A job as companion to Mrs. Longworth was just right. Spring of that year rained biblically and flowers were on a rampage. The blossoms and fragrant air were a bountiful cruelty appearing in her own picture of sorrowful endings. Leah was jealous of bees. For seven months she was in love and April is such a very hard time to lose that, and for 18 it is the first and last. Sadie Longworth was 91, on the dying end of life, and Leah was comforted to be near that mystery. Their conversations were timeless things. On sunny days Leah wheeled her out into the gardens of a nursing home in Princeton. Mrs. Longworth, though in a wheelchair, seemed to take these outings as exercise. And though she was blind, always knew the places where she wanted to pull over and chat.
They talked of the days before automobiles as they listened to the traffic on Magnolia Lane outside the gates, and of the clip-clop of horses on hard-packed dirt roads. They spoke of her school days in the first decade of the 20th century, of her long stockings and high buttoning shoes. Leah described the colorful Pappagallo loafers and gold bangles that girls were wearing in 1969. And the mini-skirts which allowed light into the shady avenues where boys would like to travel. Mrs. Longworth was in no way scandalized and talked of the rising hemlines of the 1920s that preceded the stock market crash in 1929. Of course, she said, with a little remorse, that she had missed out on that sexual revolution as well as the present one. This kind of reverie would be followed by long silences in which Sadie and Leah both spent some tranquil time with regret.
On rainy days they stayed inside and Leah read to her from books. Books that Sadie knew well and never tired of hearing again. From Aristotle to Virginia Woolf. She listened to Chopin and Brahms on a portable record player, and micro-danced, tapping with her mid-heeled black leather tie-up shoes to jitterbug and Benny Goodman swing, and transporting totally with the old turn of the century pop songs like, “Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do.” and “Believe me if all those endearing young charms, which I gaze on so fondly today,” back in the arms of her young man, her husband, in the presence of their gay young friends. Leah knew that’s where she went because afterward Sadie would speak of her young husband and carefree time with her friends. On rainy days Leah poured tea for Sadie in her room scented with dusting powder and rain and drenched earth from the open window.
Bobby Graziano found out where she worked, as he found out everything about her. He began showing up in the garden. He just kept showing up when she was in the garden with Mrs. Longworth. Conversations were not as interesting for Leah when he was there. Mrs. Longworth, always genteel, would encourage him to talk about himself. He, too, was polite and got Sadie talking and reminiscing. At those times he would look at Leah with a grin that said, “You see what I did?” And, of course, she did.
Bobby was Italian from one of those families that populates whole towns and then owns them. At 23 he had some kind of job that left him very free –– a family business. He was the second short guy she’d gone out with. She liked that about him. The other was Danny Soloman whom she had invited to her confirmation dance. Soloman read the dictionary recreationally. Bobby was no scholarly type, but he was curious about a lot of things, which led him into libraries with a desire to learn about things she knew. Not exactly in order to impress, but in order to communicate on many levels.
He had found out, through mutual acquaintances, who was causing her present heartache and went to see him on a friendly, investigative visit. He infiltrated a University radical political group whose members Jerry got high with. Bobby never mentioned Leah. He just went to a few meetings of the SDS, smoked with them, saw Jerry, and that was all, because those were not Bobby’s kind of people. He smelled of Brut cologne, they smelled of Marx and Engels. His blue jeans were dry cleaned and pressed, theirs were well slept in. He drove a red convertible MG, they took trains home to Bala Cynwyd, Shaker Heights, and Grosse Pointe. He wore a gold cross at his neck, they wore the peace symbol.
Leah did her homework as well. It was a Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love Potion Number 9, Magical Mystery Tour, for someone else was in love with Bobby. She was a Trenton girl who went way back with him, a girl from the Burg. Kind of looked like Cher when she was with Sonny. A Cleopatra with straight dark hair and bangs. Really pretty. “Lord, what fools these mortals be.”
The garden of ornate wrought iron benches in secret alcoves with vine-covered walls and fountains trickling over marble statues was reminiscent of a time and place when courting included a chaperone. Who, in this menage was the chaperone was unclear. Bobby had a way of bringing out some old relic of seductiveness that Mrs. Longworth surely had a lot of at one time. The tinge of jealousy Leah felt was actually reassuring. And though his and Sadie’s flirtation was a passing delight, it seemed that Bobby was giving Sadie a great gift which made Leah like him more than she wanted to.
They strolled among the white and pink dogwoods. Sadie’s long fingers tapped out a rhythm during lulls in the conversation which Leah realized marked the quickness of her mind and she felt genuinely sad that it was not Mrs. Longworth that Bobby wanted. Wise birds and moist blossoms communicated their messages on sweet, sticky breezes that caught in her throat.
Bobby gave her a solid gold bracelet for graduation. Her parents gave her a clock radio. Her brother gave her a phone call from Denver — one of the acceptably cool places to choose for college.
In July, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin went to the moon. “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Leah was right there with them. Senator Ted Kennedy took a wrong turn that summer on Chappaquiddick Island. Toward the end of July, there were rumblings on the street about an outdoor music festival in Woodstock, New York.
Pre-dawn upstate New York was chilly with fog on that Saturday, August 16. Traffic stood still, a deadened, noiseless stoppage. Trees stood clueless alongside the road. Larry Cohen, a friend since grade school, stood on top of his mother’s sedan to scan the distance. Leah climbed up after him and saw the line of cars to the horizon. Cars as though parked, on northbound Route 17. No egress, no movement seemed possible. Local radio news reported it the same way the national news reported the Viet Nam war. There was talk about bringing in the National Guard. From that quiet spot on the road, things appeared to be magnificently out of control. Word came down the highway after an hour to park close to the trees and walk. How far? “Don’t know, maybe four miles,” said the arm-banded young Hippie.
Leah and Larry and Ben Cohen gathered up the cooler and other provisions, locked the car, and set out. The morning fog heated up without much dissipating. Her long curly black hair curled up even more and drizzled down her face. Thousands of gnats became involved. With each mile, the progress thickened with souls coming up from behind. Youth aggregating. Bronzed, unshirted boys with dark golden curls falling to their shoulders. Bearded young men in fringed leather vests. Slender girls with long flat sheets of shiny brown hair. Blacks with Afros and Jews who gave up on their hair and went natural. Male and female, with Afros, headbands, and bellbottoms. Did Hendrix precede or follow? And young parents who had made the unfashionable commitment to marriage.
Reefer smoke hung with the fog.
When they arrived at the gate, there was no gate. So they didn’t know whether they could enter. There was not even a fence. Some posts lingered, some crushed fencing material lay about. Some folks warily crossed the dotted line. Leah and the Cohen brothers went in search of someone marked with authority, but were swept in the surging mass of people from behind and a farm truck urgently pushing forward, so they had no choice but to proceed, and when they came to a breathing space, they beheld the multitudes. An ancient gathering in the here and now. Farmish fragrances all about on Mr. Yasgur’s farm.
Five inches of rain had reportedly fallen during the night. People were just beginning to wake up. There was sleepy movement in the plains below. Sun was burning through. Smoke rose from food wagons — but how would those few feed so many?
This was a loaves-and-fishes scenario — or a really large deli order. Leah heard on the radio that a local synagogue had sent hundreds of sandwiches and pickles the day before. It was already sort of a crisis. Leah had only brought one sandwich.
They walked down into the bowl of land toward the main stage looking for a space to set up on the muddy slope, checking out the various neighborhoods already established, of ponchos and plastic tablecloth tents against the torrential rains of last night, only muddy legs and sandaled feet in evidence, occasionally a weary eye or smiling face. The offer of a joint finally determined their encampment.
“Hey, what’s happenin’?” “Not much, how ya doin’?” The three of them dropped their blankets and gratefully accepted the largesse of a couple from somewhere in the Delaware Valley by their accents. They all smoked a while, regarding one another appreciatively without words. Taking in the vibes and letting it happen. That’s how it was. Leah looked out and beyond her personal fog. Thousands of people just like themselves, yet not them, acres and acres of young people, enjoying and enduring the freedom and confines of the unknown. Leah felt so undifferentiated. Blended, yet, disappointingly, herself. Insignificant — why?
The sound system crackled, signaling the opening of the day. “Good mornin’ everybody.” A bedraggled Festival hand on the stage geared up for announcements of one kind and another. “I trust everybody’s dry and rested and ready to go . Well, maybe dry.” A scattered rumble from the slope. “Okay, rested. Well, ready to go, anyway.” He rattled a sheaf of notes. “Lola. Call home. Your parents are wondering if you made it, Brian, you’ve become a father overnight. You can go and meet your family at the nurse’s tent by the main stage. Congratulations, man.” A sort of “yo!” huzzah went up from the hillside to welcome the new life. “And anybody who dropped the purple acid — don’t worry!” He dropped each message like a leaflet and went on. “There’s something like breakfast at the Hog Farm wagon while it lasts. And remember to pick up the trash around your area, be considerate of your neighbors, and keep the faith.You’re beautiful. Peace.”
“Don’t worry, man, it wasn’t the purple stuff, man.” A couple of guys held onto their agitated friend with soothing words. Things seemed remarkably stable in this volatile mecca.
Sun eventually popped the bubbles of haze causing the bowl of teenagers to take on the aspect of a great Petrie dish, at the temperature and moisture level best for growing things. Musicians played for each other in cool glens, and people gathered around to listen because they came for the music and the mainstage would be quiet until later in the day. People reverted to the gardens of childhood, of invention. The places where unseen forces entered into your games and you knew the Fairies were present and all things were possible. Indeed, many people were seeing Unicorns that weekend, and shedding clothes to frolic with them in the lake and shaded ponds. Even in the fields of free living, Leah could not go naked into the water but longed to submerge and swim and be refreshed, and so joined with the free spirits as well as the horribly socialized and went in dressed, into the larger, open water, kicking up sprays of sparkling silver in the sunlight.
People were soaping and bathing and hydrating like a third world country. A garden of children. The newspapers would pick up on that. Peers, fellow children. So many of them. None she knew, yet all were somehow familiar. She was, over time and immersion, losing the outlines between herself and the others. All of them.
She wandered among the people, mostly on a hunger high. Her sandals had long ago been squeegied away by the calf-deep mud. A young, bearded businessman in a loin cloth was selling cups of water for a dollar. A drink of water would be sane, but her tote bag with the 10 dollars she came with was back with the boys. Where were the boys? She knew roughly the coordinates. She stepped over the people on the ground, who were all very polite. It was unavoidable. There were no aisles now. They were so tightly arranged on Mr. Yasgur’s land, that if they were a field of planted seeds, nothing would have room to grow. She passed one of the freak-out tents where LSD tripping kids were brought gently back to Earth. Everybody was looking like everybody she had ever known. So when she caught a glimpse of Bobby in the freak-out tent, quietly talking a wild-eyed, frantic boy out of the ozone, she kept on going, said, “Nah, not him, not here.” She peered again into the dim, dank, musty, grassy, sun-streaked canvas cavern. Flies buzzed.
Bobby looked up. He wore a blue work shirt, rolled up at the sleeves. He looked drawn and tired. He welcomed her in with his smile. Inside his gentle, all-encompassing gaze, she felt she had missed out on something dreadfully large in life. That had not to do with her, or with Bobby, or with anyone in particular. It was all about what she could do in any moment or situation. And she realized then that she had had very little experience in “being there.” All she could call up at the moment were the gardens of Mrs. Longworth. “What can I do to help?” she asked.
Rebecca Burr graduated from Princeton High School, worked as a news writer and photographer, construction worker, and standup comedian, and started a small organic farm with the family. She presently lives and works in Princeton. Her children attend Princeton High School.