Archive for the ‘The Way We Did It’ Category

Here’s a little piece from one of my ongoing writing projects. Enjoy!

We didn’t have a television in our home. “There’s too much trash on it,” said Momma and Daddy. Instead, we had a flat reel-to-reel tape recorder. On it Momma listened to taped sermons, male gospel quartets, and a lady named Deldelker whose voice was full and fruity and wobbled a lot. Sally and I admired the wobbly-voiced lady extravagantly. “Listen to me,” we shrilled to each other. “I’m Deldelker.” And we would summon as full a vibrato as we could manage.

For a few weeks we flirted with the idea of actually becoming Deldelker when we grew up. When Pam heard us she disabused us of this notion.

“You can’t sing,” she told us bluntly. “Nobody in our family can.”

I didn’t know what she meant. Sally and I could and did sing, often and loudly, with full vibrato. One day it got to be too much for Momma. “I don’t want you kids doing that; it’s not nice to copy people,” she said sternly. To take our minds off Deldelker, she put a story tape on for us.
The tape was a mixture: A radio drama of Noah and the flood; Eric B. Hare reading “Chinese Lady and the Rats,” “Pokey the Runaway Bear,” “Sally the Runaway Monkey,” and “Packey the Runaway Elephant,” then, apparently as an afterthought to fill tape, “Little Black Sambo.”

The first time I heard this tape I listened enthralled as God spoke from our tape recorder, telling Noah to get a move on and build the Ark. I heard the people’s exclamations as Noah’s sons started construction and Noah started preaching to his neighbors. I heard his congregation laughing and ridiculing him and his family, then gasping as the animals thumped into the ark. I heard Noah’s last invitation to safety. I heard the door close, the first few droplets of rain, and then a downpour. Thunder crashed.

And suddenly our living room was full of the sounds of terrified people dying in the crashing waters while Noah and his family listened from inside the Ark, righteous, safe, and smug. They didn’t even throw a rope over the side. The pastoral peace of the Ark after everybody outside got done drowning gave me time to catch my breath, but I never really got over the horror of it. Why didn’t they pull the people up on the deck, at least?

I began having nightmares. I was outside the Ark, my family safe within. It took me a long time to die. I learned to busy myself in another part of the house for the flood story, which brought up a new fear. Was I Grieving Away the Holy Spirit by avoiding the terror and guilt the flood story brought? Should I listen, search my heart, and then confess, as Pam did? I had seen her at it, playing, looking thoughtful, creeping up to Daddy or Momma and whispering furtively.

I never knew what her transgressions were, but I understood that most of them were trivial because after one confession Daddy said impatiently, “You don’t have to confess every little thing, Pam.”

I knew from this that Pam’s sins must be positively miniscule, because Momma and Daddy’s usual view was that no sin was too small, no transgression too minor, to keep us outside the Pearly Gates.

This brought up a new worry—how did one sort out which sins to confess? Momma and Daddy’s answer—every single sin—didn’t tally with Daddy’s impatient reaction to Pam’s earnest attempt at fulfilling that obligation. Was confessing a sin unnecessarily a sin? Did I need to confess the unnecessary confession? Maybe it was showing off. Did I need to confess that, too? I was afraid to ask. I couldn’t even pinpoint what my sins were aside from showing off and bedwetting, but my guilt told me that they were real.

The next story on the tape was almost as bad. “Once upon a time there was a little old Chinese la-a-a-dy, and a little old Chinese ma-a-a-a-n, and they lived together in a little old Chinese house. Now, they didn’t know our Jesus. They prayed to a god called Josh.” That seemed a little informal to me, but perhaps that was how they did things in China.

It turned out that the little old Chinese house was filled with little old Chinese rats, which ate all the little old Chinese man and lady’s rice. They talked it over with Josh. “But,” Eric B. Hare informed us, “Josh couldn’t see, and Josh couldn’t hear, and Josh couldn’t do anything. He just sat there, and he looooked, and looooked, and looooked.”

The little old Chinese lady left the house—probably to get away from the rats, I decided. In her wanderings around town she heard beautiful singing. My stomach tightened at this part. Many mission stories involved perfectly happy, executive-type heathens being lured into evangelistic meetings by beautiful singing. Once they heard the singing their lives as happy heathens were over. They had only two choices.

They could get baptized and cope with the fallout. And fallout there would be: the weekly mission stories and Daddy’s recounting of the plot of Brave Men to the Battle, which discussed the fate of the Waldensees in lurid detail, and Some Rain Must Fall, which detailed the life of a missionary woman whose entire family seemed to have died had taught me that Christians had to expect to suffer for the Lord. They lost jobs for refusing to work on Sabbath, lost homes and families.

New Converts in The Mission Fields gave up colorful native dress for a ragged pair of white shorts and a shirt, and then came to America, where the best Adventists were, and lived in poverty. If they chose to remain Heathen, rather than become New Converts, they could be counted upon to stop in at a neighboring hut, get roaring drunk, and stagger homeward. A lion usually got them, although sometimes it was a crocodile or a cobra. Or their favorite child died. God didn’t take kindly to being spurned. He smote back.

When the little old Chinese lady heard the singing I willed her to ignore it and hurry home to Josh, waiting in her nice safe rat-infested kitchen. But this was a mission story. She went in, enjoyed the singing, spoke to the preacher. He told her the story of Jesus. She was sold, had herself baptized, and rushed home to share the good news with the little old Chinese man. He was less than enchanted. His dinner was late, and the rats had been running around. “Cook me some pork and rice, wife,” he told the little old Chinese lady.

“But I am a Christian now,” she replied. “I can’t feed you pig meat any more. I follow the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Lord Jesus Christ tells me not to.”

The little old Chinese man was furious. He had been counting on pork and rice, and now his wife told him that he would be having plain rice because of some god he had never heard of. “If you go to church I will beat you,” he told her. “Josh is good enough for us.”

“Yes,” I silently encouraged the little old Chinese man. “Josh is good enough for you. Make her listen. Show her who’s boss.”

But the little old Chinese woman mule-headedly insisted on her new religion. Moreover, being a New Convert now, she instantly recognized an opportunity to both Witness to her husband and be Persecuted for her Faith, thus killing two birds with one stone. She went to church, returned home, took her beating rejoicing, and then cooked plain rice for the little old Chinese man, who beat her again for not cooking him pork. This state of affairs continued for some time.

The little old Chinese lady spent all her time hanging out with the Adventists and rubbing balm on her bruises. She ignored Josh, who returned the favor, gazing dustily at her while she cooked her husband plain rice in an attempt to lure him into becomine a New Convert as well. Her husband didn’t see the attraction of the Narrow Way and beat her, but it did no good. The rats were everywhere.

Desperate, the little old Chinese man finally offered his wife a deal: If Jesus could get rid of the rats, he could have Josh’s job. The little old Chinese lady wanted to get rid of the rats herself. Besides, she was eager to try a form of witnessing that didn’t involve cuts, bruises and fractured ribs. “All right,” she said.

She and the little old Chinese man sat down in the living room and she taught him how to pray in Adventist. “You have to fold your hands, like this,” she said. “And you have to close your eyes, like this.” The little old Chinese man followed her instructions. The little old Chinese lady prayed. A few rats ran across the floor and out the door.

“Huh,” said the little old Chinese man. “Josh coulda done that.”

The little old Chinese lady said, “Jesus isn’t done yet.” She prayed again. More rats ran out.

“Huh,” said her husband. “Josh coulda—”

“Jesus isn’t done yet,” said the little old Chinese lady, and she got a little snippy about it. She prayed once more. At long last, Jesus got on the stick and did his job. Rats poured out of the walls, out of the rice bin, out of the beds. They raced out the door. Eric B. Hare concluded: “And they never…came back….a…gain. And next week, when the little old Chinese lady went to church, the little old Chinese man…went…too.” Organ music swelled.

Hurrah for the little old Chinese lady, hobbling along on her little old bound Chinese feet. Jesus saved her the cost of an exterminator. I hated that story. I liked the little old Chinese lady with her little old Chinese man. I liked dusty, sleepy Josh. He sounded like a god you could live with. He might not be up to much, but at least worshipping him didn’t get the little old Chinese lady beaten. She didn’t spend her days in an agony of guilt, fearing hell because she knew she had sinned but didn’t know how. Josh let her put a little flavoring into her life, instead of insisting on a bland vegetarian diet. It made me sad when the Little Old Chinese lady forsook colorful, exotic Josh for the gray and chilly world of Adventism.

The runaway zoo animals were pretty much interchangeable. They lived in nice cozy cages, were tended by friendly keepers, ate good food, and dreamed of the wide world. Each found a cage door fortuitously open one day and escaped to wander through the city. Sally the monkey ended up in the hospital. Packey the elephant ended up knocking over parking meters and sitting on cars. Pokey just ended up lonely and depressed. He went back to the zoo on his own.

All three animals went on to live quiet, blameless lives, having learned their lesson: Flight is Futile. Resistance is Useless. Momma generally turned off the tape before Little Black Sambo. She didn’t approve of him. He wasn’t an Adventist, and he only wore a loincloth. Besides, the story of a tiger running around a tree until he turned into butter was not very uplifting. Also it was fantasy. A real tiger would have eaten Little Black Sambo long before butter came into it anywhere.

The stories seemed to have been expressly chosen to highlight my guilt, and the futility of hoping for happiness. Choose the lonely path of obeying God or die. Good Christians welcome suffering. Flight is futile. Resistance is useless. There is no escape; God is the only game in town. Josh is dead.

Eventually the tape broke. Momma repaired it with Scotch tape. It broke again in a new place. She repaired it again. It broke again. And again, and again. Eventually she tired of fixing it. Summer was coming, anyway, and we had no tape player up in the woods camp. The tape disappeared into a cupboard, and from my life.

The tape held many stories, but it took me a long time to pinpoint the single biggest, hardest story of all. God spoke to Noah. God honored the Chinese lady’s faith. God was good, real and present for others, but not for me. This God was actually a great deal like my father as I saw him in those days—a kind, loving, perfect father who was forced to hurt and shame me because I was rotten to my core. God was good to good people. But I wasn’t a good person; all God held for me was a dreary lifetime of failure, followed by the lake of fire that burns forever and ever, amen. I couldn’t help thinking that I might have had a chance with Josh.

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Here’s an excerpt from The Way We Did It, a memoir about growing up Adventist in a particular time, place, and family. This is about the day that I learned for sure that I couldn’t keep a secret.

At summer’s end I discovered that Daddy had been right all along; the cabins in the woods were not our home, but temporary way-stations on an apparently endless perambulation. We moved into a tiny two-bedroom house in Paradise, ninety miles from the cabins and the only world I really knew, and just a few blocks from the church school—close enough for Pam to walk each morning and afternoon. Her arrival each afternoon was the high point of our days.
I missed the daytime camaraderie of the camp, though nights were easier.

Daddy stayed in the woods, sleeping alone in our cabin, eating in the cookhouse with the single loggers. He came home on Friday afternoons. Momma, her belly big and round, stayed home with us in the tiny house.

The first week in November, she took us downtown to buy Daddy’s birthday present: black jeans, wool socks, and bright flannel shirts—work clothes, practical gifts. “Now don’t tell him what we got,” she told us. “We want it to be a surprise.”

“We won’t tell,” said Pam and Marie virtuously.

“You either, Bodie,” Momma said, giving me the evil eye.

“She always tells. Bodie can’t keep a secret,” Pam said.

“I can, too,” I retorted angrily. But Pam was right. Secrets had a way of just slipping right out of my mouth.

“Don’t tell, Bodie,” Momma said again. “If you do, I won’t tell you what the present is next time.”

“I won’t,” I promised. I would have promised anything right then, so elated was I at being in on the secret.

And all week long, while Daddy was off in the woods at work, I didn’t tell. Pam, Marie, and Momma reminded me often. Thursday came. At lunch time Pam burst in the door. “Momma, there’s a birthday party this afternoon and I got invited. Can I go?” Momma asked a few questions and then agreed. When Pam didn’t appear that afternoon I asked where she was. “She’s at a party,” Momma said. “She’ll be home in an hour or so.”

But she wasn’t. Sunset, and no Pam. Suppertime, and no Pam. Momma fed us vegetable soup and toast, moving stiffly between stove and table, rubbing her back and her swollen belly. We had no telephone. Finally Momma wrapped us in our coats and hustled us two doors down to a house where there was a phone. She dialed the party house from the bright, warm kitchen. No answer. She called the school. No answer.

“Let’s go find her,” Marie suggested.

“We can’t,” Momma said. “She might get home while we’re gone.” Momma called the party house again. Her finger trembled a bit in the rotary dial. Still no answer. It had been more than three hours—surely far too long for a Thursday night children’s party. Momma’s face paled, and her lips got tight. I saw her rubbing her stomach again. She hustled us back down the dark street to our house, worried lest Pam had arrived in our absence. We waited.

Finally, a little before seven p.m., Pam arrived home, chilled and rosy, laughing and full of the party. They had had supper. They had played games outside. That’s where they must have been the first time Momma called. The people had brought her home so Momma wouldn’t have to load us all into the car in her condition. Momma put us to bed early that night. The next morning, Friday, Momma took us over to Iris’ house.

Iris had moved to town about the same time we had, leaving the camp just about the time that the cold mornings began to creep out into the days, and the first Canada geese flew overhead. She and Iris made divinity. I don’t know what they talked about over that divinity, but afterward Iris loaded us all in the car, drove Momma to the hospital, then took us home and stayed with us.

We all loved Iris, but it felt funny, not having Momma there. I was too young to really understand that Momma’s big belly meant that a baby was coming, let alone that the baby was coming far too early; it was barely November, and the baby wasn’t due until the middle of December. We played quietly with our toys and talked to Iris. At lunchtime she fixed us hot dogs.

“We can’t eat those,” Marie declared. “They have pig in them.”

“No they don’t,” said Iris brightly.

“Yes, they do. I learned it in Sabbath School,” snapped Marie. “Hot dogs have pig in them. The Bible says we can’t to eat pig, so we can’t eat hotdogs.”

I wondered where the Bible it said “don’t eat hot dogs,” but I didn’t question Marie’s assertion. I couldn’t even remember more than one quarter’s worth of memory verses. What did I know?

“These don’t,” said Iris. “They’re a special kind. They’re all beef.

“Hot dogs have pig in them,” Marie said mulishly.

“No they don’t,” Iris said, her voice rising. She leaned down and held the package where Marie—who could not yet read—could see it. “See?” she asked. Her crimson finger nail stabbed at the package. “It says right there—all beef!”

“Hot dogs have pig in them,” Marie said again, setting her jaw. Iris gave up and fixed her a peanut butter sandwich. I ate the hot dog. It was delicious. “I’m telling,” Marie muttered. “You aren’t supposed to eat pig.

But that afternoon the hot dogs were forgotten. Daddy came home from the woods camp, found out Momma was in the hospital, and went up to check on her. He came back a little later, loaded us into our green and white Ford station wagon, and drove us out to the Caterpillar dealership. Before we left, though, he made sure all the car doors’ locks were firmly pushed down. Daddy had customized our car. The door locks could be pushed down, but once down they were flush with the door and could only be pulled back up again with a key. Our car didn’t have safety belts—Daddy considered them government interference into his private affairs—and our back seat was often laid flat. We four girls scrambled around in what was in essence a small room while we drove down the road. It seems odd, now, that he would consider safety belts effete and foolish but go to the trouble of installing locks that made us prisoners in the car.

That day, like all the others, we girls rode in the back until we got to the Caterpillar dealership, waited while Daddy used the special key to let us out of the car, and then went inside with him and stood quietly, as we had been taught. Daddy leaned on the counter and chatted with the man behind it, ordering parts, checking on back orders, passing greasy bits of machinery across the counter to the man, who turned them over, poked at them, muttered, and then passed them back. We ignored the conversation, as we had long ago learned to do, but then something caught my attention. “Yep, it’s a boy,” Daddy said proudly. “Six weeks early, and on my birthday.” Then he smiled. And that was how I learned that Matt had come to live with us.

After he finished at the CAT dealership Daddy drove us up to the hospital and left us locked in the car while he went inside. He came back out and drove us home, then arranged for our minister’s daughter to babysit us over the weekend so he could go up to the hospital with Momma.

Late Sunday afternoon he drove us up to the hospital again, this time to bring Momma home. He left us locked in the car yet again and went inside for Momma. We bounced and chattered. And then we saw Momma sitting in a wheelchair, holding a tiny blue bundle.

Momma had made two baby blankets before Pam was born, identical except for color. One was pink; the other blue. Five times, she had packed the pink and the blue blankets to go to the hospital. Four times she had held pink-wrapped bundles on her lap on the ride home. But now, at last, she had shaken out the blue blanket, wrapped it around her baby, and lifted him in her arms. Matt was an achievement. We all knew it. He was something new, something special, something different. He was fresh. He was a crisp blue blanket, rather than a tattered pink one.

Momma wouldn’t let us see him in the car. “It’s too cold,” she said. “He doesn’t have any winter clothes on.” Was he naked in there? I wondered. With just that thin blue blanket? It seemed vaguely indecent. At home we rushed into the house ahead of Momma. “Get out of the way, kids,” Daddy snapped when we crowded close as Momma came through the door. “Get back.” We got back, Momma came inside, and Daddy closed the door behind her. And then, at long last, Momma bent down and smoothed the blue blanket back and there was Matt, his head covered with fine platinum down, his lashes smooth crescents against his cheeks. Most babies are not beautiful, but Matt was, pink and gold and perfect, and so very tiny.

Matt was even tinier than my dolls. Daddy could hold him on his forearm, and his feet still didn’t stretch to Daddy’s elbow. “Can I hold him, Momma? Can I hold him? Let me…let me…let me,” the three of us who could talk clamored.

Little Sally just jumped and screamed and held her arms up.

“Go get a pillow,” Momma told Pam. “Sit on the couch…all the way back.” Pam sat, and Momma laid Matt on the pillow. Pam leaned forward, her arms gently encircling Matt on the pillow. After a few minutes Momma lifted Matt and Marie scrambled onto the couch, pulled the pillow onto her lap, and held Matt.

And at last it was my turn. Marie grudgingly handed me the pillow. I smoothed it over my lap and lifted my arms. Momma leaned down and laid tiny Matt gently on the pillow. I could barely feel his weight. I looked down at him in his fuzzy blue suit, then leaned forward as Pam had done and gently encircled him with my arms. I wished I could lift him, hold him close, hug him tightly to my heart. But it was not to be. The pillow would stay, an impenetrable barrier both protecting and isolating him.

Momma helped Sally hold Matt, then lifted him and carried him into the bedroom. “He has to nurse,” she told us. “The doctor said he has to eat often, because he’s too small.”

Later we got to tiptoe in and see Matt again, this time in bed beside Momma. Daddy’s wrapped birthday presents sat beside the bed. And that reminded me—Friday had been Daddy’s birthday. But Momma had been in the hospital, and now was already in bed, Matt sleeping beside her. How could we celebrate Daddy’s birthday? But Daddy had the answer. “Let’s just do it in here,” he said.

“I’ve already got my best present.” He smiled at Momma.

I looked at the packages. The small one was socks; the medium one was work pants, the large one new flannel shirts, I reminded myself. But I mustn’t tell. It was a surprise. “Can we do it now?” I asked, bouncing on my feet. “Can you open them now, Daddy?”

“Just be patient,” Daddy said.

“You’re gonna love it, Daddy,” The words rushed out, propelled by the secret I must not tell. “It’s a surprise and I know it’s just what you wanted.”

Daddy reached for a package and sat down on the bed. Pam and Marie each took another and moved to stand beside him. Daddy’s thick-fingered hands moved slowly, so slowly. “It’s just perfect, Daddy,” I said, my hands clasped tight, gripping the secret.

He peeled back a folded corner, carefully teased the tape free.

“We-got-you-socks-and-shirts-and-new-work-pants,” I blurted.

Daddy stopped opening the package and looked up at me. Pam, Marie and Momma glared. “Why did you tell me?” Daddy asked. “Now it’s no fun to open it.”

“You’ve spoiled Daddy’s birthday,” Momma said. Even baby Matt’s innocence reproved me.

“You can’t keep a secret,” Pam and Marie said. “We knew you’d tell. We’re never going to tell you a secret ever again.”

I looked at Momma lying in bed, at Matt beside her, at the half-opened present in Daddy’s hands, the gifts Pam and Marie still held.  There was no repairing it. A secret told cannot be untold. Daddy’s birthday had shattered around us.

“There’s not point in even opening them now,” Daddy said mournfully. My family looked at me. I looked back. Where could we go from here? Because I had been so excited about Matt’s coming and about the presents, so certain that Daddy would love them, I had ended up snatching away the very thing I had wanted to give more than anything. I still wanted to give the presents, but now Daddy wouldn’t accept them. Pam and Marie stood, angry and uncertain, the scorned gifts in their hands. The birthday had ended before it had properly begun.

We were trapped, I by my family’s anger, they by their assertion that there was no point to a gift if it wasn’t a surprise. If Daddy opened his gifts and expressed pleasure he was contradicting what he had just told me about the joy of a gift being destroyed if the secret was told. If he didn’t open them and express pleasure he was punishing Pam and Marie for my big mouth.

At last Pam found the way. “But you don’t know what color they are,” she ventured uncertainly.

“No,” said Daddy, smiling at her, relieved. “I don’t. I wonder what color you got me?”

“Open it and find out,” she said joyfully.

Daddy bent over his present again, started working the paper loose.

I opened my mouth. “It’s—”

Daddy’s head jerked up, and his eyes pinned me in place.

“Don’t tell,” Marie hissed, her face furious.

I snapped my mouth shut. Daddy, Pam, Marie, Momma, Sally, and Matt picked up the shards of Daddy’s birthday, piecing it carefully together again, finding their way back to a celebration. But they left me behind. I didn’t even wonder why—I knew. I had told the secret. I had spoiled things. I could not be trusted. If it hadn’t been for me, Daddy’s birthday would have been perfect, just perfect.

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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.

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