Featured Essay   

The Last of the Flower Children

by Susan Lago

            My aunt is sixty-eight years old and lives in a two-room house in a picaresque Vermont town. From floor to ceiling and from wall to wall, Aunt Jenny’s art hangs on the walls, from the beams, balances on tiny tea tables. A squat black wood-burning stove provides her and her common-law husband, Herb, with all the heat they need, all the heat they have. She is scarves and patchouli and wood smoke. She is cassette tapes and gluten-free and long hair, gray now, but still curly and wild.

            In the morning, I wake in an unheated bedroom to Vermont in late November, but I am cocooned under three down comforters. Only the top of my head is cold. I jump out of bed, push aside the heavy damask curtain in the doorway, and emerge into the heated dimness of the main living area. It’s six in the morning and the air hangs heavy with marijuana smoke and the scent of fresh-brewed coffee. Jenny is there with Herb and her best friend Grace. “You’re up!” they say. “Coffee?” asks Grace. My sister and I are staying at her house, which is about twenty-five feet from my aunt’s. Grace has three bedrooms in addition to the main room. Grace has a door on her bathroom. They call the world formed by their two houses, “The Compound.” Now she offers me what’s left of the joint, but I decline with a shake of my head and make for the coffeepot.

            Time moves differently here. It’s not just the weed, it’s also the heavy curtains on the windows and the silvery northern sun. I shower in the claw foot tub and dry myself with a hotel quality towel. Later, Grace explains that she’s accumulated the down comforters, the towels, and most of her clothes from the odds and ends left at their local laundromat. “You wouldn’t believe what people leave behind,” she says, taking a hit off the joint. “More coffee?”

            Over rice-flour pancakes with berries and maple syrup (Vermont, of course), the conversation turns to the logistics of growing one’s own marijuana crop. Hydroponics. Special lights. Cross-fertilization. Grace sighs: “We just couldn’t make the cost-benefit work,” she says. The clock says seven-thirty. Grace takes out a baggie filled with green buds and rolls another joint.

            Here, then, are the last of the Flower Children.

            Or maybe they’re hippies, but Flower Children sounds prettier and seems a more apt description for the way Jenny, Herb, and Grace harmonize with the environment of The Compound. In between the two houses is a bower loosely enclosed with wrought iron fencing and decorated with a rug, a bistro table, and several mismatched chairs. The table is covered with a patterned cloth and both it and the rug are soaked with last night’s rain. There are gardens, both flower and vegetable. Wherever the eye rests, there’s something to see, something lovely and strange and filled with a kind of lambent light. Wind chimes make music in the breeze.

 

            My aunt was born in late November 1945 in a predominantly Jewish Boston neighborhood. She is the younger sister by eight years to the day. She, my mother, and their father—my grandfather—all share the same birthday. In fact, that’s why my sister and I have driven from New Jersey to Vermont. My mother passed away ten months ago. This is Aunt Jenny’s first birthday alone. We didn’t want her to be sad, and we didn’t want to be sad, on this first birthday without my mother.

            I sit on Aunt Jenny’s bed/sofa and flip through an old photo album. I come across a picture of a teenaged Jenny. How old is she here? Fifteen? Sixteen? She has a bouffant hairdo as carefully styled as a wig. Impossible to reconcile this image with my memories. Yet it’s her, despite the tweezed eyebrows, the teased hair shellacked into place. There’s her cleft chin, her smile. When did the transformation to hippie take place? Yes, I could ask her, but she’s prickly about her past, the same way she bristles when I take out my smartphone to check my email. In 1969, the Year of the Hippie, Jenny would have been twenty-four. She had already been to college, Mass Art, had already been married and divorced. She had lived through the assassinations of MLK and JFK, saw the Beatles morph from moppets to acid-heads. I have only the faintest memory of her from that year; I was only six-years-old. But at some point, the bouffant was replaced by long hair, and the young married woman went to live with her equally long-haired boyfriend.

            To the awkward kid I was, Jenny was my grimy glamorous aunt. She had long red hair and eschewed deodorant. She was a singer-songwriter who traveled around in a van with her boyfriend, their band, and a dog. The van had a bed! and Jenny’s artwork on the walls. It smelled like BO and canine, but I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever seen, kind of like my Barbie Camper crossed with the Boxcar Children. The band made its way up and down the east coast, playing at coffeehouses and bars. The dog’s name was Home.

            She called herself a gypsy. They lived according to their own rules in the van that was their house as well as their transportation. From time to time, they stayed with friends they referred to as family. On the other hand, my family—my mom, stepfather, and me and my sister—lived in a ranch-style house on a lake in suburban New Jersey. We had things my aunt did not—an oven, a swing set in the backyard, mortgage payments. When she visited, these familiar things faded into olive green seventies-ness.

            In those days, my mother was different from the mothers of my schoolmates. A poet, feminist, and artist, she wore a hand-knit purple poncho and taught my sister and me that bras and make-up were societal constructs that objectified women. But born eight years before her sister, my mother’s life was somewhat more mainstream: married, she had two children, a house, and a job. She lived inside society’s conventions while my aunt whirled free in her own orbit. I believe my mother yearned for that life. As much as she loved us, my sister and me, she wanted to be the barefoot artist in the park. Instead she was a suburban mom who had to fit her art in the spaces not occupied by the demands of family. 

            By the time Aunt Jenny turns up in my memory, it is the summer of 1972, and we are traveling across country to see Alan Ginsburg. This was my aspiring poet mother’s idea. So we take off in a borrowed station wagon: my mother and stepfather, me and my sister, and my aunt. We drive her crazy, my sister and I, with our constant bickering and attention-seeking neediness. For some reason, our journey to SoCal takes a northerly route through Massachusetts, where we stop to visit my grandparents, and then up to Vermont to see old friends.

            “This is where I get off,” my aunt says. She probably doesn’t actually say those words, but that’s what happens anyway. She falls in love with the Green Mountain state. She jumps off the merry-go-round of sticky-fingered children and games of I-Spy and License Plate. And so Vermont becomes the closest thing to home my gypsy aunt knows for the next forty years. Vermont is her base even in the years she travels with her band, and then later from craft show to craft show where she sells her handmade silk-screened wearable art. Somewhere along the way, the long-haired boyfriend is replaced by Herb.

            I remember visiting her in Vermont sometime in the late seventies. She and Herb lived in a log cabin on the side of a mountain. I remember being horrified that there was no bathroom. “What do I do when I have to go?” I may have whispered to my mother. “We’re in nature,” laughed my aunt (the cabin was very small; there was no place for the whisper to hide). She handed me a roll of toilet paper and pointed to the door. Why wasn’t there even an outhouse? I can’t remember. The cabin was heated by a wood-burning stove, and my aunt made me the most delicious cinnamon toast I had ever tasted with thick brown bread dripping with butter. The two-room house she lives in today is an echo of that cabin, only it has a real working bathroom even if its only barrier is a turquoise-colored beaded curtain instead of a door.

 

            Why does she choose Vermont and not some other hippie enclave such as Haight Ashbury or Greenwich Village? Maybe because Vermont has a proud history of welcoming pioneers, artists, and outcasts. It’s no wonder that despite Vermont’s inhospitable winters, the state became a haven for my aunt and her friends when they wanted to get off the hamster wheel of the work-to-live ethos and live close to the land. And it’s no surprise that my aunt, an artist and musician who actively lived the counterculture, gravitated to Vermont in the early seventies. After all, the state offered the appeal of pristine mountains, fresh air, and the possibility of living the Flower Children’s ideals of peace and love in a communal environment set just outside the boundaries of The Establishment.

            There’s something else beneath the simple lifestyle, however. Another side. An economic one. Both Aunt Jenny and Grace rent, not own, their houses. Their clothes mostly come from hand-me-downs and scavenging. The economics of The Compound are based on share and share alike. The three adults share one car (Jenny’s) and one computer (Grace’s). They had also shared illegal cable until the day before our visit when the cable company upgraded their technology to digital and the signal disappeared. Grace is considering splurging for monthly access. After all, the winter nights are long. No one’s complaining, but maybe that explains the abundance of weed.

 

            “Remember Jefferson Airplane?” my sister asks. It’s Saturday night, our last night in Vermont. We’ve eaten dinner at Aunt Jenny’s: a quiche made with tomatoes that they grew in their garden and dried in the sun, salad, falafel, and white wine. Now we’re back at Grace’s, finishing off another bottle of wine and passing around a joint.

            Nods all around. My sister is younger than I am by three years. Lean from years of yoga and holistic juicing, she’s approaching fifty, but she’s not there yet. In Jefferson Airplane’s heyday, the “Summer of Love” 1967, she was one-year-old. She’s nostalgic for a past that she never experienced.

            Grace is sitting on a period sofa covered with a white linen cloth. She’s wearing an old-fashioned cotton nightgown and robe, white with lacey flounces and puffed sleeves. She has masses of gray-streaked hair and wire-framed glasses, and holds a roach clip that’s about a foot long, which she waves like a conductor’s baton while she talks. The rest of us sit on mismatched chairs in varying degrees of wobbliness. There are doilies. Like my aunt’s place, every available space has something on it: framed photographs on the wall, including one of a young Bette Davis, china figurines, lamps, a stack of wood next to the stove. The effect, though, is less chaotic than at my aunt’s where angels made from recycled materials hang from a rafter and her mixed media sculptures share space on her kitchen table with stacks of books and an altar. Grace’s place is more rustic bed-and-breakfast than bohemian artist.

            “I have a videotape of a George Harrison concert,” says Herb. More nods.

            “We could watch it,” says Jenny, but nobody makes a move to go get it.

            I take a couple of hits off the joint and feel my brain slow and softly stall.

            “Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young,” says Grace. “They don’t make music like that anymore.”

            I am overwhelmed with missing the dark tropes of the gangsta rap my son listens to. The anger, the misogyny, the shameless worship of material wealth—everything the Flower Children reject---may seem as quaint one day as Simon and Garfunkel’s gentle warning to “slow down.”

            The talk circles round again to the logistics of growing your own marijuana. I can tell this is a conversation they have often. I don’t have much to contribute, but now I’m stoned so it doesn’t matter.

 

            Where are the Flower Children now? Some sold out. They’re CEOs of companies that exploit workers overseas. They worry about their retirement accounts and the effect of the recession on the equity of their homes. They take Xanax instead of smoking pot and dropping acid. They take Viagra and Lipitor. Some of the Flower Children live in Florida in gated retirement communities. They play tennis or golf. They’re members of book clubs. They shop at Wal-Mart. Some of the Flower Children are dead of drug overdoses or alcoholism. They never got to watch their grandchildren play videogames where they shoot villagers or kick prostitutes in the head. Some of the Flower Children still live by their beliefs in peace and love. They head up philanthropic organizations; they speak out against social injustice.

            And some of the Flower Children are right here in this small New England town, kicking it at The Compound, which, one could say, is a kind of retirement community for aging hippies—a mini-commune. They grow their own vegetables and wear clothes they buy in thrift shops or find discarded in laundromats. They may own computers and cell phones, but they are not a necessity. If they can’t afford to pay for access, they’re fine without. They make and sell art and music and homemade gluten-free pies; they eat, drink, and smoke with friends. They don’t have much, but what they have they share. Age doesn’t seem to matter. Jenny speaks fondly of a twenty-year-old woman with whom she works at their local health food store. “She’s an old soul,” Jenny says. “She’s one of us.” To me, accustomed as I am to various electronic alerts, traffic, the demands of a full teaching load, and two college tuitions to pay, life here feels stagnant, yet it’s filled with beauty. They live a humble existence, but I’m not sure if that’s because they dropped out of society one day and never wanted to drop back in, or if they surprised themselves by getting old. When you’re young, it’s hard to imagine yourself forty, fifty years into the future. Then suddenly, ironically even, there you are. Smoking weed or shopping at Wal-Mart.

            After the wine has been drunk and the weed has been smoked, I pull out the yahrzeit candle I brought from home to light in remembrance of my mother’s birthday. Tradition says you’re supposed to light the candle to commemorate the loved one’s death day, but my family has never been big on tradition. My aunt is a practicing Buddhist; my sister follows her own yoga-inspired path. We were all born Jewish, but I’m the closest thing this family’s got to a practicing Jew so I brought the candle. My aunt takes out some old photographs. There’s one of her and my mom when they were little girls, another of me and my aunt taken when I was about fourteen. We’re both young and lovely in the way of heedless youth. She spreads the photos out on the low table in front of the sofa. We light the candle. No one knows the prayer in Hebrew so we just wish my mom a happy birthday. We all join hands and cry a little.

            On the day we leave, I take pictures of us all with my iPhone. Herb asks to see the pictures so I hand him my phone and show him how to swipe through the images. Now seventy-six years old, he suffers from COPD. He quit smoking cigarettes years ago, but still smokes weed every day, all day. “Where does the picture come out?” he asks, turning the gadget over in his hand. I am in a place outside of time, or stuck in time, or timeless. When I step outdoors, the cold is like a slap in the face. I see the wisdom of burrowing. But time rushes back to me all at once and the effect is disorienting, yet heady.

            As we drive away, my sister and I wave and wave. Jenny, Herb and Grace, a tableau in front of The Compound, wave back. I don’t know then that this is the last time I will ever see my aunt. In less than three months, she will be diagnosed with end stage uterine cancer. Shortly after, she takes to her bed, barely able to put two words together. On March 20, 2014, my Aunt Jenny dies, barely more than a year after her sister. One less Flower Child, one last glimmer of light and love gone from this world.


 

Susan_Lago.jpgSusan Lago teaches composition and literature at Bergen Community College. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in publications such as Pank Magazine, Word Riot, Per Contra, Monkeybicycle and Prime Number. Her short story, “Songs from the River,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2011 by Pank. She lives in New Jersey with her two children and a sweet little cat.

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