Janis D.

On June 26, 1948 I was born into a large clan. My mother was one of 15, 3 girls, 12 boys. My father from a family of 7 children, 6 boys. I have an older sister and a younger sister, but both brothers have passed. 

We lived in a cold water flat, a basement two room apartment.  Four of us kids slept in what had been a closet in bunk beds. We were downstairs from my grandmother, who lived upstairs with those of her sons who had not yet married and left home.  But one day, one of my uncles and aunt and their 3 kids, my cousins, moved in and stayed for a few years. 

 A lot of the time, especially on weekends, someone was always visiting so cousins were always around. It was a perpetual party with the Mills Brothers always playing and someone always singing along.  We would all try to harmonize like they did. In the summer people would just gather at our house and bring food and we’d have big cookouts. Us kids would play tag or hide and seek or dodge ball if there wasn’t a baseball game going on. I was the fourth oldest of what turned out to be about 70 cousins. We were the only ones that went to Catholic school.

When I was about 10 or 11, we moved next door into a regular three-bedroom apartment. Our neighborhood was a row of 3 family houses across from a park owned by the mayor.  Like most people he liked our family and would occasionally sit and talk with my grandmother. She made him laugh. 

I loved both of my grandmothers but I didn’t get along with my mother, who didn’t get along with her mother. Yet like my mother, I was a tomboy who competed hard with the best of them in sports.  I thought I would be the first girl on the Red Sox. Instead, my 2 boy competitors, one cousin and one neighbor, were drafted to the Red Sox farm team.  

I wasn’t all rough and tumble though. Early on I took tap, ballet and acrobats.  I spent a lot of time with my father’s mother who lived about a mile’s walk away, only a few blocks from school. We went there every day for lunch and I spent a lot of overnights there. “Ma” taught me how to crochet, although I can’t remember how.  And I helped her “tie” her quilts.  No matter where I was, I was doing some kind of arts and crafts project, always making things. 

At Christmastime, we would gather pine boughs and cones and make and sell table centerpieces for orders that we took going door to door from neighbors. At seven, I had my own shoe shine business servicing my uncles and neighbors by appointment on Friday and Saturday nights – date nights. Living on Main Street made for very successful lemonade stands.  And we would charge a nickel for admission to see our annual bicycle show.  We would have our bikes shining spotless and decked out with playing cards fixed onto the spokes and streamers attached to the hand grips. And for months beforehand we would make up tricks and practice them before the show.  Our performance always had at least one act of going down a hill standing on the seat. I was pretty adept at that. I was also the family’s busiest babysitter from an early age.  I always had a kid in tow. 

To be of use

By Marge Piercy

 

The people I love the best

jump into work head first

without dallying in the shallows

and swim off with sure strokes

almost out of sight.

They seem to become natives

of that element,

the black sleek heads of seals

bouncing like half-submerged

balls.

 

I love people who harness

themselves, an ox

to a heavy cart,

who pull like water buffalo,

with massive patience,

who strain in the mud and the

muck to move

things forward,

who do what has to be done,

again and again.

 

I want to be with people who

submerge

in the task, who go into the

fields to harvest

and work in a row and pass

the bags along,

who stand in the line and haul

in their places,

who are not parlor generals

and field deserters

but move in a common rhythm

when the food must come in

or the fire be put out.

All that child care experience turned out to be a real advantage when, at 15, I became pregnant.  This was 1964.  Seems I was among the vanguard of a real trend.  Although I’d been an A student, school was out.  By seventeen, I was married with two sons. My husband took a job at the local carwash owned by our ex-mayor. The house was an old carriage house that he had his boys working on to refurbish.  When it was done, he offered it to us to rent We put a lot of effort into using only historic colors to paint the walls and to restore whatever original wood was left. When we finished, Mr. Lloyd paid us a visit and asked for a tour. He was so impressed with what we did, he asked if we wanted to own it. It was a duplex, so we could afford it as we could rent out the other side. My young husband was reluctant to take on so much responsibility but I pushed. I set out to learn enough to act as my own lawyer in the transaction and our kind benefactor arranged it so that we didn’t need a down payment.  It was on a cul-de-sac and soon we had a large swing set and every kid in the neighborhood there. I could see the kids outside my windows all day. I began my lifelong practice of organic gardening there in a small plot off to the side. Everyone was happy for a while. Between our parents, my brothers and their girlfriends and cousins, we always had a willing babysitter so I never felt confined by young kids. 

 

It was the 60’s after all and I was an early “libber.” I took many art classes between our local high school evening courses and the Cambridge Adult Ed program and I obtained my GED as well. I took drawing, painting and puppet making.  

 

Finally, I joined a friend in her dance classes at U Mass and at Radcliffe. I was not an enrolled student but was allowed to attend and participate.  The wonderful teacher, Clair Milardi, a protégé’ of Martha Graham, knew my story and encouraged me to dance.  But I was aware of the all-consuming commitment needed to dance professionally and I had already committed my time to my children. I stopped dancing after a couple of years.  Another friend was now attending the Museum School in Boston and she would come to my house evenings and we would paint into the wee hours. I learned a lot from her and continued to paint off and on during the years. 

As time went by, my husband, now working in Boston with my father as a power transmission mechanic, started staying out at night drinking with his work buddies. I took a job working the night shift as a psychiatric aide in our local hospital when they opened a new autonomous psychiatric unit. 

The kids were pretty happy. They played very early morning hockey.  We had a family membership at the Boston Children’s Science Museum and we took them there frequently.  I became a den mother. We did all the right things for them to flourish. On the surface we got by but our marriage was troubled as his drinking continued. Finally, we made a huge decision to sell the house and move out to Colorado.  

First on the agenda was an extended trip.  We headed north, first through upstate New York and on to Quebec. After that, one day we took turns driving 9 hours across Canada and on until we reached Banff National Park.  With our Jeep Wagoneer, we pulled a tent trailer and camped the whole way. Banff was definitely beautiful and Lake Louise was paradise.  We continued on southerly through Montana’s Glacier National Park, with John Denver on the tape player, all of us singing out Rocky Mountain High! The kids took on the roles of Lewis and Clark and impersonated them with narratives at every stop. The kids even loved being home schooled in the car. Onward we travelled through the wild west of Wyoming until we arrived in Colorado where we stayed with best friends who have moved out there before us.  All the kids got along well and we had missed our good friends. But Dennis couldn’t make the adjustment.  He never was able to commit enough to staying there to find work so back we went.  I knew this was the end of the road for our marriage. 

I ended up on Cape Cod with the kids when he never returned home from work on New Year’s Eve. That was it.  We were left in a winter rental right on the beach for the season. I fell in love with the Cape right there and then and determined to stay there. I also fell in love with my next door neighbor, four years younger than I and a recent college grad.  Young, black, handsome and smart.  We made of go of it but finding a place to live was not easy.  Dennis wanted to take the kids for a while during the summer, so of course, that was the best things for them at that point because our seasonal rental was up.  While we searched for work and housing, the two of us lived out of my car in the woods on a lake.  In some ways it was like living in a fairy tale.  But the flip side of it was not so romantic. At night the mosquitos became ferocious and we took refuge in the local bars.  Reggie was a musician so he knew many of the guys playing at the local clubs and we became good friends with many of them. I took a part time job hemming curtains at a small curtain shop for a short while and then at the Community Action Committee I became a Vista Volunteer learning to become a community organizer. People there assisted us in our home search until we finally secured one just before September with a federal housing subsidy. But all hell broke loose when Dennis refused to return the kids and hid them. I filed for divorce and custody.  After an excruciating ordeal, my kids were returned to me by police escort and I was granted my divorce and custody of my kids.  By this time, however, my kids had been mercilessly turned against me. My relationships with my sons would never fully recover from this. Oh yes, my parents wouldn’t speak with me since I took up with a man of color. 

Reggie found work at a small candle factory at first.  We played in the same league on opposing softball teams for a while. Eventually, he became a High School Guidance Counsellor and I attended Cape Cod Community College, where took every art class the school offered – painting, drawing, sculpture, studio arts. On the Cape I had found my tribe at last! Like-minded left-wing activists and artists. I never wanted to leave.

In 1980 I graduated cum laude with an AA in Liberal Arts. For the next two years, I commuted to New Hampshire College twice a month and Boston twice a month. I graduated with a BS in Human Services and eventually became Program Coordinator for CACC&I.  Again, with too much water under the bridge, Reggie and I split up after eight years.  After high school both my sons joined the Air Force and another trip across country was in the cards for me. 

My best friend, Marsha and I loaded up her old Dodge Ram with a hatchback on top and took off toward California. We slept in the back of the truck as we camped along the way.  It was a great trip with many gorgeous sights of this country. In San Francisco and Berkeley we visited with good friends and had a lot of good times before we headed back.  Meanwhile, I had just missed an old friend who travelled east as we travelled west. So after I arrived back home he called me and offered to send airfare for me to return to SF and visit with him. I was at a crucial point in time, trying to decide on my next course in life. So I accepted.  We were married within three months.  

I knew Andy from my hometown where he was the old boyfriend who introduced me to his best friend that I had married first.  Andy was our best man. We were long-time friends.  Now, in 1985 he became my husband in a fabulous wedding that took place in friend’s home outdoors in their rose garden on a fabulous day in May. It was complete with a garage band put together for the occasion made up of a bunch of friends, since Andy was also a musician. And it was a pot luck party coordinated by one of his ex-girlfriends. Everyone made their best dish and we served only champagne – and lots of it. Such a good time was had by all that five years later, the original attendees demanded a repeat performance for our fifth year anniversary!

I joined him in becoming a cab driver in the city of SF, having never driven there at all; I studied the map and passed tests before becoming a licensed livery driver.  I also attended UC Berkeley in SF in their Interior Design/Interior Architecture Program, where I became enthralled with surface design. We had, in many ways, a good life. 

But I was again living with an alcoholic and I was homesick.  I missed my family.  I missed being around East Coasters.  My tribe was not in California.  And I was struggling with depression. We had been in family counselling but it wasn’t working. 

After seven years, we moved back east together and settled on the Cape. He found work at the Marine Biological Lab in Woods Hole and I worked in retail sales, first at a local kitchen store, then a scrapbooking and rubberstamp shop, all the while doing art on my own.  I taught collage at the shop and at the local library from time to time.  And at home, I made jewelry from polymer clay.  I joined the Woods Hole Artists Coop where I sold my jewelry. In addition, I was a professional decorative artist; that is, I painted furniture and interior walls and cabinetry with creative paint treatments and faux finishes. 

I also returned to the community college to earn a Certificate in Infant & Toddler Teaching, certified as Lead Teacher.  I became and Infant Teacher in their preschool. AT 50, I also returned to “modern” improvisational dancing for a short while with a group of women whose ages ranged from 16 to 85. It was a great group of women and I loved my time with them.  I finally was a part of a dance performance before I had a hysterectomy that left me unable to dance again. 

 After a nineteen-year marriage, I left Andy.  We remain friends.  I moved back to my hometown and took a job with MIT in their preschool.  Along the way amends were made with my parents at the time my first son was planning om marriage. My sisters interceded and that was the end of the stand-off.  My dad had passed already and this would be my mother’s last year.  So I spent a lot of time with her taking her shopping and out to eat until she couldn’t do that anymore.  Blinded by macular degeneration and suffering from breast cancer that travelled to her brain, she succumbed, surrounded by all three of her daughters at home in her own bed. After watching my dad die after chemo, she refused treatment.  It was her choice and we respected that. 

Meanwhile, both sons married and started families. I was always busy with my grandchildren during these years. I was the on-call babysitter and we had a lot of good times together.

From my Cape days, I was an amateur drummer playing the djembe and conga drum sometimes.  Back in the Cambridge area, I participated in The Art Of Group Singing with Susan Robbins, Founder and Artistic Director of Libana, an internationally renowned women's world music ensemble.  As you can imagine, I've never had a bored moment in my life!   

Nevertheless, I ended up with two knee replacements and on disability from work. I became, at 60, the youngest resident living at a subsidized elderly housing complex in North Reading, which was a blessing as I recovered from bad surgeries in a place built to accommodate the lifestyle.  But so small, I had to forego the use of the living room in favor of an art studio with my tiny bedroom doubling as a sewing room. The town van would pick me up as I cobbled to and fro.  I went to physical therapy for almost two years. The Senior Center was nearby and they would put 2 large tables together so I could baste the large quilts I was making for my grandkids.  I now had six of them. I certainly couldn’t get down on my knees to do it.

On one of these days, I heard a man there talking about growing up in Melrose, so I asked him about it.  He knew my whole family.  I barely remembered him from working at my uncle’s gas station when he was a kid. He left and I was off in the van on my way to my dentist’s office. I was told later, that he returned to the center to ask about getting in touch with me.  Of course they didn’t give him my phone number but they gave me his.  I felt I was too needy at the time to be involved with anyone so I didn’t call him. 

I had just dealt with the effects of being on oxycodone in rehab, quitting it cold turkey. What an insidious drug!  Those nursing home docs give it out to old folks in there like it was candy!  I could actually feel it physically working in my brain and I was struggling with depression. I felt pretty alone.  I had to practically beg someone to give me hand. There was no public transportation in town, not even cabs. And the town van did not leave the town borders. My sons and young sister were all busy with their own kids and families. My older sister moved to California. My brothers were useless. They, like my father and his father before him, were alcoholics. One died not long after from cancer we didn’t know he had until it was too late to do anything.  The other was soon to take his own life.  

But my brother called me a couple months later to tell me that this guy had called him to try to connect with me and he did the same thing.  Again, I didn’t call him.  Finally, my PT was over and I was getting along on my own pretty well. A young woman who was a home companion came twice a week to take me out for walks at a local park as I grew stronger. One day while cleaning up I came across his number on a day I was feeling pretty good.  I did call him.  And he came over to visit with me a few times. My place was so small there was barely a place for him to sit.  He began to take me out to places to eat or to shop, then back to his house for dinner or just to lounge and watch TV.  He made me laugh all the time.  He still does. He knows nothing about art but he’s completely supportive of me doing it.  He makes a lot of accommodations so that I can pursue my art goals.  Almost five years later we’re still together, quite happily living in his house. All he wants is to for me to be happy.  He still remembers watching me walk by when I was 10, 12, 14.  I didn’t know he always had his eyes on me. He’s a year younger and I guess he was just a kid to me - one of the boys who would giggle or whistle as I walked by and paid no attention to.  He’s got my attention now. 

I may be 68, and not much has turned out quite like I was hoping. But I’m still going strong and I am happy with what I have. I am grateful for a full life, for every day that comes.  I am one with the divine life force and welcome it to shine through me and guide me on whatever creative path that’s left to my life.