I was raised to believe… | American Portrait

Mountain Lake PBS has partnered with the Adirondack Center for Writing, a local organization dedicated to bringing people and words together, to share PBS American Portrait prompts and collect unique stories from ACW members in our community! Continue below to read some of these featured submissions, each adding to the great mosaic of the American Portrait, and our collective understanding of the experiences and perspectives in and around the Adirondacks.

What is American Portrait?

PBS American Portrait is a multiplatform storytelling project aiming to capture the American experience. This project explores the everyday lives of real Americans: the diverse ways we work, play, and connect with those around us. By creating a nationwide platform for storytelling, American Portrait helps us see the ways we are different, and the ways we are alike.

How to Participate:

Adirondack Center for Writing Submissions

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[accordion-item title=”A Forced Reckoning by Diane Kendall Stevens” state=closed]

I was raised to believe that around us were people with stories of struggle we would never guess. Empathy and compassion were part of every dinner conversation or trip to the grocery store. A homeless or disabled person was never to be mocked or giggled at. A student in our classrooms with a stutter or learning difference was to be respected and included in our playground games. My mother was a divorced mom fighting an illness of her own and would have none of any such childhood teasing nonsense. So when the Fatty Troll incident occurred, I knew I was in trouble.

Fatty Troll was the unfortunate name rhyme for a plumpish girl in my grade. She had a long, thin ponytail and an unusual nose. Her soft belly was probably well within reason, but someone in my third grade class noticed both her first and last name had a unique poetic relationship to the troll nickname. Small troll dolls with long hair in bright colors were popular in our classroom, and unfortunately, their hair could go in a long, straight ponytail, just like, well, you know whose. We’d put our troll dolls in our desks or coat pockets to take out on the playground. Eventually they were so distracting they were no longer allowed to come to school with us. Never mind, a group of boys soon made the troll connection and our classmate soon became fodder for rhymes and jokes. I would never join in the humiliating teasing, but I had not yet developed the courage to take them on. The struggling poet I yearned to be also had to admit it was a remarkable rhyme. So I shared the jokes with my sister, sixteen months older, at home, giggling incessantly while we played on the living room floor. I didn’t see my mother frowning in the doorway.

“Fatty Troll, Fatty Troll!” I sang a little ditty about the adventures of my poor classmate. I knew better, but I let myself roll out a song about as disrespectful and mean-spirited as I could make it. I’m sure every insecurity I had about myself, my own body and my swap-shop clothes went into that melody. My mother stood at the door for a moment and then swiftly removed me from the room and onto a dining room chair. I knew I was in trouble. It was the 11th Commandment: thou shall not mock thy fellow creature. Better to be in Dante’s Circle Nine of Hell than to break the compassion rule. I tried a weak defense. “I didn’t make it up. The other kids did.”

“You repeated it, so it’s yours now.” She wasn’t budging.

I had to admire her logic. In fact, I had plenty of time to admire it from my seat on the dining room chair. I also was too dug in to admit my wrong. So I sat some more. My sister tried to hide her giggling in the next room. Never had playing with her looked so appealing as it did from the seat of shame. Finally I called out in agony, “Okay, I’m sorry.”

“So, you’ve learned something.”

“Yes, can I go now.” I was almost back in control.

“You can go when you are ready not to do that again.” Again, I had to admire her logic. I sat a while longer.

“Okay, I won’t do it again. Really.” The rhyme played in my head like the world’s most perfect jingle, “Fatty Troll, Fatty Troll,” but I didn’t say it out loud.

“It’s not what you do but what you want to do.” My mother could always out-smart me.

I was a Sunday School and a prayers-before-bedtime girl. The issue came up again at bedtime. Yes, I was truly sorry. By then I was. I felt like I not only let down my mother and family line, I had also let down God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. I was miserable for a few days, until my Heavenly Father found a way to deepen the lesson. My classmate’s mother invited me to her home to play and my mother accepted for me.

Her house was small, like mine, and surprisingly warm and friendly. No dark caves or under-bridge hideouts. She had a cute baby sister who followed us around and a lot of great toys. I had fun, despite being an incredibly shy child with fears of Heaven’s retribution. We even had a great snack, one my mother probably could not afford. My mother picked me up from an afternoon of play (I think we pretended we were teachers) in our old Buick with my brother and sister peering out the window. I didn’t say a word, but the feeling in the car confirmed my wrong-doing and my having found a better path for myself.

Years later an old friend sent me a creative writing student publication from junior high. I had moved to the Midwest from our Wilmington, DE, home just as I started high school. I did not remember seeing my pony-tailed classmate in the halls or classrooms in junior high. Our paths never crossed. But there among the short stories and poems was a lovely poem by my classmate, urging us to consider the brotherhood of all mankind:

“So reach out across each sea and shore

You’ll find a friend forevermore.”

[accordion-item title=”An Ordinary Life: The Family; what they taught me by Eilene Susan Wenner” state=closed]

I was raised to believe that all things are possible, and anything can happen in this life we are living. It’s curious that I was ruminating about what my family taught me, just before learning the prompt for this week. Not that my family set out to teach me those lessons, but that is the beauty of my family which is eclectic, unpredictable, and diverse.

I often tell others that they don’t have to hide anything about their families from me, because I’m sure my family has whatever goes on in their family. I like the phrase, “Oh yeah we have one of those in our family, too.” What got me on this pilgrimage of thought was our book study on racism. Yep, I had family members who were racists, but I never lived with them until I was in 12th grade.

By that time I lived with the “racists” the other side of the family had reared me in an atmosphere of acceptance that all nationalities and races were welcome into the family. Likewise, my school system was well integrated with all nationalities and races and taught me that all races have good and bad persons, and the goal is to stick with the “good ones.” But both my family and school, also, taught me to “expect anything to happen” (fights, shootings, gangs, drugs, police searches, unexpected -accidental -on purpose- expected- or murdered, or diseased deaths of adults and children.) The concept is to “go with the flow.”

That’s not to say that my mother didn’t fear I would hook-up with the “bad elements” of society, I suppose. I knew my parents voted on the side that I would be the one most likely to be arrested. As an adult, I still don’t know why they would think that. I played basket ballad tennis, volunteered at a nursing home to feed the elderly their dinners and read to the blind. I even volunteered at the local hospital, and took all the classes my school district offered—by the time I was in 7th grade, I knew two different languages, and sciences.

Of coarse, looking back on those times I, also, was the only female on the rifle team, fencing club, and archery team. I never saw those as incongruent with my ballet lessons, especially if you take into consideration that if boys were harassing you on the way home from dancing lessons, tap shoes make great kickers of shins. I know why I was kept on the rifle, archery, and fencing teams, even then. I was the main sharp-shooter, I could fence with both my right and left hands and win, and archery was just plain fun to listen to the arrow “twung” off the bow, and “whishhhh down toward the target, and thud into the bullseye.”

To add to my experience of life, I was often “farmed out” to family members who would take me on, especially for the summer. My various aunts, uncles, and grandmothers households were vastly different from my parent’s household. I would go from only having my sister as a sibling, to having 2 or 6 siblings, to being the only child with Grandmom and living in 50 acres of forest. Each family gave me ways to choose who, or what, I wanted to cultivate in my life.

Grandmom was the best, I suppose. She was a French and English teacher and encouraged any study I wanted to pursue—if I wanted to read all day, she never stopped me. If I wanted to raise tadpoles into frogs, I was allowed (turtles, however, were expected to live in the garden, and I still have yearning for a turtle-home-pet). Grandmom, also, held to strict rule of conduct—afternoon tea, proper language, and decorum. Nobody can blame her if I didn’t live up to that gentile aspect of life, she did her best, with what little she had to work with (keeping in mind I tried to make bows and arrows out of tree branches-canoes that constantly sunk into the pond, and trees that needed to be climbed because the best apples were always wayyyyy-up-there).

Grandmom tried very hard to give us culture, with classical music (which I dance ballet to) and classical writing. However, once a year she would have to endure taking us to Aunt Mary and Uncle Merrill’s home for our “Christmas visit.” Imagine an atmosphere of “ tea at Downton Abby” and we were not the servants, we were FAMILY. My grandmother had been a debutant at one time in her life, but I’ll admit I never quite learned how to effect that quality into my character. Those visits were the only time I would get the “stink-eye-don’t you DARE” look from my grandmother. Fortunately, I didn’t have to exhibit my piano accomplishment (or lack-thereof), because Aunt Mary and Uncle Merrill’s twins, and son were concert violinists and cellist. To this day, I can still recall the sound of ticking and chiming on the quarter-hour of the grandfather clock in the foyer of their extremely quiet sedate home.

Then there was Aunt Pat and Uncle Tom’s home that had no rules. I lived with six other children and was able to get lost in the crowd. Ever summer had a theme. One year it was photography, where we each got cameras and we set up a darkroom. One year was “fermentation” as we made real root beer, and brandied fruit—may the police not arrest them for encouraging our underage ferment-drinking. I will admit I have never found another “root beer soda” that tasted as good as those did. I learned NOT to make cookies in the fireplace, and not to be outside in a storm with lightening bolts—we learned what lightening blows up when it strikes. Oh, and I learned a valuable life lesson for all of us—always hide your candy, or popsicle in the brussel sprout bag in the freezer—nobody thinks to to look there.

Well, thank you for being on this journey of exploration and pondering how I was raised to believe that all things are possible, and anything can happen in this life we are living.

[accordion-item title=”HB No. 2 by Edward Pontacoloni” state=closed]

I was raised to believe in the Ticonderoga HB No. 2 (soft) Graphite Pencil. And, although I am older now, and although I have a desktop and a laptop with a stylus, and an Ipad and an Iphone, I still believe in the Ticonderoga HB No. 2 (soft) Graphite Pencil. All else are altars to the pagan gods of technological modernity. Heresy.

This belief is well grounded in the miracle of erasure, in fleeting flights of scribble fancy and in the almighty power of the doodle to seduce, distract and mollify, to sedate. Nor should I neglect to mention the unequaled utility for completing the NYT Sunday Crossword Puzzle. Gray graphite for the Gray Lady.

I didn’t always hold this belief. At an early age, I had faith in crayons. Even today, I still dabble in the sacred Crayola. Where else in the holy scribble scripture can one find Banana Berry Blitz, Ravenous Purple, Flower Power Pink, Atomic Tangerine or Lift-off Lime? Go ahead, peruse Google paint apps, if you are a doubter, an apostate. No nevermind, my faith has grown beyond the Cerulean gods of Ugly Duckling Gray and Gold Bunny Gold.

Admittedly, this faith in the Ticonderoga HB No. 2 (soft) Graphite Pencil is not sourced from some ancient or biblical lore, although it does have a creation myth, as one might expect. 

Long ago, at the junction of two waterways that the first people called tekontaró:ken, under the wary and watchful eye of the Mount of Defiance, graphite was stumbled upon, and the sky opened, and the stumbler said, “Eureka!” 

And, behold, the graphite marked remarkably well. Then came the prophets Dixon et al, and the graphite was clothed in “real wood” of Eastern Red Cedar, painted Chinese yellow to signify its royalty, and declared from the steeples to be the “Best of Its Kind.” 

A relatively short time later in religious time, although a bunch of decades to the masses, the pencil supplanted the quill pen as the preferred instrument in the classroom, and the Ticonderoga HB No. 2 (soft) Graphite Pencil became the dominant faith of learned Americans. 

And, of patriotic Americans, too. For lo, graphite was stumbled upon in a place of great battles during the American Revolutionary War, and heroes were made there, and so the packaging for the Ticonderoga HB No. 2 (soft) Graphite Pencil besaints the great Revolutionary War hero, Ethan Allen.

Rituals? Of course! What is a belief without rituals? The practitioner of the Ticonderoga HB No. 2 (soft) Graphite Pencil performs an initial rite of Sharpening that brings the dull, untooled, flat end of the newly unpackaged instrument to a delicate point suitable for most purposes such as scribbling or doodling, or filling in small crossword puzzle squares. This ritual is repeated until stubification and requiem. 

And there is more, for the obscure mysteries of mathematics and geometry are the true missions of the well sharpened Ticonderoga HB No. 2 (soft) Graphite Pencil. They are the whys and wherefores of my proselytizing, the cause celebre. Well, them and doodling, which is a form of geometry. 

As to these last esoteric functionalities, and as to the crossword puzzle, too, the eraser head realizes the irreducible duality of the Ticonderoga HB No. 2 (soft) Graphite Pencil. The eraser head is an integrand of the Ticonderoga HB No. 2 (soft) Graphite Pencil’s essence and it too, is the Best of Its Kind. This metaphysical quality of duality is quintessential to my belief.

So, there you have it. This is what I was raised to believe. These are the doctrines of my faith. In the Ticonderoga HB No. 2 (soft) Graphite Pencil I trust. The Best of Its Kind. Amen.

[accordion-item title=”I was raised to believe by Mary Perrin Scott” state=closed]

I was raised to believe that everyone is created equal. When I was a teenager, my parents encouraged me to work at a local summer camp, Camp Meehan, as a counselor. The kids were bused to our town each day and we were there to give them the opportunity to leave the inner city behind and enjoy the clean suburban outdoors. I enjoyed my job as a camp counselor.

In 1964 I was offered another summer camp opportunity. The Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island opened a summer camp in the city of Providence. Staff members were mostly college students. I had just completed my freshman year at Keuka College. As staff members, we were required to live in residential housing. The intent was to create a community from which we would set out each day into the inner-city ministry. This was the civil rights era. White communities and church communities were trying to learn how to relate to the poor inner-city black populations.

Each day we would arrive in South Providence by van. The camp was located at Christ Episcopal Church. Our day was filled with games, art projects and most importantly, we had a feeding program for the kids. Part of the goal of the program was for the inner-city families to relate to us and we to them. Several nights a week, we would go to our kids homes for dinner. The intent was for all of us to share conversations and begin to understand each other. This was an interesting concept. Because we were all nervous about each other’s expectations, I am not sure that this part of the program worked.

At the end of the summer the staff discussed having a fun day and picnic. I asked my parents if we could have this activity at our house in Barrington, a nearby suburb. They were pleased to offer our house. We had a pool and a place to barbeque. All was set. That sunny Saturday we arrived in Barrington in two vans. It was great to have a day all together to relax. Black and white faces greeted my parents at the front door.

My parents were usually very friendly and outgoing. This time they seemed to vanish and left me to carry on with the party. I didn’t notice this at first because I was busy being a hostess to my new found friends. As the day moved on, I did begin to wonder where are mom and dad?

The party was a huge success. Many of the staff had never been to a suburb like Barrington. They were thrilled to have spent the day swimming, eating and relaxing by the pool. Late in the afternoon, as we got ready to board the vans and return to Providence, Dad appeared and said, “Good By.”

A few days later, I called home to tell my parents that our party was a great success and to thank them for their hospitality. Dad said, “Mary Perrin, why did you not tell us that your staff included black people? You should not have brought them here!” To say I was shocked would be an understatement. I had been taught that we are all valued equally.

It took me a while to come to grips with the mixed message that I had received from my parents. I appreciate that they planted deep seeds of inclusiveness in me. The surprise to them was that I acted on their teaching. They were a product of their generation. I was a product of a new generation of social activists. This was the sixties, the civil rights era.

In order to patch up the shock I had caused in the family, I reminded my parents that they always said, “Everyone is equal.” They raised me to believe it and then I acted on it. This meant that they needed to look at what they had taught. Parents do not ordinarily like to be brought face to face with a false truth by their child, but in this case, real time circumstance brought the false truth into the light. We ended what had been a dispute with a discussion on racism. Some doors opened for all of us that day about our attitudes concerning people of color. A good ending to a difficult day.

[accordion-item title=”R.E.S.P.E.C.T. by Linda Freedland” state=closed]

My parents taught me many things…as parents are expected to do…. and hopefully, the right things. Among these, I was raised to believe in myself, to know right from wrong, and to understand the importance of sharing with others. As an only child, the hardest one was accepting the importance in sharing. I recall, after several of my birthday parties, many of my toys had missing parts or were totally destroyed by too many little hands. As an adult, it changed to believing in yourself, especially at those times when life kicked you in the teeth. And in the butt.

But I was also raised to believe that all people are created equal. It never occurred to me that not all people were treated the same. But this was made clear to me one day when my father sat me down to talk about respect. The need to respect all people, regardless of their color or religion, or their economic status. The belief that no matter who they are or what they do, they deserve respect.

Dad was a teacher in my high school, the head of the Science Department, the school photographer and beloved by both his colleagues and the students. He had guided a number of young student teachers through the ropes and as I was about to head off to college and a career in teaching, he wanted to talk to me about respect. Not just for my future employers, but for those who had another kind of control. I noticed Dad had a special relationship with our school personnel, in fact, with all the support staff. He was kind, supportive himself and treated them as if they were as important as the school principal or even the school superintendent. In turn, he always received a bit of extra attention. Perhaps a bit larger portion of a cafeteria dish he liked, or some extra cleaning in his classroom by the custodians. The school secretarial staff were always willing to do a bit more for Dad. He explained all this to me. He wasn’t doing this to get that extra scoop of macaroni and cheese, or some extra sheets of carbon paper he’d requested. Or his wastepaper basket emptied more often than required. No, he did it because he respected them as people and the services they provided. In response to his kindness, they reciprocated in ways they could. He said, “The support staff in any place you work can make or break you. They need you but you need them just as much, maybe, even more. Remember that and treat them well.”

These words had a profound effect on me. I carried them with me as I embarked on my teaching career and in every job I’ve had since. While others would denigrate the custodians and the office staff, I would do the opposite. They became friends. Not because of what they could do for me, but because, in most cases, I genuinely liked them. Oftentimes, more than my colleagues.

Just recently, one of my friends commented on her cleaning lady and how she sometimes was late or had to cancel. We share the same woman. I would tell her that she had to consider the fact that Sheila had an adult child with special needs and both her parents were elderly with serious health issues. If her child’s caregiver was late or was ill herself, she would be late as well. My friend was surprised I knew this much about Sheila. “You mean you talk to her?” she said, amazed. “Of course I do. She’s a lovely person and she has a lot on her plate. She’s a single mom and her child is a handful.” I told her. “But she’s your cleaning lady?” The concept of treating your cleaning person with respect apparently hadn’t dawned on my friend. I found this a sad reflection on our society.

And these days, in our current political crisis, it’s hard to respect those who seem to be on a different planet in their beliefs. But I try, especially when it’s friends and family.

My husband is sometimes shell-shocked when I tip our delivery person 20% or considerably increase our Instacart shoppers standard tip. But I do it anyway because it’s the right thing to do. And I know Dad is smiling and giving me a “thumbs up.”

[accordion-item title=”The Scottish Dutchman by June Hannay Kosier” state=closed]

I was raised to believe I was Dutch on my father’s side.

My father was raised in the Dutch Reformed Church and his family was from Coeymans Hollow, a very Dutch area in southern Albany County. The family farm which was owned by our ancestor, Andrew Hannay, was bought by the City of Albany and became the Alcove Reservoir in the early 20th century. The family cemetery was moved at the time. I have fond memories of visiting grave sites and my great grandfather and Aunt Bea in Coeymans Hollow. There is also a NYS marker in Dormansville which states “Near here Andrew Hannay raised a company of volunteers October 1777 to oppose invasion of Burgoyne who surrendered before their arrival.”

My grandfather, Henry Hannay, died in 1960. Shortly thereafter, my grandmother got a letter asking for family information (births, marriages, deaths etc.) from a Colonel William Hannay because he was doing genealogy research on the family. Nana consulted my father, also named William, who told her to go ahead and send him the information. What he was seeking was part of the public record but her giving it to the colonel would save him time. So, she did. In return, he sent her a copy of the genealogy.

Guess what? We are Scottish!

Now the irony in this is that we had a neighbor who was born in Scotland. She liked to tease my father and ask him where his wooden shoes were and if he had been to the windmill lately. He would reply that at least he didn’t wear a skirt (kilt) and wasn’t frugal like her. It was just good-natured fun. In my opinion, however, she was cheap giving out only one piece of candy at Halloween.

When we learned of our Scottish heritage, my mother asked Dad “What are you going to tell Marilynn?” Dad said “Not a thing.” So, my mother told her. Marilynn told Dad she was making him a kilt.

Our surname is Scottish, but we are Dutch also, as well as Swedish, as we later found out. One of our ancestors is Jonas Bronck who settled in the New Netherland area in the early 1600s. The area is now known as the Bronx. His wife was Dutch and most of his descendants married local Dutch people.

I also thought I had Mohawk ancestry on my mother’s side. Her mother was French Canadian and her family immigrated to Cohoes in the 1800s. It was plausible that there was a Native American marriage, but when I had my DNA tested on Ancestry, I had no such blood.

Just goes to show that family lore is often wrong.

[accordion-item title=”Red Pistachios and All My Children by tinadebellegarde” state=closed]

Rushing out of the pool. Drenched. Wrapping towels around our waists and dropping to our knees before the television god.

One o’clock. All My Children. Learning to be adults. Affairs, pregnancies, lies, even amnesia.

We all wanted to be Susan Lucci. She was proof that we could be petite, brunette and ethnic.

Short, dark, Italian and still be glamourous.

We never missed an episode that summer. But nothing changed from day to day. Much like our childhood lives.

We were led to believe life moved slowly and dramatically. We discovered later that life moved quickly and quietly.

Years later, Luke and Laura stole our hearts. We skipped college classes to attend their wedding.

We learned that if we were patient, if we looked the other way, if we were willing to rewrite history, our man would be ours.

But back then, not aware, not caring what the future held, we were glued to the tube. Picking our way through red pistachios with salt puckered fingers.

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