A Friend’s Passing

The day before Valentine’s Day was funeral day for old friend Michael Pasiecnik.

The evening service was held in my native town, hosted by a mortician I have known for years. Michael grew up a couple of miles down the road in East Whately, where his family farmed rich river meadows first tilled by Indigenous people and dominated by Sugarloaf. Diagnosed with an aggressive, unforgiving cancer in late August, my friend didn’t survive six months.

I knew his parents, his siblings, and even his grandmother, from the old country. Her name was Mary. We called her Thunder. Elderly when I met her in the late 1960s, she worked the vegetable patches with us, often reminding us to handle the first tomatoes of the season with care. Bruises were a mark against them at the daybreak Springfield market.

It’s strange how some things unfold. In August, I had bumped into Michael quite by chance at the South Deerfield Post Office. I was happy to see him for the first time in many years. He looked great, clear-eyed and trim, and I told him so. He said he was getting his ducks in order for imminent retirement.

Our quick chat provided me the opportunity to offer condolences for the passing of his younger brother some eight months earlier. He told me he had fought hard and outlived doctors’ predictions. They gave him two years. He lived three. I now wonder if Mike’s terminal-stomach-cancer diagnosis had already been delivered. If so, he gave no hint. Same kind blue eyes. Same warm smile.

We met as junior-high-school lads budding into young men. Soon I was working on his family’s produce farm where, unlike the tobacco farms on which I had toiled for slave wages, there existed a certain level of dignity. Working on that farm for those humble servants of the land, I always felt appreciated, not exploited, and they paid cash. No abusive supervisors glowing with authority and barking orders to their young workforce. Straw bosses, they were called. Some of them schoolteachers earning supplemental summer-vacation income. They were not my cup of tea in or out of the classroom.

It must have been the destination that spun me into reflection on the drive to the funeral. I exited Interstate 91 within sight of the Whately BP Diner and doubled back toward the funeral home. My intended route would take me past Brookside Cemetery, where my ashes will someday lie in my family plot.

As I crossed the Route 116 railroad overpass to Long Plain Road and the cemetery, I thought back to the roads as they were configured when I was a boy on a bicycle. Back then the Route 5 & 10 bypass around town was still fairly new, and 116 still ran right through the center of town. South Main Street, previously 5 & 10, forked at the northwest corner of the cemetery. The right leg led over a now-barricaded railroad crossing to a swimming hole we called “Manmade Lake.” The left leg followed the tracks on the so-called road to the Straits in East Whately.

My late friend would have known that old fork in the road. I suppose that’s why it came to mind; that, and the realization that those who remember it are getting older and fewer with each passing week. Soon no one will remember South Deerfield before the rerouting of 5 & 10 around town, the arrival of Interstate 91, and the Route 116 bypass to Sunderland Bridge built when I was in high school.

Michael and I were there for the temporary service road around the railroad-overpass-construction mound. We both knew the teen from nearby Porter Street who lost a kidney to a nighttime car crash on the sharp temporary curve circling the construction site.

It’s interesting how that funeral ride stirred memories. Part of the mourning process, I suppose. And it didn’t end there.

My reflections continued as I drove past the Thayer Street homes of childhood classmates, teammates and friends – people like E-Nart, Duboy, and the Hosleys on the right, Pete Kuchieski and J.P. Walker on the left. Behind the homes on the north side of the street was the Pickle Shop, it too gone and largely forgotten today.

Thinking of that Pickle Shop brought back memories of my late son, then in junior high, being charged with vandalism for writing his initials and “NIRVANA” on a wooden vat. He did it while cutting cross-lots to a friend’s home after a half-day of school. For many years I had known the police chief who brought charges. He was two or three years behind me in school and I thought his intervention was harsh as small-town policing went. It would not have happened when I was young and cops knew the difference between kids’ stuff and crime.

At Sugarloaf Street I headed south toward my old Little League and men’s-softball diamonds, pulling into the funeral-home parking lot as it was filling up. Inside, I saw the director sitting at his desk in the room to the left of the door. We exchanged pleasantries as I walked his way. I wanted to inquire how the recovery of his younger brother and partner was going. An early COVID victim, I had heard he was having a tough slog, then got confirmation from an insider. Sad news. The guy got sucker-punched when the pandemic was new and remedies were few.

I passed through the room, took a right into the hallway, passed the staircase, and signed the guestbook before crossing the threshold into the somber funeral parlor. There was no casket, just family and friends standing and seated around a small altar and urn positioned as the last station before reaching the immediate family.

I arrived early and recognized some but not many of the attendees, few of whom recognized me. There’s no denying that appearances change over 50 years and more. I did my best to learn their identities on my way through, and was familiar with most.

I remembered some of the women seated in the gallery from their days as basketball players on legendary Frontier Regional School coach Vi Goodnow’s teams. The Goodnow legend has by now faded, even in South Deerfield, but I will never forget the proud coach from Buckland. She was the only coach who allowed me and my grammar-school friends to shoot around on side baskets during practice. Growing up on family property abutting the school, I knew Goodnow since her first year at the school, and as an adult I supervised coverage of her teams as sports editor of the local newspaper.

Goodnow learned how to plug strong farm girls into her rosters – dependable athletes who tossed around 50-pound bags of storage potatoes on the farm like cotton candy. Goodnow made good use of her local stock. Some of them, including Mike’s older sisters, were at the service. It was more than 60 years ago when I watched them play basketball under the old rules, with six to a team, only three of whom could cross into the offensive side of half-court. (Check it out if you doubt me – I saw it with my own eyes.)

I won’t get into the days when Mike and I were young carousers, hunting deer with his father on Chestnut Mountain, digging potatoes on The Island west of Herlihy Park and Field’s Farm in Montague, bagging winter storage spuds, attending a raucous politicians’ stag party in Holyoke, and bar-hopping around town. He and wife Debbie sponsored “Spuds ‘n’ Buds, “ the men’s softball team I played for.

I learned flush-and-retrieve pheasant hunting behind his dog, Smokey, a spirited bitch who loved to chase pheasants and was good at it after living many years on a farm stocked weekly during the fall season. “Take her anytime you want,” Mike and his father implored. “She loves to hunt, is easy to handle, and retrieves birds to us all the time after catching them.”

I took them up on the offer, got the bug, and in 1980 bought my own Lab, Sugarloaf Saro Jane, from Bill Gokey – then of Leverett, now of Conway. When I was training Sara, Mike helped by calling with detailed reports about how many birds had been stocked around his farm and where. I used to hunt his family’s miserable Hopewell Swamp all the way from Christian Lane to the foot of Sugarloaf – a young man’s game that produced wild partridge and woodcock as well as stocked pheasants.

Even though we grew apart in adulthood and I saw him only rarely. We occasionally communicated by email when I was working. I will miss Mike. He was a good man with a good, caring heart. His mischievous twinkle sparkled whenever our eyes met.

When in youth I worked on my friend’s tillage and hunted his wetlands, I didn’t know how deeply stained the acreage was with my own DNA. He lived on the old Allis farm where my fourth-great grandmother was born, and owned the terraced cropland to the immediate north owned, farmed, and lived on by six generations of my direct Sanderson ancestors.

Learning of those genealogical links created in me a much deeper relationship to my pal’s family farm – introducing a spiritual dimension. Unbeknownst to me when I worked the land was that the acreage was part of my being, my blood, my soul. I believe that stuff happens for a reason and cannot be dismissed as random coincidence. Something pulled me back to the land of my forebears and inspired me to dig in and figure out my genealogical connection.

Sadly, I never got the chance to fully define for him my deep roots in his place. Too late now.


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