An evening of ‘Poems from the Pond’ and remembering Peggy Freydberg

Peggy Freyderg's granddaughter Tamara Sloan speaks while Laurie David and Nancy Aronie listen on. — Photo by Lynn Christoffers

On Sunday, May 24, Peggy Freydberg’s Poems from the Pond had its eventful coming-out party at the Chilmark Community Center, with over 200 people in attendance. Laurie David, publisher of the book, orchestrated a memorable event that payed homage to Peggy’s many literary contributions. Copies of the beautifully rendered book 107 Years of Words and Wisdom: The Writings of Peggy Freydberg, were available for sale, and all net profits will benefit the newly created Margaret Howe Freydberg Scholarship Fund.

A cross-section of family, friends, and poetry admirers filled the seats. Nancy Aronie told the story of how she first got to know Peggy when she hosted a reading for her in the fall of 2014. This was the first time Nancy met Laurie David, and within 24 hours Laurie knew she wanted to publish a book of Peggy’s poems. Laurie then enlisted Nancy’s help in doing so. To commemorate the book’s launch, Laurie invited four notable readers (though none had known the author or her poetry previously) including Geraldine Brooks, Kimberly Cartwright, Jorie Graham, and Brooke Adams. The guests gave moving readings, but it was the final speaker, Peggy’s granddaughter Tamara Sloan, whose words filled each one of us with the true spirit of Peggy.

When I asked Tamara how she felt after participating in the first poetry reading celebrating her beloved grandmother, she said, “Gran would have been so incredibly happy and probably would have said again, ‘I know why I have lived this long, and it’s for this moment!’ My father and I both remarked on how wonderful it was to hear others read her poems. For me, even though I know some of those poems almost by heart, hearing others read them … the cadence of their reading, where they pause, where they put emphasis … brings to light new considerations of meaning, and I hear and give import to words I wasn’t as conscious of in quite the same way.

“I did struggle with the reading of the last poem before I went up to speak, ‘Preparing Oneself for Dying.’ That last stanza, ‘Go back. Live with my mistakes. Leave my clutter. After I am gone, when those of you who loved me walk in this room, you will find, to your surprise, that I am still here.’ Well, that gets me every time. The fact that my family and I had literally just dusted off our hands from sorting through her possessions and walking through her rooms before we came to this reading, where she became so much more alive, well, it made me ache with the effort of containing my grief. In fact, childishly, and knowing that this last stanza was to come, I began internally humming, la la la la la, because I didn’t think I could listen to Brooke Adams read that last stanza and not break down.”

Tamara continued about life without her grandmother: “So very sadly, her house must be sold, because none of us can afford to buy it, and her possessions distributed among the family or sold as well. She does live on with all of us, however, and this book of poetry and writings helps keep her alive, gives inspiration to others, and sends her out into the universe in a way that she would have never imagined.”

During Tamara’s speech at the event, she shared some of her fondest memories and impressions of Peggy:

I call her Gran — my kids called her “Great” Gran, and great she was. An inspiration to us all. As you may know, she worked hard to overcome a pretty constant sense of not feeling worthy. Astonishing, isn’t it? A woman so talented, so beautiful inside and out, so kind and beloved — she struggled with not feeling like she had anything worth saying. It was in her mid-40s that she began writing novels, six of them. Then poetry — three books — and when she turned 90, she felt there was still more to say, more to be explored, but not a full book left in her. All of her writing explores, examines, turns over stones, looks under bridges, digs deep into feeling — to try to get at the essence of her being and her place in this world.

Amazingly, this woman who questioned herself so much, offered to others such support, belief, encouragement, and love. When speaking with her, she made you feel like you were the most important person in the world, like there was more to you than you knew yourself. Your story, your gift of another heart rock, your fistful of dandelions that you gave her as a child … she took you in with her deep dark eyes and heard you and appreciated you. I don’t know how many times I heard her say, “This is the most wonderful present anyone has ever given me,” or, “I think this is the best day of my life.” But even if you’d heard it before, you knew she absolutely meant what she was saying, every time.

In a speech she delivered at a literary event on MV she answered the question, “What is the essence of my being that has endured?” She responded, “All of my life I have had a sense of enjoyment at being in this marvelous, terrible, beautiful world and of having an endless capacity to relate to it.” She went on to say that she was glad that she had lived that long, because if she hadn’t, she wouldn’t have discovered poetry, “which has been the most satisfactory writing and the most penetrating knowing of myself I have yet experienced.”

Notice the choice of words, “most satisfactory writing and most penetrating knowing of myself I have yet experienced.” She was 97 when she wrote that. Have “yet” experienced. She had 10 more years of experience ahead of her, and she was keeping the doors open to possibility. That’s a message to take home — her love of life, her searching, her overcoming her fears and daring to use her voice: “I have lived all my life covered up and trying to be bare … a mind too long buried, wanting recognition from those who had been sure of its non-existence …”

In the last 10 days of her life, I was catching her up on the progress of the book and Laurie’s marketing efforts. I told her that there were people talking to Oprah’s people, and I asked her, “Do you know who Oprah is?” She thought about it for a moment, then made a face and said, “That woman on TV”; I told her yes, and that she had a magazine too, and she had a book club that recommended books. Gran thought about it for a minute, and said, “Oh God, this might kill me.” Then she thought about it a bit more, and said, “Well, if I die before the book comes out, then it’ll be a hell of a memorial.”

And that it is. For a woman who wrote: “All my life, I have wanted to be shown respect for a mind not apparent to anyone, not even, at first, to myself.” Even though we all knew she had an incredible mind and an incredible heart, this book is a great memorial to her and a great inspiration for people everywhere. Your age, your condemning inner voice, your nay-saying baggage that you haul around — toss it away and feel, as she says, “immense in your capability.” I take a deep breath and fill myself up with my memories of her and I feel her inspiration. “Underneath cold winter bone, the flesh of summer sleeps … beauty is everlasting.”

A celebration of Peggy Freydberg’s life will be held on Saturday, June 13, from 4 to 6 pm at the Chilmark Community Center. Peggy’s family has asked for all to come share their memories.

Memories of Peggy Freydberg — another time and place

By Niki Patton

The first time I met Peggy Freydberg, she was walking up a hill near her home on Stonewall Pond. A gentle afternoon ocean breeze blew from the other direction, and as she came toward me, her long skirt and hair wafted back in the wind. I thought to myself, “She looks like a sylph!” — a spirit of the air — walking into our world from another time and place.

It was 1978, and Peggy was 70 and ageless — a characteristic she retained until the end of her life. I was 27. My companion, Charles Close, and I were annual summer visitors to his family home on Stonewall, and she would be a summer neighbor for the next two decades in the then relative wilds of Chilmark. Peggy turned out to be much more than that first vision — but that sense that she had come from another time or place persisted, and was a little startling each time I saw her at the beginning of the season. She was ethereal but grounded, childlike but wise. Along with a grace and authenticity went a contemporary quality of speaking her mind. When the world had gone wrong or she’d heard something she didn’t like, a frown would “gather on her brow” (a somewhat Victorian phrase, but the best way to describe it in her case). She would ponder, concerned, and then speak her mind earnestly, always to the point and honest, sometimes surprisingly blunt. “Plainspoken” is the word she used. Equally moved when she was happy, she would smile broadly and laugh heartily when something was to her liking.

As we returned each summer season, one of the first things Peggy would reveal was the status of whichever of her books was in process. It might be just started, or published, or just about to be published; the news was always related with a sense of expansive delight. (It simply didn’t enter the picture that she was 70 — then 80 — her spirit was too young for that to be possible.) For a number of years, the short trip down the hill to the Freydbergs and a knock on the door might be answered by the door opening, or by a voice in an A-frame tent that was pitched just next to house: “Hello?” Peggy would call from her writing desk inside the tent. Like many writers, at some point she had decided that she needed a secluded place where she could put down her words and thoughts without interruption — actual or anticipated. Her pondfront home might be light and airy, but the simple tent almost hidden in the brush was for a time her truly private workspace.

I left Stonewall Pond in the mid-’90s after becoming a year-round resident, and as Peggy began her next writing chapter at age 90, her poetry phase. We were no longer up or down the hill from each other, within easy reach, but we remained glad to see each other in Island travels. Each time I saw her, that sylphlike quality remained unchanged.

As a young businesswoman when I first met her in the late ’70s, Peggy’s earnestness, authenticity, and grace were alluring in more ways than one; born into the suffragette era of the early 1900s, she appeared to have surpassed my own emerging ’60s feminist generation as we struggled to find our voices and act in the world in a mature, balanced way, neither too submissive nor too strident. Peggy looked to have mastered the secret to our quest long ago: “Just be who you are.” She did it well.