Courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers
For anyone who has spent any portion of their childhood as a ward of the state, the notion of emancipation has multiple meanings. Though I was legally and financially emancipated at the requisite age of eighteen and had always been fiercely independent, it wasn't until I was forty-three years old and a working mother of two that I finally set myself free.
The turning of the wheels that led to my true emancipation began some time in mid-2002 when I did the unthinkable, something that (at least where I come from and where I live, work, and drive in L.A.'s fast lane) has always been taboo: I became still.
Into a cave of introspection I crept while a tidal wave of memories and feelings crashed upon me all at once. Overwhelmed by primal rip currents that I had supposedly outdanced, outrun, outswum, and outloved, I reached out to all that was tangible, real, and known about my early life — facts, documents, records, chronologies, even maps.
Of particular interest was a medical report of an event that took place in 1968 in Portland, Maine, that had gone unreported by the press. It involved a middle-aged Caucasian woman by the name of Dorothy Mabel Collins who was severely injured when—in order to escape an unidentified pursuer — she leapt from the third-floor balcony of her apartment.
Barely breathing, she was rushed by ambulance to the local emergency room. A descendant of bona fide Yankee blood, Dorothy called on the survival skills of her Howland-Collins forebears. They had come from the rocky shores of rugged Anglo-Saxon England, settling into similar straits in Castine, Cape Jellison in Stockton Springs, and Searsport, Maine, as well as various points in Massachusetts in the early 1800s. Before that, an early ancestor, John Howland, made the voyage to America aboard the Mayflower. It was never made clear if he had jumped ship or fell overboard, but one thing was certain, Howland survived. This history was documented by Dorothy's sister, Elizabeth Collins Babineau, a former member of the Mayflower Society. Dorothy was a twelfth-generation descendant of John Howland. As her daughter, I am a member of the thirteenth generation.
The Collins clan scattered itself across American history: My great-grandfather, Joseph Collins, was born in 1848 and lied about his age so that he could serve in the Civil War, first a member of the Thirty-first Maine Infantry, then a drummer boy for the Sixteenth Regiment, from 1864 to his discharge on July 17. He had the great honor of meeting President Abraham Lincoln and commented on how soft the president's hands were. Joseph married Sarah Pressey, whose first husband was lost at sea. Two of their sons, Willard and Warren Collins, became famed doctors of Roxbury, Boston, and Framingham, Massachusetts, and Castine, Maine, in the late 1800s. Warren E. Collins of the Warren E. Collins Company, Boston, Massachussetts, manufactured medical instruments as well as the Collins-Dinker tank respirator, also known as the iron lung, which saved countless people stricken with bulbar polio. According to my aunt Elizabeth, these were the more "toney" Collinses. My grandfather Harry S. Collins, decided not to go into a medical profession; instead, he became a fisherman, working on the weirs in Castine Harbor, Searsport, and Stockton Springs. The Collins family was of good pedigree and strong marriages and the family name would not be tarnished even if Warren Collins Jr.'s wife, Helen, hung herself. My great-aunt Zillah loved to paint as much as she might have loved other women but was prohibited to do so. They were a hardy stock throughout New En-gland. The Mayflower, the iron lung, the famed Collins-Sawyer doctors of Massachusetts — Dorothy was descended from all of this.
And despite her fall from three floors, and the dire predictions about her ability to survive this ordeal, Dorothy escaped death this time, at least as it was measured in mortal terms. But she was never able to escape her insidious predator: schizophrenia, a debilitating hereditary disease.
During that period in mid-2002, I tried to disentangle my own history from the few remnants of information I had managed to salvage about Dorothy.
Over the years, my mother and I met in person no more than three times. Following her actual death from lung cancer in September 1983, I had made unsuccessful attempts to reclaim her for posterity, if for no one but myself. That was what I told my daughter, Maya Elizabeth, during a 2004 Fourth of July Rowell-Collins family reunion and barn raising in Paris, Maine. We rented a fishing boat in Camden; the captain navigated the waters, docking safely in Castine Harbor. On foot, I returned with my daughter, walking past palatial summer camps built by wealthy cotton, lumber, and shoe industrialists, formally known as the "Rusticators," who vacationed there in the 1800s, calling it "The Summer Playground of the Nation." We arrived at Dorothy's burial site, high on a knoll where she was laid to rest in the family plot amid untold numbers of ancestors. Scattered throughout the cemetery were the Bevans, the Sawyers, and the Collinses. On our knees, Maya and I cleared the weeds around my mother's stone, no wider than twenty inches across, flush with the earth. I often wondered if her family had sunk her stone into the earth deliberately, amid all the illustrious ancestral headstones in the cemetery, out of view and perhaps out of mind.
I looked across the vista, imagining the battles fought between the French, British, Dutch, and Americans — from the Breda Treaty in 1667 deeding the land to Jean Vincent d'Abbadie de Saint-Castin, to the British evacuation in 1815, when Castine finally became an American town. This history was important to me as my own personal history. I could not forget Dorothy, no matter how circuitous our journey had been; I knew she loved me.
Life counts not hours by joy or pains,
But just by duties done.
And when I lie on the green kirkyard
With the mould upon my breast,
Say not that she did well or ill,
Only she did her best.
—Dorothea L. Dix, 1802–1887
My dear friend Dura Winder took a picture of Maya and me after we placed fresh-cut wildflowers around Dorothy's stone. I sat on the grass next to my mother in death and hoped that my fifteen-year-old daughter, Maya, in life, would continue to make this pilgrimage in my absence to sing this poem to her grandmother.
In 1999 I made a trip alone to Maine to visit the aging Hallowell granite-and-brick asylum where my mother had spent portions of her adult life. It is one of the oldest psychiatric hospitals in the nation, which opened in October 1840 under the direction of Dr. Cyrus Knapp and world famous Dr. Isaac Ray as the Maine Insane Hospital ten years after Governor Jonathan Hunton urged in his annual address to the legislature the need for a mental institution. It was later known as the Augusta Mental Health Institute, once treating as many as eighteen hundred patients at a time. I became a human camera, snapping and freezing images in rapid succession over the course of my drive there by rental car. At first glimpse, the nineteenth-century sprawling Victorian estate was the ghostly manor I had expected, guarded by wrought-iron gates through which I drove tentatively. Later, I learned that a number of buildings on the grounds had been used for ammunitions storage during the Civil War. Hopeful, afraid, and determined, I forged on.
After parking, I slowly climbed the steps past an administrator, too preoccupied to notice me, and brazenly ascended the fine mahogany staircase. I soon became unnerved and went back downstairs to the reception area to explain myself. Behind a glass window, the receptionist's face showed classic, weathered Maine lines and silver hair as she invited me to go upstairs, where I was shown into a parlor. There, I was introduced to the director of the asylum; his face and voice personified kindness. He bore no remarkable traits of age or accent and was of such striking Cary Grant good looks that I wondered what he was doing there. I asked if he remembered my earlier calls.
"Yes," he said, and nodded his agreement, remembering my phone call and to let me go to where Dorothy had once slept.
With my heart pounding wildly, I could see the ends of my curls vibrating as we approached her door. Then it opened.
Although it was a gray day, light streamed in through a gable. I felt the atomic fragments of Dorothy's faded presence and, I daresay, her anguish. In the background were patients, languishing in a medicinal haze, perhaps holding on to the hope that someday a loved one might come to rescue them. But this day, I had come to rescue and resurrect my mother.
Of course, my mother, Dorothy, wasn't there at all. She remained there as I had frozen her in my imagination in this cold, yet strangely serene place. A place she so desperately wanted to escape from. A place from where she had written so many letters to me, never describing where she was — only where she wasn't.
I asked to see every room, every corner. I went to the morgue, to the rooftop, to the industrial-size laundry room where Dorothy had worked, to the vast exterior where sun peeked through clouds sending pools of light on fields once farmed by my mother as a kind of occupational therapy. I continued to walk to the river bank overlooking the state capitol separated by the Kennebec. I remembered reading that in 1840 Governor John Fairfield believed the site was chosen so that future legislatures and governors would see it out their windows and never forget this hospital that housed "one hundred lunatic persons, furiously mad." Slowly I walked back to the buildings and was escorted to the basement where there had once been holding cages, the wrought iron gates now removed from the granite. I poked my index finger into one of the holes, crossed the threshold, sat down, and cried with my mother's anguished tears.
I had felt something for Dorothy from the moment we first met, even though her visit was unannounced to Forest Edge, the farm in West Lebanon, Maine, an almsfarm township in the 1800s, where I spent my early childhood.
No one, not even Agatha, the woman I called "Ma," explained who this outsider was. We were black. She was not. For me, at seven years old, the world broke down simply that way. Still, she was more than a stranger. In her pink gingham food-stained dress, hair swept up into a messy French twist. Compromised beauty. All tortured.
As an adult I acquired a photograph of a much different Dorothy Mabel Collins Rowell, taken in the 1950s. She had Elizabeth Taylor good looks. Creamy white skin, thick black hair, laughing eyes. An abandon. Maybe a wild side. She didn't drink or smoke, I was told, but she loved music, dancing, and strong black military men.
Dorothy bore six children. First there were two boys, then three girls—of whom I was the youngest — and then another boy. We were each of different paternity but all given the last name of Dorothy's first and only husband, Norman Rowell Sr. — a motorcycle-riding, trailer-inhabiting white man from Bath whose heart was permanently broken when she left him. Eventually Dorothy's family and the law interceded, deeming Dorothy unfit to raise her four younger children, all born out of wedlock. Whether this had mainly to do with the different fathers being Hispanic and African American was never admitted. Nonetheless, court correspondence does support this conclusion.
Who was my birth mother? How did her mental illness first manifest? The answers were not in a second photograph of Dorothy, on a dark, barren landscape alongside her three storklike, old-crone-looking Collins sisters, whose expressions appear much more disturbed than hers.
My childhood memories were just as cryptic. Though her visit to Forest Edge when I was seven years old had been unexplained at first, I later found out that her three-day stay had been carefully planned in trademark Agatha Armstead fashion—meaning that it was done for a reason, to gently introduce Dorothy to me, paving the way for an understanding of what that word foster meant. It was a word that went before everything, like a prefix, whenever I was introduced to the world. Such explanations had never mattered before at Forest Edge, where residents and regular visitors were all treated as family.
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