Ray, My fountain of youth
This Food for Thought was going to be about romance, and in a way, it is.
Ray and I met when I was fourteen, a freshman at Ramapo Regional High School, Franklin Lakes, NJ. Ray was one of my boyfriend, Jimmie’s, close-knit and small circle of friends. Every Friday night he and Ray and a few other chosen seventeen-year-old high school seniors would drive to Suffern, New York, just over the New Jersey border, where they could drink. All the guys looked eighteen and ID’s weren’t required. A few even were eighteen.
Every Friday night I would imagine the worst, drunk drivers careening into one another or crashing off narrow, dark roads as they returned to New Jersey from Suffern. Every Saturday morning I was relieved to hear my sweetheart’s voice, safely returned to me, with car crashes or death a forgotten fear until the following Friday night. Fortunately, in 1964 death and car crashes never interrupted our weekends or young lives.
I was naïve, shy and timid. I was most comfortable in the company of women, not men. Ray told me years later that he and Jimmie’s friends would make bets to see who could engage me in conversation, or at least get me to talk. I don’t think any of them ever won that bet.
When I was seventeen Jimmie and I married in my family’s beautiful stone Episcopalian Church. Ray was there, beaming, wearing a suit and a boutineer. Richie, Jimmie’s best friend and best man, was on leave from VietNam. He proudly wore his Army uniform.
In 1969 Jimmie and I moved to Vermont and Ray followed soon after with his new wife, Ruth. Ray was a gift to us. In those early homemaking days Jimmie and I loved sharing our discoveries with Ray and his bride. We introduced them to our favorite haunts, our Vermont treasures and secret places. I taught Ruthie how to make jam, maple syrup, can vegetables, and imbued a love of poetry and writing in her. She and I rode horses together all over the Vermont hills, stopping to pick wild strawberries for jam. Jimmie taught Ray the best back roads in Reading, from the Jenne farm to ancient logging trails. We showed Ray and Ruthie Twenty-Foot, our favorite swimming hole, deep in the Reading woods. We were a foursome of friendship. Recently Ray sent me a photo on Facebook writing, “Janie, looks like twenty-foot, doesn’t it?” It did, memories flooded back, as always, to those magical Vermont days of our youth.
In 1970 Ray introduced me to pot, which started me talking and opened my mind to endless possibilities in my head and in my world. I became convoluquacious, started to talk and never stopped.
Ray and I last talked on November 26. He retrieved his favorite memory, that first time he got me stoned. “Janie, remember?” Of course I remembered. How could I forget that Sunday afternoon, our foursome in friendship, in front of our fireplace in Reading, Vermont, getting stoned, the moment I started talking. Over the years, Ray had looked at me in befuddlement, that mischievous grin on his face, raised eyebrows, questioning gaze, remembering that special moment in our history. “Janie, What happened to you? You used to be so quiet. Now you never shut up.” I always replied the same way, “It’s your fault, Ray. You got me stoned for the first time. You started me talking.” Without fail, we laughed at the memory, then drew quiet. Remembering.
Through the years we shared joys and heartbreaks but we always made one another laugh. How I loved his laughter. He became my touchstone to our shared pain of divorce. We suffered together, but apart, adrift from one another in our personal grief.
By 1975 I had moved from Vermont and Ray and I had lost touch with one another. Our mutual grief was too great an expanse to keep us connected, too great a valley between the canyons of our different lives.
Years passed. In 1992, as with all women who are madly in love, I wanted to share my new love with my oldest friends. Tim and I traveled from Tampa, to California, and finally to Vermont, renewing friendships along the way. Woodstock, Vermont, was our final destination.
I was nervous when we walked into the Pine Room Tavern at the Woodstock Inn, where Ray had been tending bar since I worked there in 1970. Tim and I sat at one of the lovely old scarred tavern tables in the shadows. I spied on the bartender and was thrilled to see that it was Ray.
I asked Tim to order my martini at the bar. Ray was his usual affable bartender self, chatting Tim up, looking around to see who this guy was buying a martini for. Ray turned to shake, not stir my martini as Tim returned to our table. Ray waltzed up to the table, bar towel over his arm, tray with my martini overhead, looked at me and said, “Janie? Is that you?” Along with my martini our friendship was refreshed. As though twenty years had not lapsed between us, our love for one another was brand new, all over again.
Over the following years we visited back and forth, Tim and I to Vermont, Ray and his new wife, Jayne, to Oregon and Tampa. This October visit to Vermont something had changed with Ray. He hadn’t been feeling well and was deeply concerned with his health and future, which frightened me. I reassured him. We would tell another story and laugh again.
But underlying our worries and laughter something was different. Ray was angry with me. He had never been angry with me, not ever. A gentle man, I had never known Ray to raise his voice. He showed anger only when pushed. I understood the reason behind Ray’s feelings. He was hurt as I didn’t want to spend the night at the farmhouse. I never told him the true reason for not wanting to stay: I was afraid to walk down the narrow, steep flight of stairs in the middle of the night to visit the bathroom. I imagined myself crashing down the steps, waking everyone up, breaking bones. Not a pretty sight I wanted to share with Ray or Jayne. At the time I knew Ray and Jayne would have given up their own bed downstairs, which I couldn’t bear to force them to do. I remained silent. Now, I wish I hadn’t.
Ray finally warmed up. We returned to the hearth of our friendship and drove through color on the hallowed lanes of memories. Ray stared intently at the roads he knew so well, as though he were memorizing each tree blazing with color, each turn on the dirt lanes, each farmhouse and field.
My mother had done the same on our drive down Bayshore Boulevard, many years before. She had said, “Janie, I just want to drive down Bayshore one more time to look at the water, the views.” I looked at her in surprise. “What are you talking about, Mom? You’ll be here again and we’ll always take this drive.” She didn’t say a word, just stared intently at the water. I didn’t know it at the time, but that day was her last visit to my home. I didn’t connect the dots between my mother and Ray, both staring out the car windows at their most cherished views. Would it have made any difference if I had?
Our leaf-peeper trip ended perfectly. Ray and I walked up the hill to the Whales Tails sculpture in Randolph, Vermont. We held hands and reminisced, pulling out old memories, like photographs from an ancient photo album. We talked of how special our friendship was, how many years it spanned, and how much we loved one another. I would catch Ray looking at me, head cocked, with that mischievous grin on his face. With a chuckle, he said, “Janie, what happened to you? You used to be so quiet.” I would play my role in our old play, “It’s your fault, Ray…”
We reached the top of the hill and posed under the Whale’s Tail sculpture as Tim took our photo, which I emailed to Ray later. He loved the photo and said, “That was a wonderful day, Janie, it was perfect.” I have to agree.
We returned to the farmhouse where Ray warmed up his famous spaghetti sauce he had prepared two days earlier on his beloved Home Comfort stove. As he stirred his sauce and bustled around the kitchen Ray told us the history of the old stove, purchased 130 years earlier by the original owners of Ray and Jayne’s farmhouse. The ancestors of the original owners had recently visited Ray and Jayne’s home, sharing the story of their Home Comfort stove.
Around 1890 the Home Comfort stove had been carried in a mule-driven wagon thirty-seven miles over dirt roads from Middlebury, Vermont, to the farmhouse in Bethel. The delivery was begun before daybreak on the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, allowing the delivery drivers time to return to their homes in daylight. At the time, the stove cost $63. I weighs 600 pounds.
The Home Comfort was Ray's pride and joy, the heart of his home. Over the years Ray and Jayne made countless meals on the old stove: soups, stews, as well as his famous spaghetti sauce. Jayne baked bread and made gourmet meals on this stove. I roasted a chicken in its oven as Ray loaded the Home Comfort with wood to keep the temperature steady. Ray had replaced the stove's brick base and foundation. He doted on the old stove, knew all it's moods and idiosyncrasies. It was the most well-used part of the old house, especially when temperatures dipped. It warmed the kitchen and all our hearts. (To see the history of the Home Comfort Iron Range, go to: tinyurl.com/2pspxabd.)
Ray was a master craftsman and could repair, build or fix anything, from buildings, to plumbing, electrical to his beloved bright red El Camino. He pretty much rebuilt the farmhouse from top to bottom. The old farmhouse screams of Ray’s talent and connection to beauty with all his hard work and masterly talent. The house, pond and surrounding fields look like a calendar picture, every day of the year. His Christmas gift to Jayne this year was a mantle made from the finest wood, carved and finished with love. Jayne told me, “He was so proud of that mantle, and so happy it was finished before Christmas.”
Ray loved Christmas and decorating for the holiday. He sent me a photo recently of his first Christmas decorations, his small red Christmas trees that lit up when switched on. With the photo he wrote, “First decorations up.” The little trees, the lights he put in the windows and all his holiday touches reminds me of him and Jayne’s favorite painter, Thomas Kincaid.
On December second Ray crashed to the floor in front of his beloved Home Comfort stove and died. I imagine he was starting a fire to warm up the house for Jayne, loving till the end. Everyone who knew Ray, and there were many, feel the pain of his loss, but none more than Jayne. She told me recently, “He never knew what a presence he was in so many lives. He was everyone’s best friend and never believed it.”
Jayne knows that Ray’s presence is still in their beloved home. Every night, one of his little red Christmas trees turns itself on. Jayne turns it off, only for it to turn back on again. The other two little trees do not light up, only one. The other night Jayne, being unable to sleep, wandered around the house at 1:15 am. As she walked from their bedroom to the kitchen the house was dark. When she returned to the living room the little red Christmas tree turned on. This time, Jayne didn’t turn it off. She told me, “If he wants his favorite tree turned on, it’s going to stay on.”
I’m the only one left in our years of friendship to play my role in our shared play, “Ray, remember the time…” Only in my heart will he answer, “Janie, what happened to you? You used to be so quiet….”
There’s a hole in my heart that can never be filled…
Ray and Jayne's wedding photo
The farm, 2007 Getting ready for winter, stacking Ray's ten cords of wood 2007
The Pine Room
Front Porch, October 8, 2021
Dale, Ray, Dale's son and Jayne, when the farmhouse was red 1975?
Spinnaker Cove, Tampa, 1999
Road Trip, 2007, to Lake George
*Author’s Note: Ray was Ron, one of the main characters in my memoir, Writing in Wet Cement, and in my life.