Over the years, I’ve found that honoring gifts is a way to heal the grief that accompanies death – and sometimes it takes the death of a loved one to understand their full influence on my life.
So in that tradition, I want to honor a few of the gifts that Peter Gott – my step-dad — bestowed on me during my formative years. And now, I realize, throughout my life.
When I was around six, Peter showed up on the scene and several years later married my Mom. To be with him, we moved from New York City to a cozy, bucolic New England town in northwest corner of Connecticut. Until I left for college, he was a constant presence, almost greater than life. One who was there through the thick and thin – through some major life milestones as well as some heart wrenching tragedies.
Many have known him as “The Doctor in the House,” the author of a multitude of books…or a family doctor who actually made house calls any hour of the day or night.
But I literally had him as the doctor in MY house who could cure an ear infection in a flash or offer a hankie when I was in meltdown mode. Whose fingers could flit over piano keys and envelop a room with dreamy Broadway tunes. He regularly channeled the great jazz pianist, Oscar Peterson.
He played a mean game of tennis, and was relentless in teaching me to drive. He was a negotiator, a doctor, a writer, an auto aficionado, a friend, a Dad, and a really lousy cook (at least in the early years). He was also complex, and very human…and as it turns out, ultimately mortal. Who knew?
Growing up, he’d built a house in the woods in the early 70s in the rolling hills of Lakeville…and the endless acres of wilderness became my refuge. I spent hours and hours playing there, searching for bobcats (the cave!), pitching a tent outside the house, playing in streams, wandering aimlessly and never getting lost.
But my most memorable outdoor adventures were with Peter and my family – blazing trails, cross-country skiing up the back of Mt. Riga, ice-skating on our pond, building igloos from snow drifts, and hiking near the reservoir. In the wintertime, I lived in the Land of Narnia…this beautiful wilderness we called home. From these cherished moments evolved my deepest reverence for the natural world — a place to escape, a place where I’m never alone.
Today, as I quietly hiked through the redwoods in the Oakland Hills of Northern California, I was again inspired by the views as the songbirds mourned with me. I reflected on my family, our friends, and on the loss of Peter. The gentle breeze touched breathtaking trees, reminding me of the early years in “our woods.”
I never realized what an enormous impact Peter had on me – and who I am – until now. As with any parent, we ARE part of them, and although we weren’t related by blood, he deeply influenced my life and my love of nature.
I moved West to be close to spectacular views, the outdoors, balanced with the grit of urban life. I now share that love of nature with others as an environmental educator, as he was in his own way.
Thank you, Peter, for helping me become the person I am today.
A poem in his memory, by Mary Wood:
My help is in the mountain
Where I take myself to heal
The earthly wounds
That people give to me.
I find a rock with sun on it
And a stream where the water runs gentle
And the trees which one by one give me company.
So I must stay for a long time
Until I have grown from the rock
And the stream is running through me
And I cannot tell myself from one tall tree.
Then I know that nothing touches me
Nor makes me run away.
My help is in the mountain
That I take away with me.