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Grana and Grandaddy: From Dirt Floors to Skyscrapers to Montpelier

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Grana and Grandaddy in recent years. Courtesy photo.

Grandaddy’s Childhood and Early Adulthood 1934–1966

James “Jim” Avery Plummer, known as Grandaddy to me, was raised in Argentina during World War II. He moved there with his family from Delaware when he was 10 months of age for his father’s engineering job. They resided in Buenos Aires, and later in the country outside of the city. Grandaddy developed a particular viewpoint on American politics and foreign affairs as a result of living abroad for the first 10 years of his life. This would inevitably impact his activism efforts in the civil rights movement and, later, his dissent regarding the Vietnam War. Grandaddy remains a women’s rights activist to this day, a strong supporter of accessible abortions and a woman’s right to choose, and he attended the famous Women’s March in 2016. Some of these opinions made life extra interesting during the decades he resided in the profoundly conservative county of Piscataquis, Maine.

Returning to childhood though, Grandaddy speaks incredibly highly of the Argentinian public school system and says that it was the highest quality education he ever received (despite later attending Yale University). This was because of a combination of elements, including the rigor it entailed and the shorter school days.

He was interestingly secluded from the second World War though, and remembers hearing only minimal news about it because of Argentina’s position as a neutral country. One of the only connections he felt to the war occurred when a ship carrying a car for the family was sunk in the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Grandaddy and his family would travel to the United States every three years to visit extended family, but besides that, he lived a life completely free of influence by American culture. His parents were the only kind of exposure he received, so Grandaddy was raised multicultural and bilingual. 

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At the age of 10 in 1944, shortly after the beginning of the Normandy invasion, his family relocated to New York City for a year. Grandaddy missed the countryside, a pattern that would repeat itself as he aged. After the year in New York, they moved to Washington, D.C., and Grandaddy sang in the National Cathedral Choir, perpetuating the role of music in his life. 

These were his first positive interactions with the United States and American culture, coming almost a decade after his birth. The contradictions in culture returned when they moved to Mexico City a year later for his father’s job. For two years, Grandaddy attended a Mexican high school and was presented with a new perspective on Americans and their interactions with foreigners. A sort of embarrassment emerged from this experience: he was American by blood but had lived the majority of his life in Spanish-speaking countries with a cultural distaste for the United States. The two sides of his cultural heritage were at odds with each other then and remain that way to this day. This created a common feeling of being foreign and an outsider, no matter what the environment. Grandaddy considers himself American, but in the most literal sense of the term — from Canada to Argentina, North, Central, and South.

His first connection to Vermont came during his junior year of high school, when he transferred to Vermont Academy, a boarding school in Rockingham. Grandaddy broke several academic records during his time at the academy despite being two years younger than his classmates, and graduated at the age of 16. He followed in his brother’s footsteps and attended Yale, but took a gap year after freshman year to pursue the violin more seriously. He graduated in 1956 with a major in East Asian history and a minor in music composition and pursued a brief and unsuccessful career in advertising and a first marriage in Mexico before meeting my grandmother, Grana, in 1966.

Grandaddy has been an avid musician since his childhood. He learned to play violin at the age of 7 and continued that through college. This is one of the only constants throughout his life, because of various drastic changes in settings and careers.

Grana’s Childhood and Early Adulthood 1939–1966

Juliana “Julie” Thacher, or Grana to me, was born in 1939, the youngest of five children. This resulted in her having a virtually only-child experience during her childhood because of the massive age gap between her and her sibling closest to her in age (7 years older). Grana was raised on the campus of Amherst College, where her father was the superintendent of buildings and grounds. She recalls her personality being one of tom-boyishness and “horse-crazy,” and she spent the beginning of her life roaming the campus freely. This entailed following workers around and exploring the nearby woods. Her main companion was the family dog, which was taken away from her when Grana and her mother moved to California to live with her aunt. This occurred because of her father’s death when she was 12, which deeply impacted both her and her mother. Grana was exposed to a “fundamentalist” Christian sect while on the West Coast because of her aunt’s involvement in that sect. 

They moved back east after a year, but her mother still struggled severely with depression because of the death of her husband. During Grana’s high school years, her mother went through extensive electroshock therapy, and Grana became her primary caretaker because of how incapable the “treatment” left her. Despite this, they were close, because Grana was the only child left in the house by the time she reached high school. 

She got along well with almost everyone, regardless of economic status, which is a quality that would be hugely beneficial later in her life and careers. During her high-quality high school education, she participated in orchestra, chorus, and the tumbling team. She also dated a trumpet player named Tommy, whom she described as “a child prodigy” and also “mentally unwell.” 

Grana remembers being a non-devoted student: smart, but not dedicated to her schoolwork. This made getting into college a bit of a challenge, but despite that she followed her father’s footsteps and attended Brown University. She remembers only doing well in the hardest classes, while in anything easy she would fail. Graduating in 1961 with a major in religious studies, she used her religious connections to follow her college boyfriend to Japan, where he served in the Marine Corps. Grana lived in Japan for three and a half years, working as a teacher at a women’s junior college in Tokyo. For her final six months abroad, she and her best friend (to this day) travelled in Asia as the American involvement in the Vietnam war was intensifying. During her time abroad, Grana grew apart from Western ideals and the Christian and conservative background of her youth. She developed a distaste for American wars and the superior viewpoint that was (and is) common in Americans. 

Moving back to the United States, she experienced a definite culture shock, and she described the Americans she was reintroduced to as “impolite, crude, and hairy,” especially compared with the intensely polite Japanese people. Similar to Grandaddy, this time abroad caused intense doubts about American politics and foreign policy.

Soon after returning from the four years she spent abroad, she met Grandaddy, and the rest is history.

Early Marriage 1966–1970

Grana and Grandaddy met upon Grana’s return to the United States in 1966. She visited her brother in Connecticut, who was working at the same boarding school as Grandaddy. They were introduced, hit it off immediately, and moved to New York City a month later. They lived in a small apartment in East Harlem, an entirely Black and Latino neighborhood, for two years and quickly became involved with the civil rights and anti-war movements. They both described the environment of East Harlem as safe and welcoming, a stark contrast to the racist perception of most white people at the time. 

Grandaddy moved to Guatemala for two months in an attempt to join the guerilla movement against the dictatorship. He left Grana in New York to continue her work, but she briefly visited him there. His attempt was unsuccessful, and two months after his return to East Harlem in December 1967 they were married in the storefront of a “defunct” supermarket. The flowers used to decorate for the wedding were gathered from funeral homes to save money, and Grana describes this as a metaphor for their relationship, “twisted but beautiful.” 

Jim Plummer (Grandaddy) and Julie Thacher (Grana) in their early years. Courtesy photo.

After marriage, the couple moved to Connecticut, where Grandaddy began teaching at the same boarding school as before, and a pregnant Grana helped a mental health professional with typing her clinical notes. Her water broke six weeks early, causing a health emergency, and the couple drove back to East Harlem. Grana remembers urinating frequently in a two-pound coffee can during the drive. Their first daughter, Katherine, was born in August of 1969, and was raised initially in East Harlem. Both Grana and Grandaddy remember it being a very supportive place to live and raise a child, and they felt like “part of the family” in the neighborhood.

Canada 1971–1973

In 1970, Grandaddy built a 16-by-21-foot log cabin in New Brunswick, Canada, and in the fall of the next year, the family of three moved there as temporary residents. This move was partially because it was easier to find cheap land in rural Canada, and partially to briefly escape the U.S. and its never-ending political tensions. Grana and Grandaddy owned 100 acres of land, and attempted to live mostly off of those resources. 

The community in Canada was very welcoming and helped the family stay afloat during their two years there. They provide recipes and advice, as well as help hauling wood, free of cost. This was the start of an ongoing journey with homesteading that would be on and off for several decades. Grana hauled 5-gallon buckets of water when she was eight months pregnant, and that perfectly encapsulated the amount of work this lifestyle required.

In May of 1972, my mother, Rebecca, was born, and Grana and Grandaddy briefly raised two children in rural Canada with no running water and not much money. They lived off the “beautiful but impoverished land,” including but not limited to weeding neighbors gardens for greens, collecting wild food from the nearby salt marshes, making their own bread out of homemade grain, fishing, canning various things from their garden, and brewing their own beer. They still use some of these techniques; for example, Grana picks all of the dandelion greens out of our yard to eat. They resided near a small town on the coast of the Bay of Fundy, which meant more snow than Vermont winters.

Grandaddy thinks they would have stayed there more permanently, but in 1973, he was offered a job at the Manhattan Country School’s farm in Roxbury, New York, and for the next three and a half years they lived and worked there.

Manhattan Country School Farm 1973–1977

In 1973, the family moved to Roxbury, New York, a small town in the Catskills about a three-hour drive from Manhattan. Grandaddy was hired as the director of the Manhattan Country School Farm. He had previously taught at the school. The farm is a unique addition to the already unique set-up of MCS, a school built on the civil rights movement and the principle of diversity. The school focuses on reflecting the demographics of New York City, such as race, ethnicity, economic class (they have a sliding-scale tuition system to this day), and gender. The farm program allowed the students to experience a lifestyle different from that in the city, specifically rural life. Students from the school would go to the farm with their class and teachers for up to a week at a time. The curriculum was built around farm chores and rural activities, such as tending to animals, gardening, working with textiles (preparing wool, making yarn, and weaving on a loom), and cooking. Grandaddy acted as the director of the farm, and oversaw the maintenance of the farm, in addition to interacting with the students. Grana worked as a housewife to raise two kids in the farm environment and taught classes in the garden as well as dealing with the animals. She acted as the slaughterer-in-chief, and briefly oversaw the kitchen, cooking meals for  30 or more people at a time. They implemented homesteading techniques on the farm, and exclusively used horsepower. 

Katie attended kindergarten and first grade in Roxbury village, and Rebecca attended nursery school. Eventually, the family transitioned to working part-time on the farm, and moved to Abbot, Maine. The transition took about a year while Grandaddy built a second cabin and the farm found other leadership. By 1977, they were living full-time in Maine.

Abbot, Maine 1977–1980

Piscataquis County in Maine is about as conservative as it gets in New England, and it is where Grana and Grandaddy relocated to next despite their strongly contrasting politics. Piscataquis was the only Republican county east of the Hudson in the 2008 presidential election, and those views were prevalent when the Plummers moved there in 1977.

Grandaddy built another cabin, about 31 by 21 feet, double the size of the cabin in Canada. It took him a full month to build the shell, and another two years to finish it completely. He took care of the girls when they returned from school, grew and cooked food, and cut firewood. Among the people for whom he cut wood were their close neighbors, Isabel and Bill Goodrich, an elderly duo. The family was close with the pair, and my mom mentions them frequently when talking about her childhood in Maine. Katie and Rebecca would wait for the school bus at the Goodrich house, which was located across the road from the end of the Plummers’ long driveway.

The family mostly socialized with people from the next town over whom Grana knew from her work as a vocational counselor for the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA). This was similar to her work in New York City. She would aid young unemployed high school dropouts to get hired and stay employed. She would keep tabs on them and stay in touch with their employers to help with issues such as manners and hygiene or suitability for the specific job. Grana also worked to spread information about CETA, and encouraged a more supportive environment for undereducated and unemployed young people. She enjoyed this work and recalls that it helped her get to know the community on a more profound level. 

Grana and Grandaddy in the middle of their journey. Courtesy photo.

The community, it turns out, wasn’t anywhere near as welcoming as that in New Brunswick, never taking the actions that had once made my grandparents feel so at home in Canada. The locals were also not used to young progressives, as Grana and Grandaddy described themselves. Grana and Grandaddy were also disturbed by the blatant racism that was prevalent in Abbot.

The family continued their journey with homesteading, and the move to Abbot advanced their practices even further. They both describe the move to Abbot as one that brought some newness in terms of the social scene and their approach to homesteading. The juxtaposition between the people and their attitudes in Maine and Canada was extreme. In terms of homesteading, the real changes came later, but in Abbot the family had a steady source of income, whereas in Canada they were not permitted to work because of their temporary visas. During the first period of time in Maine, they were still living pretty “primitively” with an explicit focus on staying “warm, dry, and fed,” as Grana puts it.

Meanwhile, Grandaddy was intensely practicing his music, and started to pursue it as a source of income for the family. He would play at restaurants and lounges on the coast of Maine, where more money was available. He played folk songs in English and Spanish, as well as classical guitar. Grana simultaneously got promoted to assistant director at her job, but hostile new management created an undesirable work environment. She reached out to an old colleague from New York City, and found employment. The family moved back to New York City in the fall of 1980 for Grana’s new job and for Grandaddy to more fully pursue his musical career where there were more opportunities.

New York City 1980–1983

In October of 1980, the family of four moved back to East Harlem. They did this for several reasons, including to expose the girls to an urban and non-white community. Rebecca and Katie received this by living in East Harlem and attending Manhattan Country School, which prioritizes diversity and is “unusual racially,” as Grandaddy puts it. Another reason for the move was employment for both parents. Grana got a job in the entirely Black and Puerto Rican neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant at a secretarial training program for high school dropouts. She describes this experience as interesting, because she was “the only white person around” and the “societies were hugely separated.” Grana talks about New York City as full of opportunities, in everything from culture, to art, to languages, to food. This was something the family could never experience in Abbot.

Grandaddy continued to pursue music, this time singing at restaurants full-time with a busy schedule of performing and practicing. He would play international folk music in English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese, and well as classical guitar. He was also able to speak Spanish with the neighboring Puerto Ricans.

Grana and Grandaddy both preferred the city socially, because the group of people who lived near them was much more diverse and shared similar political views. They lived in a tenement building, or as Grandaddy phrases it, “a slum building for poor people,” on 101st Street. The community was multi-racial, but politics weren’t as big a deal as they were in the 60s when Grana and Grandaddy first resided there. Katie finished middle school and Rebecca finished fifth grade at MCS in 1983, and the family moved back to Abbot in the summer of that same year. Grandaddy missed nature and states that he was never cut out to live in the city.

Maine 1983–1997

After the school year ended, the family moved back to Abbot, Maine, because they still owned property and the cabin, and Grandaddy missed living in a rural setting. Rebecca skipped sixth grade because of how advanced Manhattan Country School was compared with the schools in Maine, and Katie started at Piscataquis Community High School, home of the Pirates.

Grana started work as a community educator for WomanCare/AEGIS, an early victim-protection organization that helped victims of sexual assault and domestic abuse. They ran community safe houses and several emergency hotlines and provided volunteer programs, community education, and legal representation. Grana worked there for 14 years, and was director for the last 10 years. She remembers there was some backlash from the community, especially religious groups. She says that everyone was dismissive and scornful of the work until it impacted their own family. For the first three years, during her time as a community educator, she would travel three nights a week to make presentations about WomanCare’s work. Grana later worked as a paralegal and was supervised by a local attorney. She would help survivors go to court and file for divorce or custody. These services were extra impactful for women without enough money to hire a lawyer.

Meanwhile, after the family returned to Maine, Grandaddy jacked up the entire cabin 5 feet into the air by himself and put in a basement. This was one of many modernizations they made in the homestead after their return, including getting electricity as well as upgrading their well and acquiring running water. One element of the improvements that Grandaddy is especially proud of was their composting toilet. This is one of the only things I remember from visiting the cabin at a very young age, so it must have made a lasting impression. The composting toilet incorporated a complex ventilation system and cost about 60 dollars to install. 

The family also upped their gardening game, adding to their already massive garden. The garden was a point of pride for both Grana and Grandaddy. It also was well known throughout the community. They were also incredibly eco-friendly before it was socially prioritized. At the Plummer household, 100 percent of human and food waste was recycled and would act as fertilizer for the garden. 

After the upgrades, Grandaddy started teaching at a school in Bangor, Maine, almost an hour’s drive away. He acted as a longtime kindergarten substitute, which evolved into being a French and Spanish teacher at Bangor High School. In the beginning he wasn’t a technically certified teacher, so he had to teach on a conditional certificate and get certified simultaneously. Grandaddy got his certification by 1987 and taught very successfully for 12 years, despite hating it. He still receives a pension from the Maine retirement system to this day because of that job. He was known as the toughest teacher, but always was stuck with the unacademic students, making his job quite difficult. 

In 1989, Rebecca, the younger of the two daughters, followed Katie to attend Harvard, and Grana and Grandaddy started to consider the idea of moving again. Additionally, Grana was looking to pursue a new career in massage therapy, and the best educational opportunity was in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In 1997, the two of them moved to the southwest for Grana’s education. While in New Mexico, Grandaddy started performing music full-time again, instead of just in the summer like his previous teaching job allowed. Six months later they moved back to Abbot, and Grana opened a massage therapy business. It grew quickly, and she gained a large number of regular customers. For her, that was one of the hardest things to leave behind when they moved to Montpelier. 

Montpelier, Vermont 2011–Present

In 2011, when I was 5 years old, Grana and Grandaddy moved into a condo in Montpelier, Vermont to be near their daughters and grandchildren. They still reside there, about a seven- minute walk from my house. They played a large role in raising my brother. Grandaddy took care of him before he was old enough to go to preschool, and they communicated entirely in Spanish. Grana continues her massage therapy business here, but part-time now. Grandaddy worked as a substitute teacher in the Montpelier school district for several years and is now retired. He plays guitar and sings at family gatherings still, and Grana still collects fiddleheads and dandelion greens to cook and eat. 

Grana and Grandaddy both lived and continue to live intensely unusual and interesting lives, never conforming or complying with societal norms. They remain outspoken about various political topics and are highly involved in the community here. They have been and continue to be the center of our familial solar system, and exhibit symptoms of immortality (Grandaddy learned how to scooter in his 80s). Theirs is a story that requires retelling, and I hope this writing sheds light on the immeasurable impact they have had on my life and the lives of everyone they know.

Editor’s note: Zoe Plummer-Tripp has written this story about her grandparents as an educational mentorship between The Bridge Community Media and Montpelier High School through a program called Community-Based Learning. Many thanks to Heather McClane for reaching out to us and connecting us with Zoe. Zoe went from blank page to a very compelling tale. And, of course, we thank Zoe for her incredible hard work, talent, and willingness to work with us. Additionally, thanks to Grana and Grandaddy for sharing your story with us all.