I rolled over in bed, reaching for the warmth of my mother under the bearskin blanket. She wrapped her arms around me, and I pulled Suzie Doll into my chest so we were three spoons. The birds were just starting to call. Through the tipi poles above, I could see a patch of lightening sky. Any moment now, our canvas walls would begin to turn from gray to orange. It was the time of day I liked best, because it was the start of everything.
“Mommy,” I whispered.
“Shh . . . still sleeping.”
I turned to look at her, then placed a finger on each eyelid and pulled them up. “Mommy. Is this the day Papa Dick gets back from hunting?”
“Maybe,” she mumbled, batting my hand away. “Now go back to sleep.”
I lay quietly beside her, but I was too excited to keep still. It had been a long winter, the meat from my grandfather’s last big hunt had run out long ago, and he had promised he would try to get a bear, my favorite. My feet jiggled back and forth under the covers. I finally got them to stop, but then my fingers started to twitch. I drummed them on Mom’s hip. “Mm-mm,” she said, putting her hand on top of mine. “Cea, if you can’t sleep, why don’t you go start the fire? Heat up the footstone for me-it’s cold this morning.”
I lifted the bearskin and reached for the heavy rock. Wrapped in one of my grandfather’s old wool shirts, it smelled like smoke and pine needles. I set it down beside the stove and pulled my clothes on: turtleneck, sweater, cords and leather moccasins. The summer before, one of the visitor’s daughters had shown me something called underwear. They had tiny rainbows on them, and they were the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. Mom said I could have a pair one day, probably when I was five. But right now, I was still just four.
Mom was snoring lightly. I crept across our fir-needle floor, lifted the canvas door flap and stepped outside. It was no colder out here than it was in the tipi, but a breeze made goose bumps pop up on my skin. I hurried across the meadow to the shit pit and dropped my pants, peering down at the massive pile of poop beneath me as I peed. After zipping my pants, I slid the cover back over the pit and skipped over to my grandparents’ tipi, stood quietly outside. I could tell by Grandma Jeanne’s breathing she was still asleep, but there was another sound coming from my aunts’ tipi a little farther down. I walked toward it, my moccasins skimming over the dewy grass, and peeked inside. My Aunt Jessie was asleep in her bed with her mouth wide open, but across from her, my Aunt Jan was doing the screwing with the guy visitor. She was sitting on top of him, her long blond hair hanging over her breasts in sweaty strings. I gazed at them curiously, wondering where the visitor’s woman was. Mom said it usually wasn’t a good idea to do the screwing with a visitor who had a woman, but my aunts didn’t seem to mind. Maybe the woman was looking for her cat, which had disappeared yesterday. Anyway, Grandma Jeanne said that lady was awfully silly for bringing her city cat all the way to the wilderness like that.
I was starting to shiver. In the distance I could hear the rush of the river, finally set free from its winter freeze. The sun was peeking over the top of the highest mountain now, flooding our meadow with orange light. I headed toward the woodpile, thinking that I would build the fire and then ask Mom to make hot porridge with prunes for breakfast. I picked up a log, but was distracted by the sight of one of my stick horses propped against the sawhorse along with my bow and arrow.
Dropping the log back onto the woodpile, I mounted my horse, threw my bow over my shoulder and galloped across the meadow. “Giddyap! Giddyap, Apache!” I yelled, whipping the leather reign behind me. Randall, the Indian chief who lived across the river, had told me that word meant “go really fast” in horse language, and my horse always listened. He circled me around the meadow and then headed for the forest, almost bucking me off. Branches tugged at my sleeves, snagging my sweater as we ran, but my horse wouldn’t stop. He kept going until we got to Porcupine Tree. I pulled back the reins and slipped off his back, gazing upward with my hand shading my eyes. It was dark in the woods but the sky was bright. And porcupine was exactly where I had left him yesterday, snoozing high up on a branch.
“Crotch,” I said to myself quietly. “Crotch crotch crotch!” I giggled. Mom said that was what that part of the tree was called, right where the branch met the trunk, and I thought it was super funny. I reached for my bow and arrow, but then stopped. Papa Dick had told me that unless you were starving, you should never kill an animal when it was sleeping because it just wasn’t fair. I looked around for a rock and pitched it at the tree trunk with a loud whack. The porcupine shook and snapped its head up. I set my arrow and pulled back my bow. It was a miss, but closer than I had come yesterday. I scrounged around in the bushes until I found the arrow, then mounted my horse again and pointed it home. I couldn’t wait to tell Papa Dick. He had said that if I kept practicing every day, pretty soon I’d be allowed to go hunting with him.
After corralling my horse with a circle of rocks, I returned to the woodpile and loaded my arms with kindling. Back in our tipi, I built a fire from the embers in the stove, placed the footstone in the flames and waited for it to heat up. Then I carefully pulled it out with oven mitts, wrapped it up in the wool shirt and rolled it over to the bed.
“Thank you, sweetheart,” Mom said with her eyes still closed, and opened her arms for me.
I snuggled into her naked body and she kissed my hair. After a little while, I decided to stop being so excited about Papa Dick maybe coming home, tucked my head under Mom’s chin and fell fast asleep.
The sun was just starting to hide behind the tipi when I saw him. I was playing in the dirt, mixing it with water to paint on rocks, when I spotted Papa Dick across the meadow. I jumped up and ran full-speed until I slammed into his arms.
“Peanut!” he cried, spinning me around in circles.
I laughed and buried my face in his bushy hair. My eyes fell to the wheeled sled he was pulling behind him, brimming with chunks of bloody meat wrapped in wax paper.
“Did you get a bear? Did you get a bear?”
“Aha! Now that’s a surprise. What do you say we get Grandma Jeanne to cook some up and see if you can guess what it is.”
“Hooray!” I squirmed out of his arms and bolted for my grandparents’ tipi, calling for my grandmother. “Grandma Jeanne! Papa got meat! Let’s cook some up!”
She came out of the tipi, smiling, and ran to my grandfather. They hugged and kissed, Grandma Jeanne so happy she had tears running down her cheeks. My Aunt Jessie and Aunt Jan came out of their tipi and then Mom, and we were all hugging and laughing.
“Geez, you’d think I’d been gone a month instead of just a few days,” Papa Dick said, but I could tell he was pleased.
The late-afternoon sun was warm on my head, the birds were singing, and Grandma Jeanne was in such a good mood that she put Van Morrison on the tape deck, even though Papa Dick said there was only a bit of juice left in the battery. We all boogied in the meadow to “Moondance,” Mom rolled a joint and passed it around, and my grandmother heated up the iron skillet and fried up some of the meat in caribou fat. I took one bite, then jumped up to give my grandfather a hug.
“It’s bear! It’s bear! Oh, thank you, Papa Dick!”
When I went to bed that night, I was so full and happy that I didn’t even care when Mom and Randall woke me up later. I rolled to the edge of the bed and faced the tipi wall, pretending the grunts and groans were just part of a dream and that really it was just Mom and me lying in bed, snuggled up all warm in the dying light of the kerosene lantern.
PART ONE: DREAM
The story that is the life I now reflect on began with my grandfather, Richard Abel Person. His history is likely even more interesting than my own, but I only know tidbits of it. Born in Duluth, Minnesota, to Swedish immigrant parents, he seemed to come into this world knowing his passion. When he was just a boy, he began taking to the woods behind his family’s house to practice building campfires and setting handmade snares that brought down rabbits for his family’s dinner. By the time he was sixteen, he had memorized nearly every edible plant in North America, taught himself how to climb, fish and hunt with both rifle and bow-and-arrow. He could build a weatherproof shelter from tree branches and twine and paddle through stormy waters with a coffee mug clenched between his knees. Even early on, he knew he wasn’t long for the urban life. When he walked the streets of his hometown, the concrete beneath his feet offended him. Sometimes he dreamed of escaping to a much different world altogether. But then he met my grandmother, and she gave him reason to stay.
Jeanne was nineteen years old when she first met Dick, who was three years younger. She was sitting on the grass at the local pool where she worked as a lifeguard, eating lunch with a girlfriend. His moccasined feet stopped in front of her, she lifted her eyes to meet his, and that was it. For my grandmother, meeting Dick wasn’t just finding a kindred spirit, it was also a welcome distraction from reality. Her parents had divorced when she was eleven, and not much later Jeanne’s mother had suffered a stroke that left half her body paralyzed. It fell to Jeanne, the only child, to run her family’s bakery. She would wake each morning before sunrise, go to the bakery to work, walk the three miles to school, return to the bakery to help her mother until closing time, and fall into bed each night exhausted. And now that she was finished with school, between her bakery and lifeguard jobs her days seemed an endless cycle of work. When she could get away she would go to the forest to walk alone, sometimes wishing to get lost among the hills and valleys.
My grandparents courted for three years before marrying, and both of them were certain that there was no other love quite like theirs in the world. It was a love affair not just with each other, but with the rivers and trees and animals of the wild. Nature fed their souls and gave them purpose. On the day of their wedding, Jeanne was walking to city hall to meet Dick when she got her period. Dismayed when it left an unsightly stain on the back of her fancy tweed skirt, she returned home and changed into a pair of jeans. And this was how she was dressed an hour later, when she stood in front of her mother, stepfather and Dick’s parents to exchange vows. Her mother despaired at her lack of formality, but Jeanne secretly thought it was the perfect outfit for the occasion and a true symbol of her relationship with her husband. They spent their honeymoon fishing and hiking around Lake Superior. My grandfather helped steady Jeanne’s hands on the rifle as she fired her first bullet at a moose, felling it with one clean shot to the head.
My grandparents discussed ways they might live close to nature and still earn a living, and Dick decided on a career in forestry. He joined the army to get a free university education, but a war was raging in Korea, and within a year he found himself fighting in the trenches of Incheon. He wrote letters home to Jeanne, telling of his anger with the U.S. government-here he was battling against communism, he lamented, when he wasn’t even sure he believed in capitalism-along with his unexpected enjoyment of an existence that challenged the most basic elements of human nature. He was sleeping in the rain and eating live crickets right off the ground, things that his fellow soldiers loathed but that made Dick feel strangely alive, as if he were actually thriving in such an environment rather than merely surviving. He had long debates about the state of the American psyche with his comrades. “Folks don’t own houses,” he loved to say. “Houses own folks. Once you’re beholden to an institute of finance, you may as well just put yourself in prison and throw away the key for good.” Dick’s friends listened to his rants, but he understood that most of his words fell on deaf ears. And that was okay, because he had his wife back at home, the woman who he knew would stay up knitting wool socks for him while he talked to her about everything that mattered.
After he returned from Korea, disillusioned with American values but otherwise unharmed, Dick completed his university degree and took a job as a forest ranger. It was an occupation that kept my grandparents broke and rootless, sending them from Minnesota to Washington and Missouri all within the span of a year, but neither of them really minded. They lived simply and were able to unpack their belongings at each new home within a few hours. Before long, the babies came-Jan, Michelle, Dane and then Jessie. Shortly after Jessie’s birth she was proclaimed mentally retarded, but by that time, my grandmother was in such a state of depression that it barely seemed to register. She complained of migraines and spent hours in bed, and sometimes when Dick came home from work he would find her sitting in the dark while the kids ran wild around her. The truth was, he didn’t blame her much. He loved his children, though between Jessie’s mental challenges, Michelle’s slowness, Dane’s oddness-he seemed to live completely within his own world-and Jan’s rages, they were a deeply mysterious handful of trouble. But Dick kept his concerns to himself. After all, this wasn’t a subject he was about to bring up with his wife, who was teetering at the edge of an abyss he hardly dared to contemplate.
By the time the kids reached their teens, my family had moved to Jackson Hole and Jeanne’s mental health had improved. Privately, though, Papa Dick felt as if his wife’s years of depression had stolen a piece of her for good. She seemed more fragile than he remembered, and less confident. But perhaps my grandmother knew this about herself, because in 1966, she discovered something that made her realize happiness didn’t necessarily need to come from within: marijuana. Within a few months, her occasional toke had evolved into a daily habit. The pot numbed her guilt and relieved her of the worries about her children that had plagued her for years. Even more than that, it helped her bond with them. After being introduced to it by a friend, Jeanne started offering it to her three oldest kids when Dane was twelve, Michelle thirteen and Jan fifteen. But the one thing her friend had neglected to tell her was that marijuana was a drug, and it was illegal. And so it was that in that very same year, the Persons had the distinction of being the subject of Wyoming State’s very first pot bust.
It all started with Jan and Michelle riding in the back of a car. Mom’s boyfriend was in the front passenger seat, and Jan’s boyfriend, who owned the vehicle, was driving. The car blew through a stop sign, and the police pulled it over. When Jan’s boyfriend rolled the window down, a cloud of pot smoke billowed into the officer’s face. It only took a few minutes for Michelle to admit that her drug suppliers were also her parents. Their cabin was raided, Dick and Jeanne went to jail, and the children were dispersed to foster families. Dick eventually managed to convince the judge to let them go, and by that evening the family was in stitches around the dinner table over the whole episode. That was the night, Mom said, when the family decided to move to northern California. And that’s when all hell broke loose.
After years of living as misfits, coming to California felt like coming into their own to my family. People here actually seemed to care about things like freedom, healthy eating, and what was going on in the rest of the world. My grandparents rented a ramshackle old house ten miles south of San Jose on the outskirts of Los Gatos, and dedicated their days to pot smoking, nude cookouts, and philosophical discussions with the friends my grandfather made at his new job as a climbing instructor. The kids, left to their own devices, dropped out of school one by one. By the time my future mother Michelle was fifteen, all four of them were spending their days smoking at home and their evenings with various love interests. Dane’s primary affair seemed to be with LSD, but the girls made the most of their sexual freedom. They brought home guys, scruffy-looking characters with matted hair and rambling political opinions that no one listened to, who spent the night and then sat at the breakfast table with Grandma Jeanne the next morning with their dingdongs in full view. Before long, the Person residence became known to many as the coolest place in town to hang out; the music was hip, the drugs were in good supply, the two older daughters were pretty and willing, and the parents were always totally groovy with it all.
One afternoon, my grandfather came home from work to find his wife having sex with another man. The couple was huddled under a sleeping bag on the living room floor, but the noises coming from within were unmistakable. Papa Dick stared down at the scene before him, his expression hard. It wasn’t that he was angry; he and my grandmother had had an open marriage almost since they arrived in California. It’s just that until that day, the arrangement had been strictly one-sided. While my grandfather brought women home to their bed, Jeanne had preferred to numb her evenings away with pot. Now panic gripped my grandfather’s heart. He turned away before his wife could notice him, and went to the backyard to sit with his head in his hands. At that moment, he admitted the truth to himself: this latest development was just another tear in the thin fabric that was barely holding his family together. His children were in crisis. Jan had taken up with a Hells Angels leader, and often came home drugged out on acid and beaten blue. Michelle was rarely seen without a joint in her hand, and didn’t have an inkling where Vietnam, the country’s number one topic of conversation, even was. Dane had been acting more and more strangely lately, a result, my grandfather was certain, of too many bad acid trips. And Jessie, though mentally challenged and barely thirteen years old, was bringing new guys home regularly. But if there was one thing Papa Dick was sure of, it was that society was to blame for his children’s troubles.
My grandfather’s early golden view of California was fading fast. After three years there, he had begun to notice the hypocrisy of supposedly enlightened folks who professed their hatred of The Man by evening and then returned to their cog-grinding, hamster-in-the-wheel jobs by day. For all their talk about striking out against corporations and government, in the end these people still paid their taxes, kept their money in banks, and bought their burgers at McDonald’s. There were some exceptions-the commune-dwellers, for example, folks who started off with the best intentions but inevitably ended up using their emancipation as an excuse for one long, drug-fueled sex-fest. The antiwar crowd was more sincere in their convictions, but though the impending threat of draft hung over his own son’s head, it was freedom my grandfather craved, not retreat from the powers of authority he so loathed.
The idea that had been brewing in his mind since his teens was pulling at him stronger than ever now. He had heard talk about a movement up north in Canada, a land known for its harsh climate and gentle handling of disillusioned Americans. But a new country was only the start of my grandfather’s plan. He knew how to hunt, how to survive in the wild, and he had some exciting ideas about shelter. What his kids needed was fresh mountain air and dirt between their toes. If he could just get them away from the city and into nature, back to the basics of food, water, clothing and shelter, they might still stand a chance. And so, he thought, might his marriage.
Papa Dick stood up and walked back into his house, filled with renewed conviction. He would wait until his wife’s lover left, then he would tell her that the time had come for them to pursue a life far more meaningful than the clichéd hippie existence they had allowed themselves to slip into. He was almost certain she would agree. In fact, there was only one person in the family my grandfather was worried about convincing, and that was his sixteen-year-old daughter Michelle. Because only days ago, she had come to her parents with some happy news: she was madly in love, ready for marriage, and two months pregnant.
The first time my father set eyes on my mother, she was running toward him with her hair flying and bare breasts bouncing. Like an X-rated ad for Breck Shampoo, she stopped in front of him, tossed her waves aside and gave him a coy smile. Greg blinked back at her, more intrigued by her complete lack of modesty than he was by her appearance. He was one of my grandfather’s climbing students, and had just emerged from his VW bus to have dinner with my family. An aspiring artist and Catholic boy brought up within a hedged suburban community, he hadn’t yet lived large, but had plans to: a little climbing and surfing, a few years of university, a summer in Europe funded by the sale of his vehicle, and some fun with the women he had no trouble attracting. Greg was tall, brainy and handsome, a man who others considered to hold great promise. He was twenty-two years old and Michelle was fifteen. He grinned back at her, carefully holding his eyes above chest level, and it never even crossed his mind to become involved with such a young girl.
There was, however, one small complication: it was the sixties.
The Person family was like none my father had ever met before. They got high together, shared the bathroom for showers and bowel movements, and didn’t even bother closing their bedroom doors for intimate encounters. Fascinated by my grandfather’s unique outlook on life and inspired by his unfailing confidence, Greg began spending more and more time at the Person home. He dug the music they listened to, the food they ate, the fact that they talked about sex right out in the open, and that the females, not the least bit self-conscious, didn’t mind if he sketched nude drawings of them as they went about their day. Greg befriended everyone in the house, even Dane, but he was careful to avoid my perpetually topless mother.
Michelle, however, had her eye on a target and wouldn’t be swayed. Although she was young, she had plenty of experience when it came to seduction, and in the end her persistence paid off. She had a boyfriend, some short dude with bad teeth named Little Joe who appeared to be living in the backyard shed, but that didn’t stop her from taking my father’s hand at the beach one evening and leading him to a secluded sand dune. For Greg, one night would have been enough, but he also understood the complications of bedding the daughter of the man he had come to nearly idolize. My grandfather seemed to approve of the relationship, so Greg decided to go with it, at least until Michelle lost interest. But each day only seemed to crush my mother tighter against him, until he felt like he couldn’t breathe. At night, she would trail her fingers over his body until he caught her hand in his own to stop it. Unabashed, she would leave the light on to stare at him as he slept, unable to believe her good luck. Here she was, not yet sweet sixteen, and she had already found herself a bona fide college man. My mother knew she wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, and she had already seen her share of trouble and pain, some of which she had promised herself she would never tell another soul. But her love for Greg made her want to forget all the darkness, and dive headlong into the promise of everlasting devotion and protection.
When Mom told my father she was pregnant, he asked her a few questions in disbelief (“Are you sure?” “Really sure?” “Totally positive?”), then left her house with the look of a trapped animal given the choice of chewing off his leg or waiting to die. A few days later, he came by and dropped off two hundred dollars in an envelope with the words I’m sorry scrawled across it, having sold his beloved VW bus to secure the cash. My mother, utterly devastated, spent an entire week bawling her eyes out and comforting herself with her mother’s pot stash. Jeanne, at a loss to console her daughter, finally took a bus into the city to make the necessary arrangements. A short meeting with a doctor, a couple of signatures, and she was able to go home and tell Michelle it would all be over soon. My mother took to her bed and vowed not to leave it until either the day of the abortion arrived or my father had a change of heart.
Against all probability, the house in Los Gatos had a telephone, though it was almost never used. But on an afternoon in May of 1969, less than a week before my mother was scheduled to abort me, the ringing of the telephone was the most beautiful sound she had ever heard. “I’m in Reno,” Greg said to her over the line, his voice trembling with either excitement or fear. “Pack yourself a bag and get on a bus. We’re getting married.” Mom screamed and dropped the phone on the floor, she was that happy.
My mother was a wife for five months. And when Greg left her again, this time for good, Papa Dick decided it was time to make his move. He sold off most of his family’s possessions, waved goodbye to his wannabe revolutionary friends, and herded his wife and kids into the old VW bus. Mom once told me that her family left California on a Thursday and she didn’t stop crying until the following Friday, nearly one week after they had set up digs in a tumbledown house in a town just over the Canadian border whose name she didn’t even think to ask.
copyright © 2014 by Cea Sunrise Person