Deb’s Saturday Psychedelica – On Becoming a Hippie (#41) – A Death in the Family
Written by Deb Cavanaugh on December 12, 2020
We were settling into life in the city pretty well by now when Paul’s mother died. After Paul’s father had died, we had moved back east to be closer to our families and had gotten to know Cathy pretty well. She and I’d had a rough beginning. She was an alcoholic and, when I was pregnant with Jessie and far from any friends or family, she took to calling me late at night. Paul had taken the only available job and was working nights in a restaurant. This was in 1975 in Santa Cruz. She was never a nice drunk and would call me horrible names, accusing me of trying trap her son by getting pregnant on purpose. After failing to reason with her, I finally stopped answering the phone at night or answered and immediately hung up. When we moved back to Connecticut, where she also lived, I wanted Jessie to know both families, for better or for worse, and started a tentative relationship with her. It didn’t start out particularly good until I finally lost it and told her that she should have been enormously proud of her son for finding an evil woman who was just like his mother. The next day, she called to apologize, and things between us started to change.
Once we moved to New York, she would come visit for a few days at a time, staying with us during that time. I’d had a lot of experience with alcoholics in my own family and knew that requiring her not to drink would never work. She would either get sick or sneak her alcohol, so instead we tried to limit it. Even with that, she would go through a large bottle of gin in two or three days. As Jessie got older, she had less and less tolerance for this and started asking to go to a friend’s house overnight for those few days. I always agreed to this arrangement, insisting that she at least spend a few minutes with her while she was sober on that first day. Justin, on the other hand, who was only beginning to get to know her, was still young enough to be unaware of the alcohol. He thought it was hysterically funny when Cathy fell off the couch and rolled over laughing. He would often get down and roll around on the floor with her. He often said to me, “I love Dama, she always makes me laugh.” He didn’t seem to realize that was not her intent, but he enjoyed it and she enjoyed his enthusiasm, so I let it go. Luckily, she didn’t visit often.
We got the news about her death a few hours before a scheduled gig and decided to do the gig as a tribute. Paul and I always believed “the show must go on,” so it did. We did John Lennon’s song “Mother” which was an appropriate tribute to this woman who drowned herself in the bottle and basically ignored her children, leaving them to their own devices at a young age. But that is not my story to tell. We also did some very sentimental songs. Paul announced the death of his mother at the beginning, and it was a very moving show for everyone. Afterwards, it was time to go to Connecticut to meet with Paul’s siblings and make funeral arrangements.
A few years earlier, Paul’s sister, with whom he’d always struggled, got married in Maryland. She married the man who had put us to work on his herb farm for a few days when we were moving from Oregon to New York. The plan for that weekend was that we would go to pick their mom up in Connecticut on our way down south. We had arrived at Cathy’s apartment to find her almost overwhelmed with excitement about the upcoming wedding. She insisted on showing us the beautiful dress she had bought for the occasion. She was on a fixed income and could barely afford it, but it was beautiful. She was glowing. As we were starting to walk out the door with her suitcases in hand, the phone rang. It was her daughter calling to say that on second thought, her mom was now uninvited. She was devastated, and we didn’t know what to do next. We sat with her as she cried. Paul was furious both at the disrespect to his mom but also at the awkward and uncomfortable position it had put us in. After a few minutes, Cathy insisted that we go on without her. She didn’t want us to miss it and didn’t want to ruin it for her daughter. Paul’s sister called again wondering if we’d left yet and cautioning us not to be late. We were supposed to arrive that day. Cathy turned to her suitcase, opened the bottle of gin that was packed there and lit a cigarette. We reluctantly left her. Although we were sad to leave her there, we were also determined to try to enjoy this mini vacation. The kids were excited and unaware of what had just transpired, so off we went.
I have to admit that we did have a wonderful time at the wedding and was surprised that there was no further drama, except for having to go search for Justin minutes before the start of the ceremony. Paul was supposed to have been watching him while I helped Jessie with her hair and dress. We were all in the wedding party. Jessie was the flower girl, Justin the ring bearer, Paul was an usher, and I was a bridesmaid. When I realized that Paul had lost track of our wayward and mischievous son, I organized a covert search party and finally found Justin walking out of a barn with his shirttails hanging out and hay sticking out of his hair and clothes. The wedding was at the groom’s family’s estate with lots of land, many out buildings and was right on the Chesapeake Bay. It was quite relaxing, like being in a fairytale.
But now, Cathy had died, and Paul’s sister was insisting that their mother be buried in that same dress that she never got to wear to the wedding. Paul was outraged, but it was one of those situations where you had to choose your battles, and there were much bigger ones than that. His sister insisted that it shouldn’t have gone to waste. She also insisted on having the funeral in the Catholic church. This was another battle that was eventually lost. Cathy had been excommunicated earlier because of getting a divorce on the grounds of adultery. That was odd in itself since their Dad was not excommunicated with her at that time. Usually divorce was enough for excommunication regardless of the grounds and applied to both parties because marriage was considered a sacrament. he Catholic church was often money driven and a big part of upper crust society in that region, so I assume they targeted her because of the adultery charge. At one point, we found some plenary indulgences that she had bought over the years. It was suggested that maybe these were enough to get in the door. We doubted it, but everyone finally gave in.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with Catholicism, plenary indulgences are pieces of paper signed by the pope that you can buy. Basically, they are a way to buy your way into heaven, and she had a whole stack of them. I guess she figured she would need a bunch since she just kept on sinning. After a lot of persuasion, we finally found a priest willing to do officiate at the funeral but there was to be no communion ceremony. At the funeral, he gave a eulogy that was basically an inventory of the items that had been donated to the church by Cathy’s millionaire mother, pointing out specific statues, land in Italy and more. He ended by saying that “although Cathy was a grave sinner, he hoped that she might find a place in purgatory due to her mother’s generosity to the church.” There was an audible gasp and many people stood up and left. I also stood up and turned to leave, but Paul asked me to stay, so I did. I lost much respect for the church on that day and have always tried to avoid it at all cost.
The only good thing that came out of that trip was getting to know my brother and sister-in-law for the first time. Paul never spoke much about his siblings. They all had survived extreme trauma, and he wanted to block most of it out. We had always been close to Sage, his oldest sister, but here was an opportunity to connect with more family. In spite of my own trauma as a child, I still believed in family connections and strove to have those within Paul’s family as well. His brother and wife had become Mormons and were also very invested in family. We got along well, and it was a fun time for everyone. Paul was fond of saying that the Cavanaugh’s put the “fun” in funeral. They definitely did.
When Cathy died, Paul inherited quite a bit of money. When she was still alive, she cautioned me that this would happen and gave me the task of making sure it was spent wisely. She told me that she knew Paul would just blow right through it but that I seemed more sensible. She made me promise, and I told her that I would do my best. I also knew Paul and foresaw that this would not be an easy thing to accomplish, but I had promised, and I tried. The first thing we did was sit down and make a financial plan. We had never had money, so this was a huge opportunity. Paul was not open to any discussion of investment for the future beyond physical things. We decided that we needed to buy a home and a reliable car. Next, we needed our own sound system that would support a band and would last. The kids needed bikes, and Paul wanted me to have a keyboard so that I could teach piano from home. Paul was also exploring the idea of going to school. He’d always wanted to be a lawyer and had successfully defended himself a few times with trips to the law library in Albany. The last thing we wanted was to take another cross-country trip to visit our old friends. We knew it might be our last opportunity.
We had no idea how much money he was getting, just that it was “a lot.” It also didn’t come all at once. I still have no idea how much he ended up with in the end because it came in multiple small installments. When it was time to go looking for a place to buy, Paul pulled out an area map, closed his eyes and circled his finger all around finally landing on a spot. He circled that spot in red, folded the map back up and stuck it in a drawer. We went looking all around for an inexpensive but livable home. It was not easy. We were starting to feel a little desperate when the realtor drove us to an isolated place on a dead-end dirt road in Stephentown. Just before turning onto the road where the land was located, we passed the most spectacular view. We were already sold and bought land in Stephentown with a mobile home on it. It was in our price range but needed quite a bit of work. We hired someone to put in a septic system, and our friends helped us out at a few work parties, putting in a new driveway. Pretty soon, we were ready to move in. Before we actually signed the papers, we took out that map again, this new home was right in the spot Paul where Paul’s finger had randomly landed.
We bought a Toyota station wagon and all the other items we had agreed on. There was still more money to come but again, we had no idea how much or how many installments were left. Our relationship was suffering again after his mom’s death, and we knew we needed to make some kind of change to put things back on track. We loved each other as much as ever but our old childhood hurts were still overwhelming at times, and stress of constantly trying to survive with two children was killing us. Even our music, which had always brought us closer, was starting to suffer. Traveling always energized us both, giving us a new outlook on life, so we decided to take a big cross-country trip.
Our old friend Vernon, who had spent a summer with us in Hebo, Oregon, was moving to Denver, Colorado. We had gone to New Jersey that weekend to help him pack up his rented truck. As we were leaving, I asked him to show me where his new neighborhood was located on his city map. He did, we said a tearful goodbye and went back home. Now we decided to try to surprise him at his new home. Never ones to waste any time, we decided to leave the next day. Jessie was older now and often spent the night at a friend’s house. It was a way to escape the now endless fighting that we hoped to put an end to with this relaxing trip. When we picked her up that morning, we announced that we were leaving that day. I was a seasoned traveler with children by then and had a whole pack of things for them as well as an educational plan. Just like neither Paul not I ever wasted time, I never wasted an opportunity to educate. Jessie and Justin also got to help plan the trip picking spots they wanted to visit along the route. The first request was to see Mount Rushmore. We were all excited to be on the road again.