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??


  1. It sounds like Willie has quite a story!

    Hmmm, I suppose to get a photo, you should go visit!

  2. Awwww, in his own way, I think he really hasn't let go of the burning house ... something in there, perhaps Ma, tugged at his heart strings, that all the others were gone and over this part of their lives. Just maybe he felt some certain "obligation" to be close in case of a need when she grew too old to care for herself. Who knows.

    The story of your family is very tightly woven and complex. You should write a book! Hurry tho, Oprah is only going to be on another year! ;)


  3. Muthering Heights - getting a photo of a hermit is truly difficult even when one does visit! :)

    Abbey - I suspect that you are correct although our brother Keith is also in the vicinity.


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