the hermit of holly lane

In Inspiration, Memory-keeping

How do you sort through a life at the end of it?  What do you organize, archive, catalog and what do you let go?  What do you treasure, much as you treasured the person who has passed?  How do you pay tribute, honor, and lovingly say goodbye?

Our dear neighbor and friend Jack Jackson died in late February at the age of 92.  Born in pre-war Gary, Indiana, where his father worked in the steel mills, he feared that mill life would also be his fate.  Being unusually bright, he attended college briefly in Chicago at the age of 16, but he became overwhelmed and dropped out — and was quickly drafted into the army.  He laughingly recalled being trained as a military policeman — him! — a slight, frail gay man — having to run at someone with a rifle and bayonet.   The idea!

He made his way eventually to Boston, and after a stint in banking decided he would like to work at the prestigious Boston Athenaeum.  He applied for a job as a custodian, but before the interview was over the Director realized that this man was brilliant, engaging, and passionate about the arts and humanities.  Thus began a career of nearly 40 years as an indispensable reference librarian.

He found a loving partner one evening at a Boston rooftop picnic, introduced by friends.  Jack and Peter spent over 50 years together, first at homes in Boston and after retirement, at their home on Holly Lane.  They gardened, listened to music, studied, read, created art, went to the library, toured Cape Cod, entertained visitors, and enjoyed their quiet yet full life. Eight years ago, Peter died.  And Jack carried on.

When I began dating my now-husband Dan, who had known Jack for nearly 20 years, he took me to tea at Jack’s house, a ritual that they had developed over the years.  Tea, treats, and talk.  What did we talk about?  You name the subject and Jack had a file or clipping or book about it.  Art, literature, poetry, music, dance, archaeology, religion, history, movies, travel, antiques, his family, his life, his philosophies, his memories.  His heart.  He prepared for his weekly visits by making notes about what he wanted to share, and putting aside magazine articles, photographs, quotes, or cards to discuss with us.  Despite his “note to self” displayed prominently on his desk (“YOU TALK TOO MUCH”), there was never an awkward silence when you were with Jack.  There was always something to talk about.  He was interested and interesting.

Like us, he was a collector.  His home was filled with thousands of books, music, movies, paintings, pottery, clippings, toys, miniatures, and rabbits in every shape and form.  He kept every piece of paper, letter, photograph, or note that ever crossed his desk, all organized in boxes and labeled with their contents.  He had three desk drawers filled with things to make cards with — pretty papers, stickers, images, and quotes.  He wrote thank-you letters acknowledging every gift, whether it was a birthday present or a bouquet of wildflowers.

Though he called himself the Hermit of Holly Lane, he loved company, and genuinely enjoyed people.  We would walk down Holly Lane from our home around the corner, and when approaching his house we would always see him at his desk, reading by lamplight, taking notes on passages that pleased him.  When he looked up to see that we had arrived, his face would light up and he would clap his hands in delight.  If there’s a better welcome than that, I don’t know what it is.

Jack was not sentimental about or fearful of death.  As each birthday approached, he expressed an honest wish that he not live to see another year.  After losing Peter, life lost some of its sparkle.  He became frailer, less able to walk, unable to drive, and had health issues.  But he stayed at home until a week before he died, and in the end went, as they say, peacefully.

He had no blood relations left, and being a fellow librarian (with a passion for the past) I volunteered to take on his voluminous archive of papers, prints, photographs, letters, and all the documents that he had amassed over the years.  And so in the last few weeks I have been reliving his life, from before he was even born until death.  It has been a pleasure and privilege to sift through  these things that meant so much to him.

Dan and I and our neighbors profoundly miss our wonderful neighbor and friend.  When I walk or drive by his house, I imagine him sitting at his desk at the window, looking up with delight, and waving goodbye.

What more is there to say about a man who touched our hearts?  He loved Edna St. Vincent Millay, so, here, then, is a poem by her that speaks to how I feel at the closing of a very special life.

Dirge Without Music
I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely.  Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—
They are gone.  They are gone to feed the roses.  Elegant and curled
Is the blossom.  Fragrant is the blossom.  I know.  But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know.  But I do not approve.  And I am not resigned.

Fare-thee-well Jack Jackson.  Much love.

xo lucy



  1. Lucy, this is a beautiful tribute to your dear friend. I lost my brother last August and have been recently sorting through old photographs that my mom has kept so that I may have memories of our life together. It is still hard to believe he is gone and looking at the photographs somehow makes him feel closer.

    • Oh, it is hard to lose a loved one — losing a brother I can’t imagine. Yes, the photos and memories help us hold them close. xo

  2. This is one of the loveliest posts I have read in a long time. How lucky you both were to have each other. Beautifully written and I can tell from every word that he was very much loved. My mother passed away last August, so there has been a lot of sorting through photos, cards, letters, jewellery, little knick knacks that meant something to her but we are not all sure why… I wish I could ask her. She was that mother always behind the camera so photos of her are few and far between. As mothers day approaches and the shops are full of gifts I’m finding it hard to accept my mother isn’t here anymore. Thank you for this beautiful read. x

    • It is so hard to lose a parent — I lost my Dad in 1990 when he was 60 — the age I am now! A week doesn’t go by when I don’t think about him and wish I could ask him a question, or talk with him about life. It’s wonderful that you have your Mom’s treasures to remind you of her. I can only say that the pain of loss does lessen with time, but that yearning for connection does not. Thanks for your lovely words. xo

  3. Wow – this is just so beautiful, Lucy. Thanks so much for sharing with us and sorry for your loss. Jack was a special person. “YOU TALK TOO MUCH” Ha! His notes to you are so lovely! I’m sure you’ll cherish those. Something weird is that his handwriting reminds me so much of my Dad’s and that poem is one that I discovered after my Mom passed away 7 years ago. I love it too.

    Thanks again <3

    • Thanks to you! These special people that grace our lives are important to honor, like your Dad. xo

  4. I can’t begin to tell you how much I adore this post. I’ve read it several times now and with each reading I find a new understanding. Those handwritten letters to you are dear. I’ve saved several small slips of paper with my father’s handwriting and even now I miss his pointed scrawl – so careful and measured – a sweet contrast to his carefree demeanor. Your friend sounds like a treasure and I’m grateful you shared his story here. Thank you!

  5. Dear Lucy,
    Thank you for sharing these treasures of Jack. Your remembrance is so in keeping with his nature, of insight, gentleness, modesty, and respect for language. Jack was my boss at the Boston Athenaeum Library when I was in high school, and these photos and descriptions brought back vivid memories of his wonderful way of dealing with life, bureaucracy, books, and art. Fellow student Stephen Provizer (and before him Jonathan Adelson) and I were in the art department, with Jack, Donald Kelley and William McKibbin, which for some reason was the department responsible for preparing new books for circulation and resolving all returned books. I learned so much from Jack and from the library; he encouraged us to learn about all the treasures there. I also remember Peter clearly, and was so glad that Jack and Peter had found each other; those were not easy times for gay men (and women).

  6. Dear Lucy,

    As Dan Pitt mentions above, I was also a student who had the honor to work with Jack, Donald and William at the Athenaeum. I had a dream about Jack last night-how precious he was as a person and how much he meant to me, so I searched online today to find this site. Thank you so much for your remembrance of Jack.

    • Hello Stephen:
      So glad you found the post. I think Jack lives on in all who knew him. Not a week goes by when I don’t see or read something and think “Oh, I can’t wait to share that with Jack!” Thanks for leaving a comment. Take care.

  7. I don’t know William. I also remember that Jack and Donald worked for David M.K. McKibbin, head of the art department, who was perpetually working on his book about John Singer Sargent, which he never finished. But that project alerted me to Sargent’s work and he is now my favorite portraitist.

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