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.
In October, after almost five months of commune life and a decision to make that my permanent home, I went back to my former home in Milwaukee to close up my old life. Then I flew to Florida to see my parents who had moved there the previous spring. My father was having surgery and my mother didn’t drive so I thought I would stay with them for a while to help. I had hopes of convincing them that my move was the right choice.
I flew to Florida in late October, encouraged at the prospect of the southern clime warming my Milwaukee-chilled bones, and excited at the thought of being on the beach. I looked forward, though anxiously, to Mom and Dad meeting the new me, knowing that they weren’t happy I had chosen to stay on the farm. The plane landed in Daytona Beach, and as soon as the crew cracked open the doors the smell of the ocean air weighted with humidity assailed my senses. I stepped out into the thick sticky atmosphere, blinked at the bright sun, and breathed deeply. Ah, this is gonna be good, I thought. I walked down the steps of the plane and crossed the tarmac to the terminal and my waiting parents. They’re a cute little couple, I thought as I approached them. His wavy hair had considerable traces of white threaded through the black, and her hair, well who knew what color it actually was. Age had been good to them, you wouldn’t know that 70 loomed a few short years ahead.
“Hello dearie,” my father said, giving me a hug.
“Where did you get such curly hair?” my mom asked as we kissed hello.
“This is what I spent my whole life trying to straighten,” I answered, shaking the unruly halo that my close-cropped boy cut had grown into with no haircuts to deter it.
“I don’t remember you having curly hair when you were little.”
“Well, it’s what I have now.”
My father drove the half hour to their new house in Ormond Beach, just north of Daytona. I was impressed as we walked from room to room. They’d scrimped and saved the whole of their married life and now had a modest, newly built, and sweetly appointed retirement home, with all new furnishings decorated in shades of gold, white, and green. A screened-in porch and glass bowls of seashells in the bathrooms completed the Florida look.
“Wow! This is great!” I said. It certainly wasn’t my style, but it was perfect for them, and nicer than anything they’d ever had. I carried my backpack into the guest room to change into cutoffs and a T-shirt and immediately got weirded out. It hadn’t registered with me when I stuck my head in on the brief tour, but they’d furnished the room with their old maple bedroom set — which meant I’d be sleeping in the conjugal bed they used for my entire life. How creepy. The whole room was creepy — everywhere I looked my parents and my childhood jumped out at me. It was as though they’d put their entire bedroom in a box, picked it up, and dropped it down in Florida. There was the bed with its carved maple headboard and footboard, the nightstands, the dressers with their maple leaf handles — hers with the attached maple-framed mirror, his where I used to find off-color embarrassing knickknacks in the top drawer; the drawings of the nineteenth-century women in their oval maple frames that always hung over the bed were the final Milwaukee detail. This was not amusing. Maybe being here wasn’t such a great idea.
I felt different when we got to the beach. They lived half a block away. Communal life and thoughts of revolution ebbed as I sunk my toes in the sand and came face-to-face with the Atlantic Ocean. It might be nice to stay here a while — I had no return airline ticket. We walked south down the beach, me hustling to keep up with their rapid pace. They talked of a new life in Florida, living with my Aunt Ethel and Uncle Steve, my mother’s sister and her husband, which they did while their house was being built, their friends, and our relatives. They talked, I listened, nodding and making appropriate noises. It was all very pleasant. I had no immediate need to make any political statements or reveal details of life at Chillum Farm.
I spent the next few days walking their wide beach of reddish colored sand, collecting shells and reading in the sun. We spent nights in front of the television watching shows that had no relevance to life as I lived it. Then my dad went into the hospital for his surgery. During the next week I drove Mom back and forth to visit him, and I cruised Ormond Beach, looking for kindred spirits. I found a semi-countercultural bookstore and bought a beautifully illustrated book on mandalas to take back to the farm. The guy behind the counter was a longhair and we started talking.
“Is there a food co-op around nearby? Or a vegetarian restaurant?” I asked. “I’m here visiting my parents for a while and I’d like to find some folks to connect with.”
“No man. Not much around.”
“What about some kind of place to hang out?”
“My store is pretty much it. Where you from?”
“I live on a communal farm in upstate New York.”
“Cool. Lot of people?”
“There’s about ten of us. Oh, I’m Sunshine Chillum.”
“Chapman Root. Wanna come by my place tonight? We can hang out and get high.”
“Far out, man, I’d like that.” It would beat the hell out of another night in front of the TV with my mother.
Great, a connection. But Mom, having no idea that my life was now filled with these kinds of exchanges, didn’t like the quickness of familiarity.
“You want to go to the house of someone you just met?”
“Yeah. He seems cool.”
“Who is he?”
“He owns the bookstore off Granada.”
“I don’t know if that’s such a good idea. You don’t know anything about him. What’s his name?”
“Chapman Root. For god’s sake, Mom, what’s the big deal?”
“Chapman Root? He must be Chapman Root junior.”
“So you know who he is.”
“Yes. His father owns the Coca Cola distributorship and a lot of other things here. They’re a wealthy old Daytona family. Is he a nice young man?”
Didn’t take her long to find out who was who in that town. Her problem with my going to his house pretty much disappeared.
Chapman Root was okay. He was a city dude and not the homey connection I longed for. He got me stoned easily, feeding me potent Thai sticks, a real knock-out punch compared to my usual smoke of low-grade homegrown. I got ripped sitting on his big sink-into-soft leather couch in his dimly lit living room. Then he bombarded my living-without-electricity senses, blasting his stereo system out of enormous speakers, while the TV screen ran a silent visual backdrop. His young daughter crawled all over me until he called her off. I was on total sensory overload and didn’t know where to focus my attention. Coming from a world with the credo “’tis a gift to be simple,” I felt overwhelmed, and paranoia started taking over; I was immensely relieved that he didn’t hit on me. And when I thought driving seemed possible I thanked him and headed back to Mom, glad when I got there that she and her TV were at rest for the night.
A couple weeks after my arrival, and with my dad just out of the hospital, I started teaching my mom to drive, a challenging antidote to what had rapidly become boring, lonely days and nights. At 65 she had never been behind the wheel of a car, and I knew that if something happened to my dad she’d be fucked. She needed to get a driver’s license. I had the time as well as way more patience than my dad — he’d yell at her for the least little mistake. My goal was to get her well on the road to getting a license so that when I left all he’d have to do was help her hone her skills.
Getting her permit was easy. Then came the driving. Our first time out I drove to a small strip mall down Route A1A south of their house. It was early evening, still light out, and the place was closed. I stopped the car in the empty parking lot, turned off the engine, and put her in the driver’s seat.
“There’s two pedals, the gas and the brake,” I began, making her look at the floor. “You only use your right foot and step on one pedal at a time.” Then I pointed to the gear shift and the steering column. “The gears allow the car to move and to go forward and backward.” I made sure she understood what P, R, N, and D meant. “Now adjust the seat so you can comfortably reach the steering wheel and the pedals, and fix the mirror so you can see clearly.” Although we were pretty much the same height, she pulled the bench seat all the way forward so that we were practically on top of the dashboard. I had her press the pedals and move the shift to get the feel of them. Then we began.
“To start the car, you leave the gear in park and turn the key, while stepping on the gas pedal at the same time. Try it.”
She turned the key and stepped on the gas. The car started, the engine revved, loud and high.
“Let up on the gas, Mom. Now put your foot on the brake, shift to drive — that’s ‘D’ — then put your foot lightly on the gas and start driving.”
The car jerked forward a little and then we were moving, and then we were moving directly toward a lamppost.
“Mom, turn the wheel to the right and step on the brake.”
We ground to a halt inches from the pole.
“Oh dear, I’m sorry.” She looked shaken.
“Don’t apologize, you need to get the feel of it. The first time I did this, Ruthie took me to Capitol Court and I drove right into a snow bank. Try it again.”
We spent late afternoons and early evenings driving around that parking lot and the empty roads of a new housing development nearby. She’d peer intently over the steering wheel as she veered all over the place. This was not going to be quick or easy I realized, but since I’d started it and raised her hopes, I couldn’t very well stop. And besides, it gave us something to do together. I encouraged and complimented her, and quickly learned to not get stoned before the lessons. Having to focus on the task at hand also took me out of the wishing I were back on the farm head space I often inhabited.
“You know dear,” Mom said one afternoon as she made an extremely wide right turn, “you could stay here in Florida.”
“Why would I want to do that?”
“It’s warm and you like the beach. You could get a job here.”
“I’m very happy where I am.” I tried to keep the edge out of my voice.
“You’re father’s not too happy about it.”“It’s not his life. Look where you’re going,” I warned, as the car ambled onto the shoulder of the road. “Don’t you worry about where I’m living; just pay attention to your driving.” I did not want to have this conversation. I wanted to be back on the farm.
I got a letter from Spindle telling me what was happening in her belly in the second trimester of her pregnancy, and that there was some friction in the three marriage she was in with Joy and Shadow. She told me how much everyone missed me and she hoped I’d be home soon.
The passing days turned into weeks while I ferried my parents around because my dad still wasn’t supposed to drive. I took long walks alone on the beach, where I got stoned, then sat and watched flying pelicans abruptly turn vertical and dive bomb into the ocean for fish. I rode a bicycle that I borrowed from my Uncle Steve, wrote heartfelt letters home, and got tan soaking up the mild November of northern Florida. I slept with the windows open breathing night air filled with the sea.
My diet was a problem.
“Why are you a vegetarian?” The question asked for the thousandth time. “You always ate meat before.”
“I told you. The family is vegetarian. There’s no reason to eat meat when there’s plenty of other food. And it’s important to have a good relationship with your food, which we do by growing most of ours. We plant the seeds, tend the plants, harvest the vegetables, and eat them. We know where the food comes from.”
“I thought I’d make tongue for dinner.”
“I’ll just eat the potatoes and salad.”
“But I thought you’d like to have it. You used to like it.”
“The thought of eating tongue is revolting to me.”
“That’s so silly.”
“I don’t want to eat it. Okay? Leave me alone!”
Similar conversations repeated themselves regularly. In the beginning I’d tried to enlighten them, but with each go round we became more adversarial.
My 27th birthday came and went. I wished I were celebrating this passage of time with my new family. I knew if I were home there’d be a boogie and I’d be showered with lots of love. Here in Florida my parents wished me happy birthday and my mom wanted to take me shopping so I’d look “decent.” The family sent me a package of dubie with a card that had a drawing of all of them standing arm-in-arm behind a giant chillum. Each person wore a shirt with a different letter of our last name. C – H – I – L – L – U – M. Inside the card were words to a song they wrote, sung to the tune of “Officer Krupke” from “West Side Story.”
Dear kindly Sunshine Chillum
We do wish you were here.
We are so very willin’
To share with you a beer.
We ain’t just alcoholics
We are dope addicts first.
We smoke dubie
Right from Mother Earth.
Yes, dear Sunshine Chillum
You really are missed.
From morning to the evening,
When we walk, when we piss.
And now it’s your birthday of 2-7 years
So Ms. Sunshine Chillum, let go all your cares.
We are true, we are true
We are very true.
Oh, Sunshine Chillum,
We miss you!
The card filled me with warmth and a connection to them, but also with an intense longing. I felt lonely and deeply missed them. This Florida life sucked. I existed in a weird dreamlike vacuum with little reality to it. Night after night of television dulled my brain and offended my politics. We ate dinner watching the news. My father continued watching whatever came on next while my mother and I cleared the table and did the dishes – on the farm that would never be acceptable. After dinner my parents sat in their side-by-side recliners in the Florida room watching TV till bedtime. I tried going into my room, closing the door and reading, but the volume was so loud and the walls so thin I couldn’t concentrate. Plus I didn’t want to appear antisocial and totally alienate them.
“Is there something you’d rather watch?” they asked.
“There must be something. You don’t get to see anything on that farm.”
“We’re very happy without television. These programs are all terrible.”
“Well, excuse me. When did you become such a critic?”
During the day I could escape to the beach and smoke a dubie, but at night I was a captive audience, bored and uncomfortable. I longed to pick up the phone and call the family. But they had no phone, and even if they did I had no privacy to talk.
I felt conflicted about staying. I hadn’t seen my parents in six months and didn’t know when I’d be back in Florida. My father had had a serious heart attack in January of that year, which he’d blamed on me and my relationship with the black activist. But however he might like to spin it, he was the fourth of his siblings to have a heart attack, and one brother was dead from it. It occurred to me that when I said goodbye I might never see him again. Filial something compelled me to linger. I’d felt separate and alien from my parents for as long as I could remember, but that didn’t prevent me from still trying for some closeness. And I wanted my new life to be something we could share, at least on some level. So trying to be the good daughter, I said yes when they asked if I’d stay for Thanksgiving. I felt bad for them, having to spend their first major holiday without their family, plus my dad was still not fully up and running. But I made plans to leave right after that.
I should have seen it coming. My aunt’s words early in my visit signaled a warning. “Why don’t you move down here and live with your parents.”
“Jesus, Aunt Ethel. What would I do here?”
“You could find something to do. What are you doing with your life anyway? You’re breaking your father’s heart. When he got that letter from you saying you were going to live on that farm, he went into their bedroom and cried.”
“Look, it’s my life, not his.” Or yours either, I thought.
There’d been a few minor skirmishes between me and my dad during the month I’d been there, but he’d been mostly so well behaved — for him. I’d talked about the family and the farm in glowing terms during my stay. Leaving out the dope and sex, I emphasized the beauty of the farm and garden, how industrious we were, and how terrific everyone was, making sure to mention that many members of my new family were Jewish. He hadn’t said much so I lulled myself into thinking he’d accepted my move, but his history of trying to tell me how to live my life should have kept me on my toes. The last time he’d done it was about my relationship with the black activist. He’d pulled a major trip and it was not pleasant, but at least the black activist had been there with me to run interference. I might now have a wonderful family to back me, but they were all in upstate New York.
On my last day in Florida, fifteen minutes before I was set to leave, my dad could no longer contain himself. We were sitting in the Florida room waiting for Aunt Ethel to pick up Mom and me to go to the airport. Dad, still recovering from his surgery, wasn’t up for the trip.
“So you’re really going back there?” he opened with.
“Yes. It’s my home.”
“Your home? What kind of home is this dump anyway?” His voice had a nasty edge.
“It’s a wonderful home filled with loving people.”
“A bunch of goddamn good-for-nothing hippies — you call that wonderful?” His voice rose.
“You don’t know them. We’re a family.”
“A family, my eye! Like Charles Manson.”
“Don’t be ridiculous! The family’s not like that.”
“And I suppose they all dress like you do?”
“Yeah. What’s wrong with that?” Wrong question. We’d been over this ground before.
“What’s wrong?! Look at you! You’re a mess with your patched unmatched hippie clothes, and your hair all over the place!” He gesticulated wildly.
“Clothes aren’t important.” This to a man who had spent the last 40 years in retail men’s wear.“Look at you. I’m embarrassed to be seen with you.”
“I’m sorry that that’s where you put your priorities.” All semblance of surface calm was slipping out my grasp.
“You talk rubbish! This is another one of your stupid ideas.” He couldn’t get much louder.
“You have no right to yell at me this way!” I couldn’t hold back my inherited temper any longer.
“I’m your father. I’ll yell at you all I want. You never should have gotten divorced. You had a wonderful husband from a good family — a real family. But you had to throw that away.”
“I wasn’t happy. That wasn’t what I wanted.”
“You don’t know what you want! Then you went around with that schvarzah. You almost killed me then. And now this!” His face was red and his voice way over the top.
“Who are you to judge me!”
“You’re ruining your life!”
“It’s my life to live as I see fit!”
“You’re not fit! You’re stupid! Going to live in that goddamn shit hole — you don’t know what you’re doing. You’ve never known what you’re doing!” The spit was flying as he flung the last at me and got up and stormed out of the room.
I struggled to not cry as just then Aunt Ethel pulled into the driveway. My mother followed me into the bedroom where I’d left my backpack. “Go say goodbye to Dad,” she said.
“After that? Why?”
“Well, after all dear, he is your father.”
“I don’t care. Who is he to talk to me that way? You say goodbye to him.” I grabbed my pack and with trembling legs beat it on out of there.