FIRST LET ME put my cards on the table. When my memoir was published recently, I received an email from Mary Cameron Kilgour who told me that she had also written a memoir. Like mine, hers was a Hartford, CT, life and like me, she had been a Peace Corps Volunteer in the sixties, her assignment the Philippines. She also told me she had self-published a collection of short stories, Creative Recollections of a Foreign Service Life, reviewed here in Peace Corps Writers. The reviewer, however, had neglected to note that the stories had all appeared in legitimate publications, often quite prestigious publications. Kilgour self-published because she couldn’t get an editor interested in her collection (no surprise there since, as we all know, publishing houses are as interested in short story collections as they are in lyre-playing in the Dordogne).
I ordered Kilgour’s memoir from Amazon at the same time I contacted John Coyne to see if he’d heard of it. He hadn’t and asked me to review it.
I loved Me May Mary, the title the progression of names the author was called as she grew to adulthood. By today’s standards, the book is as much autobiography as memoir; it does not dwell on the after-the-fact introspection we’ve come to expect in the genre. All the same, Kilgour’s sound and compelling voice, and a narrative full of rich detail, allow the reader to see vividly the life of a child whose circumstances cast her on a downward spiral where there would be no advocate to rescue her.
We get most of Me’s life (Me is the Scottish pronunciation of May) from age eleven until she’s a freshman in high school. Her parents, who we know as Mom and Dad via their daughters’ point of view, are heavy drinkers. When Mary is in the sixth grade, her father reaches a point where he loses any desire to fight his alcoholism and becomes, basically, a falling-down drunk. He can’t work; the family goes on welfare; and in a short stretch of time Me and her brother Jacky, who is three years older, survive on bread dipped in cans of chicken gravy. They live in a one-bedroom apartment where Me sleeps on the living room couch and Jacky on the floor beside her. When Mom is particularly soused, she will act on the perceived wrongs of her children by charging into the living room while they are asleep to give them a good punch or yank them by the hair.
It is left to Jacky to feed himself and his little sister which he does through the money he earns setting pins at the local bowling alley. Mary contributes selling greeting cards door to door. But by high school, May is forced to steal what clothes she needs at the big Hartford department stores. Here is a train wreck waiting to happen. A shoplifting charge is soon filed against her right about the time her parents have gone from screaming fights to the point where Mom nearly severs Dad’s arm with a broken bottle. He is hospitalized with gangrene, and when he returns home her mother contracts pneumonia and is dead within two week. A month later, May is awakened by her brother one night and he tells her Dad is sitting up in bed dead. The children must handle the police and the removal of his body, and deal with the knowledge that the authorities will put them in foster homes. A scene that takes place after the funeral shows the reader the child and the adult at odds in May’s emotions:
Jacky and I went over to the park to get some privacy. We strolled along the red clay road at the top of Lookout mountain until Jacky shouted, “C’mon, I’ll race you!” He started running and I took off after him. We laughed out loud as we ran, releasing what was inside us into the fresh air. At the bottom lying on the cold dry grass, breathing hard, I had a sensation of release, of freedom . . .. I took from my pocket the copies of the obituaries from the newspaper, sent to us encased in plastic, and I read them while Jacky looked toward the sky.
Mary is fortunate to end up with her pastor’s family, but she is unable to appreciate the sudden regimentation and loss of freedom and chooses the alternative: The House of Good Shepherd the home for bad girls in Hartford. The home has two buildings; one for orphans and girls with nowhere to live, and one for unwed mothers. Under the care of cloistered nuns, Mary thrives, and goes on to succeed at school and life, as does her brother Jacky who joins the Navy at 17 and proceeds to college; he eventually earns a Ph.D as does Mary, from Harvard.
There is a leitmotif carried across the pages of this book. The first chapter opens on a summer day when May escapes her mother’s line-up of chores and heads down to the Hog River where she and her girlfriend had spotted a deserted raft. They will go for a sail. But three teenaged boys are lurking, and they try to rape eleven-year-old May. She screams and fights as they pull off her bathing suit until finally one of them determines the effort is not worth their while. This near-rape haunts the child throughout her days, the memory of it always waiting just beneath the surface of her mind to erode any self-esteem she might have. She is overwhelmed with guilt that the attack was her own fault and inhabits a cloud of terrible shame at the image she can’t shake, of lying naked on the grass with the boys trying to spread her legs apart. This event, plus the despicable home life she endured led her to maintain a solitary life within her Peace Corps experience and a long career with USAID, unmarried with no children of her own, finding happiness in being alone in a quiet room with a good book. But her childhood tragedy along with the lessons she took from the nuns and residents at the House of Good Shepherd, also meant a life devoted to children in need. Kilgour is still working, now a volunteer in the Guardian ad Litem program in Gainesville, Florida, a program with a mission to promote the well-being of children and protect all children from harm.
The reader’s heart goes out to little Me, and the troubled adolescent, May, but there can be nothing but admiration for the adult Mary.
I could not put this book down.
Mary-Ann Tirone Smith has written eight novels and a memoir, Girls of Tender Age.