Life does seem to be sequential and since this book is about life experiences perhaps it should be sequential. I have struggled with that notion for years. The older I get the more life seems to me to be circular made of cycles and spirals of awareness. So it is hard for me to determine where in that circle of awareness to start. But words and writing are linear so it must start. So I will begin with the landscape of my earliest memories and the family into which I was born. Each of us has our own unique beginning, lineage and origins with its unique blessings and challenges.
If you find this beginning too earth bound, too nitty gritty, as I sometimes do, please skip to deeper into the book, or just enjoy the images. In fact I would encourage you, dear reader, to just open it at random and start there and see what it offers you.
So here goes the linear beginning, the origins of this life.
As I look back at my early preschool years the landscape of that first Michigan farm seems just as clear to me today as then, even after more than 70 years. I feel it in my bones, the farm life and nature that surrounded me there.
The out-of-doors landscape is what comes back to mind first, hand pump that was over the well in the middle of the yard, that was too hard for me to pump; the hardly ever-used two-seater outhouse, with its rank, rich composty smell, the regular use of both had been replaced by indoor plumbing. There was a huge walnut tree that spread over the whole yard with its round green baseball sized walnuts when they first fell. Underneath that soft green outer shell was their dark tarry coating that surrounded the deeper treasure of the hard shell encased nut itself.
There was a long stinky low-ceilinged chicken house, where I would go barefoot to collect the eggs, taking great care not to step in the fresh slimy chicken droppings. The tool shed attached to the barn was where my father showed me how to put a stick in the vise and use a rasp to make it into a toy knife, with which I played ‘Indian.’
The dark, cool, dank, somewhat mysterious, milk house that had a big cement tank of cold water in which my father would keep the 30 gallon steel milk cans full of fresh milk from the herd of 12 dairy cows until a milk truck came daily from the dairy to collect them and return the empty ones. The dairy barn itself where the cows came in from the pasture, across the road, for the evening milking and were again milked in the morning before being let out to the pasture again.
The farm of 300 acres on Old Plank Road extended out into the surrounding fields and down to the sixty acre lake in the big pasture across the road, where we would go for swims in the late summer afternoon, picking our way through the mucky hummocks of the swampy approach to the dock, checking for water snakes before jumping into the cool enlivening lake water and paddling around on our old patched car inner tubes.
I am fortunate to have had those very early years there on that farm, where my surroundings, kept calling me into the vibrant life of nature all around me. Being cradled so early by Nature, surrounded and held by and within the Earth Mother’s family, has grounded me in a fundamental perception of safety. My older brothers began life in the very different environment of the affluent suburbs of Detroit. Ironically, I have war to thank for the move that gave me those sweet early years embedded in the natural, more-than-human world.
I was born three months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in ‘41. In the following year, my German immigrant parents retreated from the suburbs of Detroit to the farm.
During the First World War my mother was ten years old. She lived on a large farm in East Prussia, near the Russian border as it started. Her parents raised Trakehner horses for the German cavalry. As the Russians and Cossacks invaded, everyone was told to get on the evacuation train and leave. My mother and her younger brother lost sight of my grandmother as the train left the station. They searched the whole train, but didn’t find her. At the next station, they got off and walked home. They found my grandmother living in a root cellar, not willing to leave the farm. So my mother lived through the invasion hiding out in a root cellar with her mother and kid brother; scrounging food to survive between battles, between the warring armies, sometimes off of dead bodies. She suffered from what we now would call Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome for the rest of her life, but those early traumas didn’t stop her from pushing forward after the war, perhaps they even spurred her on, in her feisty determined way.
Nonetheless her wounding from the war haunted her for the rest of her life. Her deep anxiety, her unpredictable mood swings based in fear not only affected her but were also transmitted on, certainly to my older brother George and also to me in somewhat lesser degree. My middle brother escaped to some degree because my mother was very ill following his birth for a full year, so my parents hired a nanny who my mother described as to extremely laid back and relaxed. I think my brother Ben benefited from that nannies relaxed state and didn’t take on my mother’s anxiety. Of the three of us he was the most relaxed around mother. He didn’t seem to take her unpredictable rages personal or even serious. He found them humorous and frustrating but not terrorizing and terribly self-denigrating as my oldest brother certainly did and I also did but to a lesser degree. By the time I came along, nine years later I think my mother had gained more confidence in herself, was less anxious and was delighted in my birth, both because she had survived it, which she had been told that she wouldn’t and that I was a girl, which was what she wanted. So being the girl she wanted I received from her a kind of devotion, my brother did not.
I have questioned deeply the real cost of war, beyond the loss of life in the battles to the real loss of emotional stability of those who survive bodily. A loss they endure throughout their lives and pass on to their offspring. I feel as a human race we have yet to begin to really consider the enormous cost, generation after generation that is paid in human suffering. The way my oldest brother suffered throughout his life from my mother’s transmission of her wounds from living through the trauma of war as a child. Having seen these effects first hand in those I love deeply, when I think of the billions worldwide who are suffering like this, I find it impossible to understand how anything could be worth war.
As a young woman after the war, my mother worked her way through college and went on to get her master’s degree in mathematics at the University of Berlin. She was not one to give more than rudimentary attention to her appearance, rather plain-looking on the whole, short in stature with light brown hair, except for her lively, bright, light blue eyes. Berlin in the twenties was a hotbed of cutting edge intellectual people, ideas and movements. She met my father there and studied with, the yet little known professor, Albert Einstein.
She later reveled in the fact that this odd professor of hers became so famous. She loved to reminisce around the dinner table or when a friend visited, telling stories of how absent-minded and what we would now call, learning disabled, he was, not able to remember math facts. He had a whole blackboard with the times tables written out on it, which he would refer to, as he needed, for the heady calculus equations he was teaching. Mother was always very proud of her own memory, which she thought of as absolutely meticulously accurate, so this failing of Einstein’s baffled her. Even as she admitted how much she was challenged to follow his incredible fluid ability to navigate the stratosphere of higher mathematical thinking.
One of the stories she most loved to tell was about a time when Einstein had invited his students to come home with him for tea, which she said was customary at the time. When they all got there, he found the door locked. He apologized and said they would have to wait for his wife to arrive. So they all sat down on the steps and the curb, until she came. When she arrived, she asked, ‘Why are you all out here? Why haven’t you gone in?” Einstein responded that the door was locked. His wife said, “Well, unlock the door! The key is in your pocket!” My mother delighted in this story, as if it were proof of his genius. He was so steeped in higher thinking, such mundane things as unlocking a door with the key in your pocket, was not in his realm, she felt. However, when my father exhibited a similar absent-mindedness, as he did at times, she was not so amused.
As this country entered Second World War, my parents moved out of Grosse Pointe, an upper-class suburban neighborhood on the outskirts of Detroit where they had built a house.
The farm they moved to was 30 miles from Detroit. For my mother, this move was motivated by her understandable fear of war. Her fear that if war would come to this country, cities like Detroit would be bombed. At the time she was not happy about living on a farm again, but she was afraid to live in or near a city. For my father it was a professional choice.
As the war effort began, suddenly all engineering required government clearance, which as a German immigrant, he couldn’t get.
A few of years ago after my older brother died, his ex-wife returned to me all the family records he had hoarded. I was surprised to find, in the collection, a letter my father wrote, back then, to a government official. It explained his reasons for leaving Germany; his desire to make it on his own and not to lean on the help of his Nazi father, a prominent successful engineer in Germany; his investment in his life here; his loyalty to and love of this country, obviously in hopes of gaining the needed clearance. Yet that letter was clearly never mailed or delivered.
Instead he made the choice to become a farmer, which I always felt he really enjoyed. He seemed to love the alone time in nature, the silence, the outdoors, and the connection with the soil, the plants, and the animals.
Reading that letter so many decades later was strange. It revealed so much more of my father’s inner feelings than I ever remember him sharing. In my memory he was not one to speak about himself or his inner life, but I always felt in him, an unspoken depth and caring. It was palpable, despite my mother’s anxiety, which often seemed to cast a distrust upon him and his innate depth of Love.
My parents were so distinctly different in temperament and in their way of approaching life. They were an odd couple, to be sure. My mother, short and stout, a constant talker, the ‘life of the party’ with a quick sense of humor, was given to excessive anxiety and worry about almost everything, including her weight, with the ‘everything’ that ‘made’ her worry, being everyone else’s fault. She prided herself on her quickness, the downside of it was her abrupt unpredictable shifts into and out of explosive anger. One memorable occasion happened in her fifties when my brother Ben was doing most of the farming. She flew at him in anger, about some insignificant thing, which such a rage that her dentures flew out of her mouth. She and my brother were both convulsed in laughter for quite a while, after which she had forgotten what precipitated her anger.
My father was handsome, statuesque in his athletic trim height, very soft-spoken and considered in his speech, a bit formal and a bit aloof, but exceedingly gentle of manner, introverted and contemplative. The thing they had in common was their amazing blue eyes.
When my kids were really little and I read them nursery rhymes, the one that went, ‘Jack Sprat could eat no fat, His wife could eat no lean. Together they licked the platter clean’ always reminded me of my parents.
My parents divorced when I was fourteen. During the last years of their marriage, dad was rarely home, but I do remember a particularly special time we had together. In the little village of Salem where we lived on the second farm that my mother bought, every Halloween they had a Halloween parade through the village.
I had from my earliest years acquired a numerous collection of dolls, most very bedraggled and well used, but very precious to me. My dad struck on the idea of “Mother Hubbard who lived in a shoe and had some many children she didn’t know what to do.” Somewhere he got a hold of an old baby carriage and together we spend many hours on weekends that late summer and early fall in the deserted horse barn, with paper mache and other inventive apparatus transforming that baby carriage into a Shoe on wheels to hold my collection of dolls. I mostly watched my dad in amazement as he sculpted it into reality. Such a precious time together. I had no idea then, that it would be our last significant shared experience for many years to come.
Divorce was very rare in those days, not nearly as acceptable or commonplace as now. I think it was exceptionally devastating for both. The terms were rather harsh and dictated solely by my mother, who I now assume wanted most of all to sever all contact, because of the hurt she felt about her perception of what may or may not have been my father’s affair with the women who ended up becoming his second wife, quite a bit later. I have some doubts about the accuracy of mother’s perception, since her closest friend who knew well all parties involved, did not take her side in this perception. My father did not want the divorce, but he did not fight my mother’s terms. My mother’s divorce terms were: no alimony, no child support or child visitation rights. Instead she wanted and got all the farm land, livestock stock, farm equipment, home and buildings. So ironic, since in the beginning it was my dad who wanted to be on the farm, my mother who dreaded it, yet she ended up being the one running the farm for years longer than my dad had farmed. Yet at the core of them both, I believe, was a deep and passionate love of the living soil, the Earth herself and all She nourishes.
We each come from a unique precious lineage, with its own gifts and debts passed on to us. In our culture I wonder if we are not often more possessed in our attention with stars on TV or in movies than we are to our own family of origin, with its hidden deficits as well as treasures. I have benefited in recent years from giving mine more attention. Receiving insight into their unresolved patterns still at work in my life and releasing them.