Growing up in Red Hook, in upstate NY, you learned pretty quickly that we were all connected. If you grew-up in the era of Esther Higgins, (which included generations of my friends (the fifty-somethings), my little sisters’ friends (the forty somethings) and my children’s friends (the thirty-somethings), you learned a few other things as well, the most important being we were all one.
One what? Well, I’m not sure, perhaps one community, but what I mean is, we were the same. We were all treated the same in Mrs. Higgins’ eyes. She was the epitome of fair and equal. We were the children of her neighbors in Red Hook, and we were to be encouraged and sent on one direction… forward.
My days in Red Hook began with a bus ride from Forest Park. There were a lot of us back then and it took two buses to pick us all up. But whatever had happened that weekend, the night before or in the morning on our way to school, it was either enhanced by or replaced with the most special of greetings upon your arriving at the Linden Ave School.
I can still feel the buzz of the commotion on our bus, the sound of the door as the bus driver pulled the handle back and the door folded open, grabbing hold of the pole at the front seat, stepping down one then two steps, then that big last drop from the bottom platform to the pavement. Both feet on the ground, I’d look up… and scan the chaos of my schoolmates pouring out of the other buses. And then, there she was, Mrs. Higgins, always with a big smile to be shared with anyone looking for it, or worse, needing it. She always seemed to be looking at me as if she had patiently awaited my personal arrival. Later, I found everyone else thought she was looking for them… but I know better.
“Hi darling! Good morning!” Sometimes the call was through a morass of boys shoving and girls giggling, someone gossiping, someone getting pinched, someone getting slapped, for pinching.
And now that I had found her, at least seen her thorough the commotion, and our ‘good morning’ exchanged, it was somehow less important, less urgent, that I go over for the hug or squeeze I so often liked to get from our Mrs. Higgins. She was here today, like she was here everyday. You could count on it. I will pass her sometime later, in the hall, or in the gym, or during lunch. I’ll hug her then.
That time would come, and I would, hug her. I’d jump out of a line, or through a door, step a few steps toward her, and then, a quick squeeze and I’d be on my way, forward.
When Martin Higgins passed away at only nineteen in his sophomore year at Ithaca College, my Red Hook class was still in high school. I wondered if Mrs. Higgins would ever be back. Never mind back to school, but I wondered would Mrs. Higgins ever ‘be back.’ I wouldn’t have blamed her if she didn’t, if she couldn’t. I wondered how she got out of bed. And then face us, how could she face all of us, a constant reminder of Marty, how much he liked us and how much we all loved him?
This was when Mrs. Higgins taught us our most difficult lesson. We must always get back up. We must always move forward.
I married, young, and when I saw Esther, she would give me a hug, the same one, and ask me if I was okay. I’d say “sure”, and before I could say anything else, she would be squeezing my hand, telling me I was better than okay, “your doing great” she would say, willing me forward, “now, where is Sheri, let me see her!”
We were always greeted with that same happy smile, and why was it that her smile was so grand that one would think she was about to laugh out loud before we even knew what LOL was … and then sometimes she did.
You also learned to be nice. Because being nice somehow worked. And it eventually came back to you, sometimes when you needed it most. So for the most part, we were nice to each other. The jocks were nice to the heads and vise-versa and we all seemed to move seamlessly between what we used to be and what we might be, what we were then and what we are now. And when we see each other, its all okay, because we know, from Mrs. Higgins, that sometimes we are jubilant, and sometimes we can't breathe with grief, but we are always each other’s neighbors’ children and friends and if you can’t expect nice here, well then, where can you expect to find it?
My girls and I moved back to Red Hook in the early 90’s, I worried about my daughter Sheri’s first day in a new junior high school. Short of any other reasonably helpful advice, I said, “Get off the bus, look for a pretty lady with black and grey hair, she will be smiling, tell her you are my daughter, she will laugh out loud and hug you, and then, you will know you can always go to her for anything. If you can’t find me ever, then find Mrs. Higgins.”
* * *
I went to Red Hook to Mrs. Higgins’ wake last night and to her funeral. She was eighty-years young. I saw some old friends, perhaps not my best friends growing up, but old friends and good friends. I saw Mrs. Higgins’ neighbor’s children. And I saw their children, some of them.
Some of us were crying and some were laughing. Some went outside to smoke. I secretly wondered if she could still catch them, only to find some of them had snuck her a cigarette, or a scotch or two, over the years, so I guessed if she did catch them, she’d be joining them.
As for the lot of us and our good friends who couldn’t be there today, we’re all fine, better some days. We are nice to friends and strangers. We keep moving forward even on the days when we can’t breathe with grief. And we were so very sad to hear that the Higgins’ family lost their matriarch, Martin’s mom and biggest fan; Marty’s wife; Margaret, Kathleen and Jimmy’s mother.
As I drove away, I knew I had something to say, something to write to Esther. It was a desire to share an expression of my thanks, for reminding us all that a kindness is transferrable. It comes along with you. It’s there when you need to hold it close again. Our kindness to each other is the one thing that multiplies without additional work, water, effort, or money. It can mend a bad day and it can save a life. It can make you smile or keep you from crying.
Arriving home, I looked out over the Hudson River - to Tivoli Bays and Barrytown - to the hills leading to Red Hook and Mrs. Higgins’ neighbors’ children. I felt like I had just been over there, in Red Hook, on that bus. I had seen Mrs. Higgins and she had smiled at me. I knew I couldn’t hug her today, there were so many others off their buses and mulling around trying to find a piece of her, but I will see her later, someday, and she will give me that hug.