Family Secrets

Me, Bruce, my sister Diann and her boyfriend during 1960s Christmas holidays.
Me, Bruce, my sister Diann and her boyfriend on New Year’s Eve.

I didn’t know at the time, but my family was keeping secrets during my final years at Kent State University. Would anything have been different otherwise? I discovered years later that my sister was ill and my dad had a heart attack and later a stroke, but I never knew. Then, of course, I would soon have a secret only my sister knew. We think we are trying to protect one another, but are we?

What did my parents think of Bruce and my switch to an art major?

I could tell by what wasn’t said. The few times I came home for a weekend, Dad was silent. Mom asked about Bruce, about what we did, but offered no opinions. I discussed my classes, the grant and a scholarship I had applied for so they would know there was no way I would abandon my goal of graduating. I expect they were relieved my boyfriend Bruce would be in the army and out of the picture.

In addition, my sister, Diann, was going through emotional and health problems at the time of which I had no idea.

I was kept in the dark as her situation might interfere with my studies.

My dog Maverick was chained to a doghouse in the backyard because he wouldn’t stick around otherwise.

I still feel guilty about abandoning my dog for all those years I left for school. He wasn’t allowed inside as our family lived in a rented house. Sometimes in winter he slept outside under a pile of snow rather than in his doghouse. Out from under he would pounce, sending snow flying every which way.

Eventually he was given to a farmer to live out his life on a farm.

Bruce finished basic training in time to come home for Christmas.

He spent part of the holiday with me and my parents, and we spent Christmas Eve with his folks at a beautiful church service before he was shipped to Vietnam. I recall those thin airmail envelopes and the many newsy letters I mailed to him in return, including replacement copies of The Lord of the Rings, which he said were the most popular books with the guys in his company.

He sent me a photograph of himself proudly sporting his new mustache outside his bunker. But I never saw photos or heard of any pals, either then or afterward.

Having won a scholarship along with a grant, I was busy keeping my grades up. An art education major was given no leeway; you were considered an art major and expected to measure up the same. I loved it. I had been drawing since before grade school and felt in my element with other art students. It was as though something inside me blossomed. 

One particular experience has stayed with me.

I worked part-time helping the secretary in the Psychology Department and, consequently, got to know the psych professors and the graduate students. One of the professors was experimenting on the brains of rhesus monkeys. I saw them in their cages with wires coming out of their heads.  

In my sculpture class we were to sculpt animals. I imagined two rhesus monkeys in that clay glob, one vulnerably peering up at me. All I need do was remove the clay from around them. I’ve never had an experience like that since.

That summer I worked full time in the Psychology Department helping the secretary prepare for the department head to leave and the new one settle in.

The current secretary was retiring. Thank goodness, Dr. Page, the new department head, was easygoing and had a great sense of humor. In addition, preparations were being made for the first psychology doctoral students to graduate, and this was a busy time for the department. I had fast, accurate typing skills as well as good grammar and excellent spelling, so I made money those final years by typing masters and doctoral theses on the department IBM Selectric typewriter. No desk computers in those days.

Dr. Page was a psychiatrist and took appointments to see students who needed help.

One of my regrets is that I didn’t realize I needed therapy. I was functioning and attending school. No problems. Right?

I told Bruce I had a problem with sex, but otherwise I told myself I was fine. Amazing how we can compartmentalize that way. I see clearly now, but I didn’t then.

We even keep secrets from ourselves . . . presumably for protection.

That fall my roommate Andy and I rented an apartment facing an open field on the east end of campus.

We were seniors the fall of 1967. I brought my old bike from home and repainted it for a fast way to get around campus and to the store downtown.

I took driver’s ed later that year to get a driver’s license. 

We welcomed the new psychology graduate students with a party at our place, and what a party! Dr. Page and a number of the professors came and the party and music spread out onto the lawn in front of our apartment. It was a great way to start the fall quarter.

My adventure of the night was when the new grad students, nearly all guys, yelled for help. I headed upstairs, took the back off the toilet and unstuck the float. Yes, indeed, a woman can fix a toilet!

My big risk that fall was jumping off the end of the pool head first in swimming class.

I had never dove nor swum under water since nearly drowning as a kid, so I took Swimming to get over my fear. I clearly recall standing at the edge of the pool when I was supposed to dive in head first, my knees literally quivering, telling myself, “jump, jump!” I finally did, head first, and I can’t express how it felt that first time, and the second time, and third. I swam underwater for the first time too. I was so proud of myself. Everyone else in the class were high school swimmers; they all swam better than me and they all got A’s in the class. I got a C. But none of them had pushed as far as I had!

Andy and my friends graduated that spring.

I would stay another year without them; how I missed them. 

I enjoyed riding my bike to the one art class I took that summer, Studio Problems, which was open to interpretation and expression, another class I loved and pulled an A. The Psychology Department kept me busy, as well, including typing masters and doctoral theses.

Not only would that fall be my final year, but Bruce would be home from Vietnam.

I told every guy I met about Bruce.

It can be darn difficult when you’re in your twenties, in college, and trying to be true to someone half a world away. Someone you only knew for a few months before they left.

I was not much of a drinker, but twice I had been so lonesome I had drunk too much and had a hangover. I did sleep with a fellow I liked very much but we did nothing but hold one another and make out a little. I needed to be held and to hold someone I cared for. Thank you, Terry, a good guy with whom I am still in touch. 

Then there was Larry, a terrific clarinet and sax player who was first chair at Coventry High School before me. We ran into one another at Kent and hit it off. To this day I wonder what might have been.

I’ve been fortunate to know a number of truly great guys in my life, and I hope they all found what they were looking for.

Though I had been tempted several times, I had remained true to our relationship and not become seriously involved with anyone the entire time he was gone.

I was determined I was not going to be a girl who would write a “Dear John” letter to a guy in Vietnam. I could never do that.

I had no idea how his return would affect my life and my feelings about him.





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