One year, along about 1962, my Grandma and Grandpa Cathcart left high-society Boston for early retirement in the cultured wilderness of Ogunquit, on the southern Maine coast. And there with my maternal grandparents, I spent some summer and winter vacations in the 1960s, away from my parents and brothers—the family I longed to escape.
Whatever the season, we were early risers. Grandpa Cathcart would pour coffee beans in the grinder every morning about six. I would sit at the little oak table by the kitchen window, waiting for Jacques to appear for breakfast.
Jacques was the world’s most arrogant dog, a chocolate poodle who ruled the household. He expected kowtowing and sulked when things didn’t go his way. He was also ungrateful and leaped at any chance to escape from the house. In spite of his character flaws I coveted Jacques, although he didn’t return my affection in equal measure.
After breakfast I’d ride along with Grandpa from Pine Hill Road to the town square—Tower Drug to buy the paper, the post office to pick up the mail. Then we’d drive down to Ogunquit Beach to see if the tide was in or out.
Winter days in Ogunquit were too cold for me to play outside. Instead I would listen to records from Grandma Cathcart’s small collection of classical music, especially Peter and the Wolf, the narration of which I eventually could have performed in my sleep. I was a precocious reader and perused books from my grandparents’ well-stocked shelves—O. Henry, Dickens, books on antiques, Chinese art, and criminal law (Grandpa was a retired attorney).
I’d watch Grandma prepare three fancy meals a day. She set the table elaborately each time. I was allowed to watch her work, but she didn’t want help.
At breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Jacques would sneak under the linen tablecloth when Grandma was out of the dining room and lay his pitiful, starving nose on my thigh. I always slipped him a nibble. Grandpa ended our meals, without exception, with a colossal open-mouthed “BUURRRP!” purely for my entertainment, to which Grandma unfailingly responded, “Francis!”
We never turned the television on except in the evenings when Grandma Cathcart watched the national news and sometimes the dreadful Wall Street Week; Grandpa would vanish to take Jacques for his nightly walk. My grandparents went to bed promptly at 7:45 pm and since I was afraid to stay up late by myself in the pitch-dark seaside woods of Maine, I went to bed then, too.
Summer vacations brought the added bonus of swimming at Ogunquit Beach. My grandparents did not own swimsuits and never entered the water, but one of them would drive me to the beach and lifeguard me from a folding chair. I would race into the salty, frigid water, ride the waves, frolic till numb, then run out and roll in the velvety hot sand to warm up.
Summer nights on Pine Hill Road brought crickets so loud and beautiful they drowned out all my painful thoughts of home and lulled me into sweet dreamy sleep. Long after my last childhood vacation there, I kept the Ogunquit myth alive in my imagination, to sustain me through traumas and remind me who I really was.
We all need what Joseph Campbell called “myths to live by” because the power of our imaginations gives depth and meaning and even some magic to our existence. Our childhood memories become the family myths that give substance to our past and connect us to the future, as we tell and retell those stories to our own children.
With modern families scattered to the four winds, we’ve lost some of our everyday touchstones, and need our myths and memories even more. How else will we be able to reflect on who we are and how we got this way? How else will our children get a vivid picture of the far-flung relatives who would otherwise be holiday visitors without a history?
There is a “but.” We must be prepared for our family myths to unravel, or even be shattered—and we must be resiliently imaginative enough to create new ones.
In an essay rich with irony, writer Gregory Curtis defends the happy-family myth portrayed in the classic Ozzie and Harriet television series—while simultaneously exposing the anti-myths of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson’s real lives. Listing the Nelson family sufferings (ugly rumors, a tragic accident, legal battles, liver cancer, emotional breakdown), Curtis implies that family myth is important but family reality is inescapable, and that they are intertwined.
Grandpa and Grandma Cathcart’s family reality includes cruel prejudice, disownments, and a lifetime of lies.
In Boston in the 1920s and 1930s, they managed to hide their respective Indian heritages and rose to the city’s high society (click here for that story).
Grandma’s maternal lineage was the despised Canadian Micmac Indian tribe, whom French settlers had converted to Catholicism. To distance themselves from Boston’s Irish Catholics—another despised group at the time—my grandparents became Episcopalians and joined the famed King’s Chapel.
In the 1940s, Grandma Cathcart exploded with nouveau riche-Protestant rage at her only son, my Uncle Frank—a wounded World War II hero—because he defied her orders and married an Irish Catholic nurse from a poor family. (Uncle Frank and Aunt Rosemary, now in their 80s, are married to this day.)
Grandma subsequently eradicated all evidence—photos, letters, commendations, keepsakes—proving that Uncle Frank had ever lived. More than dead to her, it was as if he had never been born.
My grandfather mutely, inexplicably accepted what Grandma decreed.
And my grandparents’ life from the mid-1940s onward was based on the lie that Uncle Frank had never existed.
In my adolescence I discovered the truth about what Grandma Cathcart had done. In the late 1970s, I became the first person ever to confront her about the vile way she had treated my uncle (yes, it is incomprehensible that I was the first, thirty-five years after the fact,).
Grandma Cathcart and I were on a front porch when I confronted her. Her first response to my words was stone-cold shock, followed by venomous insults—then she spied the porch broom nearby. Grabbing the large broom at the base of its handle, she swiftly swung it high and took aim to crack me over the skull.
My grandmother was a strong, tall woman but I raised my arms to protect my head and managed to wrestle the broom away from her. Craftily she started screaming, “She’s trying to kill me! Help! She’s trying to kill me!” and ran into the house, leaving me holding the broom. Fortunately, a next-door neighbor witnessed the entire scene and confirmed the truth of what actually had happened.
One year of mutual silence later, I wrote Grandma a letter in which I apologized for upsetting her (but not for speaking my truth). She bestowed a brief letter of “forgiveness” on me, but told the rest of our family that I was a miscreant and had been disowned.
I accepted the unfortunate reality about my grandparents because I had to. Inevitably that reality permeated my Ogunquit myth and showed me how much of the happiness of those times had been illusory.
Yet family myths are a key to self-knowledge, revealing what’s important to us as individuals. My Ogunquit myth revealed my yearning for a close family, and my fondness for the simple routines that add soulfulness to days and memories. It connected me to the magic of ocean, woods, and wilderness—magic that still defines me.
Unfortunately, as I got older, the reality of Grandma Cathcart’s disownment of Uncle Frank and me tainted and taunted the once-happy memories I clung to. Adding to the pain, my grandfather—as ever the mute follower—never contacted me again either.
When I turned forty, over twenty years after Grandma’s attack on me, a relative suggested we visit her. At that point she was a ninety-five-year-old widow living in an exclusive retirement home in New England.
At first I was afraid and didn’t want to go. But my relative felt confident that, after all these years and in the twilight of her life, Grandma would be glad to see me. And secretly I longed for the magical reconciliation that would make me forget the ugly truths about her so I could cling to my childhood myth in peace.
My relative drove us to the nursing home. We walked across the stately grounds. Entered the gleaming hardwood lobby. Proceeded down an elegantly carpeted hall to Grandma Cathcart’s room.
Upon seeing me for the first time in twenty-plus years, her first words (and the only words I stayed for) were the snarling “Oh, here’s the one who tried to kill me!”
At Grandma’s savage dismissal, my heart shrank with the chill of death—the final death of my Ogunquit myth. But it didn’t matter anymore. I really had needed to move on for a long time.