By Rosalie Tirella
A few weeks ago Greg Stockmal of Vernon Hill passed away at the oh-so-young age of 56. I didn’t know Greg from the ‘hood – even though I lived a two-minute drive from his and his wife Carol’s Woodford Street home. I came at Greg from a different angle – the poetry angle, specifically the spare, lovely blank verse of the late Stanley Kunitz. Kunitz, an internationally known, multi-award winning poet (including the Pulitzer) was born and bred in Worcester’s Vernon Hill neighborhood – right in Greg and Carol’s home. The Worcester of his youth figures prominently in many of Kunitz’s most memorable poems, including “Three Floors,” “The Portrait” and “My Mother’s Pears.”
His mother Yetta owned a factory on nearby Green Street (The Parisian Wrapper Company) and he attended Worcester Academy. When Kunitz graduated high school, he took off for Harvard University and never looked back. That is, he never came back to live in Worcester and, for much of his life, took pains to avoid his birthplace, literally driving around Wormtown rather than passing through her.
Kunitz’s Worcester poems were about his not-so-happy childhood: his father’s suicide, his lonliness, a slap to the face by his mother wanting to forget the tragic past. Most of the incidents in the poems occurred in or around the Vernon Hill home (and back yard) that Greg and Carol bought years ago and turned into a kind of living shrine to Kunitz.
I do not mean this to sound macabre or weird. It was great to visit the Stockmal/Kunitz residence! You walked into the place and right away you knew you had walked into the young Kunitz’s home, too. You saw Kunitz’s young life in the Stockmals’ lives. You saw his passions in theirs; his love of gardening was Greg and Carol’s. It was touching. The past made present – touchably alive.
I first met Greg and Carol five or so years ago when I was fairly new at this InCity Times business. I was doing a cover story on Kunitz and his life in the Kunitz/Stockmal home. Poems and photos were to be included, too.
I arrived at the Woodford Street home in the middle of the afternoon and was greeted warmly by the couple. Greg was big and tall and had this great mullet hair cut – he seemed more punk rocker than anything else with his cool hair style, blue jeans and striped tee-shirt. Carol was (still is) a long-haired beauty. Greg showed me to the kitchen, I sat at their vintage kitchen table and Carol made me a cup of herbal tea.
Greg told me he was a member of the Worcester County Poetry Association and the Worcester Historical Commission – not exactly the kind of clubs most Vernon Hill folks belonged to – but he didn’t seem at all snobby. He was fun loving and kinda michievous. He giggled! Like when he told me how he offered the Worcester Historical Museum Kunitz’s baby high-chair and Mr. Wallace, the museum’s director, said he’d pick it up. Well, according to Greg, Wallace stood the couple up, never coming to pick up the high chair. So they weren’t donating it! It was as if Wallace was so dismissive of the great poet that the Stockmals decided he was not worthy to touch his high chair!
Kunitz was special to the Stockmals. They visited him in New York City and the Cape (his homes) and he visited them in Worcester. Every year they sent him pears from the Kunitz pear tree that Stanley and his mother planted in their Woodford Street backyard almost a century ago. Kunitz even mentions the Stockmals in his poem, “My Mother’s Pears.” He writes of the Stockmals:
“…These strangers are my friends/whose kindness blesses the house/my mother built at the edge of town … ”
Kunitz was at the end of his almost 101 year life when he was ready to make peace with Worcester. The Stockmals helped him do that.
You could see how they had entwined their lives with Kunitz’s. They bought the house in 1979; in the 2004 interview she did with this paper, Carol said it was in such bad shape “it was almost condemned.” They renovated and refurbished it lovingly. Greg removed 40 pounds of paint (many layers!) to get to the home’s original wood and beams. “The woodwork was black, there was so much varnish,” Greg told me.
The couple restored it to its original beauty. Then they did more by visiting estate sales for furniture that dated back to the years that the Kunitz lived in the home. They wanted to recreate his life – what the place looked like when he was young. Antiques, collectibles that look turn of the century old, even a baby grand piano were brought into the house to duplicate the Kunitz home.
At one point Greg and Carol told me – as if it were the most natural thing in the world – that the Woodford Street home was inhabitated by ghosts – ghosts from Kunitz’s and others’ past.
“There’s an orb” around the house, Carol told me. “[Deceased] people like to come back to the house.”
“There’s been running up the front stairs … ,”Greg told me. “Stanley summed it up: it’s called companion spirits.”
I didn’t know what to make of this, but I felt that the “companion spirits” added a little something to the house. This lapsed Catholic decided: Well, who isn’t haunted by ghosts? Who (me included!) isn’t living with their pasts swirling right in front of them? (check out my essays about my father!)
Carol told me stories. Stories of a household servant that little Stanley had a crush on (and later wrote a poem about), stories of the pear tree right outside that Stanley had helped his mother plant (and later wrote a poem about). The Stockmals sought to recreate the scenes that the poems depicted – this was truly cool! A poem about a piano his sister played – and there sat a baby grand piano that the Stockmals bought to illustrate the poem! In the same place where it had been when Kunitz’s sister played her tune! It was wonderful to go upstairs to Kunit’z old bedroom. The Stockmals had a photo of a young Stanley on the wall – it was a black and white portrait. Kunitz looks very serious in it. And lonely. The bed’s cover, the wall paper – everything harked back to the early 20th century. It looked ready for a young Stanley Kunitz to come running to, tears welling up in his eyes, fists clenched or opened.
The Stockmals also had paintings by Kunitz’s wife, a painter and artist in her own right, on their walls. The old couple had given them to the young couple, tokens of their affection – and appreciation. They knew the Stockmal home was a shrine to Kunitz. They also gifted the Stockmals with hand- written letters and poems. Greg was sooo careful when showing me one of Kunitz’s letters to them. He handled it as if it were priceless – and it was! They had – I am sure – shown the letter, the memorobilia, the Kunitz portrait hundreds of times to visitors. After all, they had opened their home to students and lovers of poetry for years.
Now things will be different. Greg won’t be there to keep the home looking beautiful. He won’t be there to lead the tours of the house and talk of Stanley – never lecturing. It is so heartbreaking: Carol had found the perfect mate – a true soul mate – and now he is gone. The love of her life.
But is Greg truly gone? Has he left Woodford Street forever? Maybe not. Maybe he, along with Kunitz, who passed away a few years ago, is there in the home, among the portraits and poems and pears … a lover of all things Worcester.