Chronicles of the Head

 

Chronicles of the Head

 

Fifty-three years of changes, and my husband’s head chronicles them the best for me. As I stand at the stove while peeking at John’s head as he naps before supper, I can’t help but think of the hair-raising evolution of this journey.

The head I peer at now is covered with white wisps of curls desperately trying to cover an otherwise pink baldness. The curls give up on the top of his head, and his skull shines through. “Not enough of the crap to pay a hairdresser to cut,” he announced six years ago as his younger daughter trimmed away impatiently at it the day before her older sister’s wedding.

This same head a decade or so ago was covered with thicker salt and pepper hair always too unruly to be kept in a baseball cap. I used to trim it a few times a year then.

Before that a Beatle bob escaped in all directions that was defined by a trimmed moustache. His serious, college-educated, running his own business, but still wearing jeans phase.

A ponytail came before that in a rebellious phase when he pounded nails for some other asshole.

A blonde-streaked, banged do was what he sported when we met in 1967. No moustache. Baby face. Too cute.

Those blue eyes are still shining out on the front of this gray-haired gentleman, but oh, that gorgeous head of hair. Where did it go? It’s bouncing around on our older daughter’s business woman’s head as she rushes off to work in San Francisco, and growing thicker and curlier each day on the head of a darling granddaughter as she bops around at Child Time Daycare. That’s where you’ll find it!

Young Love in Cheap Apartments

Young Love in Cheap Apartments

 

The beehive on Brunswick Avenue was notorious in Old Town, Maine. It was also the site of my husband’s and my first apartment upon marrying in 1971. It worked because it was cheap and close to University of Maine at Orono where we were students. The landlords, dear, elderly Mr. and Mrs. Bosse, had the audacity to rent to UMO students mostly. One young family with two little, tow-headed girls, named Lisa and Terri, snuck in the first floor, front apartment on the right side building. The girls’ dad enjoyed living the college life vicariously through drinking beer in the parking lot with the students. Lisa and Terri begged for the purchase of chips when a beer run was announced, and they usually got them. This couple comprised the only tenants perhaps over the age of twenty-two in the complex.

I never counted how many apartments were in this unsightly, huge conglomeration comprised of an old paper baron house and a makeshift ell, but the whole monster was numbered seventy, with its various letters delineating the individual units. The original old house must have been elegant in its day. An odd wall or unusual corner would make one wonder about the original use of spaces now carved into less than elegant apartments.

My husband and I occupied three different apartments at this unique dwelling over the course of two year. Our first one was an almost two room wonder stuck in the back of the house to the right facing from the street—behind Lisa and Terri’s place. The bathroom was so tiny that on a visit my Aunt Lucy’s 300 plus pound being was difficult to cram in the space between the shower stall and the wall to allow herself to sit on the commode. Thankfully, the cheap tin shower stall bent graciously for her. She did not visit again, though. Our rent was $60.00 monthly, which included electricity and a little bit of heat supplied by an open vent in the middle of the floor of the real room. There was no telephone. Mr. Bosse graciously let his student tenants list his home phone number when applying for part-time jobs, etc. He was delighted to knock on our door and inform me about my job at Grants’ Skillet one fall day. I spent many days later in the months of January and February dancing on top of that heat vent. My husband’s best man stayed with us for a couple weeks as fall semester started. It was a tight squeeze until his student housing came through, and his wife and baby joined him from Calais.

We splurged the next summer on the three room, pent house in the attic of the building. There was a poetic feeling to looking out over our section of Old Town from the tiny windows carved in the roof. Our thirteen inch, black and white television had better antennae reception up higher, and we could actually make out the picture of our favorite show MASH. The heat, derived from the kitchen oil stove, was nicer than what we had in our first apartment, albeit a bit smellier. My mother-in-law declared it was a “deathtrap” as our source of oil for the stove was down a set of stairs to a tank set in the inside hallway. Tenants, including us, would fill canisters and drip oil all over the floors and stairs back to our stoves. We never told Mother about the small oil fire we had in the old stove one morning. We kept that secret and enjoyed an old claw-footed, enamel tub that at the time both my husband and I could fit into.

The penthouse proved to be stifling in the warmer weather, so as soon as possible,  we moved to a second floor, four room unit on the outside of the building. This apartment had the same, old-fashioned funk of our previous ones, but with an added delight. From a kitchen window, one could crawl out onto the roof of a porch that went with the unit below. We spent many evenings in a cheap beer-induced, relaxed pose on that roof as we mulled over what shape our lives would take once we had graduated and grown-up.

In the fall of 1972, we watched in awe as a POW walked off a plane in New York. He was from Maine. I still remember watching that young pilot with fascination. Years later I would not only learn his name but meet him as the husband of a teaching friend of mine. Life goes around in funny circles. I am now writing about this returning POW’s mother and her journey to get him home.

Spirituality?

Spirituality?
When people asked me about my religious views a while ago, I usually played games. Sometimes I said I was a complete heathen. Never been baptized. Had original sin on my soul. Sometimes I joked about how relatives tried but failed to bring me into the fold. At a recent book group, a couple friends told me they thought I must be a lapsed Catholic because of my French mill town home. I got the impression that some thought it would be better for me to be a lapsed “something” than to never have been anything. Religion had always puzzled me. I used to wonder why after sixty something years God had not spoken to me like so many people talk about. It wasn’t that I never tried to hear him. Was it that I was not understanding how this communications works?

A string of negative experiences involving churches had made me bitter about organized religion. For example in grade school, I loved going a Baptist Church in Waterville, Maine. I had friends at Sunday school. I still remember gathering the small communion cups after a service and being affectionately scolded by the minister about the germs involved with sipping the remains in some of the cups before putting them in the trays. He never ratted me out to my mother who would have thrown a fit about it. When I was about ten-years-old, the church committee found out that this dear minister’s wife had experienced a nervous breakdown before being at this church. They proceeded to ask the minister to leave. My mother was furious. She liked the minister’s wife, and she made a fuss at the next church council meeting. We left the church as a result.

A couple years later during my parents’ first separation, my mother’s friend picked me up and took me with her family to a different Baptist Church. I felt like someone’s charity project and begged my mother to stop this. Even later on, my mother and I attended a Nazarene Church for a short while. The church people seemed nice at first. Not wearing makeup was okay with my mother who never put anything on her face except for a touch of lipstick, but when she was told that curling her hair was sinful, she decided that religion was not for us. I still remember riding home with my mom in her VW bug and laughing about walking around looking like an old wash woman for the sake of being pious.
Things bumbled along for me and my attitude toward religion until January of 2000. My brother Steve lay in Cardiac ICU in Mobile after a quadruple bypass. Unfortunately, his brain had been without oxygen for a few minutes too long, and he didn’t regain consciousness. As I sat in the cafeteria of the hospital with my nephew Rhett, I glanced out the window and noticed a beautiful wading bird in the manmade pond in the hospital garden. This egret stood and watched me as I tried to console my nephew. Every time I went get a snack after that first sighting, the bird was there. I walked to the other side of the garden to a small chapel with Rhett. Rhett railed at God about taking his father at such a young age. I looked out the chapel window at the pond and saw the egret standing near the edge looking into the chapel. A couple weeks later, we went to bury my brother in a section of the cemetery in Mobile that my brother’s wife had picked because it overlooked a lovely pond. As the coffin rested on the mechanism that would drop it into the grave, I looked away toward the pond. An egret was at the edge of the pond watching us.
Later that year, I was working with a cousin on a scholarship in my brother’s name. I told her over dinner about the egret. She flashed a knowing smile and asked me to send this story of the egret to her in an email, so she could share it. I didn’t ask why. My epiphany about spiritual communications crashed on me like a high, fly baseball I caught awkwardly. Since then, I have been visited by a cardinal bird couple when writing about my parents. The beautiful, olive green female glances at me tentatively and looks away. She doesn’t stay long. The brilliant red male seems to watch me for long lengths of time. He stays in view of my kitchen window long after his mate leaves. My brother Wayne has not visited me yet. His death was premature and accompanied by many unresolved relationships. Maybe he’s not ready to look for people yet.

A couple years ago, I was walking with my elderly neighbors Ron and Jan. Ron is a retired Congregational minister. Jan is a gregarious minister’s wife. She was entertaining me that day with a story about how she thought she was probably going to hell as she had left the Catholic Church to marry a Protestant. She and I were exchanging sarcastic stories about being doomed when Ron interrupted us. He announced that what church one belongs to doesn’t matter. There is a place in heaven for anyone with a good heart. He looked at me and said he’d seen my heart, and Jan and he would see me in heaven. That was that. We continued to walk, and Jan started fussing about neighbors who didn’t mow their lawn enough. I think I may have been baptized that day by a true Christian soul. Bless you, Reverend Ron.

 

 

 

The Orchid Dress

The Orchid Dress

     Alvina and Delia’s Dress Shop was not only the swankiest boutique in Waterville, Maine in the early 1960s; it may have been the only dress boutique for miles around. The two exotic names puzzled me. My mother and I would window shop there as we walked down Main Street on our way to Woolworth’s, a store that fit our budget better. A week before my piano recital when I was twelve years old, an orchid dress was displayed in the boutique’s window. My mother was captivated by it.

“Do you like it?” asked my mother without turning her head away from the dress to look at me.

“It’s pretty,” I answered, thinking no harm done in agreeing with her as there was no way in hell we would be able to afford anything in Alvina’s. I could be compliant in this case.

“Let’s go in and try it on.”

“Don’t think they’d have my size,” I immediately said to no one as my mother was already through the store door. I followed her.

The inside of the boutique was completely foreign to any shopping I previously experienced. The roomy shop displayed bouquets of flowers on pedestals here and there. There were velour seats as well. Racks were small. No huge collections of the same dress in long lines of rack upon rack. A well-dressed woman greeted us and asked if she could help. I thought she took a second to look Mom and I up and down in a concerned manner, but Mom didn’t seem to notice. She asked what sizes the orchid dress in the window came in as we were shopping for a special outfit for me. Much to my surprise, the saleswoman announced she thought she had one that would fit me and disappeared.

“It’s part of our young ladies’ attire,” she said to us as she reappeared a couple minutes later with a copy of the dress in the window that looked like it just might fit.

“My daughter will try it on, please,” my mother said. She turned and plunked down on one of the velour seats.

Nervously, I followed the saleslady into the fitting room. A velour seat was waiting in there, too. I watched her unzip the dress as it hung on a decorative hook. I tried to remember what I had on for underwear. I was not thinking about trying on anything at Alvina and Delia’s when we left the house earlier. I didn’t have a slip on, for goodness sake, as I was wearing slacks. I started to unbutton my blouse.

“Holler if you need help with the zipper, darling,” said the saleslady with a definite look of condescension. She left me alone.

I scrambled into the dress while hoping she would not reenter the fitting room and notice that the front of my bra scrunched where I didn’t have enough to fill it out. I didn’t really need a bra, but my mother insisted that someone who had hit puberty early and suffered “the curse” deserved to have one even though we couldn’t find one small enough. I managed the zipper of the dress and looked in the mirror. It was a nice color on me. I’d have to do something with my straggly, blonde hair. What would I wear on my feet? Relax, I told myself. No way can Mom actually afford to buy this.

“Cherie, come on out and let us see you,” Mom said. I pushed the curtain of the fitting room aside and stepped out to see my mother still on her velour chair. The saleslady stood behind her with her head held high. A bit too high I thought to myself.

“She’s a beautiful young lady,” the saleslady announced. With buck teeth that desperately need braces, I added in my head. My mother just smiled.

“Cherie, you will be the prettiest girl at the piano recital next week. We’ll take it,” Mom said.

“How much is it?” I asked.

“That’s for your mother and I to discuss, sweetheart. Let me start that zipper for you,” said the saleslady.

I was horrified. I knew my father would have a fit when we went home with this dress. There was no way my mother could hide spending this much for something.

While I was still pulling on my slacks, the saleslady reached in and grabbed the dress from the fitting room. Heavens, she must want to complete the sale quickly before my mother comes to her senses, I decided. I joined Mom at the counter where the cash register resided and noticed both the saleslady and she were chatting pleasantly. I was handed a box with handles on one side and Alvina and Delia’s decorating it in big print.

“Good luck with your recital, dear,” said the clerk.

I said nothing. Mom and I walked out. I felt like we had robbed a bank. How would we walk into the house with this box? We skipped going to Woolworth’s that day. I never asked why. I figured my poor mother didn’t have a cent to her name now.

All the way home I guiltily thought about the last practice I went to where my piano teacher Mrs. McInnis had been so frustrated, she rapped my fingers against the keys and scolded me for being lazy. I deserved it. I had not practiced my recital piece. I also knew from other students in the waiting room she wouldn’t drop me from her lessons as she had threatened from time to time as she was widowed and needed the money. I was an underserving brat, and here I was with this box on my knees that contained the most expensive dress I ever owned in my life. I was almost hoping my father would notice the box, confront my mother, and insist she return it. He didn’t. He was late getting home that evening. The dress was put in my room.

The next day after school, I sat down at our big upright piano in the living room of our old farmhouse. I stretched my fingers as I looked at the grape work on the old, mahogany instrument. I did scales I had almost forgotten as I never warmed up the way I was trained to by Mrs. McInnis. I glared at the sheet music of my recital piece. Debussy! What was Mrs. McInnis thinking? She was the Clair de Looney Tunes! I stumbled through it a half dozen times. I stopped and wondered if my mother noticed I was practicing. She had to hear me from the kitchen. Nothing was said about it at supper.

I practiced for the next six days. Mom never made any comments. The evening of the recital I felt somewhat elegant in my orchid dress. My mother let me put on a slight touch of her lipstick. My hair looked the best it ever could considering the skimpy, fine mess it was. I knew better than to ask about nylon stockings. White, lacy socks under my black patent leathers with the straps tucked backward would have to do. My older brothers fought in the car all the way to Mrs. McInnis’ house even though my dad fussed at them from behind the wheel. He commented about how nice I looked in my purple dress. I sneaked a guilty look at Mom.

“It’s orchid, actually, Al,” my mother told him. She turned and smiled at me from the front seat. I stopped breathing for a minute, but we continued on to the recital.

I did a decent job of Clair de Lune at Mrs. McInnis’ baby grand piano. We used that for recital instead of her worn upright in the corner reserved for lessons. Mrs. McInnis found me during the cookie reception after everyone had played and gave me a knowing look.

“Someone broke down and practiced, Miss Grant,” she said. “Perhaps that could be continued next fall.”

“Huh, yes,” I mumbled with a mouthful of cookies. I was glad neither of my parents or either one of my snitches of brothers were around to overhear her.

Unfortunately, it was not to be. That summer my mother divorced my father. I moved into a small apartment with my mother and one brother. The older one escaped the chaos by joining the Navy. Piano lessons were out of the question even though my mother paid a heavy price to have help moving the piano into our small new place. As I look back now, I wonder if my mother tried to soften the blow of our future for me by buying that orchid dress. Parents are funny like that.

The Unfolding of a Book

A book unfolds more than one story. As relatives react to my latest book about my parents, I am astounded by what I never realized about my two, older brothers. Wayne and Steve were six and four and a half and years older than me. I still easily recall listening to both my mother and father scold them about watching me and taking care of me. I considered Wayne and Steve bossy when I was little. Not only did I not appreciate their efforts to carry out our parents’ instructions, I taunted them about being the pampered baby sister.

On Sunday mornings, I would sneak into their bedroom and wake them up. Then I’d stand aside and watch them get punished by one or both parents for waking them up too early. I remember fussing to my father about one of them touching me too hard and then watching one get sternly rebuked by our beloved, but dreadfully sexist dad.

They did pay me back occasionally. When I was three-years-old, they shut me in a closet and made weird noises. As a result, I was terrified of the dark for years. A few years after the closet incident, I stepped out into the backyard of our farmhouse to a sight that I still remember with a feeling of trauma. All three of my favorite dollies-Pam, Karen, and Georgie-were hanging by nooses from the frame of our homemade swings. Somehow they convinced our mother that the hanging was all part of a cowboy game they were playing, and much to my dismay they didn’t get punished for it. There were also jabs to my sides or accidental whacks while my brothers were fighting one another when I was riding between them on the back seat of the family sedan during Sunday afternoon drives.

At around the age of ten, though, I began to realize Wayne and Steve truly were my protectors and care takers. My parents had a very stormy relationship. Although never fighting physically, their arguments were loud and emotional with such things as dishes flying across a room and doors slamming. My mother’s mental illness sometimes completely derailed her, and if Dad had to work, it was Wayne or Steve who would care for me. They did it in different, but very loving ways. The Christmas I was a month away from turning ten-years-old, I desperately wanted a beautiful baby doll I had seen in a store window in downtown Waterville. My mother remarked at supper the evening I had asked for it that I was a silly, spoiled thing still wanting dollies when I was almost a young lady. Wayne bought the baby doll for me with hard earned money from his job at the local grocery store and stuck it under the tree when Mom wasn’t looking. Wayne’s concern was occasional like this, but Steve continuously worried about how I was getting by. He did things like teaching me how to hold my books so I wouldn’t look like a loser as I was about to be a freshman in high school or make his culinary special for my lunch—diced spam with mayo and relish sandwiches. Steve also started scolding my parents about neglecting me after they had several separations. This didn’t win any favors for him with them.

Both my brothers moved far away from Maine as adults. I resented the fact that I was the one left home to care for our sick mother after our father died. After our mother’s death, I stopped to think about why they kept their distance from family. One of my brothers’ widows has confided in me that both Wayne and Steve talked about how they resented me as we were growing up. A niece has told me that her father never wanted to talk about our family and would make sarcastic comments if pushed for information. One brother had very stormy marriages before his early death at forty-nine-years old. The other died at fifty two. A nephew tells me that he enjoys reading my writing as he doesn’t know much about his father’s childhood. That floored me. At sixty eight, I am now left feeling guilty not only for surviving longer than everyone, but for not trying to talk to Wayne and Steve more about the effect our dysfunctional childhood had on them. They were so often surrogate parents to me instead of brothers. What I have learned from cousins would fill another book!

Readers not related to me speak of the effect my book has had on them. I relish that, but I guess I failed to realize how much of an effect it would have on me. I should have known that putting out a book that is so personal would do this. Most books, of course, come from the author’s own experience. Even Stephen King once told an interviewer that his books certainly were. His book Misery resulted after watching what his mother went through battling cancer. For those of us who pen memoir or personal nonfiction, it is just more obvious.

Leaving a piece of your heart in a book…

Leaving a piece of your heart in your book…
     Nineteen years ago, I lost the last member of my childhood family when my brother Steve died.  He was the last person whom I thought shared the lifelong family conspiracy—the plan to shelter and protect my mother. I drowned in grief and aloneness for a while before I decided to write. I found it immediately cathartic to write about my mother— her childhood of extreme poverty, her alcoholic, abusive father, the loss of her older siblings, and her health problems, among other things. I spent years on a chronological biography of her entitled The One Left Behind. I paid for writing workshops and critique groups at a local university where I manipulated pieces of it.  I shared almost completed copies with cousins. Somehow, it didn’t feel quite right. 
     The manuscript sat idyll for a while. Life got in the way with work, two daughters, and a husband. Then I became involved in a group of women who all wrote about how their mothers’ lives affected them. They were also trying to come to an understanding of their mothers. It was wonderful. I studied my mother’s life in more depth. An anthology called Compassionate Journey: Honoring Our Mothers’ Stories came out eventually. I am very proud of my part in it, but I still needed to write more about my mother, particularly for relatives who always had questions.
     My book Gracie & Albert used many parts of my other writings, but in a new way. I wanted to share the story of the courage, love, and determination my mother and father displayed in their challenging lives. I needed to help people realize what they incredibly overcame. A piece of my heart will be in every paperback or ebook version of Gracie & Albert. I hope people understand.

The Relative Taken In

The Relative Taken In

My mother Grace was orphaned at age twelve after pretty much taking care of herself and her little brother Ira John most of that time. At this point, her longtime ill mother Myrabelle was put in a sanitarium because she was totally bedridden. Ira John was grabbed up by a childless, paternal aunt and her husband as a four-year-old boy was just what they wanted. He was just what a maternal uncle without a male heir wanted, too, but the paternal aunt had gotten to him first. No one from either side of the family wanted an almost-grown girl, so Grace waited in an empty house in Windsor for a few days until a young, maternal uncle and his new wife were shamed into going and picking her up as they were childless and had the room. The arrangement didn’t work for somewhat questionable reasons, and Gracie landed at her maternal grandfather’s farm where, ironically, the sonless, maternal uncle lived with four daughters and wife. Both fussed about getting Grace instead of Ira John. Grace spent the rest of her childhood as a maid and caretaker for four, female cousins and the rest of the people on the farm. She knew her place. She was the relative taken in and was to be grateful to have a place to live at all.

The cousins Grace cared for grew to love her and even had their children call her aunt as they became adults with families of their own. Growing up, I spent a lot of time with these people— “cousins” and “aunts” who were actually “second cousins and cousins once removed.” At family gatherings there was always something different about the way my mother and her children were treated. It was hard for me as a young child to figure out.

One Christmas eve at a gathering in this farmhouse where Grace had been taken in, I was a seven year old participating in gift opening from my great aunt and uncle who wanted my brothers and me to call them Me mere and Pa. Always in a resentful tone of voice, my mother had told us to call them Aunt Lucy and Uncle Bill. That noisy evening in this house filled with relatives, my three female “cousins,” about the same age as I was, opened large gift-wrapped boxes that immediately thrilled them with tall, beautifully dressed dollies. I watched anxiously for my turn. I was handed a small package by Aunt Lucy, who walked away casually, not waiting for me to open it. Much to my disappointment, I found my gift was a tiny, bubble-wrapped collection of cheap play cosmetics. I can’t recall what my brothers received as presents. They were older and wise enough not to make a fuss if what they received didn’t match up to their male counterpart. I was not that discreet and voiced my objections to my mother. She shushed me in that whisper growl she used when she herself was also angry about a situation in which she felt she could do nothing. There were many of those occasions when I was a kid.

As if to add insult to injury, one of my “aunts” called all of us “grandchildren” together for a picture in front of the Christmas tree. I was surrounded by my three “cousins” who held their dollies proudly. I was empty-handed. We went back to those gatherings most Christmas eves throughout my childhood. They were the only local family my mother had even though she spent time bitterly complaining about how they had used her as a live-in maid and nanny. I don’t remember where my father would situate himself during these festivities. Perhaps he stayed out in the kitchen talking to the other males not blood-related. He maybe knew his place better than I did. After that Christmas when I was seven, I, too, learned where I stood with these people. I was the daughter of the orphaned relative who was taken in, and I never forgot it.

As a young teenager while helping in the farmhouse kitchen, I told my Aunt Lucy I wasn’t her grandchild and would not call her Me mere after one of her requests for me to do so. I was only five foot one, but Aunt Lucy was a mere four foot eight. I remember being surprised that she looked up at me with a puzzled look after I announced this. Had she not realized how she had treated me so differently than her real granddaughters? I guess, I forgot that I, too, was to be grateful that she and her husband had taken in my mother years ago. Things were rather cool between Aunt Lucy and me after that. She did offer her farmhouse lawn for my wedding ceremony when I was nineteen and once again seemed genuinely shocked that I instead chose to be married on my maid of honor’s side lawn a few miles down the road.

As a young adult, I chose not to stay very close to this part of the family, except for one “cousin” Holly, whom I had been rather fond of. Holly would always try to include me in her family gatherings as she had children herself. She even hosted a baby shower for me when my first daughter arrived shortly my mother died. Cousins on my father’s side had given me a baby shower, and I joked with Holly about how she didn’t want to be outdone by them. She would be the only one to call me about births and deaths, and so forth. Unfortunately, Holly died relatively young of cancer. Several years later at her grandmother’s funeral, Holly’s daughter Becky looked at me and asked if we were actually related. Once again, I was reminded of my place with this crowd. I decided not to go into lengthy details with Becky and instead simply told her, “Not really, dear. Not very close, I guess.” Why burden yet another generation with this sour story?

Did you love your mother?

 

This recent question assaulted me like a slap across the face. I had no answer for the person who asked me. At first I decided that the questioner must have had an unresolved relationship with her own mother to even ask another woman such a thing, but I realized I was only deflecting the issue and needed to think out an answer, if only just for myself. It has taken me some time, thought, and discussion with other women who have had a less than perfect relationship with their mothers for me to come up with a reasonable response. I also started examining other women’s interactions with their mothers who were still living or reflections of women whose mothers were no longer around, particularly those who claimed to have a good relationship. At this point in my life I was able to do this with academic eyes instead of covetous eyes that I used to watch such things through.

I discovered that no two mother/daughter relationships seem alike. There must be many types of love. Some women revere their mothers. They miss their help and guidance if they are gone. They talk about wonderful sacrifices their mothers made for them. Some talk about being best friends with their mother. I hope those women also had best friends their own age. Many spoke of misunderstanding and even anger between their mothers and themselves. Words like disappointment and betrayal started cropping up, too. I had a lovely woman who told me she loved her mother because she thought she had to, but she didn’t like her as a person. I have heard and read accounts of mothers who verbally and physically abuse their daughters. I think back to a former student whose mother not only allowed her boyfriend to sexually abuse her but participated in the abuse herself. With my head swimming in examples of relationships, I decided I needed to look again at mine with my own mother.

A friend recently spoke of self-righteous anger toward her mother. She went on to explain that she now feels she did not have the right to her anger when she considers what her mother had gone through as a child and young woman before having her. That really struck me. I needed to stop and consider that when thinking about my mother who was a survivor of poverty, abuse, and illness. I do also realize that this friend and I are finally at an age where we can be gracious about granting our mothers this kindness and compassion.

If I am asked again, I will know how to answer the question of whether or not I loved my mother. I’m ready now. I only had thirty-two years with her. The last six years were spent in a role reversal forced on us by my mother’s severe illness. When my father died, I became her caretaker. Those years were not pleasant, and it took me some time to get over that. Before that, our relationship was clouded by the understanding that I was always to protect her and keep from her anything that might upset her. My father, brothers, and I did this “dance” around her for as long as I can remember. We also covered for her when she wasn’t well. This was my normal, and I was old enough to spend significant time away from my house before realizing that was not everyone’s family situation. I did love her, though. I even liked her when she was well. She was a bright, caring person. I didn’t like her illness. Her tongue was verbally abusive when she wasn’t well, but she broke the cycle of physical abuse that she had suffered. I have great respect for her for being able to do that. She did very well with the life she was given. I do not miss her at landmark events like births, weddings, and other such things as she openly talked at the end of her life about being too ill to participate in such things. She was ready to go. I am at peace with this and with her memory for the most part.

The Pivotal Generation

The Pivotal Generation

My mother, born in 1924, grew up in the time when she was sexually abused by her alcoholic father and was told to keep quiet about it. If she told anyone, it would bring shame to the family. She suffered severely for holding her feelings inside. Her granddaughters, born in the 1980s, now have come to age in a time when an unwanted pinch, touch, or kiss is reported, and consequences are sometimes paid by the male aggressor. Born in 1952, I am a member of the pivotal generation. I find myself swinging both ways on sexual harassment issues that seem crystal clear to younger women. How can we change societal expectations without doing things like disgracing a former president a year or two before his death? How can we fairly deal with all inappropriate actions reported? Can we agree on a scale of the seriousness of some inappropriate actions versus others? We presently still pick and choose those people who should get away with anything sexually inappropriate or deemed harassment. Most importantly, how can we handle false accusations that make both men and women look bad?

A few years ago, I personally watched a wonderful male teacher get accused of inappropriate touching. A report was made and administration began an investigation, only to have the middle school-aged accuser be overheard giggling and telling friends it never happened. She was just mad at the teacher about the grade she had in his class. All action against the teacher was dropped, but he ended up retiring years before he planned to due to jokes made about him, many from fellow teachers. As many men have found, once accused there is a stain on one’s reputation.

This seems unimportant to many women until they know someone who is falsely accused, and then it becomes more obvious as to why many men in positions of authority are nervous about interacting with female subordinates. Of course, in years past, sometimes women were involved in promoting inappropriate actions by a male boss. As a teacher I once taught at a school with a male principal who would announce at happy hours where many staff were present that female teachers couldn’t leave the bar without kissing him goodbye. Some women would laugh and encourage other women to kiss him. I actually kissed this principal one time before leaving for the evening. I’m ashamed of myself now, but how does one resist something like that without looking like a spoil sport?

I have no big answers. I do think we need to have an understanding of the older generation and their dated ideas of social interactions while reminding them what expectations are now. We need to raise socially conscious boys. The phrase “boys will be boys” needs to be deleted from our minds. I do wonder if every big social pivot like this has been so painful.

Hitting the County Hard!

Hitting the County Hard!

I’m ashamed to admit that I was born, raised, and have always lived in the state of Maine but had never set foot in Aroostook County until recently. A fellow writer scheduled book readings at both University of Fort Kent and University of Presque Isle for us. We would be reading from an anthology Compassionate Journey we are involved in with three other authors. This dear friend lives on the very first mile of Route 1, so I was not just in the county but almost at the very top. It is said that to truly experience a new area well, one has to stay with someone who lives there. This certainly was true of my visit to Fort Kent, Caribou, and Presque Isle. I met wonderful people and had the inside scoop on where to go to see the important things.

McDonald’s is the mecca of Fort Kent for many people, and this is where I met two nice, elderly French gentlemen upon my arrival after a few hours of dodging frost heaves and logging trucks. There were no numbers on the buildings on Main Street making it difficult to find my friend’s apartment, so I stopped in at the infamous fast food place for directions. I was unnerved by the French conversations that filled the air inside the restaurant. When I asked a group of people which of two buildings across the street was number seventy eight, two older gentlemen, both sporting navy blue watch caps at a rakish angle, flanked me and one offered help in broken English. With much effort, I managed to get them to understand what I was looking for. They conferred with one another in French. One of them said the other one would go find out for me. Protests from me about how this wasn’t necessary fell on deaf ears, and the gentleman who remained with me stayed very close, watched out the window, and pointed in a very animated fashion as the other dear man scurried across the street and ran about the two buildings. The investigator finally returned, related his findings in French, and then both men pointed to a building on the right. I thanked them. Later, my friend I was staying with laughed when I related my experience as she thought she knew the two gentlemen who had assisted me so graciously and told me they were indeed very helpful to everyone.

There are gorgeous examples of old architecture in the northern part of Aroostook County, but my favorite ones were the huge, Catholic churches. A beautiful church with a very unique, porous-looking steeple graces Fort Kent just down the street from where I was staying. Others peeked out from small villages as I traveled down Route 1. In Edmundston after I crossed the border into Canada, I was overwhelmed by the stately Church of the Immaculate Conception. With its stone façade and stained glass windows, it played king of the hill and watched over the New Brunswick city elegantly. Its interior was just as breath-taking with gracious statures and pulpits.

Farms dotted Routes 1, 11, and 161 as I traveled around. Too many of them were deserted, though, showing signs of the economic depression of the area. Bright business signs on the roadside made promises of things like fresh baked goods or tasty lunches that couldn’t be kept as the building were closed down. As in other areas of central and northern Maine, here businesses often fail too soon.

Our book readings at the universities were successful. At Fort Kent, young nursing students turned out in great numbers to hear my friend, the director of nursing at UMFK, and me. Our anthology about mother/daughter angst at times seemed to puzzle them, but many stopped by to talk after the program. I learned even Generation Zs have troubles and worries about their mothers, and there is a great need to talk openly about it. Our audience at UMPI was receptive as well. I met wonderful women in their senior years who are brilliant and busy with diverse interests.

One elusive inhabitant of the county absolutely bewitched me with its two, brief appearances. Traveling north on Route 11 after Sherman Mills, Mt. Katahdin made an appearance through the clouds on my left. I stopped at the roadside to take the picture shown with this blog posting. The mountain played peek-a-boo with me again as I was going south on 95. A bit out of Houlton upon seeing a sign for Oakfield, the giant Katahdin suddenly appeared on the horizon of the highway in front of me. It was magnificent. It disappeared quickly not to be seen again for the rest of the drive.

Aroostook County is a beautiful place that is probably just as fun to see when it is not covered with snow as I saw it the first week in April. I’d like to give a shout out to Bogan Books in Fort Kent for promoting our anthology and also to the Swamp Buck, a restaurant and bar with unique décor and good food. All in all, I am glad I finally took the drive up north!