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Guestwords: Coming of Age

Wed, 04/28/2021 - 19:05

When I turned 21 I received a note from my paternal grandmother that said it was time I got married. My grandparents, and parents, had married when of age, I should too. Her admonition made me nervous. I wasn’t ready for that.

At age 42 I wrote a brief poem titled “Twice Coming of Age.” The sentiment expressed a reassessment typically occurring in the middle years. I had married finally at age 31. Now it was going to be divorce, often a sign of the second coming of age. Except this was not for a younger woman. I was beginning, but only just beginning, to see that I might be gay. Perhaps picking up on that unconsciously, my wife left with another man. The turbulence of midlife.

I might then have written another poem at age 84. Twice coming of age, twice. But I missed the date. I will soon be 87.

Another marker. By the end of this current year I will have lived in Amagansett and Springs for 40 years. That’s a nice biblical number that signifies a journey of time, including its spiritual tests. Over the period of those years I have written several volumes of history of the Amagansett Presbyterian Church and one book of history of the Springs Presbyterian Church.

Along the way, digging into one thing and another historically, I unearthed some interesting facts. For example, here is the record of the first marriage officiated in the Amagansett Presbyterian Church: “March 18, 1861. At Amagansett. Sylvester Pharoah, King of the Montauk Indians, to Jerusha Pharoah of Montauk L.I.” The entry was signed by the first minister of the church, the Rev. A.A. Haines — Alanson Austin Haines.

Now, isn’t it fun to discover something like that? A.A. Haines resigned from the church to take the place of his brother, Thomas Ryerson Haines, who was killed in Virginia in the Civil War. From New Jersey originally, Reverend Haines became chaplain of the 15th Regiment of New Jersey Volunteers. From his notes in the field, mostly in northern Virginia, he wrote a history of his regiment, published in 1883 and recently reprinted. Who knew? Now you do, whether of interest or not. That’s history for you.

The Springs Presbyterian Church may not have so colorful a history, but what I have found is that the men and women of that place skillfully and faithfully have sailed their bay, weathering small craft warnings, for nearly 140 years.

Then there’s living history, conversations and interviews with people in which, as a pastor over the years, I heard a few things I didn’t put into the books. Private stuff, like the several wives of Dr. Fred Finch, who was the son of another minister of the Amagansett Church, James Byron Finch. I listened attentively to Adelaide Finch Lizza of Amagansett, daughter of Fred, granddaughter of James Byron. History might be dull otherwise. Clearly, it’s people who make it interesting.

Then there’s my history, which may be of interest only to myself, or my son, Tom. And not to bore you with it, except to note this in reflection. I think my interest in history, as in the history of these churches, is an extension of looking into my history. Who am I?

That gets back to coming of age at 21, twice coming of age at 42, and wherever I am now, going on 87. I find the questions of youth, and middle age, are the same in old age. What’s different is the perspective. Then there’s the fun of putting it all together in an arc of telling that borders on fiction in the sense of story. My story, perhaps not of interest to you, but by association with you — your story as you think about yourself.

Now that I feel safe to travel again, I will go out to Clear Lake, Iowa, in July to visit my friend Dick and our mutual friend Sally. We and a few others were The Gang in our childhood, and we continued to call ourselves that into our adult years with our children. I met Dick the summer of 1941, the nation holding onto peace before war, but on the edge.

Dick and I didn’t know anything about being on the edge, except once while horsing around with him along a wall by the lake I fell off and banged my teeth good, to use a colloquial expression. When I visit him this summer, he and I will celebrate 80 years of friendship. Sally too, though she was only 3 in 1941, becoming a friend of my sister, Diane.

Where is this essay going? It doesn’t have a neat conclusion because I don’t yet have a neat conclusion either. But, really, I think that’s the point. Life is ongoing. While obviously I spend time in the past given my years, and write of it in other histories by association, I look forward. I’m not speaking of heaven, either. I leave that to God, though I admit I like John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress.”

Healthy religious constructs, especially with a future reference, can project a frame of reference back from an imagined future into the present, providing not only structure and direction but redemptive value. With all that, I focus at present on the pleasures, and pain, of living. And the mystery of it. Why wrap it all up into neat conclusions? Impossible, anyway.

The loose ends are the mystery. I decorate my imagination with loose ends, like ribbons at a birthday party. Coming of age.

The Rev. Robert Stuart is pastor emeritus of the Amagansett Presbyterian Church. He lives in Springs.


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