Friday, November 27, 2009

Fly Away, Flu!

I may not be blogging for a couple of days. The flu, or what seems to be the flu, has moved in with us and has taken over my agenda -- well, almost. I am working from home. Let's see, that would really be: dozing, doing, dozing, doing...zzz... I did manage to drag myself to the mission kitchen yesterday to clean the pots and pans from the town's Thanksgiving dinner. Donnie and I ate in a corner to avoid coming into contact with anyone else although he was not then ill, and no one but I wanted to scrub the pots and pans, so I was pretty much alone. (Fortunately, I was not feeling quite as bad yesterday as I am today.) So, I have decided to take a long sleep break until the flu flies away! See you post-hibernation!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Siblings, Part 3: Willie, the Hermit Toymaker

Willie was the least physically beaten (but perhaps the most emotionally injured) of the 8-pack. He looked like Dad, and that often stopped Ma’s hand, which sometimes created a short-duration sense of jealousy among the rest of the 8-pack but not for long because we needed each other. Like Dad, too, Willie had a brilliant mind that, given his introverted and pacific nature, he was never able to bring to bear in creating success in life. Not only Ma, but we all recognized Dad in Willie, and that become only more pronounced after Dad died and Willie grew up. Perhaps not so unexpectedly then, Willie lived in the burning house longer than any of us. He lived there for 29 years. At one point, we all thought that Willie would simply grow into another Dad, intimidated by Ma but unable to part from her. Fortunately, we were wrong.

Willie eventually escaped the burning house (see poem by Danielle's husband on sidebar and on Danielle's story) by marrying a beautiful woman 10 years his senior, whom he had met when they both acted in a local theater production. He was 29. She respected Willie in ways that he had not experienced before, saw potential in his intellectual brilliance, and drew him into the Anglican Church of Kenya. She was the one who stood by me most solidly when I felt a divine hand leading me to write Blest Atheist. Although ultimately the whole family (other than Ma, who remains ignorant of the book’s existence) agreed that the book could accomplish some good, Erin was the one who firmly insisted that where God leads one follows, regardless of consequence.

I flew back to Maine for Willie's and Erin's wedding, arriving, as planes gone awry would have, just a couple of hours before the wedding. At that time, I learned that I was to be the pianist. Yikes! I had not touched a piano in at least a dozen years, but Willie had all the sheet music lined up for me and I am a good sight reader. I quickly ran through each of the pieces, got his approval, and sort of relaxed. (That was one of the good things that Ma, as much as I might criticize her abusive child-rearing practices, did for us: until the money ran out when the boys came along, she made sure that we three older girls all had years of piano lessons. We might have practiced to the tune of the hickory switch keeping beat with the metronome, but the result was proficiency in piano playing. I won state competitions, and later I took advanced piano as a course at the university. So, it was not unreasonable for Willie to expect me to step up to the keyboard upon request.)

That Willie expected me to be his pianist and trusted me to arrive somehow someway no matter what happened to planes goes back to the relationship I have always had with him as his big sister. Rollie has repeatedly said that I was the ersatz father in the family, teaching the others through example and interaction how to survive both the burning house and life. Between Willie and me, there was great compatibility. Willie was in Jungian terms an NT personality type. As explicated by the late California psychologist, David Keirsey, in his book, Please Understand Me, an NT is a scholar by nature. “Scratch an NT;” says Keirsey, “find a scientist.” Willie and I both fall into the mold. His “science” is geology; he earned a B.S. years ago in that subject. Mine is linguistics, the science of language(s). And then, there is Sharon, the third NT in the family (three NTs out of eight children is extraordinary; the typical distribution is 12% of the population, which would be barely one in eight), whose science is nuclear physics. (Perhaps not surprising, then, 50% of my children, Lizzie and Shane, are NTs, as well.) NTs gravitate toward other NTs not for reasons of emotional support but for reasons of intellectual stimulation, and that was the core of the relationship between Willie and me. My returns to the burning house when Willie was still living there excited him; we would always become embroiled in deep discussion and intimate debate over whatever book Willie was reading or research that he was conducting – Willie was always conducting research.

In high school, Willie was encouraged in biophysical research by his biology teacher, who would buy supplies for him out of his own pocket and help him after school, knowing that our family could never afford such support for Willie’s scientific curiosity. At the age of 16, Willie had surpassed the reference information related to his experiments that he could obtain locally, and so he came to visit me at Penn State University, where I was an undergraduate. We would have great intellectual discussions in the evenings when I could spare time from my homework, but for the most part, Willie was in Pattee Library, devouring book after book and journal article after journal article related to discovering a biophysical base to parapsychological phenomena – and through his own work and the work of others he did find the common base. He also learned that Sir Isaac Newton had done some preliminary research on the topic and made some theoretical conjectures but only Newton's work in conventional physics has been accepted by the scientific community. Seeking to rectify that situation, Willie put together a presentation for a conference of physicists held in Boston that year. His biology teacher managed to finesse his registration for the conference. At the end of Willie’s presentation, one of the physicists who was quite taken with the quality, depth, and direction of Willie’s work commented that Willie looked quite young to have conducted this kind of research and he wondered where he had obtained his degrees. “Who are you?” he asked.

Willie’s response was classic: “I have no degrees. I am just a farm boy from down Maine.” This comment he would repeat years later in a different venue when he became my accomplice in stealing Doah from a hospital where he was dying.

After high school, Willie’s research slowed down. I encouraged him to contact science department chairpersons at major research universities for assistance in application and location of financial aid since the local high school guidance counselors were more tuned into vocational education than college education, very few people from our community ever anticipating attending college; I had ended up at Penn State because they had not known the difference between the University of Pennsylvania and Penn State (no harm done – Penn State turned out to be a good school for me, albeit somewhat unchallenging, and, more important, there is where I met Donnie). Ma, however, having chased off Rollie, encouraged Willie to live at home and help her with the two little girls and Keith, who, while extremely competent at many things, including managing family finances for Ma, was not old enough to drive legally. More than anything, Ma, who had only ever driven a tractor and was afraid to learn to drive a car, wanted a live-in chauffeur and handy man, and Willie was, indeed, “handy.” Willie acquiesced and enrolled in a local small campus of the University of Maine, where the only physics professor promised him A grades if he would just not come to class; Willie’s questions and comments embarrassed him because he did not understand physics at the level that Willie did. Ultimately, fortunately, Willie did finish a degree; he chose geology because it appeared to be a degree he could use at home in Maine, and from time to time he has been able to use it.

As for employment, however, once he married and left the burning house, Willie, who had always been a quiet reader, a budding laboratory scientist removed from social activities, became a true hermit albeit a married one. He spent 24/7 on the farm with Erin. He turned the barn into a workplace where he carved educational wooden toys, importing high quality birch from Russia and distributing his finished products to schools across America.

Willie’s toymaking days covered two decades, but with the recession of a decade ago, Willie had to close his workshop and enter the workforce. A traumatic experience for him, he bounced from one manual labor job to another until he finally ended up with a geology job, working for the county. Then, that, too, with the current recession, disappeared, and Willie became an unemployed hermit.

Yes, Willie did escape the burning house. However, how far Willie escaped is a different story. In terms of life success, he has had many ups and downs and has not fared as well as some of the rest of us. Physically, he moved to a farmhouse the top of one of the foothills of the White Mountains that spreads into Maine from New Hampshire. Our old farmhouse, now sold, is one mile down at the bottom of the hill. I sometimes wonder if that is not a significant part of why, of all of us, that Willie has found it difficult to let go of his grievances and insecurities from the past. As he puts it, he lays down all the old hurts and worries, starts to move on, and along comes Ma, who lives in a near-by New Hampshire village. She scoops up the baggage he has put down and hands it back to him, saying, “Oops, I think you forgot something.”

Willie is generally happy, though, because he is still living with his beautiful wife who still thinks he is a genius and has great potential. I see him whenever travel to Maine, which has occurred more frequently in this decade than in past ones.

Photos of Willie: perhaps at some point in the future. How does one get pictures of a hermit??

Friday, November 13, 2009

Siblings, Part 2: Danielle

Danielle, two years younger than Katrina and three years younger than me, grew up frightened. Unlike me, the pugilistic one, and Katrina, the obedient one, Danielle was the hidden one. When we would have our inevitable sibling squabbles, minor compared to most children (after all, we needed the 8-pack), sometimes Danielle would side with me, sometimes with Katrina. When Ma went on a rampage, however, she was nowhere to be seen. Years later, we learned that she had found the perfect hiding spot. At the end of the huge, long, narrow, walk-in closet in the bedroom of Dad and Ma, there was a wooden cedar chest. Danielle was small, and she could easily squeeze behind it without anyone knowing she was there. Since Ma had plenty of other children around to rampage upon, she rarely noticed that Danielle was not standing in line for her beating. (Years later, Danielle's current husband once -- and only once -- raised his voice to her. It took him two hours to find her after that: she was still trembling in the closet when he discovered her whereabouts. He told me that he has never raised his voice again when he realized the psychological connection Danielle made between a raised voice and the trauma of her childhood.)

When caught by Ma, Danielle had a unique way of managing her fear: fainting. She seemed able to faint upon command. Sense a beating coming? Danielle was already crumpled on the floor -- no need for any human hand to crumple her. One time I suggested that I might tell Ma about Pop's attempted rapes, and just the thought of what Ma would do was too much for Danielle: yes, she fainted.

A future nurse (actually, currently working cheerfully as a charge nurse in a large hospital), Danielle's nursing skills were honed in her elementary school years. She was very protective of her three younger brothers, always watching over them, and in particular, tending to their wounds. When Dad stabbed Rollie, it was not Ma who bandaged his wounds, it was Danielle.

Like me, Danielle found school to be an oasis in an emotional wasteland. At school, she was confirmed as a person of worth. In high school, she was class secretary, and she actively participated in a number of clubs. We never knew how much teachers knew and did not know about the way in which we were beaten at home. However, we wondered if the principal might not have known something was going on, or perhaps he was just very fond of Danielle and knew our family was very poor. For whatever reason, sometime during Danielle's high school years, he asked Ma and Dad to let him and his wife, who taught home economics at the high school (in spite of my incapacity to be homemakerly, she was one of my favorite teachers), adopt Danielle. He promised to put her through college. While we would not have liked to have lost Danielle from the 8-pack, we rejoiced that she might be able to get out from what her future husband referred to as "the burning house." We were all disappointed when Dad and Ma refused to let our kind principal have Danielle.

So Danielle continued to live in the burning house with the rest of us. As soon as she was legally old enough, she married. However, that husband was abusive, too, as sometimes happens in situations like ours. However, Danielle was strong enough to walk away from that marriage -- fortunately, before they had any children. Later, she remarried a wonderful Cherokee Indian named Bill and became a nurse. They raised two children together on the reservation, and Bill would not let Ma come near them although Danielle did return to Maine with the rest of us two years ago to celebrate Ma's 80th birthday. (Forgiveness may have come late, but it came.)

As for Danielle's childhood experience, Bill wrote a very descriptive poem about it. Although the age when he married Danielle was exaggeratedly young in the poem (that's called poetic license) and all of us in the 8-pack, not just Danielle, escaped the burning house (more poetic license), the poem pointedly and poignantly reflects the first 18 years of each of our lives, including Danielle's. I included it in a posting on Mahlou Musings, but assuming that many of the readers are not the same, here it is again:

"The Burning House"
by William Smith
copyright 2009

I dreamed a dream of a burning house
With brothers and sisters and a cold bitter spouse.
The halls were all crooked, the doors were ajar.
I heard all their cries from the road in my car.

I put on the brakes and came to a stop
While an old jackrabbit went hippity hop.
I looked back again, and the house was ablaze.
The people inside just looked in a daze.

The curtains were tattered, the roof was not straight.
The hinges were knocked off the broken front gate.
The paint was all weathered, and the shutters hung loose.
A shadow on the barn door looked like a noose.

A kid outside shouted, "There's a fire there, you see".
But Mama kept screaming, "Come back here to me".
"No, I cannot, ‘cause your house is on fire".
But nobody listened as the flames grew still higher.

Once in a while a child would run out,
But Mama and Papa would just scream and shout.
The kid in the yard would utter a scream
As a child ran back in as if in a dream.

Soon the house burned right to the ground.
The kid in the yard made not a sound.
I opened the door, and she sat on the seat.
She didn't look back because of the heat.

I stepped on the gas, and we sped away.
I opened my mouth, but what can you say?
"They had to go back," was her soft reply.
All of them chose their way to die.

I turned on the light; she was just seventeen.
She was the prettiest girl I'd ever seen.
I'll never forget the night I stopped there,
‘Cause I married that girl with the long, flowing hair.

Photos of Danielle - will be forthcoming when I have some time at home to scan the old paper stuff since we grew up pre-digital!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Siblings, Part 1: Katrina

In addition to Rollie and Victoria, about whom I have blogged earlier, I enjoy a bonded relationship with a total of seven siblings although only two are still in or near our rural Maine town. Katrina used to address her letters to Ma Bernard and her 8 pups, and the postman in our tiny farm community knew where to deliver them. Alternatively, Rollie called us the 8-pack.

I was the oldest. Victoria was the baby, and Rollie was child #5. We differ sp distinctly one from another in our interests and life paths that one would think we came from different families. Yet, even today, we remain an 8-pack. Survival of brutal daily abuse cemented that bond in blood and tears, literally. Just as our lives took different paths, so did the ways in which we escaped what my brother-in-law called "The Burning House." (I posted his poem about the burning house here on Mahlou Musings.)

Katrina, in birth order next oldest to me, reflected, as far as Ma was concerned, all the good characteristics that I lacked. Katrina was obedient; I was rebellious. She was polite; I was saucy. She worked hard for her A grades; I got them by merely breathing -- academics were to me just commonsense: once I had read something, I knew it (and often, by comparison, analysis, or deduction, I knew more than what I had actually studied). Katrina seemed to be born compassionate; it took me years to learn compassion.

Likewise, while I expected to live into adulthood and had quite a sheaf of plans for my life, Katrina had no plans at all, fully expecting to die in childhood at the hands of our parents. When she found herself still alive upon her 18th birthday, having graduated from high school and legally able to move from home, she felt astonished and confused.

When Ohio State University offered her a financial aid package (Dad made only $5K for a household of ten, and Ma did not work), she accepted with relief and gratitude and left the burning house bewildered as to a path to take through life. At OSU, working with the career guidance service, she found her niche: career guidance. So, she took a degree in counseling, wanting to help other students who encountered bewilderment when presented with the array of possible career choices. Then, she stayed on at OSU and earned a master's in counseling.

Continuing to be my polar opposite, unlike me (the gadfly, the gypsy, the world traveler, the job hopper always enticed by a new challenge), Katrina settled down as a counselor at a small college's career guidance center, where she has helped students for 30 years and going strong. Over time, she became director of the center, and at one point served as the president of the state's association of career counselors.

Katrina, like Donnie and I earlier, rescued Rollie, who, after his stint with us in Montana, return to Maine to rescue Sharon and Victoria from cousin Billy's sexual abuse, and subsequent ejection from the farm into the woods by Ma, ended up at Katrina's apartment in Ohio, where she was by then attending graduate school at OSU. She found him a job -- he was 18 by then -- and through his job, he found a wife who bore him three sons. Rollie has remained in Ohio to this day. By the time Katina finished school and left for her current job, we all knew that Rollie had become self-sufficient.

Sharon, though, had fallen into trouble right about then, a story that will be told in a later post. Fleeing Ma's anger, she found a welcome at Katrina's new house at essentially the same time that Victoria moved in with Donnie and me. There Sharon finished high school, married, and received a full scholarship to Michigan State University, where she studied nuclear physics.

So, once again, Katrina's house was empty. She had her students, though. Katrina never married but she always had family around her: Rollie, Victoria, her students -- always her students -- and then, suprise, my daughter, Lizzie.

In recent years, Lizzie accepted a 2-year visiting professorship at a near-by college. Lizzie, like Katrina, loves stability. (Lord knows, she did not have much stability as a child, having attended nine different schools and lived in eight different states and one foreign country.) Aunt and niece clicked like two magnets drawing near each other and spent many weekends and vacations together.

Katrina could retire now if she were to want to, having spent so many years in one institution, but she is still young and still has many students to help. Helping students, I believe, is her way of thanking God for helping her to escape the burning house.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

More on Lizzie: Back in the USSR

When Lizzie was 11 years old, I received a fellowship to conduct research in the Siberia in what was then the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). There were 8-9 American scholars allowed into the USSR that year, and I was the only one with a child. Needless to say, the experience was a challenge for Lizzie, for me, and for Inotdel, the foreign student office at the University of Moscow, even though I had come prepared: I had communicated with Hedrick Smith, author of The Russians, a very insightful book, and at the time the only living American I could find who had spent any time at all in Siberia (he had gone there for a couple of weeks as a journalist), and I had tracked down the child of an American diplomat and the child of an American journalist, the only other children at the time to have attended Soviet schools. (After us, many more scholars went to Siberia, and a few more American students went to Russian schools -- but nearly all of that occurred after the fall of the Soviet Union and the reemergence of Russia.

Lizzie started out at a school in Moscow. I will post more details on that later. For now, I will say that it was a mixed positive-negative experience for Lizzie, who was the only Westerner in the school. Most of the children were puzzled: This was someone who lived in the land of Enemy #1, but she did not seem like a big enemy. Most of the teachers were supportive and even approving as Lizzie's language skills improved, allowing her to prove that she had done her homework and that she was a serious student. Being a serious student was a very good thing in the Soviet Union. There were a few teachers, however, who disagreed with the school director's decision to allow Lizzie to attend their school, and they showed their dissatisfaction by constantly scapegoating Lizzie. Every time she made a mistake, on would say to the other students, "Nu, chto vy ozhidaete ot amerikanochki?" (Well, what do you expect from a little American girl?) Lizzie once told me that she hated the label amerikanochka (little American girl) and if she were to hear it one more time she would either cry or scream.

In addition, most of the parents cautioned their children against playing with Lizzie, fearing government retribution, although, happily, there was a group of four children and parents willing to brave government frowning on fraternization with an American child. These children invited Lizzie to their homes and visited her in our University of Moscow dorm suite. However, given Cold War protocol, once Lizzie returned to the USA, she could only communicate with her friends by writing a letter to the whole class through the class leader (similar to a US homeroom teacher).

Given these difficult moments, years later, when someone offered me a button that read "veteranka kholodnoj vojny" (veteran of the Cold War), Lizzie snatched it, saying with a smile, "I really am, you know." Of course, she is.

One of Lizzie's biggest disappointments occurred when she was 16. She wanted to return to the Soviet Union for the poslednyj zvonok (literally, "last bell" -- similar to a US graduation) of her class. Unfortunately, at the time there was just no money available for a ticket. However, the satisfaction of fond memories, language proficiency, cultural awareness, and the knowledge that she may have given a human face to the enemy for classmates who grew up to see and perhaps even participate in the great conversion of the Soviet Union as enemy to Russian as cautious ally outweighs any small personal disappointments. She was a Cold War veteran who had fought for peace long before she could understand what war and peace are all about.


For readers' ease, I am double-posting this here and in the main post about Lizzie.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Victory for Victoria, Finally

Like my brother, Rollie, my youngest sibling, Vick, came to stay with Donnie and me and our family. By that time, we had produced all four of our birth children and were living in Arlington, Virginia and working in Washington, D.C.

At the age of 16, Victoria was living alone with Ma, Sharon having married and moved out a few months earlier. All the rest of us had already moved out for various reasons—school, work, marriage. So, Vick was left to face Ma’s rage alone, a very dangerous position to be in. Fortunately, an amazing thing happened that resulted in Vick's rescue: Vick, a good student, started failing English and no one could figure out why she could not get her head wrapped around this subject when she had a great gift for language use. Out of frustration, Ma called me one day to wait about this. Failure, to Ma, was not an option. Imagining how difficult the beatings might get if Vick continued to fail, I offered, to Ma's relief, to take in Victoria, much the way Donnie and I had taken in Rollie in our Montana days.

With three bedrooms for the six of us, quarters were tight, but we found yet another bed for Victoria, who moved in with us and began attending high school with Lizzie, who was 14 at the time. They became the best of friends, and their friends insisted that they were really cousins. They would not believe that they were aunt and niece. Actually, they were more like sisters than anything else and remain so until this day although Vick is a massage therapist in Michigan and Lizzie a professor in South Carolina. They spend hours and hours on the phone each week.

Victoria lived with us until she graduated and left to attend college in Tennessee. In many ways, I became a second mother to her, rather than a sister, and to this day, when she has a seemingly insurmountable problem, I get a phone call, asking for advice.

Unfortunately, during her days on the farm with Ma, Victoria, unlike the rest of us, became co-dependent with Ma. She would accept the abuse as somehow meaning that she was to blame. She is the only one who retained regular contact with Ma. Relationships for Victoria have finally normalized, but only after two divorces, including from one abusive spouse who held a knife to her throat (fortunately, 911 help arrived in time and he was jailed), and the chance to move to Michigan. She lives not far over the state border from Rollie in Ohio. He has been a continuing source of support to her, starting from his return to Maine to protect her from her raping cousin through his constant contact during her days of living with an abusive spouse and continuing on to her current single-mother days.

Vick, like the rest of us albeit taking a more difficult path, survived her childhood abuse and went on to raise two happy sons. Initially inclined toward the child-rearing tendencies that she had known in her youth, she fought past that with the help of family, friends, education, and a deeply abiding faith that Almighty God would stand by her, and became a caring mother who independently raised two self-assured sons, pictured below.

Vick with Alton and Moss

Search This Blog