Posts Tagged ‘“Memories of a Rotten Childhood”’

Haibun: The Mermaid

May 27, 2020

This Haibun is from ‘Memories of a Rotten Childhood” not yet published

Haibun: The Mermaid


The ‘50’s was a time of Mickie Mantle vs. Marilyn Monroe, Better Red than Dead, or Dead than Red, confusing for children as we didn’t understand ‘why’ we were to change color.  The ‘50’s was surviving the drunken kindness of a father and the sober malice of a mother, with all of us siblings carrying water to both.

Second grade and I remember tall windows that cranked out at chest height but only the teacher was allowed to touch the crank and the smell of ages: mold, asbestos and lead paint was a constant in our tender lives.

I remember being given a small lump of grey/green clay for ‘arts and crafts’.  I remember the mermaid I molded:  rolled clay for hair and arms, perky breasts, a split tail. I used my fingernail to make scales.  I remember old Mrs. Hoephner coming down the aisle, her knarled hands balled into fists, her grimace, her white hair floating like a wrath around her head and she saw my mermaid and stomped it flat with her fist.

Five decades later, I made that same mermaid, (I hadn’t progressed far with clay,) but this time, I glazed her shiny and she visited the fire and I gave her a crown of thorns.  Again,  I saw old Mrs. Hoephner, crabby old woman long dead, coming to my desk and Thump This, you old bat, you destroyer of a child’s imagination and you will be wearing that crown of thorns.



Such a fragile thing.

Child’s salvation


Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2016-2020

“Mountain Woman of North Carolina” from “Memories of a Rotten Childhood”

July 14, 2019


“Dawn Mallards”, watercolor, Jane Kohut-Bartels, 2008


I was going to publish a collection of Short Stories this autumn, but decided to wait.  After publishing 8 books in 10 years, I am tired.  The short story collection would mean more work, and I decided to can it for now.  I want to take the next year to research and write “Tsuki” which is the title of the book that will follow “The Kimono”.  This is 10 years after “The Kimonoand relates the story of the characters and now the children of them.  But it’s only ideas and a few pages written.  But I feel that impulse to write it down over the course of a new year.

However, some do read short stories and I have written enough for a small collection. Most of them are my experiences in the South, and they reflect a life that was totally strange to me.  I have adjusted over the almost 50 years here.  I have met strange and wonderful people in the south and especially in the mountains.  They are definitely a specials breed.  And worth knowing



I WAS BORN and raised in the North country. I came to the South after running away from home, and landed in a totally different culture. I was so ignorant of this region I didn’t bring a coat and early October that first year the temperature fell to 11 degrees.

I knew nothing about the south. I was fed on stories of the KKK, of lynching, of brutal police with billy clubs and water cannon during the years of integration. This was the ‘modern’ history of the South and of Blacks. I didn’t know about the homegrown violence of the black community until years later, probably when the news channels reported children killed. Then they took notice..

I remember in the mid 60’s when a tall and exhausted black man came to our front door, quite a ways out into the countryside of New Jersey. He asked my mother to call the police. He had walked from Georgia. She immediately told me to go upstairs and hide in a closet. I was her only daughter and she was no racial liberal. I don’t remember whether she called the police or not, but I hope she did. Though I think she didn’t.   He didn’t look like he would survive much longer as he sat quietly on the bottom front step. She did send out a sandwich by my younger brother. Blacks, called Negroes then, were something we never saw much of out in the countryside. Those people were in the cities and this rural area hadn’t changed in over 300 years. Small dairy farmers, corn and soybeans, a river and a long Raritan canal built in the 1830’s by Irish labor, whose graves lined the toll path,  was the staple environment of my childhood. The Dutch had moved over the land more than a century before the Revolution and any other color of skin was a rarity.

Years later I met a woman, an old white country woman in the mountains of North Carolina. She made quilts and lived in a three room shack in a pasture surrounded by rolling meadows and ringed by mountains. I remember the water barrel under a tin roof, and I remember her pointing a shotgun out of the door when two of us, a girlfriend and myself, came to see her. She wasn’t being violent, just cautious. I don’t know whether it was proper to call her house a shack: The outsides were covered with tar paper and unskinned logs, the inside with tongue and groove boards. The entire structure rested on piled up stones and you could see through the bottom of the house in spots, down into the valley. She had an old iron bedstead in one bedroom, with a red and white quilt covering the board wall behind it. She made quilts all around the year and women from Asheville and Atlanta would come and buy them for their boutiques. I doubt she ever got what they were worth, but it was a major part of her living.

Once she recognized my friend, she was friendly enough. It was rare she had visitors and Mary was hungry for news. Living up in the mountains, even if it was in an open meadow with spectacular views on all sides, was a pretty lonely existence for any woman. She had been to Asheville once, taken by her daughter, but she said it was too busy, too many people and she felt lost. There were beautiful mountains in Asheville, too, but she was glad to get home. Other than going down the mountain to the small town that sprung up against the banks of a river, she didn’t travel. Her needs were small, and those trips to the town below her mountain only happened a few times a year.

She boiled coffee in an old coffee pot on a small wood stove, got out canned milk and canned peaches. I had never met a woman like her and listening to her history, her stories, knew the Mary’s of the world were disappearing from the face of the mountains. She was welcoming, interested in what was going on in the world. Her hospitality was heart-felt, and I thought of other isolated cultures I had rubbed up against and recognized the pride she took in making us welcome. Whether the mountains or the deserts, the hospitality was the same.

She had been married, her children moving away for jobs into the cities that had nothing to do with mountain life. Her husband died one winter, there in the cabin with her. She rolled him outside in the deep snow and hiked down the mountain to ‘inform the authorities’. It took her almost two days to stumble down the mountain and another day for the police to get up to her cabin.
I asked to use her bathroom, not thinking. Mary was a bit embarrassed and said that she used a corner of the ‘barn’ for that business. The barn was an open shed, with a corn crib. Somewhere she had a few milk cows, but they were scattered down the cleared mountain side and would come home of their own accord when dusk fell.

I remember an ill-fitting back door, where she had an enameled basin and some yellow soap on a shelf above the basin. She saved cooking fat and ashes from the woodstove to make that soap. Money was scarce, in spite of her beautiful quilts, and making your own soap was easy enough. I’ve done it, and the lye burned up a favorite wooden spoon. She showered under the gush of water from the eaves when it rained. In the winter I imagined she heated water on the woodstove, if she bothered. Up in those mountains of North Carolina, it would be too cold to take a layer of clothes off. Getting naked was another issue.

It was beautiful out there, looking at the huge sky that would be unhindered by city lights: the stars would be in full possession of the night. Everywhere I looked was the complete isolation only possible in the mountains, now mostly abandoned by people. Land was sold off, or remained unused for generations. I wondered how long Mary would be able to live up there by herself. She looked to be in her early seventies, but it was hard to tell with mountain people. She was a thin old woman, and the winters were rough. I wondered how she managed to heat that woodstove. She said neighbors, men from around the area, would drop off fresh split wood, and this was how it was done up there. People took care of each other when they could. She had some aging chickens and though they were what we now call ‘free range’, she had found their nests and was able to get most of their eggs. I noticed a couple of rabbit skins hanging from the roof. Mary was a pretty good with her old shotgun, but picking the pellets out of the rabbit was a bother. Rabbits and some venison dropped off periodically by far flung neighbors was the meat she ate, but cans of spam were what she liked most. She suffered from the usual lack of dental care of poor people, so spam didn’t bother her as much as tough meat. It was hard to grow many vegetables as the deer came right up to the cabin and cleaned out her patch. She bartered her quilts and eggs for vegetables and spent the summer months canning on that old wood stove. Years later I canned one summer on an electric stove, but with no air conditioning in the kitchen. You can go faint from the heat.

Mary had no electricity, so she had no refrigeration, except in the winter when she could put food in burlap sacks suspended on the roof. Raccoons were pests and would raid whatever stores she had. She could hear them in the night, climbing the water barrel to get to the sacks, their nails tapping a raccoon Morse code on the tin roof. She said she didn’t mind much, as over the years she had gotten to know generations of them. She would take her broom and go out there and argue with them, they chattering and cursing in raccoon talk. She didn’t mind, because the raccoons sometimes were the only things that talked to her for a month at a time.

It’s been three decades since I visited Mary on her mountain. I’m sure she’s long gone, and I wondered how a woman could survive the isolation of her existence. Her beautiful quilts, patterns passed down from generations of mountain women must have sustained her in the dark and lonely months of winter. She proudly listed the patterns she used: “Wedding Ring”, “Harvest Home”, “Grandma’s Flower Garden” were some of those I remember. She was an artist, though she wouldn’t have called herself such a pompous name. She delighted in taking those patterns and sewing them with her own variations, as she shyly said. That red and white quilt behind the head stead of her iron bed is what I remember most. Although it was on a white, cotton background, the red swirls and leaves and birds were thickly patterned over its surface. It was a labor of love and must have taken a long time to sew; of course the sewing was all by hand and stuffed with boles of cotton, piece by piece. And done by kerosene light.

Her shotgun gave her a certain security I would imagine, but she faced bears and puma, mountain lions, rattle snakes, copperheads and water moccasins, those thieving raccoons, beasties we have no heart to contemplate, let alone face off.

We are overwhelmed by the frenetic pace of our modern days. Her life was full enough with the struggle just to survive in that cleared mountain meadow. When I think of how overwhelmed Mary would be today, I think of how overwhelmed I am also. Perhaps the solution is far from us, but I like to think that the lessons and memory of Mary gives a peace and an alternative to our existence. It’s out there, and is possible to touch.

Stars in possession

Of an upturned bowl of night

Mountain valley sleeps.


Jane Kohut-Bartels
Copyrighted, 2018


From “Memories of a Rotten Childhood”: Nancy Madsen, a neighborhood bully.

May 13, 2018

Children playing in a field

I had few friends when I was a child. At least, I didn’t have many. We lived out in the countryside of New Jersey, in an old Dutch farmhouse. Everyone had acres of land, and that spaced out the families. I had few choices. School was not much of a choice. Most of the kids in the neighborhood were boys, friends of my two younger brothers. There was one girl, Nancy, but she was a fat, spoiled neighbor and besides, her mother and mine didn’t get along. My mother didn’t get along with any of our neighbors. She was forever complaining to us that the people around her were ‘inferior’. Or snobs. Whether they were or not wasn’t clear to us, but she was convinced. It impacted on our choice of playmates, or at least it did for me. She couldn’t really control my brothers, or she choose not to, because there was a load of boys on that road. There was only Nancy, and as I mentioned, she hated Nancy’s mother. I can’t remember a specific reason, it just was the general hatred that my mother was so good at.

There was another girl, Diane who lived next to us, but she was adopted, and in my mother’s mind, she really didn’t ‘belong’. She was younger than I, and that precluded much contact. Besides, her mother was also under fire from mine. I can’t remember any mother mine liked in those years. Or since. At 98, she’s still happily making enemies.

Another friend, who really couldn’t be considered a friend, was Lauren. She was the same age as I, but taller and stronger. She was a bully (I was wimp) and tormented me all through grammar school. I still have the scars where her sharp nails raked the back of my hands. She probably became a serious sadist later in life.

My mother really hated hers. I heard my mother call her ‘trash’ and that piqued my interest. She did wear wide patent leather belts with off shoulder gypsy blouses, and the wallpaper in her bathroom was black with huge red roses, so there might have been something of ‘truth’ in what my mother said. To me, Ruth was fascinating. Rather a free-spirit. A beatnik of sorts.

Nancy was to have a birthday party. I remember it to be her tenth. Now, Nancy was always turned out in crinkly dresses, with petticoats and a clean face. She was the youngest of three, so her mother took special care with her. My mother? Not so much. I was left to my own devices, and those weren’t always the best. There was no fairy godmother hovering over me.

My father took me to Nancy’s party. It was just down the road, three properties from us, but my father drove me. It’s a damn good thing he did, because there was enough tension (see mother above) and the fact that Nancy’s father was a creative drunk. Meaning he was an artist, but still a drunk. More reputations than my own probably would have been ruined.

Of course, Nancy was a picture of a well turned out little ten year old. All those crinkly petticoats and her blond curled hair. My mother paid some attention to me and I presented a clean face and a mostly clean dress. I believe my hair was short, in a bob then. My mother couldn’t take the whining when she tried to comb my long hair and sheared it off. But it was summer so this worked.

I do remember my father with a cigarette in his mouth and a bowl on our heads giving his children the ‘bowl cut’.  Everything that stood outside the bowl was cut off.  Worked, though, until high school.

I can remember the tables of gifts and food. I was more interested in the food as I seemed to have a hollow leg. I could never get enough. I also remember there were more adults than children attending but that didn’t seem unusual. The countryside had cows and horses, chickens and some goats, but there were few children on River Road back then.

I was sitting on a stool, rather stupidly too near the dropoff on the road beneath. I was taking a back seat, trying to disappear. Nancy’s mother didn’t like me much either. Her dog, Freckles, a Dalmatian, had bit me in the eye two years before and she blamed me for ‘disturbing his nap.’ Back then there were no lawsuits or doctor visits for this kind of stuff. You had iodine slapped on the wound and went back to play. I remember being uneasy about her party, as my mother picked the gift herself. I didn’t know what she had wrapped up in gift paper. I was hoping it wasn’t my Betsy-Wetsy doll.

Nancy floated around the tables, looking like Shirley Temple. Then she took it in her head to sit on me. A big mistake for a lot of reasons, two of which I remember: One, I was deathly afraid that Nancy would tip us over the cliff, and two….she was fat. I thought I wouldn’t survive this, I couldn’t breathe.

So I bit her. In the back. Nancy leaped up screaming her head off and a general riot broke out. I couldn’t get out why I had bit her, but by the faces of the adults I knew I was no longer welcome.

My father ordered me in a very stern voice to the car. I went, weeping, sitting in the back of the old Studebaker station wagon. I was very worried, mostly about the anger coming from my mother as soon as she heard what her only daughter had done publically. Not that she liked any of the adults at the party, but it was clearly another failing of a daughter she really didn’t care for.

My father approached the car, his face beaming.
“We won’t tell your mother about this. Let’s go get some Breyer’s ice cream.”

Wow. I had dodged a serious bullet. The first time, but not the last, my father would come to my defense against my mother. To top it off…..”let’s go get some Breyer’s ice cream” meant a road trip of at least 10 miles from home, down in Kendall Park. It was a very special place for us kids, and my father used it when he had the chance. It was his way of expressing his love without many words. And apologies for his own drunkenness.

Many decades later, Nancy moved down to Rex, Georgia. I got one letter from her, unbidden, surprised she looked me up. She was no longer fat, but she was still the bully. An answering letter and I never heard from her again. Good riddance to the Shirley Temple of my childhood.

Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2018



“Doug Craig”, from “Memories of a Rotten Childhood”.

May 11, 2018

Roses East 3

About twelve years ago, I started writing “Memories of a Rotten Childhood”.  I don’t remember why, but for some reason I needed to get down those memories before age made them disappear.  I have read some of these to my father’s family, and some friends, and they were encouraging.  I think it also became a way of therapy, as childhood wasn’t an easy time with two parents who were ‘acting out’.  

Doug Craig became an important person in my earlier life.  He was a devoted friend who deserved better in life.

Lady Nyo


We met one fall, now years ago, when we were no longer young. I was running from a mean early marriage. Doug was just running.

It was 3 years since the end of the Vietnam War, and Doug had plenty of ghosts to run from. He was to be shipped out, and the night before his platoon, company, whatever it was called….was attacked. Doug woke up to gunfire in his tent, and got shrapnel in his torso, mainly his stomach if I remember right.

Doug was a kid I grew up with in the wilds of New Jersey back in the 60’s. His father was the large animal vet in Princeton. It was always a chancy issue to open the two refrigerators in their 1740’s house on Stockton Road. One held food, and the other specimens. It was a fearful thing for a child unaware of which door held which. I can still hear the booming voice of this Scottish man yelling at all of us. We lived in terror of his voice, but he was one of the kindest and gentlest men we knew. Clearly a case of his bark worse that his bite.

Doug’s mother was the picture of elegance: two shelties on two matching settees in the sitting room, a glowering portrait of some infamous relative over the fireplace, and his mother warm and welcoming. We all loved this family. Doug came from good stock. Too bad he was so crazy.

We had a bluegrass band back then, called Marrowbone Creek Vagrants, made up of neighborhood kids. I believe this band, in some form…with different name changes, still is viable. Sort of like a vampires convention when the kids come back to the stomping grounds of the New Jersey countryside.

Music wasn’t the only thing we had in common. Motorcycles, and the attendant accidents, horrible, property destroying stunts, and basically goofing off. But music was the river that ran through us. Today for many of these guys and gals…it still is.

I came home that fall day with two shotguns. One a 20 gauge Mossberg, and the other one a 12 gauge Ithaca. My father gave me a weird look when he picked me up from the airport. He was a pacifist and wouldn’t have a gun on the property, except for a Benjamin Franklin air pistol, which shot rivets. That he kept for shooting walnuts out of the crooks of walnut trees. He was a marksman during WW11 and besides a bow, he would not have weapons near him. Perhaps being in a B-24 for most of the war was deadly enough.

Doug and I decided to go hunting. I just wanted a chance to shoot off those shotguns. Living in urban Atlanta didn’t give me many chances. And the woods where it was legal to shoot off guns were miles away.

We ‘hunted’ all over the back of my parent’s property. Mostly cut down soybean fields, and what we were looking to kill, I didn’t really know. I DID know that I was a failure when it came to birds. We have those big pheasants up in New Jersey, the ones who come up low in front of you, and wheel into the sun so you can’t see or follow them well. And I had the problem of automatically flipping the safety on the gun after every shot. I never could break myself of this, and don’t know where it came from.
But hunted we did. I should have realized Doug ‘hunted’ differently than any other person I knew. He crouched down, held the gun low and crept through the underbrush. I didn’t realize then what I was looking at was a man who had just come back from the wars. Apparently Doug was trained, now irreversibly, as a soldier.

He was a very brave man. He hunted with me, a real nincompoop when it came to hunting. We scared up a young rabbit, and I kept shooting at it as it jagged away. Unfortunately, I was mostly shooting at Doug’s boots, and it is still a wonder that I didn’t add to his shrapnel wounds. Doug got the rabbit.

Then we decided our luck would turn better if we trespassed on Old Man Staats land. Full of woods, and we were bound to find something. Doug found a pheasant there, and bagged it on one shot.

Then we got stupid and decided to go ask Staats if we could hunt on his land. He thought about it a moment, and said ‘no’. Fine with us, we had bagged that pheasant on his turf, stowed it behind a tree, and besides, we were tired of hunting. It was turning colder, and we were hungry.

We went home, Doug to his house on River Road. He was living with other varmints and it was an old farm house, looking none the better for Doug living there.

I remember skinning the rabbit. I had read something about this, so at least I knew what to do. Mostly. I do remember cutting off the rabbit head, and throwing it out over the ravine. It slowly revolved in the air, looking at me reproachfully, with every revolution. Thirty some years later and I still remember that stare.

I cooked the rabbit for my father. My mother wouldn’t have a thing to do with my rabbit stew. My father said he hadn’t had rabbit in thirty years, and pronounced it ‘good’. The pheasant was another issue. I plucked the feathers, saving the tail for some future decoration, and draped bacon over the back of it. Problem was this: pheasant was full of birdshot and dried up quickly. Eating it was a problem, so I threw it into the ravine for the raccoons.


I threw the rabbit pelt up on the copper kitchen roof. Why, I don’t know. I do know that my mother bitched about it for about a year until my father or someone retrieved it. Should have been well cured by then.

Doug and I didn’t see each other again until my father lay in the hospital with a stroke twelve years later. Doug would take me late at night to visit him, and spent hours just talking. I was there for a week, but it took my father nine months of recovery to die.

Doug was a good friend. We both were running from ghosts, many kinds of ghosts. He had an old Seth Thomas clock I bought from him. He carefully packed it up and shipped it months later. Doug was also a very fine Kentucky rifle maker. He was going to make me a gun. Doug, once he focused his scattered and fried, mind could excel in anything.

Two years after my father died, Doug died on the streets of Philly one night. He was mugged and lay in the morgue until identification was possible and Dr. Craig was contacted.

I think Doug was our first childhood friend to die. Perhaps there were others claimed by the war. But I don’t remember. I do remember that all of us were in shock: Doug, though living and behaving always on the edge, seemed invincible. Didn’t he survive Vietnam? How could something like this take him?

If it could take him, it could take the rest of us. Life has no guarantees, obviously.

I think all of us have a Doug Craig in our lives, somewhere. They are the people we miss the most because they have lived the fullest of lives. We know that they are part crazy, but that was also part of the times, and some of their charm.

We live through them at times because they are braver than us.

Jane Kohut-Bartels
Copyrighted, 2017

“The Demise of a Marriage”…..a poem.

March 12, 2014
Sea Eagle, Janekohutbartels, wc, 2006

Sea Eagle, Janekohutbartels, wc, 2006

For the last eight years, I have been locked in a relationship with a wonderful woman, my therapist, Liz.  I went to her back then because I realized something was wrong, and I didn’t have any answers.  It was immediately obvious to Liz what was wrong, but it would take years to convince me what it was.  I was an ACON,  an adult child of a narcissist.  This person was just the first in my life.  I went from my parent’s home into marriage with another narcissist, though I didn’t have a name for him, or understand what had happened for many years.  But Narcissists run on a continuum, and when you are unlearned as to the behaviors, you really can’t understand what is happening.  But the fallout comes sooner than later.

Narcissism is a modern evil.  You  trip over narcississts in daily life. They are prominant in tv shows, in the work place, in churches and temples,in schools, where they make up the basis of bully groups and budding sociopaths,  in families, in communities and community groups, on the internet, in politics  and amongst ‘friends’. They are abusers of others, and litter most paths of our lives.  Today there is more information as to where and what they are, but still we are taken by suprise at the prominance of these people. We watch tv and the narcissistic behavior there runs from subtle to outrageous.  We begin to think this is ‘normal’.  It is not. In many cases, as in ‘real’ life, it is pathological. Learning about Narcissism gives us some understanding and abilities to avoid them.  But not always. 

Liz encouraged me to write about my childhood, and surprisingly, I started to write poetry. I had never written poetry and for some reason, this clicked. Sonnets, freeverse, cinquains, quatrains, and later tanka, choka, haiku just tumbled out.  What was happening was therapy through verse.  I found my voice in poetry. But  I almost never  wrote about myself.  Nature, spiritual issues, politics, history, influences from Japanese medieval literature, all these formed the basis for my verse.  Except for this one document.  “Memories of a Rotten Childhood.”  Something I have been struggling to write for eight years.  There is a lot of humor in this one, but of course, there is also pain.  Life.

My dear friends who are also ACONs know I find there is no  mystery to writing poetry.  To me it is the distillation of life, of our experiences, and when we write close to the bone, it is raw, jagged, with little polish and perhaps it is then we are the most truthful.   Perhaps then the healing begins.   I find  it isn’t the ‘best’ of poetry, but healing is always messy, never in a straight line.  Just like therapy.  Our poems of  healing  reflect that liberty.

Lady Nyo




I knew the marriage was in trouble

when your mother dived under the table

to retrieve your fork.

You were 34.


I knew the marriage started off


when 3 months along a packed suitcase

stood in the closet

I never sure what to do, where to go.


That suitcase remained there

for 12 years.


You told me I was a piece of shit,

only good for bringing in money

paying the bills,

even your parents thought me dumb

in spite of maintaining a 4.0 in college

and working full time,

but that didn’t count because it was only

a community college.  I was still stupid.


I remember when you threw a kitten

off the balcony

and I told you I called the police,

and the look on your face told me

that I had you, that you were afraid.

I remember struggling with sheets of plywood

to stop a leaky roof on the second story

with high winds buffering me and the wood around,

high off the ground, my heart in my mouth

as you sat in a rocking chair in the back yard

surrounded by books,

shocking the neighbors

with your  shiftlessness.

They were glad to see the south end of you go.


But I didn’t follow the leads

and stupidly suffered while

you never worked  for the next 9 years.

You were the revolutionary,

I guess I was to be the dumb, grateful peasant.


But you left (when I had been hit by a car)

the month you graduated

(after trying to date my nurse in the hospital,

oh, what morals you had!)

and I was told by your parents

to put my education on hold

so you, as the “man” of the family, could get yours.

Of course they greased your leaving with

a sports car,

a Club Med vacation

a condo they paid for.

At middle age, you were still a boy,

had not become a man.  Have you ever?


You left me crippled, the heat turned off.

I almost starved,

neighbors put plates of food on the window ledge

and I wrapped myself in blankets with a stray puppy

that cold spring and we survived. Barely.


That was years ago, but I still remember the bad old days,

where I was nothing but disposable garbage,

something to be left behind with the bribes of your parents

and you were a ball of regrets to me.


Tomorrow my husband and I leave for Paris.

He insists I come, though it is a work trip,

for he wants me to see the Eiffel tower

see how straight it stands and how tall I’ve  grown.

He wants me to see Versailles

because I am his Queen.


Of course he is my King,

and you just a tattered memory

fading into the mists where you  always belonged.

Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2014

“Memories of a Rotten Childhood”, Chapter 2

May 27, 2011

Childhood Fears.....

Two or three years ago I started this memoir.  I was encouraged by a few really good writers, some of them professionals, to continue writing these memories from childhood. When we write about our past, if we are honest, it isn’t easy.  Childhood back them might seem ‘easier’ but the 50’s and 60’s had their own trauma.  Probably in part because there were few child/parent guidance books out there except for Dr. Spock, and my parents never read him.  I don’t know of many parents back then that did.  Perhaps life was safer for children then, but then again, we were just ‘weeds’ and expected to survive and grow with little attention.  Living in the countryside of rural New Jersey had its dangers, but except for falling through the ice and drowning or drowning in the rivers and canals, being thrown by horses, or falling off beams in big barns…there didn’t seem to be the ‘usual’…as in what we find now….of predators out there with us in their sites.  Of course these things happened, but not to us.   Not then. We didn’t have the padding or the helmets back then that our children now have.  So much has changed in our ideas about child-rearing.

I will rewrite all of these chapters later this year and try to make some sense of them.  Until I do, this chapter is for Margie.

Lady Nyo


On my ninth birthday during a bitterly cold January, my parents organized a party down by the river. The meadow had flooded the nights before, the water freezing, and the whole area was a skating rink.  My father made a bonfire and we roasted hotdogs on sticks.  Children were easy to please then. 

We all had second-hand hockey skates handed down from older brothers. Trying to skate around the stubble of the flooded and frozen meadow, we looked for a clearing of ice.  The morning was frigid but sunny, and the promise of a winter holiday so close after Christmas was a bonus.  My present from my parents was a pair of figure skates.  This is very funny to me now because I was the worse skater around. I had weak ankles and could never propel myself forward.  I spent most of the time on my backside, my legs sprawled out before me.

I will write about Laura in this piece. She was my nemesis from kintergarden to high school when we finally lost each other amongst the two thousand other students.  She tormented me all through grammar school. I still carry the scars on my hands where she scratched me.  Laura loved to hurt, catching my hands and ripping the tops to shreds, screwing up her mouth as she did so.   I looked at my hands the other night and thought fondly of Laura. She would have made a fine sadist. She’s dead now and death gives us a way to think better of the dead.

The birthday party was a flop. Laura, same age as me, started to cry, and wanted to go home.  She couldn’t stand it was my party and I was supposed to be the center of attention.  But it was a lousy party anyway; the sun came out, melting the ice on the meadow, and no one could skate anymore. We were shackled by heavy skates breaking through thin ice to the dried winter grasses below.  That was no fun at all.

Life was predictable with Laura.  I would enter a classroom and she would make farting noises. Walking down the hall, pressing my textbooks to my flat chest, she would stick out her leg and trip me.  All this didn’t seem to stop us from playing together at our houses, and I remember the one bathroom in their small house was papered with huge red roses on a black background.  I was fascinated by that wallpaper because it was strange, exotic,  and nothing my own mother would allow in our house. Mrs. H. fit the wallpaper: a black-haired woman with tight- waisted skirts and petticoats underneath and something I only recognized later as peasant blouses with elastic at the shoulders. She looked like a Gypsy and so did the roses on her bathroom wall:  a touch of the exotic in our beige New Jersey early 60’s life.   I was intrigued by a skirt she wore one Christmas: a red circular skirt with a large white poodle applied in felt.  It was beyond tacky, with a swinging white cord for the leash and a pompom tail sticking out in yarn.   I was horrified to open a present from a neighbor and find the exact skirt, this time in green, with the same damn poodle.  My mother made me wear that skirt all through the holidays.  The Gods work in funny holiday ways.

Laura was a talented pianist, banging away on an upright, playing the testosterone- driven  Tchaikovsky and other 19th century pieces that boys should be playing, not girls. I heard a neighbor whisper that to my mother during a school program. It wasn’t original to me: I knew nothing about testosterone back then.  Laura was also a talented artist, seemed to have a future, probably with a whip. She was a perfectionist and I think that may be one of the qualifications. I saw by the backs of my hands one of her budding talents. Too bad she didn’t live out her years: she had promise in many things.

I remember one day I got on the school bus after being laid low by the death of my horse.  I was weak from a week of crying non stop and fasting.  I walked to the back of the bus, pale with grief, and heard Laura say loudly:  “Well, now she can’t brag about her horse anymore.”

The hatred began in earnest.  I was standing in line in the hallway, and crying with her torment.  She was scratching my hands with her pointed little nails. I think she sharpened them with me in mind. With tears coursing down my cheeks, I slapped her, not so hard, tentatively across the face.  She slapped me back, harder, and to trump that, grabbed my hand, and bit hard.  More tears (mine) and ran from the line. I was such a wuss.

I think I cried all through fourth and fifth grade.  Then I learned disobedience got me attention, especially from Mr. Blessington, our teacher in fifth grade.  These were the years of corporal punishment.  Parents expected the teachers to ‘reform’ you and if you didn’t come home with punishment, the teachers weren’t doing their job.  The 60’s were a tough time for fannies and teachers. 

I would act out, and Mr. Blessington’s ears would open and his antenna would rise up on his head.  All in all he did let me pass on a lot of the back comments, but I pushed it, knowing what was coming.  A public spanking.  At first, I was mortified, enough to shut my mouth for a few weeks, but then the urge for attention and laughter was too great and I would do something he couldn’t ignore.  I can still remember the gleam in both of our eyes as I walked towards him, both of us knowing damn well what would happen.  He would make me lean up against his desk, and then slap me with his ruler over the fanny.  I would either bear it silently, or would cry with grief, depending on my mood and claim for sympathy. I got to go to the girl’s room and spend ten minutes collecting myself.  I spent ten minutes in a bathroom stall thinking of my sins and creating others and after a while, this became routine for both of us.  It was the spanker and the spankee living in a particular balance. 

Mr. Blessington was my teacher in sixth grade again, but by then my brother, one year behind me, had ratted on both of us, and Mr. Blessington never spanked me again.  A visit from my mother stopped all that.  By then I was a grown-up girl with other interests than being class clown.

Laura was still my tormentor, but she had her own issues at home.  Her little and prettier sister Alice for one.  For about five months she left me alone and I began to breathe easier. I wasn’t ever sure just what was going on with Laura and Alice, but I was glad for the breather.

One day, during the summer in this wide-spread farming community, there was a gathering of little girls at Laura’s house.  I was part of the party in the basement. Laura had a big collie named Prince, a beautiful ‘Lassie” dog, yellow and white and a corn field right outside the back yard that stretched for miles. I remember taking a corn cob and lip-synching pop songs from the radio.  Then we all ran amuck in the corn field, the stalks high over our heads.  I remember seeing a silver streak in the sky, and standing in awe of the sight. Of course it was a plane or a jet, and what I was seeing in that blue sky was the exhaust.  But at that age, I didn’t have any knowledge of such things.  It looked like an omen from God.  Perhaps it was, because one of the girls screamed and we ran towards the sound.  Prince, beautiful dog, had dropped dead in that cornfield.  We formed a cortege to carry his warm and lifeless body back to the house, wailing like a miniature Greek chorus.

Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2009, 2011

Why Do We Write? Part II

July 7, 2010

I’ll call this entry “Part II” because somewhere in the last two years of this blog, I vaguely remember writing “Part I”.

We have just come back from a short vacation in Savannah, Ga.  An elderly relative just celebrated her 90th birthday, and this was something we couldn’t have missed.  Funny, the weather down there was around 81 degrees, while the weather we left here in Atlanta was 95 plus.  Back again, it’s 95 with a projection of 98 tomorrow.

While I was away I had a lot of time just to think, and NOT to write.  And that brings me to this issue of why we write.  That is, those of us who have fallen into the pit of thinking we are writers or actually publishing our works.

Being around family, and a family that is not supportive of my writing (except some of the poetry that is ‘nice’)…made me think of the obstacles one faces as one tries to develop into a writer.  To say  they aren’t supportive of my writing is probably an understatement:  my first book, “A Seasoning of Lust” was  full of erotica.  I am sure they would have seen it (if they read it) as a ticket to their particular Hell.    Fortunately, I have become tougher than to bow to their particular literary standard.

But this is just one aspect of what we stumble across when we decide that perhaps we are writers.  For a number of years, I was on an erotica site, learning some basics of writing and how to critique other writing.  It was a necessary step and a good one, but it also limited my choices as a writer.  I had to sum up some of the influences there, and there were quite a lot of things to sum up.  Some writers were hacks.  Some wrote horrific extreme bdsm works that fed their own sexual urges, some wrote some good and expansive erotica.  But it all was tailored to erotica, and if you hankered for something broader, different…well, you had to leave or adjust your interests.

I left.  I left after a few years, but there are writers there I remember fondly and with good reason.  But in a way, erotica is a trap.  Perhaps we grow out of the theme, realize there is more to writing and life than our genitals.  Or other people’s genitals.

There are a couple of friends there still that seem frozen in place.  They are wonderful writers, and they learned a lot from that particular site.  But they write the same things over and over, or perhaps with some nuances of difference, but come on….how many different ways can you describe the ‘act’?  Of course, the best there do so much more….layer this particular theme with other parts of interest, but in a way…at least to me….they could be doing more with their writing.

One fellow in particular has developed to such a level that his writing is generally praised.  But it’s preaching to the choir there, and unless he finds the courage to strike out and take himself more seriously….he will short change his writing.  He knows this, but for some damn reason, he doesn’t see just how good he is as a writer.  He goes far beyond a writer of erotica.  Or could.

I have no real answer as to “Why do we write?”.  I barely know why I do.  But over the years, I have realized it is an art form that allows me a lot of expression and freedom.  It has also pushed me into a maturity that I don’t think I would have come to without this form.  And I have gained a lot of confidence with my writing.

I don’t suffer fools silently anymore.  I use my words…and some of them bad ones.

I’m working on two manuscripts this summer.  “White Cranes of Heaven” which is purely poetry, and “Memories of a Rotten Childhood”, which are mostly funny and poignant stories that are close to the bone.  Bill Penrose, the wonderful man and writer who does the production on my previous two books, told me something early on when I first met him:  “Write with an eye to the truth of it all, and damn the naysayers.” I don’t think one could get better advice for a new and wobbly writer.

“Memories of a Rotten Childhood” will not sit well with my birth family.  Tough.  They don’t read my books anyway.  But they are good fodder for the memories because they were part of the mix, and I am following what Bill said.  They will recognize themselves because it can’t be helped.  They were part of the building blocks of childhood.

Being ‘truthful’ to your experience is important:  you are weaving stories of memorance, and in some cases, they will strike a resonance with others.  That has impact because drawing those lines to each other makes for a stab at our collective humanity.

Maturing in any case means breaking other’s concepts about you.   You take chances but honor  the vision you have or are developing, whether it’s of the past or the present. You begin to embrace your values and realize they were part of the process of becoming independent.

In any case, it’s relying on your own developing standards and finding the courage to ignore those who would shut you up.  Perhaps we write because it gives us voice in a particular way.

Lady Nyo

From the wip:  “White Cranes of Heaven”, to be published 2011.


The moon sits moored

In a midnight sea,

Clouds sweep her face

Shading a pale, wavering beacon

As she tugs at her moorings

And floats

Across the upended bowl of Heaven-

Into the harbor of dawn.

Jane Kohut-Bartels

September, 2009

“Bob Dylan and Me”, From “Memories of a Rotten Childhood”…..Happy 4th of July!

July 1, 2010

A few years ago, I started writing  a piece that was only to be a very short story, but it expanded into multiple chapters.  That was “Memories of a Rotten Childhood”, which were basically funny stories of growing up in rural New Jersey a long time ago.  The cast of characters were real people; neighbors, childhood playmates, parents and people that crossed our crooked paths.

A few writer friends told me that “Rotten” didn’t sound too bad, considering their own childhoods, and I thought of changing the title of this (now) developing book, but I usually fly by the seat of my pants on these things and I haven’t come up with a better title yet.

There is a lot of ‘rotten’ in our childhoods:  parents, relatives die, beloved animals die, scary adults with the twist of a word impact our thoughts and memories…..trauma abounds in childhood.  All of us go through  something of ‘rotten’, and we don’t have the discernment and distance until we are well into adulthood to figure it all out.  Of course, adulthood compounds the issues.

Such is life.

I don’t consider myself a humorous writer, but rereading some of these chapters, I laughed out loud.  Perhaps I was laughing in embarrassment, leavened with shame, because childhood is an awkward journey, and anyone who denies the humiliation of this particular period in their own lives is a liar.  Or has very selective memory.

Or Alzheimers.

Lady Nyo


I was fifteen years old and not cool.

Fifteen was after dolls, during horses, and way before boys.  I was a slow learner, combined with a timid manner and a few pimples.  My parents were no help, they were off fighting the war called marriage. We three kids were on the battlefield, carrying water to each side.

At fifteen I was barely holding on to daylight.  Life was getting complicated and I was in a permanent daydream. Now, forty years later, I understand all this was the natural process of growing up.  Then it was just massive confusion with a good dose of shame to leaven it all.

On top of this there wasn’t any real guidelines for parents back then.  No Dr. Spock or if he was around, my parents certainly didn’t read him.  Most fathers back then were WWII  veterans  and had their own view on childhood trauma. Fully half the men in my father’s B-24 squadron were under twenty. Babies flying bathtubs.  “Buck up and take it like a man”, “wrap a rag around it, it’ll stop bleeding” was what most of us heard from our fathers, and the mothers just looked away and dropped another Miltown.

I’m not much of a better parent today, just with more guilt.  Genes hold like superglue.

I remember a few rather ‘beat’ parties at our house, where my mother and father would serve white wines and people would sit on the wide plank pine floors. Each year Halloween masquerades for the adults, my mother in fishnet stockings, stiletto heels, a ballet leotard, and for some reason, cat ears on the top of her head.  I must have been pretty young, because my nursery was set up in the future upstairs bathroom.  I remember her leaning over me and the smell of Woodhue floating off her into my mouth as she kissed me good night.  Must have been some party, because I heard her complain chillingly to my father that he had ‘slipped her a Mickey.’  Apparently she had vomited in the one of the four fireplaces downstairs, and blamed my father for her drunkenness.  My mother never got drunk, so this memory remains strong of my childhood.  These things stick because they are the few times I got noticed. Maybe it’s something sensory with the perfume, but I don’t really know.

I also remember the concrete divisions between adults and children.  There was none of today’s behavior asking kids their opinions around the dinner table.  We didn’t have any. We were trying to swim through the deep waters of childhood and adult issues generally elicited a groan of having to think hard, something we only attempted in math.

High school, sometimes for all four years, was brutal.  Too big, too many stairs and too much distraction complete with cynical teachers who should have retired but were hanging on. Where else could they abuse the unworthy?  They were addicted to the power,  while we, their slaves, went under the wire.  The natural order of life back then.  The time of “squat and hug your knees”, the threat of Commies dropping bombs on our baseball fields- all good training for life.

I had a girlfriend in my sophomore year. I can’t remember her name, but except for getting two tickets to the Bob Dylan concert in McCarter Theater at Princeton University, she was unmemorable. I’ll call her Gloria for this story.

We had no idea who Bob Dylan was except for posters glued to walls calling him a  New York Folk Singer.   Both of us were in band or orchestra, depending upon the need of the teacher.  Violin and clarinet were our only forms of music back then.  Radios were tuned by my parents to classical or their big band music.  In fact, the only time I can remember listening to radio was on a Saturday night, when my brothers and I would listen to WOR in New York, and the crazy dj would try to scare us with stories about the Jersey Pine Barren Devil. Can’t remember his or the Devil’s proper names, though.

So Gloria somehow gets two tickets to a Bob Dylan concert.  We, at fifteen, decide our Sunday best would be appropriate. It’s a concert after all, and this signals dress up. On the afternoon before the event, we curled and sprayed and flipped our hair, put on white dresses with pearls and our white low heeled Sunday shoes and went to McCarter Theater.  I don’t remember much about it, except they set up the stage with chairs, right behind Dylan, for the overflow of audience.  Somebody thought it cute to put the two strange girls in matching white dresses right behind the singer.  I remember sitting there very primly, our hands crossed in our laps, trying to take it all in, watching his ass.

The stage lights of course were glaring in our eyes, and drunken frat boys yelling, “Hey! Bobby! Play Blowing in the Wind!”  “Hey, Bobby, get some singing lessons!” “Hey, Bob, …..”  A couple of cans of something were thrown on the stage, probably beer.

I remember Dylan looking mystified as he turned and looked behind him.  I didn’t know the word then, but now I would say his thoughts were clearly: “What the fuck?”  Each time he turned we would beam and clap. He would bow.  We were his own cheering section as the cans of soda and beer came hurling from the balcony.

As I write this, I am laughing but there is also embarrassment I was such a hick.  I got cooler as the 60s progressed.


Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted 2009

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