My Husband Hates How We Were

by Pam Ruatto

Excerpt from Everything Here Is Green

My husband Marty hates how we were as parents in the commune years, when our daughter Marcie was three to seven years old. Maybe hate is too strong a word and I should say only that he is embarrassed, that he cringes whenever the subject of our parenting as hippies comes up, and that he never brings it up himself.

To say we were permissive doesn’t quite get to it, because while we were permissive on the one hand—Marcie could pick out her own outfits from the secondhand clothes we provided, get as dirty as she wanted, eat what she wanted (of what was available on the commune, that is), and pretty much say anything she wanted without fear of reprisal or punishment—we were very strict with her in other ways.

She could not, for example, play with Barbie dolls. Later, when we were off the commune and had a black and white TV, we wouldn't let her watch The Brady Bunch show either, and for the same reason, which was that we didn’t want her to grow up with a false image of women and/or motherhood. This was much more my doing than Marty’s, so I’m a little surprised at how bad he feels about it now.

There was a dump at the end of the road we lived on when we were at the commune where we picked up most of our clothes and furniture and dishes and that sort of thing. The dump was kept by a couple, John and Delores McCoy, who tenanted a home on the property and were raising their children there. John organized the stuff people brought into sections, the unusable garbage in a heap at the back of the property, and everything of any serviceability out in front, separated by category. You could walk through and find dishes and canning jars in boxes on one side, and old windows and rugs set out on blankets in another area, sort of like at a flea market.

One of the biggest dump contributors was Bob and Aggie’s Antiques and Collectibles store in downtown Mt. Vernon. Everything they took to the dump was clean and in perfect condition, some of it barely used. From the upper pasture at the farm, we could see when the red truck with the blue Bob and Aggie’s logo rolled by on its way to the dump at the end of the road. Someone would call out, “Bob and Aggie’s!” and whoever was around would drop what they were doing, load the kids into the International Travelall, and follow the truck down.

John kept the best stuff for his own family. That was part of the deal he had with whoever owned the dump. Luckily for us—meaning everyone on the commune—John and Delores didn’t have the same taste we did in clothes. He would set aside anything that was in relatively good condition but that he didn’t care for, like camouflage jackets, dark wool sailor shirts—the kind with the white piping on the sleeves and the collar—and Army pants, which, along with overalls, were almost a uniform on the farm. Useable shoes were the most prized find, and the adults at the farm slipped around one summer in bowling shoes from a box that John had given us—red, green, and cream-striped shoes with the sizes on the back that wouldn’t make it to fall before the soles wore through.

Marcie was allowed to pick up any toy at the dump that she wanted, till she found, one afternoon, a box of Barbie dolls. There were three of them; one blond, one brunette, and one redhead, all in perfect condition, lying side-by-side in a box with a pink-flowered plastic suitcase, a bunch of Barbie doll dresses, and a purple sports car. I couldn’t believe that John McCoy hadn’t given them to his own little girls.

“I’m sorry honey, but you just can’t have these,” I said. Marcie was stunned. But they were for free and who was I, always talking about how girls should think for themselves, to keep these dolls from her? And why, just because they don’t wear overalls and live on a stupid farm?

I didn’t want to get into the offensiveness of the huge nippleless boobs and the tiny, indentured-servant feet. “They’re just not realistic,” I said.

She was weeping openly by then, John McCoy passing behind us in disbelief. I felt bad, but it was like being asked to let her have a porn magazine.

“You can take the clothes and suitcase and the little sports car,” I said. I don’t know what I thought she could do with them without the dolls, but it was enough to get her back to the car and away from the dump at least.

She brought the doll gowns, the suitcase and the little purple sports car home and put them under the house, where she kept a baby doll and a couple of stuffed animals. She and one of the other commune girls, Indra, played under there in the summer months when the ground was dry.

I forgot about the doll dresses until one day, not long after, when Marty and I were working on a root cellar we were building just outside the house. He’d dropped his tool belt and had stooped to pick it up, finding, as he looked under the house where the girls had been playing, a city of dead voles in varying stages of decay. There were dead voles in little beds that the girls had fashioned out of scrap lumber and baby-doll blankets, dead voles dressed up in Barbie ball gowns, and a dead vole propped up in the little sports car like it was driving—its tiny velvet humanlike hands resting on the steering wheel.

Marty waved me over to take a look, then called Marcie and Indra to him. He hated to do this, he said, but the girls really could not play with dead and decaying animals. It was just too unsanitary.

"But look how cute they are," Marcie said, appealing now to me. "See how soft their little hands are. Feel them! They’re not unrealistic at all!"

Here’s where I could bend, and it kills Marty, years later, to think of it. Did we really let her play with dead voles?

Yes, but there were conditions. She could play only with the freshly dead ones that the farm cat, Igor, killed daily in the woodpile. But she had to wash her hands afterwards. And when the fur started to curl up and separate from the flesh, I told her, pointing to the decaying shoulder of the little vole she was holding so she’d know just what I meant, then they would have to be thrown out.

Pam Ruatto has been an illustrator for some twenty years, working mostly with the tourism and food industries. She began writing prose after moving to Asheville from Alaska, taking a series of classes from Peggy Millin, followed by ongoing Great Smokies classes, and getting her first piece published in 2004. She's been immersed in a memoir for the past several years, set mostly in southern California, Asheville, and Alaska, but also in Las Vegas, Florida, Chicago, a commune in western Washington, and Panama.

About My Husband Hates How We Were—I did not set out to write a memoir, but the fiction I was trying to write suffered terribly from the fact that it was really memoir in disguise. Nonetheless, I am uncomfortable with the genre. The word alone is irritating—like I’m trailing a veil of gauze across my face as I say it; mehmm-wahhh. I worry that my chapters will be a series of confessions and/or anecdotes that don’t add up to a story in the end, and this piece in particular feels anecdotal to me. But I couldn’t shake the notion that I should tell it regardless, because it shows how I thought as a young feminist and hippie in a way nothing else could. I gave it to the people in my GS class for review, worked it over, read it aloud at Malaprop’s bookstore and got more reactions, including a comment that I couldn’t logically call a Barbie doll’s boobs titless but should say nippleless, as technically, at least in the minds of some, a tit is a boob. In my mind, the word tit, which comes from the word teat, means nipple. When you milk a cow you don’t milk the udder, or boob, you milk the teat, or tit. Any former back-to-the-land-hippie should know this. But I’ve caved to the more commonly held position that one should say nippleless, as you see here, because I want my writing to be accessible.