By Jenn Watt
For about a decade Kathy Lawton Purc would jot down memories from her childhood growing up on a small farm in New York State. They were like puzzle pieces, she says, scattered about and viewed through a child’s perspective.
Then about a year and a half ago, with the encouragement of the Algonquin Highlands Writers’ Circle she decided she would “give it a go at publishing it” and began writing in earnest.
The result of her labour is a self-published memoir, Stone House Stories: The Memoir of a Free-Range Kid, completed during the pandemic and available for purchase online.
“By doing this, I got to see a bigger picture of who my parents were just by going back through these memories. I grew up in the 1950s, so [I got to see] how culture, society at the time affected my search for identity and where I belonged in the world,” said Purc, who moved to Minden in 1989 after marrying her husband, dentist John Purc.
Her “free range” childhood was a product of the era, one that had fewer restrictions and less supervision, but also one with its share of struggles.
“I grew up on a small farm, but there were larger farms around me and it was a dairy farming area in central New York State in the Finger Lakes region and there were no seatbelts, there were no helmets. Not that we couldn’t have used them, because there were lots of accidents,” Purc said. “… We were given certain boundaries, we had woods we could go into and explore. Our parents didn’t know where we were half the time – they did when we were small – our range expanded into the woods, into the fields, into the ponds and the brooks. … We were pretty much on our own during the daytime and we managed to get into lots of trouble,” she laughed.
But alongside the freedom of the 1950s for young people was the frightening prospect of nuclear war with Soviet Russia, with school children taught to “duck and cover” under their desks, and shown films of the aftermath of atomic blasts.
“We were inundated with information about what happens in an atomic blast,” said Purc. “A lot of people were putting bomb shelters in their backyards. It was kind of a scary time. In school, … we would get an alarm over the PA system and we would have to duck under our desks to prepare in case we had an atomic blast coming at us and then we had to line up in the hallways and cover our heads.”
The efforts made little sense to Purc, since the films of atomic bombs showed everything being vaporized; what good would going under one’s desk do?
The impact of living through that time must have affected her generation, she said, introducing an element of instability and fear where none was before.
“At that age, you’ve no control [over what happens] and you realize your parents don’t have any control and they’ve been keeping you safe up until this point, but you realize that they can’t do that for you in this instance, so it’s kind of an awakening as to how powerless and how little control we can have over our lives at times,” she said.
Her parents did not overreact to the threat – no bomb shelters were built at her farm – and Purc said she took her parents’ cues on how to proceed.
One of four kids, two boys and two girls, Purc’s book focuses primarily on the years between age four and 11, highlighting the kinds of antics and conflicts kids can have. Born on the same day as her sister, six years apart, she said she was set up from day one for sibling rivalry. And although there was conflict in youth, she and her sister became the best of friends in later life.
The inspiration to write a memoir came from Purc’s research on her ancestry and the gaps the official documents she discovered left in her understanding of the lives of family members now long gone.
“I don’t have any really first-hand stories about my family, my ancestors. I wanted to leave something for my children and my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren and whoever comes after,” she said.
She has four children, seven grandchildren and one great grandchild, all of whom live in the States.
Purc wonders whether she would have ended up writing her memoir had she stayed in the U.S. all those years ago. Writing resources available in Haliburton County were instrumental in the creation of the book, from workshops to writers’ circles. A connection she made with Sheryl Loucks, who formerly ran the R.D. Lawrence Centre (now Nature’s Place) that at one time focused on literary arts, was useful in the completion of Stone House Stories. Loucks assisted with editing and the pair met a couple of times to go over the structure and substance of the book.
Once the writing was complete, the document was sent off to a self-publishing company in Arizona, which handled the design and distribution as well as some additional editing.
Although the coronavirus pandemic sidelined some of the plans for the memoir’s launch, Purc said it also provided her the time to get the work done with the publisher.
“It got me through. The whole process was intense and it got me through this whole COVID thing intact,” she said.
Stone House Stories: The Memoir of a Free-Range Kid by Kathy Lawton Purc is available on Amazon.ca and ChaptersIndigo.ca in both paperback and e-book formats. She will also be donating copies to the library and is planning to get in touch with area bookstores to have copies on hand.
“I wanted to write a book that I’d like to read,” Purc said. “…I’ve had comments that readers have been entertained, they’ve been educated, I’ve made them laugh and I’ve made them cry. And that’s my definition of a good book.”
Update (Oct. 22, 2020): Stone House Stories will be available for purchase from Master’s Book Store in Haliburton and Organic Times in Minden in late October/early November.