Yesterday, D and I climbed to the highest point on the farm, a small hump atop the flat-topped hill we call ‘the Mesa’. We leaned against the flag pole there, grateful for the breeze that kept the midges away, looking out over the sun-bathed fields and woods below, wondering if this would be a better place to build our house than the sheltered field he has set aside. Pros and Cons. Plusses and negatives. And while we admired the view, and weighed our options, I found myself remembering a time when I was faced with much darker options, when I thought that heading for the high ground, in mountains very different and very far away from those surrounding our little farm, was the only choice left to me.
By the time I was twelve or thirteen, I was already into the rhythm of being a surrogate mom to my two younger sisters. I was so young when I first started doing housework, that the grownups would upturn a crate for me to stand on, to help me reach the water taps. And though Mom worked out the chore chart, and my younger sisters and I shared the rotating duties on it (who cleaned the living room, scrubbed the bathroom, and cleaned the dog doo from the yard that week), I was responsible for seeing that the daily chores were finished before we all went outside to play. I was the first to rise in the mornings, to pack lunches and start breakfasts, before waking my sisters for school. I knew the telephone numbers of all the bars Mom and Dad hung out in, and the route they followed from one to the next, so we could call them if we needed something (when what every child really needs, of course, is not to have to know those numbers.) When my mom finally left my dad, she explained why she was leaving me behind: she couldn’t take us all, so she was leaving me behind to take care of my sisters. At fifteen, I could plan, shop for, and cook up a week’s worth of dinners for four. At sixteen, I cooked my first Thanksgiving dinner, for my Dad and his biker friends. Once, in one of the periods when Mom had custody of us during the back and forth of what I call the ‘divorce years’, my sisters came into the room, and asked if they could go outside to play. I asked them if their chores were done, they said yes, and I duly gave permission. After they left, my mother asked me irritably ‘…and who made you mother?’ I lowered my eyes, as I’d learned to do in an effort to de-escalate, and mumbled ‘nobody’, while thinking ‘you did’. I’d already learned to keep my rebellions surreptitious whenever possible. But at age twelve, in one of my sporadic (and ultimately successful) breaks for freedom, I rebelled big time, and made a run for the mountains.
The mountains which edged the eastern boundary of my childhood home had always been my happy place, where the grownups stayed in camp and let us run wild through the woods – so long as we promised to stay near a trail or running water. We knew how to find north, and which moss was okay to eat. We would lose a shoe, and not care, because the soles of our feet were good enough. We knew how to check if scree was too loose to climb, and to stay away from crumbly ledges. If someone was looking for me, they knew to check up in the branches, where I could often be found, my nose in a book. The mountains were our second home, a sanctuary where I could explore and have adventures with my sisters, or sit alone on a cliff edge, looking east across the mountains, toward my future.
So it’s not surprising, looking back, that when I ran, I ran to the mountains. I loaded a pillowcase with cans of peeled potatoes…because I’d read somewhere that a lack of potatoes had caused the Irish to starve. I didn’t know how I’d open the cans, as – even in the midst of rebellion I was still trying to be a good girl (a habit it would take me many years to lose) – I didn’t pack the only can opener the family owned. But a girl can’t think of everything. Especially before breakfast and at twelve years old.
Nor was it a surprise that I didn’t get very far. I was trudging up the road towards the foothills, the can-filled pillowcase much heavier than I’d expected, when my dad pulled the car up alongside me (how did he know I’d head for the hills?) and sweet-talked me into the car. He was a charmer, my dad, when he wasn’t angry or in pain. Or covering his pain with anger. Of course I got in the car, especially after he told me that if I didn’t, we’d both be in trouble with Mom. Options: go home with dad, or get him in trouble with Mom. A no-brainer.
Over the years – from the moment my father delivered me home, then quickly left for work – my mother would use my running away, in her efforts to control me: run away again, or misbehave too often, and I’d land in Juvi. My options were clear: knuckle down and wait for the day after high school graduation – when house rules dictated I’d leave anyway, as Mom’s duty would be done – or be sent away and gang-raped with a broomstick, which is what we all knew happened to ‘girls like me’ at Juvi. Graduation was only a few years away, after all. I weighed my options…and knuckled down. I nearly made it, too. We found a balance between my small rebellions and my cooperation, shaped in some part by a liberal application of her hand…or slipper…or whatever was handy. But one day, I suddenly realized why I was a target for her rage so often, and how little it really was about me. Something went very calm inside of me, and on that day, she lost her power over me: my fear was gone. And she couldn’t stand the pity which had replaced it. So it came as no surprise to either of us when she sat me down and laid out my new options: go to Juvi, or go to my father, who – according to my mother – was the devil incarnate. I chose the devil I somewhat knew, rather than the Juvi that had been hanging over my head for five years. She wrote him a letter telling him to expect me, and put me on a bus soon after. It was one of the best and wisest things she ever did for me.
I stayed with my dad – who wasn’t a devil, of course, just a rather damaged man with a habit of self-medicating the pain (internal and external) he’d brought home from Korea with him – for about two years. Until the day he shocked us both by sitting on my chest in a drunken rage, trying to choke my affection for my black boyfriend out of me. Later, when he, too, sat me down and laid out my options: ‘my way or the highway’, I moved out. Ironically enough, to a one-bedroom apartment near the highway. From where I began my forty year journey back to the mountains.
But during those forty years, my runs to the mountains would only be temporary soul soothing pauses in an otherwise mad and busy life in the arts. During those years, I thought the theatre was my forever home, a thick list of credits and a regular income the only pinnacle to aspire to. I put my whole heart into climbing that particular mountain…I thought. Deep within, the mountains kept calling, but I couldn’t hear them clearly…until I moved to a country so flat that the lack of mountains would increase the volume of their calling until it became clarion. I moved to a small town in Scotland, with the mountains a mere train ride away, thinking I’d exercised the last big option of my life…
Until I once again found myself weighing my options: should I keep banging my head against the walls that were growing between my partners and me, jumping the hurdles thrown up by slow bureaucracy and funding rejections, in the pursuit of a theatrical dream I’d been chasing through the years and cities I’d lived in since I left my father’s house? Or should I take a break, a breather…and a train up to the Scottish Highlands, to help D care for his farm and mum and wee little dug? I bought the ticket, and got on the train. It was a no-brainer.
And yesterday, as D and I stood on the Mesa, looking out over our beloved little hill-farm, noting the work to be done, and weighing our options, I found myself looking back over the journey that brought me here. And I realized that I’m not surprised to have ended up in the mountains after all. They’ve always been here, waiting for me to come home.
The mountains have turned out to be the best option of all.
PS: we’ll probably put the house in the field D has set aside. It really is the best place for it. But it’s good to have options.