Families are somewhat like planetary systems. In a certain terrain and atmosphere, the members develop and evolve based on the resources available. It seems to me, after all these years, that it’s impossible to understand the deep inner nature of anyone without understanding these elements of the family “planet”.
My parents were divorced when I was a baby. Actually, they were separated before, and my father’s family talked my mother into going back with my father, even going to the extent of offering her “financial security for life” if she did so.
My father had been one of a set of adored and indulged fraternal twins: Jack and Fred. Jack, my father, had black hair, olive skin and dark eyes. Fred had red hair, pale skin and blue eyes. Their parents were well to do, established in the drug business, and involved in politics to some extent as various family members held assorted offices, backed often by my paternal grandfather’s money. Keeping the family “face” was an important issue even if there were rumors that Tom Knight had made most of his money running rum from the Bahamas during Prohibition.
However he made his money, he spent it liberally on his children. And, judging by the letters and documents I inherited when my father died, he also spent a great deal of time with his children. There are endless pictures of them on family outings, hunting or fishing, dressed in their matching sporting clothes, or riding clothes, or standing with displays of long stringers of huge fish.
One rather infamous story about the twins and their escapades provides insight into the forces at play in their development. Accompanying this story is a series of newspaper clippings, because it involved a prank truly larger than life, just like my father.
The first, from a local paper, is headlined: “Seven Boys Rescued From Florida Swamp Tell Story of Torture By Three Men“. The competing newspaper printed a similar story headlined: “Harrowing Experience: 7 Lost Boys“. The lurid writing style is more like what we’ve come to expect in weekly tabloids, but the story it relates is truly hysterical.
“Scores of Plant City citizens spent Sunday recuperating from an experience that but few have had to endure,” the lead paragraph begins. “They had spent the greater part of the previous night wading and sloshing about in the treacherous swamps of the Hillsborough River, seeking rescue of seven Plant City boys ranging in age from ten to near thirteen years. …
“The youngsters were members of a Sunday school camping party who spent Friday night on the north border of the great Hillsborough river swamp … and the story relative to their predicament was of such nature to at once arrest the attention of anyone. The search lasted until 6:15 o’clock Sunday morning, when one of the posse came upon the youngsters reclining on a long log two miles from the nearest road and more than a mile from the outer recesses of the great swamp, so dense in this particular region that only the pioneer, or old-timer accustomed to penetrate it, could be expected to “pass inside its portals” with reasonable expectations of getting out without assistance.
“The seven lost boys were Jack and Fred Knight, twin sons of Mr. and Mrs. Tom J. Knight [the other boys were listed].
“They, with ten other boys, were guests of Justice of the Peace Garland M. Branch, the outing being tendered by Mr. Branch in recognition of their good attendance at Sunday School.
“All went fairly well until Friday night, when [one of the boys] met with an accident. [He] stumbled while being chased by some of his camp-mates and fell partly into one of the campfires, sustaining painful burns on the wrists and chest. Mr. Branch immediately brought the lad home, where he could receive medical attention …
“It had been planned that the party would break camp near noon Saturday, and with that end in view, Mr. Wells [the Sunday School worker left with the boys while Mr. Branch was in town with the injured boy] departed for home, in a Ford car, about 11 o’clock, bringing four of the smaller boys. Soon after that, Mr. Branch, in another car, left for Plant City bringing three other lads, the understanding being that the nine still at camp would remain there until a truck arrived to bring in the tents and other paraphernalia, and the nine boys were to return on the truck.
“Within a few minutes after Mr. Branch departed, three young men who had been camping at a small house about a quarter of a mile away, where the Plant City party had secured water during their stay in the woods, approached the boys. The men had been drinking, it was said, and had a rifle and some revolvers which they removed from their car when they stopped at the boys’ camp-site. The men were decidedly boisterous, it was said …
“The youngster and his companions were ordered into the open at the point of pistols and then told to dance. When one of the youths stopped from sheer exhaustion, the men shot at his feet and demanded that he continue. After dancing for some time, the youth was seized and a bottle containing what he thought was whisky was pressed against his lips and he was forced to swallow. Attempts were made, young Knight said, to force liquor into the mouths of the other boys.
“Fred Knight, his brother Jack [and the others] were forced to flee into the swamps because they feared for their lives … leaving a note “Gone to Plant City, Fl, Threatened” behind.”
As you might guess, subsequent accounts were equally melodramatic. The next one, headlined “Men Who Drove Boys Into Swamps Known, Will Be Prosecuted,” had this gem in it:
“While medical aid was being administered to the seven boys of the First Baptist Sunday School of Plant City who, Saturday night, were driven into the dense swamps around Lake Thonotosassa by the threats of drunken revelers … the fathers of four of the youngsters were in conference with Sheriff L. M. Hiers … the men said to have threatened the boys are said to have had their identities established, and warrants probably will be sworn out for their arrest today on charges of having liquor in their possession.”
Now, remember, this was during Prohibition. Never mind that he might have made money on liquor, my grandfather was outraged that his own children would be assaulted by anyone and forced to drink “demon rum!” As it turned out, of course, he had to eat a lot of crow. The men were arrested with the following headline: “Arrest Is Taken as Joke By Youthful Trio Accused Of Attacking Boy Campers.”
“Smiling and apparently unconcerned at charges filed against them, three of the four young men implicated in an alleged malicious assault on a group of Plant City boys … were placed in the Hillsborough County Jail late yesterday afternoon.
“The prisoners, C. Hill, H. Bryan, and H. Hill … were taken into custody yesterday . … Upon their entrance in the jail the youths regarded the matter as a joke and did not appear worried by their plight. They submitted to a search in a jovial manner and expressed surprise when they were led to a cell. It was their first experience behind bars, they said, and it was not until they had been in confinement several hours that their jubilant spirit waned and smiles were replaced by troubled brows and tear-dimmed eyes.
At this point, the newspaper accounts end, because the truth came out. What really happened: the innocent boys, led by ringleaders Jack and Fred, had set up the whole plot. They maneuvered to be “left behind”, having made arrangements to buy whiskey from the three men during one of their trips to get water for the campers. They had dreams of being the new Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.
Of course, they didn’t expect to get found so quickly, lolling in their drunken state on a log in the swamp. And, they most certainly did not expect 200 people who searched for them in the muck, in the rain, all night, to get so serious about it all that they’d actually demand to arrest the fellows who had been their source of liquor!
Finally the boys told the real story, and apparently provided proof they’d been paid for the liquor out of the well-lined pockets of my father and his equally rapscallion brother.
This was just a precursor to Jack’s later escapades. As he grew older, my father was devoted to proving that he was the champion drinker of the county. He was also dedicated to driving faster than anyone in his crowd. In his early twenties, home on leave (he was a chemist in the Navy), his arm was broken so badly in a car crash that numerous operations were required to reassemble it in normal conformation. He recovered from other, nearly fatal, injuries, but during the course of these surgeries and intermittent recovery periods, he became addicted to morphine.
Remember: his father was in the drug business.
Well, dear old Dad, not to miss any opportunity, decided to “reform” his life, use his Navy training, and go into the drug business with his father. And the addiction was covered up for a very long time.
My mother Alice enters the scene at this point. She was quite a bit younger than he was. The heroic figure he presented as star football stud of the county school system was part of the charm he used to seduce as many young girls as possible. As a freshman, Mother thought he was the hottest and most dangerous guy in town. But by the time she was out of high school, he was in the Navy, out of sight and mind, and Mother married someone else.
One day, after his recovery from many surgeries, they literally ran into each other, crossing the street in opposite directions. Apparently, it was a stunning event for both of them, because they immediately decided to go to a nearby cafe for lunch, and by the time they finished dessert and coffee, Mother had agreed to divorce her husband and marry my father.
And she did.
This may seem either very romantic or very foolhardy. But it brings us back to the idea of families as planetary systems. My father’s family was rather proud, claiming (as many do) to be descended from royalty. In later years, when searching for clues to my own internal make-up, I discovered that one of the Knight men had married a woman descended from the noble De Ferrieres. This was the only provable link. But I also discovered something else. The Knights, along with a select group of other families, were frequently consanguineous, marrying cousins to cousins, uncles to nieces, and so forth down through the generations. It was almost as though they had a kind of internal mandate to combine and recombine their bloodlines, with an occasional infusion of “new blood” from time to time. Some theorists would suggest this was a risky practice; perhaps so. But, by and large, they were powerful personalities, pioneers, with many successes to their credit even if few of them ever managed to become more than a “big fish in a little pond”. Genealogy articles I’ve discovered about some of my forebears in this line say things like:
Mr. and Mrs. Knight became the ancestors of a large and influential family connection of South Florida where most of the Knight children lived and died. Samuel Knight was an influential man in his day.
This Samuel was my great-great-great-grandfather. About his son, it was written:
Jesse Knight was a local preacher in the Methodist Church, and did much work in this section in establishing and developing churches.
Another, written on the death of my great-grandmother, Martha Collins Knight, tells us:
The passing of Martha Ann Collins Knight removes one of the few remaining links between the present and the long-distant past when the lives of the pioneers were silhouetted against the rugged skyline of frontier days.
She was married to William Samuel Knight …in what was one of the most elaborate events of the time … Mrs. Knight was fond of recalling that more than 100 persons, nearly everyone in the area, attended . … The young bride and groom moved into the ancestral home in 1872, and there began to rearing of their family of 11 children …
One of these eleven was my grandfather, Thomas Jefferson Knight. The article fails to mention that William Samuel’s grandfather was Martha Ann’s great-grandfather. He married his niece.
The American progenitor of this line of Knights apparently was a Quaker who came to the New World in 1682 with William Penn. God, Freedom, Intelligence and Courage were highly valued in this pioneer, mini-empire building milieu. They went from Pennsylvania and Quakerism to travel to Virginia, where they paused to fight in the Revolution; and then southward, generation by generation, acquiring land and producing large families, usually at the expense of the women of the line, who died in childbirth with alarming regularity.
My father Jack Knight was undoubtedly one of the most talented of his line. He was a voracious reader, a gifted artist, and could discourse with brilliance on many subjects. His best friends were doctors, judges and politicians, many aided in their careers by my grandfather. But Jack became an addicted, self-indulgent playboy who ran through his inheritance until he was left to live on the charity of the family. They continued to pay for his excesses, hoping that no one would notice him. With every advantage of brains, family, resources and connections, the terrain of the family planet, he ended his life drunk and practically homeless.
What went wrong? What noxious vapors did he breathe that stunted his potential?
I had many conversations and written correspondence with him in the last few years before his death. I found him to be entirely contemptuous of those who live their lives on the surface. To him they were hypocrites and liars and bombasts. Was his retreat into addiction as much a reaction to some realization about the world that was too painful to bear, as a need for relief from physical pain?
Today, I can only conjecture. At a crucial time when events could have played out one way or another, my mother had a strong presence in his life. There are some people who are so toxic that when you are in their presence you really need to put on a “Haz-Mat” suit for handling noxious materials. Mother was such a one. But, as always, even in her case, there is a reason for such twisted growth.
My mother’s family planet was quite similar in terrain, but with an altogether different “atmospheric mixture”. This “air” we breathed was the product of several converging lines. Each contributed something to the mixture that became, in a sense, psychic poison. Those who breathed it either died psychically, or mutated to adapt. And, as geneticists know, mutations may be beneficial, but more often they are detrimental.
The first records of the Meadows line appear in head right grants by the Governor of the Jamestown Colony, dated 1636. The name was “Meades” originally, but years of spelling as pronounced in various accents produced two lines: the Meadows and the Meadors.
In 1694, John Meadows married his stepsister, a daughter of Henry Aubrey, creating a rift in the family which suggests that the Meadows’ perspective was not so accepting of consanguinity as the Knights. Most children of this union left Virginia, moving gradually westward to Iowa, some making the trek to Florida in search of more land and opportunity. Earlier generations converted to Quakerism; some were penalized for refusing to fight in the Revolution. In Iowa, one branch split from the Quakers, going west and becoming converts to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the Mormons. The other branch became Methodist and traveled to Florida. My great-grandfather followed the family tradition of becoming a minister of the Gospel by attending a Methodist seminary.
There must have been at least a brief sojourn in Georgia, because Great-grandpa married Leila, a daughter of the Georgian Hugh Murdoch of Clan McRae, a legendary family of fierce fighters who never had a clan chief because no single branch would submit to any other in terms of ascendancy.
Curiously, Leila was descended on her mother’s side from the same Knights of my paternal ancestry. And maybe that’s a clue, because something was unusual about Leila – a tendency to depression. The record from the Florida Conference Archives of the Methodist Church tells the story rather coldly:
“Schuyler Grant Meadows admitted into FL Conference on trial (probationary membership) in Jan.1891; was ordained a deacon and admitted in full connection in Jan 1893; ordained an elder Jan 1895. In 1899 transferred to South Georgia Conference and was appointed to Bibb [County]. That same year he was tried for immorality and expelled from the conference.”
What in the world happened?
It took many years of hearing faint rumors and patient piecing together of the evidence to discover that Great-Grandpa sinned in a way that was unacceptable to his society and time, and the noxious vapors that were produced had a profound effect on the family atmosphere.
Assigned to a new church in Georgia, SG, as some of the family refers to him, left his wife and four children in Florida while he went to establish a new position and a new life for his family in Georgia. What he didn’t count on was coming face to face with a different destiny. Great-Grandpa, a solid, righteous, and dedicated minister, essentially “ran off” with the choir director, Mary Alice Wimbish, of his new church. Did they have an affair as rumored, or did SG attempt to maintain two families at once, or did he ask his first wife for a divorce? We don’t know. But Leila either put a gun to her own head or hanged herself (I heard two versions of the story). She left four little girls motherless, and the event and its results cast a long shadow of secrets over three generations.
As it happened, the four little girls would soon be fatherless as well. The legendary McRae Clan descended upon SG with all the fury of the Highlands from which they had departed only two generations before. They took the children, but left SG alive, with a warning that if he ever tried to contact his girls again, they would take his life as well.
Four lost little girls, tainted by adultery, lies and violence.
What could SG and Mary Alice have felt about this ending to their adultery? How does a person deal with such guilt? How do they face a world that has collectively consigned them to a realm “beyond the pale” of acceptable society? Did SG blame Mary Alice for the destruction of his life and career? Did she blame him for the hardships suffered in the loss of social cachet? Were the fires of passion extinguished in the icy water of cold, hard reality?
We don’t know the answers to those questions because the social cover-up dynamic went into operation. But it seems that, even though they moved to a new “neighborhood,” the rumors followed. In this atmosphere, my grandfather was born: first child of the defrocked preacher and the disgraced choir director; a child born of condemnation and adultery, ever after to bear the burden of this shame. (Curiously, Mary Alice was a distant cousin to Leila connected through the Knight lines also.)
In later years, Great-Grandpa was partially reinstated into the Methodist Church. He was given a church, but never an official “appointment”. And one family member noted about him:
“He was a wonderful man, respected in the community, and preached fiery sermons accompanied by pounding on the pulpit to make his points. When he prayed, it was lengthy and sometimes another sermon. He was tall and lean with gray hair and a handsome gray mustache. He taught the adult Sunday school class at Riverview church when I was growing up there. I remember during the service at prayer time he always rested his head on his arms on the pew in front of him.
“… Behind [his] house was a magnificent garden which, with his nurturing care, produced enough fresh vegetables to supply many friends and relatives.
Half a mile down the road was his orange and grapefruit grove. He tended it by pruning, hoeing around each tree and fertilizing at the proper time. He was a very hard worker in his fields, toiling from dawn to dusk. He was an equally hard worker in God’s fields, nurturing and harvesting people for Jesus Christ. … At Sunday dinner after church, he insisted on taking the chicken wing and neck, saving the choice pieces for others. Humbling himself was his way of life.”
I try to imagine the environment of guilt, secrecy, shame and self-abnegation in which my grandfather and his two brothers were brought up. It is pretty clear from later evidence and observation that my great-grandparents spent the rest of their lives trying to live up to an impossible standard of moral rectitude as atonement for their sins.
In 1944, Great-Grandma died of uterine cancer, 22 years after giving birth to a Down’s Syndrome child who lived only four years. My grandmother, who attended her in the final days, told me that Great-Grandma had often been mean and vindictive toward Great-Grandpa, and that she “paid for it” with unimaginable suffering at the end. (God only knows what atmosphere she had breathed as she grew up.)
The point is: my maternal grandfather was probably conceived in an act of adultery by two people who were deeply inculcated in the faith of their church and the society of their time. It’s possible that a pregnancy, incontrovertible proof of infidelity, triggered the suicide of Leila. If so, it is not hard to imagine the atmospheric pressure placed upon my grandfather as he grew up. The first three years of a child’s life are crucial in establishing a sense of relationship to the world and all within it. Those three years in the life of this child, after such a series of events: what must they have been like?
Yet his two younger brothers, born three and thirteen years after the scandalous events, experienced an entirely different atmospheric pressure. There was a sense that my grandfather, for some inexplicable reason, was not quite “part of the family”. He unconsciously took the role of scapegoat, the sin-bearer on their behalf.
Grandma also grew up breathing poisonous vapors. Her grandmother was a Pearce, descended from Henry “Hotspur” Percy of Shakespearean fame. This great-great grandmother of mine was actually the product of two very long royal lines that had intertwined consanguineously so many times that it’s a wonder that any of them were sane. Lots of them weren’t. The epithet “Hotspur” could have applied to many. The Pearce family left Rhode Island due to a scandal involving a rich and merry widow, made their way to North Carolina and then settled in Georgia.
The role of genetics in the development of the personality complex is comparable in importance to early environment. Historic accounts of my forebears have illuminated the internal make-up of my immediate family as well as my own. There is little difference between “Royal” families and all others, except for a certain “force” of being that manifests from time to time. And when it does, you can find a great Saint or the most heinous of Sinners. In researching these family histories I soon realized Sinners far outnumber Saints. To claim distinction by virtue of descent is problematical at best. For the most part, they are people I would be embarrassed to know, and most definitely would not invite into my home!
In Georgia, a union between the Pearces and another interesting line, Mazel, produced my great-great grandmother. The family moved to Florida to escape the censure of yet another scandal in which a young man was beaten to death by the “Mizelle and Pearce boys”. God only knows how many family skeletons I have yet to uncover!
My grandmother was virtually orphaned at the age of five when her father died of tuberculosis. Her mother, Laura Eugenia (after whom I am named), under the influence of “modern thinking” inspired by Florence Nightingale, sought her independence as a trained nurse after her husband’s death. My grandmother was left in the care of “Aunt Lizzie,” Laura Eugenia’s sister.
Aunt Lizzie was the archetypal “wicked stepmother”. She put my grandmother to work to “earn her keep” as a servant in her house. I rather doubt that she let her sister know this was the state of affairs. Grandmother was so grief-stricken at the death of her beloved father and the break-up of her family, she never wanted to burden her mother with tales of woe on the rare occasions they were together.
My grandmother was a beauty who matured early, and Aunt Lizzie perceived a threat in such an attractive and “biddable” young woman in her own household. So she hatched a plot to get rid of her. Yeah, I know this sounds like a Victorian melodrama, but it really happened! On one of Aunt Lizzie’s frequent New York shopping excursions, to maintain her fashionable image as the wife of a prominent architect and 33rd degree Mason, she kindly invited my grandmother along. Aunt Lizzie had been working on my grandmother in a manipulative way to convince her the right thing to do for her family would be to go into a workhouse in the city. Aunt Lizzie knew a man who owned a china factory, and this was where my grandmother was “put out to work”.
She was to be trained to paint designs on expensive dishes. I actually have a piece that she painted for practice during this episode of her life. She was only twelve years old. The story is a bit unclear because it was too painful for my grandmother to talk about casually. Yes, Aunt Lizzie left this child in New York City alone to make her own way. I never thought to ask what cover story Aunt Lizzie told when she returned sans Grandma, but knowing Aunt Lizzie, it was a doozie!
But it’s sometimes ironic how such plots get exposed.
Apparently my grandmother attracted the attention of a German gentleman named Mr. Ernst, who was touring the china factory art department with the owner. I don’t think he realized how young my grandmother was, and I don’t think that she realized how young she was either, at least not in legal terms.
Nevertheless, Mr. Ernst took Grandma under his protection and, as far as I can determine, may even have arranged a marriage with her, however illegally, and brought her back to Florida to visit her family. And there all Hell broke loose.
Aunt Lizzie’s perfidy was exposed and she was disgraced; her husband, Uncle Fred, the high level Mason-with-connections, took charge of the situation. It turned out Mr. Ernst was connected to the German Kaiser by blood, and there was a strong anti-German sentiment in America at the time. Using his influence, Uncle Fred made sure that Mr. Ernst was taken into custody as a possible spy. The marriage was annulled and Grandma was returned to the bosom of her family, a lovely but now tarnished rose.
A few years later: enter my grandfather.
Grandpa was another who was physically mature at an early age. Inspired by the call to arms at the beginning of World War I, he lied about his age and joined the army. He was assigned to E Company of the 314th Engineers. He was a veteran of the St. Mihiel Offensive, an intense three-month period of combat that included the Battle of Verdun, forcing the German line across the Meuse River and the takeover of the railway that ran from Metz to Mezieres.
This historic offensive dealt a paralyzing blow to German forces and essentially ended the war. On the morning of the 11th day of the 11th month, at the 11th hour, the time set for the cessation of hostilities arrived.
I have read lengthy accounts of the amazing work of Grandfather’s Army engineering unit and I can barely comprehend how he survived with his sanity intact. Perhaps he did because he had someone to come home to: my grandmother. His cards and letters to her from Europe during the war reveal deep love and hopes for their future together.
But is love enough?
The experience of war had a profound effect on Grandpa, as it does on any man who has marched away, smiling with patriotic fervor, to kill their fellow human beings. Men may look the same when they return, assuming they haven’t lost any limbs or other body parts, but they are never the same again. How could Grandma, with her own narrow view of the world, as well as her own scars of the soul, have the capacity to heal him? And how could they heal each other when both were so wounded?
Grandpa suffered all his life from the physical and psychological effects of this journey to Hell and back. But his war experience gave him compassion, even though it was difficult for him to express his kindness in words. After he died, I found dozens of letters among his papers, many from unknown people writing to thank him for his sponsorship of their endeavors, his gifts of cash or material goods that helped them over a difficult time, as well as requests for him to stand as godfather for half-a-dozen or more babies. I have the idea that he tried to help others as a vicarious way of trying to save himself.
After the war, Grandpa applied for veteran’s assistance and obtained a loan to open a mechanic’s shop.
He studied engineering at night school, earned a degree and certification, and ultimately gained recognition in his field, employed by some of the largest corporations in the United States.
In the Depression, while my father was cooking up his Tom Sawyer escapade in the local swamp, Grandpa was the backbone of his own family and those of his in-laws as well. He was unstinting in generosity to others who would not have had food on their tables except for his willingness to forego luxuries for his own family, to ensure there would be enough for all. But he never talked about his gifts. I found the cancelled checks and bank drafts of those days to testify to his generosity.
I try to imagine how two people with such deep scars interacted in the early days of their marriage. Obviously, Grandma needed a father and emotional attention that Grandpa was unable to give. He was so psychologically stunned that he could function only within the framework of hard work habits instilled in him as a child. His parents had turned to work to assuage their guilt; so Grandpa worked to ameliorate his pain.
And this was the atmosphere into which my mother was born. Her mother was emotionally needy, her father was emotionally switched off, and she became, in effect, psychological “food” for both of them.
The first three years of a child’s life are crucial, and the first “earthquake” on this specific family planet occurred when my mother was only two years old.
My grandmother was in labor with her second child and everything was wrong. The baby was too big to be delivered naturally. The baby’s head emerged, but the shoulders were too large. It was too late to do a Caesarian section. It’s not an uncommon story for women throughout history. In similar situations, millions have died. In later years, only one could be saved: the child or the mother. To give life to the infant, the mother must be butchered; to save the mother, the baby must be decapitated, the body removed in pieces with a meat hook. That is really no choice at all.
Yet the doctor presented it to my grandfather. And he chose.
The dead baby had weighed 15 pounds.
Even though she was given anesthesia, Grandma knew enough of nursing to know what had been done. She nearly lost her mind. And she never regained her health. One day, 50 years later, she told me what had really happened. The doctor had listed this as a “live birth,” and the family was told that the baby lived one day and died. “What else are you going to say?” my grandmother told me with resignation. Today’s ideas on malpractice would have given her at least some compensation. But back then, you just didn’t do things that way.
The poison released into the family atmosphere by this event made my mother an emotional orphan. Well, maybe not completely: she had her grandmother Laura Eugenia, the nurse, who became more of a mother figure than her own natural parent was able to do. In fact, she called her grandmother “Mama,” and never addressed my grandmother with this affectionate term.
But, the tectonic plates of this family planet kept shoving against one another until the next small shift resulted in a nonlinear “pop” that produced a major cataclysm.
When Mother was four years old, her grandmother Laura Eugenia remarried after twenty years of widowhood. The groom, Mr. Reed, solemnly vowed to love, honor and cherish Great-Grandma Laura till death. In the midst of family secrets and lies, this at least was true. Two years was all it would last.
Enter Aunt Lizzie, arriving for regular visits with the couple for the duration of their brief marriage. No one knows what sick and destructive gossip Aunt Lizzie the manipulator may have whispered to Mr. Reed.
On June 13, 1927, Mr. George M. Reed shot his wife, Laura Eugenia, while she was peeling peaches in the kitchen, and then turned the gun on himself.
My mother was not quite six years old.
No one could tell her what happened, to explain the loss of her mother, the most important person in her life. The entire family was inculcated into habits of keeping secrets. How does a child who needs love and affection and a feeling of security and stability respond to the lack of all of these? And parents cannot give this love and feeling of security when they are emotionally shut down because all their own experiences of love end in tragedy and disaster.
I would imagine this child could believe that she was, of all things, not worthy of love. And then, she might feel that giving love was a very dangerous thing, and decide that she must never love anyone again. Further, she might believe that she had been very, very bad, that she was in some way responsible for the loss of love and attention in her world. The only way to atone for her guilt would be to seek out situations where she could be “punished” by others.
When the family atmosphere is so thin because it exists on a high mountain of scars and wounds and lies and secrets, there is little possibility of healthy emotional development. A human being is like a tree in this sense, and on very high mountains, trees cannot grow. All is stunted and deformed.
And so it was. Another lost little girl.
What happens to such a child? She has material goods, freedoms and privileges too bold for her age, too much responsibility too soon. Her parents compensate this way because they cannot show love.
We see Jack and Alice at the lunch counter, laughing and talking. They’ve found each other. Soon they will plan their marriage made in heaven.
My mother Alice knew Jack’s bad reputation for being a wild one. Now he’s learned his lesson through tremendous pain and suffering. He has changed his life, he’s in line to take over the family drug business. All of that “bad boy glamour” packaged into an up and coming figure of the local social scene! What a catch! Thrills and chills and excitement ahead!
They had great fun for a few years. When my brother Tommy was born, as Jack told me in later years, “I was a changed man when I became a father.” The old photographs actually show him with a stunned look on his face. But Mother, in our baby pictures, just looks lost.
Mother told us that Jack refused to quit drinking and be a parent. And for years that was all I knew. But his version, revealed to me later, was quite different. He claims that he tried to get himself off the morphine, and to quit drinking, but every time he did, Mother would throw a curve ball, and all his good intentions would go out the window. How do two people relate when one is wounded by loss and abandonment and the other by indulgence?
Maybe the addict always has a reason that he “didn’t have a chance”. There is a very complex and subtle two-step dance in the psychology of addiction, with two partners fully involved. But the family dynamics of addiction are merely a background noise in this family.
What did Mother want?
Studying her patterns of behavior and manipulation in later years, it is rather clear that she unconsciously set Jack up for a fall so that he would abandon her; that was what she knew. He never knew what hit him. He never married again, and you could even say that he probably drank himself to death from a broken heart. I can guess that Mother pushed all of Jack’s emotional buttons, manipulating him into situations where overcoming his addiction was doomed to failure, all the while making sure that everyone could see what a martyr she was for putting up with this kind of situation. What is saddest of all is how she manipulated the two families.
I am still asking “why?” and the only answer I have ever managed to find is that, on the surface, she just had two main requirements: avoidance of boredom and abandonment. I think that the former was closest to her consciousness and manifested in selfish manipulations to get her way in all things, even if pretending that she was making a great sacrifice. The abandonment part was more unconscious, and was the inevitable result of all her actions. No matter what she said or thought consciously, when anything positive manifested in her life, she made decisions that destroyed it and drove people who loved her away. Perhaps it was fear that if she got too close, someone would die as her Mama did.
Unfortunately, those who loved her, or were connected to her in any way, suffered as well. Perhaps they were the only ones who really suffered, because Mother never seemed to suffer at all. She made the same mistakes over and over again. For a long time, I wondered if she was mentally deficient, like an idiot savant who seemed intelligent but had some serious deficiency in mental processes. But I finally realized that unconscious need to be abandoned was the inner driver of her make-up.
She set Jack up to be the drunken, drug-addicted “fall guy,” took her baby and left.
This is where we came in.
The whole family wanted to “cover it up” and definitely did not want the scandal of divorce, the small town social and political implications, the prominent memberships in churches, lodges, clubs at risk on both sides. An enormous amount of pressure was put on Mother to return to her husband, and try to “make a go” of it. Strings were pulled, visits and negotiations were made, and, in the end, she agreed to give it another try. This didn’t last long, but nevertheless, I was the result. And Mother won the martyr role for her efforts.
Mother was a master of working with the tools at hand. She’d named my brother Tom after both of his grandfathers (and father), and then made much of the fact that I was “almost” born on my maternal grandfather’s birthday. So she had the perfect means of getting whatever she wanted: Grandchildren. With great care she inserted us into their lives like anchors, and I can’t say I regret that. Without our grandparents, there is no way to imagine what life with Mother would have been like.
And later on I imagined what life would have been like if the ties to our father and paternal grandparents had not been so effectively cut by Mother.
Because, of course, we had two sets of grandparents. It is clear that grandchildren for the Knights meant contact with my father and so Jack and his parents must be cut out of the picture at all costs.
I know that my grandparents went to their graves believing my mother had told them the truth about the Knights. They acted based on what they believed: whatever Alice told them. They had to believe what she told them because they had a vested interest in believing. Alice made sure of that.
What my grandparents were told, and what my brother and I believed for most of our lives was this: since we were the only grandchildren of the paternal grandparents, they were determined to try to control our upbringing, if not obtain outright custody. Mother had convinced Grandpa that the Knights would even steal us if they could. At the same time, she created an environment of extreme concern on the part of our maternal grandparents regarding our safety in the care and presence of our addicted father. Jack, drinking in despair at the break-up of his marriage, didn’t realize he was playing exactly the part that Mother had scripted for him. We must be protected from the Evil Knights at all costs!
Naturally she didn’t create such a complex situation all at once. It required a couple of years of careful, slow manipulation. I have only a few memories of the times we were able to spend with our father and his parents.
The first memory is of my father coming to take me somewhere. I was sitting in my high chair. Jack sat down and began to feed me, and I can still remember the love in his face as he sailed the spoon through the air toward my mouth!
My paternal grandparents had a huge Great Dane named Dutch. I was both frightened and fascinated by this big dog. My father would take my hand and let me walk up to Dutch, pet him and sit on his back. I never felt afraid as long as my father was with me.
So, there we were: two little kids at the center of what could turn into an ugly legal battle. After consulting an attorney they decided that, in this case, possession was the proverbial nine-tenths of the law, and my maternal grandfather wanted us to be removed to a place where we were safe from any alleged legal maneuvers of my father’s wicked family.
Grandpa was a consultant for Georgia Iron Works in Augusta, Georgia, so we three moved in with my grandparents there. My grandfather’s connections helped my mother get a post as secretary to the Chairman of Georgia Pacific.
While Mother worked at Georgia Pacific, she met a man who was often present in her boss’s office doing “business”. This man owned thousands of acres of orange groves in Florida and other business interests.
Then Mother’s boss died suddenly. What the details are, I don’t know, but Mother was singularly obstinate in her refusal to talk about this. One of the outcomes of the death of her employer was that mother left Georgia Pacific to go to work for this other man. We were moved into a house in Kissimmee, near Orlando.
Being back in Florida meant, of course, that our father could visit us. And he did, regularly.
There is an old photograph from this time of me in a little Western outfit consisting of a “cowgirl” skirt, hat and vest. In the photo, I am wearing my Mary Jane shoes, but I originally had a pair of very snappy boots to go with the outfit.
My father had taken me out to buy this outfit, and a complete Western suit for my brother as well. I remember I was so happy! I loved those boots. They were shiny and smelled good and felt just right on my feet. They also made an important sound when I walked. After buying them, I was allowed to put them on right away and I walked down the street with my father in my new boots and cowboy hat and I just knew I was special! Holding my father’s hand, I was somebody! And that is how my father made me feel.
Sometime later, I lost one of the boots at the house where we lived with Mother. When my father came to pick us up, I wanted to wear them. He helped me look, but the other boot was nowhere to be found. I began to cry because I was absolutely sure that I had put them away in the closet. He picked me up and told me not to cry, that we would go right out and get another pair, but my mother became very angry when he said this. I had to be “taught a lesson”. She later made me throw the other boot in the trash.
I cried bitterly for those boots.
Soon after, the first really strange event occurred. By this time, I was three years old. It was 1955. The story, according to the adults of the family: I was put down for a nap, and my mother was doing her chores around the house. She went in a bit later to get me up, and I was not in my bed where she had left me. She thought I’d gotten up or was playing or hiding, so she searched the house. Nothing. Next, she went outside and searched, calling me repeatedly. Nothing. Next, she went to the neighbors, who came and re-searched the house with her. Then they all went outside to search again, widening the area of examination. Nothing.
I was nowhere to be found.
They decided the sheriff’s department must be involved as well as all the neighbors. After all, a three-year-old child was missing. A massive search for the next hour yielded no result. At the time, there was a large ditch dug in one side of the street where storm sewer pipes were being laid, and after a rain the pits were about half full of water. The idea came to all these folks that, obviously, I had fallen into this big hole of water and had drowned. They were so sure they were going to find me there, and didn’t want my mother present when they brought up the body, that one of the neighbors took her into the house to wait with her there. Mother went to my room where she was going to sit wringing her hands waiting. I’m sure she worked this situation for all it was worth.
And there I was, asleep on the bed exactly as she had left me some hours before.
What do I remember?
I remember only being drawn outside to a field of tall grass behind the house. At the back of this field was a grove of trees. I was lying in this grass, watching butterflies and dragonflies. I was acutely conscious of myself and my surroundings. And then, someone came to me, from the grove of trees, beckoning me to follow them, and that’s all I remember.
My mother was introduced into a certain social circle by her new employer, and this “set” was in the habit of frequenting certain nightclubs to hear music and dance. We might even think that the promise of an exciting social life was the reason Mother left Augusta and the stern eye of my grandfather. Who knows what she was promised, or thought she could achieve, by leaving a stable situation to dive into the unknown with the two of us in tow?
Orlando has a significant Navy presence in the form of a base and training installation, and these same clubs Mother’s crowd frequented may also have been the haunts of Navy personnel out for a night on the town. A certain Cecil Bryan became part of the social circle, though mother can’t remember precisely when or how he arrived, who invited him, or how he was introduced. Nevertheless, he was there, and for a time she paid little attention to him since she and another man were the “star performers” on the dance floor.
Dancing was Mother’s “claim to fame”. It’s true that when she got on the dance floor with a good partner, everyone else would soon stop and just gape in awe. Ginger Rogers or Cyd Charisse had nothing on my mother’s skill and style.
When I was trying to talk to her about this strange and darkening time, she kept going off on tangents to talk about this or that club, this or that dance, this or another particular night when the lights were brighter and the applause from the crowd of watchers loudest.
Apparently, she had found the dance partner of her dreams. So how to explain that Cecil Bryan, who she admitted couldn’t do the two-step, got her away from this guy?
Eventually, however, he made his presence known and persuaded her to go out with him. Now she says she can’t even remember anything remarkable about him at all, and she was really quite attached to the other man, her dance partner. She claims this whole period is pretty much a blank. Yes, she does remember agreeing to marry Cecil.
And here is where there is a mystery, and only Mother had the key and she’s gone now.
On her deathbed, my grandmother said she never believed my mother would turn against her as she had done. This betrayal is years in the future, and we will come to it soon enough. My grandmother could not understand it, especially after all my grandfather had done for her “in Orlando, taking care of that awful mess”.
I asked her: “Grandma, what do you mean? Did Mother do something in Orlando?”
And Grandma only would say: “I vowed I would never tell a soul, and I won’t. Some things happen and should never be talked about. That was one of them. Your mother has done some terrible things in her life, and that was the worst. But you don’t need to know it.”
And she sighed deeply and looked so sad, I thought: Maybe she really wants to tell me; I only need to do a little persuading.
But apparently not. She said: “I should never have mentioned it.”
She only did so in a moment of weakness and sadness at how everything had turned out in the end.
Well, of course that is exactly the kind of thing that would drive a person crazy with curiosity. I tried every way I could think of to get my grandmother to tell me what had happened in Orlando. It must have been really bad, because Grandma shared things with me that I am sure she never told anyone else.
But she took it to her grave, literally.