Author: Julie Means Kane

Close to Home: Slavery in Columbia County

Fascinating bit of history from the Historians of Hillsdale, NY, the town in which I live. Thanks, Lauren and Chris.

The Historians of Hillsdale, New York

Black History Month spurred us to investigate the institution of slavery in the Hudson Valley and, more specifically, Hillsdale.  Like most Americans, we’ve been inclined to think of slavery as largely a Southern institution. But it was hugely important in the colonial North. From the earliest days of Dutch occupancy right up to the Civil War, much of New York State’s bustling economy benefited directly from traffic in enslaved humans.

In the 17th and 18th centuries New York was second only to the southern states in its number of enslaved people. In 1703, 42 percent of New York City’s households had slaves, much more than Philadelphia and Boston combined. Among the cities of the original 13 colonies, only Charleston, South Carolina, had more. 

In the Hudson Valley, the first enslaved men were brought to Fort Orange (Albany) in 1626, only two years after it was settled, by the Dutch West Indies…

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Better to have loved

It’s a strange time we find ourselves in – but you knew that. All the talk of respirators has me thinking about an earlier time when my heart took on the rhythm of my grandson’s breath and my life seemed to hang from the lines that followed one another across a screen.

I’m definitely not a poet, but here’s my response to a writing assignment that seems apropos today.

 

Write a poem, you say. 
Start with an emotion and the person,
place or thing that evokes the emotion,
you say.  It will be fun, you say. 


There ought to be a word for grief and joy combined. 

I had a grandson, and that says
all and nothing at all. 

The first time I met him, he was
all surprised eyes and fingers
fit for chasing chords across the keys. 

Hello, I said,
and then I saw his long limp little self. 
A flurry of activity marked him a problem
to be solved, and I held my breath
while he struggled to find his. 

And later when he lay,
swaddled like a little lima bean,
respirator rudely interrupting,
he fixed his milky gaze on me and there it was,
the hinge my life would swing around. 
Would I love this wise-eyed child,
destined to leave before his time? 
Yes, oh yes, and in a moment – I was lost,
and being lost, was found.

I loved my children, of course I did,
with a warm and homely sort of love. 
They were my darlings and my dears, beautiful brilliant girls. 
But I was unprepared
for this soaring swooping stomach in the mouth sensation
that opened me
every time he smiled. 
I would do anything to see him smile.

For nine years, I was advocate,
nurse, field marshal, singer of off-key songs,
fetcher of forgotten toys. 
I was incandescent. 
Gabriel, my grandson,
my beloved boy,
was handsome and smart, funny and wise. 
He charmed everyone he met.  But he couldn’t stay. 
When he told me, “I’m afraid I’m dying,”
we talked about a place where bodies work and time is different. 
I’ll see you soon, I told him.

Today he runs on bright green grass, while I wait here for soon. 

There should be a word for grief and joy combined.

 

Finding My Voice

“Find your voice” is right up there with “Show, don’t tell” and “Write what you know” as advice for new writers. Sound easy, doesn’t it?

“Ha!” she laughed.

Psyche’s First Task

Is it a bad thing to take encouragement from the struggles of others?

This morning, I seem – just for a moment – to be bathing in the sun of future success rather than slogging through an endless swamp of detail. I’ve just stumbled across an excerpt describing Adam Sisman’s attempt to sort fact from fiction in his new book The Professor and the Parson, just out from Counterpoint Press.

Wondering about Psyche’s first task? Read about it here.

 

The Leg in the Attic

Rose in bedThump.  Thump.  Thump thump thump!

Rose lay in her bed and stared at the ceiling.  It was only her third night in her new bedroom with its yellow walls and the rectangle of light that slipped through her curtains from the street lamp outside and fell across her blanket.  The little house was only a block from the hump at Potomac Yards, and now that her parents were asleep, she could hear the yardmaster calling to his switchmen as he sorted freight cars into new strings that would head on south in the morning.  It was a ghostly, friendly sort of sound.

But this was louder, and closer.  It sounded like footsteps, erratic footsteps in the attic over her head.  She opened her mouth to call her mother, but paused.  She was eight years old now, not a baby.  Next week was Hallowe’en, and she had asked to go trick-or-treating on her own for the first time.  How would it look if she was frightened now, in her own house?

She listened again – nothing.  Had she really heard them?  She turned onto her side and threw her arm around Mr. Bear, her constant, stolid companion.  Nestling down, she closed her eyes.  Then thump.  Thump rattle ssshhht!  Eyes wide, she rolled onto her back and held her breath.  Something was being slowly dragged across the attic toward the trap door in her closet.  Ruby bit her lip and pulled the covers over her head.

At breakfast the next morning, her parents watched her stare into her oatmeal as she moved her spoon in slow circles.  Her mother caught her father’s attention and raised an eyebrow.  He shrugged.

“Okay, Rosie, what’s on your mind?” her mother asked.

“Nothing.”

“Something wrong with your oatmeal?”

“No.  It’s just….  Well, I heard something in the attic last night.  Footsteps.”

Her father nodded.

“That’s just the leg,“ he said, “looking for its owner.”

He went on to tell the story of a boy, the son of the previous owner of the house, who had lost his leg jumping freight trains coming out of Potomac Yards and passing through their neighborhood.

“Nothing to worry about – as long as you have both of your legs.”

Ruby didn’t hear the leg every night, but it returned often enough to keep it in her mind.  On a sunny afternoon months later, she gathered her courage and pulled a dining chair into her closet.  She climbed up and pushed open the trap door into the attic, and there in the loose insulation between the rafters was a footprint.  One footprint.

She pulled the trap door shut, put the chair back at the table and never went up there again.