People told me my mother was beautiful. By the time I was able to perceive her face, I only saw the mouth turned sharply down at the edges and a glimpse of wildness in her eyes.
When mother and I returned to the Boston house after the summer, the help were still there to keep it dusted and clean and to serve meals. Then, little by little, things began to change. It was 1941, and the two cheerful Irish maids, Tina and Annie, left for better war jobs. Hannah, the cook, was getting old and found it too hard to manage without them, so she soon left. Others followed. There was no gas for the chauffeur, and the house began to fill with a ringing silence that was disturbing.
My father and brother went off to the war in 1941. My sister found another family and lived with them. I didn’t see my father for the next six years. My mother divorced him and left him to his ladies. The war years were the best of his life, he later said. He was stationed on an island in the South Sea, responsible for a nurses’ unit.
Eo, my nanny, had left when I was five and started nursery school. She came back after everyone had left, to my delight. One day about a month after she returned, we were walking in the Boston Common when Eo turned to me and said, “Millicent, I have to tell you something.” I grabbed the soft upper part of her arm from which she usually shook me off. “I’m leaving,” she said.
“But why, Eo, why?”
“It’s your mother, I can’t be around her.” Even at that age I was amazed, for Eo never said a bad thing about anyone. I was devastated and wept for days.
By the time I was seven, all the help had left, some to better war jobs, some out of fear of my mother’s outbursts and often odd behavior. I lived alone with her in that large house in Boston for the next seven years. I don’t know which I became aware of first, the slow disintegration of my mother’s mind or the dust settling on the empty house with its sweet acid smell.
She had two persistent themes to which I did not answer back – I already knew that it was dangerous and I wouldn’t win. She said that I was a rape baby. (I didn’t understand what a “rape baby” was, except it was some way my father had hurt her.) I didn’t understand that maybe she didn’t want me. She also said that I was full of poison, poisoned by the unpasteurized milk from my father’s farm. I soon learned to avoid conversations with my mother at all costs. I knew it would end with her two themes and she would win. I also became accustomed, very quickly, to understanding that there would be no more meals, just odd things like shad roe and cocktail cheeses in a cold icebox. On the dark evenings, she took to sitting motionless in the large chair by one of the windows or standing behind the maroon velvet curtains in the living room entrance.
Little by little, hardly realizing it, I was moving into that other world of silence, dreams, and daydreams. Slowly over the years, in my childhood dreams and psyche, I felt I made connections on the other side, and I learned things others didn’t seem to know. I started watching myself and others from a distance. Sometimes I yearned for freedom from their world and their strange ways, and I began to make decisions inside myself. It became a habit not to listen to what people said because it had nothing to do with what I wanted and needed, and besides, I preferred my world a thousand times to theirs. Still, I watched with fascination to see how they behaved so I could pretend and act like that too. I could never really get the hang of it and was puzzled by how they learned to behave so naturally, so comfortably protective of their right to be here. Then I would give up and fall back on my daydreams and stiffly turn my head away from adults.
The silence shifting through the dust in the house began to feel dangerous. I began locking myself in my room. I couldn’t leave like the others had. I never liked the house, but my favorite room was the green room. It had high ceilings and light lettuce-colored walls with long, silk chartreuse curtains that fell in puddles on the floor. There was a grand piano, which I spent hours coaxing sounds out of, and elegant French and Italian antiques. Most important of all, I was fascinated by the beautiful mirror over the fireplace with its gold frame, smoky glass, and black spots where the mirror had worn out. I loved to look in it and imagine other worlds.
But gradually I became afraid of looking in the mirror, and started turning my face away from adults and teachers. I didn’t want them to see my eyes. I became terrified as the years went on that if I looked in the mirror, I wouldn’t see my reflection, but my mother’s face staring back at me, smiling slightly, and perhaps, without knowing it, I would sense she wanted me to die. Even more frightening, though, was my fear that I would look in the mirror and see no one at all.
“Sorrow is the servant of the intuitive.” Rumi
About two years after the servants left, the driftings began. The house slowly became covered with black city grit, wrapped in cobwebs and adorned with rotting silk curtains, filthy windows and empty iceboxes. I started to dream that I opened the icebox door and was bitten by a vicious slimy creature. The house was silent and totally isolated from the outside world – and filled with traps! If demons and fiends exist, they lay waiting in dark corners. Danger, always danger. Heavy maroon velvet curtains hid Lucy, who would stand behind them and listen, then float through the house or up to the attic without a sound, or sit in a dark room without moving.
Lucy had hired a lovely lady, Mrs. Whighton, a Christian Scientist and secretary, who came in once a month or so. She made sure I got my monthly allowance. She filled rows of black notebooks, full chapters, about poison milk, undulant fever (or brucellosis, its medical name for the illness caused by unpasteurized milk), and how I behaved because of it. My mother invented this idea that I had undulant fever so that she could accuse my father in court of poisoning his child, as she was in the process of divorcing him. Mrs. Whighton left when I went to boarding school. I remember mother was awfully cruel to her. Perhaps she had stayed on to help me. She came to mother’s funeral and told me something I was to hear so many times. “I couldn’t stay any longer – your mother was frightening.”
Lucy started coming home at odd hours of the night, then often not at all. In later years I learned she was “working” at the Officers’ Club in the Commons, greeting the boys and the wounded as they got off the boats. I do remember her learning to put bandages on me, which was fun. Lucy said she had always wanted to be a doctor. She had times that made it seem as if everything was all right; but it wasn’t. That as if behavior lasted almost to the end of her life, when anyone could see clearly she wasn’t well, but until then it was impossible to explain to people who met her socially and who didn’t know her well, or to my teachers, that my mother was often quite mad.
I remember years later when I was eighteen, my Aunt Nan took me to a psychiatrist, as my professors at college felt I needed help. He explained the “as if” personality—the psychiatric term for people whose identities are fluid: they can appear fine one minute and frightening the next. For instance, Lucy would be working with Mrs. Whighton and she would suddenly start screaming at her.
When I got older, it was hard to avoid noticing that she was greatly interested in men. Even when I was a child of about twelve or thirteen (during the war), she often didn’t come home from the Officers’ Club at night. I think she was incapable of feeling love, but she also left me with the feeling that men were an important part of one’s happiness. When she got very upset she would have nosebleeds, trailing drops of blood on the stairs or on a desk, and leaving blood-soaked handkerchiefs in small red balls around the house.
Lucy didn’t appear to mind that everyone had left.
It was the nights that were devastating. I tried to get home before dark. I had a little gold cross on a gold chain, and the key to the house hung around my neck on a dirty piece of string. I was afraid of losing it and being locked out. I’d let myself in and make a dash for my room. At all costs, if Mother was home, I wanted to avoid her in the dark. Safely in my room, I would slam the black bars of the Spanish locks, my skin and muscles tightening as I gasped for breath, hair raised on the back of my neck in fear. I felt like an animal.
I stayed in my room listening to the music from my little white radio. Its melodies and minor tunes kept coaxing me back to earth – coaxing me to feel things as I looked out my window at the cross on the steeple of the Church of the Advent, solid against the sky. I seldom got to sleep until around 4:00 A.M. I lay in bed and waited and watched and thought and thought. I was trying to figure it all out so I could survive. I started banging my head against the wall, asleep or awake, until it hurt. As it got dark, I’d think I heard a noise outside the door, and I sat there on the bed wondering if that evil energy could slide under the locked door. Did Lucy wander through the house carrying a knife? I wasn’t altogether sure where Lucy would draw the line. Lucy, like those primitive sorcerer-priests who killed their enemies by waving a bone at them, she was dangerous and powerful. But I kept an unspoken truce between us in spite of the fact that my simplest needs—food, clothing, attention, love—were not met.
Over time, I was removed too long from the usual influences of society and relatives to understand that the affluent often felt more self-important than the poor; I only saw there were kind people and unkind ones, crazy people and supposedly sane ones.
I was unseen by my mother and by the people around me – as though I didn’t really exist. I learned to arrange my face into what I assumed was a normal expression. But I couldn’t stop my eyes from being full of pain. I was also relieved that against my wishes some part of me betrayed how sad I was.
I was moving more and more into the world of fantasy, symbolism and metaphor. Eventually, when the pressure became too overwhelming, I felt as if I had moved out of my body altogether to a place where no one could reach or touch me. I could watch everything from the outside, ice cold, and safe, but still hearing the north wind whisper of fear. I became a girl who had lost all other feeling, a girl who was no longer able to express her anger.
I think it was about then that I observed my friends with wonder, trying to understand how they come to feel so comfortable in this world. I had moments when I simply lost the ability to understand how to behave: where to put my eyes, my arms, and my body. I believe this is when I started disconnecting from people and sensing that I didn’t belong in the world.
School became a problem; I started flunking my classes. I tried to hide in the back row, dripping with perspiration, so afraid I’d be asked a question that I would go numb and speechless, and longed to be back in my room where no one could see me. I was captain of the soccer team and made lots of friends among the “unpopular” girls. I knew how they felt.
In music class I loved to sing and was sometimes asked to sing a little something on my own. I started singing in my friend’s Unitarian Church choir. She was the minister’s daughter and lived next door. Lucy tried to stop me from singing in the choir but I wouldn’t let her. My singing had nothing to do with her. It was a gift from another place and I wasn’t going to let her take it away from me. She called the minister and said she didn’t want me to sing in the choir anymore. It was one of the few confrontations I ever had with her. Standing on the stairs, I shouted that she couldn’t stop me, then ran to my room and slammed the lock on my door shut. I continued to sing in the choir, but I started to be a little flat, as if fingers were squeezing my neck.
I loved to write too, especially as there was no one for me to talk to in the house. I wrote and wrote all my feelings, secrets, and conversations with myself. I hid the notebooks under the bed until one day, they all disappeared. I was crushed, but I didn’t want to ask Lucy if she had taken them. It didn’t stop me from writing, though, and I loved to read – my favorite story was the children’s version of At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald. It is about a little boy called Diamond who lives in a loft above a horse barn. The North Wind begins to visit him at night. “Her hair fell down all about her till her face looked out of the midst of it like a moon of a cloud.” She is the most beautiful lady he had ever seen. Sometimes they dance and sometimes she takes him in her arms and they travel over rivers, land, mountains, and the sea, and when Diamond looks up at her he sees the loving eyes of a great lady. “The next moment her black hair went streaming out from her as she flung herself abroad in space amongst the stars with Diamond.” One day the North Wind sinks a boat and all the sailors perish. Diamond is very upset and afraid, but she holds him next to her heart and explains that is what she is and does and she bears it: “Through all the noise I hear the sound of a far off song and music and it is quite enough to make me able to bear the cry from the drowning ship.” In the end Diamond asks the North Wind, who terrifies him, yet whom he loves very much, to take him home, but not to his old home. That’s how he goes to live at the back of the North Wind where she sits on a throne of blue ice and crystal icicles filled with sparks of lights, in the land of death. The North Wind – death – became my teacher.
Since there was little food in the house, I ate at school, had dinner at the drug store and stole candy bars from subway newsstands. As the years went by, my clothes got smaller and smaller and worn out. My polo coat had large threadbare patches around the buttonholes where the white inner lining showed through. A friend of Aunt Nan’s saw me one day on the street and called her, using words like vagabond and orphan to describe me. I soon received a care package from my father, delicious clothes fit for one’s mistress, slinky black dresses and a leopard print scarf.
I often sat on endless train rides to sitters’ homes or to my Aunt Nan’s in Greenwich, Connecticut, where I spent several summers and holidays and weekends. On dark, rainy nights in the reflection of the train window, I couldn’t distinguish the raindrops from tears – nor could I have expressed the devastating thought that I simply wasn’t wanted.
For two summers at the beginning of the war, I was sent to live with my grandfather, Andrew Carnegie II, on the North Shore outside of Boston. Grandmother had died and Grandpa and I were in a big house by ourselves with a nurse for him and the servants. There was no one to play with except my grandfather, a very dear man whom I liked very much.
I was always climbing on the roof; once I was caught by Grandfather, who heard a noise and came out with a gun. Other times I slept at night under the magnolia bushes, to be found on his morning walk, or sneaked out of the house at 4:00 A.M. to climb an enormous pine tree and watch the first light. In the early fall, when it came time to go back to school in Boston, I would walk a mile to the nearby railroad station. It was hardly a station really; there was no station house, just an unused parking lot. I would stand near the track and hail down the engineer to stop. Sometimes there were one or two others, but usually that big train stopped just for me.
My sister came to see Mother and me once, soon after I arrived back in Boston for school. She got into a terrible battle with Mother – something I had learned instinctively never to do, as I knew one couldn’t win with her and it could be frightening to deal with a mind over the edge, out of control. On this occasion Mother, who was wearing a long green velvet dressing gown, got down on the floor on all fours and started crawling toward my sister, swinging her head from side to side as she screamed, “You have always tried to murder me, always tried to kill me, always, always!” To be accused of murdering my mother would have been more than I could bear. My sister backed away and left immediately and didn’t come back.
Soon after that incident my Aunt Nan sent up a Trappist nun who had left her abbey after having lived there in silence for years. She was a small, stiff, stern sort who wore shoulder pads. I still have the letter she sent my aunt: “I have never been through or witnessed anything like it in my life. I cannot stay here one more moment.” These words had become a kind of litany that would continue of for the rest of Mother’s life, a sentiment repeated again and again by others who came to stay.
As I never spoke with anyone about my life with Lucy, I became inarticulate about what I felt. I think it was around this period of my life that I lost a sense of time, the sequence of things that most people have. It never occurred to me to mention that I was miserable and didn’t know what to do about flunking so many courses or being so afraid when I sang my solo on Sunday that I would be hoarse and the tiniest bit off key. I just rearranged my face again for the world until I could take it all back to my room and my cross and my river and the people walking by under the window. In my imagination the cross flew across the sky and said, “It is proper to suffer.” The cross in some supernatural way not only gave its protection and special meaning to my circumstances, but also held up its iron arms against my anger.
When I was about nine, Mother hired an accommodator, a person who comes for a month, or one day a week. I called her Cookie. She was probably Irish and had silver hair touched with yellow and plump fingers. She moved into the basement. I wasn’t allowed to go in the kitchen, which was in the basement, so I seldom saw her, and in any case I hated the kitchen. There were narrow stairs painted deep blue going down to it. It was below ground level and dark, and the furnace sounded like a human heart, beating away. There was a heavy breathing sound. Cookie was to become one of the long list of people who came and left in a hurry.
One day when I got home, I ran upstairs and locked the doors to my room and bathroom. Cookie was to put my dinner in the elevator on a tray at 6:00 P.M., and I was to ring it up. One night before 6:00, I heard a knock on the door, and Cookie asking to come in. She was carrying my tray and weaving around a bit. She told me to sit on the bed and she proceeded to feed me burned spinach, spoonful by spoonful. I ate it partly out of bewilderment and partly because I sensed for her it was an act of kindness; there was a shared but unspoken sense of danger between us in this house. The next night I rang for the tray and nothing happened. Finally, I summoned up my courage and went down the four flights of stairs. “Cookie,” I called out. No answer, just a heavy silence. When I arrived at the kitchen door, I found her. She was lying under the kitchen table. Her body lay in a pool of blood, one arm flung out from her side with a large carving knife next to it; she wasn’t moving.
As usual I couldn’t find Mother anywhere, so I fled upstairs and called my friend next door, the minister’s daughter. The ambulance came, and they took Cookie. She wasn’t mentioned to me by anybody again. I don’t know if it was a suicide. It looked like it to me. I have no idea if they even found my mother before they took Cookie away. I had gone to my room.
I couldn’t sleep that night so I pushed my bed over to the window in order to watch the world below. I tuned my old-fashioned little white radio to play its endless round of popular songs, and placed my stuffed animal, Dazzle, carefully on the windowsill. Dazzle had been with me for at least six years. He was made of gray and white crocheted wool and might have been a mouse except his nose was too long and made him look more like an anteater with long ears.
It became a ritual. Having set my kingdom in order, I would arrange my long white nightgown and place my elbows on the windowsill and observe the world. It was by far the best time of day because it was too late to do anything else, even my homework (which I never did), and I liked being alone.
My window above the world looked out over brick houses and slate roof tops, old city streets that emptied onto the esplanade where soldiers and their girls, old men, dogs, and people of all varieties enjoyed walking in the grass and sitting on park benches.
Beyond the park was the river that ran through the city and under the Salt-and-Pepper Bridge. That is what it was called because it had four stone towers at either end that looked like old-fashioned silver salt-and-pepper shakers. Above all this was the Carter’s Inn Clock, which lit up at night in wonderful green and orange colors, except for the time itself, which shone forth in a luminous white. I thought it was a marvelous thing that someone had donated that clock so that all the people in the city could see the time. And I would watch my river roll by the esplanade and the cross on the Church of the Advent race against the clouds and the sky.
I sat there talking to Dazzle, who had a magnificent gift of silence, my elbows digging into the hard, dirty rim of the window until they were well worked with sore red lines. As the evening moved by below, the mood and feeling of the city changed, the people went home, the air seemed lighter, and the rather sickly smell of a warm city disappeared, but most of all the quality of light changed as if the darkness might succeed in blotting everything out before the dawn. As I sat there, I found myself thinking over the day’s events.
For quite some time now I had the feeling small animals must have when constantly attacked by large predatory beasts, a kind of constant alert, a raising of the fur and a sniffing for the odor of danger or fear. Suddenly the world was becoming unpredictable, and it was getting harder to compete with the growing importance of the poison in my mother’s mind. I was being squeezed out of the grown-up world and my place of “becoming” was my seat by the window. Sitting there contemplating these things, I found myself feeling it was important to decide what kind of person I should be: How should I react? How do I want to fit in? Should I be good or bad? I was convinced I had a choice.
I pictured myself swaggering down the school hall, my Scottish kilt swinging wildly behind me, dragging my dirty, green book bag, broadcasting in my walk that I was mean and tough. Then when I got home, I would say things to hurt Lucy, scream back at the endless confusion – viciously. But I kept thinking I didn’t want to be vicious.
Something drew my attention back to the city scene in front of me – some subtle occurrence, an unusual ringing sound, a shift of light, I’m not quite sure what. It was very late, perhaps around 4:00 or 5:00 P.M. Everything was quiet; all the cars and people had disappeared. The river looked black and more mysterious as it rolled under the bridge and the Carter’s Inn Clock stood out by itself; all the other lights had been turned off. Silence seemed to blanket the city in an eerie stillness. Captured and folded into its soft, black feathers, I didn’t move, didn’t even breathe, but sank slowly to a silent place, where if I knew how to look and listened hard enough, I felt I could hear a whisper or a secret or perhaps even an answer. It was my first glimpse that maybe there were other worlds, something inside, an inner voice or something perhaps sacred in the silence. It was the first time, since my dream as a young child of talking to God, that I felt that subtle longing—not for a mother but for something I couldn’t define.
Perhaps it was in a place where great rivers flow quietly through space and clocks filled with light tell time without ticking and float over sleeping cities, and where the morning light shifted and tangled and pushed at the blackness – pushed to come back and give new shapes and forms to things again.
“The Star-Spangled Banner” suddenly blared out from the radio. Startled and by now very tired, I picked up Dazzle, hugging him so tightly that his loose stuffing bulged in yet another spot, crawled under the covers and whispered into Dazzle’s ear, “It’s all right, Dazzle, I’m not crazy. I am going to be good.”
Lucy decided to put me in the hospital when I was about eleven, two years after Cookie disappeared, to have me “cleaned out” of the poisonous, milky substance. Then she could write long letters to her lawyers, to judges, her relatives, friends, Aunt Nan and doctors telling how her ex-husband had poisoned me so that I was seriously ill and in the hospital.
I found myself standing at the entrance to the scrubbed and clean smelling ward, my two brown braids neatly pulled behind me, thinking, “I feel fine. What if they find out I am fine?” I was afraid I would be caught in the lie, and even if it wasn’t my lie, I felt humiliated. Glancing down the rows of beds, I saw only older women. Occasionally, some beds were separated by a glass partition, but for the most part there was just a white curtain.
A nurse led me to a large private room that looked out directly onto the wall of another building. Lucy followed us in, inspected the room, and put down my bag and schoolbooks.
“You’ll feel better soon,” Lucy informed me. You know your test was positive. You have undulant fever from the milk, but Dr. Tobin says he can help you.”
I turned my head away from my mother. “I don’t want to stay here,” I whispered.
“You’re a very sick girl.” With that, Lucy left. I didn’t see her again for the three weeks that I stayed in the hospital. There were no visitors, and it never occurred to me to call anyone. Who would I call? I was forbidden to see any of my fathers’ relatives by Mother. She had made that very clear to them too, and during the war, men left, and often wives, if possible, followed them to army camps.
The hospital was a teaching hospital, so I saw a great many interns. They came to study me, a specimen of undulant fever, a sickness brought on by unpasteurized milk. They kept asking me questions, and I kept saying that I felt fine. I seemed to have a lot of colds, but that was all. Sitting all day by myself in a room with nothing to do but read or look at the walls, I felt as if I were being punished. The doctors, serious and in a hurry, wearing their white coats and carrying the authority of God, told me I was being tested for undulant fever, and that they were going to try out a new drug on me. I took it all in and began to feel overwhelmed by the authority of these doctors who agreed with my mother. What if it were true? I began to grind my teeth, often without realizing it, and I sang a little singsong litany against the doctors whom I did not like or trust and against Lucy, whom I didn’t trust either. “The milk is not poison, the milk is not poison.”
Lucy had talked about this disease as if it were dangerous, as if it could kill people and dogs, and I wondered, in spite of myself, what it was that made the doctors believe my mother. Lucy had told me that her friend Carlyle’s feet had turned black and she had died from it, and now these men took it seriously. What bothered me the most was that they believed my mother. To people she met casually, Lucy was believable.
After five days of tests and sitting in my private room alone, I asked to be allowed to go to the ward. The doctors in their wisdom, or curiosity, had decided to give me injections of the newly discovered drug penicillin, every two hours, night and day. By the second day my arms were sore, but moving into the ward at least provided some distractions and lots of attention. In spite of myself I wanted to please these doctors who seemed interested in me; I enjoyed and delighted in the unusual attention, but I was puzzled. My father had insisted I drink the milk when we lived on the island. Why would these important doctors keep me in the hospital if nothing were wrong? I couldn’t sort it out, I became confused and the confusion kept going around in my head.
The nurses gave me odd jobs to do, and a large, Italian lady named Sophie took me under her wing. Sophie had few inhibitions and would laugh and holler and waddle up and down the ward, a large cross swaying from her neck, talking with all the patients in broken English. She had had a serious operation, and I guessed from the conversations of the nurses, which I sometimes overheard, that she was not at all well. Next to my bed was an old lady with gray hair who hardly ever spoke. She died in the night, and there were lots of whispers as they took her away.
After two weeks my body became sore all over from the injections. The nurses tried to find new places to inject the new drug. The night time was the time I disliked the most. After being woken up for the injection, I would lie in bed, watching the nurse walk around the ward in her soft, gummy shoes. There was just enough light to see the outlines of the beds and the warm glow of the nurses’ station at the end of the corridor. I would lie there and think to myself, “I am not ill. I do not have undulant fever. I am perfectly healthy. I am not full of poison, I am not full of poison, I am not full of poison.” But what I couldn’t say to myself and what began to form in my mind was, “What if I am full of poison? What if I am bad?”
(With thanks to Atlas & Co. Publishers for agreeing to the publication of this excerpt from Songs of Three Islands, available through Amazon.com and other bookstores.)