Monday, January 08, 2018


Country life, even now but a lot more then, unfolds from a combination of sex and class, matters of economics determining who should marry and who will run away.  In this small knot of farms along the Grand River, the earliest settlers — who had an English name — built a big house, a sort of manor house, and though it burned, the estate eventually became a country club.  The sons followed the English pattern of entitlement and tended to dominate women and lesser folks. who were not groomed to inherit anything.  

Across the road were two continguous farms.  These were cropland — fields, gardens and some pasture, but were not used to support domestic animals much more than a milk cow or a couple of horses.  These were not animal people so much as growers, more machine dependent.  The land had always been fertile, and plowing there brought up many pink quartz knapped-edge hand tools, so that the plower came home with pockets full of them.  Not that many people were deeply interested, just noting that it was once “Indian” land and understanding that their greater power was based on forged steel plows and harrows.

A daughter of this “manor house” family married across the road to the more northern farm run by a hard-driving Hollander who wore wooden shoes, kept order, and also put in full-shift work at the auto plant in the nearby city.  He was a hunter, who went with his brothers-in-law, father, and neighbor men, tramping out along the river early in the day and returning with deer or birds to hang in the farm slaughterhouse.  The men valued and maintained their long guns.  The woman of the house processed the meat as it hung from hooks in the ceiling.

At the more southern farm the patriarch was a fisherman, who brought home his catch with less rigid organization and system.  Fishing means observing and adapting.  Later his automotive job went well enough for him to buy an airplane and build a landing strip.  He had been places and done things before settling here, and kept his itchy feet.  He married a high-headed woman, the only daughter of a professional man, and maybe some of his style came from her or even developed to evade her without quarreling.

The older son of the fisherman found he had an affinity for the hunter patriarch and formed a close bond with him, pulling away from his blood father.  He was invested in strength and control, and the women saw the economic value in this, so supported him in his domination of his children.

The fisherman patriarch flew, taking with him his high-life-wife to the California coast where he established a luxury car dealership with his knowledge of their construction and maintenance.  The friends and clients he made there were nothing like country folk, a little edgy, operators, worldly international people.  His adult children came to visit, which imprinted them with urban California.  He bought a place in Tahoe.

There were deaths.  The orderly and meticulous patriarch dropped dead in his tracks at age 57.  Economic realignment was necessary, as well as emotional relationships and lines of authority.  The son of the fisherman, who had bonded to the son of the hunting man, left for the nearby city but did not go into the automobile industry.  Instead he moved into a ranch-style three-bedroom house at the growing edge of the city and got a job as a janitor and maintenance man at the city’s coal-fired power plant, settling into some deeply unhappy years, full of frustration and rage, vulnerable to the genetic triggers for alcoholism that had killed his brother.  He was excellent at his job.

The boy was seven.  He had been happy and beautiful, beloved by his grandparents and carefully nurtured by his mother, at least until his sister was born.  Then his father began to abuse him, beating so badly and so forcefully that he became a regular at the local hospital.  Some of the times the injuries went uncared for except by home doctoring as for a domestic animal, usually from the father rather than the mother.  The vices of the patriarchy — sex and whiskey, defiance, humiliation of women and children, demands for respect — took hold in the father.  One grandfather was far away, and the other was dead, or he might have pulled back.

The boy’s mother couldn’t or wouldn’t oppose her husband.  She had once set out to be a stenographer but was too timid to actually apply for a job and only pretended, sitting in a park during working hours.  Women had few prospects anyway: teacher, nurse, clerk, stenographer.  Marriage was always a good option.  Though she had no experience or income, she sometimes fled anyway, taking the children to places she knew like a northern Michigan resort cabin on a lake.  In desperation, she told her small son he must fish for their food — and he did.  All the rest of his life he did.  Eventually his parents always reconciled.  Until the next time.  The effect of this on children is what psych folks call “unreliable attachment,” that is, an inability to trust or stay in place for fear of danger.

Sometimes it was the father who left, taking the boy with him to some wilderness place, often on tribal land, expecting the hardly-tall-enough boy to drive if he were too drunk.  There were accidents and people died.  Sometimes in his desperate self-torturing rages the father would throw the boy out of the car onto a frozen lake or into a high desert night and pretend that he would not return.  The boy was flooded with terror, but also awe.  

The boy’s brain protected him by summoning up a silvery land something like the Blackfeet shadowlands they called the Sand Hills, a tribal memory of an actual northern place they had crossed in the past.  In adulthood the boy called it the Nagual, a technical anthropological term, usually for a person.  In psychological literature this phenomenon is called “dissociation”, a relative of split personality but not the same thing.  Neurological research sees it as a biological reality in which the processing centers of the brain change their circuits because what is happening is too unbearable.  Even when the abuse had stopped, this alternative to reality was always there to be used again — not necessarily when it was wanted.

At some point the boy’s grandmother, the brilliant socialite in California, had a terrible auto accident and ended in a wheelchair, embittered but characteristically defiant, accepting Christian Science and insisting on morning family prayer.  This did not sit well with the mother’s Methodism or whatever the aunts were.  All these females with their plans for the future, esp. economically, descended on the son, insisting that he meet their irreconcilable standards and demands.  He did his best but it was hopeless.

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