Intimate Conversation 5
Letters To My Daughter Xaverie
Ramón Sender Barayón
September 10, 1984
Dear Woodcrest: (The Hutterian Society of Brothers' community at Rifton, New York)
I just finished talking with Stan regarding my ongoing concern that somehow the impasse between myself and the brothers be resolved for the sake of a father and a daughter.
My love for Xavi dictates that I continue to try to open communication, because I feel very strongly that Xavi would benefit from a relationship with me. Although I do not share her nor your beliefs, I do respect her and your commitment to your way of life. But also I felt deeply her delight at seeing me for the first time in fourteen years during that hour's visit in the diner in New Paltz - and her confusion as well. I cannot but hope that a wound that now has remained open for some twenty-five years can yet be healed by a gentle involvement in each others' lives.
Xavi and I are intertwined on a very deep level, perhaps because I was the 'houseparent' during the first year of her life. Couldn't we all together seek some sort of compassionate solution?
About myself: I am happily resettled in San Francisco after twelve years of country living, and spent the last two summers in Spain meeting my Spanish relatives as well as researching the life of my mother Amparo who was shot by the fascists in the Civil War. I have just put the finishing touches on a book-length manuscript which tells her story, and it should be published shortly. The return to my roots and the resolution of questions that haunted my childhood - of what happened to my mother - has allowed a deep healing of the trauma I experienced. Admittedly some of my attempts at self-healing during the 'sixties were ill-considered - and some of my earlier letters to you reflected a distraught state of mind - for which I am truly sorry.
However I continue to hope that some substantial change will occur in our relationship so I can share in Xavi's life in some manner. If you are not willing to open a direct discussion with me at this time, perhaps we could agree on someone to act as ombudsman and mediate between us?
I am blessed with three sons, one in college in Marin County, one in New York pursuing a musical career and the youngest starting high school here in the city. They all know about Xavi and often ask about her. All three are wonderful young men of whom their father can feel justly proud. My wife teaches and counsels refugee children newly arrived from other countries. Her fluency in Spanish was extremely helpful during our visits to Spain. Often she expresses her eagerness to meet Xavi and get to know her.
I understand the differences between your and my beliefs regarding divorce. Yet it seems to me that the most important thing is to allow love - deep love - access into all our lives, no matter what form it takes.
Please convey a father's love and greetings to Xavi for me. As always, I would be delighted to pay her round-trip fare to San Francisco if ever she and you should decide it would be a good thing. Otherwise, I plan to be on the East Coast next summer as usual to visit my American mother Julia and my sister Benedicta (both of whom share my deep sense of loss at Xavi's disappearance from their lives). Perhaps we might plan some sort of meeting at that time?
Sincerely, and with my continued hope of opening a dialogue,
September 17, 1984
I received your letter of September 10th that you wrote to "Woodcrest". I want to speak openly and honestly to you about how I feel our relationship should be and I hope so much you can understand.
Since you left Woodcrest when I was four years old and during all my growing-up years, I longed and wished so much for the moment you would return to our family. During those years, no one ever said anything to me against you or told me that you had remarried and would not return.
When I was an 18 year old novice and heard you wanted to contact me, I eagerly responded and the brotherhood made no move to dissuade me; and I met you in the New Paltz diner. I was glad to see you again although it was almost like meeting a total stranger. When I returned from that meeting, I was told that you had remarried and then I clearly realized that our paths had truly separated, to my deep sorrow.
I still do love you as my father, but I have now joyfully promised to follow Christ's teachings in the New Testament for my whole life regardless of the cost. If you truly love me, as you say you do, please do not urge me to break this promise or to compromise with (which is actually breaking) Christ's teachings regarding divorce (Matthew 5:32; Mark 10:4). It is for this reason that my conscience does not allow me to take up a relationship with you and your family. It is a very, very deep sorrow for me that we are now in this painful situaiton.
I ask you again, dear Daddy, to try to understand and respect my request.
October 29, 1984
I was so happy to receive a letter from Xaverie after an additional silence of eight years since I last saw her.
(Note: a few years after our diner meeting, I 'crashed' the community unnannounced during Sunday services with my sister Benedicta in full religious regalia as an Episcopal nun. By happy accident, we encountered my daughter on duty at the Baby House on the guest tour. When it became obvious who I was, we were spirited off after about a five-minute chat with Xavi.)
When I read her reasons for not allowing me a relationship with her, I wonder if the brotherhood is 'leading with its heart' on this one. However the last thing I want is to put Xaverie into a tense situation. As I said before, I have the deepest respect for her religious commitments and your way of life.
Wouldn't it be possible to find some intermediary, a person who could act as mediator in this situation? One possiblilty would be Art Rosenblum in Philadelphia. I think he would be more than willing to accompany me to some sort of clearing session next summer when I come to the East Coast. If you do not think he is suitable, please suggest someone else. I would be glad to consider a counter-proposal.
I do not feel it is fair to Xaverie to make it her 'decision' whether to communicate with me or not. A brother or sister in good standing must reflect in all their behavior the brotherhood's tenets, so I must assume that the practice of cutting me off from her is a brotherhood decision. Haven't the Hutterites, with whom I now understand you have reunited, not come to some sort of solution during their long history to the 'one parent outside and remarried' problem?
As you know, here in America there is a deeply valued tradition of mutual respect for all religions. Looking back through European history, one can appreciate how hard-won this basic human freedom was. Inasmuch as the Bruderhof (The Society of Brothers) has benefited so much from another American tradition - that of rewarding craftsmanship and thrift - it might behoove it to think carefully through its attitudes towards other belief systems.
If you cannot respect my beliefs within your frame of reference, then why not at least allow me access to my daughter's life as a 'sinner?' Jesus did not shun the company of sinners and publicans, nor did he turn his back on those who remarried, such as the Samaritan woman at the well.
By the time you read this letter, I will have turned fifty, optimistically the midway point in my life. I am saddened at the thought that so much time has passed without Xaverie's inclusion in my life.
Looking forward to your reply,
February 22, 1986
Xaverie, my dearest daughter:
Although you have asked me never to write to you again, I feel I must keep a line of communication open, at least once a year on your birthday. Also the brotherhood has not seen fit to reply to my suggestion of finding an ombudsman-mediator in this matter, and I must interpret their silence as a refusal.
Happy birthday! What a wonderful gift you were when you entered my life thirty-one years ago today at Mt. Zion hospital in Brooklyn. Your mother Sibyl, always one to attempt the incredible, gave birth without anesthesia in spite of not having trained in LaMaze breathing and other natural childbirth techniques. I only wish the doctor had not sent me home. If I had been older and more experienced instead of a confused twenty-year-old, I would have insisted on accompanying her into the delivery room. So I spent the hours painting the walls of your room and installing a crib. Imagine my delight when I phoned that afternoon and learned you had already arrived!
I seem to be launching into your life story from Day One. Well, you are now thirty years old, so I can talk 'straight' to you, father to grown-up daughter. I think it's important you have my memories of your earliest years. As someone who had to wait until he was almost fifty to reconnect to his early childhood, I can testify personally to the healing effect of discovering 'what happened.'
I brought you, adorably plump, and your mother home to our bohemian four-room railroad flat on East 33rd Street. From the first moment you were such a blessing! How proud I was, and with what joy attended to your care. Sibyl had to remain in bed for some weeks, so I trundled you to her bed in the morning before leaving for work. In the evening I put you in the foam-lined drawer we used as a bassinet - the crib seemed too big and uncosy for someone so tiny. Because you required more milk than Sibyl produced, we began supplemental feedings with formula. Also I became increasingly concerned about your mother who was not regaining her strength. Ever since she had contracted serum hepatitis at Harvard two years earlier (she had donated blood and they used a dirty needle) and almost died before they diagnosed her correctly - she suffered frequent bouts of exhaustion. Her doctor continued treating her symptoms with Dexedrine, an amphetemine I later blamed for her sudden mood swings and subsequent flattening of her emotions. Unfortunately Dexedrine was relatively new at the time, and its unpleasant 'hangover' effect not well understood.
When she continued bleeding into her sixth week, she had to be hospitalized for a dilation and curettage. A piece of the placenta had remained attached to the lining of her uterus. All in all, these first months were intense. Also I had a lot to learn. First I tried washing the diapers at home in the kitchen washtub. But you rapidly contracted a rash, and we subscribed to a diaper service. Also, between my forty-hours a week at my job, cooking the meals and caring for both you and Sibyl, any thought of composing music had to be shelved. Occasionally I panicked, feeling I would never find the time necessary to produce the music that I felt would be our springboard to a better life. Admittedly a far-fetched notion - but that is all I had been trained to do.
The pressures built to inevitable arguments. Wnen Sibyl and I experienced our first fights, I felt defenseless against her dagger-tipped sarcasms. But I soon learned to volley some of her remarks back at her and at least pretend that she could not hurt me so deeply. But in private I anguished over the darkening of that cosmic romance which had begun on a blind date when we were sixteen. I can still remember how she looked, slim figure slouched over a cigarette in a 'fifties version of the flappers' style, Irish-green eyes ablaze in an oval face. Any man would look at her twice, especially those chestnut locks that coiled in springy ringlets on humid summer evenings or after swimming. From the moment we met, it was love at first sight, and we began to chat as if continuing a previous conversation.
Music, art, politics, science, religion - we agreed about everything! She had an affected, drawling way of speaking I thought very sophisticated. Her hometown of Kenwood outside Oneida, New York, had been the site of the Oneida Community in the late eighteen hundreds, and she told me she was a great-grandchild of John Humphrey Noyes, the charismatic founder of the sect.
"The community practiced free love," she said. "Also they produced a whole generation of 'planned' children who grew up smarter, healthier and better-looking than anyone ever before - the first experiment in human eugenics. My grandma's in her eighties and just as smart as me!"
Free love, eugenics! If it had produced her, I was all for it! "Is it still going on?" I asked.
She shook her head. "Unfortunately, the community broke up after Noyes was hounded out of the country. They reformed the silver-making business as a corporation." She grinned, revealing a charmingly crooked upper incisor. "You've heard of Oneida silverware, haven't you? Ve-ry prosaic."
After that incredible encounter, twenty-page letters flew back and forth every week between us. We met again over Thanksgiving when she visited me in New York. I returned the visit to her home over Xmas, staring in awe at the huge red-brick Mansion House which had been the center of the Oneida Community. Photographs of bearded gents and women in their distinctive skirts-with-pants combination hung on the walls. I met her grandparents as well as other elders who had been during the heyday of the cult in the late nineteenth century. From this time onward I was fascinated with the idea of intentional community.
We had one last date in New York City that June before we broke up over her growing interest in her best friend's brother. Looking back, I realize how that event set the tone of our relationship. I would be forever cast in the role of the jealous lover standing by while Sibyl's intellectual brilliance and beauty drew other men to her.
But I have wandered away from your story. Early that June, when you were sixteen weeks old and blossoming into cherubic smiles, I came home one day to find both Sibyl and you gone. She had left a brief note: "My old boyfriend Bob came by, and I realized I'm still in love with him. So I've decided to accompany him to Boston. I'll phone this evening to make plans for a divorce."
I was flabbergasted. Although we had had some recent squabbles, one of which had triggered my slamming out of the apartment for the evening, how could she have left me? I paced the floor for hours waiting for her phone call, trying to comprehend her state of mind. Maybe, I thought, now that I was her husband, she had the same need to rebel against me she had felt with her parents.
Well, I won't bore you with the tedious details of this particular chapter of the soap opera. Suffice it to say that I followed her to Boston, and we spent a crazy week in Maynard at the house of a friend's parents. Bob was stationed at a nearby army base, and Sibyl would spend the nights with him and the daytimes arguing with me. Throughout it all, you were a little puddle of gurgling sanity, and the main reason I fought so hard for the marriage. Finally, Bob gave me the opportunity to report him AWOL ('absent without leave') to his commanding officer, and he was restricted to base. At that point Sibyl finally agreed to accompany me to a Boston psychiatrist. Imagine my surprise when he took one look at me and said, "Ramon, I think you're the one who should go into therapy. Your need for Sibyl seems more like an obssession than anything else."
So we made a bargain. Sibyl would return with me to New York, and I would find a psychiatrist. We drove home in Bob's car to pick up where we had left off. It wasn't easy. I went to work every day not knowing whether Sibyl would still be there when I returned. Also I had to fight my suspicious jealousies which drove me to search the house for letters or indications that Bob had phoned. I knew the basic problem was that Sibyl was bored. Endowed with a genius intellect, she could not find fulfillment in the role of a housefrau. Finally that September we decided to change roles. I would stay home with you and she would find a job. Work would distract her from her daydreams about Bob (who was still writing her) and I would have the hours when you were napping to finish the quintet for strings I had begun.
So Sibyl plunged into the world of commerce. After a few months at a boring secretarial job, her enthusiasm waned. One evening she told me she could not continue.
"What would you like to do most of all?" I asked.
"Work at Scientific American," she replied.
"Well go and apply, for heaven's sake!" I remained convinced she could get whatever she wanted. .
"But I've only completed one year of college ," she replied.
"Do it anyway."
The result was that she returned home that evening having been hired as a typist for one of the Scientific American editors. How excited she was to have landed such a plum! She would be meeting with top scientists, and gradually learning to edit manuscripts for publication.
I made an effort to find a psychiatrist as I had promised. Although on the surface we seemed to be getting along better (Bob had been transferred to Alaska), I was having terrible dreams in which I attacked Sibyl and chopped her into small pieces. Looking back at this time from the perspective of the present, I can see how Sibyl's desertion released all the rage I had experienced as a two-year-old when my mother was arrested and disappeared forever from my life. I was dealing with some very deep-seated insecurities. However my few sessions with the grim freudian to whom I had been referred resulted only in my having terrible dreams about him as well as Sibyl. When I explained I couldn't possibly pay him $25 an hour, he told me that was just another symptom of my neurosis. At this point I blew up and broke off our sessions.
Another advantage to our trading roles was that I could check the mail before Sibyl saw it. When a letter came from Bob in Alaska inviting Sibyl to join him there, I threw it away without telling her. Throughout this difficult period, I received very little understanding or support from my family. Both my father and American mother Julia interpreted my attempt to go into therapy as a demonstration of their failure in their parental roles. My sister remained the most sympathetic, and I derived much comfort from her continued love and understanding. But most of all, I received the greatest satisfaction from being a part of your life. I would put you in a baby carrier slung from my shoulder and button my overcoat around you so that only your head protruded. Feeling very marsupial, I would take you to the Metropolitan Museum or the Frick for an afternoon, or else shopping for groceries. As you became heavier, you graduated to a stroller. By October you were standing beside the piano while I played, plonking two of the lowest notes over and over with two tiny fingers. How pleased you were to be helping Daddy compose! When your were especially happy, you wrinkled your nose and snorted through it like a baby dragon, which of course made me feel you were the smartest little girl ever born.
That winter I began sessions with a Reichian therapist recommended by a poet friend down the block. He combined massage with breathing techniques, and I seemed to make some progress over the weeks that followed. A great deal of anger came welling up, which did not make things any easier with Sibyl. The end result was that I moved out the following February. At first I tried to keep taking care of you during the days, but the ongoing encounters with Sibyl became too painful. Also, I was starting a job operating IBM machines at an insurance company. So I found a grandmotherly lady nearby who was willing to be your baby-sitter, and more or less disappeared from your life for a period. I just could not deal with the tearing sensations that visiting you evoked, and decided a clean break for the time being was the only solution.
By May your mother and I were seeing each another again. Your grandparents had moved to Jackson Heights, and Sibyl rented an apartment near them so that Grandma Ruth could take over your daycare. I was working at a record store, the first job related to my musical training, also writing concert reviews. My String Trio had been performed as well as a dance piece. Life was looking up! My burgeoning self-confidence renewed my hope that perhaps now Sibyl and I could live together. Also I yearned to have you back in my life, and remember well beginning to visit you in Jackson Heights on Sundays. You had become a little girl of such charm and grace that you enchanted everyone. Your thirty-word vocabulary included 'bath,' 'button' 'door.' All photos of men in magazines were greeted with 'boy!' at which I would reply, 'Well, yes, but old boy.' All females were 'baby,' so you seemed to be evolving a sort of 'Guys And Dolls' sub-dialect.
Often I would take you down to the playground, and I remember the day you first experienced 'mine' and 'yours.' You had picked up another child's discarded shovel and reacted with astonishment to the owner's temper tantrum. Up until that moment, you had been easy and generous with your own toys, but now 'mine' entered your vocabulary. It saddened me to see you lose your innate generosity and enter the troubled world of petty envies and private possessions. But then, inasmuch as our society suffered from these less noble traits, I supposed you might as well acclimatize earlier than later.
Recently in my files I found your daily schedule as your Grandma Ruth wrote it down at that time:
10:00 A.M. Goes into playpen with two Arrowroot biscuits. Watches the Gary Moore Show until 10:30. Claps when the people do, also laughs when they do.
10:30 A.M. Comes out of playpen and does not care much for the Arthur Godfrey Show! Plays around the room until 11:15. I used to take her out at this time, but she would fall asleep sitting up.
11:15 A.M. Has a bottle and goes to sleep. 12:30 P.M. Wakes up and plays until 1 o'clock. Then has a three-course lunch (after having hands sponged): meat out of 'Junior' jar or breast of roast chicken, garden vegetables and peaches or apple sauce and cream. Thin bread and butter and cool (boiled) water to drink. Once more I sponge her hands and face. She likes to watch Robert Q. Lewis at this time. She enjoys his show and it gives me a chance to clear up her lunch dishes.
3:00 P.M. We go out for a walk, and if the weather is fine, stay out until 4:30.
4:30 She has another bottle resting on the bed. After this, she goes into her playpen while she eats a banana cut up into small rounds and served on a pink plate!! With two cookies. More hand sponging, then she comes out, Carol Ann puts on dance music and the baby dances until her mother comes. If her mother is late, she gets a little tired and likes to sit on the bed with a blue cushion on her lap - and play 'Bridge' with a half-dozen cards!
She likes: "The Tales of Hoffmann" to go to sleep by, her grandma to applaud when she dances, and pretty clothes. She also likes you to tell her she is a clever girl when she dances. She is a wonderful little person and we love her.
Nappy changes: five to seven times. She is so intelligent that she could very soon be taught to do away with daytime nappies if she had a 'pinky pot.'
My gratitude to Grandma Ruth for her care for you far outweighed whatever tales Sibyl fed me about how bland and featureless her parents were. Without her loving presence in your life, our problems would have been multiplied ten-fold.
Paul Goodman's recently published Growing Up Absurd helped me understand how the depersonalization of modern society disaffected almost everyone. I read his description of the Beat lifestyle with growing interest. I began to identify with the Beats whom he defined as 'pacific, artistic and rather easy-going sexually,' although more as a fellow-traveller than a member of their subculture.
I also renewed the acquaintance of Herb, a very bright friend of a friend who was beginning a career as music critic. Through him I began writing concert reviews for a top music magazine. I was delighted, because this was the first job worthy of a composer. The magazine did not pay, but provided free tickets and exposure. Every few weeks I visited Herb to compare notes on concerts or chat about the arts. An aesthete in the old World sense, uninvolved in the arts creatively, he cultivated a detached, aristocratic elegance as opposed to my own rumpled Bohemianism.
In contrast to these positive developments, Sibyl and I were in trouble once more. She became distant and strange, and I knew her well enough to sense what these symptoms meant: she was infatuated with someone, no doubt at the magazine. In self-defense, I withdrew emotionally from her and began experiencing the same self-doubt I had suffered before. Evenings I retired to my basement studio, but my inspiration wilted. Could I really write music? One fear chained me to the next. Could I really keep up with Sibyl's career and social life?
Our sterile apartment became a prison. A barrier of unexpressed feelings separated us. Out of desperation, I naively suggested we try an 'open' relationship: each would have the freedom to go out with others. How sophisticated, I thought. Just like Sibyl's Oneida Community ancestors.
Sibyl offered me the first turn, and I dated a young woman I had met at the store. She was the teenage daughter of an orthodox rabbi, very sweet, but I felt I was robbing the cradle. I returned home depressed, feeling trapped in the vortex of an impending disaster. When Sibyl took her 'turn' a few days later, she did not come home until seven the next morning. By two a.m., I had worked myself up into a panic similar to our nightmare week in Massachusetts.
"What made you think you could stay out all night?" I demanded. "At least you could have telephoned!"
She shrugged. "The deal was we'd each do what we wanted."
"Who was he?" I demanded.
During the next hour of wrangling, she refused to divulge details. But I kept insisting, and gradually identitified her 'date'.
"It's Owen, isn't it?"
"No, I can't tell you!" she moaned, bursting into tears. "You'll make his life miserable!"
Owen, her co-worker at the magazine. She was protecting him because he was married, with two kids under three.
Her further protestations convinced me I had scored a bull's-eye. I packed a bag and stormed out of the apartment, moving in with my American mother Julia temporarily. I tried to continue visiting you on weekends as before, but once again the pain of encountering Sibyl - and also my own inability to just duck in and out of your life - made it too difficult. When my job at the record store ended, I walked around the corner to G. Schirmer, the music publishers, and was immediately hired.
Julia decided to help by finding me an apartment. She invested in a elegant Victorian coop on Gramercy Park - Gramercy Park! I could not feel at home. Over the phone I mentioned to Sibyl my new digs, and invited her over for supper to show them off.
"The magazine's accepted me as an editorial trainee," she told me. "This is my big opportunity! In a year or so I could be editing articles!"
She remained at her most sympathetic. I wondered if she could possibly be interested in yet another reconciliation. Yet she never expressed any contrition for her behavior nor sympathy for my suffering. I felt too vulnerable to lay myself open to her again, and began to dream of putting some real distance between us, at least for the summer. Time Magazine had just published an article on the San Francisco literary scene, mentioning the growing interest in Zen Buddhism. I decided I would visit the Bay Area, and by coincidence, my friend Daniel phoned looking for a sublet for the summer. I convinced him to rent my place. Through a car-delivery agency, I found a Chrysler Imperial to deliver to Los Angeles. The ad I put in the Village Voice brought three riders to share gas and expenses. I estimated I could make the crossing for less than $50.
What a relief to leave the wreckage of my life behind! With every mile, my mood brightened. For the first time in years, I looked forward eagerly to each new day. After visiting my father in Albuquerque, I started for Los Angeles in the evening. We drove through the night - a fourteen-hour stretch, Arizona's desert an alien dreamscape. About four that morning in the Mojave Desert, I was listening to a recording of the Brahms Piano Quintet on the radio when the whole sky lit up a livid white-blue. Had the high-tension lines we just passed blown up? I looked towards the dawn and saw a large cloud rising. It transformed gradually from a mushroom into an incongruous Donald Duck. I had just witnessed my first atom bomb blast, a real baptism by fire. How symbolic of the atomization of my previous existence and my entry into Walt Disney country!
From Los Angeles I started hitchhiking up the coast to San Francisco, my rucksack full of books sagging on my shoulders. Puffing uphill past Malibu Beach, I heard a voice call out.
"Hi, there! You look kinda tired!"
I glanced up between the rivulets of sweat dripping from my eyebrows.
A blond lifeguard in his twenties smiled from his perch on his spotting tower. "Why don't you sit a spell?"
Grateful for the rest, I collapsed on the sand. He introduced himself and we chatted about my ongoing pilgrimage. We shared common interests in music and the arts, and he invited me to spend the night with him and his wife. Touched by his hospitality, I accepted his offer and accompanied him to their beachside cottage. His wife, as blonde as he, made me welcome. Their baby girl was about your age, and I wistfully admired the easy affection they displayed. He was working on a book about skindiving while earning his keep at the beach. What a graceful, simple existence! I beamed at my new friends. If this was California, I wanted some!
In the morning, he dropped me on the highway on his way to work. I had enjoyed a marvelous sleep on their deck, lulled by the crashing surf. Two afternoons later I was dropped off in San Francisco's financial district. A friendly passer-by directed me up Montgomery Street towards North Beach. I had not walked more than a half-block when I saw a pretty blonde approaching. It was Sibyl's best friend from Kenwood.
"My husband's in the Navy and stationed here," she explained. "I'm working at a bank."
How ironic that after travelling thousands of miles to distance myself from Sibyl, the first person I met was her best friend. I couldn't believe it!
I settled into North Beach, found an evening job at a bank, and proceeded to pass two very enjoyable months in this friendliest of all cities. Towards the end of the summer, I spent two weeks camping out on Mt. Tamalpais reading my Zen books and attempting to communicate with my deeper self. The results of that experience convinced me that I should relocate to the California woods permanently. And perhaps - just perhaps - I could convince Sibyl to join me in this new beginning. Maybe away from the temptations and pressures of Manhattan, we could find a new life together.
I returned to New York City as relaxed and centered as I had felt in years. Daniel greeted me at my apartment door, eyeing my sprouting beard with disfavor. When we traded accounts of our summer adventures, his included a description of a week spent at Macedonia, an intentional community in Georgia.
"Have I mentioned Macedonia before?" he inquired. "They're pacifists, and base their philosphy on Gandhi. Well anyway, they were in a bad way - a spiritual crisis of some sort - and invited the Bruderhof to send some people down. It was all over my head."
In reply to further questions, he explained how the Bruderhof brothers had arrived in the United States three years earlier and started a community in upstate New York. His descriptions piqued my curiosity. In spite of my ongoing interest in communities, I had never found one to visit. Maybe before I turned my back on society and went off to live in the woods, I should investigate Macedonia.
"Forget it," he replied to me query. "They're about to join the Bruderhof. I could feel it."
"Well, if I'm interested in Macedonia and they're interested in the Bruderhof, maybe I should visit the Bruderhof - right?"
The following day I visited Sibyl at her office. She made a sarcastic comment about my bearded appearance, and seemed at her most distant.
"How's Xaverie?" I asked. "I've really missed her. The hardest has been not being a part of her growing up. I really want to see her."
"Don't," Sibyl replied. "She's gotten used to your not being around. It would just stir things up. She likes Herb a lot. They get along very well together."
Herb had come into Sibyl's life while I had been away, and I tried to get used to the idea. I had always liked him very much, and felt that at least the new father in your life was a man of whom I approved.
A long silence ensued. There really was nothing to say. Her career seemed to be going well, and she was not interested in hearing about my California notions. A few bitter phrases were traded, and then we parted. That was that.
I didn't ever want her back, I decided. Just that brief encounter brought back all the anguish of the previous years. Of course in retrospect I cannot fault her. As teenagers, we had been caught up in a whirlpool of heady romance before we were mature enough to deal with it. Perhaps if I had been older, and established in my musical career, I could have offered her something more than a railroad flat and a scratchy existence. Now - well, I would work out my life on my own.
The next day I drove up to Woodcrest with Tad Wiser, the younger brother of Art who was at Macedonia. On the way he described how they suppported themselves with a toy-making business. We parked below the hilltop and walked towards what looked like an administration building. To the right, a large Victorian mansion dominated the bluff, obviously the original house of the estate. Children played on a set of swings, laughing and shouting while they took turns pushing each other. A young woman with them glanced up and smield. She wore a black skirt patterned with small flowers, a kerchief on her head made of the same material. Somewhat old-fashioned, I thought, but in a pleasant way. If only you had been included among these carefree kids!
I worried about you growing up in a city with a single mother intent on a high-pressure career. A pang of longing and guilt arced through me often, and my frequent prayer was that my absence might not cause you any pain.
So began my first days of first days at Woodcrest, and by the end of that weekend I knew I would have to settle in for an indefinite stay. Something about the life drew me like a magnet, especially the tight-knit families I observed. I went back to the city only long enough to arrange for the sublet of my apartment and pick up some clothes. When I returned, I ate breakfasts with the 'Singles,' the unmarried young adults and teenagers, worked in the shop and slept in the 'Bughouse,' a cabin in the woods with bunks for ten or so single men.
At guest meetings, I became familiar with the Christian tenets of the community as well as their strict view of marriage as an unbreakable sacrament. It became obvious that if I wanted to become a member and not live out my life as a bachelor, I would have to convince Sibyl not only to return to me but also to join. At the time that seemed a formidable task. However I was encouraged by Florrie Potts, who had heard my story in detail, to open communication with Sibyl, promising that she herself would talk to her if necessary.
The result was that a month or so later I visited you in the Jackson Heights apartment. Sibyl answered my knock wearing jeans and a man's white shirt, obviously in the midst of a weekend clean-up.
"Daddy!" you called form the bedroom doorway. You were two-and-half, and even more adorable than I remembered.
You offered me your Piglet doll for my inspection. Once again, it was as if we had never been separated. I felt I owed Florrie an infinite debt of gratitude for having made this reunion possible. I had missed you so much! And somehow the strength I had found at Woodcrest allowed me to reenter SIbyl's life without those stomach-wrenching feelings that always attacked me.
"And here's Pooh," you said, taking my hand and pulling me into your room.
I shook Pooh's paw solemnly. You were my wonderful little girl, and my battered heart quickened at the possibility that you might become a part of my life once more. After a few hours, I left with Sibyl's reluctant agreement to visit Woodcrest. Herb would drive her up, she told me. Perhaps my description of the life resonated something in her Oneida heritage. But whatever the reason, I felt certain she would have to come up and check things out, not for the marriage's sake but for her own.
I am sure the rest of the story you know. Sibyl did visit with you, and by the end of that weekend it was obvious she had been very touched by the life. Within three months she returned with you to stay indefinitely, although not as my wife but as a single person. There began a period of a year and a half during which the brotherhood began attempting to heal our relationship by gently moving us closer. First I began working in the offices where I saw her every day. Then we became novices together. Shortly after, we experienced a membership preparation together, that most intense of all experiences the community offered. Much of the pain we had caused each other was expressed, and we sincerely asked forgiveness of each other. During the months that followed, we began in external matters to act as a married couple, having breakfast together in Sibyl's apartment, sitting together at meals and meetings.
The following spring we once more joined a membership preparation group. The housemother told me in confidence that an apartment was being prepared us - where Sibyl and I would actually begin living as husband and wife once we had been baptised into the Church. Curiously, this announcement of our longed-for reuniting did not make me happy, but instead anxious and confused. At the preparation meetings, Sibyl was moving closer to committing herself to the life in Christ to which she now felt called. In contrast, she took a disdainful, unfeeling attitude towards me, which only made me wonder why I was going to move back in with the woman who remained the cause of my unhappiness. At this point, I lost faith in what the brotherhood wanted for us. The end result was that I finally was asked to leave the community.
It took me months, if not years, to deprogram myself from the intense indoctrination of the Bruderhof value system. Throughout your childhood, whenever I visited the East Coast, I asked permission to visit you, but allowed the brotherhood's advice to prevail - that I stay out of the way. I acceded to their viewpoint partially because I remembered from my two years at Woodcrest how emotionally disturbing the visit of an outside parent could be to the child, and also because I was still too traumatized by the severing of my relationship to the community to stand up for my rights as your father. I now feel I erred in not insisting on visiting rights, no matter how difficult these visits might have been for both of us.
Xavi, in your letter you said that during your childhood you were never told that I had remarried and would not return. I think the brotherhood made a mistake withholding this crucial information from you, because it kept you hoping that your mother and I would come together again. From the moment I was asked to leave Woodcrest, I knew I would never return. It was totally impossible for me to fulfill the brotherhood's desire that I live with Sibyl. I was too terrified by the power she wielded over me and by her icy-cold sarcasm. Also, I could never accept the only other alternative the community offered - to live single and celibate. Nor could I believe that was what God wanted for me.
I will always remain grateful that Woodcrest absorbed you as a little girl, because it was the best of the alternatives possible. The children's Bruderhof community remains one of the most secure and happy this world affords. I am also thankful that Sibyl found her way into the life there, again for your sake. For herself, from my own point of view, I think the price she had to pay - life as a celibate single woman - was unnecessarily severe. Finally, I would emphasize once more that over the years the brotherhood consistently turned down all requests I made to visit you. The one exception, which resulted in our brief encounter in the diner, only came about because I accused them of brainwashing you. I did this because of the considerable media coverage of cults at the time, and hoping this might be a 'point of leverage' with the brothers.
I continue to hope there yet may be some loving solution to the sorrowful impasse in which we find ourselves.
With much love as always,
My darling Xavie died in 1989, one month after I made a final
attempt to visit her with my wife Judith. My book about recovering the
story of my birth mother Amparo had just been published earlier that year
(A Death In Zamora). Whoever answered the telephone did not know me, and
I was able to glean some information: Xavie had married two years earlier,
and had just given birth to her second child, a little boy (the first was
a girl). I asked to speak to my son-in-law. He came on the phone and, in
standard Bruderhofese, reiterated their refusal to allow me to visit Xavie.
My wife and I left the East Coast bitterly disappointed, yet again, at the lack of contact with this obdurately cruel people. Two months later I received a letter informing me belatedly that Xavie had died a month earlier of a virulent melanoma that took her within two weeks of her diagnosis. Well, I was absolutely flattened! Not that I ever expected anything different
from this strangely hateful group, but somewhere I had kept the hope alive that perhaps some day we would see each other again.
But here's the strange part: she died at the same age as my mother Amparo, leaving two children almost the same ages as my sister and I. My sister at age 4 kept commenting about 'the woman in white' she kept seeing at the foot of her bed. Now I had never been much of a believer in reincarnation, but if there was such a thing, and Amparo had come back into the family at the first opportunity (my daughter) what would she have come back to accomplish?
Amparo died unabsolved outside the comfort of her religion, abandoned
by family and far from her husband.
Xavie died in the bosom of her faith, surrounded by fellow- believers and her loving husband.
Amparo died crying out for her children, not knowing what would happen
Xavie gave her children over to the loving care of the community and her husband, and died knowing they would have the best lives possible.
Amparo remained 'earth-bound,' hovering near her children because of
her concern for them and also because in her belief system her soul had
not been 'released' by
Xavie was free to return to Source, to the eternal peace that Amparo deserved.
Also, their characters were very similar. Xavie was very animated, full of chatter, always friendly with newcomers and sought out by members who enjoyed her up-beat personality. She was also very musical.
Make of these 'coincidences' what you want. But for me, it's a comfort to believe that somehow Amparo came back to achieve closure an finally go on. Perhaps the publication of her story also brought her a certain closure.
I should also mention that Xavie never knew the details of Amparo's life because I never did -- nor had she read the book -- although no doubt she knew that her grandmother had been shot by the fascists. But one odd thing: in a memorial album I finally received full of stories about Xavie, she once said to someone that 'If I had grown up in Spain, my last name would be 'Barayón' -- not quite accurate, but it puzzled me that she knew my mother's last name, because it was not something I knew until the mid-1970s, and Xavie had had no contact with anyone who could have told her. Her mother had broken off all relations with my family when Xavie was very young.
Perhaps, it's just 'poetic' to believe in these things, but it assuages my renewed sense of loss from Xavie's passing, despite the fact that she had been 'lost' to me lo these many years because of a religious falling-out with this group. However, as I mentioned, I always had held onto the slim hope that 'some day' we would have a chance to be together again.
I should mention that one positive result of my attempts in 1989-90
to force the Bruderhof to allow me to interview members who had known Xavie
was their suggestion that I "go ahead and find ex-members to talk to about
her." Within three months I had located six, within a year thirty, and
was publishing a monthly newsletter titled "KIT" of their stories
and letters. By the time another year had passed, I had formed a volunteer
staff of the four ex-members or children of the Bruderhof who lived near
me. We incorporated as The Peregrine Foundation, and started publishing
book-length life stories in a series titled Women from Utopia, of which
there are four titles. In 1999 I resigned as Executive Director to take
another full-time position, with roughly three million words in print by
KIT members and having been sued three times by the so-called pacifist
Details of this particular decade and chapter in my life can be found at: