What a Mess

This is a picture of my kitchen This used to be a picture of my kitchen, until it was lost in a camera phone update snafu, in more or less its usual state. Well, except on Fridays. On Fridays someone comes and cleans my house, and when I get home, the surfaces are empty and clear and clean. The rest of the time it looks like this. Or worse.

I post this here because perhaps your kitchen looks like this, too. (Or perhaps your kitchen does not. Perhaps you are recoiling in horror and considering whether to call DHS, or at least wondering how I can let my world slide into such slovenliness when I am so privileged as to have a cleaning person once a week, or perhaps you think no good Christian woman would ever let the world see her house in such a state — actually, if you think that, please let me know — I would be stunned to have such a reader.)

But let us suppose instead that you are like most of the people I know, and your kitchen does look sort of like this. I am betting that when people come to your house, you apologize.

“Oh, the house is such a wreck; I’m so sorry!”

“God, I have been meaning to clean, but this week has just been crazy!”

“I have to apologize — it really isn’t usually like this.”

I know you’ve probably said these things, because I’ve said them, too. And before I said them myself, I heard my mother and grandmother say them. I’ve said this before, and failed, but I’m resolving anew: I’m going to stop.

My great-grandmother, my mother’s mother’s mother was a woman I never met, but by all accounts, she kept an immaculate house. It was the sort of house, according to my mother, in which you did not dare to misbehave, and yet there was a great deal to do: chores, yes, but also games, and pictures of puppies and kittens glued to the interior of the cabinets when the children were small, so that they’d have something to look at. Her house could have been on Pinterest, had it existed in the first half of the twentieth century.

It was beautiful, from what I hear, and I’m sure that was true. My grandmother and my mother lamented constantly their inability to live up to Hazel’s standards.

But here’s the thing: Hazel did not work outside the home. And Hazel had help.

Yes, I am kind of a lazy slob, but I am not going to apologize for not striving to keep my house up to the standard of a time when one was expected to keep a house and raise children, not keep a house and raise children and have a job. And I don’t think you should, either.

A long time ago, when I wanted to be a writer, I spent a lot of time reading about writers (this is not a particularly good way to become a writer, but, see above, I am a lazy slob). In one collection of essays I read, I remember a woman who was asked about how she managed to write and raise a family. Her answer was, “I say no a lot.” But she also admitted that she didn’t write as much, that sometimes writing time went to children and to household, and that some days, an organized linen closet felt as satisfying as an orderly paragraph.

For someone who has little choice in the matter (well, I suppose I could stay home with my child, if I wanted to be homeless), I spend an inordinate amount of time reading “mommy war” (how I loathe that term) articles about that subset of enormously educated and priviliged women who choose to stay home with their children and populate the pages of Pinterest and bring their adorable children to programs at the library where I work, causing me, whenever they show up, to want to hide in my office or deep in the adult stacks because I miss my own child so much at those moments. Some of this is the never-ending fascination with the lives of the rich, or relatively rich. Some of it is pure schadenfreude — whenever I read about a stay-at-home mom who got divorced and finds herself broke and desperate, a not small part of me has small, mean serves you right kinds of thoughts, because of course I am a single mother and I do it all. But mostly I think all those of us who read these articles do so because we are fascinated and baffled by this business of life, of working and mothering, and because we keep hoping against hope that someday, someone will say something about it that is true.

Ordinary Linens: A Remembrance of Jody Wallace, 1923-2012

This is, more or less, the eulogy I delivered at my grandmother’s memorial service on Saturday, September 22 at Plymouth Place in La Grange Park, Illinois.

A load of ordinary linens consists of two sheets, two big towels, two to four small towels, four or more pillowcases, and four or five shirts. That makes a large load, which should be set to wash warm and rinse cold, and to which should be added between a third and a half a cup of Calgon, soap, and a half to three quarters of a cup of borax.

When that cycle is finished, the load should be set to run again, this time cold wash, cold rinse, with some diluted Calgon and one half to three quarters of a cup of Borateem. Add one half to two thirds of a cup of Downy to the fabric softener container and fill to the plus sign with water.

If I tell you that this was one of the simpler of my grandmother’s laundry routines (clothing went through three wash cycles; washcloths went through such machinations that I was never entrusted with them), you will think either that she was a domestic goddess or that she was crazy. Those of you who visited her any time in the last twenty years or so would know that the former was not the first descriptor that would come to mind. Her penchant for collecting things — magazines, newsletters, catalogs, recipes, movie reviews, book reviews, lists of foods that people liked or didn’t like, lists of groceries to buy, lists of things to do, lists of lists to make — meant that her house was never tidy and made one think that her lifelong paranoia about candle flames might in fact be a good thing.

But in another sense, she was the most domestically gifted person I have ever met. If domesticity means not orderliness but hospitality, then surely it is her old house at 126 Sunset that should grace the covers of magazines, clutter and all, for it was there that people were received, one and all, as the most cherished of guests.

My grandmother often told me that when she was growing up, her grandmother’s house was the most deathly boring place on earth. She had to go there with some frequency, and, she said, there was nothing to do. I am sure that in that era of “children should be seen and not heard,” she and her brother and cousins were not supposed to be doing anything, but I got the impression from talking to her that they were not even really meant to be seen. She vowed that her house, when she had grandchildren, would never be like that.

And it was not. When my cousins and I were growing up, one could, on any given day at her house, be assured of a meal served primarily on toothpicks (because any small child, my grandmother believed, could be encouraged to try new food if it were served on a toothpick). (And they were fancy plastic colored toothpicks, so one could, for instance, request one’s food entirely on pink toothpicks.) There was the glass topped coffee table, which contained a turtle that moved if you looked at it and that on very rare occasions might be opened up so that you could handle the treasures inside–the plastic model airplanes that Delta used to give to children on its flights, a piece of a clear rock that doubled whatever you put behind it, a desert rose, a figurine from the World’s Fair in Chicago, jeweler’s glasses, a tiny pot with miniscule dried flowers, a piece of fool’s gold that seemed altogether real and a piece of meerschaum that seemed impossibly light, and a dozen or more other objects of great fascination. The basement contained lead pellets that could be hammered flat into coins and then imprinted with letters, and the attic held all the Oz books, a Dutch door perfect for presenting puppet shows, and a pool table.

The house was the site of innumerable games, experiments, entertainments, and disasters. The first pizza my mother ever had was ordered by my grandmother for members of the high school newspaper staff after they’d been hard at work rather late at night on another issue. For my uncle’s winter camping experience with the Boy Scouts, she sewed and quilted sleeping bag underlays of unbleached muslin and two layers of heavy duty aluminum foil by hand. The summer my mother got married, my grandmother and anyone else she could rope into the project, including her cousin, then a PhD student in mathematics at the University of Chicago, painted matchbook covers with flowers to match the napkins for the reception. (There were also a certain number of unauthorized experiments, such as the time I drew on the wall with lipstick and the times my uncle rigged up mood lighting in the kitchen.) Visiting children were afforded an equal measure of amusements — my friend Rachel specifically remembers the game my grandmother designed just to entertain her twins when they came to visit as toddlers, and my friend Caitrin could tell you about the letters my grandmother helped her daughters write to Santa after they moved so he would know where they lived, and the letters she wrote, as Santa, back to them in reply.

So yes, my grandmother was in fact a sort of domestic goddess. She was also sort of crazy. At least, I assume she believed that if she told anyone else she once dealt with a casserole that had gone bad by burying it, dish and all, in the backyard, they would think she was crazy. I did not think this when she told me when I was twenty-seven and living with her. I thought it was genius. Future archaeologists will, I suspect, just be puzzled.

My grandmother once said that she supposed if people were to remember her, she would hope they would remember that “I could be amusing.” I’m sure everyone here remembers that well. I’d like to offer, however, a few other things you might remember from Jody’s life:

  • That it’s almost always a good time for milk and cookies
  • That dumping a bottle of ketchup over someone’s head is, on very rare occasions, an appropriate disciplinary measure
  • That eggs will continue to cook after you take them off the heat
  • That all people — including children — are entitled to bread and roses, too
  • That the smallest gesture has the power not only to make someone’s day but to fix itself — and you — in their memory, as surely as my grandmother and all her gestures are fixed in ours. We remember her housekeeping not because it was good or bad, crazy or sane, but because she did it — because she cared.

On Father’s Day

My grandfather, who had left my grandmother many years before, killed himself when I was three months old. I never met him, though I’m told he heard my babbling over the phone. My father killed himself when I was five and a half. I have two friends I’ve known long enough that they remember my father, at least a bit. One has never met her father, as her mother left him before she was born. The other has a father who barely acknowledges her and who was never married to her mother, though he has been married to a number of other people over the years.

I’ve never been too keen on Father’s Day as a result. I pass it off as part of my eternal hatred of holidays perpetuated by the greeting card industry, but in point of fact, I have perhaps understandably mixed feelings about the whole notion of fatherhood, and precious little experience with it myself.

When I was in fourth grade, there was a girl in our school whose mother was dying of cancer. We all made cards for her, at the instruction of our teachers, and everyone was terribly solicitous toward her. It was terrible for her — I knew that even then — but at the time my primary emotion was envy. She had a parent dying and people knew about it and understood it. Her mother was dying for a reason. I thought nobody knew how my father died, and I didn’t want anyone to find out. I was convinced it would simply brand me as crazy.

In years since, of course, I’ve come to know many good fathers — fathers of friends, and, now that I am older, friends who are fathers. They are to a man good men and good fathers, and I’m honored to have their friendship.

And I was lucky in many ways: I did not have my father for long, but for the five and a half years he was here, I had the best father a little girl could ever have wanted. He was never the dependable parent — he was famous for running out of gas, or for getting on the wrong bus, or for forgetting crucial things like my breakfast — but he was good and true in many other ways, and he loved me and he loved my friends, and he did some of the things their fathers were not there to do, giving them rides home and taking us to story time at the public library, and buying us rainbow sherbet afterwards.

But on this Father’s Day I’d like to take a moment to remember absent fathers, difficult fathers, even bad fathers. We carry their genes with us, even if we don’t know how or what they mean. I’ve been told I wash my hands the way my father did, for instance, and I know that I got his hair, and his temper. Who knows what other bits of him are lodged within me, or what bits of the fathers they never knew are lodged within my friends?

Those of us without fathers still, somewhere, had a father, and I believe we still honor that, or that we have to find some way to, because you can’t, as Malcolm X once said, hate the root of the thing and not hate the thing itself. I can’t, of course, actually speak for anyone else here, but I cannot hate my father. He was difficult at the best of times, and of course he left me in the most final way possible. But I cannot, and do not, hate him.

And so today I remember John M. Crossett Jr., professor, printer, doubles tennis player, drinker, pipe smoker, tyrant, and, most importantly, father. Much love to you, Daddy, wherever you are.


On Home

Half a century later, I barely recognize it
when I search the address on Google Maps
and, via “Street view,” find myself face to face—

foliage overgrown, facade remodeled and painted
a drab brown. I click to zoom: light hits
one of the windows. I can almost see what’s inside.

–from “9773 Comanche Ave.” by David Trinidad

None of my childhood homes are available on Google’s street view yet, which amuses me, as the house I’m in now, in podunksville, is there. But I discovered in my search that one of them, the house we moved to when I was eight and stayed in till I was twelve, is for sale. It’s funny to see your old house, many owners and coats of paint later, for sale, staged by some real estate agent, some things gone, some of the features you added–the wood floors upstairs–now advertised, the window of your bedroom over the garage where you once snuck out at night. I remember helping write copy for the ad we placed for that house when we sold it so long ago. The current ad, sadly, preserves none of my excellent phrasing about the nearness to the park and the nature of the trees in the yard. (Actually, I doubt those things made in to the ad when I was twelve, either, but my mother was good at humoring me.)

The park is still there, but the trees have changed, and the fence is gone, and house is painted a different color. It looks better now, in truth, but it’s not a house I really loved at the time or would ever want to go back to. No, the house I keep hoping to find again, the rooms I keep searching for, the place that still truly says home to me is the house we lived in when I was very, very little, when my father was still alive.

The house had a great many problems, but at ages zero through four, they were mostly lost on me. I did not notice that we had only a clawfoot tub in the bathroom, and that if you wanted to take a shower, you were relegated to a Sears shower stall in the kitchen. I did not notice the peeling wallpaper, the drafts, the door that led outside to a steep dropoff, which confused my mother for many years until the people who eventually bought the house restored the wraparound porch, and suddenly a second door onto the porch made sense. I didn’t really notice any of this: it was just the house where we  lived.

It was a block and a half from the college where my father taught. The college, in a sort of ür-liberal arts college fashion, sat on top of a hill, and at the bottom of the hill, by the sidewalk, was a stone wall that functioned as a sort of terrace between the town and the college proper. In my memory, it is a very tall stone wall, although since I have been back, I realize it is perhaps two feet at most. But in the autumn when I was very little, my father and I would stand or sit on the wall with tall sticks and “fish” for leaves. It is the only fishing I have ever done, and I hesitate to do any real fishing for fear that it would not live up to the original.

There was a garage to the side of the house — one year my father bought my mother an automatic garage door opener for her birthday, and she was deeply irked — and a barn behind it, leftover from when the house was built, in the 1880s, and people still needed barns. It served no real barnlike function, but it did house a great many students bicycles during the winter months. It was a sort of bicycle stable — all late 1970s racing bikes, the sort that Jennifer Beals rode in Flashdance — a thoroughbred stable of bikes. Between the barn and the house my mother had a vegetable garden, and we had a lawn where our friends planted a cherry tree in honor of my christening. The cherry tree is long gone now. Our tenants after we moved to Iowa City kept trying to start cuttings from it for us, but they never survived, and the tree eventually fell to the ravages of time, but for many years our neighbors Dr. John and Mrs. Mary made cherry pies from its harvest every year.

We had two living rooms in the house in Mount Vernon: I suppose at one time they were a front and back parlor. The front living room is where my parents entertained, and I was not allowed to have my toys in there, although I was allowed to hang around when people came over, at least for awhile. I was puzzled by grown up drinks — they sat there with what seemed to me rather small glasses of fluid and then drank them for hours. I would have drained a cup like that in seconds flat. Given the preponderance of alcoholics in academia, and the story my mother tells of a night when they had a party and everyone decided suddenly it would be a good idea to go to Iowa City, twenty miles away, and so they all did, piling into cars and leaving the lights and the stereo on and the doors wide open, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them were draining their glasses of bourbon in seconds flat, but I never saw it. They seemed to sip.

The back living room contained a number of books, an odd oil portrait of my mother that my parents won at a raffle or auction of some sort, and the corner that was my father’s–a Swedish modern armchair and a hassock, his pipestand, and a small black and white television where he watched football and tennis. I spent as much time as possible sitting on his lap, unless of course my mother was baking, or I needed a balloon that Daddy had blown up tied off, in which case I had to get my mother to do it.

My room, when my parents moved into the house, had had red walls and bright red shag carpeting. My mother decided this was not the place for a baby, and so they had it recarpeted in a soft green, and they painted the walls white, except for one wall that was a pale green, as they’d run out of white paint. The drapes were a dark green and white pattern. I remember the house as having arched windows, although I realize now it was simply that there were arched shapes inlaid in the rectangular windows. My parents slept down the hall from me, and it was my great goal in life to convince them that I was a cat so I could sleep on the bed. Our cat Moby Tom was allowed to sleep on their bed, but I was not, which struck me as unfair, so I would crawl up and curl up as small as I possibly could.

We were poor when we lived in that house, or so I am told. My mother grew vegetables and made applesauce from windfall apples and made her own Bisquick and made all our bread, though that had more to do with my father’s unwillingness to eat storebought bread than with money saving. It was the first and only house my father ever owned, purchased in his late 40s or early 50s, and when we moved to a rental house in Iowa City, he insisted that we had to rent it out, too, instead of selling, because he couldn’t bear to part with the only house he had ever owned.

Daddy died a year after we moved to Iowa City, where we lived in a tiny, shoddy rental house on Rider Street. I was only four and a half when we moved there, and its flaws were no more apparent to me than those of the house in Mount Vernon. It was tiny, but it had an enormous backyard, and there was a girl two houses away who would play with me, even though she was several years older. There were rosebushes and a strawberry patch and a mulberry tree that straddled the line between us and our neighbors, and on my birthday, a few of my friends came over and we had a party. But when I think of my father in that house, I see him stooped, as if the house itself were too small for his 6’1″ frame. He injured his hip when we lived in that house, and had to use a walker for some time, which meant going down its hallways sideways, as they were too narrow for the walker to fit head-on. I know, of course, that the house didn’t kill him, but it is hard not to see it as some sort of factor in his decline.

Perhaps because my father died when I was so very young I remember a great deal about my early childhood in our first house — the ghost stories my father told me about the laundromat, the placement of my crib and later my bed in the green room that used to be red, the windowseat in my father’s office where I sometimes napped, the room where my mother had an ironing board and her sewing machine set up, our neighbor’s dog, Brink, who chased our cat Moby Tom up the telephone pole so many times that they finally kept him chained, and I brought him a piece of balogna every time we went to the butcher shop and fed him my hotdog peels. I remember sitting on the stone curb of our driveway when their kitchen caught on fire, and my mother telling me to Stay Put as she ran across their yard. I sat and watched the firemen run in and out from their truck. In those days, fire trucks were still fire-engine red, not the yellow-green they are today, and that color perhaps sums up everything I have to say about Mount Vernon — the old water tower that I called the pea on toothpicks, the red and green tennis courts, the limestone walls, the computer at the college that occupied a whole room, the way I shuffled through the leaves in the fall in my red and green Winnie the Pooh sweatshirt with the hood pulled up, holding my father’s hand.

On Dinner

roast chicken, peas, mashed potatoes, beet and carrot salad
tonight's dinner
As I child, I was told with great frequency — perhaps not every time we ate chicken, but surely every other time — that my great grandfather could get a piece of chicken down to its bones with a knife and fork. I believe this is the great grandfather who was my mother’s father’s mother’s third and fourth husband, although I could be wrong about that. Reminding the younger generations of the general and specific superiority of people they they never knew is a specialty in our family.

I have never come close to this feat myself, although to be fair, I never try, since I usually give up and gnaw on my chicken leg about halfway through the process of eating it. I did that tonight, in fact, with the chicken leg you see pictured above.

Every few months, I buy a chicken from Cody Meat Country Store. Their meat meat all comes from within an hour radius, and I choose to believe that their chickens do, too, and that said chickens lead happy and fulfilled chicken lives before they find their way to my roasting pan. I could, of course, ask about the chickens, but that would involve me talking to people, which I generally don’t like to do, and there’s the slim possibility that it might lead me to finding out things about the chickens that I don’t want to know, and so I remain blissfully ignorant.

Nine times out of ten, I roast the chicken, which is to say that I throw it in a pan (I use a glass pan, because that is what I have), stick it in a very hot oven for fifteen or twenty minutes, and then turn the heat down and leave the thing there for another hour or so. I do not truss, because Laurie Colwin said that you do not have to. On some occasions I throw your typical roasting vegetables into the pan — some carrots, some onions, some whatever else I have that grows underground. On this occasion, I cut up a lemon and stuffed it inside the bird and sprinkled a little rosemary on top and, at some point, brushed some olive oil on the skin and then poured some mediocre white wine over the whole thing. Tonight was my second night of chicken leg-mashed potatoes-peas-carrot and beet salad. The carcass is simmering in a stock pot; the rest of the meat will most likely get used for sandwiches or some sort of chicken salad (recipe suggestions are accepted!), since I may not be quite up to making seventeen meals out of one chicken. (Or at any rate I am not up to counting them — it’s hard to say how far the chicken stock will take me.)

I derive what is perhaps an excessive amount of pleasure from food. Breakfast is probably my favorite meal of the day, and knowing I get to have breakfast when I get up is one of the only things that sometimes gets me out of bed in the morning. I used to be not really a fan of lunch, but lately I’ve been trying go with a sort of bento model, wherein I get lots of different things — this week it’s been beans and rice and salsa, jicama and orange salad, a pear, and sometimes some nuts — and that seems to improve my take on it. (That, and more or less giving up on the letters to the editor in the Casper Star-Tribune. I used to find them very entertaining (people not infrequently get called Communists), but, as is often the case, I find myself in some odd way less happy with politics when my supposed party is no longer the underdog. Now I stick to the local police reports and things are much, much happier.) And dinner! The best thing about a bad day is that dinner can still be really good. I try not to start thinking about it until after lunch, but I don’t always make it. I look forward to dinner in the way that I used to look forward to the X-Files, or Thursday nights on NBC, back in the days when I watched television. Only dinner, of course, is every night.

My grandmother once told me that after she and my grandfather got divorced, someone — a doctor, I think — told her that she had to find other things to be interested in. “And the only thing I was ever really interested in was food,” she said. That’s not true — she’s also interested in local and national politics and books and people’s wildly inaccurate ideas about the Bible (as with many agnostics I know, she knows the book quite well) and paint colors and furniture arrangement and what her family members are up to and what her imaginary cat is up to and what our ancestors were up to when they were alive and old movies and new movies and. . . I could go on. But food is one of our common bonds.

When I was very, very little, I ate almost anything put in front of me, but as I got older I began to observe my father, who was a man of extremely limited tastes. He would eat most meat, provided it wasn’t too flavorful, and he would eat potatoes and spaghetti and bread, though only if it was homemade. He liked breakfast, and he liked cheese and crackers, but the only vegetables he would eat were French cut green beans and carrot sticks, but only if they had been sitting in a little dish of water in the refrigerator for half an hour. He believed that all mushrooms were poisonous. I strove to be like my father in all things, and so gradually I stopped eating all the foods that he didn’t eat, or as many of them as my mother would let me get away with (peas, as I recall, were never optional).

My grandmother had a theory that a child would eat almost anything if it were presented in a small bite on a toothpick, and she had a box of plastic toothpicks in assorted colors for just this purpose. One year, when I was perhaps seven, and my father had been dead for two years, my grandmother was sauteeing mushrooms in butter one evening. There are few smells that rival that of mushrooms sauteeing in butter (when they first get to Narnia in The Horse and His Boy, Lewis describes the smell coming from a cabin of dwarves, the smell of eggs and sausage and mushrooms all frying together in the same pan, and, he says, in perfect Lewis fashion, “if you have not smelled that smell — and I very much hope that you have”), but there are not many. I was sniffing, somewhat conspicuously, and my grandmother asked if I might like to try just a small piece of mushroom, on a toothpick. I loved my grandmother, too, and they smelled so good, and so of course I said yes, and I was a convert from that moment on. Offer me a new food and I’ll taste it; give me a bad day and I’ll go melt some butter or some olive oil in a pot and see what I can find to add to it.

On Help

First, a quick programming note: apologies to all of those whose comments were held for moderation until just now. My spam program was, unbeknownst to me, set up in the most aggressive fashion possible, and for some reason I did not receive email notifications of comments and thus did not see them until I logged in. All that should be fixed now, I think.

Earlier today I read Vanessa Bush’s Likely Stories blog post about a project she attempted that involved interviewing white families and their black servants, these many years later, about their experiences — only while she found the white families eager to talk, none of the black servants have been willing to be interviewed. At the time I thought, “Huh,” and contemplated what one could say about that in relation to Kathryn Stockett’s bestseller The Help, which is a novel written in three voices, one that of a young white woman and the other two those of, you guessed it, black servants in the early 1960s. I enjoyed the book but was troubled, as I often am, by wondering if I liked it because I am white, and the narrative is one that allows me to feel superior and enlightened as compared to many whites in the South in the early 1960s. That’s all well and good, but if it doesn’t translate — and sometimes I worry that it doesn’t — into present day anti-racism, then it’s not really doing much good.

This evening, as I was casting about for a topic, I suddenly thought, “Well, of course, Vanessa Bush should interview Annie!” And then I stopped dead, because Annie has been dead for many years now, and because I would guess she would not talk to an interviewer either, whereas my family, I’d guess, would be quite happy to. After all, I am talking to you.

Annie worked for my great grandmother and later for my grandmother. When I knew her, she came to the house one day a week to clean, or to help my grandmother clean, or to clean under the direction (often somewhat confusing to outsiders — “iron the dining room” translates, in my grandmother’s household, to “vacuum the living room”) of my grandmother. As the years went on, they spent less time cleaning and more time fussing about cleaning, but cleaning days always involved lunch, which was always soup and sandwiches.

It’s easy for me to fall into sentimentality about all of this, to think of Annie as a family extension, but I think that way only when I remember her through the eyes of my six or seven or eight year old self. By the time I got to be twelve and thirteen and fourteen, I became more uncomfortable, and I rather dreaded visiting my grandmother during cleaning day, because I began to notice things. I noticed that Annie — whose last name I do not remember, if I ever knew it — always called my grandmother Miz Wallace and me Miz Laura and my mother Miz Judith. I noticed that she nodded a lot. And — and this will seem like the stupidest thing ever — I noticed that she was black.

I knew that, of course, and I could have told you that even when I was younger, but its full import did not come to me until later. I was raised on the Civil Rights movement: my mother’s best friend in high school marched on Washington in 1963, my grandmother had, at one time, a subscription to a newspaper put out by the Black Panthers, and the only time I was allowed to stay up past my bedtime as a child was when there was a special about Martin Luther King Jr. on television. But that was all abstract. I was educated but I was not experienced; I grew up in a very white state and went in the summers to a very white camp. I had ideas about freedom and equality and the brotherhood of man, but when faced with the situation of a black person in what was clearly a subservient role in my own family, I did not know what to do.

I do not think that my family were bad employers or were cruel or unfair in any way, and I don’t think we were quite as crazy as the sort of dysfunctional white family archetype that Bush describes. But if I try to imagine how Annie might have seen us, I fail. I can guess that her feelings must have complicated, a sort of mixture of affection and resentment, love and envy — but I don’t, and won’t ever, know. Maybe I can’t know: maybe those are stories that won’t ever be told. I like to believe that listening to stories helps us to apprehend the world, and that somewhere out there there is a story that would help us all understand, but I’m not sure such a thing exists — perhaps it is one that is yet to be made.

The Shadows and the Shadow-Casters

My friend Greg probably didn’t mean to send me into an existential tailspin when he tweeted about this column in the Chronicle of Higher Education earlier today, but it is the nature of the internet to cause such serendipities — or whatever the negative equivalent of serendipities is — and thus I spent a good portion of the day thinking about academia and my relationship to it.

I don’t think it was intentional on her part, but my mother brought me up in such a way that The Academy was something like the church, or more exactly something like the source of those shadows on the cave that Plato writes about, as read by C.S. Lewis (which brings us back to the church, of course). I don’t think she intended it, but it would be hard to avoid. She holds five degrees — a BA and MA in English acquired before I was born, a PhD in Englished finished shortly after, and an MD and an MS, just for good measure. My father was a Classics professor, and though he died when I was quite young, my early memories of him are set in a fixed location: a dilapidated late Victorian house a block away from a college campus on a hill, the sort with old stone buildings and leaves that crunched underneath your feet in the fall. People from the college were always coming over to the house, and dozens of students stored their bicycles in our barn in the winter. (I wish I had a picture — all the racing bikes that looked so hip in 1979 would look so dated today.)

My father’s direct influence on my life ended when I was five, but his presence never quite left. He was the sort of man who had sayings. Some of these he liked to print onto 3″x5″ cards at his hobby press in Vermont in the summers (“Every silver lining has a cloud”); the rest are things that were repeated to me for many years. “The true purpose of a liberal arts college,” my mother would say, “was, according to your father, to provide a very, very fine education to a very small group of men — by which he meant the faculty.” She also told me that my father believed that once you had written the first sentence of a paper, you were halfway done. It was my recently-deceased great uncle who said there was no point in writing if you couldn’t write like Milton, but it is a sentiment for which I suspect my father might have had sympathy.

I grew up in a house that contained my mother’s books, my father’s books, and the books that had once belonged to a man named Frank Carey, who was also a Classics professor from Enosburg Falls, Vermont, where my father’s family spent every summer. When he died, he left his library to my father, the only other Classicist (or so he believed — someone may well prove him wrong) ever to come from that tiny town. I took with me to college my father’s elementary Greek textbook, my mother’s Latin dictionary, and Frank Carey’s copies of the Iliad and the Odyssey. The weight of three generations academe (my father was twenty-four years older than my mother, and Frank Carey was a good bit older than my father) was already on my shoulders, quite literally.

I knew I wanted to study Greek in college, and I knew that I would love college. I did both those things, and I do not regret it. I spent four years among old stone buildings, and four years crunching leaves underfoot in the fall, and four years trying to learn some of the things that were in all those books I brought with me. But then, of course, those four years came to an end, and while that eventuality is obvious to anyone who has observed the passing of time, I did not ever quite realize that it was going to happen. And I was utterly unprepared when it did.

I was an okay student, but I was not a star. I got nice comments on some of my work from my professors, but none of them ever encouraged me to go on to graduate school. I have only myself to blame for that. I ended up in an MFA program, not a PhD program, although the MFA is just as terminal, if not more so — terminal in the sense that it leads nowhere. Part of my is grateful that I never went after a PhD; part of me believes I will always be lacking because I failed to do so.

Benton’s Chronicle piece comes too late to serve as advice for me, and I most probably would not have listened to him even if it had not, in part because I had, at age 22 and 23 and 24, no other idea of what to do but more because I had not then, and have still not now, entirely come to understand academia as the god that failed.

Some people raised in particularly strict systems are able, when they come of age, to shuffle off those beliefs like so much snakeskin. But others climb away from them on what Karen Armstrong pictures as a spiral staircase — true, it goes up, but it comes around again and again to the place it was before.

I can see that universities treat humanities graduate students as cheap and easily exploitable labor. I can seee that they have little use for them beyond that. I can see that that very, very fine education for a very small group of men is a sort of upper middle class fantasy world. I can see that the shadow casters in the cave are, ultimately, no more real than the donkey in lion’s clothing that the evil ape tries to pass off as Aslan in The Last Battle. I can see all that, but I still cannot let it go.

A long time ago (nearly ten years ago now!) I quoted Chelsea Cain’s memoir, describing her mother’s reaction to the Vietnam War: “Her identity had been closely wed to what it meant to be an American and when what it meant to be an American suddenly included napalm and mortar fire, her self-concept began to unravel.” My identity has been no less tied to the idea of the academy, and the academy turns out not to be at all what I somehow once thought it to be, and it has indeed caused my self-concept to unravel, and I am not at all sure of just how I can put it back together again.

Thanksgiving Food

My recipe book was a Christmas present from my grandmother when I was eight years old, which I know because she had me write on a page in the back “This book was gifin to me by Granna Christmas 1983.” I still have the first recipe I wrote in it, on January 15, 1984. I was good at dating things once upon a time. It is the recipe for corn muffins from the back of the Quaker Oats cornmeal canister, and though I don’t make corn muffins using quite the same proportions any more (I add applesauce, for instance, to keep them moister longer), I keep it at the back of the book.

I also keep a great many other things in the book, and this evening, looking for the stuffing recipe my grandmother dictated to me before my twenty-ninth Thanksgiving, for which I decided to abandon my family and cook dinner for my boyfriend (a bad decision, in retrospect, but so it goes), I decided to try to sort through some of the mass of papers that have been shoved into it. Some were obvious keepers — the dittoed recipe for pancakes from my elementary school’s Pancake Day celebration, which I posted last year in a message to all the people on Facebook I went to grade school with ; the lemon-blueberry muffin recipe I love; the salmon with artichoke hearts and other good stuff recipe from my best friend. Others, however, mystify me.

3/4 cu butter
1 1/2 small onion
3 Tbsp parsley
1 1/2 tsp black pepper
3/8 tsp red pepper
3/4 tsp ginger
3/8 cu sherry

It’s my handwriting, to be sure, but there’s no date, no indication of what one is to do with the ingredients. And really. 3/8 cup?

I also have a fairly recent piece of paper (it also bears no date, but it’s written on the back of a page from a George Carlin page a day calendar my cousin gave me a couple years ago, so it can’t be too old), with a series of dates, one circled, and some calculations, and the notation BRING CARDAMOM. As I’m writing this now, it occurs to me that it must be from the evening I was the guest chef at a sadly now closed local restaurant.

One can only assume that

1 gold delicious
1 macintosh or jonathan
peel, chop fine
3/4 cup water
heat low
2 tsp.s honey
2 tsp. brown sugar
1 ” white “

written in my childish handwriting, is the start of some sort of apply dessert (and why, pray tell, did I once favor golden delicious over Macintosh and Jonathan apples?). But what dessert is lost to history.

I spent this Thanksgiving, once again, with local friends, and I contributed the rolls from a 1940s cookbook that start with 1/2 lb. butter and the pumpkin pie recipe that my mother and I invented when I was in third grade. The recipes for both are dutifully entered into my recipe book, some years ago, in the case of the rolls at a time when I was heavily into decorative serifs. I had a lovely time with my friends, as always. We played a variety of dominoes that involves something rather worrisomely called a “Mexican train.” Sharon inadvertently used the term “Community Train” to refer to at one point, and we all adopted the term, with the requisite jokes that one makes in the company of other liberals in Wyoming (“the community train is doubtless the work of one of them community organizers!” “Yup, it’s the ACORN line!” “The public option!”). But there’s no way to make me homesick as quick as food. I’m waiting for my mostly improvised dressing to finish baking, so I can eat it along with some leftovers I brought home from yesterday and some Brussels sprouts I got for myself, since none of my friends like them. My family are all 1400 miles away, but their influence runs heavy in this recipe book, and in my life.

A Happy Thanksgiving to you all.

Some Kind of Help is the Kind of Help We All Could Do Without

I am still in Iowa; everything here is still unbelievably sad and horrifying. This is just an attempt to take my mind off all that for awhile.

My father died when I was five and a half, and thus I was effectively raised by a single mother, with a fair amount of help from my grandmother. My two oldest friends in the world were also the children of single parents.

My mother, and their mothers, got a lot of grief from people. People were generally not allowed to come play at any of our houses after school because there was not a Responsible Adult at home. In fifth grade, a girl had a party for the whole class. I went for a bit, but my asthma started to act up from the crowd and the English sheepdog, and so I went to the organizing mothers, thanked them for the party, and said I would be leaving now. I lived a few blocks away and it was, I think, not even dark out yet. They insisted on calling my mother, who was not home as she had, god forbid, gone grocery shopping. After a lot of hemming and hawing, during which I said they could either take me home to my inhaler or they could take me to the ER, they finally took me home — and the next day they called my mother to excoriate her and to tell her that I was having a “panic attack.”

There was an immense prejudice toward single mothers when I was young. It did not seem to matter how you became single — my father had died; one friend’s parents divorced; another friend’s had never really been together. I had the easiest time, but it was still not easy.

I bring all of this up because I was reading through the comments on Walt’s post, and I was reminded of how deeply judgmental people are about family structures. My father’s death was and remains the saddest thing that has ever happened to me, but I don’t think I am less of a person because of it, or that my family is somehow deficient because of my single mother and single grandmother. A lot of people do seem to think just that, however, and I imagine that many of these people are the same people who view gay marriage as such an abomination because it somehow undermines conventional family structure.

I am not a fan of Hillary Clinton, but the adage that it takes a village to raise a child is far older that she is. It suggests to me that our ancestors knew something that we did not: it takes a village, to me, is a recognition that no one’s family structure is perfect, that even two happily married people of opposite sexes may have deficiencies, and that we as a society should strive to help each other in looking after our children rather than tearing each other down for some real or imagined failing. There are people in this world who make bad parents, but there is, perhaps sadly, no one filter we can use to rule them out of the child-rearing process. Or perhaps the inability to filter isn’t sad — perhaps it is a reminder to us that we must always think; that we cannot and should not rely on any single factor or litmus test to make all our decisions for us — and that, I think, is a good thing.

On Settling, and On Moving On

Update 2/20/08: I forgot to point out that, once again, this post is all the Hermits’ fault.
In 2003 and 2004 I was 27 and 28 years old and living in suburban Chicago. I was mostly unemployed; I was thoroughly directionless; and I was defensive, bitter, and not very happy.

Because I had a lot of time on my hands and high speed wireless internet and a laptop (the same one I’m typing this on now, actually), I read a lot of things online, including just about every article in the Life section of Salon.com. A lot of them bore a strong resemblance to Lori Gottlieb’s argument for settling for Mr. Good Enough instead of holding out for Mr. Perfect. The people who wrote for Salon were not necessarily giving the same advice that Gottlieb does, but they were writing about the same sorts of things, often from the same place–twenty- and thirty-something professional white woman considers the vicissitudes of romance.

Of course, I was also an upper middle class twenty-something white woman, only I didn’t have a profession, and what I thought when reading those pieces was mostly along the lines of “maybe I should just get married and have kids, because then I would have something to do.”

Having something to do is very much a feature of having children, from what I can tell–in fact, quite frequently parents are unable to do much of anything else–but it’s not a particularly good reason to have children, and so I think it’s just as well that I didn’t meet anyone I wanted to marry and I ended up going to library school and getting a job and fulfilling my dream of living in a small town in the West and traveling and hiking and blogging and other things that are more difficult to fit in if you have kids.

That takes care of the kids part, but what about the marriage part?

I’ve always figured that the chances of my marrying are slim to nonexistent. The marriage track record in my family is not very good–so much so that I once burst out laughing when a therapist suggested that in order to make my own relationships work I look to the successful relationships of close family. members and people I knew grewing up. And although, as Laurie Colwin points out in an essay in one of her books about food, you do not have to be beautiful or talented or even thin to fall in love, that entirely sensible argument is hard to uphold against the romantic comedy paradigm that is so heavily promoted by popular culture.

According to Gottlieb, if I tell you I’m not particularly worried about marriage, I’m either in denial or I’m lying. If I’d said that at 27, I would have been. At 32–when, in the world according to your biological clock, I should be more worried–I’m not.

The world according to your biological clock view promoted by the sort of professional white women who write articles like Gottlieb’s–and there are many, many such articles–is only one view of the world, and, however prevalent it may be, it’s not necessarily the best one.

I suspect that Gottlieb is right that your chances of finding Mr. Absolutely Right are pretty slim. The reality she doesn’t acknowledge, however, is that you might not find anybody at all–and that that, too, may be all right.