Friday, March 27, 2009

Discovering the "L Word" in 1963

It was September 1963, and I was a freshman in college. One afternoon there was a tapping on my dorm room door. I opened it and was surprised to see one of the little blonde cheerleader sorority pledges who ordinarily did not give me a second glance, standing there with a look of grim determination on her face. I invited her in. She refused my offer to sit down and launched into what was obviously a prepared proclamation.

"There is a lesbian living on this hall, and we feel that everyone has a right to know. We are going to the bathroom in pairs and carrying sharpened pencils."

"What's a lesbian?" I asked.

She haltingly explained. My inner reaction was a great big "WOH!" I thought I had read everything there was to know about sex, and now this! She left and I sat there thinking about it.
Finally I walked down the hall (no sharpened pencil), and knocked on her door. There was a whole group in there discussing the dire peril we were now facing.

"If a guy were living on the hall we wouldn't automatically assume he was going to attack us, would we?" I asked.

Everyone agreed. He would be another student - someone's brother, someone's boyfriend - and probably harmless.

"I don't know anything about lesbians. I didn't know there was any such thing until just now. Is attacking people part of being a lesbian?" I asked.

There was a silence. Finally, someone said, "I don't know."

Another silence. Then a brave piping voice said, "Well, let's find out."

We walked down the hall together - courage in numbers - and knocked on Marilyn's door.

"It's not locked, come on in." Marilyn was a big farm girl from the Oklahoma panhandle. Her bed was piled high with pink and purple pillows and she was reclining amongst them looking like
a butch version of Elizabeth Taylor in "Cleopatra." We formed a line at the far end of the room.

After an awkward silence Marilyn seemed to be enjoying, one of us quavered, "Is it true you are a l...l...l..."

Finally tired of the preliminaries, Marilyn said, "Yes, I'm a lesbian."

Long silence. Broken by another tiny quavering voice, "Does this are us....?"

Marilyn laughed, and she laughed, and she laughed - big rolling Ha HA HAs that must have vibrated through the entire building. When she could catch her breath she said, "I have a girlfriend who's a total knockout. None of you little chicken legs would stand a chance."

Although this was not exactly a compliment, it somehow just didn't sound mean, the way she said it. Within moments we were all perched around her bed asking a zillion questions about what it meant to be a lesbian and about sex in general, a topic that Marilyn seemed to know much more about than any of us.

We talked for hours. Marilyn's room became a gathering place on our floor. She taught us how to read Tarot cards and took us on a field trip to a gay bar. She showed us how to deliver a solid left hook to drunken, groping frat boys. The sex education she disseminated was accurate and highly practical.

I lost track of Marilyn after college, and I'm sorry for that. At points in your life you're fortunate enough to meet someone who opens vast new horizons. At the time I didn't realize how much courage she had, as a gay teenager in 1963. Thank you, Marilyn, wherever you are.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Millie Paddock's Baby

The Paddocks lived across the street from us in Prunewhip. They were low on the social register, and furthermore they were weird. Mrs. Paddock and her daughter Gladiola went to chiropractors, who were universally considered to be quacks. They had no grass on their front yard and Mrs. Paddock was an indifferent housekeeper. They didn’t know how to manage money and were always going to the Lady’s Aid Society at the First Baptist Church for a bailout. The ladies refused to give them money - you don’t give money to people who are going to run over to Bennington and spend it on a chiropractor. But they would buy them a bag of groceries here and there, because it was the Christian thing to do.
Worst of all, well - I wrote a poem about this:

Old Man Paddock - 1953

Old Man Paddock was a vegetarian and he wrote poetry.
Twice a year he’d get drunk and terrorize the neighborhood,
going from house to house roaring rhymed couplets about
God, Jesus, and beauties of nature.
We’d all lock our doors, pull down the curtains and
huddle inside waiting for it to be over.
It was the next best thing to funerals,
where everyone cried and there was lots of
fried chicken and potato salad

No-one was surprised when the Paddock’s youngest child, Millie, got pregnant at age 16. But here was the shame of it - every once in awhile a young lady of Prunewhip found herself with child out of wedlock. There was a procedure for this. Her parents would take her out of school, early on, because she had to go to Ohio and take care of her ailing grandmother. Then they would spirit her off to the Florence Crittendon Home of Redeeming Love in Burlington. She would stay there until the baby was born, give it up for adoption, and return to life in Prunewhip. These trips fooled no one, but they served to preserve the veil of propriety shrouding all activities that could not be done in the middle of the street in broad daylight. Millie Paddock, however, decided to spend her entire pregnancy at home and keep the baby. Furthermore, her slack-jawed, trifling parents supported her in this decision. They weren’t even ashamed. They sashayed around town going to the store and the post office and the June strawberry festival like they didn’t have a care in the world. This was so scandalous, people walked across the street if they saw Millie Paddock coming in the opposite direction.

At this point my Aunt Cynthia kicked in. She was a rebel, also, in her own way. She smoked cigarettes and never went to church. Nor did she make excuses for not going to church. She never claimed that she had a bad back and sitting in the hard wooden pews gave her blinding pain. She never said that she worshiped God as He is manifested in the grandeur of the natural world. She just stayed home smoking and sewing. She was the town seamstress. Her sewing skills were legendary. She could see a fancy dress hanging in the window of Drysdale’s Department Store in Bennington, go home, cut a pattern out of old newspapers, and make an exact replica of the dress. She could make three-piece suits that fit like a glove, and wedding dresses fit for royalty.

Cynthia was also the magic maker of doll clothes. She saved her scraps and turned them into incredible doll clothes complete with pockets, with little handkerchiefs sticking out of them, with a flower embroidered on the handkerchief. She could make felt hats and red rubber boots for dolls. All year she made these doll clothes and on Christmas eve she’d sneak around town leaving packets of them on little girls’ front doors. She hated thank yous.

Aunt Cynthia also hated gossip. If anyone tried to gossip in her presence she’d cut them off in mid-sentence, saying that none of us were any better than we should be. She did not like what was going on with Millie Paddock. A month or two into the situation she announced to one and all that she was making a layette for Millie Paddock’s baby. Then she went to work on it. I don’t think the Prince of Wales had a better layette than Millie’s baby. She lined a basket with satin and covered the edges with a lace ruffle embroidered with yellow rambler roses. She made a tiny mattress and pillow covered with fine cotton sheets and a pillow case edged with lace. She filled the layette with sacks and shirts and diapers and shawls and all manner of finery such as no one had ever seen before. As the months wore on, people took to stopping by Cynthia’s house just to see the latest addition to this fabulous layette.

When the layette was done she made another general announcement (you only had to announce something to one person in Prunewhip and everyone would know within an hour), as to the day and time when she would deliver this layette to the Paddock household. Sure enough, a small crowd gathered to watch her grand promenade up the Paddock’s front walk, across their creaky porch and through the front door, carrying the magnificent layette.

My Aunt Cynthia enjoyed a great deal of respect in Prunewhip, despite her peculiarities. You could not continue shunning someone Cynthia singled out for such a gift. Millie had a boy, whom she named Ernie. They took their places in the life of the town with no more disapproval than that reserved for any other member of the Paddock clan.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Prayer of St. Francis

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy;
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much
seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Ghosts in Vermont: A True Story

The last time I visited Vermont, I put a glass of little yellow daisies on my grandmother's grave. The glass was a big, thick Ronald McDonald glass I bought at garage sale along the road, for a nickel. It was all I could afford. We had just enough money to make it back to Florida, after a trip to Maine that turned out to be much more expensive than we had anticipated. My grandmother and I had a troubled relationship, and I could imagine her bitter sneer. I visit her grave once in 26 years and bring her wilted field daisies in a McDonald's glass. I tried to put a good spin on it, telling her I just wanted to remind her of when I was six and brought her dandelions sticking out of a milk bottle.

As we walked away from her grave, I looked up and saw an amoeba-shape made out of pure light floating so low in the sky it was well below the tree line. My mind immediately summoned up an image of Ruth Ketcham, an old lady who lived in Prunewhip when I was a little girl. I hadn't actually known her, and had forgotten her very existence for the past 20 years, so it was a surprise to see her so clearly now. She had had a long pointy chin that stuck out from her face like a shelf.

Two days later we went back to the cemetery. My husband wanted to make some rubbings of gravestones dating from the 1700s. I wandered over to my grandmother's grave. To my bewilderment, all the water had drained out of the big glass, which was now crazed into an intricate fissured web I had never seen except in a glass of water that was left outside one bitterly cold winter night. I could imagine nothing that would cause a glass to break in such a way, on this peaceful June weekend. I felt bereft. Was my grandmother still so angry, after all these years, that she pulled off a supernatural act of rejection? If Ruth Ketcham, who had been a tired old Baptist, was drifting through the air as pure light, anything was possible.

That was years ago. Now I think my grandmother was reassuring me about the after life, her and Ruth Ketcham.

After Visiting the Old Cemetery in North Bennington
I heard a woman say to her children,
"Be quiet! You'll wake the dead!"
New England has so many -
Revolutionary war soldiers under
crumbling headstones mottled with lichen,
marble lambs for babies who didn't
make it through the winter,
"Beloved Mothers,"
Old men who finally missed
the morning milking.
They deserve their long
unbroken sleep,
who fought such bitter winters,
got their crops planted and
harvested in such short summers,
never had much to do with.
I knew them,
I too was told not to wake them up.
(boots and corsets gone,
they drift among the buttercups)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Excerpt from The Prunewhip Chronicles

Prunewhip's unswerving devotion to rectitude, duty, propriety - the life and death struggle to be clean, normal, and virtuous at all times - turned everyone into cowering hypocrites.
Children were frequently reminded that God was watching us 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,
and one extra day on leap years. God was watching me when I sat on the toilet reading a Nancy Drew book, picking my nose, and wiping the boogers off underneath the sink. Clearly my relationship with God was ruined. He might be extending love and guidance to other little children, undoubtedly He was, but not to me, or to Dickie Shaw who tried to talk girls into playing doctor with him. Dickie Shaw and I would be in Hell together.
Fortunately there were other chinks in the wall, some involving grownups. Crimes and misdemeanors committed by denizens of Bennington College didn’t count. Those people came from some other planet, and only served as a spectator sport. One professor got drunk on a summer night and sat on his roof playing a guitar and singing "I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now" over and over again. The lucky few who actually witnessed this event told the story over and over again, an almost unrestrained joy shining through their disapproving faces.
But the really interesting deviations arose amongst the townspeople themselves. Only a few were spectacular - such as Mrs. Whitaker’s petrified cat turds, or Mr. Cushman’s descent into madness - these were the Hope Diamonds of local gossip. The lesser gems - the fact that Kaki Peterson’s husband drank, and that Melanie Woodworth spent last summer at the Florence Crittendon Home of Redeeming Love in Burlington, and was not visiting her aunt in Minnesota, as her parents proclaimed. - these were the bits of information which kept people going from day to day.
Some people were outcasts no matter what they did, such as Clover Sweet, the garbage collector who was half Negro and lived alone in a small house in the woods. People praised Clover for doing an excellent job of collecting garbage and always being very polite. He was the most invisible man in town after his garbage route was finished. In all the years I lived in Prunewhip, I can never recall meeting Clover at the grocery store or the post office. Perhaps he had Rural Free Delivery, and drove out of town for groceries and hardware, to some cosmopolitan town such as Albany, 45 minutes away, where other Negros were known to live. It was my personal opinion that Clover was burdened as much by his name as by his ethnic parentage. Normal people had names like Arthur Whitman or Jimmy Beavis. Any guy named Clover Sweet would have been doomed to extinction no matter what. In later years it has occurred to me that Clover may have been a great yogi whose sadhana was to live in the woods in Vermont and collect the garbage of the unilluminated, thus bestowing his blessings upon us and assisting our eventual delivery from Vermont and the 1950s.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Front and Center

1.Immortality In Vermont in 1953

where the TV station
had a program for kids,
Freddy Freihoffer’s Breadtime tales,
one guy with an easel who drew
Freddy and his friends,
while Mom, if there was a mom,
fixed meatloaf, stringbeans, baked potatoes,
a little scoop of orange sherbet for dessert.
When we ran out to the side yard of
stars and fireflies,
drinking in the night like mossy wine,
we never knew we would end as
pictures in a family album,
lined up against Mr. Balmer’s fence in our
jerseys, overalls, and little clodhopper shoes.

2. Easter

Sunday and there she is in front of the new Buick
in a pink dress with a white peter pan collar,
a straw hat with a round humped top, a short brim,
pink ribbon tied under her chin,
same color as the dress,
holding the little pink plastic purse
feminists poets will one day immortalize,
wearing white ankle socks and
patent leather shoes,
safe at this moment,
from overly friendly uncles with whiskey breath,
face stubble like razors against her skin,
from the silent rage of her father,
the too bright smile of her aproned mother.

3. Grandmother

Wears a black straw hat
festooned with plaster cherries,
above a grim face which seems
in retrospect to know
she is being recorded wrongfully,
not the true story.
This blue serge, corseted woman
made love, gave birth to children,
her skin gleaming with sweat,
it’s only later she had to
stand in front of the house
wearing a silly hat.

Old New England Houses

smelled of cedar chests
and lemon oil.
High ceilings,
polished wooden floors,
endless repeating
clusters of grapes
along the walls.
There were no random objects
dropped behind the couch,
jammed into the back of a drawer.
Each thing was known, counted,
laid away in its rightful place.
Although some were mysterious -
a breast pump?
My dead grandfather's
two unsmoked cigars.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

What if Our Struggles Turn Out to be Enough

What if our struggles turn out to be enough
in the end,
long after we’re over winning and losing?
What if the money lasts,
the music, the food, the love?
What if we find ourselves in Bardos of
peace and justice,
when we’re old and hopeless possibilities
off to one side
like leaves of lettuce and slices of tomato?

Woody Guthrie

Woody Guthrie

"I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you

think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing.

Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim too ugly or too this or too that. Songs

that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard traveling. I am out to

fight those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood. I am out to sing songs

that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked

you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to

sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work. And the songs that I sing

are made up for the most part by all sorts of folks just about like you. I could hire out to the

other side, the big money side, and get several dollars every week just to quit singing my own

kind of songs and to sing the kind that knock you down still farther and the ones that poke fun at

\you even more and the ones that make you think you've not any sense at all. But I decided a

long time ago that I'd starve to death before I'd sing any such songs as that. The radio waves

and your movies and your jukeboxes and your songbooks are already loaded down and running

over with such no good songs as that anyhow."

- Woody Guthrie.

Saturday, March 7, 2009


Wild violets grow beneath a lilac tree. They bloom at the same time. Moss on trunks of maple trees, festooned with tiny flowers. I had to put my eyes right up to the moss to see them. Gnarled trunks. Lilies of the valley alongside the house. Indian paint brush, black-eyed susans, daisies, asters and buttercups growing in the fields. Golden rod in the fall - the fields ablaze! A flowering quince - rich and complex, deeply hued, like a bush in a Renaissance painting. A bed of peonies. Flowers planted in order of height: blue bells, forget-me-knots, sweet williams, phlox, and then an honor guard of gladiolas. Dandelions. What symphony....