(It is fitting that on this holiday weekend I should write about the place I love the best)
Wherever I go in the years to come;
Whenever my heart is tired and sad;
I’ll think of life in this hidden world;
And long for the moments that ones I had.
These lyrics, written about Rae Creek, a half mile outside Petersburg, NE, my hometown, sustained me for decades as I repeated them over and over like a prayer for help. Without Petersburg and Rae Creek as my sanctuary I would not have survived the horror of being raped in that town by my father at the age of 13. It was followed by five years of abuse, both sexual, emotional and physical until, now living in the LA area, I ran away from home at the age of 18.
There was an almost indescribable magic about Petersburg and the lush green valley that it resides in. Rolling green hills of farmland with stands of cottonwood, oak and elm, tiny creeks that babble as you cross the wooden bridges that roll over them and the wild flowers that bloom in the spring all have, to me, a sort of unreal, almost ethereal ambiance about it. It is not just a place; it is an experience.
The goodness of the people, always ready with a helping hand, a ready smile enchanted me. I often walked barefoot from one end of the town to the other. Everyone had huge vegetable gardens in their backyards in the spring. Downtown was only two blocks long but what joy those two blocks contained. There was Andre’s General Store where Bernie Reuther referred to us as the “likeable Leicks” (that was our last name). Next to Andre’s was the barber shop, always busy. The bank was on the corner and across the street was Duffy’s Drug store, nearby the Roxy Theater where I went on weekends my quarter clutched in my hand, the feed store and across the street the Post Office and the Petersburg Press office. On the corner was a small restaurant whose name escapes me. It made the best Coca Colas I’ve ever had – extra syrup was the secret. On the other side of the street was Leifeld’s Hardware filled with treasures that I only dared of someday owning. Down the street was the Meat Lock filled with more treasures, a different kind. And next door was Froistad’s Tavern, a local gathering place. The train depot was not far away and down the street as I walked home was the Knotty Pine Inn. Oh, this was my town. I spent many happy hours wandering from store to store talking to friends, loving everyone.
I discovered nearby Rae Creek whose forested land became my second home. There I did what I loved best, wandering in the woods, climbing trees, wading in riverbeds, and writing about it to relive the moments over and over. One of my earliest attempts at poetry was:
I crossed a dusty road today and crawled beneath the fence.
There I paused amidst the weeds that grew so green and dense.
I had no thoughts, no task to do, my soul was wandering free.
The land so fresh with all its green stretched like an open sea.
The earth was soft beneath my feet, the sky had not a cloud
And perched atop a branch, I saw, a robin singing loud.
A breeze moved softly o’er the land as it whispered words of life.
In hushed tones of harmony, it calmed the every strife.
I thought of peace lost in space without a place to rest
And all the world that needed it for a long and lonely quest.
I saw the birds that swept the clouds meandering with the breeze.
They floated down on wings of wind to rest on limbs of trees.
The boughs swayed in gentle time and whispered to the stream.
The grass swept up with knowing looks, then faded like a dream.
My eyes roved to a field of green with plants of wheat and corn
I’d never leave this place of joy and the outside world I’d scorn.
I knew this land and I were kin, with a spirit roaming free
And in my mind, I knew my heart had found a home for me.
Over the years, I drew indefinitely on the pictures, printed forever, as the countryside bewitched me with its beauty. The many robins, the purity of their cheerful warble filling me with enchantment, seemed the perfect accompaniment to my majestic world and became my symbol of freedom and euphoria. Rae Creek was dotted with them, their red breasts sparkling like large fireflies as they danced among the trees. My roots planted deep, bonding with the land and the townspeople with a surety that sprang from years of searching; I had finally found a place to call home. I had also found an outlet for my intense emotions as writing poetry became the best and only friend I had. Many years later, I was to discover that all the truth as well as all the wisdom I would ever need lay in my own words. Without them, and the memories of Rae Creek and Petersburg, I would have perished.
After my sophomore year at St. John the Baptist Catholic School my parents decided to move from Petersburg to Los Angeles, CA. I was horrified. They couldn’t take me away from this town, these people I loved so much. I wouldn’t let them. What of my cottonwoods and Rae Creek? But they did and for the next 22 years I was desperately homesick. I wrote about Petersburg over and over in poetry and prose form, the only way I could assuage my grief. If you have never been homesick it is literally as if you are physically ill. My longing for home consumed me as I crawled into my mind on a regular basis and roamed silently and with remembered joy through the rooms that contained my home town.
It alleviated the grief of what my home life had become. Terror of my father and his night time raids, the loss of my mother who had become cold and had doubled her controlling were made bearable by these travels into my memory. Other than one of my former classmates, Peggy Knobbe, who had moved from Petersburg to LA two years before me, I had no friends. My parents controlled what I ate, what I wore, what books I could read, what music I could listen to and what my daily life would be like. I lived in mute misery. After graduation I was allowed to return to Petersburg for the summer to help a neighbor, Ginny, with her five daughters. I rode a greyhound bus to home where I vowed I would never return to LA again. I would be 18 in a few months and if I could only hang on till then my parents would have no say over me. I was happier than I had ever been in my life. My fear of my father and dread of my mother disappeared. I sang, turned cartwheels, climbed my favorite trees at Rae Creek, visited Bernie Reuther at Andre’s General Store regularly and bubbled over with joy on a daily basis. At the end of three months my mother wrote a letter to Ginny saying I had overstayed my welcome and must come home immediately. A phone call a few days later said that if I were not on a bus in a matter of hours my father would fly out and handcuff me to him. Ginny, who could see the fear and dread in my face, said she was sorry but that she had given her word. She knew nothing about my father’s nighttime sexual raids or the beatings at the instigation of my mother.
Once back in LA the restrictions grew. Fear of my father became difficult to control. I cried constantly. They told me no I could not go to college, no I could not move out, no I could not make my own choices in anything. They decided what job I would begin working at and how I would get there. I had to turn my paycheck over to them. No, I could not get a driver’s license, no I could not wear makeup or have friends. I would spend my weekends cleaning neighbor’s houses with my parents pocketing the wages. Within weeks they told me I could no longer have even Peggy as a friend. Any letters I wrote had to be approved by them, any books I read or music I listened to was still on the by approval only list.
A few weeks later, shortly after my 18th birthday I told my parents that if they “didn’t stop treating me the way they were I would lose all the love and respect I had for them”.
“No one speaks to your father like that. Get the belt Bernie.” I froze. Out came my dad’s leather belt and as he lashed out at my thin body, I put my hands to my face to protect it. When my brother tried to stop him saying, “you’re killing her dad” my dad knocked him out cold. He then continued to beat me until I passed out.
A week later I packed my few belongings in a pillow sack and ran away from home.
It would be another 22 years before I would be able to return to Petersburg. During that time, I continued to be homesick, obsessing on my home town. As the years passed, I made many unhealthy choices mostly with abusive men and wound up twice in a psychiatric ward from failed suicide attempts. By some miracle I was able to raise as a single mother four of the finest humans I’ve ever known. Finally, in 1982 I returned to Petersburg for a much longed for visit.
I recently read the journal I kept of those days. It was as if I were living in a dream, one I had craved for so long that it had begun to seem as if it would never be fulfilled. From the moment I stopped outside the town to look at the Petersburg, pop. 380 sign I was joyous, enthralled with everything and everyone. The town welcomed me back with open arms. There were reunions at friend’s farms, time spent with Ginny and her family and many happy hours wandering through the town stopping at friends to chat, and of course, time at Andre’s. My only sadness was when I wandered out to Rae Creek bubbling over with anticipation at seeing my sanctuary again. Rae Creek was gone, devasted by a tornado and elm disease. All was wasteland with only a thin trickle of muddy water. I was devastated and sat on the side of the road and bawled my eyes out.
Other than that, the entire trip was idyllic, proving you can go back. I hated to leave. Since then I go back as often as I can and after all those years Rae Creek has recovered, returning to her original look just as I, having gone through my own recovery program, repaired my life from the child abuse and became the happiest person I knew. I feel as if Rae Creek and I are one, both of us having struggled to overcome crippling adversity. Today I am happily married to another McKinnon, Tom, who loves Petersburg almost as much as I do.
My gratitude for Petersburg and the people who live there is enormous. If they knew how deeply I loved them they would either be amused, embarrassed or disbelieving. Despite having been to London, Paris, Edinburgh, Boston and a number of other cities of great beauty none compares to Petersburg and its wonderful people.
Nothing ever will.
(parts of this blog are from my memoir, I Never Heard A Robin sing, available in both Kindle and paperback from amazon)