A Laurel Park Remembrance
By Judson Brown
Isabel H. Baker went to meet her Maker on May 7 of this her 96th year. I am pretty certain that her Lord, her Redeemer, her Strong Deliverer (by whatever name she knew him, he probably looked a lot like Irv) met her in mid air with the sound of a trumpet. She held the Biblical vision of the Rapture close to her heart and had every expectation that she would be sharing in the experience of the great lifting up of the saints of God. See St. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians for details. Death held no dominion over this old-fashioned Methodist lady from Pennsylvania steel country. Resurrection was guaranteed. You only had to have been there at her bedside in her last days to know the truth of that proposition.
I was privileged enough to be among those she summoned on the day that she had announced, with just a fillip of theatricality, was to be her dying day. I don’t know about the others who were gathered around, but I was struck that afternoon by her serenity, an almost youthful glow that seemed to have smoothed her brow and features, and the beatific sparkle in her eye. The sparkle I was familiar with, the serenity not so much. There was always something sharp and pointed about Isabel, in my experience with her.
We all sat there quite a while that afternoon gathered around her bed. The conversation was relaxed and natural. There were a few jokes. As the sun began to set in the picture window, it became apparent that this was not to be the day that she would die. She smiled wryly, wagged a finger heavenward, and confessed, “I guess you don’t bargain with God.” She closed her eyes, a smile lingering. A few days later she died peacefully in her sleep.
Isabel Baker was a God-fearing Christian of the old school, and she certainly could dress the part. My first meeting with her was in the summer of 1985 shortly after we had bought our “cottage” (dubbed “Bohemian Retreat”) at Laurel Park. She had made sure that we had been invited to one of the regular “Saturday night suppers” at the dining hall. This was a community tradition from the days when Laurel Park was a camp meeting ground. The Springfield District Camp Meeting Association of the Methodist Church, of which her husband Irving was the last president, had only recently passed from the scene, bequeathing its land and an assortment of community buildings to a new entity called the Laurel Park Association and eventually making way for the formation of a secular condominium homeowners association, which is where we and our kind come into the picture.
For this “newcomers’ supper,” she was the chief cook, bottle washer and maitre d’. It was a rainy evening. The wide, low open-air hall with its concrete floor and dangling, low -wattage light bulbs was dim and dank. The mosquitoes chanted at the patched screens. Her outfit made a strong impression, and as I recall, the personality matched the brilliant red slicker, red hat, red umbrella, red boots. You immediately forgot her diminutive stature and hunched back. I could not help but think of St. Paul’s admonition to the believers to “put on the whole armor of God.” She might as well have been wrapped in the scarlet “Aldersgate Flame” of the United Methodist Church, a representation of the flaming tongues of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Aldersgate was the place in London where on May 24, 1738 church founder John Wesley, a cold fish Anglican prelate, felt a distinct warming – then a melting -- of his heart.
The beauty of Wesley’s vision, and of Methodism as a denomination, is its relative de-emphasis on ritual, doctrine and creed and its focus on faith’s “fruits”: an eager, loving heart; love of neighbor; and the building up of community. Isabel was a good example to all of us mostly non-Methodists of all three aspects. The fire of the first great commandment burned in her heart but she engaged in no fire breathing, just a warm welcoming to each and every one of us (the second great commandment) and a relentless organizing – an insistence on the priority of the community. Even as Laurel Park shed its Methodist trappings and took on, for some vehemently, its new legally secular and non-denominational identity, it always remained for Isabel the “beloved community” of sacred promise.
“My step mother,” says David Baker, a lifelong park resident, “was completely devoted to what she was devoted to. To my father. To the religious mission of the Laurel Park Association. To all the newcomers.”
Isabel, a school marm by profession, never had children of her own. She developed a talent for adoption. We each of us in Laurel Park have our own story to tell of how, without our necessarily volunteering for it, she adopted us.
Isabel began by adopting Irv’s sons by a first marriage. Irv, whom we knew as a wiry, witty, kindly, retired professor of the teaching of reading and – to our children, his more vivid role –
as a chess master and mentor, had been coming to the Park since “Mom and Dad Baker” – that’s how Isabel always referred to his parents – bought cottage #79 in 1922. She, who had started out her career in a one room school house, and Irv had met a national conference on the teaching of reading at Temple University in 1952. They married six months later. They spent their summers at Laurel Park, at #79 before they bought their own cottage at # 18.
The Laurel Park Association had been established in 1968 to take over the mantle and mission and some of the programming of the old district association, as well as several of its community buildings, including the dining hall, the outdoor tabernacle, the Post Office building, Parker Memorial Chapel and Normal Hall. LPA leadership at the beginning was a little incestuous. Irv was its first president. Isabel was chair of the religious program committee, arranging for the annual summer schedule of weekly worship services conducted in the open-air tabernacle.
The two of them were committed to keeping alive the ethos of the camp meeting community. There was a little pressure.
At the interview with the “orientation committee,” which still is required of each new homeowner, you were strongly encouraged (although not required) to join the “LPA,” also to get involved in the “Social Union,” another holdover from camp meeting days. The Social Union was the group that sponsored the suppers, ran tag-sales and engaged in other community-building and “outreach” activities. There was no religious litmus test, no confession required to join either of these groups. The pitch was silent on creed. The stress was on participation, seen as a good and worthy end in itself.
One by one the summer cottages were being sold off by former “campers” and “snowbirds” and being converted to year-round residences, and the demographic of the neighborhood was becoming steadily younger and more diverse. Only a handful of us attended the Sunday services in the tabernacle that were by now being put on by various churches in the area who brought their own congregations, organists, and liturgies with them. Still, Isabel’s ardent and flowing Wesleyan spirit did not seem to recognize any obstacle there.
There were so many different ways that she and Irv, and for the past 12 years Isabel alone, won us over, and as many different ways that we came to know and appreciate her.
Denise Wagner at # 45 was one of a handful of believers and became the recipient of full adoption from the moment she heard the Tabernacle bell floating through the trees on a summer Sunday morning and decided to go “check it out.” On the spot, Isabel recruited her to usher and then to join her on the religious program committee, the beginning of a 30 year stint. With Isabel’s encouragement, Denise was instrumental in initiating in 1987 a revival of the Chautauqua assembly on the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the fist “Connecticut Valley Sunday School and Chautauqua Assembly.” The Chautauqua was a blend of piety, progressive education and the secular arts which appealed to her thespian soul. Denise served for many years as administrative assistant extraordinaire in the Department of Theater at UMAss. She is a singer and soloist, and actor and sometime director and producer. She recruited us campers for a rollicking performance of “Tartuffe,” in the Richard Wilbur translation, and also of a rendition n of Peter Pan, both staged at Normal Hall.
In later years, when Isabel no longer could negotiate with her walker the treachery of the hemlock root systems between her cottage and the tabernacle, she and Denise became on Sunday mornings a church of two in Isabel’s kitchen.
“I know that I am a stronger person because of what I experienced from the weekly Sunday get-togethers with Isabel sitting at her kitchen table,” recalls Denise. “ We read scripture together, we sang together, we prayed for others and ourselves together. And, we laughed together. Isabel always asked me to thank Glenn (Denise’s husband) for sharing me with her. I gave her a pink rose for special occasions, and I always gave her one for Mother's Day, because she was like a Mother to me. She even told me at one point that I was like a daughter to her. What a gift our friendship has been and I will cherish it always.”
The most earnest prayers between Isabel and Denise almost always were for Glenn, who continues to suffer from terrible chronic pain. Isabel’s compassion was felt to the end.
“ I was visiting Isabel the day before she died,” recalls Denise. “It was the first time that she didn't acknowledge me, and I had to surrender the fact that I knew our time here on earth together was coming to a close. I touched her forehead and said, ‘Hi, Isabel! It's Denise.’ No acknowledgment. Then I said, ‘Glenn says hello.’ She smiled. It was a small smile, but it was an acknowledgment. Glenn and Isabel's husband Irv were the closest of friends and played chess once or twice a week together for many years. I took that smile as an acknowledgment for me, too, because I knew she was hearing what I was saying.”
Speaking of that kitchen table.
“To live across the street from Isabel Baker was to dwell in a bubble of kindness and decency, a space where I always felt safe and appreciated,” writes Barbara Friend, a poet, who moved into #25 about eight years ago.
“Sometimes it was sitting at her kitchen table with sweet tea and stories of her early years as a teacher, wife and step-mother, recounted with glowing enthusiasm by someone I would soon learn was a legend in the park. More often, it was just a wave, or a smile in passing and a cheerful word of encouragement about the progress of my naked garden plot or my half-painted rooms. ‘It makes me so happy to see the light in your bedroom,’ she would say. Or ‘I am so grateful that you were the one to buy that house. ‘Where have you been the last couple of weeks? I hope it was somewhere exciting.’ If I protested about how long it had been since the last time we chatted, she would always say, with the gentlest of reproof. ‘But you’re here now, aren’t you? That’s all that matters.”
Heartfelt human connections, once made by Isabel, were not subject to any vicissitudes or erosion by time. I experienced what Barbara did. Whenever I showed up at Isabel’s kitchen table, no matter how much time had passed since the last visit, we picked up exactly where we had left off. Some theologians call this phenomenon vertical time, or Kairos, to distinguish it from the more commonly understood horizontal kind. Kairos is where her spirit resided even as Kronos kept bending her poor body.
Isabel was 94 the last time that Marilyn Glavin saw her in November, 2011. Marilyn had met Irv and Isabel in 1997 when she signed up for a Bible study the couple was leading at the little Sunrise Community Church near their winter home, a trailer and cabana at Monet Acres near Palm Beach Gardens. Irv published the church newsletter featuring his corny jokes. Isabel was organist. The logistics of living in two places finally got to them and they hung up their “snow bird” wings in 1999.
“Isabel was nothing if not mentally sharp....very sharp,” recalls Marilyn. “I arrived bringing a single yellow rose and when I presented it to her I said ‘I brought you this so you wouldn't forget me.’ She pointed to a stuffed elephant sitting on a shelf and said, ‘You brought me that elephant on your last visit so I wouldn't forget you’. I had forgotten that, but she hadn't!”
“ Isabel was amazing in every way. She only met my parents once, when they came to Florida for my wedding; but when my mother was undergoing cancer treatment Isabel routinely sent them notes of encouragement. Who does that? Isabel had a way of making people feel like they were the most important person in the world. Many Valentines Days after my divorce, hers was the only card I received.”
I don’t know what the term for the spatial or geographic equivalent of Kairos is, but Isabel, with her gift for true relationship, also lived where distance was not a factor.
Her nearly half-century relationship with Yoshimi Matsumura and family of Kobe, Japan is a parable about that dimension of Isabel. Yoshimi, who was in summer school for English at UMass in 1970, was hitchhiking to Sugarloaf Mountain with fellow students and got a ride with Irv who happened to be going in the same direction.
“He kindly took us up to the top of the mountain and explained the views we could see from the summit. It was so beautiful and peaceful including the winding Connecticut River. “
Irv invited the group back to Laurel Park where Isabel had a Saturday night supper going in full swing.
Yoshimi returned for a visit a decade later with her husband and two children and did course work with Irv at the University of Connecticut. After her husband returned to Japan, the Bakers arranged for Yoshimi and the kids to rent a house next door to them in Laurel Park. Isabel loved to tell the story of how Yoshimi’s 3-year-old son Mackoto would pick flowers and hand them to drivers as they passed the house, the second to the left after the front gate. Perhaps this helped the drivers to remember to slow down to 10 MPH, the Laurel Park speed limit.
“About 10 years ago, since Mr. Baker passed away, I decided to visit Mrs. Baker every year,” continues Yoshimi’s reminiscence. “During spring vacation in Japan, I used to take some of my students to Laurel Park, as I wanted to introduce my mama-in-law to them, and in September I came to Laurel Park by myself just to say Happy Birthday to Mrs. Baker. She was like an English teacher to me, a mama or an aunt who lived far from my home town but whom I feel very close to any time.”
There is a kind of a geographical paradox to consider when one reflects upon Isabel’s life. Geography is nothing. It is everything. Her devotion to this tiny tiny place with its tiny tiny houses – to paraphrase another of our amazing former residents and still resident ghost – was singular and total.
She was our village elder and the keeper of the stories, our own individual narratives lovingly compiled in her very large brain plus, of course, the history of our life in common and of our “commons.” She took over the historical slide show, and Irv’s notes, after his passing. It’s a story of evolution: How an encampment of thousands of tent platforms arranged in the form of a Nautilus shell became a collection of dormitories (ringed around the tabernacle) became a densely inhabited community of 110 dwellings. She could evoke all the lovely connotations of the whistle announcing the arrival of the train at Laurel Park station and show us the old map with the dot for Laurel Park. She could point to where the wells were before running water. She told of how when water was first piped indoors, it cost you 25 cents a tap. There was the story of the Hurricane of 1938, when they had to bring in whole sawmills to process the debris. There was the community swimming beach on the Connecticut River before I-91 cut off Laurel Park from the great river. The bath houses still stand.
The sequence of the numbering of the 110 cottages in Laurel Park defies logic, and geography, but Isabel had the key and could rattle off the numbers and tell you, in each and every case, about all the people who ever lived at each address That amounts to a lot of ghosts.
Living residents, seemingly from the moment of their arrival, would be sure to be the recipients of cards she would send to mark birthdays, holidays, or key life events. The departed also were due their acknowledgments. Many of their names are etched onto brass plates she arranged to have engraved and affixed to the long benches in the tabernacle. Many of these names are of people who she recruited to contribute to a massive grassroots community effort in the late 1980’s to replace the collapsing historic tabernacle – which in its hay day was said to accommodate as many as 5,000 souls – with a sturdy, slightly smaller replica. In subsequent years, Isabel saw to it that other brass plates were added onto benches and to wall plaques bearing names of people whom she felt had made an extraordinary contribution to community life.
As of this writing in July of 2014, there is just one worship service scheduled for the tabernacle. At least for this moment there is no religious program committee. The enormous wooden cross affixed to the eastern wall of the tabernacle facing the entrance gate has been whitewashed over. It was an offense to some in the neighborhood. The Laurel Park Association has been in the process of reinventing itself, including a re-christening as “Laurel Park Arts.” A part-time staff position and an artist residency have been established. The Chautauqua this summer has been billed as a “Festival of Ideas” –
ideas of a decidedly progressive bent reflective of the new demographic both of Laurel Park and of the wider upper Valley.
It saddened Isabel to see Laurel Park lose its strict and vigorous religious center. On the other hand, she embraced and championed the adventurous and creative spirit wherever she found it in her neighbors, and she was for any undertaking in the old grove that would build up the community of love and concern among neighbors. The Strawberry Supper the Social Union on a few weeks ago would have made her beam.
In one of dozens of interviews with neighbor Marge Barrett-Mills several years ago (eventually compiled as “The World According to Isabel”), she spoke of her hope that the root of what had been planted here – the beloved community – would continue to branch out and to flourish.
“I just pray that the time will come when we will have a feeling of belonging to a group, a community, knowing that if I need help I can go next door or across the street or up the hill and someone, somewhere, will listen and perhaps be the one to give me help if I need it.”
There is a song in Japan, wrote Yoshimi, in her brief reminiscence of her American mama and teacher.
“Don't cry at my grave. I'm not there, as I became a thousand winds blowing in the sky.”
July 17, 2014
Thanks to Marge Barrett-Mills for conducting and transcribing Isabel’s recollections which I have drawn on for parts of this essay. JBB