Madeleine Kunin, who immigrated to America as a 6-year-old Jewish girl to escape the Holocaust, visited her birthplace of Switzerland this summer.
Julia Kunin
Madeleine Kunin, who immigrated to America as a 6-year-old Jewish girl to escape the Holocaust, visited her birthplace of Switzerland this summer.

Kunin has something to say about age limits. (And Barbie.)

‘There are differences in my ability from when I was younger,’ says Vermont’s first and so far only female governor, who is celebrating her 90th birthday with a new book and statewide reading tour

Madeleine Kunin still fields calls about serving in the last millennium as Vermont's first and so far only female governor, and later as deputy U.S. education secretary and ambassador to her birthplace of Switzerland. But, now retired, the Democratic politico turned published poet would rather wrestle with more present, personal questions.

At summer's end,

green leaves, shake themselves

red with excitement.

Same as last year,

still a surprise.

Each day must decide

before it reveals itself -

Will it still be summer

or already fall?

Such words aren't simply an excerpt from her sixth and latest book, Walk With Me, a poetry collection in which she illuminates her past and present in a surprisingly honest yet hopeful light. They also mirror the internal inquiry of a self-described "well-lived woman who still loves life," who's set to mark her 90th birthday Thursday.

"I used to think 90 was ancient," she said in a recent interview. "I am acutely aware of change, which seems to happen every day, in small steps, but quickly. Yes, there are down times, but I manage to spring back. Resilience is what I treasure."

On the one hand, Kunin is an elder stateswoman who still garners attention by commenting on such hot-button issues as abortion and antisemitism and headliners including U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

On the other, she recently joined her former gubernatorial staff at a screening of the film, Barbie.

"I found it a great spoof," she said. "There were some very good lines."

Take the showstopping feminist monologue reprinted everywhere from USA Today to the Los Angeles Times.

"It is literally impossible to be a woman," the character Gloria, played by America Ferrera, says in the film. "You have to never get old, never be rude, never show off, never be selfish, never fall down, never fail, never show fear, never get out of line …"

Kunin relates.

"I think that's true for any woman who's the first."

'Can this woman be as strong as a man?'

Kunin has plenty of firsthand experience. Winning a Vermont House seat in 1972, she became the state's first female Democratic whip in 1974, first female leader of the House Appropriations Committee in 1976, second female lieutenant governor in 1978 (after Consuelo Bailey, elected in 1954) and first female governor in 1984.

"Most women cannot risk revealing public emotion; they are asked to take the toughness test each time they appear in public," she wrote in her first book, the 1994 autobiography, Living a Political Life. "A silent assessment is made by the audience as a woman approaches the podium: Can this woman be as strong as a man?"

Kunin continued to face scrutiny as she moved to Washington, D.C., to work as deputy U.S. education secretary in 1993 and to Switzerland to serve as ambassador in 1996. Now living at the Wake Robin retirement community in Shelburne, she has traded old questions for new ones.

For example, should older officeholders - be it Democratic President Joe Biden, U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell or others recently captured in "senior moments" as they advance in years - be subject to age limits?

Kunin doesn't support one specific standard, as she believes individuals age at their own pace.

"For myself, I couldn't take that responsibility of being in a leadership position, as I know there are differences in my ability from when I was younger," she said.

Then again, age isn't slowing her down much. Of the six books she's written, Kunin has published the last three within the past decade, including Coming of Age: My Journey to the Eighties, a memoir addressing everything from love and sex to aging and death, and Red Kite, Blue Sky, a debut poetry collection deemed by Harvard Review poetry editor Major Jackson as "spectacularly fresh and tender."

Kunin has begun a a statewide reading tour in support of her latest anthology, including a Oct. 15 reading at the Brattleboro Literary Festival.

But for all of Kunin's past, her new book is anything but political.

'There's still happiness to be found'

Instead, the 126-page paperback from Brattleboro's Green Writers Press is personal. Many poems focus on family, including the European relatives she reunited with this summer. She had emigrated as a 6-year-old Jewish girl to escape the Holocaust.

In "Kaddish," Kunin recounts her father, who died by suicide when she was 2½.

… Photographs, some brown, some black,

are the only leavings of his life

small swatches that I try to sew together

into a garment that fits his elegant pose …

In "When I Was Nursing My Babies," she recalls the rocking chair in which she fed her four children, and then reclaimed when she divorced her first husband, Arthur Kunin, after 34 years of marriage.

… It now is wedged into a crowded corner

of my bedroom

where its feet stick out.

I tend to trip over it

in the middle of the night.

I have not sat in it.

But I must keep it

now, that I have it.

In "Goodbye II," she remembers her second husband, John W. Hennessey Jr., whom she met when she was 71 and lived with until he died at age 92.

… Gone?

Blood drained,

gray, still.

Untouchable, cold.

I brave a kiss

on your cool forehead,

the only part

I dared to touch,

and make my exit.

I beckon you back

one more time

to pocket my hand,

in yours.

I dared to touch.

Other poems speak of joy and wonder, beginnings and, on the last page, "Ending":

I would like to probe deep,

write about life and death,

the meaning of existence.

I should have the answers

by now,

when the end is so near.

I procrastinate.

I tell myself

there is still time

Maybe tomorrow

Or the next day

Or the day after that

to write about the meaning

of life,

The meaning of my life.

Have I made a difference?

Have I been kind?

Have I dropped a coin

into a beggar's hand?

Will I be remembered,

and by whom?

For What?

I'm too tired

No more deep questions, please.

Maybe tomorrow,

Or the next day

Or the day after that.

When asked for her birthday wishes, Kunin shared three.

"I want my family and my friends to be accessible and well. I want to have a sense of adventure. And I want Donald Trump to go away."

As for another female Vermont governor?

"It will happen, but I don't know if I'll have to be 100 to see it. In the end, I have to be hopeful. The world is upside down. Sometimes it's depressing. But there's still happiness to be found."

This News item by Kevin O'Connor originally appeared in VtDigger and was republished in The Commons with permission.

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