Photo Credit: Jennie Anne Benigas



July 2009

"Those strangers are my friends
whose kindness blesses the house
my mother built at the edge of town"


Stanley Kunitz, excerpted from "My Mother's Pears," dedicated to Greg and Carol Stockmal [The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden]. Stanley Kunitz with Genine Lentine, photographs by Marnie Crawford Samuelson, W.W. Norton & Company, 2005.

Mt. Everest - Beginning the Climb

Dear Reader,

Anyone who knows me knows that I am afraid of heights. Very afraid of heights. And yet, I have climbed the stairs to the top of a tower in the medieval town of San Gimignano in Italy in order to see the Tuscan countryside. I have taken the elevator to the second tier of the Eiffel Tower to see the reflection of the city lights in the serpentine Seine. I have sat on the roof of our shed so that I could paint the peak of the garage.

I have just signed on for a long, long, long climb. Luckily, I am not taking on the challenge alone, and so far, it is the most inspiring journey I have ever taken.

I attended a meeting of the Worcester County Poetry Association on March 18, 2009, which was hosted by Carol Stockmal, the owner of the Stanley Kunitz Childhood Home in Worcester, Massachusetts. I volunteered to work with Carol to construct a docent outline for this extraordinary place, which houses a fascinating piece of American literary history. Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006), Poet Laureate of the United States, winner of Pulitzer Prize and other honors, lived in the house from the time it was built (circa 1915), until he left Worcester to work in New York in 1928.

The target event for 2009 would be this year's Footsteps in History October 11-12 Open House Tour.

Tragically, Carol's husband Greg Stockmal died in December 2008. The Stanley Kunitz Childhood Home Docent Project is dedicated to him, in honor of his buoyant spirit, sense of humor and intelligence. For three years, Greg was the sole docent, and we have some very big shoes to fill.

In 2006 and 2007, my husband, John Gaumond, and I were room sitters during Open Houses at Stanley Kunitz's Childhood Home, and in October 2008, Greg and Carol invited us to present a duo art exhibit of John's photography and my painting/poetry in the second floor galleries. Our friendship with Carol and Greg had just begun when he passed away.

As I worked with Carol on the docent outline during these past few months, I observed the richness of their story. When Carol and Greg bought the house in 1979, they immediately began restoring it to its former elegance.

In 1980, they happened to read an article in the Telegram & Gazette about the renowned Worcester native, poet Stanley Kunitz, who was in town to receive an Honorary Degree from Worcester State College. They wondered if the childhood home on Woodford Street described in the article could be their home.

On October 17, 1985, the four met by chance, and the meeting is documented in Mark Rudman's essay "Thursday, October 17 [1985], Worcester, Massachusetts." A Celebration for Stanley Kunitz on His 80th Birthday. The Sheep Meadow Press, Riverdale-on-Hudson, NY, 1986.

That fortuitous meeting resulted in a twenty year friendship between two couples: Stanley Kunitz, his wife artist /poet Elise Asher, and Greg and Carol Stockmal.

Beginning the Climb
The docent outline project has grown since that initial meeting in March. Carol is the source of all materials and information that make the writing of the outline for this project as rich as it is. The best way to describe what she has done for me as a writer: she has given me cloth made from gold. I have been able to cut the fabric and sew the garment known as The Stanley Kunitz Childhood Home Docent Outline. Carol, John and I will be training docents beginning in late August. The Worcester County Poetry Association is recruiting volunteers now (!

To help with the writing of the outline and the training design, Carol lent me Thematic Tours and Guide Training for Historic Sites by Barbara A. Levy, Sandra M. Lloyd and Susan P. Schreiber (AltaMira Press, 2001, published in cooperation with the National Trust for Historic Preservation). The book gave me the particular language and identified key concepts I needed to develop the outline. Even with my experience in program design and training (Peer Mediation: Finding a Way to Care, Stenhouse Publishers, 1996), as well as several decades in training teachers, I found the learning curve going straight up!

Continuing the Climb
Greg Stockmal was planning to retire in May of this year. One of his and Carol's goals was to have their property placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Carol is determined to see this dream become a reality which honors Greg's and Stanley's memories. I contacted my friend, Susan Ceccacci, who is an architectural historian. She gave us excellent advice, and we will be forever grateful for her help. Another set of learning curves loom ahead involving the preparation and presentation of materials for the Worcester Historical Commission, the Massachusetts Historical Commission, and the National Register in Washington, D.C. A bid for National Register status must pass the local and state offices. Hopefully, as each plateau is reached, we will work to the next level. Carol's dream is that one day she will ask John to attach a plaque to the house which begins, "Stanley Kunitz…" and ends with "…the National Register of Historic Places." Or is it the other way around? Carol hopes to find out.

Continuing the Climb
While researching with Carol, she showed me correspondence, newspaper and magazine articles, posters, programs, video and audio materials (if the word "etc." ever stood for something, it is necessary to insert it here). We examined the threads in the gold cloth day by day, week by week, and month by month. It is a bittersweet experience for Carol, who sees her late husband in every page, in every note, in every image. Her strength and courage during these months have been remarkable for me to witness.

At one point, Carol asked, "What is going to happen to all of these papers?" I spoke with my friend, Rodney Gorme-Obien, who is an archivist. His advice was to get everything collected (no small feat), box it, and store it in a "secure and controlled environment." He volunteered to look at the collection and develop a Preliminary Finding Guide. Carol and Greg had talked about someday donating the papers to a university in Worcester, where researchers could have access to them. The Stanley Kunitz-Stockmal Collection! Another learning curve, another climb as another dream will become a reality.

Continuing the Climb
Each and every aspect of this experience is new, challenging, energizing, and on some days, exhausting. How could there be anything more than the three piece garment sewn from the cloth of gold: the SKCH Docent Program, the bid for the house to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Stanley Kunitz-Stockmal Collection accepted for deposit in the archives of a university?

It did not take me long to realize that a book needed to be written about this extraordinary twenty year friendship between two couples and how the relationship affected their lives and work. Everything I have written to this day prepares me for this biographical study, which will be a post-doctoral research project. That means grant writing and at least one visit to Princeton University, where Stanley Kunitz's papers include a box marked, "Stockmal, Carol and Greg."

The next few years will be full of long hours in libraries and at the computer, doors closing and opening, and if I am lucky and approaching the age of 70, I will happily present Carol with her copy of "Call It Beshert." My working title uses the Hebrew word for "fate," and it seems apt to describe the day in October 1985 when she and Greg came home from shopping to find a group admiring their house from across the street.

Carol and Greg recognized one man as the renowned poet they read about in the newspaper. He was being celebrated across the city for his decades of accomplishments. They got out of their car, and Stanley's wife, Elise Asher, stepped up to them and said, "You live here. I know you live here." And that started a beautiful friendship.