Fight to Transform Sorrow Into Joy

My son at Yaddo in July 2014.

My son at Yaddo in July 2014.

On 24 July 2014 Yaddo, the artist retreat in Saratoga Springs, New York, was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Exactly thirty years after my first visit, I brought my oldest son, then six years old, with me to the ceremony. It was his first visit to Yaddo. To look our best, we had dressed in matching starched white shirts and shorts. But a child’s a child, and we’d decided that, before touring the mansion together, we needed to dip our feet in the “Sleepy Naiads” fountain. The water was cold and clear.

“Brr,” he said, pulling his small, perfect feet out.

I passed him his stockings. We sat in the grass. I handed him his shoes. “You make the ears,” he explained.

“Then you jump through the hole, right?” I asked.

“Uh huh. And then you pull the ears tight,” he said, pulling on his shoelaces with a look of satisfaction.

I looked up. At the top of the hill, framed by cloudless blue sky, sat the Yaddo mansion. His attention shifted from his shoelaces to follow my gaze.

“Papa?”

“Yes, honey.”

“How did the Trask children die?” he asked.

I looked back down at the grass, deciding how much of the story he is old enough to hear.

“There were four of them. They all died before they were teenagers,” I said. His eyes widened.

“Do you really want to hear this?” He nodded gravely.

“One lived only 12 days.” He shook his head in wonder: “Like the ‘Other Daron,’ Papa?” He was talking about my namesake, who lived only three days, and died of birth defects.

“Yeah,” I answered.

“No wonder you love this place so much,” he said.

“More than you know, son,” I said.

“So, tell me,” he said, placing his hand on my beard the way that I sometimes stroke his cheek.

“The oldest child had Uncle Kevin’s middle name, Alanson,” I began.

He looked up at the house as I spoke. “He died of some childhood disease. The middle children were Christina and Spencer Jr. At some point when they were children, they caught Diphtheria kissing their Mama goodbye.”

He turned suddenly, and asked, “Did their Mama die, too?”

“No,” I answered, their mama Katrina was okay.

He threw his arms around me, and began to cry. “It’s okay, baby,” I said, stroking his hair.

He looked up at me, and asked, “What happened to the last one?” I pulled him close. He buried his head in my chest.

President of the Corporation of Yaddo Elaina Richardson speaks to the press on 24 July 2014, the day Yaddo was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

President of the Corporation of Yaddo Elaina Richardson speaks to the press on 24 July 2014, the day Yaddo was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

“The last child was named Katrina. She lived only nine days.”

After awhile, we gathered up our things and walked to the car. "Can we come back, Papa?"

"Not only can we return, we must," I told him firmly, digging my chin into the top of his head as I held him, tears falling into his hair's golden ringlets.

"Why, Papa?"

I looked at him—his tender, small frame just beginning to flesh out with the wiry strength of the man into whom he'd grow, and I thought to myself that Life is fragile, that Art is fragile, too; I thought that the Loud drown out the Rest most of the time, but that Art, so simultaneously ephemeral and eternal, like Love, can do more than prompt a tyrant's tears; it can give strength and hope to those fighting for a better world for our kids, a safer place to bring them up, a more tolerant mindset, more open hearts.

My son's a fighter, I thought, I hoped, I prayed; he'll do Good. He'll be ... okay. My thoughts evaporated like mist. I couldn't hold them together. I can only hope. But I can also fight for places like Yaddo that support Artists. Yaddo, I thought, and the work that is done here, has never been more vital to preserving the fabric of our country.

I had to look away from him, and up the hill towards the house, as I formulated a simpler answer, an answer that, hopefully, even a child might understand.

"Because Yaddo," I whispered, "is a place where sorrow is transformed into joy."