We all can make a list of people who have had positive influences on our lives, and those lists will probably include teachers, relatives, community leaders, authors: we expect these sort of people to have drawn our attention and to have made a difference to others. This week, though, I was reminded of two of the “quiet” people in my life, people whose influence on me could have easily passed unnoticed, even by me, and yet there they were, roaming around in my memory, not ever having left it, and I was a bit taken aback at how strongly I loved them and admired them, one for almost 70 years, the other for almost 60.
Harvey was a boy about 5 years older than me who lived up the street. His dad was some sort of administrator at the clothing factory across from my house, a factory that made those ugly blue women’s gym clothes and summer camp clothes, and where I was asked to model from time to time for the camp owners who were looking for new uniforms for their places. I didn’t know Harvey all that well…, 5 years is a huge age span for young kids. We said “hi” from time to time, but that was about it. When I started the first grade in 1948 (no kindergarten in my village), I walked to school, a distance that would have been about three blocks if Standish had been a city and we had had blocks. The first day, a huge Doberman, owned by a neighbor, escaped from his yard and lunged after me. I was terrified…, at age 6, I was pretty small and this dog was taller than I was. I ran home, chased by the dog, and refused to leave the house. Harvey had been riding his bike by, on his way to school also, and saw what happened. This young boy of about 11 stopped, came to my house, and offered to walk with me to school and keep the dog away. It was a simple gesture on the part of a young boy, a boy who probably wouldn’t have been happy to have to hang out with a little first grader who might cramp his style. And yet he did. There was no complaining, no making fun of my fear: just a kindness, which he extended for several days after that until the dog’s owner fixed the escape route and the dog was no longer a menace to me. It was that simple. And yet, Harvey was my first hero. I never forgot what he did for me. That act of caring about a scared little kid showed me that people can be kind and reliable and unassuming about caring for others. There is no spectacular ending to this part of the story. I had very little contact with Harvey after that. We were of different generations and barely saw one another. However, many years later, at a school reunion, I was able to tell him how strongly I remembered what he had done for me and that he was my first hero. He was still unassuming. We have since become casual Facebook friends, and while I suspect our politics are on different paths, we joke about his heroism and I see his gentle kindness still there, the man he became reflecting the young boy he was.
The second person who played one of these important, if subtle roles in my life was Dahlov Ipcar, a Maine artist who died this week at the age of 99. Dahlov was the mother of a friend of mine when I was an undergraduate. I was married between my junior and senior years of college, and spent the last year living on the Bowdoin campus, being the only wife of a student (it was an all-male college at the time), and commuting to Boston the first semester to finish my own undergraduate work. My husband also had a roommate, because we couldn’t afford two residences. I spent the weekends at Bowdoin, and the whole spring semester there. Our apartment became a home away from home for a few of the Bowdoin guys, and Charlie, Dahlov’s son, was one of the frequent visitors who, with our roommate, Franz, and my husband, sat around and made a lot of music on their guitars and banjos, while I cooked spaghetti and other undergraduate food for the starving young men. Charlie took us out to his parents’ farm from time to time, in a nearby town on the ocean, and that is where I met Dahlov. Dahlov had grown up in a Greenwich Village setting, her parents being well-known artists, and later she and her husband had moved to Maine to farm and for Dahlov to pursue her own art. I was still a small Maine town girl, itching to leave, but, aside from having gone to school in Boston, still learning about the world outside of a small village. On our first trip out to Charlie’s I discovered a world and a woman and a family that showed me something I hadn’t even realized I’d been longing for. It’s difficult to describe, but Dahlov, for me, was Mother Earth. This warm, welcoming woman spent her time between her kitchen with its old fashioned wood-burning stove cooking for anyone who stopped by (and we all began to be regular “stoppers”), and her studio…, her very own room for doing her art, her room built on to the old farmhouse just for her. The farmhouse was full of smells of fresh bread and oil paint, swirling and dancing in our noses, and the bright colors of her art filling our eyes. Her subjects were primarily animals of bright patterns and full of movement. Domestic animals, especially her cats, and wild, jungle animals ran together through thickets of lush vegetation. And Dahlov calmly moved back and forth between these worlds, which were really one world, blended and hypnotic. I loved it, every single bit of it. I had never heard of her before meeting Charlie. I didn’t know she was famous. I only knew I wanted, somehow, to be like this woman…, not be her, but to live in spaces as a whole and complex person that I saw Dahlov to be. I was a young, 21-year-old woman looking for her own way back when not many women had the advantage to see what the possibilities might be, and Dahlov Ipcar opened my heart to what might be. We never talked about this, we never really talked about anything personal, but through Dahlov I discovered a way that a woman could be, that whatever the path I chose, it would be Dahlov, the very fact of her, that in no small way made the choices possible. She remained a part of who I am, a treasure of my life.
When she died this week, I broke down and cried, not something I often do. I had not even seen her in all of these years, although I had seen and been in touch with Charlie. What I do know is that I was only one among many young people whose lives were touched by Dahlov…, the very being of this woman, as I said, the fact of her.