Parnel Wickham is the only daughter in a family with roots in Cutchogue that date to 1699. Her father, John, was an iconic farmer who was widely known across Suffolk County. Her mother, Anne, a church organist, was the granddaughter of the minister at Mattituck Presbyterian Church, who was also a local historian.
Her brothers, Tom and Jack, worked the farm as they grew up. While Parnel did no farm work, she helped her mother manage the farm stand. She spent her high school years away from Cutchogue at a Quaker boarding school in Pennsylvania. By her own account, she was often homesick.
She married in 1967 and had a daughter named Julia. Parnel’s second child, a daughter named Diana, died at age 7 after years of extraordinary hardship for her and her parents that was rooted in serious birth defects. On top of that, her husband left her after 37 years of marriage.
In her marriage’s demise were a million questions and personal ghosts to deal with, which boiled down to key issues: How to find peace? How to deal with the suffering of grief and depression?
Today, at 74, Ms. Wickham finds herself looking back with a measure of honesty and candor — about the life she has lived, the events she has dealt with and how discovering the practices of Zen Buddhism after her divorce brought her to a more peaceful place in her life. The journey of Parnel Wickham has come far.
“Whatever I was yesterday, I am different now,” she said.
She was interviewed at Cutchogue New Suffolk Library, formerly a church founded by Wickham ancestors who bolted from the Presbyterian church across the street in the 1860s in a bitter dispute over the issue of slavery. Or so the story goes. The first Wickham in Cutchogue lived in the house that stands today next to the library. Here, she is on family ground.
“I have been incredibly fortunate,” she said. “I have met the most wonderful people who have been unbelievably helpful to me. Everybody has something to deal with in their lives. To have people who over and over I can go back to and say, ‘Can you help me?’ and they say ‘Yes, I can’ is very powerful and very world changing.”
It is not as if the past has been magically scraped away. The past has made her as surely as her present defines her.
“It’s not that I am free of it. That is who I am. To put it in Buddhist terms, I am free of the suffering. It doesn’t make me sad or angry. I am here. There is a little space now in between things. That’s what Zen practice is. I have what I need.”
Ms. Wickham has formed a sangha, or group, called Peconic Bay Zen that meets in the historic Jamesport Meeting House on Monday nights. The group has taken the summer off and will begin meeting again in September. Meanwhile, as if a Buddhist moment has inexplicably arrived on the North Fork, another group led by two Sri Lankan monks has just begun meeting on Friday nights in the old Grange Hall on Sound Avenue in Riverhead.
This moment began on an April weekend in 2011, when Ms. Wickham brought a Tibetan monk named Lama Migmar Tseten to her New Suffolk house. Her house filled up with the curious. Many who met that weekend continue to gather for North Fork Buddhist activities in various sanghas that meet nearly every day of the week.
For Ms. Wickham, the journey to now can almost be told as a book on local history. Joseph Wickham arrived in Cutchogue in 1699 and bought what would later be known as the Old House on the Cutchogue Village Green, as well as all the land west of it to what is now the North Fork Country Club, and south to the bay. He also purchased Robins Island.
His grandson, Parker, lost all of that — plus a large holding in Riverhead — in the aftermath of the American Revolution because he was a supporter of the British against the insurgent colonists. A son of Parker bought land just west of the family’s former Cutchogue holdings and several generations of Wickhams lived there until the early 1850s, when a James Wickham and his wife, Frances, bought the farm where the family lives now and has its Main Road farm stand.
In 1854, James and his wife, who had no children, were murdered in that house by a farmhand, who was later hanged in Riverhead. James’ brother William took over the farm; he died in 1881 of blood poisoning. His son James took over until his death — also from blood poisoning — in 1914. James’ son Parker took over until his death in a car accident on the Main Road in Cutchogue in 1930. His brother John — Parnel, Tom and Jack’s father — then took over. John Wickham died in 1994. Tom has run the farm since his father’s death.
There is a Shakespearean feel to Wickham history. Some of the events in Parnel’s life seem to be a continuation of the past. She says she might not have sought out Buddhism had they not been visited upon her, in particular her divorce.
She speaks of karma — the Buddhist principle that past and present actions and intentions have future consequences.
“Certain things are set in motion before our lives come about,” she said. “They are all the things that make up who we are. However, karma also means nothing is set in stone. Every time we take a breath we have the opportunity to change the world. That’s liberating.”
While these events in her family’s history are not minor issues to Ms. Wickham, her life now, as she said, is in a different place.
“I have to go back generations to talk about today,” she said. “I grew up in a family that valued the practices of religion. These practices provided very strong roots. We had to go to church. I had to sit there. I had to sing in the choir. I had to play the piano for Sunday school … Buddhism is based on a different model. It is not a question of doing something because someone told you to do it, or belief in a creed. Buddhism has no creed. It is deeply personal.”
Ms. Wickham’s self-discovery continues to unfold through a daily practice of seated meditation, exercise that includes long walks and awareness of the workings of her mind and emotions as she goes about the daily routines of her life.
“It’s important for people to know that the process of self-discovery and personal liberation takes consistent effort over time,” she said. “I attend to the practice every day, in specific ways that have been taught by many generations of Buddhists of all traditions and cultures. This explains in part why I am a Zen Buddhist.”
The Peconic Bay Zen group meets Monday nights in the historic Jamesport Meeting House. The group is taking the summer off, but meetings will resume in September. For more information, email [email protected].
The Long Island Buddhist Meditation Center has moved into the mid-19th-century former Grange Hall on Sound Avenue in Riverhead. Considerable remodeling of the facility has already occurred, and the leader of the group, Bhante Kottawe Nanda, will also live in the hall. The group meets on Friday nights at 7 p.m. Tuesday night meetings will also be scheduled. For more information, visit libmc.org or facebook.com/LongIslandBuddhistMeditation/.