In memory of Sally Hale
When I was five years old my parents moved to Lexington, Massachusetts. My first friend, so my oldest friend, was my next door neighbor Sally Hale, the mom of the twin boys next door Ezra and Caleb, two years older than me and the same age as my brother. Sally, who also had two older boys, so four altogether, took me under her wing as the daughter she never had. I understand that so well now that I have three sons and the boy downstairs from us has a sister. I want to adopt her, I want her to always feel welcome in my home and part of the Sunday morning pancakes ritual (she is).
I grew up in Lexington, not moving away until college, and Sally and her family were an essential part of my life. Looking back at it now it was pretty amazing; Sally and Ken were lefties, had parties with Noam Chomsky and other activists (Ken was a linguist at M.I.T.), they were super involved with all sorts of underrepresented groups through Ken’s field work with various undocumented and mostly dying languages. I have a story about Ken, which may be a myth but gives you an idea of the values I was exposed to.
Ken was called as an expert witness in Australia on the question of whether some indigenous people had the rights to land. The court wanted documented evidence that they had been there for so many thousands of years to grant the rights, but they didn’t have any written records. Ken, being an expert on evolution of languages, argued that due to the aspects of their language compared to the languages in the area, he could confirm their location there for much longer. They got the land.
As a child, of course, I didn’t know anything about politics or even much about human rights, so my experience with them was through their everyday life. I was always invited in to Sally’s house (it was the family’s house but it was really Sally’s house), and the warmth and kindness they bestowed on each other and me made me visit often, if not every day during certain times, especially when my brother and Caleb and Ezra regularly played D&D.
Sally introduced me to music, a gift I will always thank her for, a private world of unrestrained beauty, which was particularly precious to me because outside of this world I was a chubby, nerdy misfit. She taught me to play the penny whistle when I was 5 or 6, and encouraged me to start the piano when I was 7. She taught me to sing rounds (“hey ho nobody home”) and seemed to never get tired of singing them with me. Sometimes she’d take out her guitar and sing old 60’s folk songs about peace and love and teach me to harmonize. When I started playing the violin, I would play fiddle tunes in the evenings on the porch with Ken. We even entered fiddle contests together a few times (we never won anything but we were proud to be part of it).
Sally knitted me mittens to keep my hands warm as I went sledding in her backyard with Caleb and Ezra and my brother. She knitted during movies we would all go to together downtown. For me, listening to the click click clicks coming from her knitting needles in the complete darkness of the movie was a kind of miracle. She later taught me to knit, and we spent many hours in my adulthood talking about knitting and sharing yarn and tips.
Sally was an expert seamstress and taught me to sew, and sewed me clothes when I was little and even helped me sew a dress for myself in graduate school. She loved going to house auctions and would buy beautiful little objects which came from some old lady’s sewing kits. Later when I started sewing and knitting for my kids she gave me some of her auction buttons, collections of perfect little white pearls strung together on ancient string. I still have some.
Sally baked; she’d call us in from outside to give us kids thick slabs of bread, still warm from the oven, with butter and cinnamon sugar for a snack. We’d be sitting on the kitchen stools, eager to get back to sledding, or flashlight tag, or hanging out on the tree fort, eating our delicious bread with some hot cocoa and having no idea of how lucky we all were.
I remember when Sally decided to get a degree in nursing. In fact I thought she was already qualified for absolutely anything, considering how ridiculously competent she was at everything involving nurturing and healing, but she explained to me how much she needed to study. I remember helping her quiz herself on anatomy, with a huge book with mysterious pictures of the human body.
Sally showed me the delights of creation and creativity and of nurturing them both. When I think about how to have kids, how to have a happy family, I think about her method of making sure the basic materials are there, fostering a supporting environment, fostering the desire and the know-how, and then letting go. She did all that for me, and I’m so grateful.
I am very lucky I was able to see Sally recently. I visited her after math camp ended, and I brought my two older sons with me to see her. I also got to see Ezra with his happy family. It was nice to be able to surround her with abundance, evidence of her legacy of warmth and creation. She passed away recently and I am honored to speak at her memorial service this coming weekend. I’m honored to have been so loved by her.