Roots and a Bombshell

When I tell people I’m from Vermont, I see the ski slopes and chalets dancing in their eyes. Sometimes they know someone from Vermont or they’ve heard it’s beautiful in the fall. I think many people assume I come from money based on my appearance and the town I’m from – Woodstock. Such assumptions would be wrong. My parents separated when I was 13. During most of my college years, my mother was single and her annual income fell well below the poverty line. After the divorce, most of my father’s resources went to his new instant family (my stepmother had twins when they started having an affair). So I stopped skiing in elementary school because it became too expensive for our family and because I lost interest. The only reason I was able to ski to begin with is because my father took a weekend job as a lift operator at Suicide Six, which came with reduced-price season passes.

In addition to weekend lift operator during the winter, Dad worked in the body shop of the Volkswagen dealership in Woodstock, which was located in what is now a hardware store. He started working there after he got out of the Marines, after he got out of Vietnam; an automatic out because he got severe malaria and nearly died (my grandparents were flown from VT to the hospital he was at in CA during an airline strike and last rites were said over him). Dad went into the Marines right after high school, I think in part because his options were limited – Marines or work on the family dairy farm – and because he was a man’s man: popular high school football player ready to prove himself and see the world. He went to basic training in August of 1963 (IIRC) and was discharged in 1965. (I think I have my dates right, but should really double check.)

My mother, like her mother and grandmother (and probably so on), was a seamstress. She did alterations, made curtains and slipcovers, made garments from patterns, repaired clothes and quilts. After high school, my grandmother forced her to go to nursing school, but she did not want to be a nurse and lasted less than a semester before returning to Woodstock.

In such a small town, she of course knew my father. His family had moved to Woodstock in the late 50’s – I’m guessing ’56 or ’57 from Providence, RI, where my grandparents had been living and working since my great-grandfather died, leaving the family dairy farm to my great-aunt Gertrude and her husband, who promptly sold the property (now a golf course) and moved, with my great-grandmother, to (I think) Oregon. Why the farm wasn’t left to my grandfather is a bit of a mystery to me. He went to college – an agricultural college (my brother has the certificate somewhere) and presumably knew what he was doing but was obviously not the favorite. I keep thinking it may have had something to do with my grandmother, who was from Brunswick, ME, and ended up becoming an alcoholic. I have a picture of her (that I should scan) playing hooky from high school with friends and a bottle. So perhaps they were a wild an unreliable couple from the start. Definitely personable and social, but unreliable in some ways. They worked in Providence and rented a house until they saved enough to buy the (I think) Westerdale Farm in West Woodstock (currently LDT, Ltd). They certainly held their lives together well enough to run a dairy farm for 20 years in Vermont.

My mother’s family had been in the Woodstock area for a long, long time. My grandmother grew up in a house on High Street and, as my mother pointed out not long ago, they were surrounded by relatives. I didn’t know and still don’t remember who lived in which house, except 19 High Street. My great grandfather was a blacksmith. He and my great grandmother had 3 children, the youngest of which is my grandmother, born in 1922. I’m not sure if her personality is just her or a product of being the youngest during a time of great prosperity, but my mother describes her as demanding, unforgiving, stubborn, and unsympathetic.

My grandfather’s family was also in the Woodstock area a long time. When I was in grade school, an antique dealer friend of my parents, Pia Nichols, bought some diaries that were from the mid 1860’s-1870’s at an auction that turned out to be those of a great great (not sure how many greats here) aunt. Further research by my Uncle Bud (who I should really talk to, since he’s done a lot of genealogical research), who found her gravestone in Prosper Cemetary along with several other family members. My grandfather is buried there as well and I try to stop there to pay my respects when I am home.

So. About my grandfather. He was of age to be drafted in WWII, but was not for reasons my brother and I are unsure of. He also got (IIRC) a scholarship to UVM but didn’t take that (this sounds right, but I haven’t talked with anyone about this in a while and it has taken on a dream-like, did-I-make-this-up quality). Somewhere along the line he was diagnosed as manic depressive and took lithium; he was volatile, as was my grandmother. My mother tells the story of being tasked with cleaning the house at a very young age and being admonished for not doing a good job. One of my uncles talked about him using switches on the kids. I also know my grandparents moved around a lot; my mother was born in MA in 1947, where my grandparents had moved so my grandfather could get WWII factory work. I’m not sure when they moved back to VT, but I know they lived in a number of places: a house in South Pomfret (which caught fire and burned and was the reason I could not leave a fan on all night in the summer), a house Slayton Terrace, another on South Street, and on and on.

Both sets of grandparents – Harlow and Kinne – were well-respected members of the community. Grandma & Grandpa Harlow attended the Congregational Church and were active in that part of community. Grandma & Grandpa Kinne were outgoing, friendly social people. And up until the mid-1980’s, everyone knew everyone in Woodstock. My parents could walk downtown and knew just about everyone they saw walking or driving, in the stores … it used to be a very close-knit community (and in many ways probably still is, but with a lot more flatlanders and people with vacation houses thrown in the mix).

In such a small community (of about 3,000), everyone knows everyone else, everyone knows your business, everyone gossips, and everyone passes judgment. Now that I’ve generalized, I’m sure there are exceptions to the rule – there always are. In such an environment, you have to be adept at having a public persona and a private persona if you want any privacy, if you have something to hide, if you are ashamed. Both of my parents were (and my mother still is) adept at keeping private things private.

My mother has kind of withdrawn socially over the years. I know when I was young, 6 or 7, she made an effort (much like my own) to fit in with the women in the community, or the women she thought she should fit in with in the community, probably trying to emulate my grandmother, who was a poor example of a mother. I sympathize so much with my mother, much more than my brother does, because after the divorce our relationship became much more of a friendship than a mother-daughter relationship. In a lot of ways she grew up with me; I think to survive her own childhood she shut down emotionally and gradually opened back up. 

With an alcoholic for a mother at the very least and likely some other abusive stuff going on, my father never did acknowledge that his childhood might not have been the greatest. He did say that when his grandfather died, everything changed, and from what he told me, his parents didn’t really parent him very well. He never told me about specific incidents with my grandmother (aside from being left to fend for himself for several weeks at 12 or 13 while the rest of the family went to ME) and never said much about my grandfather, which leads me to think (along with my own experience of incestuous pedophilia) that there was more and that it was Bad and that it was probably horrific enough that even my Aunt Sue and uncles wouldn’t want to (or possibly even can’t) talk about it.

So I guess I should explain the incestuous pedophilia thing and using those particular words makes it sound so much worse than I ever thought of it. I didn’t even realize the magnitude of what had happened to me until I was 10 or 11, in the early 80s when molestation and abuse were finally being talked about. Before that, things were hushed up. When I was 4 or 5, one of my Dad’s brothers came to babysit my brother and I. I’m guessing Scott was in high school at the time. It was summer and it was the summer I had a crazy 70’s print bikini. I wanted to go for a walk, my brother wanted to watch TV, and so Scott took me for a walk up behind the house. He took liberties that I don’t really want to go into, except to say that he suggested I count (which I could do up to 10) until it was over. I remember telling my parents, and my mother bathing me to make sure I was clean, and a visit to Dr. Herman (who’s office is still in town) to make sure everything was ok. And the result: they didn’t do anything except make sure that I was never alone with Scott again. After my parents separated and got divorced, in my early teens when I started dating and kissing boys, all of it came back up again. I asked for therapy. The therapist asked both my parents to come in for a joint session and I asked them why they didn’t do anything. “We didn’t want to rock the boat,” was the answer.

I had one therapist (the one I saw for postpartum depression after I had my 2nd son) tell me that victims of sexual abuse, children in particular, deal with it better or worse depending on how their parents handle it. Early on I realized that my own parents weren’t exactly reliable, that they wouldn’t stand up for me or protect me from everything. I understand in some ways why they didn’t say or do anything, but as a parent myself, I don’t understand where the rage went or if there even was any rage. They didn’t want to rock the boat but I know for a fact that one of my other cousins was also molested by this uncle. And then, when he got married in the early 80s to a woman who had a young son, I worried. When they had a daughter, I worried. By that time the extended family and my own family had splintered so much that I really don’t know my cousins that well at all. But I worry and am angry and horrified about what may have happened all because I did the right thing and my parents did not.

My current therapist has told me that none of this is my fault, that I can’t worry about what someone else may have done, that I am not responsible for other people’s behavior. And I believe her, but a small part of me doesn’t. I also know that I cannot change the past no matter how much I wish things had gone differently, so here is one big reason I’m blogging – one big reason I’m making this huge admission. If a child tells you that they are being abused in any way, say something, do something, tell someone with authority. Get that child some help. I cannot tell you how important this is. If my parents had said something, the cousin who talked to me about it might have been saved from it.

When my Dad was sick, the whole family went down to Florida. My Aunt Sue, Scott (the uncle) and Bev (his amazing wife), and Joel (my other uncle). As it turns out, Scott has been in AA for a while and he and his first wife got divorced (I think in the late 90s). His current wife, Bev, also comes from an abusive family. Scott is not the same person I knew as a kid and I would like to hope that he has changed, that he does not molest, that maybe he didn’t do anything to his own children. I know he is a product of a really messed up family – God only knows what was done to him as a child – but we all make choices. I was molested and I would never, ever break another person like that. I forgave Scott, in a roundabout way, as he sat with Bev at his side. But I still get angry and I still find it unforgivable, at the same time.

I worry about publishing this post; it kind of went a little farther than I was really ready to go, and this still isn’t even the worst of it; I don’t know if I will ever be able to acknowledge the worst of it publicly, but there is more to tell. And maybe even something happy and interesting, like a family tree, talking about my double-cousins (my father’s sister married my mother’s brother), my three Aunt Sue’s, all of the 1965 (or 1966?) babies in the family, cookouts at Silver Lake, playing dirty word Scrabble at my Grandma Harlow’s with my older cousins ….

Raison d’être

I have spent years and years going over the same events in my head. Wasted years when I could have been focused on something else, like my future or my family (and I mean my family: my husband and children) or my career and education. I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up and I still can’t quite identify myself the way other people do – good mother, pretty good former technical writer, pretty good fiber artist/spinner/knitter – because most days I still feel broken and I worry that I’m not responding to things the right way, that my whole life is an act and that someone will eventually figure this out and call me out on it.

The last few years I gave up trying to fit in with the other parents in my suburban DC neighborhood. When we moved into our house, I recommitted myself to my family and my marriage after a few difficult years. I wanted to make things work and part of that, I felt, was fitting in to what I thought my husband wanted (I was on the mark with some of it, off on most of it) and what I was supposed to be. Playgroups, cookie exchanges, PTA events, volunteering at school – I even briefly reconsidered church and God. None of it has worked – I simply don’t jive with many of these families and instead of pretending, I’ve finally admitted (once again) that I’m weird and that’s okay.

When my father got sick and died in the spring of 2008, my brother and I ditched our families for a week to support him through diagnosis (pancreatic cancer) and getting his affairs in order. A month later, my family took our planned, week-long FL vacation. I didn’t go home with them and stayed with my Dad and stepmother until he died (probably of a heart attack) 3 weeks later. My brother also came down for most of those final 3 weeks. Dad was lucid and funny and (mostly) his old self, a man that I hadn’t spent a lot of time with in the previous 20 years. My stepmother was acting like a sane person, handling the situation surprisingly reasonably for her, even including some early morning shouting matches. There was time to explain, time to forgive, time to resolve everything, and let it go. And I swear, I let it all go. But things have a way of rearing back up – life goes on and reminds you – and I am back to square one on a lot of this stuff.

So I’m blogging all of this instead of writing in my journals in the hopes that it will help me set these things aside again, hopefully for the last time, but also so that they might help someone else. The issues I have, the stories I’m going to tell, don’t just involve me. They are stories about my parents, their parents, aunt and uncles – my extended family. And I understand why all of these things happened, I understand how people can do the things they did – I really do – but I still cannot forgive that like everyone else, they had a choice and they made one that hurt someone else. Maybe whatever spills out of me will help someone make a better choice or at least think all the options & their effects through.

One last thing – this is not going to be a journal and it is not going to be serious fucking bizness all the time, at least I hope not. I wanted to call this blog My Golden Notebook after Doris Lessing’s novel The Golden Notebook (“…the story of writer Anna Wulf, the four notebooks in which she keeps the record of her life, and her attempt to tie them all together in a fifth, gold-colored notebook,” according to Wikipedia) but it was already taken. Little Golden Notebook also reminds me of the Little Golden Books that I read as a child and now read to my children (The Tawny Scrawny Lion is my favorite).