Both my parents had difficult childhoods. Dad grew up with nine other siblings on a farm in Indiana during the depression. Being born in the middle of a large family, he rarely saw or spent any time with his parents. The kids took care of the kids, older brothers and sisters raising the younger ones. He said he was starved for love while growing up. He desperately wanted attention from his parents, who were busy supporting their large family during the depression years. He once shared that as a child, his most upsetting memories were of overhearing his parents’ frequent arguments.
When I asked Mother about her childhood, she always looked away. She said she was born on a farm, the youngest of two brothers and a sister. She never shared anything more. It was obvious that she didn’t want to talk about it. That subject became taboo. I intuitively understood not to ask her for more.
My sister and I were young adults when my mother finally shared her dark secret. We were sitting at our living room table sharing pleasant memories of our early childhood, when my sister asked Mom if she had any memories of the farm she grew up on?
Mom looked at the wall and then the ceiling, trying to decide what to say. There was a long silence, and then tears started streaming down her face. She began telling us about her childhood, things that no one ever told us. “When I was three years old, I was standing beside my mother in the kitchen. I was crying, hanging onto my mother’s apron while she was washing dishes. My mother suddenly walked out of the house. I followed her to a shed where I saw her grab a bottle of lye used to make homemade soap. I followed my mother into the pasture beside our house. She drank that bottle of lye while I watched. My mother committed suicide in front of me.” Mom was crying too hard to continue. I sat in stunned silence. My sister reached out to hold Mom’s hand.
My insides wretched. I couldn’t breathe. The scene of her mother committing suicide in the field beside the farmhouse played in my mind’s eye. Grandma Gertrude must have died a terribly painful death. Her throat probably closed up, causing her to suffocate. Her insides must have been burning from the inside out while Mom, as a helpless toddler, watched her mother die.
Mom was crying too hard to ask her anything more. We sat in silence, shocked, sending her unconditional love, waiting for her to recover. After several minutes, Mom lifted her head and began speaking again. There were tears in her eyes. “I never forgave my mother,” she said in a raised angry voice. “I’ll never understand how a mother could leave her children like that! How could my mother leave us that way? Dad was unable to look after us and take care of the farm by himself. My sister and I were sent to a girls’ orphanage after the funeral. My brothers were sent to a boys’ boarding school.”
I pictured Mom as a frightened three-year-old girl in the orphanage at night. I wished I could go back in spirit, sit beside her on the bed, and comfort her by explaining that happiness would come someday. My heart felt for Grandpa, who had lost his wife and children so suddenly. I imagined him plowing lonely fields, surviving through the depression years, and working each day through his pain.
Mom continued, “It was terrible in the orphanage. Everyone picked on me. I felt like there was no love in the world. I had no friends. We had oatmeal every day for breakfast. That’s why I can’t stand oatmeal to this day. When my sister turned fifteen, she left the orphanage to start high school seventy miles away, at Cathedral High School in Denver. I was alone in the orphanage for two years after that. Those were the worst years of my life!
“When I was old enough to start high school, I left the orphanage to join my older sister living with my mother’s sister, Aunt ReJean’s, near downtown Denver.” We’d visited Aunt ReJean’s many times as children. I never understood her connection to Mom. She was a small, white haired woman who wore floral dresses. She had rosy cheeks, wore large glasses, was always smiling, and never ran out of home baked cookies. My sister found out later in life that Aunt ReJean had driven to Akron to pick up her sister and take her back to Denver to get medical treatment for her depression. After a few weeks, treatment seemed to be working when Grandpa Diamond drove to Denver to take his wife out of treatment and back to the farm to care for their four children. It was soon afterwards that my grandmother took her life.
I remember Dad’s telling us that Aunt ReJean’s home was one of the first houses built near downtown Denver. When her father first built their home, it was the only one in the middle of an empty grazing pasture with a cow path leading down the hill into what is now downtown Denver. Ironically, her home now blends in with hundreds of homes that look exactly the same. As a child, I didn’t understand that Mom and her sister had lived in Aunt ReJean’s home while attending Cathedral High School.
My sister asked, “Is that when you met Dad?”
Mom smiled, “I met your father after I graduated from high school. Bob had returned home from World War II, having served as a radioman and aircraft mechanic for B‑17 bombers. He was attending Denver University when we met at a church taffy-pull dance. I got stuck on him!” she smiled.
“When we fell in love and decided to marry, we promised each other to give our children all the love we’d never received. I promised Dad to never argue in front of our children. Michael was conceived on our wedding night. Three years later we purchased this home for $12,000. It had a large fenced backyard with a swing set, apple tree and tall lilac bushes. There were huge trees in the neighborhood, a nearby stream, and a big empty lot beside our house for children to play. Schools were two blocks away.
We celebrated Michael’s second birthday a few days after we moved into this house.”
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My parents held true to their vow to give their children all the love and attention that they wished they’d received while growing up. We kids were loved unconditionally in good times and bad. We were disciplined but quickly forgiven. Our family’s normal operating state comprised of love, patience, and understanding. I was too young to know how unusual my family was. Later in life, when we’d share tales of our personal adventures, people would stop us in mid-tale. “Now, just a moment. Who were your parents? They don’t sound like real people.”
They were real people. They’d just learned to love. They’d learned to embrace the sacred in life, the sunny days, mowing lawns, working on a car, family drives in the mountains, camping, kayaking, sailing, and water skiing—baking pies, knitting baby blankets for the homeless, and loving each of us. Night and day, Mom was always busy creating one thing or another. In the evening as the family watched TV, she’d often knit, crochet, or sew clothes; can fruit, bake cookies, cakes, or pies. Our parents played and spent time with us. And we never missed church on Sunday.
Dad worked long hours as an insurance salesman by day, then often studied his spiritual books in the evening. Thomas Moore was a favorite author. He loved reading about St. Francis. In his senior years, he would become an honorary monk in the Franciscan order, and at the end, he was buried in the humble robe of a Franciscan monk.
My father believed in freedom to explore. His early experiences of growing up on a farm, exploring the wilds of Indiana, and hunting with his cousins taught him the value of enjoying nature and of being self-sufficient, which he passed on to us. He encouraged me to think and be safe. He shared the story of when he was thirteen years old on a squirrel hunt with his cousin. His cousin was crawling beneath a barbed-wire fence beside him when the trigger on his cousin’s .22-rifle caught on a stick. The rifle went off. His cousin was killed instantly with a gunshot wound to the head. “If the safety had been on, my cousin would probably still be alive today,” he ended the story.
Dad spent several days teaching me gun safety with the Daisy BB rifle he’d given me for Christmas when I was ten. He taught me to wrap the strap around my elbow to steady the rifle, something he’d learned in World War II. He told me to always consider the rifle loaded and never, under any circumstances, allow the rifle to be pointed towards a person; I should carry the rifle pointed to the ground. He started me shooting at paper targets tacked to a tree. I then spent weeks exploring the stream near our house, shooting at tin cans propped on the opposite bank. I began to fantasize about going on a hunt. Late one night while lying in bed, I remembered seeing a muskrat at sunrise beside the stream near our house. I decided that I wanted to hunt the muskrat the next morning.
I rose at 5 a.m., dressed, and tiptoed out of the house through our back patio door, holding my breath as I gently closed the door to avoid waking my parents. It was exciting to be on a secret hunt. I planned to be back before my parents noticed I’d been gone. I walked half a block to a hillside overlooking the stream. Crawling to the top of the hill, I peered over, delighted to see the muskrat peacefully drinking at the edge of the stream. The sun peeked over the horizon lighting the scene perfectly. I lay down on my stomach and took careful aim. I squeezed the trigger and could actually follow the bright copper BB as it arched through the air to hit the muskrat in the shoulder. A perfect shot! The BB bounced off the muskrat and into the water with a small splash. The muskrat didn’t even look up! She kept drinking water, seemingly undisturbed.
I grit my teeth—my eyebrows furrowed. My low-powered Daisy BB rifle was no match for a muskrat’s thick fur. High above me, a flock of robins began to celebrate the new sun with songs. I was determined to kill something. Studying the tree, I hatched Plan B. I strapped the BB rifle to my shoulder, walked to the tree and started climbing up to a tree house I’d built a few months before. I planned to sit in the treehouse and pick off the birds one-by-one through the thick canopy of leaves.
I’d climbed about six feet up the main trunk and was looking upwards when a large glob of bird shit landed in my right eye. Shocked, I let go of the tree, and as I was falling I experienced a blinding flash of light within. I landed on my feet. I swiped the bird shit from my eye, flinging it to the side, as a realization hit me. When I let go of the branch I’d been clueless, but with that flash of light inside as I was falling, it all became crystal clear. Some spiritual friend had reminded me of something I already believed, but had forgotten in this life. All life is sacred. I needed to respect and avoid causing injury to any life if possible. I understood this so clearly that it became my lifelong conviction, not to injure any Soul—animal or human.
I laughed to myself as I walked home. I was a ten-year old boy who’d just received a lecture, a lesson not without humor. I pictured a hand gently squeezing a bird above me at just the right moment, the bird poop dropping through the branches and leaves to land in my right eye. Now, that was a perfect shot!
From that moment on, I considered all life sacred. I loved animals and avoided causing any injury—except for ants, flies, spiders, and one snake. I was a little boy, after all.
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The open field between our home and the stream became a neighborhood playground where children would gather for summer baseball. Dad would sometimes pitch for a few hours at our famously long neighborhood weekend baseball games. There were at least twenty-five children in our surrounding neighborhood. Everyone was allowed to play regardless of age, sex, or ability. We started by choosing captains, then the captains would take turns picking their players. Because the games lasted up to seven hours, we’d divide up the players as they came and went, trying to keep the teams even competitively. Sometimes we’d have twelve players on the field, sometimes six. A fourteen-year-old might back up a seven-year-old on the field.
A five-year-old would get easy pitches. We’d show her how to choke-up on the bat and swing level. The pitcher moved up close and would gently toss the ball. She’d get extra strikes if needed. We called them do-overs. She’d get plenty of time to make a safe run to first base as both sides cheered her. If the next player hit a triple and the young person on first base couldn’t run fast, the runner would scoop up the little one and carry them (usually laughing) to third base. The five-year-old was then allowed to run to home base safely. We’d often purposely throw the baseball above the catcher’s head and act disappointed that the five-year-old had beat us. Older batters were shown no mercy.
Dad hung a cow bell on our garage reminiscent of the farmhouse bell used to call workers in from the fields. When Mom rang the bell, I dropped my glove and ran. It was dinnertime. The game continued without me. After dinner, I’d run back to rejoin the game. Some baseball games would start at noon and go past sunset. The rule for ending the game was that if you couldn’t find the ball in the outfield weeds because of the dark, the game ended, often with scores like 85 to 104.
We weren’t rich, but life seemed to rush in to fulfill our needs. What we needed came to us either through hard work, by barter, as a gift, or by coincidence. A homemade seventeen-foot kayak and a small two-person sailboat lay in our backyard beneath the lilac bushes. My father had fashioned these from discarded fiberglass kits his insurance clients had given up on. These boats were a great source of fun on our family camping trips to Cherry Creek Reservoir and mountain lakes. My dad acquired many of our bikes, off-road motorcycles, a motor boat, a camping trailer, and several cars in the same way. In the field beside our home, several older cars were usually parked, waiting to be repaired for future use.
Within this ideal community, I felt a growing personal dis-ease. Like a distant roll of thunder, trouble appeared on the horizon threatening my family and the world at large. Something was wrong—and then everything was wrong.
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