My mom, Mary Virginia (Ginny) Watson and my dad, Robert (Bob) Leo Kane were both raised in Michigan.
Mom and her brother Norb, were born in Detroit, but in classic white flight fashion, my grandfather moved the family to Marine City, to a house near the banks of the St. Clair river. My grandmother Mary (Bess) Dugan was Catholic, my grandfather Arthur Watson was Protestant. It was not a harmonious marriage. His mother treated my grandmother like dirt – typical of the times- and so did he. Marrying him meant leaving her job at Michigan Central Railway (the bosses didn’t want married women to tell the single ones about sex) and he kept her from seeing her friends. Apparently, he was exposed to mustard gas in WWI, so that may have contributed to his cruelty, as well as his early death.
So when my mom married my dad after they met at college in Ann Arbor, and dad enlisted in the Army Air Corp, their travels gave my grandma a passport to the world. When my family lived in Libya, she and my mom traveled to “the holy land,” which ironically did not include Israel as we know it. Israel was not yet a recognized country and as the wife of an Air Corp Lieutenant, that was a no-go. However, they did tour Bethlehem since it was not yet part of Israel. They also toured Cairo and rode camels and visited the pyramids. In a video interview my grandma said “they were awful… I mean awesome!“
My godmother Anne Kennedy also benefitted by my dad’s international travels. She came to visit in Germany and she and my mom took a military bus to Paris, as my mom charmed the enlisted men along the way.
My dad, affectionally known as “the Colonel,” was the youngest of eleven (later, nine) children at the Kane farm based in Carlton, Michigan near Monroe. A child of the Depression, he often said they were largely unaware of the economic desperation surrounding them. Living on a farm, they grew their own food, butchered the chickens they raised. The oldest sister, Helen, was about 20 years older than dad. She married and had a son named Bill at just about the time my grandmother gave birth to my dad. So, my dad grew up being best friends with his nephew.
The Kanes were a working class, Irish bunch. If they didn’t work at the Ford Motor Company, they worked as carpet layers like Oliver did, or secretaries like Julia. The men drank a lot, and one of my uncles was so drunk one night he fell asleep in the snow and died. Aunt Helen tragically lost her husband in a bridge building accident in California and travelled to the West Coast to get answers about it. The Kanes were not a super educated bunch, except for my dad. At an early age, the nuns at his Catholic School alerted my grandparents that he had brains that should be fed and nurtured. It was they who suggested he go to college. This was at a time when college was still a fairly elitist concept.
Good thing he ascended to university because that’s where he met my mom. The first time she invited him home for dinner, he must have arrived early because mom suggested my uncle Norb take him out for a while. They went to a pool hall where they killed so much time, they kept my mom waiting with an increasingly dried-out pot roast. That was a fine howdy-do. Mom was studying to be a teacher and dad had aspirations of chemical science. But he was drawn into the Army Air Corps and they spent their honeymoon on a bus to a training camp in Missoula, Montana.
Bob was first stationed at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Bob and Ginny’s first home was an Airstream trailer, which, in sixty years, has not lost its coolness factor
My mother had a hard time getting pregnant, so much that she endured an annoying amount of taunting from dad’s brothers, especially Oliver, who could be quite inappropriate when he wanted to. Mom wanted to throttle him at times. After about nine years here’s how they had their first baby.
Dad’s sister Julia was divorced and supporting her daughter Patsy. Then, she became pregnant, the horror of any god-fearing Catholic family. How would she escape the stigma of having a child “out of wedlock?” Bob and Ginny to the rescue!
At the time, my parents lived in central California in a trailer on the Edwards AF Base. As far from Michigan as could be. I see from home movies that they drove an old “Woodie” station wagon. Before she started showing, Julia traveled from Michigan to California and stayed with my folks. She gave birth to Cynthia in November 1949. Then she went back to Michigan without the baby, but hopefully with a tan, and no one was the wiser about her pregnancy. Or, maybe my folks announced that Ginny was pregnant and Julia construed to come west to help her through it. The upshot was that Bob and Ginny had a new baby, and Julia’s reputation remained intact. I think the only person who knew the truth was maybe Helen, the matriarch. Julia died of “bone cancer” in 19___ but not before many pictures and films were shot of her with both of her daughters.
As children, there was always whispers of Cynthia being “adopted,” but the details were always mysterious. We could see she was different: so much taller and with a pointed chin none of us possessed. But her origins remained a secret until about 1977 when we were living the civilian life in Anaheim, California. Cynthia may have still been in graduate school in Louisville KY and was there for a visit. She might also have been in psychoanalysis at the time and had voiced a desire to know who her parents were. So mom and dad just told her: Julia was your mom and Patsy is your half-sister, they said. It must have hit her like bombshell, of the kind my father dropped from B-52s.
Some time around then, Aunt Helen and Aunt Alice drove out to California to help Alice decide to move into the newly opened Leisure World in the Laguna Hills. Upon their departure, dad told them they had told Cynthia the truth of her ancestry, so now it was ok to relay it to the rest of the family. Cynthia told me later that she received an exuberant letter from Patsy that began with “Hi Sis!” that felt a little bit awkward.
Anne was born in Washington DC in 1953, and my brother John in 1963 at Wurtsmith, MI. Along with Cynthia, Julie and I, that made us a nice five-child family, the minimum requirement of a Catholic household.
Although I thought she was a genius, I heard Cynthia was not the best high school student when we lived on Guam from 1966-68, but as her friends started talking about going to college – much more a thing than in my parent’s day – she decided she too wanted to attend college. But she had to scramble to improve her grades in order to get accepted somewhere. At that time we were prepping to transfer from the South Pacific to the midwest.
Cynthia was on her way to Southern Illinois University until she hit a speedbump. Pregnant! She got impregnanted by a General’s son, whose parents, Julie remembers, were invited to our house to discuss the situation. So, while I was blissfully imagining her a college girl studying hard a few hours away, I was shocked to learn – in San Francisco, at the age of 21 and with a new baby of my own – that Cynthia had spent her first year of college at a home in Belleville, a biggish city about 5 miles west. Mom used to visit her every week. She had wanted to keep the baby, but Cynthia did not, not with an alcoholic in the house. So, a family scandal was avoided. The Catholics adopted out her baby boy to a family in Belleville. And to think that all those times we went to Belleville for shopping, we could have been driving past my nephew on the playground!
This old news apparently slipped from Cynthia’s lips when she was visiting Anne in Santa Cruz in 1981. Anne came to visit my husband Keith and me, and she told us the story. My mind flashed back to the house at Scott when Cynthia was visiting during a break and I saw her sitting on Anne’s bed with not a lot of clothes on. What, I wondered, were those white lines on her stomach? Now I knew. She had stretch marks from having a baby. It all came together for me.
Soon after, Cynthia began looking for her given-up son and she found him, right where she’d left him, in Belleville. Meanwhile, she was dating and marrying a psychotherapist in Los Angeles and eventually, they had a baby girl named for her grandma, Julia. Then, Cynthia located the 20+ year-old Jack and wanted to meet him. Since he lived in Southern Illinois, it was decided that their reunion should take place at the farm.
“The Farm,” as it is known to us, is the old Trese-Dugan farm in Port Sanilac, Michigan, two miles east of Lake Huron and about 100 miles north of Detroit. The land was purchased by my mother’s great-great Irish grandparents back in 1858 after they deemed Ontario Canada a bit too British (or Protestant) for their liking. At the time, the plot was huge and stretched to Highway 46, but over the generations, land was sold off and now we have 80 acres of mostly farm land. There is a farming family down the road who has been contract farming it for at least three generations. We never do anything.
The old wooden farm house burned down in 1932, when my great grandfather unwisely chose a windy day to clean the chimney. Embers flew onto the roof and soon the house was engulfed. Legend has it that he was struck by shock and watched helplessly as my grandmother carried out their winter clothes and what pieces of furniture she could manage, but it was a total loss. They rebuilt the house on the old foundation with one less floor, (since all the children were grown and gone) and this time they sided it with reclaimed brick and field stones. The farm is a place we drove to from Oscota or Scott AFB in the summertime. We all learned to drive on the farm’s country roads and how to waterski on Lake Huron. It was our family’s summer place, where relatives on both sides from all over Michigan came to picnic. Only my grandmother and sometimes Father Bob seemed to actually live there. I don’t remember my maternal great grandparents at all.
At some point in the 50s, my Uncle “Father” Bob, the Catholic priest, had made a deal to buy the farm from his parents and pay them as they lived out the rest of their lives there. Apparently, he also had to pay off his surviving brothers and sisters. Father Bob was still an active priest and worked at parishes around Michigan. My grandmother even worked for him as a housekeeper in his rectory in Marquette. He wasn’t planning to retire from the priesthood until sometime in the 1970s, but he still made some changes. When we visited for the first time after moving to California, we saw he had built a garage and breezeway (room) addition, attached to the house from the kitchen door. The farmhouse acre still contained the big barn, the little barn, the granary, and the outhouse, but he had chopped down most of the trees in order to create his own private golf course. That’s how nuts he was about golf.
Sadly, Father Bob never got to enjoy the retirement he dreamed of. A lifelong smoker, he contracted lung cancer and died in the late seventies. At the time, I was a teenaged pot smoker and I boldly told my mother she should take him some cannabis because it was good medicine for cancer patients. Well, that never happened and he died.
Then, the farm was ours! My parents had, in a similar fashion to Father Bob with his parents, made a deal with Father Bob to buy/inherit the farm from him. I’m not sure how much they’d paid him before his untimely death, but it didn’t matter. Now the place belonged to my family!
That’s when my folks started spending their summers in Michigan. John and I were still living at the house in Anaheim and their absence gave us opportunities to roam wild. Dad was still hanging back when I was there, but after I left for San Francisco and John was in High School, he was totally on his own and it being California and all, he held epic parties. Or so I heard.
Mom couldn’t wait to get at the farm house and they put two bedrooms and a bathroom in the open attic and expanded the kitchen. Dad had the big, dilapidated barn torn down, against mom’s future regrets, and they used the barn wood as paneling for the renovated attic. They planted trees all over the main acre, including a too-dense pine forest. They put brick facing on the white panelled garage so it somewhat matched the house. By the 80s, we were visiting in droves and with young kids in tow. As the senior granddaughter, Tara became a fixture at the farm and flew alone almost every summer. My mom doted up the wazoo and took her to camps, and fairs, and lessons of all kinds all around Michigan. Up to the age of 12, through five nieces and nephews, Tara was the Farm princess.
So, when Cynthia’s mother and child reunion was set up for August of 1988, my mom, ever the devout Catholic, said, “What are we going to tell Tara?” Like, how to explain to a seven year-old about the sudden appearance of her aunt’s full-grown son whom she herself had never met. How to couch it, how to keep up appearances, that was her concern until I said, “Phhhhhttt! Tara can handle it.” Being an agnostic, feminist earth mama by then, I had no qualms about her learning at a young age the complications of procreation and the ways it shifts and enriches the family dynamic. So, of course she took it in stride, as did her toddling niece when they all met her handsome half-brother, Jack. That began a tradition of inviting Jack and his adopted sister, and later Jack and his wife and children, to the farm as part of the family. When Jack and Malea were dating, they came to a big 50th Anniversary party my folks threw at the Edison Inn in Port Huron. My mom, the good Catholic, tried to arrange a separate rooms situation for them, but Cynthia just said, you kids take this room here.
By the early 70’s, my family’s dynamic was like this: Cynthia was on the top of the rung and there was an undercurrent of high expectation toward her. Anne, being the first biological child, was the golden girl, the brown nose who could do no wrong in my parent’s eyes. Anne worshipped Cynthia and always wanted to run with her set, some of whom were young hippies at the time. (40 years later Anne’s daughter said to Cynthia’s daughter, “My mom was your mom’s bitch.”) Juli always wanted to hang out with Anne and her friends, who she viewed as cool. Anything Anne did, Juli demanded as well. Anne was on the swim team, so was Juli. Anne got a horse, so Juli got a pony. It seemed that Anne could not shake Juli. You could say it was a competitive market. As the closest in age, Juli and I should have been close, but we weren’t always. She was often mercurial, and sometimes I feared her.
For my part, I was always the quiet one who could play alone, and who sang to myself as I drew or played with my Barbies. For some reason, I never felt the need to keep up with Anne or Juli. I could go to Camp Ondessonk alone, no friends or sisters, and didn’t think anything of it. I guess this was the start of my sense of going it alone, not needing anyone else, and possibly my difficulty with working with other people. I was actually closer to John than Juli and shared a bedroom with him in our first two houses at Scott. By the time we moved to the third, and nicest house, Dad laid down the law and said I had to share with Juli, “Because John’s a boy!”