COMBS: Hazard–A Sister’s Flight From Family and a Broken Boy
An Interview with Margaret Combs
To read Margaret Combs’s moving and fascinating memoir is to enter a world that had not yet developed support for families with developmentally disabled children, an era that fostered ignorance and shame.
In the early 1950s Combs’s parents escaped the harsh reality of Kentucky coal country whose industry was already in decline and moved to Colorado where Combs’s father worked in the aviation industry. Combs’s idyllic childhood, shared with her older sister, ruptured when her younger brother Roddy was born in 1957 with severe autism, something for which there was scant understanding among family doctors and teachers.
By the time Roddy reached school age, Combs writes: “My mother had already sensed what would prove true: his new school would utterly fail him…he would backslide…wetting his pants and refusing to get dressed. Mama would finally discover halfway through the year that he’d been parked in a class for deaf children.”
Combs had a single goal, to escape from her family and create a new and different life for herself. What she discovers along the way and eloquently shares within the pages of Hazard makes for a compelling memoir. Her route out is through her talent as a gymnast, a gift that would cause pain and injury, but also provide transcendence.
“For a few split seconds I hovered in air, feathered and weightless. The floor was miles below me, my feet exactly where they should be. I had gained back my loft and all of my parts and limbs were flying together. This time, when I touched down, the joy and applause from the audience belonged to me…”
Wild River Review: Among the many threads in Hazard, is the story of your mother and father’s childhood in Kentucky and the collapse of the coal industry in 1930. The sense that to better oneself, you had to leave. Your book made me think of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy in that your mother and father, but particularly your mother, experienced the world through shame, which affected how she/they parented your brother Roddy. Was that difficult to write about?
Combs: Definitely. Shame is one of those elusive emotions so embedded in the unspoken dynamics of family and society that it is nearly impossible to detect, let alone articulate. Similar to J.D. Vance in Hillbilly Elegy, I came to know shame was present in my family, but not because I had heard this out loud. I did not grow up in my parent’s era, or in the Deep South, and yet the shame my parents carried from their upbringing in poverty, in the Appalachian hills, and in a town that linked birth defects to incestuous behavior seeped into me as a child.
It was made manifest by the severity of my parents’ strict rules and disciplinary actions – there was no room for deviating from the rules or straying from the path. My grandparents on both sides were hard working and proud, who very much wanted their children to escape the hard parts of a coal mining, hillbilly, dirt-farming life. According to them, that path lay in virtue and prayer and they modeled that behavior. (Unlike J.D.’s grandmother, mine was strictly church going and did not utter the ‘Lord’s name in vain’; my grandparents did not drink or swear; but similarly they were on a mission to propel their children, and grandchildren, into a life outside of what they had known.)
In my grandparents’ families, both of which had 13-plus children, they saw what alcohol did to a father and a family, and how sexual behavior ruined girls’ lives. My maternal grandmother was deeply ashamed by her father’s alcoholism and his tragic death, and my mother took that into her bones. I’m certain that was entangled in the shame of a retarded child in the family. When my brother was finally diagnosed, my mother wondered for a long time what she had done wrong – whether she had eaten the wrong foods, or taken too much vitamin D, or was simply a bad mother, which was a popular assumption at the time. In the end, she yielded to the idea that this was God’s plan all along, something she wasn’t meant to question or to make sense of.
Wild River Review: I remember growing up in a neighborhood where one of the kids had mental retardation. He was part of the fabric but always a curiosity. How did you deal with the reaction of other children?
Combs: In some situations, I pretended not to notice – in other words, my response was to distance myself from the reaction of people around me. As I became a bit older I tended to put on my boxing gloves and deal with the whole range of reactions – from unabashed gawking to cruel bullying – with an in-your-face anger. In my chapter “Put ‘Em Up Boys”, I charge headlong into a circle of boys who have cornered my brother and fiercely protect him by insulting the biggest bully. Those situations were much easier for me than when I was with my mother in restaurants or stores, or anywhere really, and people would whisper, stare, and look away. In those subtle, semi-polite situations, I was conscious of my mother’s feelings, so I retreated into myself and pretended not to notice the stares, rather than cause a scene.
Wild River Review: Your mother’s voice is so very clear. How did you capture her? And secondly, for children who have disabled siblings, the desire for our parents’ attention becomes acute. What does that mean to you now?
Combs: My mother’s voice is vivid in my head, partly because she has a southern accent, and partly because she tends to use southern colloquialisms, such as “For crying out loud in a bucket” or “Law sakes.” Because my mother was a homemaker, she was home all of the time, and I spent a lot of time with her in the car going to doctor’s clinics for my brother, so her mannerisms and emotional reactions were quite deeply imprinted in my early memories. My desire for her attention was not present as a young child – she was upset a lot and I preferred not to have her attention turn to me; for her to notice me usually meant I was to be scolded and punished.
In my chapter “Monkey Bird”, I describe that feeling of wanting to stay out of the line of fire, to not make noise and cause more upset. It was later in life that I yearned for my mother’s attention, when I was a young adult and wanted to have a simple cup of coffee with her, to talk with her about marriage and grown up things that were baffling to me. But by then, she had two other young children as well as my brother, who still needed looking after, and she couldn’t “get away”, physically or emotionally.
One of the most frustrating things about being the sibling of a disabled brother or sister is to yearn for my parents’ attention but also know I was selfish for wanting it; my brother needed and deserved it more. My chapter “Losing It”, which I wrote very late in the process, is when I finally let that frustration and sadness show up on the page.
Wild River Review: Your parents were very religious. How did their faith help them cope with your brother’s disability?
Combs: For my mother, her Baptist faith was both her strength and solace. The way she held herself together was through prayer and devotion to the church. My father was not as devout in the early years – he wanted to fly model airplanes on the weekends and, to my mother’s deep disappointment, he was not often with us in church. As our lives went forward, however, my father began attending more often, and eventually became a deacon in the church.
Without her faith, I’m not sure my mother would have made it through in one piece – she needed to put her troubles in the hands of Jesus and to believe this was somehow God’s plan. Otherwise, it was just too baffling and sad. The church was also her social life and her musical outlet – the one place she could take my brother and leave him in the nursery while she had an hour to sing in the choir, often as a soloist. She had a beautiful singing voice and at one time dreamed of being a musician, so the church not only gave her a safety net but a chance to shine.
Unfortunately, even this sanctuary failed her: a number of small scandals within the congregation caused her to stop attending church when I was a teenager. It wouldn’t be until my youngest sister and brother came along that she would change to another church and renew her devotion.
Wild River Review: In the first half of Hazard, you shift between Colorado where you and your siblings were raised and Kentucky, which you visited. You escaped to New England, your parents moved with Roddy and your younger siblings to Florida, and you now live in the Pacific Northwest. Where do you consider home?
Combs: My home is where I am now, which happens to be on an island in the Salish Sea, near my older sister, Barbara Ann, and other members of my extended family. As I allude to in the book, I am most centered in nature, particularly among trees, ragged peaks, and water. Nature is where I feel most at home. After years of racing around in urban cities, I have learned to make sure I’m near a place where I can walk and feel the forces of weather on my skin and the earth through my shoes. It is essential to my life as a writer: when I’m outside in nature my mind stops racing and drops to a deeper channel, a frequency where I can hear what needs to be said. In memoir writing, you have what is called a mature narrator, the one who has lived long enough to have insight and perspective and can step into a scene of your childhood and add the wisdom that you did not have as a child. That is the voice I often hear when I am walking among giant cedars and hemlocks of the Pacific Northwest and it’s the voice the reader hears in my epilogue.
The other thing I’ve learned as I’ve shifted around the country is to not waste any time in making a living space my own – rather than yearn for some mythical house that I’ll occupy one day. I don’t quibble with the landlord or neighbor to improve the property – I go right ahead and plant flowers, paint railings, hang paintings, tend to the weeds, sweep the porch. It’s nourishing to care for the space in which you live and the more you care for the patch of land you’re resting on the deeper you are grounded in the present and within yourself. No matter how long I will live in one place, whether it is for one year or ten, my life is going to be happening, it’s not a rehearsal. At the beginning and end of the day, I want to love where I am and know that I am home.
Wild River Review: I was fascinated by your gymnastic career in grade school, high school and college. The pain you put yourself through and your desire for control to the point of injury. How was that related to your relationship with Roddy?
Combs: I know that part of me was naturally driven to achieve, and that would have been true even if I had not been born in a family with a disabled child. However, initial research about siblings of disabled children has shown that many adopt similar coping mechanisms: they tend to be perfectionists, extremely well behaved, not likely to act out or cause any fuss. They do not want to rock the boat any more than it is already rocking. This is definitely how I conducted myself, at least in early childhood through college.
Two chapters in my book focus on this aspect: In “Wings” I am a rising gymnastic star and for the first time realize I can make my mother happy by being a winner. Though I truly reveled in the sport, I also needed to keep achieving for my family, to balance what I felt as a pervasive sorrow and replace it with pride and joy. Later, in “Falling”, I’m in college and in chronic pain from years of training and competing, but cannot let go and just rest. Though I’m miserable, I’m willing to try any drug or healing method to keep going. By then, my team had become my family, the one that was exhilarating and joyful, and winning was so much a part of my identity I couldn’t fathom life without it. It terrified me.
Wild River Review: You move with your husband to his family home on Prince Edward Island. The marriage is not a happy one. There you encounter what seems to be a ghost? Was it real to you? What did the ghost signify?
Combs: I can’t say whether it was “real” or not; certainly not in the conventional sense. (By that I mean a transparent ghost, a la Disney’s Haunted House, or a droopy sheet floating around with skeletal features.) I don’t actually try to make that determination in the book, nor would I be able to now. What I can say with certainty is that I perceived and witnessed an animate energy. I was pregnant at the time and tended to have wild swings of chemistry, headaches, and dizziness, so they may have played a part; and being in that house aroused my imagination, the stories of who had lived there were vivid and often spoken of by neighbors, so it may have been a mixture of things coming together in that moment.
I know now that I was feeling myself disappear in the dynamics of my marriage, but was not willing to acknowledge at the time. So the ghostly figure may have been an inner omen, a foreboding that my marriage was doomed. It’s also entirely plausible that the apparition was the haunting fear that I would have a disabled child. As is often true with siblings of disabled children, I was acutely aware that things can go wrong and knew just how hard it is to raise a disabled child. That potential was very present with me – another emotional current humming at high frequency. All of these complexities are present in the ghost.
Wild River Review: One of the biggest challenges for parents and siblings of a disabled child is what happens to that child when his/her parents are no longer here. What happened to Roddy?
Combs: My brother just turned 60 years old this spring. He lives in a group home with three other men on the autism spectrum, near where my parents live in Orlando, Florida. The home, which my parents arranged for and set up thirty years ago, is staffed by a local special needs organization. Rod comes home to my parents’ house every weekend and on holidays and his birthday. I’m extremely fortunate that my parents are still living and able to care for my brother, although this will soon change: my mother is in her upper eighties and my dad is 92. So as siblings we have begun talking about what we will do after my parents are gone.
My youngest sister and her husband, who are currently in Orlando, have taken over as Rod’s official guardians, meaning they must fill out exhaustive government forms about his welfare and expenses. We’re still working out what it looks like for all of us to share the responsibility for his care into the future.
Wild River Review: How long did it take to write Hazard? And does Roddy know you wrote the book?
Combs: If I go back to the beginning, I’d have to say it took ten years to write this book. I started with a box full of journals that I had been keeping for several decades, and took a whole summer to go through them, page by page, marking recurring themes with different colored tabs. My brother’s tab was red, and once I’d finished, I saw red running through all of the journals – it was a prevailing color and my first physical evidence that I carried him with me to that extent.
I took those episodes and transcribed them into a long word document and that is what I first took to my writers’ group. Some of those one- to ten-sentence episodes grew into chapters, others into flashbacks that deepened the chapters. I couldn’t have written this story without those journals or without the valuable feedback from a circle of trusted writers. I did not finish writing the last chapter until the final stage of editing with my editor Olga Greco, at Skyhorse Publishing. It became clear from her questions that an important chapter was still missing, which became chapter three, “Back Seat.” So, I was generating new material nearly all the way up to the point of publication.
I have told my brother about the book, but I’m not certain he understands exactly what that means. He can read simple sentences, such as those in a birthday card, but cannot manage the density of a book. When I visited him this spring, I sat with him and talked about some of the memories in the book, such as his marble chute and passion for coloring books, and we looked at the book cover together, which is a family photo from very early on in our childhood. He was able to name everyone in the photo, including himself, so it was a nice moment.
Wild River Review: What are you writing now?
Combs: Happily, I have begun something new, but in these early stages I have found it is a mistake to talk about a piece of writing before I’ve lived with it for a while and the story has had a chance to play out on the page. I can say with certainty that my next literary endeavor will not be about my family. They’ve earned a good long rest.
In 2006, Joy E. Stocke founded Wild River Review with Kimberly Nagy, an outgrowth of the literary magazine, The Bucks County Writer, of which Stocke was Editor in Chief. In 2009, as their editorial practice grew, Stocke and Nagy founded Wild River Consulting & Publishing, LLC.
With more than twenty-five years experience as a writer and journalist, Stocke works with many of the writers who appear in the pages of Wild River Review, as well as clients from around the world.
In addition, Stocke has shepherded numerous writers into print. She has interviewed Nobel Prize winners Orhan Pamuk and Muhammud Yunus, Pulitzer Prizewinner Paul Muldoon, Paul Holdengraber, host of LIVE from the NYPL; Roshi Joan Halifax, founder of Upaya Zen Center; anthropologist and expert on end of life care, Mary Catherine Bateson; Ivonne Baki, President of the Andean Parliament; and Templeton Prizewinner Freeman Dyson among others.
In 2006, along with Nagy, Stocke interviewed scientists and artists including former Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman and Dean of Faculty, David P. Dobkin for the documentary Quark Park, chronicling the creation of an award-winning park built on a vacant lot in the heart of Princeton, New Jersey; a park that united art, science and community.
She is president of the Board of Directors at the Cabo Pulmo Learning Center, Cabo Pulmo, Baja Sur, Mexico; and is a member of the Turkish Women’s International Network.
In addition, Stocke has written extensively about her travels in Greece and Turkey. Her memoir, Anatolian Days and Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey, Land of Dervishes, Goddesses & Saints, based on more than ten years of travel through Turkey, co-written with Angie Brenner was published in March 2012. Her cookbook, Tree of Life: Turkish Home Cooking will be published in March, 2017 by Quarto Books under the Burgess Lea Press imprint . Stocke and Brenner are currently testing recipes for a companion book, which will feature Anatolian-inspired mezes from around the world.
Stocke’s essay “Turkish American Food” appears in the 2nd edition of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America (OUP, 2013). The volume won both International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) for Beverage/Reference/Technical category, 2014; and the Gourmand Award for the Best Food Book of the Year, 2014.
She is the author of a bi-lingual book of poems, Cave of the Bear, translated into Greek by Lili Bita based on her travels in Western Crete, and is currently researching a book about the only hard-finger coral reef in Mexico on the Baja Sur Peninsula. She has been writing about environmental issues there since 2011.
A graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, with a Bachelor of Science in Broadcast Journalism from the Agriculture Journalism School where she also received a minor of Food Science, she participated in the Lindisfarne Symposium on The Evolution of Consciousness with cultural philosopher, poet and historian, William Irwin Thompson. In 2009, she became a Lindisfarne Fellow.
Works by Joy E. Stocke in this Edition
AIRMAIL – LETTERS FROM AROUND THE WORLD
AIRMAIL – VOICE FROM SYRIA
ARTS – ART
COLUMNS – THE MYSTIC PEN
FOOD & DRINK – ANATOLIAN KITCHEN
FREYMAN & PETERSON- Your Life is a Book: How to Craft and Publish Your Memoir
LITERATURE – BOOK REVIEWS
LITERATURE – ESSAYS
LITERATURE – MEMOIR
LITERATURE – POETRY
LIVE FROM THE NYPL
The Euphoria of Ignorance: Being Jewish, Becoming Jewish, The Paradox of Being Carlo Ginzburg
Fountain of Curiosity: Paul Holdengraber on Attention, Tension and Stretching the Limits of Conversation at the New York Public Library
Paul Holdengraber – The Afterlife of Conversation
2013 – Three Questions: Festival Director Jakab Orsos talks about Art, Bravery, and Sonia Sotomayor
Critical Minds, Social Revolution: Egyptian Activist Nawal El Saadawi
INTERVIEW – Laszlo Jakab Orsos: Written on Water
Tonight We Rest Here: An Interview with Poet Saadi Youssef
Georgian Writer David Dephy’s Second Skin
On the High Line: Diamonds on the Soles of Our Shoes
Car Bombs on the West Side, Journalists Uptown
New York City – Parade of Illuminations: Behind the Scenes with Festival Director Jakab Orsos
The Pen Cabaret 2008: Bowery Ballroom — Featuring..
Anatolian Days and Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey, Land of Dervishes, Goddesses and Saints
Daring Collaborations: Rolex and LIVE from the NYPL at the New York Public Library Composing a Further Life: with Mary Catherine Bateson
WRR@LARGE: From the Editors – UP THE CREEK
Up the Creek: Volume 1, Number 1
Up the Creek: Volume 1, Number 2.5
Up the Creek: Volume 1, Number 3.3
Up the Creek: Number 4.4
Up the Creek: Beautiful Solutions
Up the Creek: Blind Faith, July 2009
Up the Creek: Create Dangerously
Up the Creek: What Price Choice?
Up the Creek: Before and After: September 11, 2001
Up the Creek: Candle in a Long Street
Up the Creek: Crossing Cultures: Transcending History
Up the Creek: Man in the Mirror; A Map of the World
Up the Creek: Stories and the Shape of Time
Up the Creek: The Divine Road To Istanbul
Up the Creek: What It Means to Yearn
WRR@LARGE – WILD COVERAGE
UNESCO World Heritage Site Under Threat of Mega-Devlopment Sparks International Protests
The Other Side Of Abu Ghraib — Part One: The Detainees’ Quest For Justice
The Other Side of Abu Ghraib – Part Two: The Yoga Teacher Goes to Istanbul