Posts Tagged ‘women’s history’

Yes, that’s the name, and I’ll get to that, but first, about the potato pancakes:

My grandmother made me potato pancakes for me one fall morning. I sat at her rickety table, on a rickety chair, and watched while she mixed the pancakes, fried them, and carried them over to me. She had a sign taped to her refrigerator: “My kitchen is clean enough to be healthy and dirty enough to be happy.” The sign was faded, tattered, and grimy under its protective Saran Wrap shield.

“My son Donald won’t eat here,” she told me. “He says my kitchen’s too dirty. When he comes up we eat out.” She said it matter-of-factly. She didn’t clean her kitchen. My standards were less refined than Uncle Donald’s, or maybe I was just too tired to worry about it.

I had just made the eight-hour drive from the Chicago suburbs, where I was teaching, to Grandma’s house in Upper Michigan. I grew up in Eastern Oregon’s high deserts and pine forests; nothing had prepared me for the Midwest’s autumn. When I left Chicago Friday afternoon the trees were just beginning to turn. As I drove north through Lake Geneva, Waukesha, Lannon, Green Bay, Appleton, and Peshtigo I drove from late summer into full autumn. By the time I crossed the river dividing Marinette, Wisconsin from Menominee, Michigan the colors were so bright I could scarcely keep my eyes open. Trees splashed lemony, golden, amber, orange, rose, red, and burgundy against a sky deep and blue enough to drown in.

When I drove up Grandma’s gravel driveway and past the twisted apple tree where my father used to wait for the school bus I was nearly asleep at the wheel, exhausted both by the drive and the sheer intensity of the colors. They poured into me, the visible manifestation of the icy, pure, air. In the midst of all that vivid clarity the grubbiness of Grandma’s blue gingham tablecloth back under the saltshakers and the honey bear was not of much interest to me.

I slept fourteen hours straight curled up on the tiny bed in Grandma’s cedar-scented spare room, the same bed I had slept in on childhood visits, the bed where I had read English Orphans, and The Bobbsey Twins at Cherry Corners. I woke at noon, showered, dressed, and went to find Grandma. She sat in her living room, crocheting, keeping a sharp eye on the crackling wood stove. Icy, pure air swirled in through the open living room door, and mixed but did not blend with the hot air around the stove. It felt like a marbled cake looks, hot and cold, side by side.

Grandma finished her row and looked up at me. “So what do you want to do today? I am at your disposal.” She smiled.

I knew what I should do. I should load Grandma into the car and drive her forty miles to visit her brother; the drive was too much for her these days, and she only got to see him when other people could drive her. But I looked out the open door at the green grass under the apple trees in her orchard, at the yellow and red-striped apples on the ground and in the trees, at the brilliant forests beyond, and I said something else.

“I want to walk through the Forty, and then I want to make a pie,” I said.

“All right,” said Grandma. “What kind?”


“We’ll need to get some butter from the store.”

“Okay. But let me walk through the Forty first.”

The Forty had been in my family since my great-grandfather had gotten it by guile. Actually, he had acquired a good part of the Upper Peninsula that way, earning the enmity of a good part of the population as well.

There had been hard times, and everything but the Forty had been lost. When the Depression hit the Forty was the way Dad’s family survived. They cut junk wood, peeled it, and trucked it to the paper mills downstate.  Now that only Grandma was left the Forty had grown up into a nearly impenetrable tangle. Only the road leading down into the swamp, up over the little hill, and then down to the creek remained passable. Every time Dad saw it he talked about how the Forty needed to be cleaned out not as a means of income, but for the sake of the woods themselves. On that fall day it looked to me like the woods were doing just fine on their own.

I walked down Grandma’s driveway, crossed the cracked, twisting, one-lane road that ran by her house, and found the old railway cutting that led to the road into the Forty. The Germans have a word: spazieren. It literally means “to walk,” but really it means more than that. It means to walk thin-skinned, to not just pass through the world, but to absorb it, to become a part of the whole, to see with the soul as well as the eyes. That was what I did that day. The birches and maples were so brilliant it seemed it must be warm—but the breeze was chilly. I walked to the creek and back, over and over, until I was sated.

Back at Grandma’s house, I found her waiting in her rocking chair on the porch, purse by her feet. We drove up the road to the highway, then went south to the store. Late Shasta daisies still starred the grass, tucked into fence lines and spreading through the neat little fields carved out of the trees.

The woman running the store had gone to school with Dad. Grandma had known her mother. She introduced me: “This is Dan’s girl. She’s going to make us a pie.”

“Oh,” the woman said. “How is Dan these days?” She didn’t ask, “Dan who?” Memories are long in Upper Michigan.

We bought butter and sugar. “But don’t you already have a bunch of sugar in the basement?” I asked Grandma.

“I’m saving it,” she said.

I thought of my Aunt Dora, who never really got over the rationing in World War II. She died with an attic full of toilet paper and sugar. I didn’t ask why Grandma was hoarding fifty-pound sacks of sugar in her cellar beside the canned venison, corn, and tomatoes. I didn’t really want to know.

Back at Grandma’s I took a basket and walked up the hill to the orchard. Apples were everywhere. Grandma left them for the deer, mostly, taking only enough for her immediate needs and for applesauce. I could afford to be choosy.

I took a long time choosing my apples on that bright fall day, picking up the windfalls, turning them over, polishing them on the skirt of the apron I had borrowed, tucking them into my basket if they passed muster, tossing them away for the deer if they didn’t. Back in the house, Grandma had cleared and scrubbed the table, mostly. I ignored the dingy corners; I wouldn’t be rolling pie dough there, anyway. Two bowls stood there as well as the sugar, cinnamon, butter, and rolling pin. I set the basket of apples down beside them and marveled at the impromptu still life Grandma and I had created.

She gave me a knife to peel the apples. I carried the basket and bowl out onto the porch, sat on the massive granite slab she used for a front step, breathed in the intoxicating air, looked at the brilliant trees, and peeled and sliced my apples. Grandma’s nearest neighbor—yet another old schoolmate of my father’s—drove by. She waved at me, then turned into the dirt road that led past our Forty to her white farmhouse, set back behind the meadow.

I finished the apples, stood, and carried everything back inside, leaving the door open.

My pie dough breaks all the rules. The first time I made it my mother yelled at me. “That’s not the way,” she said. “You don’t put your hands into it and smoosh it around like that. You’re working it too much. It’ll be tough.” It was a lingering sorrow for her that her piecrusts weren’t light and flaky; she had hoped for better for me. And there I was, squishing it around like Play Doh.

Against all reason, the crust was perfect—light, golden, and flaky. Mom shook her head and let me make it my own way after that. To this day, I have no idea why my piecrusts turn out.

That day at Grandma’s I made the crusts the way I always do—with lots of butter, flour, a little sugar and cinnamon, and more elbow grease than the experts recommend. I worked butter and flour together, worked it some more, added a little water, worked it some more, sprinkled flour, sugar, and cinnamon over the blue-checked vinyl cloth, lifted Grandma’s scarred wooden rolling pin, and started rolling the crusts. Bits of greasy dough still clung to my butter-softened hands..

I looked out the window as I worked, felt the chilly outside air swirling around me, cutting through the heat from the stove, and gently, so gently, I felt myself slip into place. I thought of my mother making pies, of Grandma making pies, of her mother and grandmother before her, of all the women who had gone before me in an unbroken line, all making pies very much the way I was making this one today.

I finished rolling my crusts, slipped them into pie plates that were older than I was, filled them with apples from the orchard, covered them with sugar, cinnamon, and butter, rolled the top crusts, cut graceful curves, arabesques, and flowers into them, laid them over the apples, crimped the edges, sprinkled them with more cinnamon and sugar, and put them into Grandma’s oven. And all the while I thought of the women before me, kneading bread, making pies, roasting meat, gathering fruit, comforting children, patching clothing, and they felt so close I thought I might touch them, if my hands hadn’t been covered in pie dough.

I had grown used to hearing people bemoan the fact that the world was changing past recognition. There at my Grandma’s grimy table I realized that in some important ways that wasn’t the case. The things that are central to life—the round of the seasons and the nurturing of family—still happen much like they always have. Bread and pies are still made the same way they have been made for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. They make a small, still pool of eternity—one into which anyone may dip. Such things are the lifeblood of history, the things that bind daughters to mothers to grandmothers—and that keep us alive. They are things that bind us beyond knowing, things that lie deeper than mere acquaintance. We may not like each other—we may not even know each other—but the things that are really central to survival don’t differ that much from culture to culture, generation to generation. We feed our families and ourselves. We defend our children. We all make bread. Most of us make pies.

I napped while the pies baked. They came out crisp, golden, and perfect. When I woke they sat on the gingham tablecloth and Grandma dozed in her chair. A farmer—yet another of Dad’s school chums—was cutting hay in the field next to Grandma’s house.

“Take him some pie,” she said when she woke.

I cut a big piece, put it on a plate, and carried it through the new-mown hay. He pulled the tractor out of gear, jumped down, smiled, and ate the pie leaning against the tractor’s big wheel.

The next day Grandma and I got in the car and drove the forty miles to her brother’s house. On the way home we drove slowly down the empty road, carefully avoided the snapping turtles sunning on the warm pavement, and counted deer in the fields while the evening came down around us blue and deep, turning the trees from yellows, reds and oranges to blues, purples, and blacks. We saw a fox. “I know where its den is,” Grandma said. I stopped the car and she led me through the brilliant forest to a secret hillside and showed me where the vixen had raised her cubs that spring. I wondered if they were still using the den; I was not enough of a naturalist to know.

Back at Grandma’s house the cut apple pie still sat on the blue gingham table cloth, its golden filling oozing out into the pan. Grandma and I each had a piece with ice cream, sitting in her living room, looking out at the darkening hillside, listening to the sounds of the night. Both of us were quiet. When the pie was gone I carried our dishes back into the kitchen, hugged Grandma goodnight, went down the hall to my cedar scented room, curled up on the child-size bed, and fell asleep to the sound of deer munching apples in the orchard. The arms of all the mothers before me wrapped me in comfort.

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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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