The soft knock on my bedroom door came in the late summer of 1968.

“Your father is gone,” said my mother from the other side of the door.

“Gone where?”

“He didn’t say,” she said as she turned and walked away to her car to leave for work. She was a woman not given to long conversation when she knew the emotions would eventually overtake her. The weeks, months and years that followed would eventually reveal the need for both of us to start over.

In the summer of 1968, I was in my hometown of Harrison, preparing for my sophomore year at Bates College. I was a card-carrying member of the Now Generation, current on the protest songs of Dylan and tales of the open road by Kerouac. I had elected an elite liberal arts education to launch me into the new world, and all that promise. Bates had made my transition from small-town Harrison to that promise possible. However, becoming the man of the house at age 18 did not fit my plan.

My father never disclosed what his plan for his family would be. His planning appeared to borrow from Paul Simon’s advice to “just slip out the back, Jack” without taking into account the caution of “make a new plan, Stan.” Stan (me) didn’t have a plan.

Adding to the crisis, my mother slipped into a clinical depression, often disabling. Care for her, in addition to my two younger sisters (ages 8 and 16), became a huge undertaking, particularly with no forewarning of the new needs. The initial “plan” became Mother sustaining the household as best she could, calling on friends as needed and available to fill in. That plan was crushed by the revelation that my mother was pregnant and I’d have another sibling the following summer. The walls were closing in. My starting over became committing to a new plan, emphasizing survival of the remaining family unit and putting aside unrealistic social aspirations.

Almost immediately, our circle of family friends took on the daunting task of looking after an infant brother and the younger sister whenever my mother was unable to make arrangements. Much of this was unsolicited, all of it was uncompensated.

Those friends added the critical element of apparent stability, allowing the two younger siblings to feel a sense of normalcy in their lives, even when the economics forced them out of the family home. I became the family interface with the outside world, including the creditors and medical community. I also became adept at making deals to keep everyone in place. Together, we cobbled together a survival plan.

This was planning on the run. Clearly, I would not be joining Peter Fonda on any motorcycle runs, and playing third base for the Red Sox would have to wait. The enormous help and generosity from our friends, our town, my mother’s employer, my college, much of it spontaneous, were our keys. Even the aforementioned Paul Simon chipped in with his song “The Boxer,” which became my anthem and the rallying call to my siblings. We survived. Mission accomplished.

Epilogue: All four siblings went on to college and graduated. All four became solid citizens and contributors to their communities. My mother gradually stabilized and returned to the workforce. Most importantly, she remarried, and having someone she felt responsible for restored her sense of self. Mainers with no direct stake in this outcome allowed this result.

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