by Millicent Monks
In the Vedic tradition, life falls into three parts: “first the child and mother, second work, family and play, third the elders go into the forest to explore the spiritual life.”
To the Deep South there is an island, female in spirit and ruled by a matriarchy. It is called Cumberland Island. Hot, lush, sensuous with wild and crawling animals, the curved lines of the banyan trees, cozy with death and fertile with life, the jungle, primeval and seductive, devouring — this was my mother’s island. She was Lucy Coleman Carnegie, named after her grandmother. There the soft light was wet and heavy with moisture. The jungle claimed my mother and sang to her of its primitive childlike nature, and of its poisons, which would claim her.
Then there is the middle island, Crescent Island, the island of two rivers, the Sedego and Crescent. These rivers form its boundaries, running through the saltwater marshes to the dunes, the beaches and the ocean. The middle island touches on the edge of the North Country off the coast of Maine, and a cold sea forms its boundaries to the east. It is connected to the mainland and to the community by the Aulde Bridge. This is the island of relationships, work and family. This middle island belonged to my paternal ancestors.
On the island far to the north near the Canadian border, all the lines are straight with cathedral pines; dark jagged rocks form its circumference, and sharp, pristine, crystal light illuminates what hides. There is a small outdoor chapel — an old wooden cross leans to the north. The ocean’s horizon curves slightly as it falls toward the white plains of the north wind. This is the island of the patriarchs, whose faces are like its granite rocks. In 1807 my husband’s grandmother’s grandfather’s grandfather acquired Northern Island because of its unique mast timbers (350-year-old spruce survive to this day) and the huge tidal regimes which could be dammed and utilized for a saw mill and the production of barks and brigantines for the family’s merchant fleet. Only three vessels were constructed on the island, but the family was bewitched by its properties and constructed comfortable homes which their descendants enthusiastically visited during summer months for the next two centuries. The character of the place was patriarchal, perhaps fixed for recent generations by Bobby’s great grandfather, who steered the family’s fortunes from sailing ships to the American Telephone Company and General Electric, of which his son and grandson were directors for three quarters of the twentieth century. Although the family was blessed with remarkable women – tales of Isabella Stewart Gardner’s efforts to provide comfort to the hermits on Great Spruce Island were the stuff of Boston’s tabloid press as the twentieth century began and Bobby’s grandmother was the first woman to be appointed to many of the prestigious boards in Boston — the island was emphatically the province of male energy, fishing, hiking and wood-chopping being its charms. The cast of the rocks was linear and the spruce forests elicit Longfellow’s celebration of “the forest primeval.” As a young man Bobby came to believe that his soul was at home in a particular location on the island. Over the years the trees grew old and fell and new evergreens filled their place changing the physical appearance of the place, but it remained the home of his soul. Northern Island is brought to our story by my marriage to Bobby. This island is without many animals, but is filled with birds. It is the island of the spirit. It is here the birds soar in the first and last light of day. It is where we will be buried.
My marriage brought together these three islands on the East Coast. This is the story of those islands, their heritage and of three women and a child. It is of Lucy, the grandmother; her daughter, me, Millicent; Cassandra, my daughter; and her daughter, Sidra (the great granddaughter). It is a story of serious mental illness, wounding, destruction, despair, healing and love set against the background of these islands, and the story shows the sometimes devastating effects on my life and that of my husband.
Lucy carried within her the jungle and the spirit of the south. Cassandra has also leaned towards the southern island. My granddaughter, Sidra, will choose her island in due time.
But I, Millicent, am northern born and drawn to the north wind — the cold wind of crystals and white snow which covers every living thing with a softness that burns and freezes so no human thing can function, so that the soul must fly out and nestle in the chasm of the north wind’s lair, where it rests curled in the silence, emptiness and comfort, where time took on a different significance — circular, not linear, spiritual and eternal. Behind the kingdom of the north wind lives death. So entwined am I with this nature that barely a day goes by that I have not thought of death or rubbed against her knowingly, but that is the way of the north wind, and I cannot help it. We have had a battle, she and I. Some pedantic souls call it fantasy, but I call her the north wind, and she has whispered her message in my ears for a long time now, and I know of burning ice and crystals, and a land where there are no limits, and where images are cracked and deadly and melt together under the ice. How I have loved and feared her. In my mind she became my mother.
I think I put up a good fight. Perhaps I will know one day if! hear the blessing of a child, for I fear our daughter may be swept up by the southern wind and the call of the island in the south as my mother was, and be overwhelmed by mental illness and also will not bless me.
I have small features, at once innocent and haunted, depending on the thought behind the blue eyes. The mouth can be full and easy in laughter, or drawn and narrow either from rage or in restless search for meaning, peace, rest or whatever other nameless pursuit on this extraordinary, strange place I have found myself. If you look carefully at the head you see a strong jaw, good cheekbones, straight nose, and some times you might catch a glimpse of the north wind in the eyes. Then you would see the skull beneath and know the north wind has just passed by. I was to receive three gifts, the gift of song, the gift of love and the gift and challenge of fear. The gift of song I lost, the gift of love I learned to accept and keep, the gift of fear (and the comfort of death) the north wind gave me. This gift I will keep through my old age — but death has not yet made me hers.
The above is an excerpt from the book Songs of Three Islands: A Story of Mental Illness in an Iconic American Family by Millicent Monks. The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.
Copyright © 2013 Millicent Monks, author of Songs of Three Islands: A Story of Mental Illness in an Iconic American Family
Millicent Monks, author of Songs of Three Islands: A Story of Mental Illness in an Iconic American Family, was born into the legendary Carnegie family, in which serious mental illness has affected four generations of women. Mental illness has played a prominent and overwhelming part in her life. Her search for answers led her to Jungian analysis, meditation and sutras, which have helped her to find a delicate peace amid the devastating mental illness in her family. She shares her story in the hopes that it will help other families.
“If I can do something worthwhile to help people with children who are mentally ill,” says Monks, “I would think that was something worth accomplishing in my life.”