Ralph Gardner Jr: An Hour Of Grace

Apr 21, 2018

Exactly one year ago my commentary involved a walk I took at the start of migratory season with birder and WAMC contributor Elisabeth Grace. Our walk occurred at Ooms Pond in Chatham, NY.

I’m writing about Elisabeth again at the start of another migratory season, to remember her after attending a celebration of her life last weekend at the Old Chatham Friends Meetinghouse. It’s a few minutes drive from the site of our bird walk.

Elisabeth died in February after a brief battle with cancer.

I frankly didn’t know her that well. Certainly not nearly as well as the hundred or so friends who gathered last Saturday to remember her. Besides our bird walk my relationship with her was mostly as an admirer of “The Birder’s Corner,” the column that she and her late partner Kate Dunham wrote for several decades in our local newspaper, the Chatham Courier. 

Both women were beautiful writers with an evident passion for the natural world. But what made them worth reading, besides the loveliness and precision of their prose, was the sense that their observations were underpinned by a profound moral compass. 

Their love of birds and other living things was but one manifestation of that morality, the tip of the iceberg.

That intuition was reinforced as I attended the celebration of Elisabeth’s life and listened to speaker after speaker share their memories of her. 

I believe this was the first time I’d ever attended a Quaker meeting. For those who haven’t it goes something like this: you enter the Meeting room, take a seat – they were arranged in a rectangle – and settle into meditation.

There’s no formal order of service. Anyone who wants to rises and speaks if moved to do so. Many did. And not just speak. One woman sang a song that reminded her of Elisabeth. Another recited a poem from memory. 

The reminiscences -- each was distinct and distinctly personal -- formed a narrative thread. Some came from people who had known Elisabeth for years, others who had met her more recently; one woman struck up a friendship that included bird watching trips to Maine after hearing one of Elisabeth’s commentaries on WAMC and contacting her.

And in the end, they communicated an impression of the woman as powerful as if a minister had led a service followed by a dozen eulogies. 

Elisabeth was born in Great Britain, fled London during the war and was shuttled between families in the English countryside, some more hospitable than others. She became a social worker and moved to the United States in the early 1970’s.

These days almost any gathering – whether it’s a religious service or a dinner party – can’t help escape politics. Even if current events aren’t spoken, they loiter in the background, for many of us a trigger for indignation.

It’s also in these times that lives lived honorably and well, some portion of it in the humble service of others, who choose beauty over ugliness, love over hate, seem to resonate and ripple out into the world more forcefully than ever.

It was evident from the speakers that, while Elisabeth didn’t suffer fools easily, the ripples from her example, the way she lived her life, radiated outward, touching others, lending them, no pun intended, a measure of grace.

One speaker was reminded of Elisabeth when she found several perfect seeds in the bottom of her rain gauge and wanted to call her friend to ask what they were and whether she had any idea where they might have come from. 

Another would have wanted to report the return of a phoebe building a nest on her porch. 

It seems that there was little involving the natural world that Elisabeth wasn’t knowledgeable and could provide insight and answers about. 

Someone reported spotting a beautiful fox that reminded her of Elisabeth’s presence. Another speaker got a laugh when he said his associations regarding the fox were less pure since the same fox had dispatched one his chickens that morning.

But the point was that Elisabeth’s spirit lingered, not just at the Meetinghouse, but through its large, clean windows where the still bare branches of trees swayed in the wind.

Others recalled her work as a volunteer with the Columbia Land Conservancy and the Alan Devoe bird club. Among her responsibilities was to rustle up volunteers to make sure the feeders were filled throughout the winter. She also attended a memoir writing class at the local library. And at eighty signed up to volunteer with an adult literacy program in Hudson, NY. 

And she trained her Welsh corgi, Cole, as a therapy dog and made visits to hospitals.

If it’s unseasonably cold, as it has been in these parts this spring, there’s a tendency to lament the death of a person before they could watch the trees bud anew. On the other hand, if they’d survived to see the season’s beauty it’s a pity they had to leave so soon.

My hunch is that Elisabeth Grace didn’t think that way. She could find the miraculous anywhere and in any season. One speaker reported that in her Albany hospital room she drew the staff’s attention through her window to a small speck on a distant tree. She identified it as a bald eagle. 

Elisabeth was birding to the end.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.