Claiming Our Place at the Fire

What appears below was published recently in Neighbors of Batavia magazine.

On July 13, separated by a mere 22 minutes, calls arrived at the Batavia Fire Department announcing that the community it had lost two of its elders. On that warm summer day, we lost one who, through her extraordinary life of generosity, created much of the history that makes me so proud to call this enclave my home…and we lost one who chronicled our story and brought our history to life through her generous and precise use of language.

I knew Mildred Bailey for most of the years I have lived in Batavia. It was impossible to walk the streets of the town for very long before witnessing the joy left in the wake of her activity. A day seldom passed when she failed to turn to her husband and say, “Let’s go Roy, we have work to do.” They were instrumental in the success of the Interfaith Food Pantry and Clothes Closet. Even as she died, Mildred was searching for apparel so the less fortunate amongst us would be prepared for the new school year. However, her most endearing legacy will live in the hearts of thousands of children delighted by the toys and clothes they found lovingly placed in their homes Christmas morning. She and Ruth Johnsen inspired an army of citizens to donate, sort and distribute a mountain of gifts every year.

Marilyn Robinson inspired a generation of Batavians as a teacher at Batavia High School. When she left teaching, she abandoned plans to retire to Arizona because the pull of the community she claimed as her own was far too strong. She had grown to love this place too much for it to fade into her past. It was to become the entirety of her remaining days and all of us were to become enrolled in it. She and Jeff Schielke undertook the task of rewriting the tale of Batavia, originally penned by John Gustafson. Marilyn contributed, along with the facts of our past, her passion for the accuracy of ways the fibers were woven into our story. As a result we know better from where we have come, and have a stronger and more majestic foundation for the journey into our future.

As I tried to comprehend the magnitude of our collective loss on that July day, I was drawn to a favorite book: Claiming Your Place at the Fire by Leider and Shapiro. In this work, the authors remind us that in tribal cultures, the elders—the men and women of wisdom—were offered places nearest the evening fire as a way to honor the lessons and wisdom life had bestowed upon them. The remainder of the tribe took positions behind them, further from the flames of the fire, but close to the flames of wisdom emanating from the minds and hearts of the wise ones.

I wish I could journey back to July 12 so I could build a fire. I long for one last opportunity to invite Mildred and Marilyn to sit in that place of honor nearest the flames so they would know the love and deep respect I had for them. I wish too, there were still time to ask them to share with me the lessons and wisdom they harvested during the many seasons of their lives. But I have lost that precious opportunity.

But the future has now opened to us in another way. With the passing of these elders, we have two places at the fire. I am left to wonder if we have the generosity to turn to the one next to us and ask them to move closer to its flames by encouraging them to share something of the wisdom they, and only they, possess. And I wonder if we have enough respect for ourselves to summon the courage and humility required to share the wisdom we have been given. Mildred and Marilyn are looking down, hoping we do.

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1 thought on “Claiming Our Place at the Fire”

  1. Roger – I commented yesterday on one of your prior writings, so I came back today for another “look see”…

    and now you have totally hooked me
    :^)

    ps -thank you for the wonderful, traditional “tales”!

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