My father had a habit of greeting the season's first snowfall by hurrying outdoors to perform a little dance of his own making. He was a big man, with a prominent stomach and excess flesh hanging from his chin, but he managed, nevertheless, to hop and skip back and forth along our driveway while wiggling, in comic fashion, his enormous behind. Every now and then he would pause in his dance to throw back his head and open his mouth so that he could gobble down with great delight the flakes of snow that landed on his tongue.


My father's dance was prompted by his connection with the ski industry. His father, Ollie Nielsen, senior, had been one of the first people in northern New Hampshire, in all of New England in fact, to hook up a Model T engine to a rope tow that pulled skiers uphill. My grandfather eventually became a partner in the development of a larger ski area, but he was too much of a purist about the sport of skiing to immerse himself in the commercial enterprises that were an outgrowth of the ski business.


My father had no compunctions whatsoever about turning the sport of skiing into a money-making operation, but his vision went well beyond skiing itself. Indeed, soon after Ollie senior died, my father and his two brothers sold their interest in the family's ski area. That allowed my uncles to devote themselves to their home building business while my father was now free to establish Nielsen Enterprises. As such, he became the prime promoter and entrepreneurial force (and lobbyist too) for the ski industry, as well as tourism in general for that area of northern New Hampshire usually referred to as the Mount Washington Valley. Over the years, he was also a partner in a number of businesses, usually functioning as the person best able to obtain necessary permits and zoning approvals because of his contacts (and friendships) with countless officials in local and state government.


Turning snow into gold was how my father described his life's work, and if you gave him an opening he liked nothing better than to cite, with a startling array of statistics, how the ski industry led to the remarkable growth of ski-related businesses in northern New Hampshire. Like some tenor tossing off a series of high C's, he could recite, in chronological order, the opening date of each ski area in Mount Washington Valley, including the number of trails and types of lifts to be found at each of these places. He could modulate his presentation—but still convey a sense of wonder—when he went on to describe how state-of-the-art snow-making machines enabled operators of ski areas to kick off their season before sufficient snow had fallen or to extend it a week or two or maybe even more into spring.


Then, to cap off his performance—and by now, it was impossible to stop him—he would list with great specificity the numbers, and names, too, of lodges and inns and restaurants, as well as associated businesses, from golf courses and condominium developments to theme parks and shopping malls that have come to dot the landscape of northern New Hampshire. He could claim, rightly so, that many of these businesses might never have existed but for his efforts as adviser, promoter and overall expediter. His goal, his dream, simply put, was to turn the northern half of New Hampshire, weather be damned, into a tourist destination for all four seasons of the year.


Inside a state-operated rest stop on the interstate leading to Mount Washington Valley, there is a plaque attesting to my father's efforts in promoting the growth of tourism in northern New Hampshire. It is no coincidence that this tribute to my father includes a close-up photo of him, in profile, juxtaposed against a distant shot of the jut-jawed natural rock formation known as the Old Man of the Mountain that has always been used by the state of New Hampshire as its logo and symbol.


I take some comfort in knowing that my father passed on before the law of gravity, plus centuries of battering from snow and ice and strong winds, caused the rock formation to collapse near the end of the twentieth century. Anyone looking for the Old Man today will see little more than a stony outcropping on the side of a small mountain.



section break



My father's dance, while apt for someone in his line of work, foretold more than the onset of the ski season. Moments after he began, my two brothers and I would join him, aping his every move, except for the tussle that invariably took place between my brother, Erling, who is three years younger than me, and Jamesie, who is three years younger than Erling. It was Erling, with his bulk, who was usually the aggressor, aiming enough kicks and punches at Jamesie to keep him from participating fully in the festivities. Jamesie, who never backed away from a fight, particularly one with Erling, would counter with enough punches and kicks of his own so that the two of them would end up rolling around in the snow, with neither able to pin the other one conclusively to the ground.


My mother's role in all this consisted of watching from the living room window and rapping on the glass with her wedding band, which was her way of getting my attention. Then, I, the inveterate third-party onlooker, was supposed to step in and stop the scuffling that was a constant between Erling and Jamesie. I would do my best to separate my brothers, and at times I would succeed, at least for the moment, but the two of them, by ganging up on me, would neutralize my efforts enough so that they could return to pummeling each other. This sibling rivalry between Erling and Jamesie troubled my mother greatly, but my father tended to dismiss all this tumbling about as nothing more than the exuberance of two young boys.


Age and illness brought an end to my father's ritualistic dance, but that tableau of the Nielsens paying homage to the season's first snow, and everything that went with it—including the rivalry between Erling and Jamesie and my fruitless attempts at peacemaking—never quite faded away, not even in the last months of my father's life. But then, it was my job, as my father's attorney, to help him with the disposition of his estate while trying to tread a careful path around family relationships that had become even more untidy.


When my father's prostate cancer was diagnosed, he had me draw up a simple, straightforward will in which he named my mother as his sole beneficiary. But when his cancer, once tamed, returned—and he didn't have the strength to endure another course of treatment—he asked that I meet with him to review his will. I agreed to do so, and on a Friday afternoon, I drove from my law office in Boston to my parents' home in Glen, arriving just in time for dinner.


After we had eaten, my father and I headed up to his bedroom so that we could begin our work. To get upstairs, my father, with laughter that sounded forced, rode the chair lift that had been installed just a few days before. He also needed my help in getting into bed and propping himself up on a cluster of pillows.


We began by going through some prior business, his recent divestment from that last two businesses in which he had been a limited partner and the establishment with the proceeds of a beneficial trust for my two children and Erling's three children. With little more than a quick glance, he signed the trust documents. But then, half sitting, half lying back, and slightly out of breath, he asked that we wait until the next day to begin our legal work.


“There's something else I want to talk to you about,” he said. “It's your mother.” He took a moment to reach over to the bedside table for a glass of water, and after taking a sip, he was ready to continue.


“I'm spending a lot of time these day on regrets, thinking of things I should have done but didn't do, plus a lot of things I did that I should have done better. And at the top of my list is this: I'm afraid I'm going to die without your mother knowing just how much I love her.”


After a short pause that gave him enough time to take a deep breath and slowly let it out, he continued. “Worst of all, I have no one but myself to blame for having gone all these years without letting her know often enough what a marvelous wife and mother she's been and how grateful I am for all that she's done for me and for you boys.”


My father's revelation caught me by surprise because Ollie Nielsen was not known to blame himself for shortcomings of any kind, nor had I ever heard him speak openly about love in any form, directly or indirectly. But in the middle of berating himself for having taken my mother for granted, he wondered why she seemed not to respond as he thought she should when he told her, frequently, I gather, how much she meant to him.


“I don't understand it,” he told me. “I've poured myself out to her, laid it out as plain as I know how, but all I get back from her is a very odd smile, one I've never seen before. It's hard to tell if she's pleased at what I've said or amused at my clumsy way of saying it. But that's it. She doesn't comment. She says nothing, in fact. It's as if the smile is supposed to speak for itself. Oh, now and then she gives me a little peck on the cheek and ruffles my hair, but I'm not sure she feels the same way about me as I do about her.”


I assured him that my mother knew how much he cared about her and tried to move on by asking if he had decided to sell a piece of land that was currently worthless and was likely to remain so.


His answer—“Your mother was the only girlfriend I ever had, you know.”—was an indication that we were unlikely to make much headway on updating his will unless I helped him resolve this issue that had arisen between him and my mother. I also found it a bit embarrassing, quite frankly, to hear my father sounding like a love-sick teenager who couldn't understand why the girl he had a crush on failed to pay any attention to him.


A moment later, with my question about that piece of land still unresolved, my father said he was too tired to continue. He then summoned my mother by ringing a buzzer he had by his bedside and I excused myself when my mother arrived to help prepare him for bed.


When my mother came back downstairs, I told her what my father had said about wanting to make sure she knew how much he loved her. I tried to be offhand and casual about it when I said, “Pa tells me that he's afraid you don't realize how much he loves you.”


She didn't respond right away so after a moment, I said, “He's not kidding. He really means it, you know.”


“I thought you two had more important things than that to talk about,” she said. “Isn't he the one who said all this stuff you're working on had to be straightened out toot sweet.”


That told me my mother had no intention of sharing with a third party, particularly a third party who happened to be one of her sons, her innermost feelings about her relationship with my father.


I was hoping that my father would feel likewise, but the next morning, after breakfast, and after he was again propped up in his bed, he began once more to blame himself for neglecting to tell my mother how much he loved her. It was now quite apparent to me that we weren't going to make any headway in getting his business affairs in order if I didn't calm his concerns about what was going on between him and my mother.


“Pa, I have something to tell you,” I said. “Last night, after you and I talked, I mentioned to Ma what you had said about wanting her to know how much you loved her. And instantly, without a moment's hesitation, she assured me, quietly, but with great feeling, that she was quite moved by what you've been saying to her.”


That did little to placate my father. “Are you sure?” he asked, his eye brows raised and his voice indicating something between surprise and disbelief.


“Pa, I have no doubt that Ma knows how much you love her. She wouldn't say so if—


“What makes you feel she meant what she said? And most of all, is she ever going to forgive me for taking so long to tell her how I feel about her?”


There was a catch in my father's voice when he asked that last question.


I then took a moment to lean over and pretend that I was retying my shoe laces. That prevented my father from seeing me pinch away the tears that had come to my eyes. When I popped my head back up, I was prepared, like any lawyer without a ready answer, to respond to my father's questions with questions of my own.


What made him think, I asked, that my mother ever doubted his love for her? Was there ever a time when she had indicated any misgivings on her part about him, or uttered a complaint about how he had treated her?


I then answered both my questions with a solid, unequivocal no. I also challenged him to cite one time when my mother hadn't shown him unwavering loyalty and affection.


When he didn't reply right away, I said, “Agree or disagree, yes or no, hasn't Ma always been your most willing, your most enthusiastic cheerleader?”


“She really said that she appreciated what I've been trying to tell her?” my father said.


“Without any doubt,” I said. “One hundred percent, foolproof, guaranteed.”


A moment later, after reaching over to get a tissue that he used to wipe moisture from his eyes and then to blow his nose, he turned his attention to his will. Now, he was much more the Ollie Nielsen whose presence and rumbling voice allowed him to dominate every meeting he ever attended, and who could walk into the governor's office to let him know, in very strong language, that he should be doing more to encourage the growth of tourism in northern New Hampshire. His mane of white hair, after chemotherapy, was never again as thick as it had been. His face, once full, had shrunken in size and his fingers, once sausage like, were now so thin and delicate that he was constantly having to push his wedding band back into place to keep it from slipping off his finger. But he could still make clear that he, and not his lawyer, would decide what changes he was going to make in his will.


“First and most importantly,” he said, “everything goes to your mother, no ifs, ands or buts about that. No qualifications, no amendments, no stipulations. In other words, no fancy legal language. I want a document that makes it impossible for someone with a conniving lawyer to cheat your mother out of what rightly belongs to her.”


“So, should I put a clause in that says, ‘Hey, Erling, hands off?'”


“Exactly,” said my father, a momentary grin flashing over his face.


Of my father's three sons, Erling is the one who most resembles him, both physically and in his entrepreneurial zest. Both are bulky, but my father, when young, resembled a block of granite. Erling, because his head is connected to his shoulders without much of a neck, is formless. Even when young, his shoulders were stooped like that of an old man, which may be the reason why he waddles rather than walks.


There was a difference, too, between my father's deft promotion of business interests and Erling's more bombastic style. Anyone driving through northern New Hampshire is likely to come across billboards with bold florescent lettering that proclaim Erling's stature (granted by himself to himself, I suspect) as the number one skimobile dealer in the state. Erling is also in the business of selling power boats, motorcycles, small tractors and recreational vehicles. If there's a machine that makes noise and/or pollutes the air, Erling sells it.


“And before you ask,” my father said, “I haven't changed my mind about Jamesie.”


“You're sure about that?” I said.


My father looked away from me to gaze out the set of windows that gave him a good view of the Presidential Range, a series of mountains named after presidents from Washington through Eisenhower.


Finally, with a chuckle, he said, “Call me a coward—and if you do, you won't be wrong—but along with all my possessions and worldly goods, I bequeath to your mother any decision concerning Jamesie. There's just so much you can ask a dying man to take on.”


“As your lawyer, I want to remind you that it's never too late to change your mind.”


My father, ignoring my comment, pointed to the pad of paper I was holding and told me to take down, word for word, what he wanted to say.


“This has nothing to do with my will,” he said, just before dictating a letter of apology, an admission of guilt really, to the widow of a business partner he had broken with years ago.


My father took a short rest after that and again looked out at the mountains he so loved. It was the end of October and though the fall foliage had begun to fade, the sun was shining brightly and on the upper reaches of several nearby mountains an overnight frost had left tracings of white.


“I've been talking about regrets,” my father said, “but I should mention, too, what a lucky guy I've been. Your mother, my business, you boys, even Jamesie, and on top of all that, every day I've had the privilege of looking out my window at one of the most beautiful views in all creation. Ollie, I tell myself, if there's just a certain amount of good luck in the world, you've grabbed off more than your share of it.”


A moment later, he said, “That letter I just gave you. Make sure you get it off right away. And I don't want your mother to know about it. Now, there's something else, but it's too late to write a letter about it.”


My father then recounted the terrible mistake—his words—he had made thirty years before, when he urged his older brother, Billy, to divorce his wife because she had been having an affair with a close family friend. I had to hand my father a tissue to wipe tears from his eyes when he kept saying it was his fault that his brother, once divorced, descended into alcoholism and an early death.


“It was no business of mine what Billy's wife was up to,” he said. “But she had this cutesy way of talking that drove me crazy. And she was a flirt, even after she married Billy, she'd give him this silly grin and bat her eyelashes at him. There was something so phony about her that I just exploded once I found out what Billy's little cutie pie was doing behind his back.”


“She's dead, right? So there's nobody you can apologize to now,” I said.


“I know. But it makes me feel better that I've spelled it out to someone before I'm gone. Now, let's get back to business.”


With that, my father said, yes, he wanted to sell the 10 acres of land that I had asked him about the night before. He had bought the land a few years before, thinking it would serve as a buffer against a condominium developer who had acquired a large tract of land a half a mile or so from my parents' property. Since then, the developer had learned that building costs would be prohibitive because the layers of granite ledge running throughout the site were more extensive than he had been led to believe.


“Nobody's going to be building much around here any time soon,” my father said, “thanks to good, old New Hampshire granite. But there's always the danger that Erling will talk your mother into letting him do something with it. I wouldn't put it past him. So the best thing is to get rid of it, even if we have to give it away.”


With that same decisiveness, my father said he wanted to leave a modest bequest to an organization dedicated to preserving New Hampshire's wilderness from people like him and the business interests he had so vigorously promoted. He stipulated likewise that a bequest, slightly larger, be made to the Lutheran church he and my mother attended in Sherburne, a city about ten miles north of my parents' home.


My father then leaned over and rang the buzzer by his bedside, and moments later, when my mother arrived, he greeted her with the announcement that we had completed our work.


“How do you like that?” he told her. “We did everything we had to do in half the time I thought it would take. Just goes to show how quickly a lawyer can work if he's doing pro bono stuff.”


That drew a small laugh from my mother, but a few moments later, when I was saying goodbye to my father, I could see that her eyes were filled with tears. Later, however, when she and I were back downstairs and I was preparing to leave, she, dry-eyed by then, let me know that we had yet to deal with what she referred to as unfinished business.


I knew instantly that my mother was referring to Jamesie. One of my other duties as my parents' legal counsel was to serve as the intermediary between Jamesie and the rest of the family.


“Pa's as stubborn as ever, of course, when it comes to certain things,” she said. “He also knows that what I'm waiting for isn't going to go away because he'd rather not deal with it. I want this whole family to come together for a change—and that means a visit from Jamesie, with no conditions attached, no buts, whys or wherefores. In other words, a real visit, not just a drop-in for a cup of coffee visit like the last time. And when he gets here, I expect Pa and Erling to treat him with kindness and respect. And you—it's your job to get Jamesie to agree to a visit and to behave himself while he's here. No preconditions on your end, either.”


Apparently I didn't answer her soon enough, and that slight lull caused my mother to address, somewhat obliquely, our conversation from the night before.


“Some things, you know, just are,” she said. “They don't have to be talked about. In other words, I know, I've always known, how your father feels about me.”


I wasn't quite sure how I should respond to that, so I gave my mother a quick hug and mumbled something about how I needed to get home in time to attend my daughter's soccer game.


Ordinarily that would have caused her to ask questions about my daughter's soccer team and how she was doing in school, and probably throw in a few other questions about my son, but today her focus was solely on Jamesie.


“Well, will you get him up here or not? We don't have all that much time, you know.”


“I'll do my best,” I said, as I headed out the door.


That she followed me, and stood on the back porch as I backed out of the driveway, was an indication that she was hoping I'd say more, maybe even give her a day when she might expect a visit from Jamesie and me. But I simply waved at her as I drove off. She knew as well as I did that I couldn't make any such promise, not when it came to Jamesie and not when I was supposed to arrange a get-together that involved him, my father and Erling.



section break



He was christened James Gilmore Nielsen, but we knew right off that James was much too formal and grown up for someone whose rambunctious nature was evident from the day he was born. Even the abbreviated, Jim, seemed too compact and businesslike for someone who was so energetic and who always moved so quickly. Climbing stairs, for instance, Jamesie always took two or three steps at a time, and he appeared when he walked, or loped rather, as if he were not only propelling himself forward but preparing, with each step, to make himself airborne.


And indeed, it was not uncommon for Jamesie to take flight, literally. As a high school student, he was among the youngest contestants ever to take part in the ski jumping competition at the winter carnival in Sherburne that my father used to run and was known for holding his own with far more experienced jumpers. Numerous other times he frightened my parents and school teachers and anyone else who worried about his well-being by performing daredevil stunts in which he seemed to defy, or ignore, the law of gravity. I remember a day—Jamesie was fifteen, I was about to graduate from college—when we were in Sherburne, walking towards the business district, and Jamesie, for no reason whatsoever, challenged me to the kind of competition he loved.


“See you at the corner,” he said, pointing to a spot about two blocks away from us, where Church Street ran into Main Street. “But I'll get there before you do, and I'll get there without setting foot on a sidewalk.”


A quick glance indicated that Jamesie couldn't possibly win this competition without flying through the air, but while I, earthbound, began walking towards our meeting place, Jamesie jumped up and grabbed onto the edge of a brick wall we were walking past. He then clambered up a tree next to the wall, reaching a limb that extended out far enough so that it hung over the roof of an office building. By proceeding hand over hand along the limb, he reached a spot that allowed him to drop down, ten feet or so, onto the roof of the building.


I lost sight of him, but a moment later, he was climbing a ladder that was mounted on the wall of the adjoining building, a movie theater. He then hurried across the roof of the theater to its fire escape, which he raced down. His momentum was such that when he got to the bottom of the fire escape, he crossed a strip of grass with three long steps and one gigantic leap, arriving at the agreed upon meeting place just seconds ahead of me. Then, in typical Jamesie fashion, he celebrated his triumph by greeting me with an exuberant high five, complete with a pirouette, a vigorous clapping of his hands and laughter loud and raucous enough to be heard a block away.


Mention Jamesie's name to anyone in Glen, or in nearby Sherburne, where we went to high school, and you'll probably hear something about that laugh, maybe even hear someone try to imitate it, as if that was at all possible. Jamesie's laugh begins with a wheezing sound that makes it seem as if he's gasping for breath, but then, with explosive force, he lets loose with a series of yelps and hoots and howls that can be frightening to anyone who hasn't been forewarned.


Erling has always pointed to that laugh as proof of Jamesie's mental instability. Only Erling put it more bluntly. His nicknames for Jamesie—Screwy Louie, Fruitcake, the Hyena—not only took hold when we were young but are still used by a good number of people in Sherburne who should know better than to take seriously anything Erling said about Jamesie.


My mother tried repeatedly, sometimes politely, other times in a sterner voice, to curb Erling's use of those nicknames. She tried in much the same way to get Jamesie to tone down his cacophonous laugh. My mother would have been more successful had she tried to stop an express train with her bare hands.


Erling and Jamesie, hostile as they were towards each other, did find common ground on one issue, their determination to ignore my mother's effort at improving their table manners. Erling gobbled down his food no matter how often my mother urged him to chew before he swallowed, and Jamesie was as deaf to her requests that he, please, just once, refrain from emitting a loud burp after drinking a glass of milk in one long swallow.


My father never took much notice of Erling's endless belittling of Jamesie nor was he bothered that much by his sons' table manners. To him, his sons' genetic inheritance—after all, they were Nielsen males—was a guarantee that they would develop the manners and self-control they needed when it was time for them to enter the world of business.


My father was right about Erling, but his belief that Jamesie, restless and mischievous, would someday become better behaved was based more on hope than solid evidence. Likewise, Jamesie's teachers, both in Glen and later at the high school in Sherburne, were somewhat deluded in thinking that Jamesie possessed the potential to be a brilliant student. That one word, potential, would become as firmly affixed to Jamesie as any of those nicknames Erling had bestowed on him. Oh, the potential. How many times have I heard someone use those very words when referring to Jamesie?


Jamesie, smiling and effusive, was clever enough to win, and maintain, the allegiance of those teachers who admired him because he could, when he was so inclined, do A-plus work. That kept alive the notion of what was likely to happen if all this “potential” ever came to fruition. But then, for no reason at all Jamesie would suddenly slack off in the middle of a semester because rather than do school work he preferred to spend his time reading biographies of great military leaders, or had decided, as he did in the last half of his junior year, to devote most of his time to a detailed study of the Lewis and Clark expedition.


The coaches of Sherburne High's athletic teams were also intrigued, initially, with Jamesie's potential. The football coach imagined Jamesie, with his speed and quick moves, as a halfback who could both evade and outrun opposing tacklers while the basketball coach pictured Jamesie, with that long loping stride of his, leading a fast break down the court and gliding in, unhampered, for an easy layup. Both, alas, soon learned that Jamesie never arrived at practice on time nor would he listen to them once he got there. It was no coincidence that Jamesie excelled in the one sporting event, cross country skiing, that allowed him to set his own pace, which was to go all out, full speed, from start to finish, in every race he ever ran.


Jamesie was the only member in three generations of the Nielsen family who was comfortable on skis. Not only was he the state cross-country champion both in his junior and senior years of high school, but he did well enough in downhill and ski jumping events to attract the attention of the ski coach from Dartmouth College. The ski coach would have had a difficult time getting Jamesie into Dartmouth without a strong assist from those teachers at Sherburne High who attested that Jamesie, despite his wildly inconsistent academic record, was a student of exceptional promise. But Jamesie was admitted to Dartmouth, as we eventually learned, because my father prevailed on a close friend, the owner of a large ski resort and a Dartmouth trustee, to use his influence in getting Jamesie into the school. You can imagine, then, my parents' distress when Jamesie was asked to leave Dartmouth at the end of his freshman year.


I don't know why my parents were so shocked and angry at Jamesie's expulsion. They were aware, after all, that he was on academic probation and Jamesie himself talked often of how much time he spent away from Hanover, visiting his girlfriend, who was going to school in Boston. But no, my father, as soon as he learned of Jamesie's expulsion, called the dean of students and demanded that he and my mother meet with him. Knowing my father, he obviously felt that with his well-honed and persuasive sales techniques he could get that dean to change his mind about Jamesie.


I can just see my father, striding into the dean's office and giving him a big, hearty handshake and making it look as if the dean, and not he, was the petitioner in this matter. My father was also prepared with an opening offer, one that was guaranteed, he maintained, to keep Jamesie out of trouble. You just have to keep him off the ski team for one semester, he told the dean, and make sure he spends weekends in Hanover instead of running off to chase after some girlfriend of his.


The dean, according to my mother, didn't even bother to reject my father's suggestion. He simply repeated, in essence, what he had said in the letter to my parents, that Jamesie, overall, had been a disruptive presence from the time he arrived in Hanover and that he lacked the maturity and self-discipline expected of a student at Dartmouth. That in itself was quite damning since Dartmouth students had always been regarded as the premier hell raisers of the Ivy League.


The dean then went on to say that Jamesie had never expressed remorse or regret for anything he had done, and that the decision to expel him, therefore, was final and irrevocable. To underscore the last point, the dean said that Jamesie's case had been reviewed and approved by the president of the college. I believe that was the dean's way of telling my father not to ask his trustee friend for any help in getting Jamesie back into Dartmouth.


My mother came out with a tiny laugh when she told me that my father, rare for him, was stunned into silence by what the dean had said. As for myself, I wish that the meeting with the dean had ended right then. But the dean, a cordial soul apparently, tried to comfort my parents by telling them that Jamesie could be readmitted to Dartmouth after a year or two if he demonstrated in the meantime that he was better prepared to adhere to the college's standards and requirements. The dean even talked of students he knew who didn't do well initially but who excelled after a year or two away from Dartmouth.


Without realizing it, the dean had just created a breach between my parents, one that would never heal. My mother, without hesitation, embraced the redemptive power of Dartmouth's version of the “time out” instituted by kindergarten teachers to calm obstreperous students. To her, Jamesie's expulsion was a temporary setback, and a day would come when he was welcomed back to Dartmouth.


My father was unmoved. He could barely bring himself to shake hands with the dean when the meeting ended and he remained stolid and silent (and seething mad) for a good part of the drive back to Glen. Finally, just as they were taking the private road that led to our house, my mother felt the need to speak up.


She realized that my father was difficult to deal with when he was angry, but she wanted him to know of her biggest worry about Jamesie, his vulnerability to the military draft. Now that Jamesie was no longer in college, she said, he was without a student deferment—and this at a time when the military was committing more and more troops to Vietnam. Their next job, she told my father, was to get Jamesie back into school, any school, anywhere.


My father dismissed my mother's comment with a blunt statement.


“I can never forgive him for this,” he said.


He then added that what Jamesie did in the future, and specifically, whether he ended up being drafted, was the least of his concerns. No, what bothered him more than anything else was the damage he had done to his own reputation by asking a close friend and business associate to vouch for Jamesie. What was he supposed to say the next time he ran into the friend who helped get Jamesie into Dartmouth? What could he give for an answer when his friend asked how Jamesie was doing?


“In my business, and in life generally, you cultivate friendships,” he said, “you don't abuse them.”


A few moments later, he blamed himself for failing to see that Jamesie was ill-suited for Dartmouth and probably any other college as well. I remember him telling me the same thing back then. It puzzled him no end that someone with his instincts for smelling out dodgy business deals had been so easily fooled by his own son. The day Jamesie was kicked out of Dartmouth, I submit, was the day my father realized that his youngest son was unlikely to become a responsible adult.


On this issue of Jamesie's perpetual immaturity, my father found a willing ally in Erling, who never missed the chance to remind my parents that Jamesie was feckless and untrustworthy. I was never as harsh in my judgment of Jamesie, or to put it more precisely, I was not as eager as Erling to condemn him. Oh, Jamesie was unpredictable in his behavior and completely undisciplined, but he was otherwise well-meaning and likable. I suppose I was like those dog owners who insist that their pets are friendly and mean no harm, even though they bound into the room, knocking furniture and people aside and leaving disorder and mayhem in their wake.


Jamesie himself never apologized to anyone for his ill-fated Dartmouth adventure. Dartmouth didn't want him? That was fine with him since he didn't care much for Dartmouth, either. I heard him once allude to being singled out as the responsible party for an incident that could have been more rightly blamed on several other students, but you couldn't pry from Jamesie any details on why he might have been unfairly punished. To Jamesie, any attempt to defend himself might indicate, however slightly, that there was some legitimacy to the action taken against him.


Frankly, any defense Jamesie offered would have been brushed aside by my father. He might have budged slightly if Jamesie apologized and vowed never again to do anything that brought embarrassment to the Nielsen family, but Jamesie, who could be as adamant as my father, had no intention of accepting the burden of guilt my father was trying to impose on him.


The day my parents learned of Jamesie's expulsion, my father called Jamesie twice. He devoted the first call to letting Jamesie know angry he was with him for having besmirched the family name. In the second call he revealed to Jamesie that he never would have gotten into Dartmouth without the help of a family friend. That set up the next point my father made: Jamesie should never again expect to benefit in any way from the Nielsen family's business connections.


I've always felt that my father, during the second call, was on the verge of telling Jamesie that he was disowning him, but at the last moment lost his nerve. After all, he would have had to contend with my mother, who was not yet prepared to think of her nineteen-year-old son as a hopeless failure.


Jamesie was more resolute than my father. He didn't offer a word in his defense during the first call, and his reaction to that second call, which presaged his future relationship with my father, was total and utter silence followed a few seconds later by the click the phone made when he hung up.



section break



We lost track of Jamesie for the first time right after his expulsion from Dartmouth. He had left Hanover before my parents ever met with the dean, and the last we knew, he was headed for southern Maine to find a job. His girlfriend, the one he spent so much time with in Boston, lived in a town outside Portland.


My mother was about to contact the police when a month went by without any word from Jamesie, but she then received a late-night phone call from him. He was working on a lobster boat, he told her, and living in the guest house at his girlfriend's parents' summer home.


Nothing about the phone call eased my mother's concerns about Jamesie's future. He refused to discuss what he might do in order to get back into Dartmouth and was equally dismissive of my mother's warnings about the military draft. He also laughed when she told him that she was worried he might injure himself sliding around on the wet deck or a lobster boat or even fall overboard when pulling lobster pots from the water.


My father remained steadfast. If he mentioned Jamesie at all, it was only to wonder, with a little gurgle of laughter, what it felt like to be on a tiny lobster boat when it was being bounced around by strong winds and rough seas.


Soon after my mother heard from Jamesie, she asked me, for the first time, if I would intervene with him on her behalf. “See if you can drill some sense into his head,” she said. “Maybe you'll get him to understand that he can't spend the rest of his life working on a lobster boat.”


I had some difficulty getting in touch with Jamesie since the guest cottage he was living in didn't have a phone, but after a week of leaving messages at the so-called main house, Jamesie called back. Our brief conversation consisted of a series of questions I asked and he half-heartedly answered.


Yes, he liked Maine, he told me, and maybe he would stay there through the winter now that he had a new job, working for his girlfriend's brother, who was a building contractor. Then again, he might go to Colorado and find a job that allowed him time for skiing. No, he had no interest in taking college courses just then, but maybe, later, next year perhaps, it might be something he would consider. He was slightly more animated when he said that he would only return to college when he had a better idea of what he wanted to study.


“I just want to remind you that there's something called the draft,” I said. “The Selective Service swoops down on guys like you who've just lost their student deferment.”


“And who says I have to answer my country's call?” Jamesie replied.


“I wish you well if you go that route. In the meantime, does Ma know that you're through with Dartmouth?”


“The only thing I regret is Ma getting so upset over the whole thing.”


“And Pa? Maybe now that a little time has passed, it might be useful if you made some kind of apology to him.”


The silence on the other end of the line was profound. After a prolonged pause, when it became apparent that Jamesie had no intention of responding, I said, “Have it your way, but Ma's caught in the middle of this and she shouldn't be in a position of having to take sides.”


Jamesie's reply to that was to ask me how my wife, newly pregnant at the time, was feeling. Fine, I said. He then hung up and never again, while he was in Maine, was I able to reach him.


I applied a bit of gloss to my conversation with Jamesie when I told my mother that he intended to go back to school, but only when he was more certain about his goals and ambitions.


“That's a good sign,” I told her, “because he seems to realize that he needs to be more serious once he becomes a student again.”


I don't believe I did much to offset what my mother was hearing from my father and from Erling. The two of them had no doubt that Jamesie deserved to be lumped in with all the other young people in America who were openly smoking marijuana and attending rock festivals where everyone, male and female alike, shed their clothes and inhibitions.


Erling, as always, presented himself as the absolute opposite of his dissolute, aimless younger brother. He chose to attend a two-year business college and by the time he had turned twenty-one, he had already started his first business, a small trucking company. That same year he also married his high school girlfriend. For reasons I've never been able to fathom, both Erling and his wife were always more bothered than they should have been by the loosening of sexual mores among people who were not much younger than they were.


Much to my mother's relief, Jamesie's sojourn in Maine came to an abrupt end shortly after winter set in. His girlfriend left him for someone else, and soon after that he had a falling out with his former girlfriend's brother. Only when he was jobless and without a place to live, did it finally dawn on him that he might soon find himself on the way to Vietnam unless he became a college student again. That was no easy task, given his spotty academic record. But somehow, with the help of a friend, Jamesie was able to enroll midway through the academic year in one of those colleges that had sprung up in Boston when young men like him were desperately seeking some way to obtain a student deferment.


Jamesie's plan depended, of course, on my father underwriting this new academic venture. Here, Jamesie ran into a problem since my father had decided—no doubt with Erling chiming in—that a stint in the military might just hasten the day when Jamesie became a full-fledged grownup. Erling, it should be noted, had the foresight to tear up his knee playing high school football, thereby making himself ineligible for military service.


It was a rare sight to see my mother so angry that she defied my father, but I was the sole witness when, with the fervor and thunder of an Old Testament prophet, she told my father that he would have blood on his hands if he stood by while Jamesie was sent off to fight in a war from which he might never return. My father, when he backed down, tried to cover his retreat by saying that he reserved the right to withdraw his financial support if Jamesie wasn't more attentive to his studies than he had been at Dartmouth.


I had just finished law school and had become an associate in one of Boston's large law firms when Jamesie became a student again. In my mother's view, my proximity to Jamesie, as well as my profession, made me the ideal choice to serve, at her behest, as Jamesie's overseer and protector.


“Your job,” she said, “is to make sure that Jamesie doesn't get drafted. We can't afford a repeat of what happened at Dartmouth.”


My mother regarded Jamesie's enrollment in that ersatz college as the first step in his journey back to Dartmouth. I wasn't so sure of that, but it appeared as if her optimism was justified because Jamesie—more aware now about the danger of being sent to Vietnam—had become quite a diligent student. Every two or three weeks, when I met him for lunch, I was pleasantly surprised that he sounded quite earnest, and not at all like the more flippant Jamesie of old. He had even begun talking of his interest in attending divinity school once he had earned his undergraduate degree. I must confess that I also wondered if this was just another of Jamesie's sporadic enthusiasms, particularly when he told me that he hadn't yet determined what religious denomination, if any, he might want to join.


I could not dismiss, however, Jamesie's accounts of the various churches he attended and his wide sampling of religious services of all kinds, both mainstream and somewhat unconventional. He even talked of finding a way to bridge the divide between western religious traditions and those features of eastern religions that were attractive to him. I couldn't always follow where Jamesie's spiritual quest was leading him, but during Jamesie's first year in Boston, I began to sense that he might yet realize his much talked-of potential.


Oh, his opinions, pro or con, on a multitude of issues were wild assertions rather than reasoned arguments, and he was under the impression that everything he said was startlingly new and original. But I found myself quite taken by this voluble young man who was trying to work his way through issues of morality and ethics and religious belief.


I'm a cautious soul, perhaps too cautious at times, but I began to think that Jamesie might not turn out to be the wastrel son of the Nielsen family after all. Everything about him, including his superb physical condition, seemed to reflect a newfound seriousness of purpose. He had always been leaner than other Nielsen males, but the physical labor he had done in Maine, and the regimen of daily exercise he followed, including long runs along the Charles River, even when winter had set in, had pared every ounce of excess flesh from his body. His face, I swear, had become as chiseled and defined as the rock formation the state of New Hampshire used as its symbol. My parents and Erling and Erling's wife all detested Jamesie's long hair—and the red bandana he tied around his forehead to keep it from falling into his eyes—but to me he seemed, with his sculpted features and his flowing locks, to embody the idealism and bright-eyed enthusiasm of that era's burgeoning youth culture.


Could it be, I wondered, that our Jamesie, with his charismatic presence, and the ease with which he juggled allusions to Nietzsche and Kierkegaard and Hindu prayer chants, might someday emerge as a pastor and mentor, perhaps a New Age guru, particularly at a time when so many of his peers were drawn to offbeat spiritual advisers?


My dreamy notion of Jamesie's future failed to take into account the prosecution of the war in Vietnam by Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, who, in my view, are the two people most responsible for diverting Jamesie from his possible path to religious ministry. That's not to absolve from blame a young woman, Elizabeth Singleton, who became Jamesie's girlfriend, and only a few months later, his wife.


The news of Jamesie's marriage, which came by way of a late night phone call to my mother, left us all aghast. My mother, moments after she heard from Jamesie, called to chastise me for not preventing Jamesie from taking such a drastic step. Didn't I realize that Jamesie was unable to support himself, let alone a wife? In the background I could hear my father claiming that any woman who had agreed to marry Jamesie was obviously insane. My mother had barely hung up when I heard from Erling, who began yapping about how the Draft Dodger—Erling's new nickname for Jamesie—would undoubtedly expect my parents to support him and his new wife and the brood of children they were bound to produce.


Later that day, after I talked to Jamesie, I was able to mollify my mother, if not my father, and blunt somewhat Erling's cockeyed predictions my parents having to bear the financial burden yet to be imposed on them by Jamesie and his wife and their non-existent children. It turned out that Elizabeth Singleton, who was four years older than Jamesie, had earned two degrees in mathematics from MIT and was a researcher at a think tank affiliated with Harvard University. There, she and her colleagues produced reports that analyzed demographic and economic trends for government agencies and corporate clients. She was an only child, and her father, a widower, was the president of a large bank in New York and had once served on the board of the Federal Reserve.


A few days later, when I met Elizabeth, I saw that she was as lean and as athletic as Jamesie, and like him, she seemed always to trot rather than walk. There was something odd, though, about her appearance, particularly her dress. She was quite attractive, but at a time when young people sported an abundance of hair and wore brightly colored, even garish clothing, Elizabeth, with her short, bobbed hair and pixieish features and no-nonsense sweaters and jerseys and knee-length skirts and loafers, looked as if she would have been at home in Harvard Square, circa 1950. I was also intrigued with the way Elizabeth tried to conceal her speech defect, a slight lisp, by taking a deep breath before she said anything. A second later, her release of that little gasp of air, made everything she said sound as if she were a seven-year old girl marveling at the sight of a new litter of kittens.


That was the Elizabeth who was pleasant and good humored and talked knowledgeably about her work. She was also effusive in her praise of Jamesie's spiritual depth and had developed, like him, an avid interest in non-western religious traditions.


But any mention of the war in Vietnam and instantly Elizabeth's facial features folded into a clenched fist. Seconds later, after taking in that little breath of air, she would issue a stream of invective and obscenities that invariably ended with a call for the immediate arrest of this country's cabinet officials and military leaders and her fervent wish that the President of the United States would be stricken by some deadly, debilitating disease.


I could never reconcile the Elizabeth, who could be so civil and courteous (and so expert at contributing to policy papers that illuminated the direction of the economy) with the Elizabeth whose body would stiffen and whose voice rose an octave or two when she expressed her outrage at the death and suffering caused by the war in Vietnam.


When she and Jamesie first met, their antiwar activities consisted of attending rallies at which young people, with arms linked, marched through the streets of Cambridge and Boston, interspersing songs of love and peace with heartfelt pleas and chants to stop the killing. But when this country's leaders began a steady escalation of the war and the body count on both sides continued to mount, Elizabeth and Jamesie felt they had no choice but to escalate their own efforts to stop the war.


By then, Elizabeth, lisp and all, sounded as if she had replaced her larynx with a bull horn, all the better to be heard when she stood outside the White House, accusing the President of the United States of committing war crimes. This was a time when Elizabeth, with an old-style football helmet on her head to protect her skull from the batons of the police, and Jamesie, bearded now, and with a peace symbol hanging from a leather thong around his neck (but defiantly, without a helmet), threw themselves, quite literally, into the path of what they referred to as Amerika's (their preferred spelling) war machine.


I was there to post bail the first time Elizabeth and Jamesie were arrested for joining the human chain that tried to stop buses from taking draftees into the Boston Army Base to be inducted. I provided similar assistance to them several other times in the aftermath of altercations that they had had with the Boston or Cambridge police departments. As peace-loving as the two of them claimed to be, neither ever submitted to arrest without putting up a struggle.


I, too, detested the deadly game of hide and seek that was being played out in the jungles of Vietnam, and I wish I could have suggested to Elizabeth and Jamesie a more effective means of stopping the war than those they employed. But since I couldn't, both greeted with laughter my advice that they try to express their opposition to the war without engaging in hand-to-hand combat with the police. The blanket accusation they flung back at me was that I cared more about becoming a partner in my law firm than joining them in standing up to all those forces that were waging this obscenity of a war.


Elizabeth was disciplined enough to separate her professional obligations from her protest activities. Her football helmet, the Army fatigues and boots she wore when protesting, along with her readiness to respond in kind when hard hat construction workers directed taunts and obscenities at her and other protestors—all that was Elizabeth outside her office. But back in attire suitable to her workplace, she became again the quiet, steadfast researcher.


Jamesie told me of how Elizabeth often worked late into the night to make up for the time she took off to participate in antiwar activities. He, unlike Elizabeth, could not keep his two worlds apart. He would have flunked out of any legitimate college once he joined a group of young men and women who seemed to think they could save the lives of Vietnamese peasants by staging sit-ins at the offices of college officials around Boston. But by using his innate charm to play on the antiwar sympathy of his instructors, Jamesie was granted extensions on deadlines for submitting papers he had yet to write and was also allowed to take make up exams for those that he had missed.


Jamesie at least expressed gratitude for the assistance I provided when he and Elizabeth were arrested and detained by the police. Not Elizabeth. Once so well mannered, she not only failed to thank me, but made me feel as though I was on the side of police officers, who, if you believed her, got their orders to beat and hound antiwar protestors directly from the White House.


Elizabeth didn't think any more highly of my wife, who regularly took part in antiwar marches but managed never to be arrested. Even if my wife and I had locked arms with Elizabeth and Jamesie and dared those buses carrying draftees to run over us, it's doubtful that the four of us would ever have become close friends. My wife and I had two children who were born l8 months apart. Elizabeth and Jamesie had none. They lived in Cambridge. We had settled in one of those suburbs of Boston, where most of our neighbors thought of Cambridge as something akin to a foreign country. And while Elizabeth and Jamesie were consumed with trying to stop the war, I was fully immersed in my own career, hoping to prove to my superiors that I was partnership material.


The relationship between my parents and Elizabeth and Jamesie, tenuous to start with, didn't survive the first time they all met. That took place about three months after Elizabeth and Jamesie were married, when my parents were in Boston to attend a trade show for people in the travel industry and Elizabeth arranged for her and Jamesie to meet them for dinner. The dinner—which my wife and I were unable to attend—apparently got off to a good start. My father may have once felt that anyone who married Jamesie was insane, but he warmly toasted Elizabeth and Jamesie and wished them good luck. The newlyweds were also at their congenial best, with Jamesie actually complying with a promise he had made to my mother to speak to my father rather than ignore him.


My father, at my mother's urging, I'm sure, didn't even mention Jamesie's long hair, which would have most likely led to his usual screed about the lack of personal hygiene among young people in the antiwar movement. My mother was particularly pleased that the conversation, right through the main course, had not touched on politics in any way. Elizabeth had talked about her work while Jamesie, prodded by Elizabeth, spoke in greater detail about his plans for attending divinity school, provided, of course, he came to some decision on what religious denomination he might join. He then explained how he and Elizabeth continued to sample and study various religions, hoping to find one that suited their needs.


“Religion, not politics, is what did it,” my mother told me, when recounting how my father responded to Jamesie's remarks about attending different religious services with a grin and quiet chuckle. My father may have meant no harm, but Elizabeth apparently felt that he was dismissing, not so politely, Jamesie's sense of purpose.


I'm sure Elizabeth sounded quite innocent when she then asked my father if he was at all familiar with the Bahai faith. He wasn't, of course, and when he said so, Elizabeth explained to him that it was a religion preaching the equality and unity of all people. She then told him that she and Jamesie, having attended a a Bahai service, found it to be quite moving.


I gather that my father had the same little grin on his face when he told Elizabeth that he found all the religion he needed in the Lutheran church he had attended since he was a boy.


Elizabeth didn't dispute what my father said, not directly, but she expressed the thought that perhaps he, and a lot of other Americans, could benefit from learning more about other people, other cultures, and yes, other religions, too. If they did, she added, America might be less likely to blunder into war in places like Vietnam.


My mother told me that my father didn't respond to Elizabeth. Rather, he turned towards my mother and posed a question that wasn't really a question.


“Tell me if I'm wrong,” he said, “but aren't we fighting the war in Vietnam to stop the spread of Communism?”


That caused Jamesie to let out a laugh, not the full bore laugh which could take his breath away, but a laugh nevertheless, while Elizabeth announced, just as dessert arrived, that anyone who supported the war in Vietnam was complicit in the killing of civilians both in North and South Vietnam. She and Jamesie, she was proud to say, were opposed, and always would be, to the murder of innocents.


My mother resorted to a prearranged signal—two fingers pressed against her lips—to stop my father from answering back. I suspect that Elizabeth and Jamesie picked up on my mother's gesture because they, along with my parents, decided just then to concentrate with some intensity on eating their desserts. On that note of forced civility the dinner came to an end without either party needing to say what both were thinking, that it was unlikely they would be spending much time together in the foreseeable future.


Relations between Elizabeth and her father apparently went more smoothly. Jamesie was particularly proud of how he and Elizabeth had convinced her father, a life-long Republican, to cast his vote for whoever ran against Richard Nixon in the next election. I doubt that Elizabeth's father was aware that his daughter and Jamesie had begun by then to go out in the middle of the night to spray antiwar slogans on government buildings. I don't believe he knew, either, that Elizabeth and Jamesie had joined a faction of the anti-war movement that talked openly of the need to use whatever means were necessary in order to further the cause of peace and justice and economic equality. The little hitch in Elizabeth's voice that softened everything she said was a distant memory when she talked of the need—her right fist raised high—to bring the war home to America.


Because I had become so accustomed to Elizabeth and Jamesie's anti-war rhetoric, I failed to realize that they had crossed the line from principled dissent into madness, particularly after President Nixon ordered the incursion into Cambodia and four antiwar protestors at Kent State University had been killed by National Guardsmen. That's also when Elizabeth and Jamesie began to treat the bruises and scrapes they suffered from their encounters with the police as if they were the equivalent of battle ribbons awarded to soldiers for bravery under fire.


The braggadocio I didn't particularly care for was in full flower the day Elizabeth and Jamesie were released from a police holding cell after I posted bail for them. Twenty-four hours earlier they had been arrested for assault when they tried, for the third time that year, to prevent draftees from being inducted into the Army. Jamesie had even managed to clamber onto the hood of the bus carrying draftees and drape himself across the windshield, thereby obstructing the vision of the driver. This particular confrontation, more than any of the others, was one in which neither the police nor the demonstrators had exercised much restraint, and consequently, both Elizabeth and Jamesie had suffered more damage than in the past.


By noon the next day, I had posted bail for Elizabeth and Jamesie and the three of us, having just left municipal court, were crossing the street to the brick-paved plaza surrounding Boston City Hall. On the way, Elizabeth and Jamesie got into a bit of an exchange over which of them had been more seriously roughed up by the police. This seemed to me to be a pointless argument until we reached the Plaza itself. That's when Jamesie, jokingly, I thought, asked me to judge which of them could claim to be the winner of their bizarre dispute. I should add that Elizabeth and Jamesie always chose to be in the front rank of demonstrators. That put them in a prime spot either to lead a charge into the police lines or to absorb a counterattack by the police.


Elizabeth was more angry than usual that day, so angry that she refused to talk to me, but she quickly agreed to the competition Jamesie had proposed. First, she placed her football helmet, which she was carrying under her arm, on the ground next to her. She was wearing two sweatshirts, which she then pulled aside from her shoulders to show me the reddish/pink bruises that were caused, she said, by police batons. I must not have been quick enough to express my concern because all at once Elizabeth began shouting at me.


“You fucking coward!” she said. “You want proof of what those bastard cops do to us? You want to know what lawlessness looks like? Here, take a good look at what happens to people who stand up for their rights.”


Then, to prove her devotion to the cause of peace and justice—and to display more fully the stigmata that verified the fervor of her belief—she suddenly reached down and pulled her sweatshirts over her head. I think that even she was somewhat stunned when she realized that she was now standing there in her bra, a scanty one at that, at one of downtown Boston's major crossroads, where dozens of shoppers and office workers were passing by. But then, rather than cover herself up, she took the sweatshirts she was holding in her right hand, and raising them aloft, turned slowly from side to side, her mockingly triumphant gesture providing onlookers with the fullest view of what the police did to young people protesting an illegal and immoral war. Her bruises, by the way, were not as evident as Elizabeth seemed to think they were.


For a moment it seemed as if everyone walking by had come to a halt, transfixed by this spectacle of an attractive young woman, her body half clothed, who went from displaying her bruises to letting me know, her forefinger only an inch or two away from my nose, that America had become a police state.


Before Elizabeth could attract more attention, I did my part to keep her from getting arrested again, this time for indecent exposure, by peeling off my suit jacket and draping it over her shoulders. The jacket Elizabeth accepted, but she continued, unabated, in letting me know once again that I was too complacent to join her and Jamesie in waging war against the war makers.


And what was Jamesie doing all this time? Never one to be upstaged, he had been trying to get my attention by parting his hair so that he could show me the lump on the right side of his head. He was also pointing to his left eye, which was puffed up and had turned purple and he moaned, when using his left hand to lift up his right hand, which was too swollen for him to close his fist.


Elizabeth must have felt that she had said all she needed to say because when I turned my attention towards Jamesie, she reached down to pick up her helmet. Then, with her helmet and sweat shirts tucked under her arm, she stalked off, stiff- arming me out of the way. As she left, she paused for a moment, and turning towards the onlookers, she waved her middle finger. I guess the sight of me, bereft of my suit jacket, was what caused Jamesie to bend over at the waist and emit the wheezing sound that preceded the hooting and howling and yelps that accompanied his maniacal laughter.


That was the last I ever saw of Elizabeth Singleton. Jamesie, once he regained his composure, trotted down the street, trying to catch up with her. He, unlike Elizabeth, didn't so much disappear but flitted forever in and out of our lives.



section break



I've come to think of that imbroglio on City Hall Plaza as similar to those gigantic explosions that are the centerpiece of Hollywood disaster films. There is usually a blinding light and deafening noise followed by plumes of smoke and the crackle of flames as chunks of concrete and fragments of steel girders, along with bits and pieces of cars and trucks, begin to fall from the sky. Often the debris falls in slow motion, landing gently and bouncing, once, twice, three times.


In the aftermath of Elizabeth and Jamesie's performance on the Plaza, the metaphorical debris never seemed to stop falling or bouncing. Certainly not for Jamesie. The marriage that caught us by surprise fell apart with the same suddenness. Who left whom and why was one mystery. What magic Elizabeth used to disappear so entirely was another.


I wasn't even aware that Elizabeth and Jamesie's marriage had come to an end, or that they had left Cambridge, since I had no contact with them for several weeks after the incident on the Plaza. I was preoccupied at the time with defending a client accused of embezzling money from his employees' retirement fund, but I had also grown tired of listening to Elizabeth's nonsense about how people like me—fence sitters, in her words—had “allowed” Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger to think they could carpet bomb North Vietnam into extinction.


Then, one day I received a letter from the owner of the apartment building where Elizabeth and Jamesie had lived. In it, he explained that Elizabeth and Jamesie, without giving him any notice, had moved from their apartment. But Elizabeth, who had rented the apartment originally, had sent the landlord a check covering the full cost of the rental payments due for the remainder of her lease. Never, in his experience, the landlord wrote, had a tenant who skipped out on him then sent the amount he was owed. Rarely, too, had any of his tenants ever left an apartment so spotless and so clean, he added. That so pleased the landlord that he was going to send me, at Elizabeth's request, a package containing the only two items left in her and Jamesie's apartment, a man's suit jacket and a football helmet.


I began immediately to see if I could track down Elizabeth and Jamesie, but my belated attempt to reach them proved futile. Only when I spoke to officials at Jamesie's college did I (and they, I suspect) discover that a month had gone by since he had last attended any classes. Elizabeth's employer was even less helpful. When I called her office, the young woman who answered told me that Elizabeth, having resigned, had asked that no information be provided to anyone who inquired about her whereabouts or future plans.


I assumed Elizabeth's father might have heard from her and Jamesie, but when I spoke to him, he was strangely unconcerned about his daughter's disappearance. He knew that Elizabeth had left her job, he said, but that didn't surprise him since she had told him that she was tired of Cambridge. No, it didn't trouble him that he hadn't yet heard from her. Knowing Elizabeth, he said, and knowing her to be responsible and caring, he had no doubt that she would soon be in touch with him. The ease with which he said all this made me think that he knew much more about Elizabeth's whereabouts than he was willing to reveal.


I also had no luck when I contacted the Cambridge police, where a detective all but laughed when I reported Elizabeth and Jamesie as missing persons. He then explained, as if he were talking to a five year old, that he and his colleagues didn't think of young people who abruptly left Cambridge as missing persons at all. Most of the time, he said, these kids are usually chasing after some boyfriend or girlfriend or have gone off to join their friends at a commune in western Massachusetts or Vermont.


My mother was quite explicit in letting me know that I should have done a better job of watching over Jamesie. But her displeasure with my stewardship of Jamesie was mild in comparison to her angry outbursts about Elizabeth. In her version of things, Jamesie was a serious student until Elizabeth turned him into a full-time campus radical. Oh, not for a second, had she been fooled by Elizabeth Singleton. So sweet, so innocent, what an act. My mother even tried, without much success, to show her dislike for her daughter-in-law by burlesquing that little gasp Elizabeth used to cover her lisp.


My father was kind enough to hold back from saying in my mother's presence what he told me, privately. “Look, he's a damned clown, always has been, always will be. He likes the attention that brings him. Your mother keeps thinking he might grow up someday, but that's never going to happen, not with someone who's just plain nuts.”


Erling was considerate enough to wait until we were alone before he told me that Elizabeth and Jamesie, by disappearing, may have finally done us all a favor, but only if we never heard from them again.


“I hope you don't mean what you've just said,” I told him. “Yes, he's a royal pain, and Elizabeth isn't one of my favorite people, but I hope, only for Ma's sake, that nothing terrible has happened to them.”


Erling replied by saying that he looked forward to the day when people like Elizabeth and Jamesie finally had to pay a price for flaunting the laws and customs the rest of us so willingly observed.


Three months after we learned that Elizabeth and Jamesie had left Cambridge, we finally heard from Jamesie. This time, instead of a late-night phone call, he wrote to my mother, informing her that he was “traveling,” as he put it.


The envelope, without a return address, had a postmark indicating that it had been mailed from Amarillo, Texas, but it was probably just mailed there when Jamesie was passing through, because he said that he moved frequently, finding temporary work where he could. First, he assured my mother that he was in good health. Then came the news that Elizabeth had left him. It would be the only time he ever referred to the break-up of his marriage and it had all the heft of someone who was reporting that he had somehow misplaced his sunglasses.


“Elizabeth has run off, or so it seems,” he wrote, “but I've got some good leads and I expect that we'll be back together before too long.”


Another four months passed before my mother received a longer letter from Jamesie—this time a page and a half—in which he explained that he was now living in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he had settled in among a group of young Americans who had moved to Canada to avoid the draft. He said that he was working for a printing company, and he expressed such enthusiasm for the natural beauty of British Columbia that it sounded to me as if he had found a place where he might make his permanent home. But new to this letter was a phrase he put beneath his signature: May Christ be with you. He also drew a cross next to his name.


He didn't give us a phone number or share with us any other information that might have helped us to contact him, which led me to question whether he had settled in Vancouver or continued to move here and there. I could never find any record of an official residence for him in Vancouver, and though other letters he wrote bore a Vancouver postmark and came in a business envelope bearing the address of the printing company, I learned that the printing company had closed soon after we first heard from Jamesie.


There was one bit of relief for my parents when they learned that Jamesie had chosen to sit out the war in Canada. They were now able to fend off inquiries they had been getting from the Selective Service about Jamesie's whereabouts, along with threats to bring legal action against him if he continued to evade the draft.


Otherwise, my father's first instinct was to view Jamesie's self-imposed exile as another attempt to embarrass the Nielsen family. But he had to change his mind once word got out—thanks to Erling, I imagine—that Jamesie was seeking sanctuary from the draft. “I never would have believed it,” my father told me, “but everyone I run into keeps telling me that Jamesie has made a wise choice.”


We expected each time we heard from Jamesie, usually at three-to-six month intervals, that his brief notes might contain some news about whether he had yet made contact with Elizabeth, but instead he simply informed us that he was in good health. Each time he would also append a thought or saying beneath his signature.


I didn't know if he was serious or perhaps just trying to cause my father and Erling some aggravation when he ended one letter with, “May we find within ourselves the peace and tranquility that we wish for others.” And I didn't know what to make of the note that ended with, “Hope spreads its wings and takes flight only when we find love within our hearts.”


He then seemed to switch from the rather cloying sentiments of his earlier notes, ending one with a quote from Emily Dickinson, “Saying nothing sometimes says the most.” Just as mysterious, but apparently meaningful, at least to Jamesie, was the postscript in his next letter. It came from Dostoyevsky. “The formula two and two makes five is not without its attractions.”


The next note from him contained nothing but this bit of verse from Frederich Nietszche.


Weary of Seeking had I grown,
So taught myself the way to find:
Back by the storm I once was blown,
But follow now, where drives the wind.


Such were the fragmentary glimpses of Jamesie that we had to satisfy ourselves with while he was in his Canadian exile. We expected that he might return to the United State, if only to visit, once the government granted amnesty to Vietnam era draft evaders. Instead we heard less frequently from him, and though his letters came in envelopes bearing the address of that defunct printing company, they were now postmarked from cities and towns throughout the western provinces of Canada. Twice, the envelopes contained no letters but only quotes from Thoreau's Walden. My mother would blink away tears when she wondered if we were ever going to see Jamesie again.


My father, out of respect for my mother, I think, managed to look as if he was worried about not knowing where Jamesie was, but the best he could do was to say every now and then that it wouldn't surprise him if one day Jamesie suddenly returned to New Hampshire. Nothing in his manner or voice, when he said that, made me think that he looked forward to such an event.


When an entire year went by without a note from Jamesie, I began to doubt that we'd ever see him again. My own fear was that Jamesie, an avid hiker, had gone off on some foolhardy adventure and, considering his daredevil instincts, tried to scale some cliff that was impossible to climb or attempted to leap across a crevasse. That left me with this horrible feeling that Jamesie's body might lie forever undiscovered at the bottom of some deep ravine in the Canadian Rockies.


If, however, Jamesie was still alive, I thought he was being needlessly cruel to my mother by not letting her know where he was. He should have realized that some of us still cared about him.


I've known several people who have gone through painful divorces, and while that often led to heavy drinking or rebound marriages that were doomed to failure, it puzzled me that in Jamesie's case it seemed as though the break up of his marriage led him to forsake all contact with us. Or had he always used his boyish, buoyant exterior to conceal just how much he disliked us?



section break



Spring comes to Boston in fits and starts, but eventually a day arrives when people feel it's safe, at last, to shed their winter coats. On one such morning, the weather was so pleasant that I extended my usual walk to my office. That brought me across City Hall Plaza, and as always when I found myself there, I recalled the day some twelve years before when Elizabeth had so dramatically revealed every welt and bruise on her body caused by the batons of the Boston police. That naturally led to thoughts of Jamesie, who suddenly appeared, in real life, directly in my path.


I was not hallucinating. Standing there, not far from the very spot where I had last seen him, was Jamesie. Only this time instead of a street fighter for peace and justice displaying his wounds of battle, he was a street vendor standing next to a cart from which he sold baseball caps.


Jamesie was too preoccupied with making a sale to notice me, so I stood off to the side where I could get a good look at him. I was intrigued first with his dress. The tri-cornered hat he was wearing complemented a knee length jacket, a frock, that was dark blue in color and cut in the style favored by well-dressed gentlemen of colonial era Boston. Also part of his ensemble was a pair of knickers that ended at the knee and white hose that covered his legs. Jamesie, it turned out, was not without some entrepreneurial flair (he was, after all, Ollie Nielsen's son) since his outfit was quite fitting for anyone whose business enterprise was located next to the marked path that self-directs tourists to Boston's most historic sites.


Jamesie had always been lean, but now he was gaunt, almost skeletal. His skin was stretched tightly around his jawbone, which was now visible because he had shed his full, bushy beard. He also appeared to have less hair than when I last saw him. In fact, the hair visible from under his cap amounted to little more than a wispy pony tail held together by a black ribbon.


As I drew close enough to hear his sales chant, I found that his voice, too, had changed. It was raspy and croaky, almost as if it were being forced through an opening that was too narrow. It made me think that his vocal cords may have become pinched and irritated by the constant chant of his sales pitch.


“Caps here, quality caps, all sizes, all colors, all styles, caps for Grandpa, caps for Grandma, caps for the kids, caps for Mom and Dad,” he cried out, managing somehow to match the words of his spiel with the slight swaying of his body from side to side.


Once I was only a few feet away from him, I circled around so that I was facing him head on when I called out his name. I expected him to be surprised, but when he spotted me, he reacted as though a day hadn't passed since we last saw each other.


“Hail to thee, first born brother,” he said while thrusting out his arm in a Roman salute. “What can I do you for? Let me see, on a day as nice as this one, we might consider offering a hefty discount to any customer who can provide proof that he's a blood relative.”


A moment later, with a broad smile on his face, Jamesie reached out and gave me a good, firm handshake, but before I could ask him where he had been all these years, he took a step backwards. Then, unpredictable as ever, he rubbed his hands together and said, “Or what say you to exploring a question I've been thinking a lot about lately? Should we consider man to be part of nature or a creature apart from nature?”


I didn't know how I should react, but Jamesie, unflustered from what I could see, began explaining at a rapid clip why this question was important to him.


“Now, say you take the position that man is indeed a part of nature,” he said. “Yup, we're just another component in the gigantic ecosystem that somehow controls life on this planet. So, there you have it, humankind, to be more accurate about it, is nothing more than the product of evolution that may or may not have begun with the Big Bang, which is a different question altogether, of course. Are human beings, then, like all living things on this planet, destined to grow, wither and die, with no higher purpose than to propagate their species?


“But hold on for a second. Suppose, instead, we're apart from nature, that we are indeed some fragment of the divine and that we were not put here simply to replicate ourselves. Are we obliged, then, to pay homage to the force or entity, call it what you will, responsible for our creation, or do we go our own way, exercise free will, so to speak—and in so doing, do we forsake our chance at salvation? That's assuming, of course, that salvation is a fact and not a concept. But moving right along, what, pray tell, is organized religion's role in all this? Should it govern our behavior, or are we free, each of us, to follow our own code of conduct?


“Ah, you see, part of, or apart from—it can be very tricky and quite complex.”


I had just discovered that Jamesie was the only street vendor in Boston, and probably any place else, who routinely greeted his customers by inviting them to share their thoughts on the relationship of man to God or any number of variations on that topic or whatever else he was thinking about that day.


Jamesie provided me with another example of his knack for misdirection when I mentioned how delighted everyone would be to learn that I had found him.


Jamesie's response was to sing two lines from the hymn, Amazing Grace.


“I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.”


It seemed as though Jamesie was putting to good use the old magician's trick of using patter and gestures with the left hand to conceal larger, more important moves with the right hand. But just when I thought I had a fix on him, Jamesie suddenly reversed himself.


“Before we get much further, let me explain something,” he said, his voice sounding more sober and mature. “I don't interfere with other people's lives and I only ask that they do likewise. That means I tell people as much as I think it's good for them to know. But I stop right there. Otherwise, I might find myself saying more than anyone else needs to know.”


I should have sensed by now how Jamesie was likely to answer my next question, but I asked, nevertheless, if he had been in touch with Elizabeth. That prompted Jamesie to demonstrate yet another aspect of his non-interference policy—complete and utter silence. In doing so, he turned away and stared off at some distant point on the horizon, looking and acting as if he weren't aware that, until a few seconds ago, he had been engaged in a conversation with me. When looking away, he tightened his jaw, so much so, that I could see the flexing of it's underlying muscles.


“Oh, come on, Jamesie,” I said. “It's been a long time. God knows, we're all older, and maybe we're wiser now than we once were, or maybe not, but you must realize how much it would mean to everyone—okay, Ma, most of all—if you got yourself up to Glen for a visit. She's dying to see you. And there's this, too—is there a more beautiful sight in this world than spring returning to Mount Washington Valley?”


This time, Jamesie didn't stare off into the distance, but busied himself for a moment with rearranging some of his merchandise before turning back towards me.


“I agree with you about Mount Washington Valley. In fact, it's beautiful any time of the year,” he said. “But if and when I get up there, it will be at a time of my own choosing. I thought you would have realized by now that I don't like being forced into things.”


Nevertheless, I pressed on, asking him where he was living. Did he earn enough to support himself from his cart? Was he in need of money, clothes? Was there anything I could do to help?


“I have friends,” he said, sounding as if that answered all the questions I had just asked. I didn't realize it then, but Jamesie had just given me the all-purpose answer he would trot out whenever I asked about his personal life and circumstances.


“Fine,” I said. “I understand, but I want to stay in touch with you, and maybe someday you'll come out to my place and see Maria and the kids.”


That prompted him to stare off again, but this time, after a very brief moment, he turned back towards me and said, “That's worth thinking about, but I warn you, I'm a notoriously slow thinker.”


Our meeting came to a rather abrupt end when Jamesie turned to wait on two customers, teen-age boys. As I left, I heard him posing a question to them: If the Big Bang gave birth to the universe, could a similar event bring it to an end?


My first impulse was to phone my parents and tell them that I was now in contact with the living, breathing Jamesie, but by the time I reached my office, I decided that it might be far wiser to wait. It didn't appear as if Jamesie had any interest in seeing them just yet, but if my mother knew he was in Boston, she would want to visit him. I didn't want to think of what might happen if she and my father arrived and found this street vendor who greeted them with a rambling discussion of whatever topic happened to be of interest to him that day.


My caution was well warranted because the next day, when I returned to City Hall Plaza, Jamesie was gone. Two weeks went by before I once again spotted him on the Plaza, and when I did, he brushed aside my questions about where he had been by telling me that whenever Boston had a stretch of bright, sunny days he relocated his cart to the downtown waterfront. That cleared the way for the discussion he wanted to have on the nature of sin and whether there was any difference between a robber shooting a bank teller and the United States military dropping bombs on innocent civilians.


“Oh, we make sure,” he said, “once we catch the murderer, to put him behind bars, but why do we absolve the bomber pilots and their civilian higher-ups of any wrongdoing for bombing raids that are never as “surgical” as the military likes to claim they are'?


I had yet to answer when Jamesie, staring into my eyes, said, “Brother, answer me truthfully. What in God's name is the difference between a child who dies in a bombing raid and a bank teller who's killed by a holdup man? And how free of sin are we if we condemn murder when it's done close up but shrug our shoulders when it's done at a distance?”


I conceded that sin was not always as clear-cut as some people would like it to be, but rather than debate the issue, I tried once again to get back to where Jamesie lived and then raised the question of whether he had decided yet when he was going to get in touch with, or visit, our parents. He passed over the questions I had posed by staring off for a second, but then, turning back towards me, he returned to the concept of sin.


“I find no comfort in knowing that we can sin as much by omission as commission,” he said.



section break



Jamesie may have been back in Boston, but except for his fixation on morals and ethics, and his new calling as a street-corner philosopher—complete in colonial dress—I knew no more about him after several more visits to City Hall Plaza than he revealed about himself in those notes he sent from Canada. That first meeting with him, and then his absence for two weeks, was also the precursor of a pattern he followed not only that summer but for the next several years. It was almost as though Jamesie was playing a game with us. First you see me, then you don't. It's your job to guess where I might have gone and it's my job to keep you from ever knowing.


That fall, and every fall thereafter, Jamesie would leave Boston, and while he never revealed where he went in winter, I guessed that he spent time in a sunny climate because when he showed up each spring he was sporting a nice tan. When I first found him, he shrugged off my suggestion that he tell me how I could reach him in the event of an emergency. Then, when cell phones became more widely used and I offered to buy him one, he responded by warning me not to use a device that was known to cause brain cancer.


Until I learned better, I periodically posed questions about his personal life and circumstances, and Jamesie, just as routinely, answered with some variation of the “I have friends” reply he gave me the first day I had spotted him on City Hall Plaza. I assumed that he was living in some communal arrangement, probably in one of Boston or Cambridge's student ghettos, where remnants of the 1960's counterculture could still be found.


There were other times, aside from Jamesie's winter migration when he would be missing from City Hall Plaza for a week or two, or even a month. I sensed that was that when he disappeared he was visiting old friends from the time he had lived in Canada. But I also believed, without any evidence to back me up, that he may have gone off to look again for the ever elusive Elizabeth. Always, when he reappeared, he acted as if he had never been away, and I, too, having learned from experience, knew that it was useless for me to ask where he had been.


That first year Jamesie was back in Boston I had made the mistake of waiting too long to tell my parents that I knew where he was. I had this notion that sooner or later curiosity alone would make him join me for a drive up to Glen. How could he resist such a visit, particularly in the fall, when the foliage season was at its height and half the country flocked to New England to get a glimpse of the breathtaking beauty that we Nielsens were able to view from my parents' front porch.


But late that summer, when I was away on vacation with my wife and children, Jamesie decided, on his own, to take a bus up to Glen. Since my parents were unaware that Jamesie had returned from exile—and since he failed to call and tell them of his impending visit—they were left speechless one evening when, just before sunset, he walked through their front door. My mother claimed that when he suddenly materialized in her living room, she had to grab onto a nearby chair because she felt as though her legs were about to give way.


“What were we supposed to think, what could we say, when he surprised us like that?” my mother told me. “He was so casual about the whole thing. You'd think he had gone out for a stroll several years back, but decided one day, since he had nothing better to do, to drop in just in time for dinner.”


That was my mother after she had calmed down a bit. When she first called to tell me of Jamesie's homecoming, she was so angry that she practically choked on her words. Why hadn't I told her that Jamesie was back in Boston, and why hadn't I let her know what had happened to him? The way she put that phrase, what had happened to him, made it seem as if the Jamesie who had re-entered her life was suffering from some strange, inexplicable disease. What else, after all, caused him to dismiss with a wave of his hand her questions about where he had been and what he had done, let alone any particulars on where he was now living or how he managed to support himself.


A few hours into his visit, he did reveal that he earned his living as a street vendor selling baseball caps—and that he might soon expand into selling t-shirts—but only after he had explained that America's foreign policy was run by the Pentagon rather than the State Department. He followed up on that with a discourse on why his dietary regimen, frequent snacks of nuts and grains and vegetables (the latter always organic and often raw), was far superior to regular meals. Human beings, according to Jamesie, could not digest large quantities of food without draining blood from the brain, and that led, he asserted, to health problems too countless for him to enumerate. I understand he also expressed his disapproval of microwave ovens and warned about the inherent dangers of plastic food containers.


Of particular interest to my father was Jamesie's talk of how his health had improved ever since several years back he had sworn off marahoochie. Once Jamesie explained to my parents the marahoochie reference, my father was satisfied that he and Erling had been right all along in their suspicions about Jamesie's decadent lifestyle.


Jamesie pretended not to hear my mother when she first asked him about Elizabeth, but when she repeated her question, he said that he had no idea where she was. A moment later, he amended that, saying he expected someday, in his words, to catch up with her. He then veered away from the subject altogether by asking my mother a series of questions about some of his boyhood friends.


I found out how Erling felt about Jamesie's homecoming from four lengthy voicemail messages he left on my office phone while I was on vacation. Erling seemed to think that I was guilty of gross neglect for having allowed Jamesie to make his surprise visit to Glen. But that was just a start. By the fourth message, he said, “Buy a goddamned cage and put him in it and never again let that loony bastard out on his own.”


When I next saw Jamesie on the Plaza and asked how it felt to see my parents again after so many years, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “Pretty country up there, although there isn't going to be much of it left with all the development going on.”


“Maybe if you told Ma and Pa that you were coming, it might have gone better.”


That was one of those times when Jamesie busied himself with rearranging his merchandise and speeding up his sales pitch, hoping that would bring in customers and thus save him from having to respond to what I had just said. Since that didn't bring in any customers, I asked him again what it felt like being back in Glen after all those years. He answered by asking a question of his own. Could the concept of free will, he asked, survive recent advances in genetic research?


“How much free will do you have if so much of who you are is predetermined for the most part by your DNA?” he asked.


“Jamesie,” I said, “let's stick with what I want to talk about today—how you caught Ma and Pa by surprise. That wasn't fair, you know.”


In his reply, Jamesie chose to focus instead on what it was like to see Erling again.


“Good old Erling—he hasn't changed a bit, has he? The same goes for the missus though both seemed to have packed on a few pounds. They showed up when I happened to be talking about the Christian concept of sharing your wealth with the poor. Oh man, what an explosion! Erling's face went through five shades of purple and his blood pressure would have caused a blood pressure machine to explode.”


That caused Jamesie to let loose with the kind of laughter that made you think he was about to lose his breath. I had to wait for him to recover before asking if there was anything else about his visit to Glen that he enjoyed. When he didn't answer right away, I said, “Surely, it must have been good to see Ma and Pa again and to get reacquainted with them.”


“I wouldn't have gone up there if I didn't want to see them,” he said, “but I'm not so sure they were that delighted to see me. They certainly didn't seem too interested in listening to what I had to say. And you know me, brother, I'm not about to apologize for what I've done and what I'm doing. Let's call it a standoff and leave it at that.”


My parents certainly didn't think of Jamesie's reappearance as a standoff. To my mother, Jamesie's first visit—and subsequent ones—only ignited tensions dating back to his expulsion from Dartmouth. She could get Jamesie and my father to be civil towards each other at the start of a visit, but there always came a moment when they would disagree over what appeared to be a minor point. Seconds later, it took little more than a word or gesture from either of them to turn a smoldering brush fire into a blazing inferno, one that lasted longer than it should have since neither of them was inclined to avoid remarks that could be both inaccurate and insulting.


The two of them always reminded me of two headstrong college sophomores, gnawing away on issues about which neither of them was very well informed. If one of them took position A, it seemed as if the other felt compelled to take position B. Neither, I suspect, cared that much about the substance of position A or B, but they didn't let that stand in the way of advocating or defending quite vociferously whatever position they had taken.


Nobody who was present can ever forget the year that Jamesie, clearly trying to provoke my father, kept insisting that Christmas was nothing more than a pagan holiday celebrating the winter solstice. Finally, my father, his faced flushed, his breath coming in gasps, responded with a defense of Christmas as a sacred holiday that made it seem as if western civilization would collapse unless we all accepted as true every last word of the Christmas story as recounted in the Bible.


Throw Erling into the mix, as well as his wife, who wasn't shy about expressing herself, and you can begin to understand the turmoil Jamesie could stir up whenever he attended a Nielsen family gathering. The year my father and Jamesie argued about the nature of Christmas, for instance, none of us were disappointed that Jamesie, early on Christmas morning, stole out of the house and hitchhiked back to Boston.



section break



My parents eventually became more accustomed to Jamesie's random appearances and disappearances, or at least they came to realize, I think, that there wasn't any use in asking him questions he had no intention of answering.


That didn't dampen their constant speculation about those subjects Jamesie so assiduously avoided. All of us continued to wonder about Elizabeth and where she might have gone or whether Jamesie would someday find a new companion. That was an issue of particular interest to my mother because she was convinced that Jamesie would begin to act more like a grown up if he ever met a woman who could make him forget Elizabeth. That seemed to happen—but not as my mother envisioned it—the year he returned from wherever he went in the winter accompanied by a “sales assistant,” a fortyish, somewhat attractive blonde named, Chloe. She, like Jamesie, could be friendly and outgoing, particularly with customers who stopped by to purchase a baseball cap, but she was as expert as he was at revealing little about herself.


Chloe, somewhat like Jamesie, appeared to be an artifact from that anti-war, summer-of-love era in the late sixties, early seventies. She was never without her guitar, and now and then, throughout the day, as she sat on a little stool next to Jamesie's cart, she would strum her guitar and sing softly, barely above a whisper, folk standards from the sixties. Jamesie sometimes joined in and both of them when they sang would close their eyes, almost as though that helped transport them back to a time they seemed reluctant to leave.


Then, right after Labor Day, Chloe disappeared. When I asked Jamesie about her the only reply I got was a clipped, “She's gone.” I was curious, of course, about why she had left and whether she was likely to return, but I didn't pursue the matter. That was in keeping with my policy of patiently listening (or acting as though I was) when Jamesie would glide from an ode to the genius of Frederich Nietzsche to his own need for greater certainty about the existence of God, all within the length of one long-winded sentence.


Eventually, my listening “strategy” seemed to work, not in spectacular fashion, but in tiny, incremental steps. Or maybe it was my father's cancer diagnosis caused Jamesie to soften up a bit. The summer my father began undergoing treatments, Jamesie regularly asked me for updates on my father's condition and he also called my mother more often than he had in the past. One Sunday afternoon he even came out to my house, where he was the jovial, well behaved guest at my son's fifteenth birthday party. My children were intrigued with a guest who brought his own meal, a collection of raw vegetables and nuts, rather than partake of our more traditional barbecue.


Soon after that, on a day when he had just explained to me why it was necessary to particularize—his word—the concept of universal love, he revealed, in an offhand way, where he happened to be living just then. But that didn't come without a little detour that touched, briefly, on Boston's religious history.


“Bullard. Remember him?” Jamesie said.


Jamesie was referring to the Reverend Ethan Bullard, a charismatic college chaplain who was a lead organizer of countless protest marches against the Vietnam War.


“Sure,” I said. “What's he up to these days?”


“I know you're curious about where I live. Well, thanks to Bullard, who's now minister of All Faiths United, I have a great place to stay.”


That invited a host of followup questions I knew enough not to ask, lest I derail Jamesie from telling me more about his living arrangements.


“You know anything about All Faiths United?” Jamesie said.


“I'm familiar with it, but only because I drive past it everyday on the turnpike. How could anyone not notice it?”


I was referring to a large but stylish sign planted in front of the church, which was itself located in a very prominent location, on a knoll overlooking the turnpike connecting Boston with suburbs on its western periphery. The sign read,


All Are Welcome, No Exceptions
No Creed. No Doctrine.
Sunday Services, 11 a.m.


I had also become somewhat familiar with the church building itself because for two years I had driven my daughter to her Saturday morning dance class at a school only a block away from All Faiths United. Seen more closely, the church seemed to be one you were likely to find in an English village or maybe an older New England town.


It was an ivy-covered structure of rough cut granite, and because it occupied an oddly shaped piece of land, it was rather long and somewhat narrow in shape. On its pitched roof there were a number of skylights, and though its stained glass windows were framed by gothic arches, I used to wonder whenever I drove by, why a structure that looked so clearly like a church lacked a steeple. Not only that, but in its place there was a square shaped stump of a tower, an anti-steeple of sorts.


This architectural quirk, as I rightly guessed, was not without meaning. That became clear when Jamesie explained the underlying concept of All Faiths United by recounting the church's origins, which dated back to a time when many of Boston's leading families were shifting their allegiance from the rigidities of Calvinism to the looser, somewhat vaguer concept of Transcendentalism. As Jamesie explained it, the idea of the Transcendentalists, that God was present in all things, was carried one step further by Ambrose Worthington, then the city's leading banker. Worthington so wanted to free himself and his extended family and other like-minded souls from the constraints of any preordained set of beliefs that he built and endowed his own church. Not surprisingly, he made sure that his church would not have a steeple, lest such a structure encourage its worshipers to look upwards towards heaven.


“The important thing about All Faiths United—the one idea Ambrose Worthington cared about—was this,” Jamesie said. “Religion should not be shaped and molded from without, but rise up from within.”


Explaining what impelled Ambrose Worthington to establish All Faiths United seemed to excite Jamesie so that he thumped vigorously on his chest with a clenched fist.


“It's all in here, brother,” he said, “but you have to dig down deep to reach it. And don't go looking for help from angels and saints or candles and incense or that mishmash of bibical tales served up by a lot of other so-called religions. No, at all Faiths United there's no guarantee of a payoff, no first class ticket to paradise. It's up to you to find your own path to fulfillment. Or as Bullard likes to put it, ‘We're a church that not only welcomes athiests but makes them feel comfortable when they get here.' By the way, Ambrose Worthington was an ardent abolitionist in his day, and members of his church have always been deeply involved in campaigns for peace and justice and human rights.”


Jamesie couldn't conceal his pride when he told me that he had become, as he put it, Bullard's right-hand man. That position, as he described it, seemed to make him a handyman at one of the few churches in America whose congregants felt that Unitarians were too religious.


“So that's where you live, in the rectory, with Bullard?”


“Oh no, that's for Bullard and his family. He's got a wife and three kids,” Jamesie said. Then, coming out with a laugh that was much less explosive than his outbursts of old, he added, “Just call me underground man. You see, in the lower level of the church there's a crypt that serves as the final resting place for Ambrose Worthington and his descendants. And it's down there, among the Worthingtons who've passed on, where there's still a lot of unused space, that I have my living quarters. Couldn't ask for quieter neighbors and I'm in no danger of being displaced unless there's some terrible catastrophe that wipes out scores of Worthingtons overnight. Then, I suppose I could be squeezed out.”


With considerable animation, Jamesie then described a typical service in a church that, as he explained it, provided the spiritual sustenance to keep his soul well fed and nourished.


“First off, there's Bullard,” he said. “No preacher in this city is his equal in energy or in spirit. Then there's the music. It's the kind of joyful noise that makes you want to explode. You've got sunlight streaming through the skylights and the fellowship that comes from people who are seeking peace and understanding and that state of bliss Bullard refers to as oneness—I'm telling you, mister, we're talking now about the commingling of body and soul, transcendence, pure and undiluted. Come by some Sunday and give yourself and your family a treat.”


I never did manage to attend one of the Sunday worship services at All Faiths United, but I eventually arrived there, under quite different circumstances.



section break



It was comforting to know that Jamesie had found a church that served his spiritual needs and also gave him a place to live, but that did nothing to improve relations overall between Jamesie and the rest of us. There may have been a “thaw” in relations between Jamesie and my parents when my father was being treated for his cancer, but that seemed to disappear in the two years or more when the cancer was in remission. His visits to Glen tailed off and he even failed to attend the unveiling of the plaque honoring my father's monumental contribution to the growth of tourism in northern New Hampshire.


My father, still weak from the cancer treatments, pretended not to care about Jamesie's absence that day, but my mother was so angry that she didn't object, didn't flinch in fact, when Erling let loose with a string of obscenities in expressing how he felt about Jamesie's thoughtless behavior. Jamesie, of course, never did answer me when I asked why he was distancing himself from my parents, but I suspect it carried over from one of the arguments he had had with my father.


I was facing a daunting task, then, when my mother said she wanted me to get Jamesie up to Glen before my father died. But early on the Monday after I helped my father update his will, I went to City Hall Plaza and tried to impress on Jamesie why it was important for him to pay a visit to my father.


“Jamesie, if you don't get up to see Pa now,” I said, “I doubt very much he'll still be around once you get back from your winter sojourn.”


Jamesie responded by letting me know that in his view no fetus should be acknowledged as having any rights until it was outside the mother's womb.


“Sure, the fetus is living tissue when it's inside the womb,” he said, “but it's living tissue that belongs to the mother. To me, she has ownership rights until the fetus, or child if you like, is outside her body and breathing on its own.”


“Hey Jamesie, please listen to me. We don't have time for that sort of thing today. Things aren't looking good for Pa. He spends most of his time in bed these days and there isn't much the doctors can do for him at this point. They found a spot on his liver recently and it looks as if, in his case, the cancer has also gone into his lungs, which is a sign that things could go downhill pretty fast. Ma's asked me to find a time when you and I can drop by to see Pa. It'll mean a lot to her. And also to him, no matter what you may think.”


Jamesie turned away from me and stared up at the sky so that he could give his full attention to studying the contrails created by two high-flying jet planes.


“Jamesie, did you hear what I just said? This isn't a false alarm. I need an answer.”


Jamesie took another moment to adjust his hat and clear his throat, a sign that he was finding it more difficult than usual to brush aside what I had told him. He also tightened his jaw, which was always an indication that he had no intention of answering me just yet.


We seemed to have come to a complete stall when Jamesie spotted a blind person walking across the Plaza. Instantly, he abandoned his cart and went scampering off. In a matter of seconds, he had reached the blind person, a white-haired gentleman in a dark, double-breasted suit, and taking hold of his arm and speaking to him, he guided him to the entrance of City Hall.


When Jamesie trotted back to where I was standing, he said, “I keep my eye out for blind people. There's nothing to tell them where they are once they begin walking across this plaza. They reach out with their canes and all they feel is bricks, no matter what direction they turn in. If someone doesn't help them, they're liable to walk in circles, never getting to where they want to go.”


“It's nice that you watch out for blind people, but I'm giving you a couple of days to think about this, and when I come back, I expect an answer from you. Yes or no, no more stalling. You know how to reach me if you want to talk. One last thing—think of Ma, think of how much this means to her. And Pa, too. He doesn't have much time left and it can get awfully lonely when you're staring into the abyss.”


I was expecting too much if I thought my plea would get a decision out of Jamesie. Two days later, when I went back to City Hall Plaza he was as evasive as ever.


“I've told you before,” he said, “I don't make snap judgements. I'm of the view that you shouldn't make any important decision without giving it sufficient time to marinate. You might even want to add seasoning and sauces and do some sampling—”


“Oh, cut the crap,” I said. “It's a visit to see your father before he dies. That should be easy enough to decide, even for someone as simple as you. When you get serious, give me a call.”


Jamesie, no surprise, didn't call. It was early November when I went once more to City Hall Plaza, he wasn't there. The newspaper vendor there, who was particularly friendly with Jamesie, told me that a week of cloudy, drizzly days must have caused Jamesie to head south earlier than usual. I got the same answer from two other Plaza fixtures, a nun who, rain or shine, sat on a stool near the newspaper vendor, seeking donations to build a shrine to the Blessed Virgin, and an elderly couple who day after day brandished picket signs in which they accused a mayor long dead of having cheated them out of their city pensions.


That same week my father came down with a cold and a hacking cough. He seemed to recover briefly, but he had no appetite and spent most of his time sleeping. In one last attempt to see if I could find Jamesie, I put in a call to the Reverend Ethan Bullard, hoping he might be of some help to me. I found Bullard to be quite sympathetic, but he couldn't tell me any more than what I had learned from Jamesie's associates on City Hall Plaza.


“I wish I could give you a better answer,” he said, “but Jamesie wouldn't live here if he felt that he had to keep me informed of his whereabouts. He comes and goes as he pleases. No explanations offered. No explanations required. That's the unspoken agreement we have. You know Jamesie—as open and gregarious as he is most of the time, there are certain things he doesn't care to discuss, the main one being where he goes on those little jaunts of his.”


Bullard then explained to me why Jamesie was a unique—and valuable—member of his congregation.


“As you probably know, I'm not a great believer in the soul,” he said, “not as it's thought of in most other religions, but I always think of Jamesie as someone with a huge soul. It's almost a burden for him, really. I just love the way he revels in the sheer joy of trying to find some meaning that takes us beyond ourselves. Let me put it another way. Even at my church, which is not restrictive in any sense, we can be a pretty buttoned-up crowd. That's why Jamesie's spontaneity and fervor has become such a big part of our services.”


All that was interesting, I told Bullard, but the need to find Jamesie was quite urgent. Maybe, I said, Jamesie might have mentioned some friends, people who might know how to get in touch with him.


Bullard gave me two names, one of whom I recognized as a young man who had been arrested as often as Jamesie back during the Vietnam protest days. I called both of them, but neither had heard from Jamesie for some time.


The next week—still no sign of Jamesie—my father seemed to be doing better. He had begun eating again and his breathing had improved. That was on a Monday, but the next day, he complained that he was cold, freezing in fact, even after my mother had placed two heavy blankets over him. She then called my father's doctor, who told her she should get him to the hospital in Sherburne.


When my mother called me from the hospital, she said that my father was resting and that he no longer complained about being cold, but the next morning, just before 6 o'clock, she called again to tell me that my father was having trouble with his breathing. This time the doctors found that he had an embolism in his lungs.


My mother then began crying when she explained that two weeks before, my father had signed a new health care directive.


“‘I don't want to die with a tube down my throat.' That's how your father put it,” she said. “Dr. McNally agreed with him, so it's my job to see the hospital complies with your father's wishes. What happens next? Nobody knows. Right now, they're saying he might last a few more days, or maybe even pull through on his own, but if you want to see him while he still knows who you are, you should probably get up here today. And see what you can do about getting Jamesie up here, too.”


I told her that I would be leaving immediately to join her. Left unsaid was whether, I could get Jamesie to accompany me.


I put in a quick call to Bullard, just to check on whether Jamesie may have reappeared since we talked only a few days before. No, he hadn't seen any sign of Jamesie, he said. Minutes later, I was on my way to New Hampshire. I got there in time so that Erling and I, he with his arm around my mother's shoulder, and me with my arm around her waist, were standing by my father's bed when, with something between a cough and a sigh, he took his final breath.


When Erling and his wife and my mother and I left the hospital and were walking back to our cars, we still hadn't made any mention of Jamesie's absence. It was as if we had all decided on our own not to let him, by his absence, force himself into this solemn moment. This silence about Jamesie continued even after we were back in my mother's house and she began, in her no-nonsense fashion to assign various chores to me, Erling and his wife.


She would deal with the undertaker and the minister at the Lutheran church, she said, while Erling and his wife were to put in calls to a group of relatives. My job was to contact family friends, but only after I had prepared my father's obituary.


My mother also outlined plans for the funeral that she and my father had decided upon a few weeks before. His orders were that the funeral be simple and short. He trusted the minister at the Lutheran church, an old friend of his, to decide on a reading from the Bible. There should also be a eulogy, or a reminiscence, as my father described it, about the work he had done and how much he enjoyed it. My father had chosen his long-time assistant to be his eulogist. He had no objection to the minister adding a few words.


My mother said that my father had been firm about one thing: He did not want any calling hours before the funeral. I never knew this about my father, but as my mother explained it, he was repulsed by the public display of dead bodies. Though he had attended dozens of wakes, he thought it made no sense, my mother said, for people to visit a funeral home so they could spend a few moments staring at a corpse or a closed coffin. Dead is dead, said my mother, quoting my father, and there's no need, therefore, to pay any more attention than necessary to the remains.


“That brings up something else,” she said. “Just recently your father decided that he wanted to be cremated. He also asked that we scatter his ashes from a spot he's always loved, an overlook on the Appalachian Trail where it goes through Crawford Notch. I know the exact spot. Also he wants us to do this on a bright, sunny morning in spring. And I'm telling you now that when the time comes, I want the same thing done for me, in the same place, and yes, on a spring morning too.”


My father's one other stipulation about his funeral was that it conclude with the hymn, Abide With Me. That, my mother said, had always been his favorite hymn.


Once again, as my mother was doling out our assignments, we refrained, all of us, from saying anything about Jamesie's absence. But two hours later, as we sat down to a lunch prepared by Erling's wife, my mother, turned towards me and said, “So where is he? Do you have any idea, or is this another time when he's disappeared on you?”


“I'll be blunt about it,” I said, “He was iffy about coming up here when I said it might be his last chance to see Pa alive. That was it for me. I wasn't going to beg him. That was a couple of weeks ago. Then, when Pa took a turn for the worse, I went looking for him, but he was nowhere to be found.”


My mother kept her crown of grey hair neatly in place with two combs that were usually located behind her ears. Her grooming, otherwise faultless but always simple, consisted of only a touch of lipstick and a very faint blush of rouge on her cheeks. But this day the comb on one side of her head had loosened and her lipstick had faded. That left her looking tired and old. Then, when I told her about Jamesie, she put her head back, placed her hands over her face and began to massage gently her forehead and then her eyes.


I could see that Erling wanted to say something so I raised my hand, signaling that he hold off for a moment. That failed to stop him.


“As usual, whether we like it or not, Mr. Me, Myself and I has managed to make himself the center of attention,” Erling said.


Erling's comment seemed to revive my mother. Not only did she pull her hands away from her eyes, but she was clear and authoritative when she outlined how we were going to handle Jamesie's absence.


“Jamesie can be a jerk,” she said, “which isn't news to any of us. But right now, we have a funeral to deal with, and I don't intend to have him interfering with it. He's in Canada or somewhere else visiting some old friends, and since he's the kind of person who doesn't leave messages about where he can be reached, we've had some trouble getting in touch with him. Look, everyone knows that he's a free spirit and has a mind of his own, so at a time like this, they aren't going to ask for details. One more thing—we keep to ourselves, at least for the time being, how we feel about Jamesie's latest caper.”


My mother had guessed right. Over the next two days, when we were busy greeting friends who visited or called and tending to final arrangements for the funeral, not one person pressed us for answers on what kept Jamesie from attending his father's funeral.


The funeral service went off just as if my father had been there directing it. He would have been pleased to see that the church was overflowing with mourners and that those in attendance included the governor's wife and the governor's brother, who had always been friendly with my father. At the start of the service I welcomed everyone on behalf of the family and talked of how grateful we were for the many expressions of sympathy we had received since my father died. We always knew, I said, that my father had legions of friends, but we were overwhelmed by the number of people we had heard from and the very kind things they said about him.


The minister then gave a Bible reading, and the congregation joined in the recitation of the 23rd Psalm before my father's successor delivered a eulogy that seemed to have been prepared by my father himself. It was, almost word for word, his own very familiar account of how the ski industry had provided the impetus for so much economic growth in northern New Hampshire.


When it was the minister's turn to deliver his address, he first talked of how tranquil and composed my father had been in the last few weeks of his life, noting that anyone who knew Ollie Nielsen shouldn't have been surprised to hear that he possessed great inner strength and character.


Then, he told about the last time, just the week before, that he had visited with my father. That's when he came to understand, he said, why this was a man who could face death with such equanimity.


“Ollie was quite ill, but he told me again, as he had in the past, what a lucky man he had been, more lucky, he said, than any one person deserved to be. Still, even when he was facing death, he felt, as he put it, that he had cornered the market on luck. He then said something I want to repeat word for word because it's how we should all remember Ollie Nielsen. Here's what he said. Quote, ‘You know the best part about all this? I've been given enough time to tell the person I've loved more than anyone else in the world over and over again just how much I love her.' Unquote.”


With that, the minister left the pulpit and the organist and choir began to sing Abide With Me. Throughout the church, I saw people wiping tears from their eyes, but my mother, very much composed, had this strange, enigmatic smile on her face. I had no doubt that it was the expression with which she had greeted my father's fervent expressions of love.



section break



After my father died, I was so angry with Jamesie that it didn't matter when—or if—I ever saw him again. No, I did yearn to see him, maybe just one more time, so that I could tell him how cruel it was for him to have let his grudge against my father cause my mother so much distress. I had even honed the speech I would give him once he showed up again on City Hall Plaza, wearing his silly tri-cornered hat and blathering away, acting as if he had wisdom to impart to anyone who was willing to buy a baseball cap from him.


But spring was some weeks away when I next spotted Jamesie, this time on a windy, chilly day in the middle of February. I was crossing a busy intersection in downtown Boston when I saw Jamesie walking towards me. He didn't see me at first because he had pulled up the hood of his florescent orange parka to protect himself from the wind. That almost shielded his face from view, but I knew instantly that it was Jamesie from his characteristic lope. The leather satchel he was carrying over his shoulder also indicated to me that he was working as a courier who carried documents between law firms and related businesses.


When I called out his name, Jamesie pushed his hood back. By then, we were only a few feet away from each other, but since the light was about to change, and since I was closer to having crossed the street, I grabbed his arm and pulled him in my direction. Seconds later, when we had reached the sidewalk and were out of harm's way, the first thing Jamesie did was to reach out and throw his arms around me.


“Hey, what's doing, bro, how's it going? Long time no see,” he said. He had a big grin on his face and otherwise acted as if he either couldn't remember, or didn't want to remember, the circumstances surrounding our last meeting


“Jamesie, let's not waste any time playing fuck around,” I said. “I'm done with that. If you recall, the last time we met Pa was dying and I was trying to get you to visit him. Well, in case you haven't heard, he died. You were gone when it happened and since you were busy elsewhere, you missed his funeral. So, as per usual, you got to decide how much you care about what happens to other people. Or to put it another way—you are selfish, supremely so. It's not a trait I admire.”


“A thousand pardons, sir,” Jamesie said, making a theatrical bow so exaggerated that his hand practically scraped against the sidewalk. Once upright, in a slightly more sober vein, he added, “You know, Bullard was pretty harsh with me, too. He said I should get in touch with Ma or you, but I just got back three days ago and needed some time to get my bearings.”


“Well, get your bearings goddamnit, and maybe you can start by giving Ma a call and asking her to forgive you for being so thoughtless. You should also visit her. It's what civilized people do when a close relative is in mourning.”


“I'm not going to dispute you on that, but, hey, I got these things I'm supposed to deliver. Suppose, next week or some time thereafter, I call your office and we can talk.”


Leave it to Jamesie to duck out on me before I could tell him that I wasn't going to call my mother to say he was back in Boston. That was his job, not mine. But apparently my brief meeting with him had some effect because early the next morning, my mother called to say that the night before she had had a wonderful—her word—talk with Jamesie. She said that he had apologized to her over and over for having missed my father's funeral and told her he wanted to make it up to her in some way.


“He didn't say where he had been and I didn't ask,” she said. “If that's the way he likes it, I'm not about to complain. I've decided something else, too. From now on I'm going to accept him for who he is at the moment and cast aside all the other stuff. What good would it do to castigate him for Pa's funeral? That's over and done with. Better to look at it this way—Jamesie's our prodigal, and as you know, in the Bible story, what mattered most to the father was having his son back home.”


I wasn't about to debate my mother, not when she had found a parallel between her own feelings about Jamesie and the moral lesson of one of the best known tales in the Bible.


“You may think I'm being naive,” she said, “but I'm taking Jamesie at his word. He wants to make amends, he said, for not being at Pa's funeral, and he's come up with an interesting way to do that. He tells me he'd like to have a memorial service at that church he's connected with. It doesn't have to be a big thing, he said, just some music and a reading or two and a eulogy from his good friend, the minister of the church. He tells me this is something the minister's quite willing to do, pending my approval. Your thoughts?”


“I know the minister, not well, but by reputation,” I said. “His name's Bullard and he caused quite a stir around here during the anti-Vietnam protests because he's such a dynamic speaker. But I think this is something for you to decide. Now, let me tell you something else. Please don't come to me for advice on this or anything else that concerns Jamesie. I'm fed up with him. I've had more than enough of his little game of now you see me, now you don't.”


My mother said she understood how I felt, but she liked Jamesie's idea, she said, and wanted to go ahead with it. She had decided, however, that this would be a private affair, that is, she was not going to invite friends and relatives. They had come to one funeral, she said. There was no need for them to travel to attend another. I suspect that my mother wasn't entirely sure how the service Jamesie had suggested might turn out.


A week later I received an invitation—it came from my mother—to a Service of Remembrance for Ollie Nielsen, to be held at All Faiths United Church, two weeks hence, at 11 o'clock on a Saturday morning.


That same day I got a call from Erling, who opened the conversation with a question.


“Who the fuck is Bullard and can we trust him?”


“He's a minister, a well respected one in certain circles.”


“That doesn't tell me much.”


“There isn't much to say. Apparently the church he runs is so free and relaxed it's hard to tell if it's a church at all.”


“I thought so. I got this invitation from Ma and I don't know what to do about it.”


“Well, why not keep things simple and uncomplicated and just show up for the service.”


“Eleanor's not sure she wants to be there.”


“Well, that's up to Eleanor, but since you live close to Ma's place and since Ma refuses to drive in Boston, it would seem that you're the one to get her here. As for Eleanor, she should come with you. Your kids, too. For Ma's sake, let's just get this thing over with.”


Erling hung up on me, but later that day my mother called to say that she would be coming to the memorial service with Erling and his wife and their three children.


Though I wasn't involved in planning the service, I had no choice but to accept when Bullard called and asked if I would make some brief remarks on behalf of the family. The service, as he described it to me, would run about 30 minutes or so and would consist of poetry readings from two members of the congregation, the hymns that had been played at my father's funeral and a eulogy from Bullard himself. There would be a light lunch after the service in the church hall.


“And Jamesie?” I said. “I can't imagine that he's staying out of this.”


“Oh, but he is,” Bullard said, “by choice. He wants very much to have this service, but for some reason—unresolved issues with your father, I gather—he hasn't asked to be part of it.”


On the day of the service, Erling and his family and my mother arrived early enough so that we had an hour or so to gather in Bullard's residence where everyone had a chance to become acquainted with each other. Bullard's wife had prepared coffee and had put out a tray of pastries, and she and Bullard, who were both accustomed to hosting these get-togethers, kept the conversation light and free-flowing. Even Jamesie and Erling and Erling's wife, after circling each other warily, had greeted each other in semi-civil fashion. Otherwise, much of the talk among everyone concerned the bizarre weather of the past ten days. First there had been a snowstorm and then an unseasonable spell of warm, sunny weather that wiped out almost any trace of snow.


Jamesie, in particular, seemed more restrained than I had ever seen him. It was as if he were a school boy trying very hard on this, a parents weekend, not to cause anyone the least bit of discomfort. He was well scrubbed, exceedingly so, with his skin burnished to a bright pink, and though his hair, now quite thin, was combed back into its usual pony tail, it was more neatly shaped than usual and held in place by a bright green ribbon. He was wearing a navy blue blazer, which, he told me, his voice lowered, he had inherited from Bullard's teenage son, who had outgrown it. But his white shirt, striped tie and khaki trousers, he had purchased himself.


I had always been impressed, when driving past All Faiths United, to see how nicely the church's grounds were maintained. The hedge separating the parking lot from the lawn that surrounded the church was always neatly trimmed, and in spring and summer, brightly colored flowers encircled trees in front of the church and lined the pathway leading from the street to its entrance. That day, there were no flowers, of course, but after leaving the rectory, we entered a church whose interior was as well kept as its grounds.


Not surprisingly, this was a church without any religious symbols. Instead of an altar there was a table and at its very center a tall, clear glass vase with several long-stemmed white roses. Not far from the table was the pulpit, a lectern really. Bright sunshine, as Jamesie had mentioned, flooded into the church through its many skylights. Also brightly lit were the church's stained-glass windows, which, now that I could see them more closely, depicted pastoral scenes, meadows dotted with wild flowers, a winding river running through a verdant valley, as well as rocky cliffs overlooking the ocean. The serenity of the place was enhanced by cream-colored stucco walls and the light colored oak of its pews and paneling along the lower half of the walls.


I estimated the church could hold two hundred people or so in the rows of pews that were divided by a wide center aisle. When we entered, Jamesie led my mother to the first pew on the right. My wife and I and our two children took the front pew across the aisle from them and Erling and his wife and three children sat in the pew directly behind my mother and Jamesie. There were four musicians to the right of the lectern, a keyboard player, a bassist, a flutist and a drummer surrounded by a quite elaborate set of drums. As soon as we sat down, the musicians began playing a nondescript piece of music that sounded as if it were derived from Johann Sebastian Bach but rearranged in a freer, jazzier style.


The church was about half full. Most of the people in attendance were probably members of the congregation, but I noticed in one pew Jamesie's friends from City Hall Plaza, the nun, the newspaper vendor and the couple who were petitioning to regain their lost pension. Another pew was filled with other vendors I had seen on the Plaza from time to time. I believe that a group of people in the last two rows were most likely Jamesie's old friends from the anti-war movement since they looked, with their long hair and the kind of clothes that came from second-hand stores, as if they were a well-preserved sampling of the 1960's counterculture.


When the music ended, Bullard came through a door at the rear of the church. When he reached the pulpit, he turned towards the musicians and applauded them while also signaling for the rest of us to show our appreciation for the interlude of music.


Bullard was a robust fellow, with the bull neck and broad shoulders and barrel chest of a football lineman, which he had once been. His most prominent feature, though, was a flaming red beard that fanned out to conceal any distinction between his chin and his chest. He had a remarkably resonant voice, one that could obviously boom out a sermon if he chose, but this day, he spoke slowly and in an even tempered voice when extending a welcome to everyone in attendance.


He began by saying how much he appreciated the opportunity to meet the Nielsen family and how pleased he was that his church was hosting this gathering in memory of Ollie Nielsen. He then called to the front of the church two members, an older woman and a college-age young man, who turned out to be Bullard's oldest son. The woman read the John Donne poem, Death Be Not Proud, and Bullard's son, quite movingly and with the same rich voice of his father, read the Dylan Thomas poem, Death Shall Have No Dominion.


As soon as they finished, the musicians performed the first hymn that had been played at my father's funeral, but the hymn, with its promise of eternal rest, gave each of the players the chance to perform solo turns that were quite remarkable. This must have been an example of the musical performance Jamesie had told me about when describing all those things that made the services at All Faiths United so special. Indeed, Jamesie, who had been sitting quietly until then, began bobbing his head in time to the music and twitching his shoulders and looking as if he might just leave his pew and break into dance. I could see that Erling was not comfortable with the way Jamesie was acting, and I, too, felt some unease, but my mother sat there, holding Jamesie's hand and looking quite pleased.


Once the music ended, Bullard introduced me. I thanked everyone for coming and said that as a family we were grateful that here, far from our ancestral home in northern New Hampshire, we found ourselves among so many people who had come to pay homage to my father's memory. That was fitting, I said, because to my father nothing in life mattered as much as an opportunity for people to meet and to get to know each other, and in so doing, develop bonds of friendship. I noted that my father had often said that there was no division in his life between the business he was in and the one thing he enjoyed more than anything else in the world, which was meeting people and making friends. I ended by telling everyone that my father had been dead for four months, but that my mother continued to hear from people, who, in expressing their condolences, invariably mentioned how much it meant to them that they could call Ollie Nielsen a friend. Of all the tributes paid to my father, I said, none would have mattered as much to him as that.


There was another hymn, this one less showy in terms of musicianship. Then Bullard began to deliver his eulogy. Some people might wonder, he said, how he could deliver the eulogy for someone he had never met. But over the past three weeks in conversations with my mother, he had not only become acquainted with my father, but also came to feel a kinship with him.


Here Bullard paused, and then, when he continued, he made a point of saying that, yes, in terms of age and occupation and place of residence, he and Ollie Nielsen were very different people. But consider for a moment, he said, that the founding precept of All Faiths United was the need to establish and honor and celebrate the connection between all people and all manner of life.


“Oneness,” Bullard said. “Those of you who are part of the All Faiths United community have heard me talk of it many times. But to those of you who have never been to All Faiths United, it means that people who worship here glory in the concept of forging connections with each other and with the world at large, and in so doing we endeavor to find a path that leads to inner peace and mutual understanding.


“So, yes, I never met Ollie Nielsen, but I know that he was, in every sense, a connector, that is, a man who knew well the spirit and substance embodied in that word, oneness. And while everything I've heard about Ollie Nielsen tells me that he was a man rooted in his community, he also spent his life in reaching out—and yes, trying to connect—with people the world over. He put his heart and soul and energy in getting people from around the world to visit the part of New Hampshire he so loved—and he wanted them, when they got there not to drop in but to stay for several days, whether in the sunshine of summer or in the deep snows of winter. What a blessing, to have lived a life of such purpose and meaning.


“Now, as we end this service, and before we move to the church hall for a reception at which you can meet with the Nielsen family, I ask that all of us here express as fully as possible our own sense of fellowship and love. So, as the musicians play the recessional, I hope that everyone will take a moment to turn to your neighbors, those on either side of you, those to the front and rear, and give each other a handshake or a hug. Don't be embarrassed, don't, for heaven's sake, hold back. Hug, kiss, greet each other, pass on a compliment. Feel free to cross over to the pews on the other side of the aisle. But most of all, let us, in this great act of communing, express our closeness to each other—our oneness—and in so doing may we replicate the affection for others that was such a keystone of Ollie Nielsen's life.”


With that, Jamesie rose to his feet, raised his arms above his head and let out with a loud amen. The musicians then began to play Abide With Me in straight forward fashion, but they were doing so in a way that seemed to infuse it with the sound of Dixieland jazz. Jamesie began immediately to clap his hands and sway his shoulders, but that subsided when my mother turned to him and gave him a long and loving embrace.


A moment later, Bullard, having left the lectern, arrived at the pew where Jamesie and my mother were and enfolded both of them in his arms. The three of them then moved across the aisle to where I was sitting with my family. Here, with one arm, Jamesie reached out and pulled me towards my mother. I was able to give her a quick peck on the cheek before moving aside so that Jamesie and Bullard were able to wrap their arms around my wife and children. Thus, all more or less joined together, we managed to move across the aisle to the pew where Erling and his family were sitting.


Erling and his wife looked as if they didn't know what they were supposed to do about this multi-legged mass descending on them. Quite frankly, the way both of them were staring straight ahead, it seemed as if they were hoping we might go away and leave them alone. My mother thought otherwise. Bullard had called on us to honor Ollie Nielsen's memory by sharing love and fellowship, and she expected every member of her family to follow through on what the minister had asked of us.


Stepping away from Jamesie, she reached over to Erling and gripped his arm. She looked for a second as if she was going to pull him into the aisle whether or not he was willing, but he, wisely, I think, offered no resistance. He turned and put his arms around my mother, and his wife, well aware that my mother was likely to yank her into the aisle also, quickly followed behind Erling, as did her three children.


My mother had a look of satisfaction on her face when she stepped out of the way so that Jamesie and Erling and then Jamesie and Erling's wife had no choice but to exchange a quick hug.


I could see throughout the church that other people, some with practiced ease and some a bit more hesitantly, tried in various ways to comply with Bullard's request. Jamesie's friends from City Hall Plaza, for instance, seemed unsure of themselves at first but settled for exchanging handshakes rather than fulsome hugs. That was in contrast to people who regularly attended All Faiths United. The embraces they exchanged were free and easy, and in some cases, quite exuberant. It seemed to me that I was witnessing (and being part of ) the recreation, on a smaller scale, of those love-ins from the sixties, with everyone awash in good feelings.


As our group, shepherded by Bullard and Jamesie, moved down the aisle, greeting people who approached us, exchanging hugs and wishing each other well, the musicians, on their own apparently—or maybe with Bullard's permission—seemed to depart completely from Abide With Me.


Now, through some musical sleight of hand, they arrived at the old gospel hymn, Just A Closer Walk With Thee, which is soften played by jazz bands in New Orleans funeral processions. That caused Jamesie to begin swaying his shoulders and hips and to clap in time to the music. It appeared as if he might even break into a more highly stylized dance, one complete with pirouettes, but as he began to spin around, my mother hooked her arm through his and pulled him closer to her.


Having corralled Jamesie, she turned towards me and Erling, and wiggling the fingers of her free hand, she beckoned both of us to join her. Then, when I stepped forward and gripped her hand, she gestured towards Jamesie to reach out and take hold of Erling's hand. Erling was several feet away from Jamesie, but with a quick shifting of his feet, Jamesie drew close enough to Erling so that he could grasp his hand. To complete the circle, I took Erling's hand in mine.


Guided by my mother, we moved a short distance to the rear of the church, where, at my mother's urging, we moved in a circular fashion, roughly in time to the music. With her leading the way, we took four steps in one direction and then four steps back in the other direction. Space was limited, but somehow, by lengthening our circle into an oval shape, we made room for Erling's wife and children and my wife and children, along with Bullard and his wife, to join in. By then, other members of the congregation, had formed a ring on the outer rim of our circle where a good number of them, swaying back and forth, were clapping their hands in time to the music.


If the musicians hadn't finally brought the music to an end, I think we might have continued for half the afternoon in our little circular dance. But when it did come to a stop, we all simultaneously broke into applause, both for the musicians and for ourselves and there were more hugs and embraces throughout the church.


We, the Nielsens, along with our new friends, had found a way at All Faiths United, of all places, at the instigation of Jamesie, of all people, to pay tribute to my father. In the midst of all this merriment and music and joy the smile on my mother's face was the one I had seen when the minister in Sherburne told us that my father thought of himself as the luckiest man in the world because he had been given enough time to tell the woman he loved how much he loved her.  End of Story