somehow bolstered, almost as if there was protection for me here.
I felt Spirit. I felt deeply moved by the light generated from one of nature’s treasures. Each firefly was an astounding thing to see, thousands coming close, to surround me, as if I were a part of them, one of them. Fireflies softly playing all over the yard, seeming to say, “Come, come see the way we play with all our power at full throttle; we just want to show you that you are not alone—nor will you ever be alone!”
I still had the sound of Fred’s voice ringing in my ears, the prayer to the Almighty Father over the loss of so much.
Fred’s battles may not have been fought on the battlefield, but they were fought in the fields, at the ocean side, in the bays, and in the hearts of those who knew him. Such an enigma he was, to all.
And I still, to this day, cannot believe what I heard in my back yard.