There but for the grace of God go I. These words appeared from nowhere in this amusing old Mustang I was in, the car itself seeming as relieved as perhaps I should be feeling to be getting away from the White Mountains. This place I had avoided for so long and did not think I had to deal with, except to admire, until this year of exploration when it had become clear to me that I could not live unless I got the old stories straight. Some of my friends from childhood and adolescence were still there up there in the mountains and in the stories. My brother, who had the last of the big family houses, was still there with his English wife, summers in the mountains and winters in a Virginia suburb near the CIA, where he had gone to work. Donald was still there, for him a place to live with no career, his work life apparently having come to an end when, while still in his twenties, he was denied tenure at Dartmouth despite his work on Rudyard Kipling. And Ginnie was back having decided to delete her art career. And Terri, too, was again in this small corner of the world, living in one wing of a family house, White Wings, that was once one of our houses. Hal was coming up from Massachusetts frequently for the hunting and killing of small animals. These people from our summer gang had been out in the world, and now they were back. There but for the grace of god.
Not that I really believed then either in a god or that I could be trapped that way. But in this year of exploration I had realized how much before this year I had been protecting the family and its restricted kingdom, even while I stayed away, even while I made fun of them all. I had blocked off the mental meanderings that might have led me to figure it out, blocked out evidence of the death and abuse just below the surface – and the way they could kill off anything that did not have family precedent.
And I thought of how it has been when we were all young there. How I had been so sure we would all be so different from the kings and queens of these little kingdoms based on restricted ownership of big summer houses.
There but for the grace of God go I. An AA term, one of the AA sayings that many of us had fun with, and hated, in the much more free wheeling and open ACOA, Adult Children of Alcoholics, where everyone was out to get the goods on the propagators of horrors in the past. By 1986 I had not had a drink in over a decade – not even when back in the Far East – not even when in a failing marriage – not even when I would have moments of seeming success when a book came out. But I did not associate myself with these AA people we were attacking.
In one bleak year, when my marriage was grim and I could not write, I had dropped in with some regularity on an afternoon AA meeting on the Upper West Side, near where I lived then. I kept to myself. I went there not as a participant but to hear the stories of others. Now I thought I unconciously went there looking for some real draw to connections I lacked.
And now I was thinking as I drove away from the mountains, as I played on the tape deck Judy Collins and James Taylor and Joan Armatrading, whose songs has been accompanying me in this year of battle against the old kingdoms – I was thinking that those words from poor old AA applied to me too. For before this year it has almost seemed like life was over. I had finally had to admit despair, and not of the sweet romantic kind, and also the almost literal loss of hope, certainly the deepest of all the depressions I had known, including the incapacitating ones I had denied, this one feeling like the terminal depression – and all this has changed this year as I pieced the story together, revising the scenes of the past, finding witnesses from the past, finding memories I could trust – and people to accompany me to those ignored dark places.
As I drive down back roads all the way from the White Mountains, there is a welling up such as has become familiar in this year. Judy Collins is singing a song about a man on a sailing ship who goes all the way to barren Greenland to kill whales. She sings the line, “There is no bird in Greenland to sing to the whale." And on the tape are the actual sad and lonely whistling sounds of actual whales who will not be saved.