Since the earliest memories in my grandparent’s farm in rural West Virginia, I have had a fascination for nature and our place in it. I remember with crystal clarity, the trip to the barn with my grandmother. She picked out a chicken, marched behind the barn and unceremoniously, without a warning, chopped off its head right before my eyes. As I screamed in terror watching the creature run headless and bleeding, my grandmother simply asked me to “hush and get some potatoes out of the basket from inside the barn.
” As I moved toward the doorway, the chicken appeared to be running after me until it suddenly dropped dead in its last convulsion. That day on my grandparent’s farm was the first event of awareness I had of the harsh realities of life. I was three years old and inquisitive about everything on the farm. Although it was just a few miles from my own home, it felt as though one-stepped back in time when we visited, which we did frequently. With no running water, no indoor plumbing, no telephone and almost entire sustenance from the farm itself, it was a fantasyland.
Although I had grown up in the 60’s and 70’s, it could have been the 30s due to our location in rural West Virginia. Life moved at a snail’s pace there. We were in greater touch with nature and the affinity with the earth was innate. Life was about learning to survive in a natural way. We never discussed politics, literature or history, at least not in a global sense. In my life, I have seen my father read just a single book – The Farmers Almanac. As I was developing my own interest in literature, I recall asking him why The Almanac was the only book he read, and his response was simple and to the point, which was always his style.
“Everything you need to know about everything important is in this book Kelly Lea”, he exclaimed with a gentle urgency. This has been a constant in my relationship with my father. “You think too much, it’s not that complicated. ” Certainly, as I watch my children, I find myself thinking the same. I have learnt to utilize my hands and gain a sense of accomplishment from manual labor, from my father. Summers were spent building tree houses and working in the garden. Although I preferred working outdoors, my mother felt it was imperative that I learn to cook and develop my skills in home economics.
My childhood could be taken right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. We actually had a swimming hole and caught lightning bugs in a Kerr canning jar with holes punched through the top with a nail. Impromptu kickball games in the parking lot of the local lumberyard were infamous for heated debates followed by slow walks home along the railroad tracks for supper. Some of the enlightening lessons of life I learnt as a child were from my father. There were several years on and off when we suffered financial hardship. It was during one of those years that our county had record rains and flooding.
We had little money to spend for unavoidable home improvements to secure us from the elements. My parents were worried about the integrity of our roof. In the neighborhood, some homes were being constructed on property that had belonged to my grandparents. As they grew older, the taxes had absentmindedly not been paid. It was auctioned off for a bargain price without prior notification, while my father was gathering the funds to pay off the debt. The workers had hastily left the building supplies outside, covered by a mere sheet of construction plastic.
Several of my father’s acquaintances at work had “helped themselves” to the supplies and encouraged my father to do the same. Trying to even the score, his fellow factory workers felt the developer was only getting what was coming to him. One evening we drove by the site and my father parked the family truck and stared at the sight. My mother was frightened. She thought he was contemplating stealing from there. My father looked at her and said, “You know better, that’s not something I would do. I just wanted to see the land again before they chopped it up and got rid of our trees.
” We got by without the supplies in a very leaky house but I remember feeling a sense of pride and comfort, with the knowledge that my father was a good and righteous man who would never compromise his values. Another defining moment transpired when I was a pre-teen. That incident has greatly affected my outlook on life, as I navigate my children through their natural world. I come from a family of hunters. All of the men as well as a few of the women, myself included, have had the experience of tracking wildlife on a blistery cold winter day. This is a ritual of passage for boys in particular.
My brother had been hunting for several years and my father thought he had instilled in him a respect for the wildlife, the woods and his weapon. My brother was obsessed with hunting and shot a rabbit one day purely for the thrill of it. This was absolutely forbidden in our house. My father was a strong believer of living a needs-based life. He shot only what we would eat and this never included rabbits. After watching my brother skin the animal, my father boiled the carcass and forced my brother to consume every bite. To the best of my knowledge, my brother has never hunted for the sport of it, again.
Whenever I hear a person protesting against hunting, I draw their attention to the ghastly practice of factory farming as opposed to hunting in the wilderness. My father’s philosophy of respect for nature as well as his intolerance of nature-abuse has remained a corner stone in my own life and hopefully, that of my children as well. Our neighbors were from Greece and Italy as well as Eastern Europe. They had come to work in the mines and factories as young men and women. My friends were often embarrassed by their cultural differences as compared to Americanized families.
As a child I would listen to their grandparents speak their native tongue and delight in their sustained holiday traditions. I imagined what these distant countries would be like as I leafed through the family atlas that my mother had purchased at the grocery store with her philately books. As a young teen, I had begun asking questions regarding my family. An aunt and uncle had raised my mother and her siblings after they were abandoned by their father following their mother’s death. My mother has never recovered from the desertion. My father was raised by his violent, abusive, alcoholic parent.
My victimized mother has never had a taste of alcohol out of fear of the addiction that claimed an older brother’s life. My parents were teenagers when they had met. After a brief period of courtship, they had married. They had vowed to become each other’s family and committed to not letting the ghosts of their past haunt their future. Unfortunately, this is not something one can absolutely control. My mother has suffered from depression for years, yet she refuses to seek help. She has spent so much of her life reflecting on her past. Both my parents had stopped growing as individuals when they found one another.
Their knowledge is limited to what is necessary to sustain them as they have for decades. Fortunately, I knew my grandparents as different people and I adored my now sober, ‘Born Again’ Christian grandfather. I “grew up” in the church, with him by my side. Mine was an idyllic childhood, completely ignorant of the fact that we were poor. I had everything I wanted and was gifted with a vivid imagination, a true blessing for a child of limited means. It was not until high school that life changed. I have found in my many years of self-discovery, that at the age of 17 my life had taken a major turn.
The fallout of which, I am still recovering from. I was smart, pretty and outgoing, the Trifecta for small town teenage girls. With a blue-collar worker father and a housewife mother, I suddenly realized this too would be my fate. My college counselor told me that I really didn’t need to go to college; cute girls usually wasted their time in higher education because we normally just got married. It was at this time that I began an intimate relationship with a teacher and coach in my high school. After several months, it ended and I was sent into a downward spin that, I believe, had drastically changed my life.
I now understood my mother’s abandonment issues. I nearly failed out of school, unable to cope with the pressure. I realize now that I was suffering from major depression for years without any sort of treatment. I spent my twenties trying to duplicate my relationship. I had outgrown my parents by now and felt the only way to continue living was to stop trying to duplicate what I envisioned to be my life story and start another one. I moved to Europe after being spotted by a modeling scout and started a career in the most glamorous and destructive environment a young woman could be exposed to in the 1980’s.
Finally, I stopped thinking about my lover of five years past. Determined to change my attitude, I delved into the glamorous world of travel and adventure. I seldom stayed anywhere longer than a few months. My calendar was booked with exciting trips to some of the worlds most exotic and intoxicating locations. However, my world came to a crashing halt when I was brutally attacked on a first date by a man I had just met in Italy. My experience of the world had not prepared me for such an assault to my psyche. The physical wounds were quick to heal but I became fearful and uncomfortable in a world that I had previously relished.
I now know that I had become clinically depressed following the attack. Although I continued to work and travel, my focus had changed. I wanted a family, my own family, very badly. Perhaps it is because I had been “groomed” and expected to follow that path for my entire life or perhaps I was trying to find love that would heal my wounds of abandonment and assault. Whatever may be the case, I met the man that would most influence my life, in 1987. A year later, we got married. Sometimes change is slow and passive, while at other times it is aggressive and shocking.
My move to California and into the world of my new husband and his family was cold and judgmental. By then, I was expecting our first child. As previously mentioned, I was raised as a Protestant and although I had not attended services regularly, my faith was still very much a part of my identity. Soon I was expected to convert to Judaism, and raise our family in a culture which I had no experience or identification with. My husband’s domineering nature and narcissism alienated my old friends and soon we were socializing only with those of the Jewish faith and in a certain economic bracket.
My previous life was eclectic, colorful and inclusive. As the years passed, I felt my authentic self diminish and take on the role of a Jewish doctor’s wife from Beverly Hills. My soul felt suffocated and isolated. I had all of the material wealth and yet, I felt deprived. I compared my husband to a middle schooler wanting to sit at the popular table and willing to compromise principles and values for any glimpse into the world of the Hollywood elite. The people we called friends were ruthless and shallow and I isolated myself more as the years passed.
Occasionally, there was a bankruptcy or divorce and the vultures would descend on the poor soul that was unlucky enough to ________. My husband would ridicule me saying I only had children so I would have someone to play with. Children are honest and open and show unconditional love. Something I was starving for from my husband. Few things are more delicate than society. The West Los Angeles elite were accustomed to disposing off people like a previous year’s handbag and the choice was easy. To whom they shall be loyal depends directly on who they could most likely benefit from.
My decision to finally divorce was excruciating because I was now the mother of three. I was really the only parent my children knew. My husband’s work and social calendar spared him little time to be a hands-on parent. My older son, 11 years old at the time, suffers from learning disabilities and raising him as his mother, teacher, and therapist, among other things, required my full attention. I knew the children would suffer as a consequence of what my husband considered a betrayal. The truth is that, for the first time in over 12 years, I was not betraying myself.
The price I have paid is high. Due to a pre-nuptial agreement, I was nearly bankrupt after paying the attorney fees and have watched my children traverse from a life of wealth and privilege with their father to a modest lifestyle when with me in a shared custody arrangement. His, my ex-husband’s, vow to drive me to the streets had nearly materialized. A consistently litigious divorce had buried me underneath a wall of debt. Every person I knew through my husband has turned his/ her back on me, which has proved to be a gift. I have rekindled old relationships that have enriched and fortified me.
Over the several years since my divorce, I have watched with pride and exuberance, as my children have met and conquered their own challenges. Divorce is ugly and very painful but I have forced myself and my children to not let it define their identity. I have gained tremendous perspective and wisdom as a result of my relationships and parenting three children, particularly my special-needs son. I have emotionally and physically returned to that place I loved as a child. To feed my curiosity of nature and travel, I spend my time diving, kayaking, traveling… and discovering new adventures with my new husband who shares these same traits.