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.
My grandmother’s diary entry: 11-18-1945: Walked through Central Park—a telegram from John Curry saying he had arrived in San Francisco from Tokyo and was leaving for New York on Friday.
This picture, taken two years before I was born, jumped out at me perhaps because of the date. My mother Barbara, oldest brother Chris, about two and half, and Tim, fourteen months, pose with a Japanese flag their father, John Curry, purchased while in Tokyo.
The picture, taken in Barb’s apartment, is very telling: Note the bare bed springs and cracked wall. Barb loved Chris’s “Little Lord Fauntleroy” look and the fantasy happy ending for the protagonist and his mother.
Two more of my grandmother’s diary entries add a layer of understanding to this time.
11-27-1945: John Curry called me much to my surprise—he’s a nice boy. He said he’d call again.
12-02-1945: A great event happened today. Barbara, John, and the 2 boys drove up in their car and spent the afternoon with H (Henry) and me. H. was very favorably impressed with John. He looked very well in his Naval Petty Officer’s outfit. The little boys are so cute—they were very good but rushed into everything. Barb did pretty well but she is not all right yet. I think John managed very well with her. She’s thrilled over the car—I gave her the lovely auto robe grandfather gave us—Henry was thrilled it all went so nicely. He returned to Camp Shanks about seven—I rode cross town with him. I’ll be glad in many ways when this Army business is over but a money security is a comfort after so many bad years.
A few months later John Curry filed for a divorce.
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.
My great grandmother, Katherine Thomas Philips, had a younger sister named Alice, who married Edmund Garstin. They had two daughters:
The eldest, Martha “Pattie” Thomas Garstin, born 1888, died in a mental institution, Normansfield Hospital, Teddington, in 1935.
The second daughter, Eloise “Emily” Thomas Garstin, was born in 1889 and died in 1970. Eloise, a name our mother never mentioned, played a pivotal role in my grandparents’ lives. Eloise was financially independent, thanks to a trust established by her cousin, Frederick Peirce. Eloise lived most of her life in England. She never married, traveled extensively, and wrote very descriptive letters.
The following picture and letter is written by Eloise from the Holy Land.
1949-50 was a very turbulent time in the Mideast. An estimated three quarters of a million Arabs fled the area that became Israel. Almost that many Jews immigrated to Israel from Arab countries and Europe.
It’s interesting to note that even though the Holocaust is only five years in the past, Eloise empathizes with the Arab people who have been displaced by the Jews.
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.