We had done a lot of work over the summer trying to make the trailer livable, but there was still a long way to go when Paul moved out. I was also facing being a single mom of two for the first time. Although, I had done most of the caretaking for our children, I was always able to count on Paul for certain things. He was always happy to stay with the kids if I wanted to do something on my own. When they were young, we traded off with baths and the bedtime routine, telling them stories and singing lullabies. The kids loved Paul's stories about Bluto who got into all kinds of funny misadventures. When our babies were first born, he often got up with them in the middle of the night, changing their diapers and bringing them to me to be nursed as I recuperated from the births. And, at the end of the day, when they were both in bed, he was my companion, my lover and my friend. Now, I was still in love with him but living on my own forty-five minutes from Albany, where all of our friends were still living and where Justin and I were still at The Free School, hoping that he would figure out how to curb his anger so that we could be a happy couple. I knew being separated would be difficult, but I didn’t realize how difficult it would be. I also didn’t expect some of our friends to turn against me.
Shortly after Paul moved out, I started getting calls from some of the men we were friends with accusing me of ruining Paul’s life. They accused me of having an affair with our bass player who lived nearby. John was my only friend in the immediate area. He was much younger than me, and I had no romantic interest in him at all. We just had a lot of fun together. No one seemed to understand this. They also accused me of taking Paul's family away from him. they only saw him as when a really nice guy. I tried to explain that I didn’t take anything away from him. He was choosing not to see his children, and I would be happy to try to reconcile. None of that seemed to matter to them. They were witnessing him getting drunk every night, sometimes barely able to make it home and felt his pain. I soon found out that he had started doing other drugs like cocaine. There was plenty of money to spend on it, and he seemed to have forgotten about all of the plans we’d made. He wanted to become a lawyer and now had enough money to pay for law school. But he was throwing that all away, and I was being blamed for it. He refused to see his kids, and I was being blamed for that as well. He was miserable, and it was all my fault. No matter how much I tried to reason with these so-called friends, it didn’t make any difference. I had become the bad guy. I didn’t want to air our dirty laundry in public, revealing all of the yelling that the kids and I had to deal with. I didn’t want to tell them about the things that got thrown at the walls in anger, the blaming, the jealousy and more. I didn’t want to tell them about Paul hitting me while I was driving the car. I finally just stopped trying to get through to them. I wasn’t interested in making Paul look bad, but I also didn’t care what anyone thought about me at that point. I was busy just trying to survive.
I’ve always seemed to have unusual experiences. Some of them are funny and fun, some are awesome, and others are horrible. They always seem to come in groups, too. I rarely have one major thing happen at a time. I feel like I was cursed by what is often referred to as the Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” I know it seems innocuous at first glance until you really think about it. Although life has certainly been interesting, it’s also felt unbearable at times. As I look back over the years, I sometimes wonder how I ever survived it all. I do know that adrenaline was often my friend.
It was now 1986. We’d been in Albany for four years and had a successful band. Although we were separated, we were trying to keep the band together with regular band practices in Albany. We always played beautiful music together. Jessie was now old enough to stay home in the evenings with Justin, so once a week after feeding them dinner, I drove back into Albany for band practice. One evening, as I was packing up the car with my equipment, our cat jumped on the snow laden hatchback driving it down onto my head with such an impact that it knocked me on the ground leaving me stunned. I sat in the driveway until my head stopped spinning then got up and started unloading the car, pausing to vomit and finally recruiting the kids to help. When I called to say I wouldn't make it to practice, Paul was furious. He wanted to arrange for our bass player John, to give me a ride. I was still seeing stars and refused. I also called in sick to work the next day, a Friday, keeping Justin home with me. I went to the doctor then rested through Friday and Saturday, starting to feel much better by Sunday morning. On Sunday evening, our pipes froze leaving us with no water. In addition to the gaps that had been left in the skirting around the bottom of the trailer, there was no easy access except to remove a section, so I pried off one of the pieces of plywood, crawled underneath and tried applying heat to the pipes with my hairdryer. They appeared to be frozen solid despite having left the tap running and wrapping the pipes with heat tape. I made a few phone calls and finally found someone who agreed to come the next day. I knew we could do without water for the rest of the day.
Jessie had started public school in Averill Park that year. Justin and I were still at The Free School. I probably shouldn’t have gone back to work so soon after my concussion, but I didn’t want to keep Justin home from school another day. He was already struggling with being away from his dad and needed to be with his friends and teachers. I knew that I couldn’t drive the forty-five minutes there, another forty-five minutes back home to rest then do it again to pick him up, so the next morning I went in to work. I checked in with the guys who were going to repair the pipes, and they assured me I didn’t need to be there as long as I left the door unlocked or left a key. I was usually home by four in the afternoon except on Mondays. Monday was the day for teachers’ meetings at the school. Attendance was required for all teachers except for an emergency. They always lasted until six pm, and sometimes went even longer but that day, they let me leave early. Jessie got home from school earlier and waited at home for us to arrive.
After a long day at work and a tedious meeting, I made the drive home with my head pounding and feeling slightly nauseous. When I walked in the door, I found Jessie standing ankle deep in water, crying and moving a dripping blanket from one spot to another in a futile attempt to soak up all of this water. Apparently, the tap in the bathroom sink had been left on according to the directions given by the repairmen, but the stopper was in the drain. The pipes had been unthawed in the morning, and the water had been running all day until Jessie came home, waded through the water and turned it off.
In spite of my throbbing head, I leapt into action. Poor Jessie was beside herself, so I first tried to calm her down assuring her that she’d done a great job and apologizing for not being there. At eleven years old, she had done the best she could. She’d used every towel and blanket in the house to try to sop up the flood, throwing them in the dryer when they wouldn’t hold any more. Unfortunately, she hadn’t spun them in the washer first, and the dryer was just sloshing the water around. I wasn’t sure where to start. We hadn’t had any dinner, and it was getting late. I decided to call for help. My mom and dad lived about twenty minutes away and had a shop vac, so I tried them first. When my mother heard the story, her response was, “Well, you got yourself into this mess by marrying Paul. Where is he now?” Once again, I asked if she would please come bring the shop vac and maybe pick up a pizza for the kids. She didn’t have to stay. She could just drop them off. She replied that they were watching their favorite TV show and that I could come get it myself. Then, I asked if the kids could stay there for the night, but it wasn’t a good night for that. She was tired. As I listened to her in disbelief, I saw Justin, standing in the lake that was once our living room, plug in our vacuum cleaner and reach to turn it on. I screamed, “Stop!” and hung up the phone. A minute later, the heat came on with the forced air creating geysers out of the floor vents. This was too much. Now I started to cry. I couldn’t afford to cry for long however and quickly rustled up some food for our late and hasty dinner. I needed to think.
The mobile home we lived in had two bathrooms. The one near the living room was the one that had flooded first. The water had been seeping into the heating ducts that ran under the floor eventually filling up the rest of the trailer. I was still trying to figure out how to deal with all of this water when Jessie screamed from the other bathroom that the toilet was overflowing, pouring sewage into the existing flood. I found out later that now the sewer pipes were frozen causing a backlog. I decided to open the backdoor, directly across from that bathroom and start shoveling water out the door in a frantic effort to contain the problem as quickly as possible. The door wouldn’t budge. I instructed the kids to stay off of the floor and ran outside around the back to see what the problem was. I couldn’t believe what I saw. There was an ice floe about eight inches thick covering the back door almost to the ground. I went at it with a hammer and chisel, trying to break it apart but got nowhere. I went back inside and called Paul.
It took him a while to answer but when he finally did, I explained the situation and told him that I needed his help, trying to keep my volume tempered and the hysteria out of my voice. But I was feeling desperate. I knew he didn’t have a car but also knew that he could get a ride or borrow a car from one of his friends. He kept insisting that he couldn’t come and finally said, “This is what you wanted, to be single. Now you'll just have to deal with it.” Once again, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Who were these people that were supposed to be part of my family? At that point, my voice got quiet and hard. I reminded him that he had helped make our children and was equally responsible for the current situation. I also told him that if he ever had any hope of getting back together, or even remaining friends, he had better figure out how to get himself up here to help as quickly as possible. Everyone in my family knows that tone of voice and always takes me seriously when they hear it. This was no exception. His friend dropped him off in a little over an hour with a shop vac and a torch, helping me clean up this unbelievable mess. Luckily, the kids’ bedrooms had been unaffected by the sewage, and their beds were dry, so they slept while we worked for most of the night. We had bookshelves along one wall with our books and albums on them. We noticed that the walls were sweating due to the humidity causing those items to get wet. Now we were laying these wet things out to dry on whatever dry surfaces we could find. Finally, we were finished and, at around four in the morning, both plopped down on the couch. Sploosh! The couch, an old bedframe with a foam mattress and foam bolsters on the back, had also been pressing against the wall and had acted like a sponge. We looked at each other and laughed until we cried. What else could we do?
These traumatic events defined my life as a mother. They certainly weren’t the only defining moments, but they played an enormous role in my ability to cope unemotionally with disasters and to find the humor in everything. I felt as though, if I didn’t laugh, I might never stop crying. Even today, I recognize that disasters always teach me lessons, often teaching me something about myself, and offer me opportunities. Shortly after Paul and I were separated, Justin started having a tantrum almost every night after dinner. He just wanted to see his dad. He was thrilled when he woke up the next morning, and Paul was there. I wasn’t willing to give in yet, though. I wanted our marriage to work and that meant less fighting. I knew that wouldn’t happen without some profound changes and stood my ground about insisting on marriage counseling, so Paul went back to his apartment in Albany. Then Justin’s tantrums got really bad. I often had to restrain him so that he wouldn’t break windows or punch holes in the walls. These would often go on for well over an hour. One day, I finally had enough.
I told Justin that I was going to let go of him and would bring him to his dad if he promised to calm down. Still sobbing, he agreed. Once again, I called Paul. He explained that he couldn’t have Justin that night because he’d already been drinking and was in no shape to be a parent. I didn’t care. Enough was enough. He was also their parent, and Justin needed him. I told him that he’d better start sobering up because I was coming into town with Justin and would drop him off on the front porch if Paul wasn’t home. Then I hung up, packed a bag for Justin and drove to Albany. Paul was waiting for us on the porch. As soon as the car stopped, Justin raced out of the car and into his dad’s arms. Paul was still trying to convince me that he wasn’t up for having him overnight, but I kissed Justin goodbye, got back in the car and drove home. After that, Justin spent every Monday night with Paul. It wasn’t much, but it was better than nothing. We were separated for about nine months when I finally relented and agreed to try again. We had burned through the inheritance and were running out of money. I didn’t know how we would continue to support two households and also knew that I couldn’t survive on my own with two kids. I could see that Paul also missed us. He'd straightened up, gotten a job and seemed to have mellowed. He promised changes, and I believed him. It was spring, a time of love, and I still loved Paul deeply.
When you relocate often, you learn to set roots quickly and those roots are deep. The strongest ones are the ones grown during hard times or just big changes. When I lived in California. I was in my early 20s. I had arrived by hitchhiking across the country, gotten married and had my first child, and all within a year and a half. It’s difficult to navigate those events without friends and associates. Although we depended a lot on our core relationship, we always made those other connections quickly, thanks to Paul’s skill in that area. After another year and a half of living in Connecticut, we moved back to the west coast to Oregon for a few years and had another child, many wonderful adventures and made three more major moves before deciding to move our growing family to upstate New York. We made close friends in every place at life-changing times. I’ve never been particularly good about writing letters or making phone calls. Unfortunately for my friendships, I tend to live in the present, except for looking back these days and chronicling my life. As a result, like so many gypsies of that time, I lost some folks along the way, having no idea where they ended up. But I never forget those important people, and this was an opportunity to see many of the ones we still had contact with.
I often wondered how it was for my children, going back and seeing people that knew you when you were younger, but you may not even recognize them. My son was only two and a half when we left Oregon. He was now more than twice that age. My daughter was older and still remembered a lot. Paul and I remembered. It was wonderful and challenging. I guess it’s true that you can never really go back. Everything had moved on without us. We knew that it would, but we didn’t realize how intense it would feel. Our closest friends were happy to see us and catch up both in Portland and on the Pacific Coast. The community on the coast was small. Some of those friends had moved away and others had come in. The Riverhouse, where we had hosted Open Mics every Friday night, had new people working and the owner had become bitter and had sketchy vibes. We had also arrived at the beginning of July when the Oregon Country Fair was happening.
The Oregon Country Fair (OCF) is an annual event that has been going on since 1969. I have only been to couple of them. It’s my favorite hippie gathering. Today, the attendance is usually about forty-five thousand people. It’s an environmentally friendly extravaganza with live music everywhere and more than nine hundred artisans or food sellers who build large removable structures to live and work in for a couple of weeks. Although the fair itself is only three days, the village is erected earlier and stays up longer. It has been a large part of the counter-culture movement for many decades. The formal part of the fair is pretty wild, pushing at the boundaries, but the after dark scene is indescribable. Anything and everything goes.
Amber had been along on the ride for many of our major events from California on. We had made the effort to stay connected. It was always wonderful and refreshing to see her and her two daughters. She was still living on Mount Adams, taking jobs where she could get them and eventually making tempeh for a man who would later make his fortune with it. We spent a couple of days with her then because she was one of long-term and loyal employees of the tempeh company, she was working the fair. So, when it was time to head back to New York, we decided to go to the fair on our way home. It would be fun, and some of the friends we hadn’t seen yet would be there. Sure enough, we ran into our old neighbors from Portland who had initiated our move to the coast. They were there with their two sons and daughter. The younger son was a couple of years older than Jessie and, when she was five, turned her on to coffee beans as a snack. He was a lovable troublemaker. I have always loved the troublemakers because I understand them. I always know where I stand with them. Some kids are sneaky, leaving you always guessing. Some kids are so sweet you don’t trust them. Baird was genuine, and I could tell that there was mutual appreciation. Late in the afternoon, Baird came running up to me and handed me a beautiful silk scarf. I was so touched. Then, it hit me. “Baird,” I said, “did you steal this?” he gave me a sheepish grin then looked away. I insisted that he return it. I hope that he did. I know that I cherished the thought and effort.
When it was time for the gates to close, Amber managed to sneak us through the dragnet so that we could enjoy the party. Unfortunately, we were exhausted with two kids and no place to crash except in our car. Paul was reaching the end of his rope, Justin was starting to drag, and we were all ready to head home. We said goodbye and started on our journey back home to “the only Stephentown on earth.” The next day, Justin found some dimes and put them into the slots of the tone drum I had bought there. Try as I might, I could never get them out and think of that day every time I play it.
I think that because the drive home was uneventful, maybe even boring, that exhaustion that we started to feel at the fair just grew. It was feeling to not have to worry about money for the first time ever. We ate out and stayed in motels on the way back. It was still a good trip and rare for Paul and me not to argue about anything. We were both feeling good. Then, just outside of Amsterdam, New York, we both started feeling anxious. We later noticed that we often experienced that feeling on that stretch of road. I was driving and was feeling tense, so I turned the volume on the radio down. Paul angrily turned it back up, even louder now. I asked him to turn it down because it was stressing me out while I drove. I don’t remember clearly what happened except that there was a lot of yelling and turning the knob on the radio until suddenly, Paul started hitting me. He had never done anything like that before. I was driving sixty miles an hour down the highway and lost control of the car, spinning once and weaving back and forth across the lanes until I was finally able to pull over onto the shoulder.
I jumped out of the car and went around to the back. Jessie was hysterically crying. Justin had passed out, probably the smartest thing. I dragged them both out of the car and stood there, shaking and wondering what to do next. Paul also immediately got out and apologized explaining that it was all my fault, but he was sorry for the way he had reacted. If I had just left the radio alone, it would have been fine. I didn’t say a word. I didn’t look at him. I just stood there holding my children, shaking and thinking, wondering if I should hitchhike with them back home or maybe to my parents’ home. Crying, he finally convinced me to get back in the car and drive home. I had refused to let him drive us. I didn’t speak to him for three days then told him that unless he was willing to go to marriage counseling or his own counseling, I wanted to separate. He was adamantly against any kind of therapy and chose to move out of our new home, leaving me with two children in a mobile home that we had just moved into that was forty-five minutes from my job and their school. The only person I had any connection to in this town was our young bass player, John.
Paul agreed to wait until fall to move out since we hadn’t really even moved in completely. There was unpacking and repairs to be done. We knew nothing about owning a home, especially a mobile home. We were still working on the driveway. There were soft spots where we didn’t have enough crushed stone. We had put up a rickety front stoop with steps going up to the door and had installed the septic system. We’d bought the place dirt cheap because it needed a lot of work to make it livable. There was no skirting which keeps everything from freezing, so Paul arranged to work with a friend putting that in before he left. Neither of them had ever done any construction work and put the two by fours up with eight feet between them, forgetting that you have to have a place to nail them in. Now there was a gap in each section. I didn’t realize that he also hadn’t gotten enough insulation for the inside. He had read or been told that you needed venting anyway, we put heat tape on all the pipes and hoped for the best.
Paul was angry and bitter and wanted me to just forgive and forget. Things before the trip had been getting worse and worse between us with constant fighting. I still loved him but couldn’t live that way anymore. Sadly, when I told Jessie that Paul was moving out, her response was, “What took you so long?” I was floored. I have no idea if I even responded. I was like a zombie those days. I was working at The Free School making little money and giving music lessons where and when I could. We had a band together that was playing out at most of the local clubs. I had two children that I was solely responsible for and was scared to death. I’d fallen into that trap that many women fall into. At least for now, I could depend on Paul sharing the money he had inherited. He was always generous in that way with me and everyone. But he refused to see his kids. He moved into a friend’s apartment, started drinking and doing hard drugs, and he didn’t want them to see him like that. They, especially Justin, didn’t understand.
I suppose many of us get sentimental during the various holidays for various reasons. Even the way we feel and express that sentimentality is different. Some of us didn't enjoy the holidays for one reason or another. Others of us had a glorious time. I grew up in a Catholic family at a time when my family went to church sporadically, and Santa Claus was magical and exciting. My dad had served in World War II and later in Korea. Each of those conflicts took him away from school and, after the second one, he never went back for his last semester. He had always written for newspapers, from high school, college and all the way through the navy. He married my mom and got a job as a cub reporter and photographer in Little Falls, New York where I was most likely conceived. Pretty soon they moved to Stamford, Connecticut and Dad started working his up through the ranks of the Stamford Advocate. Mom had grown up in Hempstead, New York, had gone to nursing school, and was working at a hospital as a Registered Nurse when she met Dad at an American Legion dance. It was the early 1950’s.
Christmas was both awesome and dreamlike for me and my brother while being stressful and nightmarish for our parents who had bought into the American Dream with it’s side dish of consumerism. Ever year was more spectacular than the next with piles of presents everywhere while Mom and Dad stretched themselves thin to create the magic. But it showed me another side of life, a side filled with magic with a sprinkle of hopes and dreams. Now, as an adult I can see the dark side of it clearly. After all, I was raised by them and learned from them. I have been to the dark side, but I can also see how much light was brought into the holiday in the form of magic.
Every Christmas Eve after dinner, we would all be together in the living room with a fire in the fireplace and without the television being on. We would sing a few songs then listen to our Christmas albums. There was always dancing. Mom and Dad were great dancers. I remember watching dad twirl mom around and dip her for a kiss. I remember standing on top of my dad's feet as he danced me around and learning how to do the Jitterbug. Dad's favorite Christmas album was Nat King Cole’s “A Christmas Song.” We also had Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas,” and albums by The Fred Waring Singers, the Norman Tabernacle Choir, Alvin and the Chipmunks and Sing-along with Mitch, of course. There were so many, I can’t remember them all. My favorite was a Spike Jones album with a fun version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Spike Jones had a zany band and used sound effects for the different parts in the song, impossible to describe but, for a couple of kids in the 50s, it was hysterically funny. My brother and I would be rolling around laughing. It was always the best night ever. Then, after leaving cookies and milk for Santa, in the light of the Christmas Tree under which were a few tantalizing gifts, Dad would read. “Twas the night before Christmas when all through the house …” My brother and I, too excited to sleep, but too exhausted not to, would trundle off to bed and fall fast asleep. Meanwhile downstairs, Mom and Dad hustled all of the presents from their hiding places and assembled the stockings while still finding time to dance to the records still playing.
Around midnight, Mom would excitedly come upstairs waking us kids while Dad, down by the fireplace, shouted, “Ho, ho, ho! Happy Christmas to all, and to all a goodnight!” I remember waking up, rubbing the “sleepy bugs” out of my eyes, realizing that Santa had just left, and rushing to the window to look out at the sky. A few times I saw Santa as clear as day. Other times, I missed him. My brother rarely saw him, but he was a deep sleeper, and younger than me after all. We ran downstairs to the living room lit only by the lights from the tree and stood in awe. It was true magic. Then Mom made cocoa and brought out snacks and we started opening presents. Dad always doled out the presents, while Mom made sure the mess didn’t get out of control. We would get to play with our new things until one of us was really yawning. Then we would stumble back to bed and collapse until morning. I knew that Dad’s parents had done Christmas that way, but Dad confessed to me later in life that the reason he and Mom decided to keep that tradition was so that they could stay in bed late the next morning. They were definitely late-night people and still very much in love. We didn’t even miss them until our stomachs started growling. My brother always got up first and started playing with his new toys. He often got up with the sun. He often got up before dawn and watched “American Farmer” on television. But not me. I loved to sleep in the morning because that’s when I dreamed. I’d already seen my gifts, so they could wait while I dreamed of sugar plums and basked in the “spirit of Christmas.”
The rest of the day was full of music, games, lots of cooking and always drinking. Sometimes other family members came, or we traveled, usually to Niantic, Connecticut where my grandparents lived. Depending on where the celebration was, most of the aunts, uncles and cousins would be visiting. Sometimes it was just a couple of families, but it always included Uncle Lou and Aunt Marty with their three kids our ages. We spent most holidays and many weekends with them. Uncle Lou and Dad were brothers and although they had their rivalries, they both had kids that were the same age which was convenient and fun. I know that Aunt Marty and Mom both felt that their families were neglected with so much time being spent with the Blais side, but it was such a wonderful thing for the cousins. We were one big family. However, when it was the whole tribe of Blais that showed up, that was when the magic dissolved. The Blais didn't treat each other very kindly. They were mostly verbally abusive and drank a lot. Eventually, a fight would break out, usually involving my youngest uncle and one of the older cousins, but There were plenty of other dramatic scenes. Aunt N and Uncle H always yelled at each other, teaching all of us younger set a new language. Uncle H got a kick out of calling Santa Claus on the telephone right before Christmas to tell him that one of us, often my younger brother, was bad and don't come. My brother would burst into tears and an argument would ensue over his treatment. Every holiday was quite dramatic with many players. At some point in every fracas, my older female cousin would scream and faint, pausing the action long enough for some intervention and peace keeping. We usually left soon after the fainting.
When I became a mother, I tried to recreate the magic. Christmas Eve became an evening of music, fun and food. After the kids went off to bed, Paul Cavanaugh and I finished assembling toys, sometimes working long beyond midnight but taking time to enjoy each other’s company. Once everything was ready, I ran upstairs waking the kids and rushing them to the window where they just might catch a glimpse of Santa’s sleigh. Meanwhile, Paul was downstairs with sleighbells, shouting, “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a goodnight!” The kids walked into the living room lit up only by the tree and gazed in wonder. We opened stockings and gifts, and everyone went off to bed to find an easy morning whether you like to awaken early or sleep late.
The downside of my adult experience was that I was taught to overspend. I grew up in a neighborhood where most people seemed to have more than us. My parents struggled. In spite of this, they always provided Christmas. Paul and I struggled and wanted to do the same. But sometimes, it wasn’t feasible. Not surprisingly, one of my favorite Christmases was also one of our poorest times. Paul was out of work, and I was making less than minimum wage. We were living in Stephentown, New York in a mobile home we had bought with an inheritance. We had experienced a lot of moving pains and were still struggling to get back on our feet. I wasn’t sure if we would be having any Christmas at all. The true nature of Santa had already been revealed to the kids, so we didn't have to worry about broken hearts, just shattered dreams. One day in December I sat the family down together and explained the situation. I suggested that we give everyone something that we either made or found. I made sure to emphasize that find was not the same as take. I also offered to help with ideas and suggested making things together. It was such a fun month. We baked a lot, did crafts, and we sang all the time. Everyone took it seriously and thought about what they would give.
I knew that I would enjoy this unique holiday, but I also knew that when the kids went to school after the holiday and everyone was bragging about theirs gifts, they would be crushed. Because the kids were on the free lunch program in school, the school sent over a box of food sometimes for which we were always grateful. We didn't have to worry about food. One day, the Kiwanis Club came by with a box of gifts for the kids and a couple of things for me and Paul. They had gotten a li8st of needy families from the local schools. I started to cry. There was even an orange skateboard sticking up out of the top, a football, books and games. I don't remember most of the gifts that year, but I was given a Mickey Mouse watch that plays “It’s a Small World” by Paul who had found the face lying on the sidewalk one day as he was looking for work. I still own it, and it still doesn’t have a strap. I rarely put a new battery in it, but I often take it out and look at it, remembering that moment when I opened that box.
For a long time, I didn’t celebrate Christmas. When Paul and I divorced, I didn’t want to haggle over where the kids spent the holiday. I hated the consumerism that seemed to keep growing every season and longed for the magical side again. I decided to start celebrating the winter solstice. Paul could do Christmas if he wanted to. I moved out on Labor Day weekend. Our daughter had already moved out and was starting a family of her own. Our older son was living with his dad that first holiday season and our youngest son, who was three, lived with me. He believed in Santa and had experienced a couple of magical Christmases. How could I ask him to give that up? I thought long and hard about it and finally came up with a solution. Our new solstice ritual consisted of lighting a candle for every day starting on December 1st. As the nights were getting longer, we were bringing more light into our home. We lit the candles and held hands as we sang our candle song. I knew I wanted a special song to go along with the lighting and had learned this one years before in Girl Scouts. “Rise up oh flame, by thy light shining. Bring to us beauty, vision and joy.” It can be sung in a round with multiple part harmonies and sends a wonderful message. After singing that through for a while, we sang whatever anyone requested, sometimes Christmas Carols, sometimes Pop songs. Sometimes one of us had learned a new song or made one up and sang it. Sometimes we sang and sang, other times we sang one or two then read books or played games. It was a time to enjoy our together.
One of the things I had always hated about Christmas in the past was the anxiety that I felt as a child and later saw in my children and the children I worked with in school. As the month following Thanksgiving progressed, the children were bouncing off the walls with such a high level of anticipation, and the adults were stressed out and overstretched. In our house, because we lit candles every night, the snow fairies came randomly during the month leaving little gifts. Because there wasn’t that one big day to wait for, my son’s anxiety level was much lower than his peers. I could never compete with his friends’ families in the gifting department, but I created a magical scene that brought us closer together and that he could share with his friends when they slept over. The snow fairies were always prepared for a few extra kids.
I still light my candles throughout the month, softly singing my song. I still have my family over to celebrate on Solstice, or as close as I can get to it on a weekend. Until this year, the snow fairies always left a small gift bag with some useful things like lighters and homemade Chapstick, maybe some socks, little bits of candy, glow sticks or other light up toys and some nice small thing. Last year, I drafted all of the adults in the family to be official snow fairies. Each family or adult brought one thing for the bags. This year, all of the snow fairies are struggling, so we skipped it. We celebrated as a family, though we were missing a few, in our wide-open garage with two fires and a grill set up outside. I decorated the inside of the garage, trying to make it as festive as possible. I even used the extension ladder hanging horizontally on one wall, as a place to hang the lights and garland with ornaments hanging and battery powered led candles across the top and bottom. Mostly we huddled by the fire. We had fireworks in the snow and sang our song by the fire in parts, rounds, and comical descants. My current partner has always done Christmas on a small scale with homemade gifts and no big hurrah. He was not raised Catholic nor with much of any religion. His parents were a normal upper middle-class couple. On Friday, I will celebrate Christmas with him with wonderful food and a few small gifts. We may go for a walk in the quiet woods or maybe we’ll hunker down by the woodstove. Whatever we do, I know we will enjoy our time together in a stress-free place.
We took a circuitous route through the northern part of the US on our way to Oregon. Paul and I didn’t believe in taking a direct route if it could be avoided. We knew that the best sights and experiences were mostly to be had away from any tourists. It was on back roads where we would see the real country and meet the everyday people. We also didn’t mind backtracking because we had as much time as we wanted to take for this trip. We didn’t have to worry about money and had the whole summer ahead of us. We meandered our way through North and South Dakota went into Wyoming, back into Nebraska then headed south because we had friends that we wanted to visit friends in Colorado. It was July fourth as we drove through the flatlands of Colorado listening to The Grateful Dead and Doctor Demento on the radio. That night, every little town in the distance had a fireworks display. In addition to the fireworks, there was ball lightning bouncing across the plains. It was awesome and frightening simultaneously.
I’d never before seen this phenomenon and only experienced it one other time, a few years later when it came in through the window as I was watching “The Flight of Dragons” with the kids. Scientists can’t explain what causes this but have theorized many things. The following is from a National Geographic article written by Christina Nunez.
“Researchers from Lanzhou, China's Northwest Normal University inadvertently recorded a ball lightning event while studying a 2012 thunderstorm using video cameras and spectrometers. The ball appeared just after a lightning strike and traveled horizontally for about 10 meters (33 feet). The spectrometer detected silicon, iron, and calcium in the ball, all of which were also present in the local soil.
What causes ball lightning?
The Lanzhou researchers' paper supports the theory that ball lightning results from a ground strike that creates a reaction between oxygen and vaporized elements from the soil. This ionized air, or plasma, is the same condition that enables St. Elmo's Fire, the stationary glow that is sometimes confused with ball lightning.
The presence of glass may generate ball lightning, according to another theory published in 2012. Atmospheric ions could pile up at the surface of a window, producing enough of an electrical field on the other side to generate a discharge. Another study, published in 2016, suggests that microwave radiation produced when lightning strikes the ground could become encapsulated in a plasma bubble, resulting in ball lightning.”
The ball lightning in Colorado lasted much longer than a normal flash of lightening and moved horizontally. It also changed color as it moved. It was more exciting than the fireworks, but there were so many spectacular fireworks as well, it was difficult to know where to look. I know that I was glad I was not driving at the time and could really take it all in.
Remember our friend Vernon? He’s the one who had spent a summer with us in Oregon and was now moving from New Jersey to Colorado. We’d helped him pack up his U-Haul only a few days before we decided to leave on this trip. He had no idea we were traveling at the same time, so we decided to surprise him. I do love to surprise people. We figured he would be in Boulder by the time we got there, and at my insistence, he had shown me where he would be living on a street map of Boulder. He was to be our first stop in Colorado. I have a good memory for maps and am good at getting places. I knew I could find it, and I did. When we pulled up to his place, we saw that the U-Haul was in the driveway. We knocked on the door and, as he looked on with a shocked look, told him we’d come to help him unpack the truck since we’d helped him pack it. He had just arrived that day and had felt too tired to unload. Now, he was amazed at our timely arrival and incredibly happy for the help. We unloaded and helped with some of his unpacking of boxes, stayed with him for a few days then went on to another friend’s home.
We had met Debra many years before in Connecticut when Jessie was still just a toddler. She was originally from Florida and had not traveled much until now. She had never seen snow and arrived in the fall. I was thrilled to be with her when she saw her first snowfall. She was so excited. We went outside with Jessie and played for hours. Being in the snow with her that day had made me feel like a kid again. I don’t think I’ve ever had so much fun. Debra was an artist, making paintings on wood with the grain showing through slightly. I still have one of her pieces somewhere. She was the one who first had me try cocaine. She worked at a pharmacy and had taken a small vial of pure crystal cocaine. It was lovely, but I recognized immediately that it was a dangerous drug for me. Like the amphetamines I had done earlier in my life, it made me feel confident and less shy. I knew that I could easily get addicted to this expensive drug. Luckily, she only took that one small vial, so the temptation was quickly gone.
While she was in the Northeast, she discovered downhill skiing and loved it. She soon met Dennis, and they eventually moved to Colorado. We arrived at their beautiful house at the ten-thousand-foot level of the Rocky Mountains. We jumped out of the car, eager to see our old friend, and started running up the steep walk to the house. We quickly were out of breath. We all stopped, gasping and feeling light-headed when Debra came out. She explained that because we were so high up, it was important to move slowly. Than we all went inside, and she put water on for spaghetti. We were confused. It was noontime, and dinner wasn’t going to be for hours. She explained that it also took a long time for water to boil and food to cook at that altitude. It was all new to me and fascinating.
They had built the house themselves, and it was beautiful. There was a huge fireplace made from quartz they had found on the land, and the bathroom had a big clawfoot tub with a picture window with a breathtaking view of the Rockies. Because there was plenty of time before the water would boil, Dennis insisted on taking on a tour of the area. He was the head of the water department and had access to many roads that were not open to the public but were some of the most beautiful places around. We all piled into his pick-up truck and wound our way along many steep and winding roads deep into the mountains. It was all spectacular.
My mother had always collected rocks from various trips for her rock gardens, and I was starting to follow along in her footsteps. Mom even had people bring rocks from foreign countries which she then numbered and categorized. I hadn’t gone that far, but I loved gardening and was always on the lookout for beautiful rocks. Partway into our drive, the sky darkened, and Dennis decided it was time to go back. The thunderstorms up there were quite fierce and could be dangerous. It was time to get under cover. I insisted, against the adults’ opinions, on getting out of the truck to pick up a couple of rocks. I knew we’d be leaving early the next morning with no time for rock hunting. Reluctantly, Dennis told me to jump out and take something quick. The storm was coming in fast. I grabbed two mud encrusted rocks and hopped back in the bed of the truck. Paul laughed at what I had taken. I have to admit that they didn’t look like much. They were basically hunks of mud, but when we got back and I started cleaning them off, they turned out to be treasures. One of them had streaks of real silver, and the other one had holes all over with crystals growing inside like geodes. Paul wasn’t laughing now. Hours later, the water for dinner still wasn’t boiling, so Debra offered me a bath while we waited. It felt heavenly soaking in the hot water and gazing out at the snowcapped mountains after many days on the road. It was such a relaxed visit, and we were sad to see it end, but it was time to move on to the Pacific Northwest.
Paul and I were both excited to take our kids across the country again. Justin was now old enough to remember this trip and to be more actively involved in the planning, and Jessie always liked to travel. I was always prepared for a road trip with plenty of things on hand to keep them occupied during the boring segments of the journey, and now they were also both older and more engaged in the entire process. We finally had a reliable car that would take up the over six thousand miles from east to west and back again. That alone made the journey the least stressful of all. And it wasn’t a move but just a vacation, a lark.
The first stop was, of course, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to visit Paul’s friends and family that were still located there. We saw his old friend Dennis and his girlfriend Nigel. Dennis was an artist and had made underground comics, Kat and Heep. He and Nigel were into the punk scene at that time and eventually moved to Los Angeles. They had a punk band for a while, but Dennis ended up doing the artwork for triple X-rated movies. The ads and posters had to be discreet, so that was his job and, as he put it, it paid the rent. When we saw them in Pittsburgh, they were just beginning to plan their move out west. We also saw Paul’s aunt, uncle and cousin. Then we moved on to the Mid-West.
We showed the kids the archway in St. Louis, Missouri, “The Gateway to the West,” but most of the tourist attractions we visited were in South Dakota. I’ve always been fascinated by the quirky tourist attractions. Some of them are more well known than others, like Wall Drug. There are billboards for this oddity as far away as Minnesota and Wyoming. Of course, the kids were excited to visit. Basically, it’s a huge indoor mall with everything owned by just one family. But it has an interesting history.
In 1931, Ted Hustead bought a pharmacy in the town of Wall, South Dakota and moved there with his wife. It was a tiny town of 326 people who were all poor and struggling to get by. The Husteads were losing money fast until Mrs. Hustead came up with the idea of offering free ice water to travelers crossing the hot prairie. They put signs up along the road and, before long, they were doing a booming business. Who is ever going to go into a store for free ice water and not buy something else, anything else? Like most pharmacies in those days, they had a soda counter and a variety store. It continued to grow into this sprawling complex. Jessie and Justin both loved it. Even Paul and I had to admit that it was an adventure.
We also went to the Mitchell Corn Palace, also in South Dakota. It is made entirely of corncobs. Again, it’s one of those quirky places that is totally worth the visit. I wonder if the residents of South Dakota created these places out of sheer boredom or if they were just quirky themselves and all located to this common place. The Reptile Gardens was fun for most of us, but it freaked Jessie out. Although the poisonous snakes were kept in terrariums, she didn’t like having to step over and around the snakes on the ground. Even I was skeptical of walking underneath the ones hanging from the trees. We were all impressed with the giant tortoise. I am not usually a fan of zoos, but this was well run and seemed to treat all of the creatures respectfully.
Of course, we went through the Black Hills and the Badlands. They are spectacular. And Mount Rushmore was everything we expected it to be. We had heard they were building a monument to Crazy Horse nearby and wanted to go there, but it was not yet open for visitors, so we moved on to Wyoming. Justin was only interested in cowboys and that old west history, but Jessie and I quickly found out that Wyoming was the first state in which women were allowed to vote. On Dec. 10, 1869, the first Wyoming Territorial Assembly passed the Women's Suffrage Act granting women the right to vote and hold public office in the territory, putting them on equal footing with men. When Wyoming became a state in 1890, this right was written into Article 6 of the new constitution ensuring universal suffrage. Wyoming also boasted that they had the first town governed by women. Dubbed the "petticoat government" by the press, the town of Jackson, Wyoming elected three councilwomen, a female town marshal and a female mayor in 1920. Several of the women were reelected. They also had the first female Justice of the Peace in the United States. In 1870, Esther Hobart Morris was appointed in South Pass City. As soon as she took office, she charged her predecessor with failing to hand over the court’s records but eventually dropped the charges because of conflict of interest since she was both the plaintiff and the judge.
I’m sure there were many more things that I’ve since forgotten, and maybe my kids will fill in some of the blanks. I know that we took our time and enjoyed every minute of it while thoroughly enjoying each other’s company along the way. The most amazing thing of all was that Paul and I never fought once during this trip. I think it was because we were both relaxed, unfettered by the daily worries that usually plagued us. Even the kids got along for the most part, which was a miracle in itself. Paul and I had not been the best models for getting along and usually saw the results of that. But this trip was different. It was bringing us back together as a family, and it felt wonderful and hopeful.
Today is a difficult day. I found out last night that I lost one of my cousins. I hadn't seen or heard from him in years but was just thinking about him and his siblings that morning. I often have premonitions about people that I am close to. I even lit a candle in the late afternoon which is unusual for me. I always try to light a candle for those who have passed on but hadn't gotten the word yet. I guess I just knew without actually knowing.
Although I have been writing memoirs for a few years now, I haven't been writing about my early life. Those years were extremely difficult on many levels, and too hard to face in my writing. As a result of those tough days, I tend to isolate myself from family. There are many reasons for this that I won't go into here. Suffice it to say, I have always been the black sheep and usually felt ignored and criticized for my choices. I’ve never gotten any encouragement for being an artist. I was often chastised and told to “get a real job.” So, it’s been easier and healthier for me to just turn away from the family. Unfortunately, that meant distancing myself from my cousins as well, and I wasn’t alone in that.
I was born in August of 1953. My cousin Kenny was born in July of that same year. Our fathers were brothers and had a close relationship. They had spent a lot of time together before we were born and even more now that they were both new parents. They lived in Hempstead, Long Island, and we lived in Stamford, Connecticut, just across the Sound from each other. It was an easy hour-long trip. We would go spend the weekend or they would come to us. A couple of years later, Kenny’s brother Jimmy was born then his sister Nancy. My brother was born a month after Nancy. We were inseparable. I can’t even recount all of the good times we had together. There are too many to name.
We all had our trials within our families. Their father drank too much, like many members of the family. Our father believed in corporal punishment and frequently took the belt to us. Our mother was an “adult child of an alcoholic” which made her a control-freak to the extreme. I believe that she also might have been bi-polar, though she was never diagnosed. She was unpredictable and often created her own reality. It was not unusual for an innocent after school card game with her and my brother to suddenly turn bad because of some minor accident like a spilled drink. It always seemed to be my fault, and I would be sent to my room to await punishment from my dad hours later. By the time he came home, Mom had created a scenario in which I had caused some injury out of spite because I was losing the game. I never knew what was real and was convinced that I was crazy. After all, Mom couldn't be crazy. She was our mom.
My aunt and uncle’s house was my retreat. My brother didn’t like to leave home, but I was ready to go anywhere but home. Home always felt unsafe, but at their house I could be myself without worrying about “the belt.” So, as soon as I was old enough for sleepovers, I went by myself for weekends, vacations and often for a few weeks in the summer. Another favorite uncle lived nearby, also in Hempstead, and the cousins and I would walk to his house to visit. I have such vivid memories of playing in their finished basement watching my uncle’s train set under the stairs, of collecting and comparing Beatles trading cards and War of the World’s trading cards, of playing in the woods adjacent to our house and of enjoying the current music together. Both families even went together a few times to The New York World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, New York.
As we grew older, the families spent less time together. My surviving cousin surmised that this could have been because of an ongoing investigation my father was involved in looking into corruption within the local police department. At that time, there were death threats, vandalism, even a call to my mom that my sister had been kidnapped that turned out to be a hoax but was terrifying, nonetheless. Jimmy thought that perhaps my dad had discouraged their visits out of concern for their safety. In spite of this, Kenny and I still saw each other.
I met Paul Cavanaugh in 1974, fell in love and soon got an apartment together. This horrified my family. People didn’t really do that then unless they were amoral. In order to get a rental, we had to live in a grungy part of town with a terrible landlord who threatened regularly to throw us out when we complained about the leaking roof and more. When I brought Paul to meet my beloved uncle and aunt, Uncle Lou slammed the door in my face. I was devastated. However, Kenny came to visit us often. He would hop on his motorcycle, usually with his current girlfriend on the back and come down to party with us. Unfortunately, we both ended up partying too much, crashing and burning and eventually Paul and I moved away. We both went our separate ways and drifted apart.
You know how it is with old friends that you are out of touch with but when you get together, it’s like no time has passed? That’s how it was with us. I loved all three of these cousins, but there was something extra special about Kenny. We had a bond that was forged at my birth that couldn’t be broken. He even came to Connecticut once when I was in high school, being bullied mercilessly in school, encased in a steel and leather brace with no friends. He was a very handsome young man and took me to a school dance pretending to be my boyfriend, so that we could snub our noses at all the jealous girls.
The last time I saw him was after his sister Nancy died. I had recently reconnected with her when she moved to Red Hook, New York, both of us visiting back and forth like when we were younger. Nancy and Kenny both died of heart attacks way too young. Hopefully, they both went peacefully. Now Jimmy is the only one left in his family. As I said, it’s a sad time. There may not be a funeral that we can attend this time. Our families have not been particularly good at staying in touch, and that may not change. That leaves me with my memories, which are rich and full. I hope they knew how much I loved and treasured them.
We were settling into life in the city pretty well by now when Paul’s mother died. After Paul’s father had died, we had moved back east to be closer to our families and had gotten to know Cathy pretty well. She and I’d had a rough beginning. She was an alcoholic and, when I was pregnant with Jessie and far from any friends or family, she took to calling me late at night. Paul had taken the only available job and was working nights in a restaurant. This was in 1975 in Santa Cruz. She was never a nice drunk and would call me horrible names, accusing me of trying trap her son by getting pregnant on purpose. After failing to reason with her, I finally stopped answering the phone at night or answered and immediately hung up. When we moved back to Connecticut, where she also lived, I wanted Jessie to know both families, for better or for worse, and started a tentative relationship with her. It didn’t start out particularly good until I finally lost it and told her that she should have been enormously proud of her son for finding an evil woman who was just like his mother. The next day, she called to apologize, and things between us started to change.
Once we moved to New York, she would come visit for a few days at a time, staying with us during that time. I’d had a lot of experience with alcoholics in my own family and knew that requiring her not to drink would never work. She would either get sick or sneak her alcohol, so instead we tried to limit it. Even with that, she would go through a large bottle of gin in two or three days. As Jessie got older, she had less and less tolerance for this and started asking to go to a friend’s house overnight for those few days. I always agreed to this arrangement, insisting that she at least spend a few minutes with her while she was sober on that first day. Justin, on the other hand, who was only beginning to get to know her, was still young enough to be unaware of the alcohol. He thought it was hysterically funny when Cathy fell off the couch and rolled over laughing. He would often get down and roll around on the floor with her. He often said to me, “I love Dama, she always makes me laugh.” He didn’t seem to realize that was not her intent, but he enjoyed it and she enjoyed his enthusiasm, so I let it go. Luckily, she didn’t visit often.
We got the news about her death a few hours before a scheduled gig and decided to do the gig as a tribute. Paul and I always believed “the show must go on,” so it did. We did John Lennon’s song “Mother” which was an appropriate tribute to this woman who drowned herself in the bottle and basically ignored her children, leaving them to their own devices at a young age. But that is not my story to tell. We also did some very sentimental songs. Paul announced the death of his mother at the beginning, and it was a very moving show for everyone. Afterwards, it was time to go to Connecticut to meet with Paul’s siblings and make funeral arrangements.
A few years earlier, Paul’s sister, with whom he’d always struggled, got married in Maryland. She married the man who had put us to work on his herb farm for a few days when we were moving from Oregon to New York. The plan for that weekend was that we would go to pick their mom up in Connecticut on our way down south. We had arrived at Cathy’s apartment to find her almost overwhelmed with excitement about the upcoming wedding. She insisted on showing us the beautiful dress she had bought for the occasion. She was on a fixed income and could barely afford it, but it was beautiful. She was glowing. As we were starting to walk out the door with her suitcases in hand, the phone rang. It was her daughter calling to say that on second thought, her mom was now uninvited. She was devastated, and we didn’t know what to do next. We sat with her as she cried. Paul was furious both at the disrespect to his mom but also at the awkward and uncomfortable position it had put us in. After a few minutes, Cathy insisted that we go on without her. She didn’t want us to miss it and didn’t want to ruin it for her daughter. Paul’s sister called again wondering if we’d left yet and cautioning us not to be late. We were supposed to arrive that day. Cathy turned to her suitcase, opened the bottle of gin that was packed there and lit a cigarette. We reluctantly left her. Although we were sad to leave her there, we were also determined to try to enjoy this mini vacation. The kids were excited and unaware of what had just transpired, so off we went.
I have to admit that we did have a wonderful time at the wedding and was surprised that there was no further drama, except for having to go search for Justin minutes before the start of the ceremony. Paul was supposed to have been watching him while I helped Jessie with her hair and dress. We were all in the wedding party. Jessie was the flower girl, Justin the ring bearer, Paul was an usher, and I was a bridesmaid. When I realized that Paul had lost track of our wayward and mischievous son, I organized a covert search party and finally found Justin walking out of a barn with his shirttails hanging out and hay sticking out of his hair and clothes. The wedding was at the groom’s family’s estate with lots of land, many out buildings and was right on the Chesapeake Bay. It was quite relaxing, like being in a fairytale.
But now, Cathy had died, and Paul’s sister was insisting that their mother be buried in that same dress that she never got to wear to the wedding. Paul was outraged, but it was one of those situations where you had to choose your battles, and there were much bigger ones than that. His sister insisted that it shouldn’t have gone to waste. She also insisted on having the funeral in the Catholic church. This was another battle that was eventually lost. Cathy had been excommunicated earlier because of getting a divorce on the grounds of adultery. That was odd in itself since their Dad was not excommunicated with her at that time. Usually divorce was enough for excommunication regardless of the grounds and applied to both parties because marriage was considered a sacrament. he Catholic church was often money driven and a big part of upper crust society in that region, so I assume they targeted her because of the adultery charge. At one point, we found some plenary indulgences that she had bought over the years. It was suggested that maybe these were enough to get in the door. We doubted it, but everyone finally gave in.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with Catholicism, plenary indulgences are pieces of paper signed by the pope that you can buy. Basically, they are a way to buy your way into heaven, and she had a whole stack of them. I guess she figured she would need a bunch since she just kept on sinning. After a lot of persuasion, we finally found a priest willing to do officiate at the funeral but there was to be no communion ceremony. At the funeral, he gave a eulogy that was basically an inventory of the items that had been donated to the church by Cathy’s millionaire mother, pointing out specific statues, land in Italy and more. He ended by saying that “although Cathy was a grave sinner, he hoped that she might find a place in purgatory due to her mother’s generosity to the church.” There was an audible gasp and many people stood up and left. I also stood up and turned to leave, but Paul asked me to stay, so I did. I lost much respect for the church on that day and have always tried to avoid it at all cost.
The only good thing that came out of that trip was getting to know my brother and sister-in-law for the first time. Paul never spoke much about his siblings. They all had survived extreme trauma, and he wanted to block most of it out. We had always been close to Sage, his oldest sister, but here was an opportunity to connect with more family. In spite of my own trauma as a child, I still believed in family connections and strove to have those within Paul’s family as well. His brother and wife had become Mormons and were also very invested in family. We got along well, and it was a fun time for everyone. Paul was fond of saying that the Cavanaugh’s put the “fun” in funeral. They definitely did.
When Cathy died, Paul inherited quite a bit of money. When she was still alive, she cautioned me that this would happen and gave me the task of making sure it was spent wisely. She told me that she knew Paul would just blow right through it but that I seemed more sensible. She made me promise, and I told her that I would do my best. I also knew Paul and foresaw that this would not be an easy thing to accomplish, but I had promised, and I tried. The first thing we did was sit down and make a financial plan. We had never had money, so this was a huge opportunity. Paul was not open to any discussion of investment for the future beyond physical things. We decided that we needed to buy a home and a reliable car. Next, we needed our own sound system that would support a band and would last. The kids needed bikes, and Paul wanted me to have a keyboard so that I could teach piano from home. Paul was also exploring the idea of going to school. He’d always wanted to be a lawyer and had successfully defended himself a few times with trips to the law library in Albany. The last thing we wanted was to take another cross-country trip to visit our old friends. We knew it might be our last opportunity.
We had no idea how much money he was getting, just that it was “a lot.” It also didn’t come all at once. I still have no idea how much he ended up with in the end because it came in multiple small installments. When it was time to go looking for a place to buy, Paul pulled out an area map, closed his eyes and circled his finger all around finally landing on a spot. He circled that spot in red, folded the map back up and stuck it in a drawer. We went looking all around for an inexpensive but livable home. It was not easy. We were starting to feel a little desperate when the realtor drove us to an isolated place on a dead-end dirt road in Stephentown. Just before turning onto the road where the land was located, we passed the most spectacular view. We were already sold and bought land in Stephentown with a mobile home on it. It was in our price range but needed quite a bit of work. We hired someone to put in a septic system, and our friends helped us out at a few work parties, putting in a new driveway. Pretty soon, we were ready to move in. Before we actually signed the papers, we took out that map again, this new home was right in the spot Paul where Paul’s finger had randomly landed.
We bought a Toyota station wagon and all the other items we had agreed on. There was still more money to come but again, we had no idea how much or how many installments were left. Our relationship was suffering again after his mom’s death, and we knew we needed to make some kind of change to put things back on track. We loved each other as much as ever but our old childhood hurts were still overwhelming at times, and stress of constantly trying to survive with two children was killing us. Even our music, which had always brought us closer, was starting to suffer. Traveling always energized us both, giving us a new outlook on life, so we decided to take a big cross-country trip.
Our old friend Vernon, who had spent a summer with us in Hebo, Oregon, was moving to Denver, Colorado. We had gone to New Jersey that weekend to help him pack up his rented truck. As we were leaving, I asked him to show me where his new neighborhood was located on his city map. He did, we said a tearful goodbye and went back home. Now we decided to try to surprise him at his new home. Never ones to waste any time, we decided to leave the next day. Jessie was older now and often spent the night at a friend’s house. It was a way to escape the now endless fighting that we hoped to put an end to with this relaxing trip. When we picked her up that morning, we announced that we were leaving that day. I was a seasoned traveler with children by then and had a whole pack of things for them as well as an educational plan. Just like neither Paul not I ever wasted time, I never wasted an opportunity to educate. Jessie and Justin also got to help plan the trip picking spots they wanted to visit along the route. The first request was to see Mount Rushmore. We were all excited to be on the road again.
Now, the band was starting to gel. Andy, Paul and I all wrote songs. Paul and I generally wrote together, but sometimes one or the other of us would bring a completed song, then came the editing. The arrangements always happened collaboratively. When we first started writing, we made the decision to copyright everything as P & D Cavanaugh. The writing was so intertwined, even on those songs we wrote individually, that it made sense. Over time, we even tended to forget who originated it. But some stood out as either Paul’s or mine. “Visions of an Airplane” was definitely Paul’s. It was written over the course of many years. In 1974, he had read that a suite consisted of five distinct parts and quickly decided to take on the challenge. In 1975, he wrote the first part in Santa Cruz, California. The second part soon followed. In 1977, while back in Connecticut, we lay on our backs in the middle of a football field tripping during a meteor shower while Paul composed the third part on my nylon string guitar as bats came swooping down a little too close for comfort. The fourth and fifth parts were written in Oregon in the early 80s. Another song that Paul wrote was “Long, Long Night.” I so vividly remember that song. I had been on the other side of the country visiting family for a couple of weeks, needing a serious break from the fighting, considering whether or not I could keep living with such an angry man, and then coming home to that love song. Paul always knew how to mend our rifts.
All of the members of the current lineup of General Eclectic had experience with psychedelics, so we were all on the same wavelength musically and psychically. We even tripped together to solidify that connection. I loved playing music on psychedelics because it dissolved all of my inhibitions around music. I reached for new heights without the fear of falling. I rarely played the piano because it brought up too many frightening memories, but I played it when tripping because nothing could hurt me in that psychedelic haze. I knew that these drugs had saved my life. You’ll notice that I don’t write a lot about my early life, just little glimpses now and then. There are good reasons why I’m not yet ready to share those dark times. LSD, mushrooms, mescaline, peyote … all healed my wounds. I still had scars, but I didn’t notice them as much. And I was convinced that it could heal others, too. Paul was in the same boat. Although he still had big anger issues, he seemed to be more grounded after tripping. He was more connected with the outer world and less ruled by his inner world. We also admired the West Coast scene especially The Grateful Dead and Ken Kesey and the Acid Tests. Because of all of these factors, we decided to put on our own Acid Test.
The original idea was to do three of them because three was the magic number for us after finding a bamboo bong with a Chinese inscription about the power of the number three. We started organizing the first one with a musically diverse group of friends, and the idea took off. When trying to figure out how to best distribute the doses, it was decided that it shouldn’t be in actual Kool-Aid. That seemed too risky. That meant someone had to be in charge of it, and I was nominated. Everyone thought that I was probably the most responsible party. Ha! I have to laugh at that now. We made the flyer with hints about the event activities and mostly depended on word-of-mouth. Word went out that if we were booked as The Eclectic Koo-aid Band, it would be one of these unique events, and word got around fast!
That evening, I was handed a piece of foil with plenty of hits of blotter. Paul and I immediately took one each, and I folded the foil back up. The room was set up with a liquid light show. I had borrowed an overhead projector from the school, not telling them why I wanted it. We put two Pyrex pie plates on the surface with cooking oil and food coloring that swirled around and was projected on one wall. Our friends from the band Con Demek showed black and white porn films on another wall after being asked to stop showing them on the band while we were performing. The people downstairs in the “smoking section” were blowing smoke up through the holes in front of the stage, and the place was packed! Within the first couple of hours, the neatly folded tin foil was now a ball of foil in my hand with little bits of blotter sticking out. I found a friend who was not imbibing, handed it off to him babbling something, probably gibberish, and left him shaking his head.
We had many different musicians and bands including some impromptu jamming. There were partiers on all three floors of the building and even outside lining the sidewalk. It was an amazing event. So, we decided to do the second. This time I was smart enough to put someone else in charge of the psychedelics so that I was able to just concentrate on running the show. Mostly though, the show ran itself and I was able to enjoy the fruits of my labor. We were starting to plan the third and final test when the real owner of the Half Moon Café returned to Albany. There was a loose collective of young people running it up to then. Now things changed. When I went in for the first time to meet him, he started complaining about all of the crazy things that he’d heard went on there. “Did you know there was an actual Acid Test here,” he asked. To which I replied, “Wow! Crazy, man.” I always tried not to lie outright and didn’t then. He and I became friends, but I never did admit that we had been the ones responsible. And, although Paul and I tried to build up the energy and excitement for another one, we knew it couldn’t be there and never found another suitable and safe site.
We continued to play at The Half Moon and possible every local bar in town. People either loved us or hated us. There was a review in The Backroom Buzz about a show we did at QE2 that described the band as “a bunch of aging hippies with a lead singer who looked like a milking cow and sang like a cat in heat.” You can imagine what that did to my self-esteem. I was devastated. I didn’t want to go out of the house let alone go on a stage again. All of our friends were horrified and encouraging but it wasn’t until Paul came up with a new poster idea that I agreed to do another show in Albany.
We printed quotes from the article with an illustration of each taken from underground comics, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, Mr. Natural and more. Then we added everything we could find that our fans and other press had said about us. Paul convinced me that we should use these terrible things the reviewer had said to our advantage. Our next show was standing room only, and I developed a thick skin. I didn’t care any more about getting publicity or reviews or any accolades. I was doing my music for myself, and if people liked it that was a bonus, but I no longer needed that reassurance. This was huge after being put down as not being good enough by my dad throughout my life. And it was a relief. Oddly, I sometimes feel thankful for that horrible review. It's reminded me that my music is ultimately for me. I'm happy when others enjoy it, but I do it for myself first.
When I was hired at Hilton Music to teach piano, I decided to work as many hours as I could to try to get ahead a little financially. We were living in section-8 housing, so we were surviving, but that was all. Of course, the more money we made, the higher was our rent, but we could still keep enough to make a difference. To get to work on time, I left home at 7:30 am to walk to the bus stop. Then, so that the family could use the car to do fun things, I took two buses to reach my job in Troy by 9 am and worked until 7 pm, getting home between 8:30 and 9. I was exhausted when I got home but also happy to be working and doing something on my own away from the house and family. Up to that point, our kids had gone everywhere with me, parties, rallies, gigs, and more. I even taught at their school. I was teaching music mostly to young people, most of whom really wanted to play.
I was also meeting other musicians. I quickly met Rudd Young, who was also working there. He was a manager and a salesman. He was a good one, too. He was, and still is, a very friendly and likeable guy. I soon found out that he played bass. We had just recently lost our bass player, so I organized a jam. Rudd not only joined the band, but he offered the store as a practice space after hours. He set everything up, we started practicing once or twice a week. I had met enough people by then to be able to arrange for a babysitter. It was usually the teenage daughter of a friend from Rok Against Reaganomix. Cheralyn was great. She was a no-nonsense sitter, which was exactly who I needed with Justin, who was becoming a handful. She also had a brother and was able to either negotiate gracefully between my two fighting children or just nip it in the bud. It was such a relief to have someone I trusted be with them.
We must have had a drummer, but I don’t remember who that was. We went through many musicians in those early Albany days. We had a variety of guitar players including one who was into more contemporary and heavier rock than we were at the time. He influenced the band in a good way. Danny was young and a bit flashy. Around the time he was playing with us, someone saw our cat in the window and reported it. Pets were not allowed in this complex but, as she had traveled across the country with us and was part of our family, we weren’t willing to give her up, so we snuck her in hoping for the best. My parents refused to take her, and we couldn’t find anyone else. Out of desperation, we asked Danny to take her until we could figure something else out. We also explained how attached we were to her. Poor Jessie cried as we handed her over, but we assured her that we would find another place and get her back. This was only temporary.
We asked regularly how she was doing and noticed that Danny seemed a little nervous each time we asked. He finally admitted that he gave her away to some old lady who seemed to love her and was looking for a cat. We were angry and devastated. Autumn was Jessie’s cat, and she was broken-hearted. We insisted that he try to get her back, but he had no idea who this woman was or how to find her. He told us at the next practice that he looked and asked around to no avail. We felt betrayed. He never even checked with us before passing her on. We could see that he felt guilty, but that night we fired him. Paul had a lot of faults, but to him loyalty was an important attribute. Danny had failed at that.
Meanwhile, I was starting to burn out on my job at the music store. The hours were draining, and the owner wanted me to push the sales of sheet music. Most of the kids were beginners and weren’t ready for much more than the standard lesson book. I’ve always incorporated ear training in my lessons as well, so they were satisfied playing some of their favorite songs by ear or with the simple arrangements I made for them. Although the other employees understood, the owner did not. Another issue was what I was coming home to after work. Paul had warned me back in 1980 when I was offered a full-time job in Portland, that he was not a reliable caregiver. I knew this and hoped that he could manage for a day, but this was not to be. The first few weeks, things went smoothly. Both kids were happy. They’d seemed to have had a good day with their dad. Then, things gradually started to slip through the cracks. I started coming home to chaos. Paul often lost track of the time and hadn’t fixed dinner. Then I would find out that the kids hadn’t had lunch either. When I realized that he wasn’t taking them out anywhere, I stopped taking the bus, shortening my travel time by a lot. However, all things considered, this extra job had stopped being worth all the downsides, so I quit.
We continued to practice in Troy and soon found another guitar player who fit our style better than anyone before. Andy Roth had a style like Jerry Garcia and also sang and wrote songs. He fit like a glove. He also brought a new group of people into our circle including one young man who kept saying, “You guys have to meet my dad.” Until then, we were of the mindset, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” Eventually, we agreed to meet him, and Ron became our percussionist. He was the coolest older guy we’d met since leaving San Francisco in 1975. Although we were lacking a drummer, we had someone on congas and bongos, and I played percussion. That summer, we did another show for Rok Against Reaganomix both as a duo and with our latest group. We’d learned quickly that we needed to be flexible and make ourselves available for any kind of venue. We played at most of the rallies as a duo, though occasionally we added players. We played in bars as a whole band and coffeehouses and cafes in a variety of configurations. We also continued to play on the streets since busking was how we’d gotten started, and I never forgot Arlo Guthrie telling me that he went back to the streets regularly as a reminder of where he came from.
We were developing a large following but, like any other unique band, we had our critics, too. There were a lot of people who wanted us to fit into a category, which we didn’t. They couldn’t understand how we could cover Frank Zappa and Hank Williams in the same show. In 1988, with another addition to the band who played guitar and keyboard, we decided to do a show entitled “On Beyond Zappa.” We did a song for every letter in the alphabet then did some of our own to end. It was a hard to come up with every letter, but we did it. We did a song by the Allman Brothers, Irving Berlin, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young … Grateful Dead …Waylon Jennings, Kinks … Led Zeppelin, Joni Mitchell, Willie Nelson, Pink Floyd, Queen … Ramones, Steely Dan, Traffic … Velvet Underground, Hank Williams, XTC, and finally ending with “I Am the Slime From Your Video” by Frank Zappa. We handed out sheets with each letter to fill out with the artists’ names. There was even a prize for whoever could correctly name all twenty-six artists. As it turned out there was only one winner who received a homemade cassette tape. Later on, we did a second of those called “On Beyond Zevon” and chose all different artists. We did cheat a little on that one and chose Xavier Cougat for “X” because we couldn’t think of anything else. This was before you could go on the internet and find just about anything.
Some of our shows at The Half Moon Cafe, including that one, were so packed that there were folks hanging out on the sidewalk watching through the plate glass window. There was also the basement that turned out to be the smoking room. There were holes in the ceiling right in front of where the stage was, so the smoke would filter up through those holes, probably getting the band high just from standing there. Before too long, people were smoking everywhere outside, too. We were known as a “get high band” but, for some reason, still attracted mainstream fans which was fine with us. Knowing how to blend into any situation, being a chameleon, was a survival skill that Paul and I learned during our tough childhoods. As a result, we each seemed to attract a diverse group of people. And that was true not just at our shows.
One year, we decided to throw a party in our Green Street apartment. I made sure the kids stayed with their grandparents that night, knowing that it might turn out to be a wild time. I was right. One of our friends was an ex-biker. We called him “Rev.” He explained that there were only two ways to quit the club, die or become a minister. So, he sent away to become a minister mail through the mail. That night, he brought his best friend’s daughter, who was a “biker chick” through and through. She arrived carrying a “keg killer,” which was the biggest beer stein I’d seen. The deal was, whenever anyone drank the whole thing, she would flash her tits. There were a lot of drunken men at that party including one who ended up in our bathtub with her. Our old friend, Vernon, the extremely shy man who stayed with us for a summer in Oregon, just sat in a corner watching and doing a lot of blushing. Meanwhile, Rev was in another corner totally engaged for the entire night with the straightest man at the party talking about country music. It was a night to be remembered, and I was glad I’d had the forethought to send my kids away for the night. Not only did they miss the excitement, but Paul and I had a chance to recover the next day before stumbling in to pick up the kids. We were settling into this community nicely and felt as though we were just getting started. Paul was satisfied to stay put, at least for now.
I loved my work at The Free School. I started reading books by alternative education pioneers like John Holt, Ron Miller and A. S. Neill, the founder of the Summerhill School in England. I went to conferences on Alternative education and engaged in fascinating discussions about all of the different models. I learned how to teach effectively, how to reach reluctant students and how to let go of some of my expectations for them. I also learned how to help troubled students deal with their emotions in a safe and healing way. I learned a lot about myself and was forced to look at my past traumas, seeing how they affected my reactions to things in the present. Although I felt as though I had finally found my calling, I also struggled with interpersonal issues in the school.
In the early years of my teaching there, an astrologist came through town and offered readings to the teachers. I had experience with astrologers before, including the one who did a chart for Jessie when she was an infant and gave me valuable advice concerning her future health. I decided to go see what he had to say. The most important thing he told me was that, despite the differences I might have with the other staff members and members of the school community, being at the school was a valuable opportunity for me to learn how to work cooperatively in the midst of discord. He said that I would have serious struggles within this community but would come out stronger and wiser as a result. He couldn’t have been more right.
I was already struggling with practices that I saw as cultish. Most of the teachers, except for me, lived in the immediate neighborhood and spent most of their time together. Their children all played together and often left out the kids who were not in that neighborhood community. The adults all belonged to an emotional support group that met once a week. I was pressured repeatedly to join the group, and I kept refusing. For one thing, I made a very small salary and spent five days a week in the school, many hours at home preparing my lesson plans or thinking about my students and how best to help them as well as a two to three hour, sometimes more, meeting once a week to talk about the students and other school business. In addition to that, there were board meetings once a month. The teacher’s meetings and board meetings were hard. They were often used to call out someone’s attitude or behavior. They were also used to solve personal problems between teachers. I saw how they would gang up on one person and keep at them until they dissolved into tears. It often felt unreasonable and abusive to me.
Because I was not in the emotional support group, I was often involved in some kind of controversy at these other meetings. I would often sit there in dread waiting for someone to bring up an issue they had with me. If I disagreed with the majority, I was often attacked by the whole group. I couldn’t understand why everyone just couldn’t figure out how to get along in the spirit of cooperation and compromise. One time at a board meeting, the founder of the school asked everyone for an honest opinion about her retirement. She was older and mostly uninvolved in the day-to-day workings of the school and had expressed the desire to retire. I listened as everyone told her how valuable she was to the school and community as a whole. I listened as they all encouraged her to stay involved, but also knowing that they all dreaded having her around. The school ran well without her, and we would ask for direction when we needed it. At teachers’ meetings, they repeatedly talked about wanting her to retire but face-to-face, they backed down. When it came around to me, I told her the truth. I said that I respected her immensely and had learned most of what I knew about teaching from her. I also recognized that she had been wanting to retire for a few years but worried that the school would fall apart without her. I insisted that unless she walked away, she would never know. Unless she let the teachers try to run it on their own, we would never learn. I told her that no one was willing to stand up to her and call her out if they thought she was wrong. They were all afraid of her. I was afraid of her too, but I also wanted the school to go on. I reminded her that she could always come back if it didn’t work out.
The meeting erupted! The founder, Mary, had always had anger issues, so I knew I was treading on dangerous ground. She got up and screamed inches away from my face, accusing me of trying take her school from her. As if that wasn’t bad enough, all the other board members and teachers jumped on her band wagon and started attacking me as well. I quietly got up and left. Later that night, I got a phone call from Mary apologizing to me. I later learned that after I left, and she calmed down, she turned on everyone else for not defending me. She saw that I was right. No one would ever stand up to her or question her as long as she remained in the community. She was their leader, and they were like sheep. The next day, I was drowning in apologies from everyone, but nothing really changed. I was a rebel and still the outsider, and they remained sheep.
Unwittingly, I became the conscience of the school, continuing to call out wrongs that I saw and being the “bad guy” more often than I would have liked. I liked the premise of the school and respected the model. However, it was a different thing in practice. I saw some kids falling through the cracks because there seemed to be no push at all for them to learn. I became aware that this model worked well for the ones who were self-motivated, so I quickly learned how to trick the others. For example, I had one student who came from a violent home and refused to do any schoolwork at all. School was a refuge for him and nothing else. He was ten-years old and couldn’t read or write and knew almost no math. One day, I asked what he wanted to do for work when he was old enough. He told me he wanted work at Stewarts, a local convenience store chain. That afternoon, I stopped by and picked up a job application.
The next morning, I handed him the application to fill out. He looked at it blankly. I asked him if he planned to have them fill it out for him at which point, he looked downcast and decided that maybe learning to read was not such a bad thing. Next, I asked him how much of a salary he would need to survive. Again, he looked at me blankly. We talked about rent, utilities and food expenses. That year, he learned to read and write and do basic math. Unfortunately, although he did learn these basic skills, everything else was against him and he ended up in jail later in life, just like his father before him. Working at this school was often as heartbreaking as it was heartwarming. I couldn’t change the conditions in which these kids lived. I loved the fact that there was such economic and racial diversity in the school, but it was also difficult emotionally. It was also hard to go home to my own kids after dealing with serious behavior and emotional issues all day while trying to help educate.
Although I believed in child-led learning, I didn’t believe in letting these kids just run wild, distracting the other kids and disrupting their learning. In my classes, I found that I did have certain expectations. Every morning, we did journaling. Those who didn’t want to write or draw in their journals were expected to sit quietly and respectfully while the rest of us did our work, me included. To me, child-led learning meant that they would tell me what they wanted to learn and I would help facilitate that learning whether it meant learning it myself and passing on that knowledge or finding someone else who was more qualified than me to teach it. However, I also recognized that sometimes kids just had to have a year off to do nothing. Time and again, I saw those same kids eventually come around to classes and become increasingly engaged. I had one student who spent most of one school year covering the top of her desk with white glue. By the end of the year, it was a couple of inches thick. Another student, the daughter of two lawyers, also refused to read. She was a wonderful artist, so we let her spend the year doing art. When she finally learned to read at age twelve, she surpassed the others in her class. I never had a problem with letting the students decide what to do with their day. I only tried to stop mayhem from happening. They were allowed to go to the park and play hard, just not in the school building.
Every morning the school day started with breakfast then exercises and a school-wide morning meeting. I loved the morning meetings but hated when it was my turn to lead exercises. I didn’t mind doing them, but a lot of the kids didn’t enjoy it and were resistant. The teachers all took turns, which was fair, but I struggled with being creative enough to keep them engaged. The things that I enjoyed were boring to them. Maybe they could sense my own resistance. Whatever it was, I dreaded it every week. However, years later, when the school decided to do away with it, I also missed it terribly. I felt that although I struggled with my role, it was an important way to start off the day. Now there was no sense of community building first thing in the mornings.
During the twelve years that I taught in this school, I learned as much as the students did. It’s not always easy to sit back and let your students take the reins. It takes a lot of trust in their natural instincts but also requires a teacher to be intimately involved in their lives, learning how to coax ideas and suggestions out of them, learning to listen to them intently. This means not only listening to their words but listening for the underlying message or watching for clues in their body language. It means being aware of even the subtlest changes in their demeanor or behavior. I learned how to listen with my whole being, not just my ears. I learned to encourage the show of emotions in a safe way, both to the student involved and the others around them. I learned how to let them make their own way without abandoning them but rather being a safety net in case they fell. I learned to trust children to know themselves, their strengths and limitations. And I learned to trust my own instincts as well. I also learned very practical skills for dealing with damaged children such as safe and effective restraining holds. But most of all, I learned patience and trust. Trust in them and trust in myself.
After a few years teaching there, I became a co-director responsible for the “upstairs” which was Kindergarten and preschool. I also started coordinating the school lunch program and cooking breakfast in the mornings. I loved coming in early, before everyone else arrived and settling into my day by preparing the food. Breakfast has always been one of my favorite meals to make. Unfortunately, I was not making enough money at the school and started looking for extra work. I answered an ad for a piano teacher at Hilton Music in Troy and got the job. I would go in early on Saturdays and work all day, leaving the kids home with Paul for the day. I was excited to start this new job and get back to my music roots. I also realized that I would not last there forever and wanted to use my new teaching skills in a different venue.
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