Saturday, July 13, 2024

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Where We Are (Part 4): Maryellen and Joe Levin, West Stockbridge

I hope you’ll take the opportunity this season to sit down with a relative or neighbor or friend, press record on your phone’s voice memo app, and ask them some questions.

Author’s Note: I conducted this interview with my neighbors Joe and Maryellen Levin, whose house faces mine, on November 8. On December 7, Joe passed away, after falling ill just three days earlier. He’d practiced law in Queens, N.Y. until retiring a few years ago. They have two sons, one of whom owns a home next to theirs. Maryellen has given me permission to publish our interview.

Maryellen: I’ve been coming [to the Berkshires] with my family since 1948, when I was six years old, renting a house on a lake in Otis. We had a place on the west side of Big Pond. The Mahaiwe, if they found something that worked, like ‘The Sound of Music,’ they would play it all summer. That’s what was playing when I was a kid. Jacob’s Pillow was great. Tanglewood, we always were there as kids. We used to bring sleeping bags in the evenings when it got cold, you know, you’d be in those, hearing the music.

Joe: I really didn’t know the Berkshires until I came to know Maryellen. [They met at the University of Vermont in the 1960s.] Her parents had come up here, and she said her aunt had a place up here and we used to come and visit her.

As soon as I came here, I really liked it, because I was from Vermont. The mountains and lakes, it’s really my kind of place. I really liked it. I really didn’t like the salt in the water in the oceans. I like to go occasionally now, but I really wasn’t big on it.

Maryellen: Joe and I started visiting Aunt Mary in Monterey, and after we were married, we still visited her. But when we had [our older son] Jonathan, it didn’t seem like we could inflict a new baby on people for weekends, so we rented our own house on Lake Garfield. Then the owner wanted it himself, so we rented a couple of other places and we finally said, ‘We better buy something.’ We bought up on Mount Hunger Road in 1980, and then in the mid ’90s, we expanded, because our family was expanding.

Joe: We were doing a lot of gardening. One of the places we had a big access to gardens, you know, our own gardening. Now we get help to do the gardening. but I just used to love it. Vegetables.

Maryellen: Yeah, the gardening was good. Joe was trying to grow corn and the raccoons got it every year. They would take one bite out of every ear.

Joe: In those days, I used to play a lot of tennis, up at Monument Mountain.

Maryellen: We both played tennis, not with each other. I think for either $25 or $50 we got a lifetime family membership to the one at Monument.

Joe: In summertime, I was not here. I was taking two weeks during the summer week, then coming up with the weekends. It was a little bit of a hassle packing stuff up and everything. But it was worth it. It was a change of pace.

[in response to a question about New York in the 70s and 80s.]

Maryellen: Joe used to capture muggers and robbers …

Joe: I used to chase people! A few times I had situations where I saw somebody either taking a woman’s purse, or someone would say, ‘Get that guy! Get that guy!’ I nailed the guy, just ran into him.

Maryellen: Once Joe and his [law] partner sat on a guy until the police came.

Joe: We saw the guy taking a radio out of a car.

Maryellen: The boys and I thought he could lay off that a little bit.

I was a teacher at the time. I usually came up the day school ended, and we’d go back Labor Day night. The boys never saw New York City for one moment in the summer. They went to Camp Hi-Rock up in Mount Washington. Once the boys got old enough so that they were staying home, or working or something, I did a lot of live theater and Jacob’s Pillow. Now Joe has joined that.

And then when did we move to Great Barrington?

Joe: I think 2005.

Mary Ellen: Yeah, it was 2005. There were two couples and two grandchildren, and we needed more space. We moved to Great Barrington on Berkshire Heights Road. We were there for 12 years. Then that house was too big. David had his own house [in West Stockbridge], Jonathan’s kids were going to camp. We were looking for a smaller house.

Dot died [Dorothy Cahill, who’d lived next to David]. We thought of fixing up Dot’s house, but we found out that it was probably going to blow off its foundation when the wind got strong. So we knocked it down, and moved it over here a little bit, and Jim [my husband] built us this beautiful house. It was started in 2017, we moved in 2018, late October, just about this time in.

Joe: We’ve been unpacking stuff since.

Maryellen: We are living happily ever. Everyone loves the house. I guess Joe retired between when we moved in here and when COVID started. We were spending more time up here. Then we were in Florida and when we got back, March 7, 2020, the kids said, ‘Go to the country, go to the country!’ We said, ‘Okay, we will, I just have a doctor’s appointment Tuesday.’

‘Hurry up, go to the country!’

We’ve basically been up here ever since. Now it’s safe to go back, I have things I do there [in the city], so I go back and forth. Joe’s a lot happier to just stay here.

Joe: I like it better here because I do play pickleball, which is a great attraction to me, and so much easier to do it here than it is in New York. Here, even though I drive to Pittsfield, it’s like 25 minutes, and it’s a nice drive. So that’s what keeps me here. I like to go back to city occasionally to see a play or do some things that I have to do, but otherwise, I’m perfectly satisfied. There’s so much to do, especially summertime, even wintertime, with plays and lectures.

We forgot to mention how we met you! Remember, on the hay ride? [The hayride at the 2012 Harvest Festival, where Joe and Maryellen were with their young grandsons, and introduced themselves to my kids, who were around the same age.]

Maryellen: We couldn’t believe it, because later that day we came here to look at the house [on my street] with David, and I was saying, ‘Aren’t those the same kids? Are they following us?’

Joe: That was so funny.

Maryellen: This neighborhood sort of bonded during COVID, and I think that started when we were standing out in the corner with the signs, thanking the health care workers, banging pots with a few of the people from around Route 41. So that’s really how we got to know a lot of people around here, through that demonstrating. Then the demonstrating changed later into Black Lives Matter and, you know, sort of morphed into more leftish political things.

Joe: Like the guy told me when I was making calls [to voters in New Hampshire] the other day, that, ‘You’re obviously in with the pinkies, you’re a rotten scoundrel, blah, blah, blah.’

Maryellen: We’ve both been doing a lot of political things. Joe mostly does them mostly with phone calls, including in 2020, and I did them mostly with postcards. I’ve worked for Berkshire Brigades, and that’s been strictly New Hampshire and Maggie Hassan and Chris Pappas. They were sort of in jeopardy, so I did many postcards. I did a lot of that. My two main interests tonight besides the whole country are Pennsylvania and New Hampshire.

Joe: Early on [in election season] while you’re talking to people on both sides, you try to sway them, to convert them, which I did a lot in Georgia. It was very interesting.

Maryellen: We’re very political, and we always have been.

Joe: A big issue for me is racial equality, to fill the gap between the rich and the poor, and Black and white people, minorities. All the hassle between people is based upon the fact that it’s racial. Some people don’t want to see people of color get past where they were, and they’re feeling that they’re getting an extra advantage, which really isn’t true. It’s like you’re starting to run a marathon, and everybody else is starting three hours before you are. You can’t win no matter how fast you run. So you have to provide certain things to recognize that you’re not playing on an equal playing field. I think that’s going to be a big issue to conquer.

Maryellen: We’ve gotten involved in some volunteer things around here. I started volunteering for the Senior Center. After they checked me so unbelievably thoroughly, they let me start to transport people. I used to do it on the days when I was here. Then later I was here more so I used to transport people to the doctor, to the supermarket.

Joe: I did that, too.

Maryellen: Remember the guy you transported who didn’t know where he was going? This guy is trying to go to the doctor …

Joe: We’re at the hospital and he says, ‘Oh, it wasn’t a hospital. It was one of the, you know, satellite offices.’ He says, ‘That looks like where I was,’ and I said, ‘Okay, go up and look.’ He said, ‘I didn’t see the doctor’s name.’ We must have gone to four different places until he finally did remember the doctor’s name, and I looked it up on my phone. That was pretty hilarious.

Maryellen: I took a woman for a year, about twice a month. She was getting teeth. She didn’t have many teeth when she started out. When I finally saw her with the teeth, she was a looker! Then they asked me if I would start visiting people. That’s a completely different thing, but I said, ‘Okay, I’ll try it.’ So I visited someone in Great Barrington for a couple of years. She had always been poor. She had no education. She grew up in New Marlborough early in the 20th century, and she told me how it was then.

I’m so sorry I didn’t tape her. They had an ice house. Her mother took in boarders, so she and her sisters had to go right home after school. She said, ‘We never played! What’s “play?” You got home from school and you started working, cooking, making beds.’ Anyway, after a couple of years, she died at home, as she wanted to. The next one I had for a couple of years. I spent a lot of time with her.

Then COVID, and the place shut everything. But in nice weather she and I used to sit at her garage door, sort of half in, half out. We sat six feet apart and talked. In the winter, we talked on the phone, maybe for an hour, twice a week, or something like that. Then she died.

Joe: I volunteer for [Multicultural BRIDGE]. I do food every Friday, you know, sorting food, delivering food. We have people in Lee, Pittsfield, Housatonic, Great Barrington, as far up as North Adams, I think. 150 people they service. In the summer a lot of local foods are distributed. I think on the whole it’s improving, but we were talking earlier about unequal opportunities. Surely the unequal opportunities are here.

In Loving Memory of M. Joseph Levin, 1940 – 2022.

Addendum: When I selected Joe and Maryellen for this series, I didn’t know about their volunteer work in Berkshire County. I’ve learned since Joe’s death that he served on the board of the Sunnyside Community Services, in Queens, as well, for which the family is inviting donations, in lieu of flowers. From their apartment in New York, Maryellen wrote me in an email, “Everybody liked him. The men who work in our building here are crying.”

Joe Levin was as good a man as any I’ve known. Losing him so unexpectedly has reminded me of the gift of these recordings I make all the time as a matter of course, as part of my job. I hope you’ll take the opportunity this season to sit down with a relative or neighbor or friend, press record on your phone’s voice memo app, and ask them some questions.

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