Thursday, November 12, 2015

Recollections of a Madison Catholic Worker who knew Dorothy Day

[Editor's note: Several of us celebrated Dorothy Day's birthday this past Sunday by watching and discussing a documentary on her life. Barbara Reed was not able to join us, but she agreed to write up something about her experiences that we could share after the movie--particularly the story of her first visit to a CW farm, which happened to be exactly 41 years ago (on Dorothy's 77th birthday).]

In the early 1970s I was living in upstate New York with my 4 children and had been visiting and becoming connected with Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker houses in New York City some 200 miles away.  

A young woman who had been living in a battered old car not far from our house had come to my attention and I had invited her to come and live with my children and me.  I will call this woman "Betty."  She was 20 years old and had dropped out of school due to inability to keep up academically.  She was unable to work at a job without one on one assistance.  Betty was from a farm family.  When I spoke to her parents to make sure they would approve of her staying with us, I was told that she was "of age and on her own."  They said that they could not "handle her behavior" and were not willing to participate any longer in her care.

Betty was not feeling well, and I arranged an appointment with a reliable local doctor.  The doctor found her to be several months pregnant (I insisted that Betty and I talk on the phone with her parents about this.  The parents were even more adamant that they wanted no more contact with her or with a baby.)

Betty was slow in comprehending things, but she adapted easily to our family and we to her.  In fact, we were sitting around our Formica kitchen table at supper one night when my 7 year old son announced, "God really listens!  I prayed for another sister and now I have two new sisters!"  (A 19 year old girl who had been evicted from her apartment was also living with us. 

As Betty's pregnancy advanced, she constantly said that she did not want to keep the baby. I was familiar with the complex nature of the local adoption procedures and reached out to my friends at the NYC Catholic Worker seeking advice as to the best solution.

That is how I was put in touch with an extremely competent and caring young woman who was helping as a sort of "house parent" at the Catholic Workers' Peter Maurin Farm on the Hudson River. (The Farm was designed to employ volunteers willing to live as "Catholic Workers" to plant and harvest organic fruit and vegetables to be shared among those at the farm and with those at the two CW houses in NY City.)

I was immediately invited to bring Betty there for the remainder of her pregnancy with the assurance that their contacts through the social service organizations and Catholic Charities they would readily locate her an adopting family.  There were "no strings attached" but of course I was eager to spend as many weekends as possible helping at the farm.

That is how I happened to make the first of many visits to Peter Maurin Farm and to drive there on November 8, 1974 with Betty, taking our other guest, Nancy along to keep Betty company.  The rest of this article is copied from a letter I wrote in 1974 describing that visit.  The most pertinent remarks I can think of to follow the showing of the film relate to:  "what was life like in a Catholic Worker house during Dorothy's life time?"
Welcoming the Stranger
We arrived at 6:30 PM.  It was clear but very dark.  On the way from Tivoli where we had stopped to ask directions I asked Betty and Nancy: "Have you ever been to a place before where you didn't have to worry about being evicted because nobody has to pay rent?" 
Betty replied, "Just at your house!" 

As we drove up we saw a rambling old house of several stories with lighted windows welcoming us.  Two young men stood in the driveway talking.  We introduced ourselves.  One of them immediately asked if I was a nun to which I replied,  "Oh, no, I'm just Barbara." They welcomed us and showed us into the house.

Inside, some men were sitting in the dining room talking and drinking coffee. We were told that dinner was just over, so I asked where the kitchen was so that we could help with the dishes. 

Once in the kitchen, we found that dishes and clean up were already finished.  Linda, with whom I had spoken on the phone came into the dining room to meet us along with a woman named Joan. (Joan became a close friend over the years. She is very quiet but does so much in caring for the sick and elderly.  She lives in a little cabin on the grounds where she always invites others to visit and have a conversation.)
Joan and Linda really made us each feel so welcome, as did everyone we met.  We all sat down together to have coffee.  At that moment George rang the bell for Vespers. 
Dorothy Day with Deane Mower (right) at the Farm

Linda led Betty, Nancy and me to the chapel where a few others joined us.  One other person was seated in the corner of the chapel, an elderly woman sitting alone.  I guessed correctly that she was Deane Mower who by then had almost totally lost her eyesight.  We were introduced after Vespers and I made an appointment for a walk with her the next morning. 

I was so happy to be there but so tired!  Returning to Joan in the dining room we found our coffee waiting as well as three women in their twenties who had been outdoors all day building a barn!  They had a connection with the Benedictines from Erie, Pennsylvania.

Emerging from the kitchen was a man named Chuck who was visiting from a cooperative farm where he and two of the barn building women had been living recently.  Chuck was a most interesting speaker and I enjoyed hearing details about the farm and his life. 

Chuck had destroyed his draft card and had simultaneously given up institutional religion in the 1960's.  He then set out to build on the positive, simple, yet powerful, values that he articulated to us.  I gave him my opinion that he is a holy person.

We agreed that he was an inspiration to all of us.  He showed endless patience in joining in picking hundreds of pounds of apples that weekend, in stringing apples for drying, and in the tenderness shown toward the large numbers of energetic and sometimes boisterous children living on the farm. 

Linda showed us to our beds in the women's dorm.  It is a lovely, warm room that has windows along two sides that give a nighttime view of the heavens and a daytime panorama of the Hudson River. Betty and Nancy joined other women in the room and went to sleep.  I went back downstairs to talk with the others for a couple hours. 

I don't remember ever having spent a more comfortable night than in that lively, peaceful place.  A true blessing for all of us...
Note:  Betty thrived at the farm.  She was surrounded by the gifts of healthful activity, acceptance of her as a person, prayer, and hope.  During her labor she complained bitterly and loudly about the pain and the inconvenience, but her healthy little girl arrived and was adopted by an ecstatic local family.  Betty stayed on at the farm, content to work at simple routine chores.  She relinquished parental rights and declined any invitation to have contact with the child.
Dorothy Day at the Farm ca. 1970.
Post script:

It was some weeks after that visit before I was at the farm at the same time as Dorothy Day.  With Dorothy present, the routine of things ran pretty much as they did in her absence.  One might find her praying the Office in the chapel, writing articles for the Catholic Worker newspaper in her study or peeling potatoes in the dining room among a group of volunteers.  She was part of the rhythm of the functioning of the place but was in no way a "person in charge."  Dorothy's demeanor was calm, but no nonsense, and purposeful.  Many sought her out to discuss their personal concerns.  She listened attentively and encouraged them as they figured out possible and practical solutions.  She was extremely efficient and insightful but never seemed to be in a hurry.  Dorothy lived her life day by day as a prayer of contemplation, caring, and action to bring into our world God's kingdom on earth, a kingdom of peace with justice.