As the cicadas carry on their incessant drone the memories continue to flood. Out of an unsettled childhood, I found an early affinity for the garden which initially offered a tentative, gradual reprieve from my profound sadness and escalating mountain of dilemmas. At age two -and-a-half I lost my mother Josephine – a divorced professional who had once been in the diplomatic corps and was later employed by The Washington Post. She died of an aggressive form of gastric cancer six months after diagnosis; I was her only child.
Adopted within the family by her brother and his wife, I found myself suddenly implanted into a strange world inhabited by a new Mom, a brother younger by a year, two older sisters and the first semblance of a Dad I had known. My biological father, though present near and after the time of my birth, was also divorced. It was Josephine who had – impudently – used a great deal of her savings to help him finalize this divorce out-of-country. However, he had also been involved with another woman here in the US – with whom he later reconciled and married.
At the time of her death in the mid-1960s, Jo was far adrift in a world of unforeseen challenges – already facing an uphill battle as both single mom and career woman. Then, struggling with unwillingness on the part of my father, she had an ongoing paternity battle in the courts. In an era when all those worlds did definitely collide, and two decades before the glass ceiling had been officially christened by Gay Bryant – facing a sudden diagnosis of terminal cancer must have been devastating, overwhelming and ultimately crushing.
Despite the struggles of her last few years, the circumstances of her tragic death, and my inclusion into the strangeness of a new family, I was fortunate to have two new grandparents – both avid gardeners. Yet along with the new grandparents, parents and siblings it’s clear now the weight of this shift in family dynamic had yet to sink in for any of us. In a family already touched by warps within the domestic bliss, the addition of a new son – anticipated with no greater notice than the time between Josephine’s diagnosis and her death – may have even been a nuisance.
I understood little about the circumstances of my situation. Especially perplexing were my relationships with both new parents. The Spartan lack of sound, supportive and trusting communication was bitter icing on my recent cake of disaster, and I was too newly formed to even discern for what it was I should ask. The new mother was clearly in charge. But in the absence of affection, stimulation, nurturing or encouragement from her I became confused, distant, withdrawn and “checked out” often. During those dark days I began to find only timid, small reprieve within the backdrop of a special world of my own.
(It gets worse before it gets better – there is more REMINISCENCE to come!)