I sat on the front step watching the lighting storm, feeling the cool damp air pressing down on my body as I hugged my knees to my chest, thinking of my father. He loved storms as much as my mother hated them, and perversely, seemingly to annoy her, he would carry me out with him to the porch to watch the wild play of light and noise. In the safety of his arms I never felt a second of fear.

I think about how many times over the years I listened to my father tell the stories of the early days of his marriage and the struggles they survived. Somehow he managed to make the worst of times seem funny and wonderfully entertaining. My father’s most amazing gift was his way with a story and even retold a hundred times we all sat fascinated, listening to every word, like a familiar and beloved book dog eared with the reading.

One of my favorite stories was about the time spent visiting with his in laws down at Echols, the rural village in Western Ky where my mother was born. It is a tiny community whose heart was my grandparent’s general store. Other than that were  a few houses, a Baptist Church,  and acres of farmland. Dad’s story was set in 1937, the first year of their marriage. Until that night my mother had always accepted her family’s actions as perfectly normal. I could always see the signs of discomfort on my mother face when my dad commenced telling about the time they were all awoken in the middle of the night, ordered to dress in their Sunday clothes, and then quick marched through the backyard and into the root cellar.

The men, my father intoned with an ironic seriousness, all stood in the front, by the door. That would consists of my placid, long suffering grandfather and his two oldest sons, Cleo and Billy, plus the kin by marriage, Uncle Bill the war hero, Uncle Hillard, Uncle Dick and my father. “The women and children were pushed to the back.” As he speaks I can see them huddled among the canned peaches and bins of potatoes listening to my grandmother predict their imminent doom with dramatic sobs and prayers.
“I think it’s gonna blow off over toward the river, my grandfather states with quiet authority.

No Dad, the wind is blowing directly this way, says one of the sons, but then a sharp look from his father and a loud whale from the dark recesses behind him reminds him how this game is played. The voice quickly recalculates,

Well, if it veers a little to the south it just might miss us. The men agrees with that assessment in a voice that is an echo of his Papa’s firm and steady grasp of the situation. My father remains silent, too sleepy and confused to understand this strange family ritual, feeling he has missed something in the news, in the air, that would justify their behavior.

The rain begins to pour down in buckets. The men shut the cellar doors and everyone sits cramped under the earth like buried victims of some mass murder, suffering but not quite dead. The minutes turn into hours before the rain subsides to a slow steady drip, and then, when my father thinks he can stand it no longer, the man we all called Papa declares it safe to head back to the house.

My Dad embellishes the story with each telling over the years until I can smell the air, feel the breath going in and out of the huddled bodies, see the tense frightened faces when the lightening flashes. Never is the story totally revealed without questioning from the rapt audience.

Daddy, I ask, knowing the answer from other times, Why did you have to put on your Sunday clothes?

You know punkin, he answers with a mocking quizzical voice, I wondered the same thing, so the next morning I asked your grandmother. Millie Burden just drew herself up proudly and told me,
“Well, if we died and they found our bodies I didn’t want them to think we were trash. We all have a nice long laugh at the absurdity of the poor woman’s reasoning.

Daddy, I ask, Why would anyone be afraid of the rain? My father smiles and my mother gets up and declares that she needs to do some laundry.

When I married and had children of my own, my Dad told me another story, this one serious. He confessed that as a child his mother had locked him in a small closet under the steps as punishment for his misdeeds. He said he still had nightmares about the dark and enclosed spaces. My father, who stood a head above most anyone around him, whose square shoulders and barrel chest were still straight and strong at ninety years old, the man who had taught me to be as fearless as a badger had an Achilles heel. The fact that he admitted it to me melted my heart.

He’s been gone from me these many years now, but sometimes when the air smells like rain, I take a minute to slip outside and think about how often I stood beside him watching the clouds churn and the wind turn the leaves inside out. Sometimes he would just slip his arm silently over my shoulders and pull me next to him and we would stand there in wordless communion until the rain came.


I ran again in dreams last night,

My bare feet skimming the ground

Across the clover field that lay

Between the house where my grandmother lived and my own.

I was the light princess,

The one in my storybook,

Equally free from care and gravity,

A time traveler headed for the marvels of tomorrow.

Waking alone to a nightmare

In a world most dreadful dark

I scream

But the howling wind smothers the sound

As I cling to a string, so thin and worn

That any minute it may break

Severing all ties with earth

And I will be sport for the tempest.

Again today I take precautions

So the wind will not take me

I’ve gathered many sweet and madding weights

and glued them fast onto my frame

Even while my voice protests confinement

I’ve sealed all possible escapes.

Trapped by my own hand’s protection

I cannot float away

Or even move.

Fall 1990

Wedding Day May 29, 1965

I don’t know how I expected to feel when he died. At one time I believed I loved him. At one time I believed I hated him. The last thing I thought I’d feel was indifference. We bonded over the new hope in our political situation which had been on the upswing until JFK was shot a few months after we met in November of 1963. Losing the hero of our generation seemed to make us cling tighter to each other. Before we married in May of 65 I wrote John a poem that was perhaps the worst one ever put on paper. I’ve lost it somewhere now, perhaps not accidently. I recall the one line, “finding in you God and around you heaven, we travel into life and love together”. I was 19 and had ran away from home, family, and college to marry him, less from love and more out of spite and anger with my parents. They threatened to have me committed if I chose him. I fled to DC where his parents lived and married in a small church jammed full of people I had never met. I recall crying as I took the first steps down the aisle. There was no arm there to hold and no one to catch me when I stumbled. I was immediately regretful of the choices that had led me there, and utterly alone.

Our honeymoon was a night in a roadside hotel somewhere in Maryland that included less than ten minutes of physical intimacy. As another friend put it, “the windows of heaven did not open”. We drove back to DC and lived for the summer in his parents basement. It was a house so clean it set your teeth on edge. Every item in it had a place to be, from the sofa with the see through plastic slipcovers to the immaculate jars of cleaning supplies in the cupboard. Every week all the items were moved, cleaned, and put back in their exact locations. The 20 year old gas stove in the kitchen looked brand new. The menus never varied, but his mother, already headed down the dark path toward alzheimer, believed she invented them anew each week. “I think we’ll have chicken with those nice wide noodles. Do you like the Kluski noodles? We think they’re the best ones.” Not that she cooked of course. Her mother, Verlie, moved in with them when John was born. She kept house, cooked and minded the baby for all the years while both of them worked. They all raised him to believe he walked on water and was the most brilliant child ever born. He was their magnum opus, born after 17 years of marriage and his birth soon followed by his mother’s menopause.

My parents started speaking to me again after we returned to Georgetown for his senior year of college. The truce was negotiated by my sister who had a higher tolerance for assholes than my folks. Although you would think that my brother would have already immunized them against the breed. John and Kurt could not be in the same room with each other without my brother turning bright red and looking like a cartoon character blowing steam out of his ears. John just snorted in his intellectually superior way, pulled the dirty handkerchief he always carried out of his pocket, and blew his nose again.

At college we moved into married students quarters, a collection of flimsy little railroad apartments built after the war for vets returning to college. I drove John’s 59 rambler to Lexington and found a job in a shoe store by virtue of my looks and my one pair of white lizard heels that I wore with my wedding suit to the interview. They liked me there, but only paid me 52 cents an hour. Pretty sure that was illegal even in the days of very low wages for women. It gave us a bit more than $20 a week to live on. Rent was $45 a month and John gave me a food budget of $48. After a short time I got up the nerve to ask the boss for a raise, which brought our monthly income up to almost $100 a month. John got $40 a month from his parents, but mine kept their word and did not give me a nickel as long as I was married to him. John did not allow me a checking account or any spending money. Sometimes my sister sent me 5 or 10 dollars which I quickly realized I had to keep secret from John. Things eased up a bit when he took a part time job as a bellboy in a downtown Lexington Hotel. I never knew how much he made, but I noticed he began to buy some treats for himself from time to time.

The next year we moved on to Charlottesville for graduate school at UVa. He had a scholarship which included a monthly stipend. He collected all of the amount at once and we bought a mobile home at my parent’s suggestion. We didn’t really think that through well. Living in a trailer in Kentucky was considered home ownership. Living in one in the richest county in the USA we were pretty much white trash. We did have one nice neighbor who did not own a pickup truck with a gun rack. I found a job selling shoes on commission down the road at the shopping center. Later I found out that the commission was only paid every three months and was always short of what you sold. I gave it up after Christmas and got a job as a teacher’s aide in the elementary school. This position was a new idea then and I was the first in Albemarle county. My lead teacher took it as an opportunity to turn over all the black children to me while she taught the white ones. She gave me no books or lesson plans. Once a week I was in charge of the entire two second grades for art class. At age 20 ,with only two years of college, I was way out of my depth trying to overcome racism in this volatile situation. When the year was over I was glad to be moving on to Richmond VA and John’s first ever teaching job. I found a position at the electric company making the princely sum of $310 a month. I never knew what they paid John and I still had no access to any of “our” money.

I’m not saying I did not encounter racism in Kentucky, but Virginia’s bigotry was on an entire new level. John’s job was at an traditionally black university. I was proud of him for taking a stand, but most of the people at my job shunned me because of his position. Intellectually John and I were of one mind on the state of the world. There were four white professors at Union that year trying to do their part to create the dream that Martin Luther King Jr was preaching. Then came that spring of 68 when we all felt that dream shatter. I will never forget the sound on the campus that tragic day. We pulled together and became more determined to keep King’s dream alive. We marched, we signed petitions, we protested, we wrote letters. We rallied around Bobby Kennedy, our last hope. Then, just as the semester was over, came the third shot. No matter how many times we watched the gun discharge at close range we struggled to believe life could be so cruel. That was when John decided it was time to go look for America. We put our clothes and camping gear in the massive trunk of a 60 something Buick and headed cross country.

There we are, all ready to head west

The summer of Love in San Francisco was clearly awesome. All the greats were there just waiting to become famous. I didn’t meet any of them however. I was stuck in a cheap apartment on Market street watching Star Trek reruns on a 13 inch black white TV while John went out trying to find some strange. Not that I was all that familiar to him. Our sex life had started off very subdued and gone downhill from there. We were “unequally harnessed” and he had grown angry more than once at my demands. He said we married too young and he never had a chance to “sow his wild oats”. I don’t even know what he was looking for, bigger boobs? Someone less interested? More obedient? Whatever it was he didn’t find it in SF. Maybe he was looking in all the wrong places, like the stripper joints in North Beach. On the other hand, I met a nice young man in the laundry room of our apartment without even trying. When John found out he hit me hard across the face with the back of his hand. This was not a new development as it had happened a few times before, but it was the beginning of an acceleration of his abuse. Having been physically punished a lot as a child I didn’t react to is as much as I did his verbal and emotional abuse. That was when he also started telling me he was never attracted to me and that I was fat and stupid.

We sorted things out a bit before we headed back east. He had thought it out and came up with a solution to his problem. He just needed to move to exciting New York CIty, live in a brownstone and hang out in the Village. Back home in DC he started applying for jobs and found one pretty quickly in the NY City Human Resources department. He told all his friends that he was going to NY and work for mayor Lindsay. That would be John Lindsay who had an illustrious political career in the 60s and 70s and did not know my husband from Adam. It quickly became evident that a NYC brownstone was way out of our price range. John was making a reasonable starting salary for a low level bureaucrat, almost $10,000 a year, but rents in the city started around 1000 a month. We found a one bedroom on the fifth floor of an apartment building located right across the river in Queens for $173, utilities included. It was a nice walkable neighborhood with a butcher and a green grocer nearby, and an actual supermarket a couple of miles away. The subway was fairly close too, but I found it terrified me as it was loud, dirty and very confusing for a country girl. No sense to ask for direction in NY. They took joy in telling you the wrong way even if you could understand the accent.

Turns out my job thing had to be put aside until I figured out why I was sick on a daily basis. There was a doctor on the first floor of our apartment. He was a Cuban expat who called himself BC Wood. He stood around five foot tall, but he was a giant of understanding and patience. Just so happened he was an OB-GYN, but I had not had a check up in a long time and figured he was a doctor so why not? He asked me when I had my last period and I couldn’t recall one since June, but let him know that I was very irregular and the last OB I saw told me I could never get pregnant. He told me he would run a few tests and I could come back in a day or so. It was almost the end of Oct when he called and told me I was going to have a baby. I didn’t quite ask him how this happened, but it did cross my mind. I had last had sex on July 4th. How could I possible be pregnant? I’ll never forget John’s first words to me when I told him; “Is it too late to get an abortion?” Abortion would not be legal for three more years and I was almost 4 months along. That’s the day and minute our marriage was over. All that happened over the next few years was just the shouting.

I had a happy pregnancy despite John’s anger and abuse. I had made a friend who had a baby just a few months old. She was my rock. Doc Woods put me on a salt free diet because i kept retaining fluid. The diet was so tasteless that I ended up only gaining five actual pounds during the pregnancy. Three weeks after my due date doctor could wait no longer. The baby was really big and my blood pressure going up and down in fits. I went to the hospital on a Saturday morning to be induced. Twelve hours of labor later the doctor performed a c-section and my ten pound spring lamb came into the world. I immediately fell in love.

John picked my mother up at the airport three days later. She came to “help” me with the baby. She arrived with five suitcases which made us all a little nervous. There was really no need however. We had a toy poodle living in the apartment. My mother hated dogs in the house. John loved the dog more than me, but was not fond of my mother or having a new baby. I was recovering from major surgery, nursing my baby and trying to keep a lid on the tension in our tiny apartment. Third night John had to take my mom to the hospital to get some kind of knock out drugs for a migraine. The baby slept through the night from the first evening home. He whimpered a bit when he was hungry, fed eagerly and sat happily in his crib or pram until he was hungry again. He was oblivious to a wet or dirty diaper so found no reason to cry. The world was a happy place for him. No woman ever had better luck having the right child at the right time. Mom left with most of her suitcases still unopened, disappointed that I was not as clueless about taking care of a baby as she assumed.

Ben age 4 months

Come fall John was tired of NY and cramped quarters and the baby and me. He found a job in a Richmond community college and we headed back to my favorite of the many places we had lived since we had been married. We rented a little pink row house on Park Ave in the fan district. It wasn’t NYC but it was perfect to me. Life was tolerable until the baby became mobile. John would come home from school, spread all his books and papers on the floor, and then scream for me to come get the baby out of his things. I realized that his anger toward me extended to the baby and abuse that he dealt out to me was sure to follow for my son. I started looking for an exit.

Ben and I around the time I became determined to leave

That was about the time we both took our love to town; to the bar known as the Village to be exact. It was a college and near-do-well hang out and probably the center of the marijuana trade. I wasn’t much on weed and surely didn’t have money to buy it, but draft beer was a quarter and I never had to buy more than one. Sometimes we went together, but usually we took turns babysitting while the other one left. Once Ben nursed and was put in his crib he never woke, else I would not have left him at home with John. I still had no money of my own, but everytime I sat down in a booth a man, or maybe several, would come along and offer to buy me a beer. Regardless of what John told me, I could see in other men’s eyes that I was pretty and appealing. There were many who asked me to their bed, and I admit I opened my arms to a few. On John’s night out he had no luck for a very long time. One girl finally took him on and he soon moved her into the house and to my side of the bed that had been unoccupied for months. I decided that was enough for me, so with relief and a bit of sorrow, I called my mom for help in moving out. The day I left I turned around and gave him one last hug. No matter that everything since the day we wed had led to this very moment, I still felt a sense of failure.

If he had been kinder in the following years I don’t think my feelings toward him would have turned so to anger. He refused to pay the tiny amount he told me he would give me for child support until I went to his apartment to collect it. I had asked for nothing in the divorce settlement because he promised he would always take care of his child. Whenever he saw me in the street he did an about face and walked the other way while his little boy called “Daddy, daddy”. Ignored, he would then turn to me and say sadly, “That’s my daddy.” In a year’s time John moved away and left no forwarding address. Ben and I were on our own financially and emotionally. There was never a card or a call for a birthday or Christmas. John’s parents came a few times and slipped me a bit of money, but it was clear they blamed me for everything. Of course my parents felt the same about John, but when a marriage fails it’s never just one person who is at fault.

it’s been fifty two years since our life together ended. He was not my last mistake and certainly not my favorite. The son I have because of him has been a joy to me over the years. John missed all of that. His last wife tells me he had regrets, but I never heard about any of them while he was living. I wonder if he just came to hate me so much that he couldn’t love Ben. Perhaps I just never knew him and he never knew me. His obituary shows pictures of him with his other children and grandchildren. Of course pictures never tell the whole story, but there seems to be a genuine love on the part of the new family he created. Many years ago when his adopted daughter came to visit she spent most of her time telling my son how wonderful her dad treated her, how he supported her, how much she loved him. She never realized how unimaginably hard that was for me to hear and likely not easy for my child either. In the end it makes little difference. John had his choices just like I did. Some were good and seem to bring happiness to others, some were bad and caused pain. Life does not come with a map, more like a flawed GPS that tells you what turns to make, but does not reveal your destination until it’s too late to realize you put in the wrong address. Perhaps I owe him an apology for the long ago. Perhaps he owes me one too, but neither of us is ever going to get that. I pray whatever demons tormented you died with you John. RIP

Twenty six inches from elbow to elbow, said the funeral director, and we searched with a yardstick tucked against the padded coffin walls, for one that would hold a man who was larger than life to me. I thought of all the foolish risks he had taken in his life, like dodging the railroad cops when he rode the boxcars in his teens, traveling to the 1933 Chicago Worlds fair penniless, in a car with no brakes, and piloting a new $100,000 boat over the Rodchester Dam in high water. I am astounded that my father had just slipped away quietly, in his sleep.

Before he married Mother he had been a desperado, a fatherless child during the great depression. She gave her heart to this handsome, slightly dangerous, young man in 1936, and worked her whole life to domesticate him. She was so successful we never knew his weaknesses until she died in 1994, after a romance of fifty eight years. Even considering the foibles of his youth, and his anchorless old age, I believe when he is weighed on the scales of justice, good will overbalance iniquity by an easy margin. In his eulogy, the minister he had know for 40 years, made it clear that the moral sanction for that judgment was not in mortal hands. I only know that if God loves him half as much as Mother did, he will be received with open arms.

I will always remember him sitting quiet in the early dawn, watching the mist rise off the river. I loved to sit beside him, and in those moments, the conversation connecting us did not require words. I reach out into the silence between us now, and try to recapture the unspoken understanding we always shared, but I am here alone. I touch his manicured hands, now icy with death, and remember the many times I slipped my childish hand into his. I would marvel at the tattoo of grease, permanently ground into the life and heart lines of his palms. I am told that these are the hands that held me first, even before my mother touched me, tenderly cleaning and dressing his newborn daughter. My gender role was predetermined from that day on, yet my father could be counted on to let me do dangerous things forbidden by my mother. Because of him I stood on many a rocky precipice, gazing downward, and grew up fearless, with a love of all things wild.

I stand now in my mind on that cliff, and see him in his boat, floating into the distant mist. He has his fishing pole in hand, and is casting expertly into likely spots. I am too far away for him to hear, but even if he could, I know that noise is not the fisherman’s friend. I smile and wave, and I think I see him lift his hand to me, or maybe he is adjusting the oar. I don’t know where that stream runs, but I am content that he is at peace with where ever the river takes him.

Lydia Ross McGee is the main character in my new book, She Left The Babies in the Bed. She and I were born about 100 years apart in the same county in rural central Kentucky. As my father would want me to quickly point out, we are not mountain people, and I suppose I should add that we were not horse people either. Our forebears were decent God fearing, hard-working Scottish farmers that traveled down the Wilderness Road not long after Daniel Boone. They first came with mule and ox through the Cumberland Gap, then the rest of the family a bit later by flatboat down the Ohio. The land was a Paradise flowing with milk and honey, husbanded for thousands of years by primitives that the invaders gave no thought to arrogantly brushing aside. My Scottish forebears were what the Bible refers to as a stiff necked people. That is a term I always associated in a literal way with my father who suffered from a type of arthritis that made it difficult for him to move his head easily. When I was older and realized the phrase was meant in a figurative way, I found it still worked for my father.

The first of our kin to travel down the Ohio River from Virginia brought slaves with them. I know the slaves were later freed, but I do not surmise it was from any high mindedness, but rather they based the decision solely on economics. In my story I try to put the very human face on how slavery warped our country, especially during the aftermath of the civil war. You may have heard that in Kentucky it was called “the war of brother’s blood”. This is not a book about that but neither does it turn away from the issue.

One thing I know about my family from the earliest days is they put a high value on education, and with education often comes enlightenment. Unfortunately enlightenment usually walks hand in hand with alienation, like Adam and Eva discovered in the Garden. During my first semester in College I made the decision to take a bite of the apple rather than living my life naked and ignorant. I have no regrets. Far from being man’s downfall, I realized that Eve was actually the vehicle God used to make us fully human.

It has been observed that every book an author writes is more or less autobiographical. Lydia is not me of course, but at the same time I do believe if I had lived in her age and had her challenges, I might well have reacted in the same way. I love her passion, her ability to look beyond appearances, and her constant desire to do what is right, to make an impact on the world. Most of all though I love her strength in the face of adversity, and the fearlessness that it took to walk away from what her friends and family believed was a perfect life.

We often read stories about people who conquered impossible odds to achieve great things. This is not that story. Lydia is a woman who faced those impossible odds and ultimately failed to realize her dreams. Despite missing that mark, do not think for a minute that she wants your pity. Her story is about what she gained along the way and the example she left for all women who came after her. One thing for sure that Lydia and I have in common is living a life filled to the brim with joy and laughter, pain and sorrow. A life well lived is after all the best revenge.  

Magic is Afoot

My grandson talks to me in his native tongue, telling me stories from foreign lands. He snuggles close beside my ear to speak sometimes, others he paces back and forth across the room waving his tiny arms in the air, clapping with delight at his own jokes. I laugh, although I do not understand a word he says, but somehow the gist of what he means comes through. I think perhaps I have some ghostly memory of that place from a visit long ago. The words all sound familiar but sit just beyond my grasp. He speaks of rainbows in colors unknown to human eyes after storms made of cotton candy. Other things he tries to explain are much more complicated, things so big I have lost the ability to comprehend them because I have been too long in this solid, almost unwavering world. It is enough that he still knows. Someday soon he will learn how humans speak. Of course, a lot of the magic will be gone by then, but not all. I whisper to him as I rock him to sleep, beg him not to forget entirely. Hold it in your heart sweet baby I say, don’t ever let it go. Just before his eyes close he sighs a baby sigh that sounds very like, “I’ll try”. I kiss his tiny forehead and sing him softly off to his baby dreams.

Dec 2010

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