Under the Rhododendrons

Under the Rhododendrons

Under the Rhododendrons

A #MeToo Essay by Kelly A. Dorgan

With their gray iron limbs, long waxy leaves, and fat blossom clusters, rhododendrons are both stately and homey. Throughout my childhood, I crawled under their uneven skirts, their bodies sheltering me, their leaves shielding me. There, between a soil floor and naturally thatched roof, I relished my sanctuary, and, in my mind, nothing could reach me there. 

Then my grandfather came to town.

*

Back in the seventies, our Southern Appalachian neighborhood hummed with life, especially in summertime. Kids swarmed everywhere. We buzzed around, feral and wild, as if following invisible beelines that lured us across the hot streets down into the cool woods, then back home at twilight.  

In the woods encasing our neighborhood, mushrooms gathered together, dark and silent like members of forest-dwelling covens. Fallen leaves and branches carpeted the ground, the constant decay and rebirth producing an aromatic and fertile soil that gobbled up leathery acorns and winged seeds, yielding the next generation of oak, maple, and poplar. For me, though, I favored rhododendron groves; they provided places for respite from the howling chaos of childhood. When in need of solitude, I knelt before them, a child’s genuflection, and wiggled my way into their rigid embrace. 

A sexual energy throbbed throughout the neighborhood, and Nature provided the perfect privacy screen for our clandestine lives. In the woods, we summoned one another to watch mating dogs. Front and center of the spectacle, I pretended to laugh when our mutts got locked together during sex. An empathic child, though, I quietly ached as the dogs squealed and squirmed, their reproductive organs tying them genital-to-genital until the mating pair were able to part ways. Then there were our woodland playhouses, often our destination after we stole our parents’ sex manuals and our older siblings’ porn stash. We would whisk the books and magazines into our hidden world, and in silence we would study the glossy pictures of contorting naked bodies. 

For me as a child, the natural world and the sexual world intermingled, embedded into one another, becoming inseparable like leafy vines and rough trunks. Both worlds intoxicated the neighborhood’s young inhabitants, pulling us in with their mysterious perfumes, luring us with their concealed pathways, promising us wonderment and pleasure. 

That was before my grandfather’s arrival. 

*

I was eight years old that summer of Granddad’s visit. He had thick white hair, the color of cresting waves, and twinkling eyes, like sunlit water. Though my grandmother had died shortly before his arrival, he never cried, not that I saw. Instead, he settled at our kitchen table and assembled jigsaw puzzles, clicking together scattered paperboard pieces into sprawling pictures of Nature.  

Largely, I ignored him. One day, I did not.

That day was sunny, warm, and pleasant. Summers can be stormy and overcast, systems moving in and getting hooked on ancient mountaintops. But on that day, it was perfect: blue sky, fair temperature, not too hot or cool.

Granddad sat in a wooden lawn chair, spray-painted red, a shade similar to dried menstrual blood. Hunching low to the ground, the chair was broad with wide arms, and a floral cushion covered its chunky slats. When not at the kitchen table, Grandad spent time in that chair, staring out on the neighborhood. I detected a longing in him. I thought he was lonely. I thought he was sad. I thought he missed Grandma. Those thoughts became the glue that sealed my lips for decades.

I’m not sure how it happened, but I came to sit on his lap. Did he call me over? Did I feel the pull of his grief? For whatever reason, I climbed on him and rested there. A stout man, he had a plump layer covering him—much like the cushion covering the hard lawn chair. The lingering odor of pipe smoke wafted off him, a delectable scent from a local tobacco blend that smelled of burning oak logs, orange peels, and cinnamon sticks. Once a comforting fragrance, I wonder what would happen if I caught whiff of that tobacco today. Would I gag? Would I finally run away? 

“What do you think about me putting my tongue on you? It would feel good,” he whispered to me.

I’m unsure of the accuracy of these remembered words. I have no one to go to for verification; I have no one to ask. A part of me longs to know how he popped the question. Did he actually say, “Could I perform oral sex on you, my granddaughter?” I can’t imagine what words he used, what gestures, what tone, what inflection. He had come from a strict Catholic upbringing. What word for cunnilingus would such a man use when propositioning his pre-pubescent granddaughter?

All those details are lost to me and will remain lost. 

Here are details not lost to me:

I didn’t run from him. 

I didn’t call to my mom or dad. 

I didn’t scramble off his lap. 

He stuck out his tongue at me, and I was disgusted: white film coated the pink meaty thing in his mouth—like chalky powder stuck to a moist slug. 

“What’s that white stuff?” I asked. At least, that’s how I remember asking.

“It comes off,” he answered. 

Perched on his lap, I watched him scrape his tongue, his index fingernail carving lines into the white layer, revealing the pink surface underneath.

Sometime after that, I took his hand and led him to one of my favorite places: where rhododendrons leaned crookedly against our three-bedroom house. We scooted between the shrubs and the rough brick wall, and we nestled under my parents’ bedroom window. My hands pressed into the soil, I arched my young body toward my grandfather’s tongue. 

There was no shame. That would come later.

Granddad and I hadn’t been under the rhododendrons long when Mom came calling. 

“Kelly, Kelly, where are you?” Her feet and legs appeared on the other side of the iron limbs and long leaves, mere inches from where we crouched, old man and young girl.  

Granddad and I froze. I didn’t want mom to catch us. I feared something I couldn’t name.

Mom raced off, her call louder, sharper with each cry. Granddad and I crept out undiscovered, safe and sound. He and I had narrowly escaped discovery. 

A few hours later, Granddad asked me for a hand-job.

*

That night, I knocked on the closed bathroom door. I cannot say why I knocked. I cannot say why I entered. 

Granddad let me in and locked the door behind me. Standing in front of the toilet, he showed me his erection and wrapped my hand around it. Or maybe I wrapped my hand around it; I don’t recall how I came to have my eight-year-old fingers around his eighty-year-old penis. 

Almost immediately, mom pounded, demanding entrance. Granddad jerked up his pants and tore open the door, an effortless lie slipping from his lips:

“I didn’t know she was in here,” he said. “She was hiding behind the shower curtain. She jumped out and scared me.”

As I write this story, the familiar clutch of fear grabs me, holding my throat, tightening the back of my neck, seizing my jaw. It’s been over four decades since that time under the rhododendrons; yet, I fear writing my story. I fear it will harm my mom. I fear it will somehow justify Granddad’s trespasses. I fear it will indict my pre-pubescent self. Also, as I write my story, this realization nudges me: 

Granddad’s lies were smooth, effortless … practiced. I wonder how many children came before me. I wonder how many suspicious parents he soothed with seamless lies.   

*

In 2003, I told Mom. 

Dining at a restaurant, we drank, the alcohol dissolving the sealant that had held my lips together for so long. There at a corner table, I revealed my story to her. I don’t recall my exact words; I was drunk. I think I needed to be drunk, because in my mind every word I uttered was part of a spell, one that transformed her beloved father into a horrific monster. 

She wept. Confessing that she had suspected all along, she explained why she came running that day, frantically calling to me while I was under the rhododendrons with her father.

“I had a funny feeling. I looked out, and you two were sitting in that chair. Then, you were gone.”

In the restaurant, Mom and I leaned towards one another, our shared storytelling forming another umbilical cord. 

She continued, whispering, “When I found you in the bathroom, I was sick to my stomach. I couldn’t sleep that night. I kept imagining him crawling down the hallway into your room.” The next morning, my mother had told her aging, widowed father that he had to leave. After buying Granddad a one-way ticket back to his home, my parents had loaded the family in our small car and drove him off the mountain to a distant airport. 

Granddad flew away, never visiting us again.

*

After Granddad’s departure, life in my neighborhood continued. On the surface, everything seemed the same, but beneath, there was a creeping contamination. 

My friend’s uncle lived up the street in a white cottage with black shutters, and a lush garden with vine-ripened vegetables. A wizened elderly man with a ready smile, he repeatedly “tickled” his niece and me on the bed in his sunny bedroom. His wife away, he focused his attentions on our undeveloped bodies, working his hands up and down us. My friend and I giggled and writhed on the white, cotton quilt, and at some point, we bounced off his bed and fled into the neighborhood.  

Then, came another girlfriend. Slightly older than me, she dazzled me with her confidence and maturity. Though we were still in elementary school, she already knew what she wanted to be when she grew up. 

“I want to be a prostitute,” she had declared resolutely as we hunched by the weeping bridal bush in my backyard. 

I followed her everywhere. Once, I trotted behind her into the back bedroom of a neighbor’s house. Cave-dark, blinds drawn mid-day, that bedroom was inhabited by a teenager. Wordlessly, as I recall, he pulled down his pants, his naked penis dipped in lakes of shadow and streams of light. My girlfriend told me to give the teen a blowjob. Instead, I giggled and ran away, leaving her alone with him. To my best calculations, I was in fourth grade, maybe younger. 

I never disclosed these “smaller” predatory acts to my parents, or any other adult. By that time, I had already normalized males’ coveting of girls’ private territories. I had already accepted it as my responsibility to escape uninvited incursions into my own territories. Consequently, I pretty much stopped touching my father, and that meant abandoning an intimate ritual he and I shared.

Dad had hair like bird feathers, sparse in some areas, downy soft in others. As a child, I loved to stand behind his chair and style his hair. Using a black comb nearly twice the size of my hand, I would work the skinny, plastic teeth through the woolly sections on the sides of his head. My favorite, though, was when I combed the silky threads atop his balding scalp, getting them to drape across his exposed skin. I have no idea how long these beauty sessions would last, but I remember touching my father with ease.

All that stopped after Granddad had taught me what grown men really want from little girls. 

I don’t remember if my touching of Dad faded or if it halted abruptly. I do remember, though, delighting in combing his hair, wrestling with him, riding on his shoulders. Then, I pulled away, and he and I shared meager physical intimacies. 

Dad died before I figured out how to tell him this story. Dad died before I could tell him why I stopped combing his hair.

*

Fifteen years after my grandfather’s visit, I sat across from a therapist, drawn to counseling because my relationships had failed to flourish, platonic and romantic. 

“My grandfather molested me,” I explained to the young therapist, as I nestled in the corner of her couch in her tiny office. Erupting in tears, I surprised myself at the depth of my despair. I blubbered, trying to find the words that would convince her (me) that my little incident in the rhododendrons shouldn’t have affected me so drastically. “I had friends who were raped and severely abused,” I argued. All Granddad did was put his tongue on me; that’s how I saw it back then. 

“I don’t believe in comparing pain,” she replied. 

Though seemingly unremarkable, her response served as a powerful agent, one that countered the contamination Granddad had dumped in me. Decades later, I have forgotten that therapist’s name, but I recognize the effects of her care: because of her words, I coaxed myself into the stillness necessary for my recovery. Instead of fleeing from those “spoiled” spaces in me, I worked to (re)create a more enduring sanctuary. 

*

I am nearing fifty, and I find that I am inspired to look back to that time under the rhododendrons. This is what I have come to know:

Writing and telling my story have been essential to my recovery efforts, and those efforts are ongoing. While I have shared this story with a few people in my intimate circles, I have only begun to share it more broadly. Partly, I am tired of crouching inside makeshift shelters that provide temporary protection at best. I am tired of peering outside, tentatively, all the while sensing that others like me are also crouching in their own rickety shelters. Perhaps we hide because we don’t trust ourselves. I for one have worked to heal my relationship with me, to regain self-trust. 

For the longest time, this is the story I told myself: I had been the one to take Granddad’s hand; I had been the one to knock on the bathroom door; and I had been the one who hadn’t screamed for help or bolted from his invasions. 

Through storytelling, though, I have come to see an old tale in a new way.

Granddad sniffed out my compassion and curiosity, and he used my most beautiful traits against me. He enticed me with his sorrow. He lured me with promises of pleasure. He secured entrance into my sanctum. Under the rhododendrons, I had felt safe and sheltered—until his incursion. There, on the naked soil, Granddad had implanted a foulness in me, a foulness that had continued spreading, embedding itself deep inside my life. 

Telling my story, over and over, has granted me a flourishing relationship with myself, and I trust that I see more clearly now. With new sight, I see the toxic root system Granddad left behind, and I have undertaken an excavation that will last a lifetime. But word by word, story by story, I am recovering my place. I am recovering my sanctuary.  


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