Deb’s Saturday Psychedelia – On Becoming a Hippie (Chapter 49) – Learning to Be a Parent
Written by Deb Cavanaugh on March 6, 2021
In the late eighties, I was in my mid-thirties, and we were still struggling to survive financially with two kids. We did manage to do it one way or another and even occasionally had a little cushion. But Paul jumped from job to job, never figuring where he belonged, and my work didn’t pay well. Although the salary was low, I was learning how to be a teacher during my time at The Free School. I discovered that I loved teaching which was a total surprise to me. I never went to college, so this was my education as well as my livelihood. I could do this work without having to get a degree. I never imagined I would become a teacher having hated school throughout my entire experience. I think in part it was because I didn’t really learn there and was bored to tears. My dad was a newspaperman and had me reading well before I even started kindergarten. I had free access to his large library. If I were able to read at that level, I could read any book I wanted. I devoured books. I would get lost in them for hours, living in that other time and place. I often carried a book open, reading as I walked from one place to another. When I got to first grade and was given Dick and Jane books to read, I just escaped into my head reliving a book I had previously read or creating my own stories. I remember very few details about school, all the way through high school, but I remember my daydreams. I have also since realized that I never had a teacher who really saw me. I was shy and a little different from the other kids. I faded into the background. As a teacher, I look for those lost kids. I also like the troublemakers.
The good thing about troublemakers is that they don’t hide who they are. Everything is right out there for you to see. You may not like what you see, but you can’t turn away. They demand your attention, so I give it to them. I give them important tasks to do turning them into leaders. They generally behave pretty well when made to feel important. But there are different kinds of troublemakers. There are also malicious ones who behave in a mean and hurtful way. They inevitably have been hurt at home from an early age and need a lot of acceptance and love. That love and acceptance with a healthy helping of sternness when needed usually turns them around. Then, there are the lovable ones who blunder their way into trouble.
Justin was one of those lovable troublemakers. He always that twinkle in his eye. He was an adventurer, much like I am, and curious about everything. He liked to dash into situations in his life. Remember, he was the one who escaped the house in Portland, Oregon, before he was even two, by climbing out of the window and making his way up through the brambles to the main road, stopping traffic in both directions. That was just the beginning. But I had to acknowledge the similarity to my own escapade at age two of climbing over the baby gate at the back door, climbing up on the railing of the porch and diving down into the rosebushes below.
When we moved to Stephentown, New York, we lived on a dead-end dirt road. We had lived in various places and always had to figure out the new scene, but this was a different scene altogether. That didn’t stop us. Although, we knew we could live anywhere and get along with just about anyone, we soon realized that many of the families at our end of the road were alcoholics, druggies, wife-beaters and more. It was intense. Pretty soon, Justin met the boys on the road. All but one of them came from rough backgrounds. The kids were a definite product of that lifestyle, but they were also good kids and smarter than they realized. The first time I met them was when they threw Justin’s new bike into the little stream that ran along the side of the property. Of course, I became the angry lion mama and ran out there to confront them. I didn’t want to hear any of their excuses but insisted they retrieve the bike and clean it up. Some of the kids were his age but most were older. Because of my work as a teacher working with some pretty tough kids, I commanded an air of respect that kids responded well to. After they finished cleaning it up, I heard them out and found out that Justin had thrown one of their bikes in first. It went back and forth with more to the story than that but, on that day, we all earned a mutual respect.
Justin liked many of the same things that I did. We both loved being outside exploring the woods. Jessie had always been an inside girl. I often had to hand her a pile of books and make stay outside for fresh air. I occasionally locked the door to keep her out. But Justin liked the outdoors. We often wandered our way through the woods, making trails as we went along and naming landmarks. There were different distinct areas. For example, there glacial floe which had left a field of stones and a large outcropping of boulders, a wet area with a running stream and a hemlock grove, among others. It was rumored that there was a waterfall somewhere beyond our property. I was curious and wanted to find it. Every once in a while, I would head out on my own but never managed to go far enough before turning back. I hadn’t seen a map, so I was just wandering aimlessly while trying not to get lost. But Justin was hanging out with these other kids, and they were out exploring their surroundings.
One day, while a friend was visiting, we decided to go hiking in the woods. Justin was always happy to come along, so off we went. We soon decided to go look for the waterfall. Justin said that he knew where it was. I knew he spent a lot of time in the woods and had a good sense of direction, so we followed along. We walked and walked until finally I decided that it was getting a bit late. I knew it was time to head back. We could always look for it another time. I turned to take us back when Justin insisted that was the wrong way. I was sure we had come that way, so I started leading the way. We hadn’t brought a compass and were depending on the sun to give us our direction. I was sure that the road was to the south. We walked and walked some more. It was starting to be dusk. My friend kept wanting to take us in a different direction, but she didn’t live on the road, so I wasn’t about to listen to her. Finally, it was getting dark, and I turned to Justin saying, “Okay, if you know the way, lead us out of here.” Within five or ten minutes, we were back out on the road. I thought he’d been a good sport knowing all along that I was going the wrong way but willing to stick with me anyway. I certainly learned a few valuable lessons that day. One of them was to follow the directions of my ten-year-old son when in his woods.
My two children were as different as night and day. Their birthday months are about six months apart, so it made sense to me that they would be. Jessie is practical and detail oriented. She has a quick mind and learns easily. I have vivid memories of her and her dad watching the stock report on television with Paul cheering when the stocks were down and Jessie cheering when they were down. Paul and I figured that she needed to rebel in some way and her disdain for the hippie culture we were raising her in was her rebellion. I think Paul actually enjoyed it. But Jessie is also very much like me in many ways, which was good sometimes, but at other times we were like oil and water.
As she got older, we fought more often. We’re both judgmental and critical, though we’ve both tempered that a lot. Back then, it made things difficult. When she became an adolescent, she was incorrigible. She hated the move to Stephentown, had no friends close by and was struggling making new friends at school. She spent a lot of time in her room unless we were going on an adventure. Even then, she often declined the older she got, and our relationship was deteriorating. She had gone to the public middle school in Averill Park for sixth grade but hated it and returned to The Free School for seventh and eighth grade.
This made my life easier having both kids in the same school where I worked, and I hoped that the long car rides to and from school would ease our tensions. I often have hard conversations with my kids while driving. That way they can’t escape. One of my favorite things to do with Justin was to take off in the car with no set destination. I let him give directions as we drove. One day I asked him where he would like to go someday. He replied, “Florida.” Minutes later we passed a sign for Florida, Massachusetts. He was thrilled.
One of the great things about The Free School was that they took the kids on travels. In 1989, Justin’s class went to Puerto Rico with one of the teachers and a school parent who organized school trips to volunteer repairing hurricane damage. The class had to raise the money themselves. It was a year-long class project. Near the end, Justin didn’t want to go. His dad always a special affinity for arrangements of numbers and had planned a special “Perfect Time” party. It was to be on June 7th. He planned to have a big celebration at 01:23:45. It would be 01:23:45 on 6-7-89. Justin didn’t want to miss the party.
Our friend who was leading the trip agreed to celebrate at that exact time in Puerto Rico, and Paul promised to host another one the following year at 12:34:56 on 7-8-90. So, he agreed to go. Justin called from the island, and the whole crew whooped and hollered on the island of Vieques at the same time on the same day. Justin didn’t end up having the experience everyone had expected him to have. He had his own experience, and that’s all that ever matters. When he was young, he was never very motivated to do hard work, though that’s changed over the years. While in Vieques, the locals he worked with gave him a Spanish nickname that meant “off the wall” because whenever it was time to lift one of the walls in place, he was sitting on it. Apparently, he also slept on the concrete floor with his feet up on the cot he was given. This didn’t surprise me since I often found him like that at home.
Around that same time, Jessie went by train with her class, a teacher and a friend of ours from Rok Against Reaganomix to attend a national alternative education conference in Oregon. When she came back, she was in love. There was a school from Michigan that also traveled by train to the conference. Jessie hit it off with those kids immediately and spent a lot of time with them in Oregon. Then, they all traveled back on the same train. When she got home, she told me all about Jack. Her whole demeanor changed. Suddenly, she and I were getting along a little better. She was talking to me again. She and Jack started writing each other letters. I though it was sweet that she had a pen pal. Then one day she asked if I thought she should tell him in her next letter that she loved him. We had a long talk that night. She did end up writing that letter, and he wrote back saying that he felt the same way. This was after writing back and forth for months and just before the next conference.
This conference was in Tennessee, and I was going along. That’s when I met Jack. I also became aware that they often couldn’t be found. I started hearing whispers about friends seeing them in the woods. I suppose I should have seen it coming, but I was taken by surprise. They were still quite young, but I knew I was in for it now. My daughter was headstrong, and rather than dash, Jessie closed her eyes and jumped into her adventures. Next thing I knew, they were saving money for train trips alternating visits to New York and Michigan. We had raised her to travel, and she could easily find her way.
I had the best models for parenthood in some ways. My parents were fully involved, often too involved while Paul’s parents were completely absent, leaving their children to their own devices. I think Paul referred to it once as being raised by wolves. As a result, he didn’t know how to be a father. He tried hard, but he never experienced it and didn’t understand how to do it. Both of my parents played games with us, took us to cool places giving us a life of fun and adventure. But there was a dark side, too. They struggled financially and maybe because of the stress involved, they also fought constantly. I think both of their parents probably did that, too. They fought with each other and yelled at me and my brother a lot. They believed in frequent and harsh corporal punishment to quell our spirits, though it never seemed to work.
Now I was a mom married to Paul who also came from a harsh background. I was able to resist the training in corporal punishment, but I have to admit that I did lose it and yell at my children more than I would have liked. I didn’t know any other way. My parents also never really talked to us as kids. They talked about current events and taught us things about history and science. They were more like teachers, cultivating us scholastically and socially but never looking to see who we were or how we thought. We were just supposed to fit into the box they created without question.
I was going to do things differently. I encouraged them to live their own lives and make their own decisions while staying connected and honest. I taught them to be independent. I often joked when they were arguing with me or did something impulsive asking, “Who taught you to be so damned independent anyway?” I talked with my kids about everything, and they shared their lives and experiences with me. We never had “the big talk.” Talking about sex was normal between me and the kids. Paul wasn’t comfortable talking about anything and certainly not sex. Flustered by the topics, he often walked out of the room in a hurry. But at some point, I noticed that I rarely looked into the eyes of my kids when I spoke to them. I had been so abused as a child, I never looked people in the eye. It was dangerous growing up. Once I noticed that, I tried to look at them more. It was hard for me to look into their eyes when talking about uncomfortable things, but I tried hard. I realized that they were growing up fast and didn’t want to waste any time.
When Paul had moved back in after our separation, I told him that I would probably move out when both kids were on their own. We could remain married if that’s what he wanted. I still deeply loved him, but I needed to have my own place to live where I could find peace and quiet. I knew that our time with the whole family together was going by fast, and I would have to start thinking soon about what I would do then.