Memoir recalls growing up as a “bar brat” in Rosendale

“Confessions of a Bar Brat” author Judith Boggess on Main Street in Rosendale. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

“I don’t think I understood just how abusive my childhood was until I started writing about it,” says Judith Boggess about her recently published memoir, “Confessions of a Bar Brat: Growing Up in Rosendale, New York” (2017, Epigraph Books).

In a colloquial dialect from her point of view as a young girl age six to 12, Boggess chronicles what life was like growing up in Rosendale in the 1940s and ‘50s as Judy Cherny, the daughter of hard-drinking Edith and mercurial “Big Ed,” who together ran one of the toughest bars on Main Street at Reid’s Hotel and Bar. Alternately neglected or abused, her life was one of constant chaos. Her only respite, really, was in her frequent visits to the Rosendale Theatre, where she found better role models for adulthood in the movies on the big screen than she did at home.

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Boggess began writing down memories of her childhood at a time when she was working in a profession that brought her into contact with abused women and runaways. She had grown a bit tired of hearing certain comments from people unfamiliar with the nature of abuse, she says; things like, “Why doesn’t she just leave him if he’s so abusive?” or “Why didn’t the kid tell somebody?”

She knew from her own experiences that it isn’t that simple. “Children live what they learn, and act out on it. Some who are abused go into drugs or alcohol, or promiscuity, and others just succumb. All through their lives, they’re trying to patch themselves up. They feel like they’re broken, like something needs to be repaired.”

What began as “probably 7,000 pages” of memories, she jokes, was eventually edited into the current book of 420 pages. And like many memoirists before her, Boggess says she discovered that “once it gets out of your head, and on to paper, you can let it go.”

She never kept a diary during those childhood years, but says she has an excellent memory. She has an ear for dialogue, as well, the narrative peppered with colorful language that evokes a feeling of time and place and brings the reader decisively into the moment. And those who grew up in Rosendale themselves are sure to find much to relate to in her descriptions of the local scene and the early days of the Rosendale Theatre.

Promoting her book at the Rosendale Street Festival recently was an unnerving experience for her, one she likens to “riding through Main Street naked like Lady Godiva, but with short hair!” Sitting in her booth there, on the street where it all happened so long ago, made her feel like “the sidewalks were going to lift up around me like a horror show for having told the secrets of the town.”

Boggess says she chose to write the book from a child’s perspective because it was important to her that it not come across as “blaming, or shaming. It’s just what happened to me. And this is how I dealt with it.”

As an adult, she says, “Whenever my inner child was having a tantrum, I’d say to that child, ‘Look, I’m an adult now and I’m in charge. You can relax and I’ll take care of you.’ And somewhere along the line as I was writing, I thought, ‘I gotta give this kid inside a voice.’”

The story ends in 1955 with the great flood of Rosendale. Boggess has no plans to write a sequel, if for no other reason than she doesn’t want to put anything into print that might embarrass her daughters.

When asked if she could have written this book while her mother was alive, she says she could have. “For one thing, my mother would never have read it, and if she did, she’d just say, ‘this is BS.’” (Having read the book, this sounds about right.)

In speaking with Boggess today, one would never think she had lived through a childhood so challenging. She laughs often, and easily. Her compassion for others comes across clearly and she has a spiritual outlook about the world based on Native American traditions — with a dash of Buddhism — that grounds her. Her status within the local Native American community as “Grandmother Judith Laughing Owl, Keeper of the Women’s Drum” gives her joy, as does painting in oils, primarily of Native American subject matter.

As an active member of the Association of Native Americans of the Hudson Valley, Boggess sings with the Red Feather Singers at schools and historical societies, and keeps the sacred drum belonging to the women of the association at her home, where she teaches drumming. After a genealogy search revealed she is part Cherokee, Boggess taught herself to speak a bit of the language, and she translated “Silent Night” and “Amazing Grace” into Cherokee for the Red Feather Singers to perform.

And she is passionate about continuing to work on her painting, currently doing a series based on Edward S. Curtis photographs of Native Americans and another series on Native American chiefs she knows. Boggess isn’t selling the original oils at this time, but the images are available in limited editions of 10 as giclée prints.

As of press time, “Confessions of a Bar Brat: Growing Up in Rosendale, New York” is available locally at Inquiring Minds book store in New Paltz and the Golden Notebook in Woodstock, where she did a reading from the book last Sunday. A reading at the Rosendale Library is set for November 29 at 7 p.m., and she will likely visit other venues to do readings before then as scheduled. More information is available at www.JudithBoggessArtist.com.