“Single Sex Settings”

As I thought about Boy Scouts now including girls in their troops, I spent a while reflecting on the whole transformation of once single sex settings to coed ones. I am not including any discussion about what my questionnaires now routinely include: alternatives to male and female. I am restricting my comments to a sense of single sex settings familiar to anyone over 50.

I participated in a Camp Fire Girls group for all of elementary school and went every summer to a girls’ camp pictured above. Our counselors were young women, and the staff was entirely female. We did archery, swimming, arts and crafts, singing, rowing, weaving and general running around. Free of boys, we felt unconscious of what we were wearing, what we looked like, and whether we would be teased. I looked forward to it each summer.

In college I lived in an all girl dormitory. Boys were only allowed upstairs for two hours on Sunday afternoons and the door had to be left ajar. We ran from our rooms to the communal bathroom in underwear, curlers, and mud masks. The pressure to look “presentable” didn’t exist.

In college I taught a women’s studies class in rural Oregon which was attended by women only(by choice, not regulation.) Here my students talked about being hurt in their marriages, being raped as young women, wanting to live alone, resenting their children, and other topics “taboo” in the 1970’s. It was the first time most of them had ever shared any of these things.

Colleges once women only began accepting men many years ago. Colleges once only for men did the same over time. Dormitories are now coed. Camp Fire Girls is now called Camp Fire and boys and girls go to my old camp. Men take women’s’ studies classes.

From my point of view something precious has been lost. The effect of what has now been called the “male gaze” didn’t disappear when men and women began to routinely share spaces. I needed that male free time growing up. I can’t speak for boys, of course.

I welcome any thoughts about this change from my readers. If you have never known anything different, I would love to hear from you too.

“Prelude to a Post”

When I first started posting to the internet, my daughter warned me to never post anything that I wouldn’t want available to the whole world for all time. I have followed her caution, and have kept peoples’ names and images off my posts if the people are still living. I have, as is clear from my recent posts about Aunt Cary, put up names and images of some no longer alive.

However, as I prepared to write about the advantages and disadvantages of single sex settings, including Camp Fire Girls, summer camp and the Barbizon Hotel, I startled. There among the images I searched on Google for Camp Fire was a photo of me, sleeping bag over my shoulder, waiting to go to camp. I had posted that image myself some while back. I think that while theoretically I knew that Google searched everything all the time, I had failed to really comprehend the implications of that.

The good news is that if someone were to click that image she would be directed to my blog, thereby increasing my readers. But still it was a bit unsettling. So take this as a gentle reminder. Don’t post anything you don’t want available to the whole world for all time! Thank goodness I don’t mind the image of that plucky camper available to all.

“Promise of Spring”

Spring comes to New England at the end of March, and its first signs are beginning to appear. Here a bed of snow drops, surrounded by the pine straw mulch, have made their appearance. The squirrels are chasing each other around with amorous intent. Male cardinals sing their hearts out. While we haven’t yet seen the robins return to nest under the deck, we are keeping our eye out. Two nights ago unseasonable warmth allowed us to eat outside, socially distanced, from family members we had only seen out the window for months.

A less welcome sure sign of spring is the roar of another motorcycle, still convinced that the three block straightaway of our street cries out for speed and noise. Clearly these over the hill riders remain unconvinced that their wide open highways are behind them!

Snow still remains possible with the last frost expected around April 30. While the ground is still too hard to turn over, Charlie has been able to prune the vines of grape and raspberry and cut back the blueberry bushes. A great beginning to a warmer and brighter time of year.

“Reflections on An Aunt and An Ort”

Great Aunt Elizabeth and Great Uncle Alec in Pike Cemetery

I first started writing about Aunt Cary inspired by the recently published book about the Barbizon Hotel in New York City where she once resided. Then when I began to remember so much more about our relationship I added a number of blog posts. What I hadn’t realized was that while I knew of Cary’s descent into what we would now call bi-polar disorder it might would startle my readers. I also hadn’t known that readers would be moved by my experiences with her.

I write very little about my family of origin, respecting their privacy. However, what is true is that I never had the opportunity to grieve my relationship with Cary with them. The only story that stayed alive in my family was that Cary took her life in 1969. While that is grievously true, it is the least important part of the story of Cary. As I wrote the posts, I came to truly understand that she was so much more than her death. Her laughter, her energy, and her love, were essential parts of her.

We know so much more about bi-polar disorder today, but it still claims far too many sufferers. Whether in a manic phase feeling invulnerable or in a depressive phase seeing no reason to go on, the disease removes the person from the center where they are truly themselves. I hope that my writings paid tribute to that wonderful core that was Aunt Cary.

And I also pause to note her other favorite words which pepper my speech to this day: hoot, snazzy, and of course, ort.

“An Aunt and an Ort, 5”

The last time I saw Aunt Cary was in February of 1969. My paternal grandmother had died and a service was held in a New York City funeral home. The service was void of any meaning since the presider had no information about her. The only attendees were my father, his brother my uncle, several cousins, me and Aunt Cary. This grandmother was tolerated rather than loved, and there was not much grieving going on.

As we stepped out of the gloom of the stark room onto West 43th Street, Cary exclaimed, “Let’s all go to Sardi’s and have a drink!” It was the perfect suggestion to cap off a dreadful early afternoon. We walked over to West 44th, pushed a couple of tables together, and all had a drink. No one goes to Sardi’s on a non Broadway afternoon, so we had the place and the autographed caricatures to ourselves.

I will always remember that afternoon as Cary brought our sorry group out of the secret guilt we all held from our lack of grief. Laughter, a drink, jokes, and tales about everything except Gran redeemed the time.

“An Aunt and an Ort, 4”

While that was the last time Aunt Cary came to Oregon, it was not the last time I saw her. Fortunately she gained some stability and moved back to New York City where she had been living before her breakdown landed her with her parents in Chicago. She took up residence in the Barbizon Hotel, recently featured in the book just published by Paulina Bren, shown above. It was seeing this book title that actually sent me first to buy the book and then to begin to remember my life with Aunt Cary.

From 1965 through June of 1969 I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a three hour bus ride away from Manhattan. I went there numerous times, staying with either friends or relatives in suburban New York City. On one of those visits I arranged to meet Aunt Cary outside The Barbizon. I am sorry that I never got a peek inside, but the book has given me a good sense of why she may have lived there. While she worked on and off, I believe that my grandparents helped support her financially. They would have felt reassured that she was living in an all female, doorman guarded, building in a respectable part of the City.

She was delighted to see me and insisted we must go to the place “where business men took their paramours in the afternoon.” We walked perhaps twenty minutes over to The Russian Tea Room. I remember being awestruck by the over the top decorations and kept looking for any furtive looking men in suits. It was great fun, though I doubt we spotted any.

I bid her goodbye and went back uptown to friends.

“An Aunt and an Ort, 3

By the next and last time that Aunt Cary came to visit us in Oregon, something seemed different. I was about to enter high school and was pretty occupied with myself, but still felt an unwelcome sense of unease some of the time I spent with her. She stayed awake most of the night then slept late in the morning. She talked faster and seemed restless in a way I somehow unconsciously noticed. Only in looking back now can I clearly describe what I experienced then. At the time the only awareness I had was that she and my mother argued a lot about her sleeping pattern. In retrospect I don’t think my mother understood what was happening either.

For a break from the tension and a treat for my aunt, she, my mother and I went to the Oregon Coast for two nights. Above is a photo I love of Aunt Cary at Cannon Beach that September of 1961. Fortuitously enough, I “became a woman” the first evening. Who better than Aunt Cary who whooped, opened a bottle of sherry and toasted my maturation? My practical mother went to the store for supplies. I needed them both that time.

The next time I saw her was in Chicago on my way to college in 1965. She was a patient in the Illinois State Hospital, in a locked ward, deeply depressed and unkempt. I was heart sick to see her in such pain. Still she grinned at me and in true Aunt Cary fashion said “You look quite collegiate.” I felt blessed once again.

“An Aunt and an Ort, 2″

Aunt Cary was the most glamorous woman I knew. My mother was frazzled with her three children and one on the way. Aunt Cary remained single throughout her life, lived in New York City, and had the luxury of velvet skirts, stylish hair and very high heels. Here I hand her an ash tray so that she won’t have to look for one. A chain smoker, Cary rarely was without one of her Camels.

Many years later I learned that my mother and aunt had a falling out this particular Christmas. They disagreed vehemently about my parents’ marriage. I am sure it looked very different to each of them. At any rate, she didn’t visit again for a few years. I knew nothing of that. I was just glad that she had brought me a very pretty dress and a French lollipop with a flower center. An exotic treat since we rarely had candy. I couldn’t wait until she came again.

“An Aunt and an Ort, 1″

Everyone should have one relative who is absolutely crazy about her. In my life that was my Aunt Cary, my mother’s much younger sister. Adopted when my mother was nine, Cary and my mother were never terribly close though she did visit with us from time to time. But my relationship with Aunt Cary began in the summer of 1948 when my parents went West to look for work leaving me with my grandparents and my sixteen year old aunt. We spent several months together at my grandparents’ summer home that year. When my mother returned to New York to get me, she had hepatitis from severe mononucleosis and had to rest for a while. My day to day care fell to Aunt Cary.

As you can tell from the above photo, Cary found me fascinating. Here I seem to have brought her a leaf, and she is as intent on it as if I had brought her a nugget of gold. I have photos of my walking with her, lying in the hammock with her and playing croquet(as if a one year old could play croquet.) She celebrated my first birthday with me while my parents were away, making, I am sure, a big deal of it. For Cary many things were a big deal.

She called me “Ort.” It’s a true sign of a connection when an adult has a special word they use just for you!