You can read the previous entries of Sunsh Stein’s memoir in the following issues:
It was the early 1970s and magic permeated the air on the 165 lush acres of upstate New York called Chillum Farm. The world belonged to us — a scruffy, skinny bunch of passionate hippies — and unconditional love and marijuana made anything possible. We planned to change the world by example, living simply with no electricity, plumbing or telephone, working the land and growing much of our own food, and sharing everything. Our lives ran happily on circuits-overload as we worked and partied till we dropped. Celebrating the demise of the nuclear family we created a dysfunctional one of our own. And like the typical American family we lived with hopes, dreams, tractors, sex, chain saws, gardens, animals, births, food, nudity, singing, and ultimately, relationships that went awry.
Although the swinging bed falling with all of us on it during our impromptu family meeting had shaken us, the emotional state of Chillum Farm was strong. It would take more than an accident – whether of fate, weight, or construction — to deeply disturb our bonds of love. We were a cohesive family unit and we took the commune mantra of “more love” seriously. I had to admit that this concept of which I’d been so skeptical had crept into my consciousness. After all, I now had more love than I’d ever had in my life. These people loved me – unconditionally — and I loved them.
If our collective tumble had any affect, it seemed to tighten the bond of the Spindle/Joy/Shadow threesome – they had withstood some heavy test together. There was a subtle shift in how Spindle divided her time between the threesome and Patrick, and we all went with her flow. Patrick, waiting to see where this would lead and what action he should take, focused on his art and plugged in to being part of the family as much as being in a couple with Spindle.
“I’m not giving you up,” I heard him tell her in bed one night, my bed being next to theirs.
“I’m not giving you up either,” she said, a tone of surprise in her voice. “I love you.”
“Oh Spindle,” he sighed and kissed her. They stopped talking and started fucking.
Life at Chillum Farm carried on at what seemed like our normal level. The garden grew heavier and heavier with the gifts of nature – aided, of course, by our intensive work. All these fruits of our labor required a new kind of attention; they weren’t there to just pick and eat at will. We were growing food to sustain us over the winter. And that meant it had to be preserved. What did that mean to me? Nothing. Until this summer my food always came from the grocery store, and I never thought about how it got there. Now I was about to be immersed in major food production. We were canning.
The kitchen was veggie processing central and Midge ran the inside part of this show, which was the actual canning. We worker bees were dispatched to the garden with large pots, buckets, and baskets to pick vegetables – ripe ones only. Each day was a different veggie: green beans, wax beans, zucchini, yellow squash, corn, early beets, and later would come the broccoli and cauliflower. They all went into clean, sterile canning jars that were then submerged into a large pot where a boiling water bath rendered them safe for storage and later consumption.
“Are these things really going to taste good?” I asked as I stuffed beans into a jar.
“Well, if you forget about crunchy, sweet, and fresh,” answered Midge. “But they’ll be good in soup.”
“They’re like canned veggies you buy in the grocery store, only better. They’re ours,” said Spindle as she wiped the jars after I filled them. “And in the winter, they’ll remind you of summer.”
“Winter, ugh,” Midge shuddered. “Think you’ll go to the Dubies in Arkansas again this winter, Spindle?” Before she could answer, Midge had another question. “And if you do, will it be you, Joy and Shadow, or you and Patrick, or the four of you?”
Spindle looked up, a thoughtful expression on her face. “I haven’t thought about it…it seems so far away.”
“Pass her a dubie,” I said. “She needs help answering a multiple choice question.”
Laurie reached for the dubie can. “And how long do you think Patrick’s going to stick around, getting what looks like the shorter and shorter end of the stick?” she asked. Good old Laurie, always ready to jump in where the rest of us were tiptoeing.
“I don’t know,” Spindle answered honestly. “I do love him, but maybe a part of me never stopped loving Shadow.”
Mention of his name seemed to summon Shadow. “Should we pick some of those purple beans or just eat them now?” he asked the roomful of women.
The guys helped pick the veggies but when we got the produce into the kitchen they often disappeared. Bottom line, canning seemed to be women’s work. And hanging out together was fun, although the job was a huge time sucker. But looking at the rows of glass jars full of winter’s food in varying hues of red, green, and yellow filled us all with enormous satisfaction.
We also turned our cucumbers into pickles — bread and butter and dill, and we made dilled green beans called dilly beans, using plucked-from-the-garden garlic and dill. But the biggest canning venture by far was the tomatoes. Red, ripe, and juicy. We made sauce from the pear shaped Roma tomatoes, cooking them down to a smooth thick paste. We canned medium sized round ones whole for who knew what uses later, and we chopped larger ones to flavor pots of beans or soup. One day when we were knee deep in tomatoes I said, “Boy, if my parents could see me now…”
“Yeah, what would they think?” asked Joy, as she peeled the skin off a tomato.
“I think they’d be pretty damn impressed,” I said through a haze of dubie smoke.
“Really?” Spindle raised her eyebrows.
“Yeah, why not? Look how hard I’m working and how strong I am.”
“Hey, do they know you’re staying here?” asked Midge.
“No, I’ve been hinting, but I suppose I should just make it clear.”
After some soul searching and cheering on from the family I had decided to stay on the farm, a fact the Chillums had taken as a given long before I had. But now it was time to let my blood family know that I was trading them for this chosen family — I would be diplomatic, of course. I had to write some letters.
The opportunity came while I was on veggie stand duty; even though we canned a fuckload we still had plenty of vegetables to sell. I arranged and rearranged the veggies and watched the traffic on Route 11 whiz by; no one noticed our red-lettered sign saying “Fresh Vegetables,” or they just didn’t want to buy our organic veggies. So I sat down on the grass with my back against the whitewashed building and began a letter to my parents. Wanting them to feel how wonderfully entrenched I was in farm life, I set the scene starting right where I was at the veggie stand. I described all the luscious vegetables that we’d picked that morning and loaded into the truck. “You just can’t believe the tomatoes and the eggplant, the green beans that are delicious even raw, and corn –oh my god! I never knew what vegetables tasted like before this. And just think, I helped to grow them!” I continued with how starting the truck was sometimes problematic because the solenoid was finicky. ”You have to take a screw driver and stick it in just the right spot under the hood to get the truck started. I’m so proud of myself that I learned how to do that – just like a mechanic.” Then I launched into how we’d cleaned up and painted the little building that this local character Charlie McAdam had loaned us to use as a vegetable stand. “Like Uncle Frank, mom, only not as big.” My mother’s brother had run a seasonal fruit and vegetable stand on the outskirts of Milwaukee when I was a kid; it couldn’t hurt to invoke relatives and a relatable situation.
The letter flowed easily, I felt good. I really was proud that I could go under the hood and poke around to start our funky old pickup, and that I was selling vegetables that I had a hand in growing, and that I was wanted by and had become part of this wonderful hippie family. So I wrote all that and concluded by saying that I wouldn’t be returning to Milwaukee. I was staying on the farm and wasn’t that great. I was sure that after my relationship with the black activist, that nearly drove my father to kill himself, my parents would be pleased that I was now living with a group of Caucasians, many of whom were even Jewish. Plus, my parents had just embarked on a major life change themselves, by picking up and moving to Florida, so they should be able to relate to this. And since they now lived in Florida, what difference would it make to them if I didn’t go back to Milwaukee. Yup, I was feeling pretty confident when I sent that letter off.
I was on a roll so I also wrote my brother Arnie, who was temporarily staying in my apartment, to say I wasn’t coming back. I knew he’d be pleased because now he could live there for as long as he wanted. He’d moved there earlier in the summer after hurriedly having to get out of the expensive place he was in. I didn’t have to set any kind of scene in my letter to him, but I couldn’t resist going on about the family and how righteous we were by living our beliefs. “We‘re changing the world by setting the example – we’re not just talking the talk, but we’re walking the walk.” He wrote me back pretty quickly to say thanks for the apartment and to sort of wish me well. But he had his own take on creating change. “I think what you’re doing is admirable, but to really change the system you have to work from within it.” What the hell did he know.
The canning marathon tapered off for a few weeks until a new crop of tomatoes grew screamingly red and ripe and we were back in the kitchen. Joy came in from a trip down the road to the mailbox. “Hey Sunshine, there’s a package here for you. It’s from Florida.” She handed over a small box wrapped in brown paper addressed to me in my father’s handwriting. I don’t think my father had ever written to me in my entire life; a queasy feeling crept into my stomach. I ripped open the package and dumped the contents on the kitchen table. A cassette tape fell out followed by a folded slip of paper. What the fuck was this? Not only had my father never written to me, but he’d never sent me anything, particularly a cassette. It sure wasn’t a new album by the Stones or Allman Brothers that he wanted me to hear, but what? I opened the paper and read my father’s block printing:
I didn’t know how to respond to your letter so I made this tape to tell you
how I feel. Please play it when you’re alone and I hope you’ll listen to
what I say.
This definitely wasn’t anything I wanted to listen to by myself, especially in this new environment where everyone shared everything. Word went out that I had something to listen to. When the whole family was in the house before dinner we all gathered at the kitchen table. Shadow rolled a joint and sent it around. “This has gotta be good,” I said as I put the tape into our battery operated cassette player. I pushed play and my father’s voice invaded the room. It was so out of context hearing it in the kitchen of my hippie home at Chillum Farm, I felt like I was tripping and having a bad trip.
“Hello dear,” he said. “I hope you’re listening to this by yourself because this is personal from me to you.” We all laughed. He continued with, “I was so upset when I read your letter that I didn’t know what to do.” Uh oh, I didn’t like where this was going. I wasn’t looking for my parents’ approval, but I was hoping that even if they didn’t share my excitement they’d at least be happy for me. He then proceeded to say what a mistake it was for me to stay on this farm, how I was throwing my life away, and who were these people anyway. “Why would you leave your home in Milwaukee for these people you hardly know? Who are they? And how could you call whatever it is a family? We’re your family!” He was getting really revved up with this family business and how the farm was no place for me. He went on for quite a while, putting me down, putting the farm down, putting the family down. He reiterated that I was throwing my life away and what did I know anyway. We all listened, partly appalled and partly amused. He wound down with an appeal to my reason to do the right thing.
When it ended, everyone, me in the lead, made fun of him and his message.
“Jesus, what a jerk! The guy doesn’t even know us and look how he talks about us!” Lem was totally pissed.
“Someone pass me a joint,” was Midge’s response.
Spindle came over and put her arms around me. “That was awful,” she said. She knew my dad was a loose cannon having lived through my divorce and relationship with the black activist with me, but she’d never heard him like this firsthand.
Every one of us felt invaded, violated, and trashed. Because he had in fact trashed us all. What a straight, stupid, narrow-minded guy. So typical of the straight world, so typical of parents, of my father. Who was he to judge the life I’d chosen to live and the people I’d chosen to live it with? What did he know about it, or about life for that matter?
“Well Sunshine, that’s quite a message. What are you going to do?” asked Shadow.
“You mean, how am I going to respond? Because I’m certainly not following any of his advice. I don’t know…” I trailed off.
I took the tape out of the machine, put it back in its packaging and set it aside. There was no reason to listen to it again. Who needed that negative energy. He had his point of view and I had mine, and it was obvious once again that they were not going to converge. He always seemed to forget that it was my life, not his.
I stewed for about a week and then sat down in the new room to write my dad. The sun, tempered by a cool breeze, beamed joyfully through the windows. This room was so peaceful, it would help me to write a calm reply. I inhaled deeply on a joint, then rolled a cigarette and began to compose a brief letter. No point in dragging it out. I would sit on my anger and politely say that I’m sorry he feels as he does but it’s my life and this is how I’m choosing to live it, and I hope he’ll come around to see that I made the right decision. I was cranking it up pretty good when Spindle came in and sat down next to me. She took the roach out of the ashtray and lit it.
“I still haven’t gotten my period,” she said.
“Oh yeah? How long has it been?” I’d forgotten that she was late.
“I should have gotten it over three weeks ago. I think I’m pregnant.”
“How can you tell? Isn’t it still awfully early?” I asked.
“Something feels different,” she said. “I don’t think I’m just late.”
“What will you do if you are?”
“I’ll have a baby.” She smiled a kind of dreamy smile.
Babies, and kids for that matter, didn’t interest me and I had made the same assumption about her. It’s not something we’d much talked about. Turns out I was wrong. She wanted a baby. Suddenly, something else tripped across my stoned brain. “It would be Patrick’s baby, wouldn’t it?”
“I don’t know,” she said simply, untroubled by the possible uncertainty.
“Wow,” I said, and hugged her because she was happy. “So when will you know if you really are pregnant?”
“I’m gonna go look in Our Bodies, Ourselves and see how far along you have to be to get tested.” She got up to get the book and brought it back to the new room. She found the chapter on pregnancy and read. “Far out! I’m late enough for a test to be accurate,” she said. “I think I can just go to the hospital and get a pregnancy test. I’ll go to town tomorrow — but bummer, I know it takes a few days to find out.”
Spindle went to town, and a few days later she walked down the road to our neighbors to call for the results. It was the beginning of September; we had glorious late summer weather, and Spindle came skipping back up the road pregnant.
Reaction of family members to this news was mixed. Patrick was excited; Shadow was not. I was worried; Joy was interested. Nick was excited for Spindle. Lem thought it was great; Midge appeared to be enthusiastic but wasn’t really. Laurie, the only other parent in the group, really was enthusiastic. This would be a big change in all our lives. But we were a family and we had more love.