Tomorrow morning, June 14, 2019, I set off on a journey that began in New York the early winter of 1947.
Questions from a lecture by my friend, Professor Mark Christensen haunt me as I pack my suitcase and map my route:
What is my state of mind before I leave? Am I on a quest? A journey?
As I travel will it also be an internal journey?
Will I learn something? What discoveries will I bring home?
Is the journey forced or by choice?
Do I expect to find something or not, or something unexpected?
What archetype might I symbolize in my journey?
What obstacles might I encounter—internal/external?
What will be my state of mind after my journey—if it ends?
How did it all begin? That early winter of 1947 a young man had recently returned from World War II, and as millions of soldiers have done over the centuries upon returning home from war, he must have been ecstatic to have survived. He and his friends celebrated life. He met a young woman who was alone, struggling psychologically, seeking comfort in the wake of a recent divorce. Nine months later I was born; I don’t think the young man ever knew. My mother never spoke of him. Sixty-two years later she went to her grave, secret intact.
Earliest photo of me–in buggy:
The winter of 2018, through the miracles of DNA and the persistence of a wonderful genealogist, I learned the identity of my late father and recently connected with siblings I never knew existed. I’ve been in correspondence and conversations with one of seven and in a few days will meet him and his family.
This print book includes the first singles catalogue that my stepfather ordered after he returned to his farm from World War Two in October 1945 and began his search for a wife. The $2.99 PDF download includes the compete book plus all the singles publications he ordered and a preview of Pawns (The Farm, 1950s), Chickenhouse Chronicles, Book II.
I’ve prayed so much that her life would straighten itself out – the more I think of it the more I feel it is possible her war experience unconsciously to her was eating out her vitals – how tragic life is for the world.
Henry O. Philips, January 23, 1943
Written by my grandfather, a World War I veteran. He recognized post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) forty years before the world put a label it.
Folded in half, tucked inside a scrap book I salvaged from the chickenhouse, I discovered this seventeen year old girl. She’s standing on the weather deck of SS American Farmer, lifeboat resting in the davits behind her, in New York Harbor. PROOF, NEWS EVENTS PHOTO SERVICE, PULITZER BUILDING, stamped across, dated September 24, 1937.
I studied my future mother, Barbara’s, face for the longest time trying to imagine what might be going through her mind. She is four months beyond high school graduation; less than two months beyond her first suicide attempt. Two years later, to the day in 1939, she will return to New York on this same ship, carrying memories that will impact her for life.
A month earlier, my grandmother wrote in her diary, “August 26, 1939: A frightful shock this a.m. in the air mail, mailed by Bar [Barbara] from Poland enclosing a letter from a young Polish Engineer asking us for permission to marry Bar—apparently immediately. We are simply stunned. We don’t know what to do—of course our inclination would be to cable to wait until xmas. Think of her beautiful talent being stored away in Poland, the tension spot of the world.”
(I believe they did get married. In a 1960 psychiatric report my mother speaks of a fourth husband.)
On the same day Elsie received that stunning letter, Saturday, August 26, 1939, Eva’s (Barbara’s friend) father put Barbara on a train in Nowy Sacz, Poland, warning her she must flee. She must have been frantic with worry about her new husband, Kristaw.
There is no record of her saying goodbye to him. He was probably bivouacked in the Gliwice area, less than one hundred miles from Nowy Sacz where the opening shots of WWII would be fired, one week later, on the night of August 31, 1939.
My researcher discovered that he was a Major in the Polish Army.
For that full story go to: https://www.wendellaffield.com/war/chickenhouse-chronicleskatyn-forest-massacre
As many of you who follow my posts know, after Barbara died in 2010 I discovered a treasure trove, our family history—thousands of pages and documents—locked in the chickenhouse on the old farm homestead in northern Minnesota.
These documents are the foundation for “Chickenhouse Chronicles” a nonfiction book series in progress.
(I stopped calling her Mom the spring of 1962. In 1960 she had been committed to Fergus Falls State Hospital—we children had been sent to foster homes. It took almost two years for us to be reintegrated—three of her nine children never did return.)
But back to the chickenhouse—It was obvious that Barbara “Barb” had never looked at the treasure. Many packets were still bound together by decades-old ribbon, string, brittle rubber bands, or rusted paper clips. Rodents had tunneled into ruptured boxes and gnawed documents. Mouse urine had seeped and stained. Crumbled feces flecked pages. Dust hovered in sunbeams when disturbed. The cache was water-damaged and mildewed. The smell, like a peripheral nightmare, has seeped and stained my memory.
Thousands of documents lay in the decomposing heap, the earliest, a letter dated 1822 written by my fourth great-grandfather, David Olmsted, Bedford, New York. I learned that he had served in the Connecticut Militia from 1778-1781 and had fought in the Hudson River campaigns during the Revolutionary War.
Why had my mother relegated our family history to the leaky-roofed chickenhouse? Was it because of lifelong antipathy toward her mother? Or was she afraid of what she might discover? Our changing seasons fluctuate one hundred fifty degrees. Thankfully the leaking roof and temperature extremes had formed a crust over the treasure, protecting it, much as loose hay crowned atop a haystack will shield the forage beneath.
Some of my siblings wanted to burn everything.
My sister, Laurel, and I spent several days excavating documents and artifacts from our past. Another sister, Bonnie, arrived on the weekend and discovered our grandfather’s urn. I’ve spent five years sorting, studying, scanning and archiving, and have witnessed a heart-wrenching story unfold.
As tiered decades revealed their secrets I began to understand incongruities my siblings and I had been raised with. And I’ve come to realize that this saga possesses literary and human depths that dwarf the decomposing heap my two sisters and I rescued from the chickenhouse. (Five years later when I open a tote-box to review a document chickenhouse smell wafts, reawakening the memory.) And each time I read an old document, newly-discovered puzzle pieces fall into place.
This past week we’ve been studying schizophrenia in the psychology class I’m taking at BSU. Schizophrenia often manifests itself in late teens and early twenties. This evening I was reading some of my grandfather’s letters and discovered this one, where he discusses Polly’s frame of mind. In 1943, when this letter is written, she was 21 years old. Two years later she would be diagnosed with schizophrenia. In this letter, my grandfather is an army officer, training recruits at Camp Maxey, Texas. The letter is addressed to my grandmother.
Sixty years ago my grandmother began attending a psychology class at New York City College, studying abnormal behavior. For over half a century she searched in vain for a cure, trying to understand why her daughters had been cursed with mental illness. She left behind thousands of pages of New York City Mental Health booklets, newspaper clippings, and letter drafts to doctors and politicians who she thought might help find a cure. She also left behind hundreds of pages of hand-written notes, reminders for when she visited with her daughters’ therapists.
Today, sixty years later, I am attending a class, studying abnormal behavior, trying to make sense of the heart-wrenching story my grandmother left behind. It’s interesting to note that the first Diagnostic And Statistical Manual Of Mental Disorders was not published until 1968. As I scratch the surface of psychological knowledge I juxtapose my grandmother’s notes, the terminology and theory she was taught, to today’s nosological classification of mental disorders.
Here are a few pages of her 1953 psychology class notes:
Each Sunday I plan to post information as I move forward in developing this memoir.