Brief encounter: Albion Hart
Albion Hart greets cottagers from his porch at "Heartease." Photos by CK Wolfson
It is his green and pink trimmed cottage in the circle in Trinity Park that offers first introductions: the wooden sign over the door reading, "Heartease;" a maple coffee table he made with a well for his books; the books stacked on the stand below a small television set; a newspaper folded to reveal a neatly finished crossword puzzle; posters and paintings of the campground and of his 1862 gingerbread house; drop-leaf lamp tables covered with lace; the bed in the dining area with an Early American patterned quilt; framed photos of his late wife, Cora, when she was a child, a girl, an adult ("We were perfect for each other"); and two lounge chairs, one blue, one beige, placed side by side. There is a well-lived softness and an everything-in-its-place orderliness about the cottage, and about its owner.
Albion Hart, appearing at least 20 years younger than his age, is dapper in a vest, red plaid shirt, and matching red argyle socks. He sits in his chair - the beige one - locks his fingers across his chest, extends his legs on the raised foot rest so his cat Pinkletink can stretch out on them - and wonders out loud why anyone would be interested in reading about him. "I'm just a regular guy who's been lucky enough to live a long time."
Since Cora died a year ago, he lives alone, gets up at 6:45 every day, feeds the cat, prepares meals, and, in about a half hour, finishes the daily crossword puzzle in the Cape Cod Times. "I never miss. If you do one by the same guy day after day, you learn what his words are. For example, when he says, 'erstwhile,' I know the word he wants is 'else.'"
His routine includes driving to Oak Bluffs to do daily errands. He softly remarks that he recently passed the test to renew his driver's license. His new license will be valid until 2013.
With pictures of Cora in the background, Albion relaxes at home.
On April 9, Mr. Hart celebrated his 99th birthday.
"Dr. Tsikitas said that your longevity is a matter of attitude. I do believe that Cora and I had a very positive attitude towards life. I loved what I did," he says, sounding earnest. "I started as an English teacher before I became a superintendent. I always loved teaching literature, poetry and novels, and I was a stickler for English as it should be spoken. I am bothered when I see something like what I read this morning - 'none are,' because the verb should be 'is.' And my kids learned that, and learned to use a possessive before a gerund." He gives an example: "It was his thinking about it that brought the results. His not him. You can't use the objective case."
More than once the conversation is interrupted by the phone, people calling to see how he's doing, Renee Balter reminding him she'll pick him up for his appearance at the library on Wednesday, a Visiting Nurse letting him know when she'll be stopping by. To each, he is cordial, appreciative, and succinct.
He is determined not to sound profound or lofty, explaining he once took a summer course, Methods of Teaching English, and one of his papers was returned with the notation: "Mr. Hart, don't preach. Work out your salvation by service to your fellow man." He says, "And I have done that. I was a guidance counselor and a principal and I have raised a lot of kids." Mr. Hart gets up, opens a file cabinet with neatly labeled folders, and finds a card he recently received from former student thanking him for the effect Mr. Hart had on his life.
When encouraged to share his perspective, Mr. Hart talks about growing up in Fall River, doing things with his father, an educator turned successful businessman turned newspaper editor ("The Spectator" in Somerset), who fought in the Spanish American War. He remembers when he was 10, and the Red Sox won the pennant. Mr. Hart (Wesleyan University, class of 1932), says he and his sister Margery Cory, who resides at Windemere, agree, their childhood was happy. "We were fortunate children," he says in a strong and clear voice. "So I don't object to anything. I don't have anything to gripe about."
There is a lifetime of details to recall of summers in the campgrounds, staying with his grandmother while his parents, who met on the Vineyard, worked at the Highland House hotel on East Chop. "Things look much the same as they always have been," he says. "So, I don't think the world is going to hell. I really don't. There may be things that have changed, but I see kids come here in the summer and they're pretty much the same as kids I've known all my life. I'm certainly interested in people when they come by. I talk to them about the feeling I have about the peace and quiet and serenity."
He gazes at some unseen spot in the room. "And life was awful good to me. And life was awful good to Cora." He hands his visitor one of her photographs, noting how beautiful she was. Cora, a retired school librarian, was 97 when she died last year. He went to Windemere twice a day for a year, to be with her. "And we kept saying aren't we lucky to be together? And we were. It is a long time for two people to be together."
When asked how he manages without her, he points to the blue chair. "I talk to that chair," he says without hesitating. "I sometimes awake from a little bit of a nap and she's sitting there, and I say things to her. You won't believe it, but I can't go to church yet, because with her not sitting beside me so I can hold her hand, I might cry. I continue to have grief. I never fell into depression - depression is a very bad thing. It's an illness. I just had grief. So I talk to these pictures and I talk to her."
His only son passed away a few months ago, and he makes sure to call his daughter-in-law every morning. When she recently asked his advice about dealing with her late husband's clothes. "I said, I do it this way: I went up one time, and I took the socks out of there. Step by step, I did it," he told her.
Mr. Hart, smiling, says all that's left to accomplish is, "to be pleasant with my fellow man. Every once in a while I say to myself, what the heck is all this about? But I am not looking for death. I still enjoy life. I enjoy people. I have no regrets."
Albion Hart, "Fond Memories of 97 Summers at the Martha's Vineyard Campmeeting," Wednesday, May 9, 7 pm, Oak Bluffs Public Library, School Street. Sponsored by Oak Bluffs Historical Commission. First of a free weekly series through May. 508-696-7643.