Author Returns To Hartford With Messages For Kids And The Adults Who Raise Them
October 16, 2005
By MARK SPENCER, Courant Staff Writer
Mary Cameron Kilgour grew up in Hartford in the 1950s in a home full of
physical and verbal abuse, borne on the wings of the whiskey and port wine
her parents drank.
Orphaned at 14 and unable to adjust to a foster family, she found herself
about to be shipped off to a juvenile home and facing a future that was, at
Kilgour wrote, "Me, May, Mary," her childhood memoir published this year, to
tell people about where she came from, but more importantly to let them know
where she ended up.
Even some of her closest friends from those days were unaware of the life
she lived within the walls of her family's apartment near the intersection
of Woodland Street and Albany Avenue.
"It was hidden from everybody," Kilgour said. "Back in those days, you
didn't reveal family problems out of loyalty to the family."
At 65, she says she has long since come to terms with her childhood. Now a
volunteer court-appointed advocate for children in Gainesville, Fla., she
wants children in troubled homes to know there is a way out and she wants
adults to know how to help.
During a visit this week to Hartford, she spoke to students at Rawson
Elementary School and Weaver High School, her alma mater, and on Saturday a
small group of people at Hartford Public Library.
Kilgour talks in a smooth and fluid style, articulate and engaging without
being animated or emotional.
Perhaps, that's a legacy of the long career that took her to the top levels
of the U.S. Foreign Service, where control and analysis are valued over
It's the stories she tells that pack the punch.
Like the one about the time her mother cracked her over the head with a
thick, wooden cutting board.
Or the night her father stumbled into the living room where she and her
older brother slept and collapsed. They clicked on the light and saw blood
on his face, then more blood gushing from his wrist - almost completely
severed - then deep gashes to the bone higher up his arm.
Her parents' drinking that night had ended in a fight and her mother had
attacked her father with a broken wine bottle. As usual, she and her brother
Jack were left to clean up the mess.
Her mother died of pneumonia and soon afterward her father died of a heart
attack. Kilgour was placed at the House of the Good Shepherd orphanage on
It was there she began to put the pieces together. Under the eyes of the
nuns, she had to study one hour a day, so her grades began improving and
eventually she made the honor roll.
"I started getting positive reinforcement," she said.
A small student-sponsored scholarship enabled her to enroll in the
University of Connecticut's Hartford branch; more scholarships and part-time
jobs took her to the Storrs campus.
From there, the simple facts of her life are stunning: Two undergraduate
degrees from UConn, a master's and a doctorate in political economy and
government from Harvard, service in the Peace Corps, and a career in the
Foreign Service that took her to Colombia, Pakistan, Costa Rica,
Philippines, Liberia and Bangladesh, and gave her high-level policy-making
After she retired from the Foreign Service 10 years ago, she began taking
writing classes. She had never talked about her childhood during her working
years, but eventually decided to show one of her classes a piece that
evolved into a chapter in her memoir, "Me, May, Mary," published by the
Child Welfare League of America.
"The thought of showing it to those people, revealing this for the first
time, was a huge step," she said.
Kilgour is a realist and knows there is no silver bullet of salvation for
children from troubled homes. The advice she gives, she says, sometimes must
be direct and practical.
"You shouldn't sneak out the window and sleep with the neighbor, because
you're 14 and he's 26," she recalled telling one girl.
And she tells them about the path she found.
"Education is your escape," she tells them.
In meetings this week with officials from the state Department of Children
and Family Services, she also advocated for the creation of orphanages,
which have been widely abandoned in favor of foster care.
For some kids, she argues, an orphanage gives them some needed space to heal
themselves, while providing structure, security and nurturing from adults.
To the small group at Hartford Public Library Saturday who listened to her
story with rapt attention, she offered one more piece of advice: Whether in
ways great or small, pay attention to children.
"I remember every single one of them, any adult who showed me attention,"
she said. "I assume you do it, but be kind to children."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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