WORCESTER -- The best pears Stanley Kunitz ever tasted grew on the tree he and his mother planted in the backyard of his boyhood home on Woodward Avenue.
Kunitz's mother built the elegant stucco three-family house over a period of years around World War I. She and her only son started gardening in the backyard as soon as they moved in, when the boy was around 12. Kunitz, now 98 and a retired US poet laureate, grew up to be a passionate gardener, and a lover of pears.
In 1985, Worcester feted its native son on his 80th birthday. While in town, Kunitz decided to visit some old haunts.
"We came home from shopping, and there were a bunch of people in front of the house," remembers Greg Stockmal, who with his wife, Carol, lives in the house on Woodward Avenue.
Kunitz's wife, the poet Elise Asher, hailed the couple, who invited everyone in, and the poet stepped right back into his childhood.
"It was like he'd just left yesterday," Greg says. "He said the only thing that was different was the kitchen sink."
The poet walked through the house and placed his hand on the back door. "I remember planting a pear tree in the garden," he told the Stockmals. The tree still bears fruit. That fall, and every one since, the Stockmals sent Kunitz a box of his own pears. His poem, "My Mother's Pears," is dedicated to them.
The poet didn't have a happy youth. His father had committed suicide two months before Stanley's birth, drinking carbolic acid in Crompton Park. His mother never spoke of it again. She remarried, but her second husband died in the Woodward Avenue house after collapsing while hanging drapes on Armistice Day, 1918. After that, Stanley and his mother lived alone on the first floor; his two sisters resided in the second-floor unit. He remembers, in his poem "The Three Floors," listening to one of his sisters play Tchaikovsky's "Warum" on the piano.
Kunitz moved out in 1922, the year he turned 17.
In 1979, Greg and Carol Stockmal were searching for a home to buy, although Carol had been dragging her feet. Then she saw the place on Woodward Avenue, as they drove down the street looking for a house they'd seen listed. "There wasn't even a `for sale' sign up. But it had a presence about it," Carol recalls. "I said, `Greg, what if it's this house?' And that night I had a dream that it was this house." Turns out, this was the listed house. The next day, the realtor met them on the front steps.
Greg picks up the story: "We walked through the front door. Carol turned to me and said, `Greg, give her some money.' "
The place was no prize. Ceilings had been dropped. The living room had no light fixtures. Paint peeled off the walls.
"It was ready to be condemned," Greg recalls. "It had been on the market for several years. Nobody was interested in buying it."
But the house had a grandeur that could be restored. The Stockmals had always loved antiques, and here was a place where their collection would fit.
The house had its treasures, too. The original tub, outfitted with a 1913 shower head the size of a pie plate, stood in the bathroom, beside the original medicine cabinet. Greg peeled $50 out of his wallet and handed it to the realtor.
The couple bought the place for less than $30,000 and set to work.
In one bedroom, Greg scraped off 40 pounds of paint. They put up period wallpaper. They went to estate sales and bought period furniture. They made it their own, and, as they did, they unwittingly made it Kunitz's home once again. The Stockmals are in their early 50s. Until they met Kunitz, they had never hobnobbed with poets. Carol, an engineer's technician with long dark hair, and Greg, a mental-health worker at Worcester State Hospital with a salt-and-pepper shock of hair groomed into a mullet, love the poet and his poetry. The Stockmals, who have no children, hope ultimately to turn their home into a nonprofit organization with writers' residences, honoring Kunitz and other poets.
They look out for him, and he for them.
"He's like a father to me," Carol says.
Kunitz lives in Manhattan and summers in Provincetown, where the couple often visits him. Greg shares cuttings from his garden with the poet. The past year has been worrisome for Kunitz's friends and family. Last spring, illness brought him close to death. In March, his wife, Elise Asher, died at 92. But chatting about the Woodward Avenue house over the phone from Manhattan, he exudes energy and fondness.
"When I saw how lovingly the Stockmals had kept everything, and with what care they had done the restoration, when I saw their devotion to the house, I was greatly moved. I still am," he says. "I think of them as dear friends, not only of me, but of my work and of my life."
The Stockmals didn't intend to restore the house to what it was in Kunitz's youth. Their tastes just run that way. Only one piece of furniture intentionally refers to the poet: a piano in the front parlor, which Carol decided to buy after she read the reference in Kunitz's "Three Floors" to his sister playing Tchaikovsky's "Warum."
"We went to an estate sale in Newport and found this 1912 Wasserman petite baby grand," Greg remembers. "I said, `Do you deliver?' "
They did. When it arrived, the couple put the piano on casters, and tried to decide where to put it.
"The phone rang," Greg recalls. "It was Stanley. He said, `What are you doing?' When I told him, he said `I'll give you directions over the phone on where my mother had it.' So we put it there. A year later, he came and said, `That's exactly where my mother had her piano. It's the same size and color.' "
Indeed, except for the bearskin rug beside the piano, much of the front two rooms -- like the rest of the house, including young Kunitz's bedroom off the kitchen -- coincidentally harks to the way it looked 85 years ago.
"Stanley said his mother had a big chair like these," Greg says, pointing to the two thronelike wooden seats beside the piano. "The furnishings look similar to his mother's. The chandelier looks exactly like his mother's."
The Stockmals threw a party for Kunitz's 90th birthday in 1995. "Stanley sat here," Carol says, pointing to one of the thrones. They hired a pianist and dug a score for Tchaikovsky's "Warum" up at the Worcester Public Library. "I memorized `The Three Floors' and I recited it," says Carol. "I was so nervous. The tears were coming down people's faces. And at a certain point, the pianist started playing."
"Stanley just closed his eyes," Greg remembers.
Greg Stockmal, cleaning paint from a door frame one day, found a mezuzah -- a tiny religious scroll inside a cylindrical box -- lodged within a hinge. He sent it to the poet, who wrote back: "There is no doubt in my mind that the paint-encrusted amulet you sent me was the one my mother nailed to the door post to ward off evil. I have no other memento from those days, so it is precious beyond words to me. If my blessing has any value, please consider yourself everlastingly protected."
The mezuzah, and others like it around the house, hasn't fended off ghosts, according to the Stockmals. "We think his mother and two sisters are here," Carol says. "The house gets active, especially around the Jewish holidays. We're not the only ones who experience this -- it's on all the floors. Light orbs. Scents."
"One time, a heavy smell of frankincense came up, when I was burning paint," Greg adds. "We used to hear wailing in the middle of the night."
Once, an upstairs tenant's mother, a psychic, spent a few days in the house.
"She said, `You know there's something going on here, don't you? There's a woman in grief sobbing in the front windows of the attic.' I think the grieving woman was Stanley's mother," says Greg. "She'd gone to seclude herself."
"This house has many sad memories for him," Carol says of Kunitz. "I think we've opened a window into the past just when he could face it. It's been his healing."
She motions to the back garden. "For him, life came full circle. I have a vision of him and his mother planting the tree. Eighty years later, the pears came back to him."