When your mother runs away before she has finished raising you, when she takes all the stories with her, when you are left with a father who won’t talk, when you remember so little to start with and forget more with the passage of each un-mothered year, what happens? You are not sure who you are. You are not sure, deep down, that you really exist. In the darkest of times, you are not sure that you should.
You try to hang on to the stories you have, but when your older sister runs away too, not long after your mother does, there is no one left to talk to about anything that happened before the radical discontinuity that will divide your life into two eras—before, and after.
When, after far too long, you finally take up the project of recall and writing, it is with a kind of grim determination not to let yourself be erased.
One thing you know for sure is that when you lived in Michigan, your unhappy family had one happy week every year, at the Unitarian Midwest Summer Assembly on Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. You remember that Pete Seeger was there once, that it had something to do with him being blacklisted, that you heard him sing, in large groups and small, for a whole week.
You have always remembered that somehow you ended up in a photograph with him that was supposed to be, maybe even was, published. You are pretty sure that it was going to be on the cover of Pete’s iconic folk music magazine, Sing Out! You aren’t sure of much else.
But you know, too, that after Kennedy was elected and your father went to Washington and your mother didn’t, you never went back to Lake Geneva.
Me and Pete at the Lake, just out in Wisconsin Review, traces the long-delayed search for a lost photograph, how I found it, and what I was really looking for.
At first I thought I was trying to find a picture. Then that I needed to pin down which year it was that Seeger had come to Lake Geneva. Probably what I really wished for was a kind of time-travel. I’d been searching for Pete, for my mother, for a lost past. He’s gone, so is she, and the picture on the album is all that remains of those Lake Geneva summers. But I know, finally and for sure, that I was there.
5 thoughts on “Looking for Pete”
This, and your longer essay, are beautifully written, Irene. And how fateful that a voice so wise, brave, and enduring as Pete Seeger’s held your identity.
Beautiful writing and a great memoir.
Thank you so much!
Just chanced upon this lovely piece and wanted to let Irene know that I was at that Lake Geneva Unitarian summer camp and of all things so was my wife, Lynn, whom I met 16 years later!! Something very at the core of our being about that experience as it clearly was for Irene. In 1997, I joined the Seattle Labor Chorus that was organized initially as the back up chorus for Pete, who was appearing that year at the Seattle Folklife Festival over Labor Day. Before the performance I had a chance to very briefly meet him (my heart was racing!) and asked him if he remembered that summer. He clearly did and referenced the Abiyoyo record photo. I had a chance to tell him what that week meant to me my whole life. Lynn and I both think the year was 1956. I was 7, going on 8. She was 5, going on 6. Irene should check out the documentary, The Power of Song. There are a bunch of stills in the film, one is definitely from that week, as Lynn is very visible standing among us kids. Please forward to Irene my email address below
Well, that is amazing and wonderful, Thomas Heller! I love hearing of your experience at Lake Geneva and your later connection to Pete Seeger. It wounds like you and I might be the same age (I was born in July 1948). I will look for the documentary you mention, for sure. Also, Wasn’t That A Time?