I am writing this introduction with an eye to how my life experiences have shaped me into the person I am today, and how that has lead me to where I am now. I am skipping over the details of the bad, not because I wish to hide it, but because it is not solely my story to tell. I will reflect on how my situation in life affected me, but I will keep out the specific details that are not solely related to myself. I am not writing this to lay blame or cause harm, but simply to show my path and maybe help others. So this is your warning, I will mention cutting and my struggle with it. I will not go into detail and have only mentioned it because it felt wrong not to. It is a big part of my story and my current mindset and evolving world-view.
For the first 9 years of my life, I lived on a farm with my mom, dad, and 2 older brothers in the western part of New York state. Our house was a few miles from a small town in the heart of Amish Country. Those years shaped my love of nature, growing things, the changing of the seasons, and animals of all varieties.
From the time I was 2 or so my dad started working at home on his taxidermy business full-time, after being a butcher in a supermarket for nearly 20 years.
My brothers were older than me, so they were in school and my mom had returned to work to help support my dad's venture. She was previously a stay at home mom, and my parents where what my dad called 'back to the earth hippies' where everything was from the earth and organic, before organic was a thing. This was in the 1970's, so when I was born at the start of the 1980's and mom was working outside the house, this 'back to the earth thing' was toned down. We still had a huge garden and mostly organic food, but my brothers loudly complained I was allowed to have pop and pizza (both of which I never liked, evil tomatoes) when they were never allowed at the same age.
I spent a lot of time with my dad, watching him at his work and playing outside by myself. I loved how he would transform a dead animal into a work of art. He truly was an artist. He even did side work for other taxidermists because he was so skilled at his craft, and he won a few awards for different displays he created.
It was not a morbid thing in our house. We joked about how other people viewed it, but to us it was just a job dad did and other people thought it was weird. These same people, or at least their dad's, showed up every year with their prize buck, fish, turkey or what-not for my dad to mount and hang on their walls at home. Most everyone in our community hunted every year in order to provide food over the winter and keep the animal populations healthy.
This meant I was lucky to have venison more often than pork or beef, along with other wild game and fish. My parents also breed and trained coonhounds for hunting and competitions before I was born. My father still kept a few dogs when I was little but I don't remember the shows or their night hunting trips.
I do remember going to the county fairs and gun shows with my dad. He would have great displays of his taxidermy work and try to get more business. I use to make sure no one poked the eggs that were a part of the snapping turtle display. Kids were always trying to touch them despite the sign telling them not to. Even though I was extremely shy growing up, I would always point to the sign so they would stop their destruction.
We also went up to Canada for summer vacation every year. My dad would go up during hunting season to help with guiding for a few weeks, and then we would go in the summer as a family in exchange for his labour. It was a lot of fun, but very primitive. I loved swimming in the lake, until I discovered the leaches. I still liked to fish and play on the dock but stayed out of the water. It was fun having no electricity for a short time. My mom taught me how to play solitaire one year, and we would eat fresh fish every night that my dad and brothers caught out on the lake. The black flies are an absolute nightmare though, and you would itch for days after getting home.
For me the memories of living in that house in the country centre around my time outside, playing, eating, and exploring. We had an abundance of fruit trees, and always a large garden full vegetables. The winters in WNY are long, cold, and hard. I always enjoyed the winters, they always felt magical to me, and some of my best memories are of my mom and I walking in the snow while everything twinkled with frost, and sitting by a mostly frozen creek listing to the snow sizzle as it landed on the ground.
The Great Lakes being to the north and west meant that snow fall was heavy and could last up to 6 to 9 months. I used to love snow days, playing in the snow adds a bit of safety to your play. You could go sledding down a huge hill, fly off your sled and be okay after landing in some snow. Getting all bundled up and staying outside until you couldn't feel your toes, and then having hot chocolate inside was great growing up. The farm we lived on was over 100 years old when my parent bought it so it had well established flowers and trees that my parents improved on. It also came with over 100 acres of swamp. It was protected land so it wasn't workable as a farm, but it provided some of the most magical places to visit. There was a pond in the woods across the road that would freeze over in the winter, I never tried to ice glide like my brothers did, but it was a beautiful place in every season. My foot went through the ice at the edge once and scared me away. (Getting trapped under ice? Hell no, I am not taking the chance!) I will admit that driving in the snow to work and shovelling a driveway are super annoying, but for me the silence and magic that comes with winter is worth the work of making it through. All this means that the dawning of spring is especially welcome for those in the rust belt.
The first part of spring is full of rain, 'April showers bring May flowers' is very true for that part of the world. The rain would make all the snow muddy, and the freezing nights would make everything a pain for a few weeks. But as the ground begins to thaw, the crocuses come up and not long after that the daffodils. I would wait for them to bloom every year because that meant that my favourite tulip would soon be up. (Yes, I had one favourite tulip it was a very deep purple which is my favourite colour, and there was only one, it grew in a ditch). Then the lilacs would bloom and smell so sweet and I knew that the rhubarb would be growing ripe soon. My mom would make the most amazing rhubarb pie and sauce, and I would pull a stalk while outside to chew on raw, I love sour things. I learned so much from her about cooking, baking and gardening. As spring would turn to summer, I remember lying in the grass next to the natural spring which supplied our water, watching the snails poke their little ante and eyes out. They were my first friends, I would also pick grass for the neighbours cows and feed it to them through the fence. I remember being so mad at my dad once for calling cows dumb animals, that I loudly proclaimed, 'They are not dumb! They are sweet, and have the most beautiful eyes!'
Summer was full of snacking on fruit and waiting for the vegetables to ripen. I would always pull a few unripe carrots because of my impatience to have one fresh from the ground. My mom would make the best pickles from the cucumbers. I remember sitting on the porch shucking peas. I would always get in trouble for eating too many raw (they were so sweet), and not leaving enough for dinner. Then the neighbours would have sweat corn ready to sell, and we would have bar-b-q's outside. I remember watching a praying mantis egg sack all summer waiting for it to hatch, and searching for shelf mushrooms that I could draw on and keep. The peepers (small frogs) would peep away all night, and lull you to sleep. There were amazing thunderstorms that would roll over the swamp creating wonderful light shows we would watch from the porch. At twilight the bats would emerge from their home which was next to the chimney above the porch. They would sweep and dive after all the bugs while fireflies would blink in the distance. The blueberry bush would start to produce fruit and the crap apples would come out. My mom use to warn me about eating too many, but I always loved their sourness. We had a cherry tree for a while that was so nice to get fresh cherries from, but then it got hit by lighting twice and dad decide it should come down before it fell on the house. The blackberries, raspberries, and elderberries provided excellent snacking and my mom would make even more pies. We had a pear tree and two apples trees that always provided more than enough fruit and made mowing the lawn a pain. I remember having to pick up all the nearly rotten fruit off the ground before one of my brothers used the lawn mower. Running over fruit, dulling the blade and making a mess, were a sure way to make dad mad. For me the signal for the end of summer was when the one bush of grapes would begin to ripen. The grapes were never good. They must have been meant for wine by the previous owners, and my parents never ventured into that.
As the season changed, school would start back up. I have always loved to learn new things, but school was hard for me. I was shy, never had many friends, and people thought I was weird. (Having a taxidermist as a father didn't help). I got on much better with my snail friends, so they probably had a point. At school I paid attention and got good grades, but I was really just waiting to get home and back outside. As autumn started, it always felt like one day I would wake up and the air would smell crisp and the leaves would have change colours overnight. I love the autumn and everything about it. After the heat of summer (which I have never, and still do not like) finally wearing your favourite sweater, drinking apple cider from the local mill, hay rides, Halloween, and pumpkins, plus snow is not far away. The colours of autumn are intense in WNY and all the smells and tastes are part of the magic of autumn.
Before my mom went to work outside the house my parents had raised sheep. My mom would use a foot peddle spinning wheel to make yarn from the wool. I have a few memories of feeding lambs, running from sheep, and the sound of the wheel. Once the sheep where gone, my mom would cross stitch in the evenings if she had time. I use to love to watch her, and I would be amazed at how she would magically create an image out of thread and some paper that made no sense to me. When I was 7 I tried to figure out how to make one of her kits I found in her sewing basket. It was a little rainy day scene and I wish I still had it. After trying to understand the instructions and failing, I asked her to show me. She walked me through everything and I tried my best. When it was finished she hung it up on the wall, and I was so proud. This is also where I learned the importance of keeping your crosses going the same way. I didn't understand this and my crosses where all over the place, and it really did make it look messy. I continued stitching with my mom, and we always made Christmas decorations for the tree every year.
I'm not saying this time was perfect. My parents didn't fight in front of us, but they also didn't talk much. My older brothers treated me much as you would expect them to treat a younger sister. I spent a lot of time alone or being bullied, but I loved being outside on our little farm so I was mostly happy. When I was 9 my parents divorced and my mom and us three kids moved into town. I hated it and always wished to move back to the country. Because mom was renting we ended up moving a lot as properties sold or she had to live in town for her job. A few months after my parents divorce my maternal grandma started getting sicker.
Grandma was in her late 80's at this time, and we were really close. I would spend the weekends with her some times. She taught me how to make scrabbled eggs, and always had my favourite cookies and sweets. She was a cool grandma, she stayed up late, slept in, and had salt on her pizza. She wasn't suppose to have too much salt, but she would always say to my mom, 'If I'm going to die, I'm going to die with salt on my pizza.' I loved her so much and was crushed when she died a few months later. I don't know how my mom got through that time, losing her husband and mother in less than 6 months, but she did and she showed me how to be strong. We use to visit grandma's grave every year and plant flowers. It is a beautiful place on the boarder of NY and PA full of tall trees and surrounded by farms. She use to encourage me to talk about grandma and how much I loved her, she said the memories meant she was never gone.
Mom didn't have much free time for stitching after my parents divorced, she worked 3 jobs sometimes to survive and support us kids. She continued to be an avid reader of science fiction books which she also passed on to me. She would read at least 3 books a week and had a huge library. She taught me to read when I was 4 and I use to ride my bike to the library during the summer to get stacks of books to take home. I would have lunch with my mom at the local cafe, where I would always add up the bill, calculate the tax, and tip to the last penny. I have always loved math and numbers, there is always a right answer and you can work backwards to prove yourself right or wrong. We continued this tradition for years, as long as I could make it to town for lunch. We lived in one place that was too far away for a year, and to my shame I missed a few when I was 14 because I overslept. My mom was so supportive and loving to us ,and always encouraged me to have hobbies. She was my soccer coach when I was very little even though I didn't really play well. I started played basketball at 11. My mom was at every game, even the away ones.
Mom always stressed the importance of finishing what you start, trying as hard as you can at whatever task you are doing, that you can do anything if you put your mind to it, and how important education is. My mom's job was for the town and village and she worked really hard to learn everything she needed to be great at her job. I once went with my mom to a meeting she had about work and waited in the car. I don't know the details, but she was so upset when she got back to the car. She said to me, 'Casey, no matter what, make sure you get an education. It is the only thing they can't take away from you.' My mom never had the chance to go to college and she dreamed of giving us the chances she never had. This has always stuck with me, she was so right and it isn't about the degrees or what you major in, it is about learning how to think critically, to understand how ideas are formed, and to train yourself to think.
My dad was in and out of my life in the years after their divorce, he moved to Florida a few times. I still loved my dad, but I became much closer to my mom. My mom and I had movie nights every weekend, and long talks about anything and everything including religion, philosophy, sci-fi, and even time travel. My parents remained friends for the sake of us, and my mom never spoke ill of my dad, but he missed a lot of my life in that time and we were not as close as when I was very small. I spent every-other weekend with him when he lived close by, but he was struggling with the divorce, despite briefly remarrying.
My mom died two days before Valentine's Day in February of 1997 when I was 14, and my life changed completely. I changed completely, and so did my dad and my brothers. It broke us all to lose such a strong, kind, loving, intelligent person that was ultimately our guiding light. It has been over 20 years and I still think of her every single day, and I cry as I write this because although the pain becomes bearable, it never becomes less. I will always remember the way my heart broke when I heard my brother knock on my dad's door at 3 am to tell us that mom was dead, I wasn't going back home, and life had forever changed. The absolute agony of knowing I would never seeing the most beautiful and caring person in my life ever again was devastating. It was a sudden loss. She was ill for a short time, and only in the hospital for 3 days. I visited her there twice, and she was suppose to be home the next day but she died in her sleep of cancer. She was sparred a long battle, for which I am grateful, but I had her so short a time, it wasn't enough.
The final 3 years of high school were not easy to say the least. I had problems, and my dad had problems. I quit basketball, but this is where I will skip the details. I don't want to talk ill of my dad, who died in 2013 and can't speak for himself. I'm sure he tried as hard as he could and he did love me, but he was lost without my mom and had no idea how to help a teenage girl. It was hell, I coped by cutting. It was my way of making my mental pain, which I had no idea how to deal with, into physical pain that could be tended and healed. I was addicted to this coping mechanism for way too long, but it did get me through alive. I also used art, specifically painting and photography to cope. I had an amazing art teacher that use to let me spend all my free time creating. I was still really good at math and loved to escape through reading. I didn't stitch much in this time because it made me think about my mom too much. I dreamed of being a landscape photographer like Ansell Adams or working for National Geographic.
I moved out of my dad's a few months before I finished high school. This meant I was driving into school everyday, but I was determined to make my mom proud. (probably a lot of wanting to prove my dad wrong as well). I graduated high school with a regents diploma that my mom always wanted my brothers to get but they never made it past the math requirement. I almost didn't make it since I was terrible at Spanish, but I found a way to substitute art, and achieve something my mom would have been proud of. I then went to the local community college for art for a semester. I loved it, but was worried about money and the future, and I let my dad talk me into switching to accounting since I was so good at math. I transferred to a business college and completed my degree in less then 2 years.
I didn't love accounting, I liked the numbers, but felt a bit of a fraud. My first accounting job was so boring, and my boss took advantage of my hard work and knowledge to get me doing her work and then taking credit for it. I don't like business, earning money for the sake of more money, and accounting is just keeping track of all the money. I knew I had to find something else.
I worked a few different jobs, sometimes 3 at once and saved up enough money to go back to college. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do so I started out with history. I love learning about history, but my memory for dates and names is appalling. This is when I discovered anthropology and fell in love with learning about different cultures. I took all of the anthropology courses that the college offered, along with some literature, philosophy and history and graduated in less than 2 years with a perfect GPA. My next step was to find a university that offered anthropology. I had wild a dream of being a primatologist one day like Dian Fossey, but thought I could at least get a job with a museum or such. The problem was I lived in WNY and the economy was not doing great, and the closest universities where in Buffalo. There was no way I was moving to a big city so I worked and saved again. Two years later I moved to South Carolina, and got a really great accounting job making nearly 3 times as much as I had in NY for a very similar job.
This was also the time when I started stitching a lot, and finally learned how to cope with life without cutting. I'm not going into details but it required a validation and revelation. If anyone reading this struggles with self harm and would like to know more of my story please contact me. I don't mind sharing in order to help others, but I'm not comfortable putting it all online. I also started working on my family tree at this time, and discovering more about my ancestors. Including my great grandmother Agnes Cogle from Shetland. I worked for a little over a year, saving and then moved to Virginia in order to attend Sweet Briar College for my Bachelor's degree in Anthropology.
I really enjoyed my classes at SBC, and learned so much about anthropology, art, literature, philosophy, and even fencing and hiking in the blue ridge mountains. I was nearly 10 years older than the other students and lived off campus, so I missed out on most of the extracurricular stuff, but I'm also still too shy for that kind of thing, so it worked out. All of my professors where great, and the library was a dream as was the campus. I really thought I was on my way to being an actual anthropologist. I started at SBC in 2008. We all know what happened to the economy that year. Because I couldn't find a part-time accounting job or any other job for that matter the whole two years I was in VA, I lost my car and it was really hard to commute. It was not easy, but I got through it, and graduated despite my struggles with Italian. The class I was best at was ethnology. I observed and interviewed a guy that worked at the campus cafe and wrote a paper on my observations that my professor was really impressed by. I think being quiet my whole life has shaped me into an excellent observer along with being a good listener and easy to talk with. But I still wanted to work with primates and learn how their minds were similar and different to ours.
I applied to graduate school for primatology but never got in because of my GRE scores (I have, and will always be, horrible at spelling despite having a large vocabulary. I think it comes from learning by reading.) and my lack of biology coursework. It didn't matter that I wanted to be a behavioural primatologist not a biological one. This meant I was back in SC working as an accountant. I did finally end up back in the country, and had animals to care for, but I felt trapped.
I didn't like the heat of the south and missed the dramatic changing of the seasons of the north. So I worked a lot and saved up money. I exercised and ate healthy and really tried to take care of myself. I discovered my love of Scottish Highland Games and Scottish music at this time thanks to all the local festivals. I had always loved bagpipes but Albannach and other bands showed me the wonder of drums and pipes. This is where my story moves towards Scotland and will continue in part two here.
Until next time. Joyous stitching!