Monday, March 16, 2009

His name is Garrett

Before their home became the front line where love and pain collide, this is how they imagined grandparenthood:

Donna Pensabene, 51, would still be the cheery traveler driving her zippy little Pontiac Fiero two-seater around the winding roads of Saratoga County. Her husband Larry, 56, would be talking in earnest (as opposed to in jest) about retirement. They'd relax. The Fiero is gone. Donna Pensabene now drives a clunky Chrysler 300M four-seater, big enough to fit a child and his many pieces of sports equipment. And Larry Pensabene won't be able to retire any time in the foreseeable future, because they need his full income for obvious reasons: The Pensabenes are grandparents raising a grandchild.

The child is 8. His name is Garrett. He has freckles. He loves motorbikes, skiing and wrestling with his grandfather. Garrett is hugging his grandfather now.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Dead man talking

By Felix Carroll

On a late afternoon of blue-bright skies and a cool summer breeze — without even a hint of low, spooky mist or a sharp cry of a raven — what would possess Tom Daly to be a dead man?

He clutches his velvet lapels and rocks on his heels. He takes off his top hat and traces its brim.

"I feel obligated to let other people know who was here," he says, in a voice that tends to crack between syllables. "Maybe just to give people a moment to pause and appreciate folks who came before us."

The guy lives for cemeteries. For 10 years now, Daly, 40, of Pittsfield, has donned the clothing and persona of people whose remains are buried in the Berkshire ground. He presents what are known as living histories — graveside.

On Saturday at the Stockbridge Town Cemetery, as part of the Shades of Stockbridge tour sponsored by the Stockbridge Library Association Historical Room, Daly was a stand-in for the 19th century New York City attorney Charles Butler, who built Linwood. Daly was one of five dead people talking.

By Felix Carroll

The word "shades," by the way, is a Victorian term for spirits or ghosts. But shades aren't here to haunt, they're here to help — to educate and shed light upon the life and times of our predecessors.

The curator for education at the Norman Rockwell Museum, Daly is a towering figure who provides a lot of shade to the living history landscape of the Berkshires. He spends countless hours researching his parts. He also prepares scripts for his fellow shades as well.

While Daly does drive a Honda Civic, does keep some AC-DC in his iPod nano and does have a wife, Jennifer, who is alive and well in the present tense, most of his pursuits are geared toward the past. More specifically, within the mid- to late 19th century. Why that time period? He had to draw the line somewhere because, as he says, there is so much history in the Berkshires that if he embraced it all, his head might fall off, or at least his top hat.

Daly is famous in the local historical world for his portrayal of the cork-legged Civil War General Francis Bartlett, whose remains are buried at the Pittsfield Cemetery. Infused in his portrayals is a respect for the dead — and just a smidgeon of indignation toward the present day.

At the Pittsfield Cemetery, amidst shrubbery bowed low as if in prayer, Daly is a bit peeved that most people have never heard of General Bartlett, who, on horseback, would remove and wave his prosthetic leg to rally his troops. "This is a guy who is one of the youngest generals in American history. He was in his early 20s," says Daly. "He's someone who helped change part of the course of American history."

Amidst the pine-lined plots of the Stockbridge Town Cemetery, he's dismayed of how modern-day Americans disregard their cemeteries, or view them as strange curiosities whose inhabitants are incongruously stationary in our kinetic world.

"There was a time when Americans would picnic in cemeteries," Daly says. "Now if you did that, your neighbors might not ever speak to you again."

He, for one, believes cemeteries should be enjoyed by the masses. He's in good company. Catharine Sedgwick, the famous 19th century author whose remains are buried in Stockbridge, once wrote of how cemeteries "preserve bright and obvious the links that bind us to the past, and suggest to us the future."

If you think shades are strange, consider Sedgwick's cemetery-centered reverie. She wrote: "I have fancied the pleasure of pursuing our daily employments with these hallowed memorials before us — of sewing, reading, and writing in their presence, as if they were still among us."

Daly grew up in the town of Washington loving history. He was that rare specimen of childhood who would actually beg to be taken to Sturbridge Village. The first time he recalls being in a cemetery was at his cousin's burial. He looked around and wondered, "What's going on here?"

Now, here he is, stuffing some bottled water behind a gravestone as the cemetery tour in Stockbridge is set to begin. He lights a pipe. He rocks on his heels. He digs deep within himself to get into the head of a cranky, slightly eccentric 18th century attorney that few people care about anymore.

What does Daly enjoy doing when he's not in dogged pursuit of the past?

"I like watching vintage baseball at Wahconah Park," he says. That is, he enjoys going to one of the oldest ballparks in country to watch games played under 19th century rules. Naturally.

"That's the time period I'm interested in," says Daly, his voice cracking like clippings of old obituaries.