Once Upon A Time …

Lunch on the Eiffel Tower, Paris, 1965

In June, 1965, a week before I was married, I graduated from college with a Bachelor of Science degree in Elementary Education.  I weighed 104 pounds and wore a size 4 wedding dress. You could say I had an eating disorder, years before they were considered to be serious ailments. Being prone to huge anxiety, I simply ate little to no food at all.

For the weeks and months following the wedding, I couldn’t grasp the idea of being Mrs. William H. Rough. Suddenly I was gone from my parent’s dysfunctional and abusive home. Someone actually loved me! But it took a long time for me to get over the suspicion that Bill would one day find out what a horrible person I was and leave.  During our honeymoon in Europe, there were times when left alone in a restaurant while he went to the men’s room, that I feared he wouldn’t return … that he was actually driving away while I sat there.  He always did return and daily my trust grew.  Beyond the eating disorder I also suffered from an extremely low sense of self-esteem.  A problem that has haunted me most of my life and can still upon occasion raise it’s fiery, dragon-like head.

After we returned home from our travels and set up housekeeping in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, I was to start my teaching career at a nearby elementary school.  In those days there were only a few days to get into your classroom before the first day of school to set things up or just sit and contemplate about how to proceed. There were no meetings ahead of time to talk with other teachers or the principle. I was to have a group of 15 first and second graders.  I was anxious and scared.  Though I had gotten rave reviews during two semesters of student teaching, I was sure that I was incapable of managing a classroom.

At the same time, my brother, Reid, came to live with us and attend the Academy where Bill was teaching English.  He and our parents were at war.  As chronic world savers, Bill and I invited him to share our home with us, along with another young man named Billy, whom my husband was trying to mentor.  Living with his mother, he was out of control. He’d been in reform school and at one time had been accused of trying to kill his father.  He wasn’t doing well in school, was on the verge of quitting and getting into who knew what kind of trouble.

So it was with a huge overstuffed plate, that the first day of school arrived and I made my way to the classroom where I was to spend the next year with 15 kids with whom I was totally unfamiliar. Eating was more torture than a delight. I was getting little sleep. As the children entered the classroom, I discovered two first graders who didn’t know their last names and were nowhere near ready to read or write.  A second grader confessed that he was very bright and would be going to Harvard when he graduated from highschool.  There were some old beaten-up text books and no mimeos or worksheets to keep one group busy while I was working with another.  And of course there was no Teacher’s Aide. Most mornings I was in tears on my 30 minute drive to school.  At lunch I’d slip away by myself to spend another hour crying and trying to work up enough strength to return to the classroom.

Two weeks later on the verge of a nervous breakdown, I went to the Superintendent who had hired me, and I quit my job.   He obviously understood my predicament and with a huge hug, sent me off to put my life back together.  He was one of the kindest men I’ve ever met. We remained friends for years. Even after we moved from the area, we kept in touch at Christmas until he passed away.  I cannot describe how grateful and relieved I was to have time to figure out who I was, and become the person I was meant to be.

I immersed myself in reading and the ever-forbidden artwork that my father had told me time and time again was not a way to make money.  Loving the days I had to myself, I learned to cook spectacular meals. There were everyday discoveries about life away from two parents who were rarely prepared to teach me what I needed to know. I became my own parent, stumbling, making mistakes in my marriage, later with my own children, and forever grateful for the kindness of those who believed in me so much more, than I ever had.

By the beginning of the New Year, Billy, the kid, never came in on time, refused to study and was off doing mischief when ever we were not around.  We sent him packing.  Brother Reid continued to live with us, and as I had during my days growing up, considered him to be my very own, and the only one in my family of origin who cared about me.

Nikki, Our First Cat

A few months later we moved from our tiny apartment to our first house.  A crazy but gorgeous Weimaraner puppy became our first dog, followed soon by a kitten that was given to us by one of Bill’s students whose father was threatening to drown the litter.  We caught Reid smoking and were becoming more and more like parents of a teenager, way before we had our own children.  We were addicted to Julia Child, who was showing off her cooking skills on PBS.  I followed along, learning to make all sorts of delicacies that I never dreamed would turn me into a true foodie, gaining pounds and forever loving to nourish people with beautifully prepared meals. I’m now way beyond the size 4 wedding dress and am constantly trying to keep myself from eating too much during anxious moments.

There have been too many years of my believing that I was broken …  a failure … because I quit that teaching job.  I’ve only recently learned to see my life as a work in progress. I’m a respected artist and writer.  I am a wife, a mother, a grandmother.  I am proud of myself for overcoming the obstacles that have become my teachers. By writing about my journey, I am healing the many wounds that have remained inflamed. Through hard work, understanding myself as well as those I am in relationship with, I am able to be with life as it is.  And by owning my story I’ve become a survivor rather than a victim.


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9 Responses to Once Upon A Time …

  1. patricia says:

    you are so beautiful, thanks for being in my life.

  2. patti stark says:

    Wow, Joan – that was awesome! Even though we’ve been friends for years, it’s so nice to get to know you! The evolement of Life is a grand journey for those of us who take notice. (You were 104? I was 109 in those days, all for the same readons!) And what a darling picture of the 2 of you in Paris! Love, Patti

    • jzrart says:

      Yes, there are secrets I’ve been keeping! Who woulda thunk? Well, everyone has them and my speaking out about them helps me to stay connected with all of the parts of myself!!

  3. Clara says:

    I’m so very glad you wrote this post, and so glad that you shared it with us. It’s made my day.

    I left a graduate teaching assistantship six months into the program. For (many) years thereafter I considered it one of my life’s failures, and saw myself a quitter. Now I see that I was one smart cookie to have withdrawn from a program that was giving me absolutely nothing that I needed and to which I didn’t feel I could make a valuable contribution. Isn’t it amazing how we let those stories take root and crowd out the delights and true successes of our lives? Isn’t it great that we know better now, even if we sometimes stumble?

    I’m so glad we met and that we’re on similar paths together.

  4. jzrart says:

    Clara, Thanks so much for your comment. It really helps to hear from friends who’ve had similar experiences! I’m glad we met also and look forward to seeing you in a week or so!!

  5. Becca says:

    One of the best things about getting older is being able to look back with clarity on why we did the things we did, to understand them better, and see how those decisions have played out over the course of our lives.

    I’m glad you made a decision that was obviously the right one for you 🙂

  6. jzrart says:

    Thanks, Becca! Yes, we need distance on all things and though some say not to look back, I like to see from where I came.

  7. Sharon says:

    I don’t know how I missed this one since I avidly follow all of your stories. There are so many ways that this one touched memories of my soul that I would not even know where to begin. Suffice it to say that in 1965, cigarettes kept me my tiny 98 pound self and I thought that was being a heavy weight.
    Your stories are wonderfully woven and compelling. Thanks for being in my life and sharing your life stories with all of us.

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