Thursday, November 4, 2010

Just We Women

I had lunch with Leona and Irene and Sandy, Irene's daughter.
I liked listening to their conversation, the familiar cadence of my aunts' voices, so much like my mother's.
I brought her name up frequently in the conversation. I was hungry for information.

My mother was the second youngest of nine children. Leona said she was shy as a child. If company came to the door Marie would hide. My grandmother joked that she actually had only eight children. Marie made herself scarce when strange faces were around. I'm thinking, I know that feeling. A solitary person myself all my life, other people drain me. Leona says that when my mother and Sonny met he liked her immediately. Well, what able-bodied fellow would not. Jet black thick curly hair, teasing black eyes, an hour glass figure. As her son David told his father when viewing a picture of my mother in her twenties, "I can see why you made so many trips to Cascade."

Leona and Irene talked about how witty and sarcastic her nature had been. Lord, she had a caustic perspective on the world. No one and nothing was safe from her pick-it-apart critiquing. I have seen my mother walk into the kitchens of restaurants and tell the chef how the meal should have been prepared. My mother and I were not always polite to each other during my teen-aged years. I was that moody adolescant, a crappy daughter. I preferred my father, he seemed more sophisticated and cosmopolitan, a reader of history and non-fiction. My mother was moored in romance paperbacks and ladies' magazines. At a city-sponsored event for parents and honor students in my senior year of high school the subject of reading came up at the table. I worried what she might say. She said I used my "college vocabulary" to out talk her in arguments. Whatever her opinion may be I would take the exact opposite stance. Not until I was in my advanced 30's did I realize her tremendous worth in my life.

I look at these women, their well worn-faces, their stories of hard work and obligation. My grandmother took in laundry from the town's well-to-do class and the creases needed to be ironed straight and perfectly. My mother remembers bringing in the frozen white shirts in the winter, their hands raw and red. All the girls hated the hours at the ironing board. Irene had calloused ridges on her palms from gripping the heavy irons. It was years before they went away. They talk about present day duties, using home-grown strawberries in their jam and whose fields yielded the best fruit. Days of cutting vegetables and quarts of preserved green beans on the pantry shelves. Hills planted in potatoes and dozens of harvests through the years, some good and some scanty. I am glad to be in their company. It is the first time since my mother's death that I feel safe. They are kind and introspective women. They talk of their neighborhoods, whose baby is sick, who will have hip surgery, what needs to be done. Bake sales for the nursing home, fund raisers for the library, they are the silent and necessary people in the community.

I think my mother purposely looked for a city boy when it was time to marry. She was quick to move to an urban setting and take an apartment a few blocks from the tavern where she would meet my father. She worked a job at the packing plant slicing bacon on the line. She had enough of farm life, the dependence on soil and weather for survival, the inconsistency and irregularity of a life based on the whims of nature. After scouring hundreds of jars every season, she vowed never to put up a jar of preserved food and she kept that promise to herself. The next day my aunt Leona drops off a box of Ball instant fruit pectin at my house. They're trying to convert me.

In the years of my childhood we spent most of our holidays and summer vacations with my father's family. They had had an easier time during the Depression years, continuing to work in the family paint and wallpaper business on Main Street and living in a mansion-like house on the hill. My grandfather kept his car and put it up on wooden blocks in the garage. He knew he would be able to afford gasoline again when the economy improved. My father's sisters were artists and muscians, college educated and riding around town with the local boys and playing nightly euchre games at the family home, brown beer bottles on every flat surface. A stark contrast to my maternal grandma's situation, Elizabeth never having enough money, enough food, enough coal and wood to warm the house. I assumed that my father wanted to spend time with his more frivolous, party-loving sisters and brothers instead of that serious, hard-working family in Cascade. It was the 60's, the season of the alpha male, husbands got their way. I was wrong, it was my mother who chose to keep her family at a distance. I'm not sure why. Perhaps she did not like people in general, her children understand this, all of us, but one, are loners. I will continue to study this.

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