Here’s another little snippet, just to get the weekend started right. It’s the prologue from a memoir I’ve got in the works. Enjoy!
The summer I was fourteen I discovered that in my family people talked—but not necessarily to each other. That was the year Grandma and Grandpa came to live with us, the year that the great aunts and uncles came to visit, the year that, for the first time, I had the opportunity to observe my extended family being itself—and to listen to them talk.
The uncles and Dad—when he was home—talked slouched in recliners in the living room, lying on rollover creepers under trucks in the shop, or in a pinch on the lawn, eating crisp pink watermelon, spitting the seeds between their teeth, and swatting mosquitoes and kids indiscriminately.
Grandpa talked to anybody who would sit with him while he weeded the garden he had planted within days of his arrival. We kids—my sisters Pam, Marie and Sally, my brother Matt, and the visiting cousins—didn’t talk; we yelled, shrieking threats and recriminations as we chased each other across the lawn, through the sprinklers, and occasionally—mincingly—across the gravel driveway and into the foxtails, tumbleweeds, and cheat grass choking the vacant lot next door.
Momma, Grandma, and the aunts talked in the kitchen, stirring pots, joggling babies, kneading dough, slicing vegetables, washing dishes. They took turns sitting around the table, elbows on knees, sipping ice tea, ice water, or cold juice, leaning in the screen door or standing in front of the fan, lifting skirt hems to capture the breeze on bare legs. Their voices cluttered together, strong and deep, high and sharp, horselaughs and shrill questions piercing through like shafts of sunlight, or sometimes shards of ice. There were occasional exchanges between the sexes, but for real conversation my family talked man to man, woman to woman.
When we kids strayed too close they warned each other—a tiny headshake, a cutting of the eyes in our direction, and a blatant change of topic in high, false voices for the ladies; loud guffaws and the occasional incomprehensible ribald remark for the men.
This censoring system had flaws. I was big for my age. As long as I was up to my elbows in water and fruit, apron strings dangled over my ample hindquarters and my face was hidden it was easy to forget I was just a kid. I exploited the situatigon shamelessly. Sometimes I got more than I bargained for. For one thing, I learned that my grandparents were human.
As a small child I had subscribed to the notion that my grandparents were born married, or at least were betrothed in early childhood. The old black and white photos proved it: Grandma and Grandpa were toddlers in rag curls and straight blonde hair, respectively, both dressed in little frocks; then they were thin-necked and gawky in a white gown and a scratchy, bunchy suit, being confirmed, and then they were married. There were no false steps, no deviations caused by emotion, personality, circumstance, tragedy. They married because they were intended.
“But how did you know?” I asked Grandma one summer day when we were snapping beans on the front porch. “How did you know it would be Grandpa?” She just shrugged, smiled a sweet, secret smile, and snapped another bean.
Then she grinned and took pity on me. “I didn’t take any chances,” she said, nodding agreement with her own wisdom. “I made sure I behaved myself.”
This was a new thought—that there might have been chances to take, misbehavior to be enacted. “Didn’t Grandpa want you to?” I asked.
“No!” she declared. “Why, one time, when we were courting we were in the car and driving to a party, and he said, ‘If you’d take down your pants we could have some fun.”
Momma, who had just come out to trade our bowl full of beans for an empty bowl to be filled, sucked in her breath and said, “Mother!”
“So did you do it?” I asked, greatly daring.
Grandma laughed. “What do you think?”
Suddenly I realized that I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t know at all.
Momma stitched her lips into a tight line and yanked the screen door open.
“Did I ever tell you about the time when your Momma was born?” Grandma asked hastily, grinning back at me.
“No, Grandma,” I lied, wriggling in my seat. She had told me, many times, but I loved the story. I ducked my head, snapped beans, and just let the stories swirl around me.
When Grandma got to the part about how Uncle Ted was a caboose child and she didn’t want to raise him alone and so one night she just up and climbed in Grandpa’s bed and that was Aunt Annie, Momma turned beet red and snapped, “Go play, Bodie.” And that was the end of the stories for a while.
I pulled off my cobbler’s apron and went looking for cousins, doing my best to avoid the conversations hurtling across the lawn and under the trees. I ended up sitting in the cool damp rows between the tomato plants in the garden, talking to Grandpa while he weeded. I asked him about Grandma’s story.
He stopped weeding, sank back on his heels, wiped his wrist across his sweating forehead and laughed softly. “Well, I had to ask, didn’t I? I wouldn’t be doin’ my job if I didn’t. Your Grandma would’ve thought I didn’t want her, and that wouldn’t be right, would it?”
“Nope,” I said.
“I never pushed it,” he said softly. “You can’t push it. but I had to ask. Or what would she have thought?” He took Digger O’Dell, which is what he had named our gardening trowel, and eased it down under a weed. “She sure did keep a death grip on that door handle, though,” he said reflectively, tapping the dirt off the roots and dropping it into a bucket beside him.
I watched his careful hands gentling the strangling roots away from the plants, never breaking a root, and thought of Grandma and Grandpa driving through a spring evening in their Model A, Grandpa telling Grandma he found her beautiful by making racy remarks, Grandma reminding him that she was worth waiting for by keeping a firm grip on her door handle, protecting her virginity, or maybe poised to flee.
After a suitable period of time I sneaked back to the kitchen, where the women had finished the beans, took a place at the sink skinning peaches, and listened to the women. “Bodie’s such a good little helper,” said my aunts. “She’ll make a good little wife.”
“Bodie’s nosy,” said Momma grimly.
I spent a lot of time hiding in plain sight, keeping my ears open and my mouth shut. Standing at the sink skinning peaches and tomatoes, peeling pears, snapping beans, silking corn, I learned who was in the family way before she married, who died suspiciously, who had been disappointed in love, who was a failure as s cook and wife, who had taken indecent liberties with whom.
I inferred a great deal, since the women in my family talked as much with raised eyebrows, nods, swats on the arm, and little shrieks as they did with words. Much of what they said was fragementary and eliptical. The language of women was a complex thing in our family.
Sometimes they talked about becoming mothers. I heard about pregnancies, labors, and deliveries, some funny, some bizarre, all dramatic. There were no routine pregnancies in my family; each was a watershed experience. They told these stories over and over, in graphic detail, using the same words and phrases each time, the same gestures, the same pauses, and even the same responses from the audience—call and response, female antiphony. Every pang, every stitch, every wheelchair careening through the hospital from the emergency entrance to the delivery room was dwelt on in loving, excruciating detail.
These stories surprised me a little. Mom, blood and bone of these women, had been too shy to explain the facts of life to me when I had asked her about them years before. Instead, she had given me a book that her gynecologist had given her when she got pregnant with Pam, and told Pam to loan me The Fascinating Girl, and On Becoming A Woman, a book designed to acquaint girls my age with the intricacies of their bodies, the evils of Heavy Petting, the importance of Good Hygiene, and the role God should play in a teenage girl’s love life.
In the chapter on being irresistable I learned that I should be childlike but not childish, I should dress in soft, ruffly things if possible, and make Artless Remarks. I should not compete, but admire the prowess of the boys. I should try not to be too bright if I could help it. Since my clothing was long on Modesty and short on ruffles and my parents demaned A’s, none of this advice seemed to apply to me.
I forgot about ruffles and gynecology and went back to listening to the aunts in the kitchen
“…having that baby did something to her, and she never could carry another one…”,
“…the last cobblestone road in town was the one on the way to the hospital, and we had a flat tire but Grandpa just drove on it anyway, over those cobblestones, and I was in so much pain I didn’t even notice…”,
“…the doctor told me, ‘you must have been sitting on her head,’ because we got to the hospital and Daddy dropped me off at the emergency entrance and they wheeled me inside he parked the car and by the time he got inside you were born…”,
“…I always thought that the way Daddy drove speeded up my labor because he took those curves so fast and it scared me so bad…”,
“…I lost three babies in a row once, and I never thought I’d be able to carry another one, but then I got pregnant with Joey, and then Rosie, and Beth, and it was all right…”.
They told these stories, then sighed, looked at the floor and shook their heads. Then somebody gasped, “Oh lordy, the jam’s burning,” or stalked to the door and yelled, “What’s going on out there? You kids cut it out right now. You want me to come out there?” or started pouring tea, and the pain of nostalgia melted in the hot, sweet afternoon, all except a slight bittersweet tang that lay just under the sweetness of the present.
Those stories both fascinated and amused me. Why did these women keep returning to the most painful moments in their lives, preserving the births of their children as they preserved the food? They all agreed giving birth was an excruciating, life-altering experience, something no one who had not given birth—including their husbands and me—could possibly understand.
They were right; when I thought about it at all, I thought of pregnancy as something that would happen to my belly, if it happened at all. When I was certain I wouldn’t be caught I would sometimes repeat the stories to myself, complete with gestures, and laugh, and wonder why they did it. Now, I think I know.
Those stories charted our journey. Even though it was the having-a-baby stories I found most intriguing, there were other stories told—stories that hinted at a deeper history, one that lay beneath the summer heat and the sticky stinging sweetness of peach juice on my arms. My aunts, those sneaky cartographers, charted much of the route, but they did so in murmurs and asides, casually, with no regard for the weight or significance of events. And because they were so very casual, I was fooled. For a long time, I regarded those stories as lightly as they had told them. I don’t do that any more.
Those summers in the kitchen taught me how to listen to—and tell—stories. Understanding the journey—the myth for which the stories marked the route—has turned the stories from kitchen romances, told to pass the time, into something deep, powerful, and maybe dangerous.
I am now middle-aged, and the time has come for me to join the choir of women in my past. But those women are largely gone, carried away by death and circumstance. I don’t can. My friendships are carried on in coffee shops, offices, occasionally living rooms. My friends and I speak of our children, of ourselves, of our dreams. But we don’t tell each other the deep stories, the stories that show us at our most human, our most vulnerable, and our most amazing. We don’t tell each other the stories that show our souls—the stories we can only ever tell when we need not face each other, when we stand side by side, eyes on our busy hands.
Not so very different from what I am doing right now, come to think of it, sitting at my kitchen table, eyes on my screen, fingers busy with the task of preserving something of myself for the future. I have come full circle.
And there you are, on the other side of the book where we can afford honesty because our eyes will not meet, carefully unraveling the pages I have created. And now the book is gone, and we are in my big kitchen. A pot of something sweet is boiling on the stove, the air is warm, damp and faintly sticky. It smells of peaches and scorching sugar. Outside a child screams, “Stop it—I’m telling!”
I stand beside you at the sink. We both wear faded cobbler’s aprons. Our arms are buried halfway to the elbow in ice water. Peaches hot from the roaster plop down among the ice cubes in the sinks before us, and bob crazily while their skins split and curl back, showing the peaches’ tender, succulent hearts. We slip the skins off the peaches, leaning our forearms on the edge of the sink to rest our aching feet. And then, as the voices clatter around us, I lean closer until our shoulders almost touch, and, eyes on our hands, I tell you a story.