Travel Memoir Silver Winner: Summer Heat (Upstate NY)

by Kathleen Spivack

He was a child molester.

“He was a child molester,” she suddenly blurted to me, leaning forward. Even now her tone was hushed and horrified. “Imagine, after all these years.” Although it was only ten o’clock in the morning the heat was unbearable already.

“And you didn’t know it?” I asked. I didn’t want to listen to this, yet couldn’t help asking the question. “Didn’t you even suspect it?” I hadn’t seen her since I was fourteen.

“Well, we knew he was an alcoholic, the girls and me. But, no, we didn’t-not till we started to find out things.” She paused, fanning herself. She was a large and comfortable woman, sitting on the verandah in her print dress, knees spread. “How do you ever stand this heat?” she asked pityingly, as I poured the glasses of iced tea. “Don’t you just die here in the city?”

“We started to find out things,” she continued. I had lived with her and her husband for eight years off and on during my girlhood. Eight summers I remembered as idyllic.

When Jean found she and Carl couldn’t have children of their own, they started a foster farm. They were as good at growing children as they were at Swiss Chard. Set in the scrawny foothills of New Hampshire, the small farm was pervaded by the lemony wrinkled smell of chicken shit and chamomile.

We gathered the yellow burred chamomile flower heads for tea. Moved warm hens off warm eggs. Carefully collected in small hands. Jean and Carl created an idyllic life for the nine children who came to them. A cow, a pig, chickens, a garden, a berry patch. A dammed up stream to swim in. A flat-bottomed boat. A girls’ dormitory. A boys’ dormitory. A wood stove, baking bread on Mondays. A old churn. Butter, cheese, milk. Fresh vegetables. It was a time gone by that Jean especially created for us.

On rainy days we girls embroidered pillowslips. We learned cross-stitch, made samplers of burlap with our names on it, and sewed and ironed everything, heating the heavy flat irons on the black surface of the stove. The boys chopped wood and hauled water. We kids were probably “disturbed”, but we didn’t know that then.

One boy cut off his toe with an axe, splitting wood. We went right through his toe. Another had been “in trouble,” whatever that meant. We girls were just “wild”, which seemed to involve a secret yen for nail polish and lipstick and a lot of listening to the Andrew Sisters. Slightly younger, I pretended to be in on it all, humming “Mockingbird Hill” along with the others.

“You kids take care of the farm,” Jean said, as she and Carl drove off in the truck. They were going into town for the movies. “Oh, can we go?” we chorused. But it was a rare adult night-we went to everything else with them. Visiting their families, to the aunt with spinal tuberculosis who gritted her teeth at sudden loud noises or shaking of the floor. To church, school, and the 4H club meetings, for Jean and Carl staffed both church and 4H. In the winters, Carl drove the town basketball team around and Jean took on the Brownie troop as well. Wherever there were kids who needed them.

“We met in New York City,” Carl used to tell us, holding us on his knee after supper, still gathered around the stove. “She was the prettiest thing.” They were both teachers.

“So we moved back here to raise kids and chickens,” Jean laughed. “We wanted each one of you,” she added.  “You kids are precious to us.”

I knew, from a rare moment lying in the uncut grass with Jean, staring at the violet star flowers with their inquisitive centers, that Jean and Carl spent years praying to God for children of their own. Jean had told me, as she plucked at her dress. Carl was out back, putting up fencing with the boys. The older girls had gone to town-I knew why but wasn’t telling. And Jean and I had taken a moment to relax. “We prayed and prayed,” Jean said. “But God wanted us to have you little ones instead.”

I visualized God looking down at them with a pitying womanish face and a shepherd’s crook and felt eminently grateful.

Jean’s large flowered dress smelled of sunlight and sweat-I liked to bring my face against her armpit. “So you see,” she continued comfortably, “that’s how it happened.” She breathed in and out, and I lay next to her, staring into the tangle of flowers and grasses and crunching down on a sweet, white grass stem as I listened. Lying next to Jean was as simple as laying your head up against Linda, the cow, when you were alone in the barn, milking. Linda had the same nostril-crinkling milky smell. “Carl and I truly thank God for his blessings.”

I imagined I could hear a form of loss and sadness in Jean’s voice. But perhaps it was my own. Pressing my face against her, I tried to let the darkness well up inside me, to give myself to the luxury of tears. But like Linda the cow, Jean hardly noticed my emotion. She just lay there ruminating, letting me lie against her side.

The comfort, the coming-home of her body made me open myself and weep. To this day I seek large bodies to lay myself against and simple people with gentle voices and hands.

Jean put her arm around me and the nervous shiver, an eight-year-olds intensity, was quieted. “I love you, Jean.” I snuggled into her armpit, but softly, feeling disloyal to my own parents.

The conflict had made me unable to eat, cramped my stomach. “Let her be,” Jean would say to Carl when he offered me breakfast. “Hot cakes,” he said, waving a huge spatula. “Let her be,” Jean said. She was not betraying my secret that I threw up every morning upon awakening. “That kid’s kind of scrawny and pale,” Carl proclaimed, throwing a fried egg onto a plate. I took a deep breath. I did not run from the table, though the sick-sweat threatened to start again.

“She just wants to get out of the dishes,” Pat prodded. “Let her be,” said Jean. “She’ll be okay.”

And each day, taking a breath after breakfast, I was. After chores we kids were free to play. And Johnny, an older kid, and I took to hanging around together. We would go upstream to fish.

And what we did there, lying among the rivulets and reeds, we never told. Jean, Carl and God would never have approved. But it was sweet, sweet love, among the lazy dragonflies and wild forget-me-nots. Little hot, blue glints of joy.

“Catch any fish?” Jean asked as we trudged back home. We’d taken thick chunks of bread with us smeared to the edge with pale butter. “Five,” Johnny answered proudly, unstringing the speckled brook trout. The pebbled brown green dots on the sides of the fish were already losing their sheen, the fish glazing over, dead.

Sometimes we had no time to fish at all, so inventive and intent was Johnny. And I, well I wanted love in any form. A little girl, I was ripe and eager for it-man, woman or child. Wherever. Whenever.

“Some things never change,” Jean said to me now. “You know you look just the same to me now as you did then. Scrawny. With those big eyes. My heart went out to you.”

We fell silent, twenty years later, remembering how I had come to Jean and Carl. Carsick, throwing up, unable to eat or speak or cry. “I never could tell you how I felt,” I said. We sat on my front porch in August, both staring into my untamed yard. “I never could thank you.”

But if love could be called thank you, I’d thanked her a million times over, pressing my body against hers. That opening-of-self, that giving-up-of-self. That flowing into another-Jean, Johnny-of which the underside is unutterable sadness, yearning, a loss of self and a blending into a larger longing. Yes, I had thanked her always. That love had been the saving of me. As well as my undoing. Both. Forever. Hot and sweet and hurting.

“Tell me the truth, Kathleen,” Jean demanded, suddenly leaning forward. I saw her pale face and now, the unaccustomed intensity of her gaze. “Tell me the truth. Did he ever touch you? Carl, I mean?” And as she sat back against the cushions of the porch sofa, I knew that was what she had come to find out, making the trip down to Washington, leaving the now dry farm, taking the old truck resolutely down roads and twenty years to find me again. “Did he?’”

Her question shocked me. At first I thought she meant Johnny, a firecracker hellion of a boy. I’d sworn never to tell what went on between us. But Carl, with his kind hands, who gentled the animals? Carl, who smiled at us so kindly and let Jean run the show? Carl, who laughed like a kid each August when town baseball teams competed on muleback? Gentle Carl?

“Never,” I told her truthfully. And she sank back, heavy, slouching with relief. “It was the boys,” she said to me significantly. “They found him with boys.” Suddenly I was disgusted, horrified by her pale flesh. I hated her sweating body, her flushed angry look. I’d had my own loves all those years and she’d made this long trip now to take them all away.

“Go home,” I wanted to scream at her. “Go home with your and Carl’s innuendoes. Your divorce. Your troubles. And let me alone with the past!”

But I didn’t. I just sat there in the heat, staring downward miserably. “It’s so good to see you with your own babies, Kathleen,” she said. “I remember how you always used to write stories, even as a youngster.” Jean lifted herself slowly to her feet. “But now I must get home to the animals. And the boys and girls have to get ready for the 4H club fair. You remember the year you won a prize for your goats at the fair?” I nodded. That dear project now seemed so very long ago. Another life.

“Another life,” Jean echoed, pressing my head to her large bosom. I smelled her mixture of soap and sweat. “Will you be okay driving all that way alone?” I asked. “Oh lord, yes,” Jean laughed. “I just had to come see all my children and find out how they were doing.”

“And tell us all about Carl,” I thought with bitterness, even as I waved goodbye to Jean at the end of the driveway. I walked back into the house which was cooler, suddenly dark with sadness. There was a musky spent feeling in the air. Was there no love that would never betray me? I tried a few experimental sobs, like dry heaves. They wouldn’t come, however. Only a knowledge I couldn’t place anywhere.

Those who have been the source of our shelter have no right to their pain. To that lost child I still was, Jean and Carl would forever be beech trees. Philomen and Bacchus. I wanted them now as they once were. Large and quiet and loving. No terror. No sudden ugly surprises. For I’d rested the whole of my life on their comfort and shade.

Kathleen Spivack’s memoir, With Robert Lowell and His Circle: Plath, Sexton, Bishop, Kunitz will be published in 2012 by the University Press of New England. Kathleen came to Boston in 1959 to study with Robert Lowell. The memoir looks at personal friendships and work.

Kathleen’s last book A History of Yearning, Sow’s Ear Chapbook winner, 2010, was awarded the London Book Festival First Prize, among others. Recent work received the Allen Ginsberg Award, the Knightville Poetry prize 2011, The New Guard Review, and is a Pushcart nominee. “The Tolstoi Quartet’s Story” a novella, won the Carpe Articulum 2011 Short Fiction Award.

The daughter of Peter Drucker, this essay,”The Tundra” takes place in the clear air of the Colorado mountains?and the clear air of truth.

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