Our Maine Man: Roger Cartwright, a father who danced to the end

Posted Wednesday, August 17, 2011 in Features

Our Maine Man: Roger Cartwright, a father who danced to the end

by Steve Cartwright

My Dad, a teacher and planter of traditional English Morris dancing, died last week in Amherst, Massachusetts.

My grown daughter Chelsea from Brunswick was sitting beside him, sewing, when she noticed he had stopped breathing.

He went so gently, so easily into death, perhaps because he was ready for it. Not welcoming it exactly, but OK with it. His time was up. It had been a good run. August 9, it was my 60th birthday, his last day.

Using his charm and contagious enthusiasm, Dad organized teams of men and women around New England into skilled, graceful white-clad dancers, sometimes with sticks and handkerchiefs, sometimes with swords. He also started ongoing contradances, sing-alongs, feasts and fests.

Long before that, there is the Dad I remember teaching me to hammer and saw, taking me hiking and camping, running beside me down the road. And I remember him running from the role of father, too, so that he became more like a brother or a friend as the years rolled by.

He lived in Camden during the 1980s, working at a teachers’ resource center and at a cooperative pre-school. Most of all, he danced. He sought spontaneity, not security. He lived for the moment, not the past, not the future. This frustrated others who wanted to make plans, to order their lives. My dad preferred a wild tangle of brush to a manicured yard ~ or life.

He was born in Washington, D.C., on June 2, 1923, his mother’s birthday. He grew up mostly on his grandfather’s farm in upstate New York, later working briefly for his dad, Frank, in a timber roof truss business. He was the only graduate of his high school to attend college, graduating early from Cornell University so he could enlist in the U.S. Army, where he was a second lieutenant providing literature and information to World War II troops. At Cornell he met classmate Sally from New York City and they were married on Christmas Eve, 1942, and divorced in 1980.

Much later, Dad met Suzanne Lyon of Shutesbury, Massachusetts, and they shared his final years. For a while it seemed weird that Dad dated a woman younger than me, his son, but they were happy and I like her a lot. Along with Chelsea, Suzanne ~ who just became a nurse ~ provided the framework for round-the-clock care that let Dad remain in his modest village apartment.

My Dad taught at the very progressive City & Country School in Greenwich Village (New York City) a short walk from home, and some years later he taught early childhood education at the City College of New York, which I attended, and Bank Street College, a graduate school for teachers one block from our Bleecker Street home. Dad earned his doctorate from New York University, moved to Cambridge and taught at nearby Wheelock College in Boston.

Then in the mid-1970s, my unconventional Dad dropped out of marriage and a regular job.  After that, he took part-time teaching posts but mostly concentrated on dancing, traveling often to England. He moved to Maine for many years, living variously with his sons, then on to Shutesbury. He made little or no money, lived on a teacher’s pension and Social Security and the generosity of friends.

Dad would go on walks without telling anyone he was leaving. He didn’t want to answer to others. He was sometimes a rebel and sometimes not at all. Like most of us, he was sometimes contradictory, even to wanting to be a young buck after he had grown into an old stag.

Dad liked a leisurely breakfast with vintage marmalade and toast, strong coffee and conversation ... but “leisure” was hard for him. He had to keep moving. “I’m restless,” he’d say, although his body language would have told you that already.

He often waxed philosophical, offering thoughts whether you were interested or not. I tried to stay interested. He drew inspiration from young people, enjoying their spontaneity and enthusiasm, and he in turn kept a zest for fresh food, lively company and a ramble down the road ... Roger the pied piper. Sometimes I felt left out. Sometimes I thought this guy does not want to grow up, ever.

He practiced community-building and social networking before they were buzzwords. He got people together to sing and dance and celebrate their common humanity, whether in Cambridge or Camden.

He and my Mom - teacher, writer, sailor living in Damariscotta - were parents of two sons, my brother Paul of Camden and me. We both have families. My son Joel died three years ago.

Dad believed we need time to recharge our batteries, our spirits, and that “down time” is a good thing. He believed life is a mix of the tragic and comic. He believed in honesty and integrity, and mostly met those standards. There were lapses, and deep within him simmered a certain rage that I think may have been passed down from his father, a man who could be sarcastic, hurtful and intimidating to a young grandson, me.

Mom and Dad worked in India for the American Friends Service Committee, where they met Gandhi. Other friends through the years included Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger, C&C school founder Caroline Pratt who wrote the book, I Learn from Children; ACLU founder Roger Baldwin, and back-to-the-landers Helen and Scott Nearing.

Dad flourished ... a word he loved ... through Morris Dancing, by singing folk songs, by playing his concertina alone or for dancers. He played banjo, guitar, piano and pennywhistle, and believed that music and dance should be participatory, not just a performance. He founded dances and dance teams around New England and was welcomed into the Morris Ring in England.

With all its bumps and thumps, his was a full life, a good life. He didn’t want a fuss made over his death, or donations.

If he had anything to say, which he most often did, he’d tell us all to keep dancing, “wherever you may be,” as the song goes.

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