Picture Window

map of Africa from the 1911 Encyclpaedia Britannica
Map of Africa from the 1911 Enyclopaedia Britannica [source]

This is an old, old essay from my MFA thesis, posted in honor of the Shelter House Used Book Sale, happening again today from noon to 4 pm at 1925 Boyrum Street in Iowa City. Many of the books mentioned below are for sale there, as well as many other books you might actually want to read. Every kid who goes gets a free book, and proceeds go to support services for the homeless in Iowa City.

For four years, from third through sixth grade, I lived with my mother and our cat in a brown shingle house tucked far to the back of its lot on a side street near a large park in our small midwestern city. The house was an ordinary split level, ugly and unprepossessing, with a sad band of trees planted haphazardly in its yard: a tilted Russian olive, a sinking willow, a nearly barren pine, trees I climbed and sat in and put stones around, even in their brokenness. The houseâ€s chief feature, and the reason that my mother bought it, was that in back, opening out from the living room, there was a library, added by the houseâ€s previous owner, a lawyer, who moved out when he needed even more room for his books.

Although we gave away 108 boxes of books to my fatherâ€s former students and colleagues shortly after we moved in, we still had over 2000 volumes, which is what you get from the marriage of two Ph.D.s with eighty years of book-collecting between them.

My mother kept fiction and childrenâ€s books in the living room, and sci-fi novels in her room, but the mass of books was in the library.

The library had greenish-blue industrial carpet and a sloped ceiling. The wall on its higher side was made of bookshelves, and the wall on the lower side was dominated by an enormous picture window.

Out the window you could see our yard and into our neighbors†and almost all the way to where the street dropped off into a sudden ravine. Over the years, fueled by enthusiasms from reading A Girl of the Limberlost and Gerald Durrellâ€s The Amateur Naturalist, I learned the rocks and plants and birds outside—shale and limestone, columbine and yew and wild rose, cardinals and chickadees and mourning doves with their low, insistent notes.

I spent a lot of time in this room, often looking out the window instead of doing math homework or practicing viola. But, especially as twilight darkened the window so that it reflected the space in time, my attention turned to the other wall, too, to the shelves and shelves of books.

They were arranged, I now realize, by the Library of Congress system, by genre and nationality and century. The volumes were elegant, many of them hardback, black or grey or blue or olive green or, occasionally, red, with gold leaf and lettering on their spines. The titles and the covers o f these books were as much a part of my landscape as any living aspect of the natural world: The Oxford Book of English Verse, Boswellâ€s Life of Johnson, Studies in Words, De Boetheius, The Oxford Book of Greek Verse, and its companion, The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation, The Imitation of Christ, The Vagabond Scholars, The Greek Stones Speak, The Faerie Queene, and, at the bottom, the twenty-odd volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica from 1911. Unlike the World Book at school, these encyclopedias, though alphabetical, were not separated a letter at a time, but in groups — ITA to LOR, one was called, LOR to MUN, MUN to PAY. I often pulled them out so I could wonder at their tissue-thin pages and unfold with care their delicate and ancient maps, as if they might hold some key to these lost worlds, these foreign words.

* * *

When people asked me what I wanted to be when I was a kid, I said a naturalist and a writer, which produced a certain degree of puzzlement, the latter being an impractical career and the former an obscure one. One could be a journalist or a scientist, but the desire simply to study nature and write of what you saw was, I suppose, peculiar.

The belief that nature has something to teach you, and that you can start from scratch, with the world around you, is as arcane to the world of science as the notion that you can read literature without theory is to the world of letters, but it was not always so. When Aristotle w anted to know how many teeth a horse had, he went out and counted them. That later generations took his word for it seems to me a sign not of progress but of an appalling lack of curiosity. Book-learning may help me identify the species of a bird or the meter of a poem, but what the bird and the poem have to teach me they will do themselves.

In college I was technically a Classics major, but I spent a great deal of time in the eighteenth century. It was an age that seemed to have much that the present one lacks. They all read Latin and Greek, they had intelligent and witty conversations, they never tolerated a fool, and even when they were angry, they were very, very elegant. But, most appealing of all, they seemed genuinely interested in human nature and natural law. All the men I read seemed to be natural philosophers — natural both in that they were observant of the ways of nature and natural in that their observations seemed to come from them, not through any critical or sociological theory. I read Hume on natural religion, Rousseau on man in a state of nature, and Montesquieu on natural law, and I wrote an entire term paper
on American natural history of the eighteenth century, when everyone was trying to figure out the nature of the New World, its new governments, and what Crevecoeur called “this American, this new man.”

But I also learned -— or was told -— that by and large, these men got nature wrong. Their ideas of order and equality left a lot of people out -— had I been around at the time, in fact, they would have excluded me by mere fact of my sex. Rousseau, that great proponent of noble savagery, had no desire to live amongst the “savages” himself, and abandoned his illiterate wife and five children to schmooze with the upper classes. Benjamin Rush, an American physician much enamored of Enlightenment philosophy, believed that black skin was a disease of the moral faculty (located, he posited, in the spleen), though by selective breeding, it might eventually be possible to purify the morals and thus lighten the skin. That phrase that Thom as Jefferson so charmingly altered to “the pursuit of happiness” was still understood by all to mean what John Locke had originally written, “the pursuit of property.” The prescription for manifest destiny and destruction was carved on the cornerstone of the country, and much of it, I was told, came from pondering not only nature but also the very books I had stared at in the library as a child.

Somehow, it seemed, I had horribly misread the words and the world. Growing up in that space where art and nature met had made me want to plunge more deeply into each. Apparently others were similarly impelled, but for them that plunge meant drilling for oil in the wilderness and arguing for the advancement of one group of people by the oppression of another. The effect was something like that of learning you and your worst enemy share a common ancestor or a fondness for the Gospel according to John -— yet it makes sense in a way, for what is enmity if not a belief that someone else is perverting that thing which is dearest to your heart?

Lately I have been reading Longinus, the first century AD rhetorician, in a translation with commentary done by my father and his former student and colleague, James Arieti. His chief work is On the Sublime, a treatise on composition that deals explicitly with questions of art (or technique, as my father and Arieti translate it) and
nature. Are poets born by nature or made through technique? An old question. Both, says Longinus: without nature, art would have no substance; without art, nature would have no form.

Always I find myself back in the library at dusk, watching the world as it fades and then reappears, as the trees turn to books and the leaves to words printed on a page. Always I remember searching for smooth flat black stones to place in a circle on the ground beneath a tree, and lying on the ground to listen and feeling something listening back. Always I remember the night my m other turned to the shelf, pulled out a volume, and read to me from Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Policy.

Now if nature should interm it her course, and leave altogether though it were but for a while the observation of her own laws; if those principal and mother elements of the world, whereof all things in this lower world are made, should lose the qualities which now they have; if the frame of that heavenly arch erected over our heads should loose and dissolve itself; if celestial spheres should forget their wonted motions, and by irregular volubility turn themselves anyway as it might happen; if the prince of the lights of heaven, which now as a giant doth run his unwearied course, should as it were through a languishing faintness begin to stand and to rest himself; if the moon should wander from her beaten way, the times and seasons of the year blend themselves by disordered and confused mixture, the winds breathe out their last gasp, the clouds yield no rain, the earth be defeated of heavenly influence, the fruits of the earth pine away as children at the withered breasts of their mother no longer able to yield them relief: what would become of man himself, whom all these things now do all serve?

See we not plainly that obedience of creatures unto the law of nature in the stay of the whole world?

Perhaps, then, these things, this space, are more than just a hall o f mirrors, art and nature, nature and art. Perhaps they were preparing me to walk that narrow, filmy spiderâ€s thread that connects the ages, touching mountain peaks and hidden caves, galaxies and nuclei, tangled in spots and often invisible, but ever present, just waiting for you to find it.

On Mother’s Day

I thought I might have more to say on this subject than I did fifteen years ago, in another lifetime, but for the most part I don’t, except to acknowledge how hard and awful a day it is for some people, and how I wonder, much as I enjoy seeing pictures of people’s mothers, if this might not be one of those days Facebook has made worse and not better.

I posted this there yesterday, but I wanted to get it into my own space as well, having gone to the trouble of scanning it and so on. A friend there commented that my name was bigger than the headline, and I said yeah, I used to be sort of famous in this town. That was long ago, when we had an independent weekly, and Dan Coffey (of Ask Dr. Science) and I both were columnists for it, and I was twenty-four years old and had just gotten arrested and accepted into graduate school, and I never planned to have a child. I still believe what I believed then, though, and that’s some comfort (as is the fact that I have a much, much better haircut now).

Here’s a PDF if you want something easier to read/download.

Iowa City / Cedar Rapids ICON, May 11, 2000.

Working on a Dream

Peanut butter sandwiches on raisin bread, and grapes. That’s what Hilda packed for me for lunch on August 28, 1993, after feeding me a breakfast of eggs and toast and scrapple. “This is what I packed for them back in ’63,” she said, “because it would spoil on the bus, and they couldn’t stop at restaurants.”

Hilda was the mother of my mother’s best friend from high school, Rachel, who had ridden a bus from Chicago with an integrated group to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. That’s why they couldn’t stop at restaurants, of course: few if any would have seated a mixed-race group in 1963. Their high school had its prom at a fancy hotel downtown that year, because no place in the suburbs would accept interracial couples.

I was staying overnight with Hilda, who by then lived in Washington, DC, near the National Zoo, the night before the 30th anniversary of that march, whose 50th anniversary was today. The next day I’d meet up with my best friend and then ride home on a bus that was half International Socialist Organization, half NAACP. A few days later we started our senior year of high school, wearing our tshirts from the march, as Rachel had gone back to start her senior year of high school from the original one (where, I must admit, I doubt they sold tshirts). I had been out east with my mother visiting colleges, the very sorts of colleges that many of the white civil rights volunteers in the South in the 1960s attended, the sort that I myself attended a year later. We ended our trip at Swarthmore, and then my mother put me on a train from Philadelphia to DC, where Hilda met me at the station. That night I started reading a copy of A Prayer for Owen Meany that was in her guest room, though I still haven’t finished it. The next morning I took the subway to the Mall and met up with my friend near the Washington Monument.

I remember very little about that day because it was very, very hot. It was the kind of heat we had today in the Midwest, only multiplied by tens of thousands of bodies surrounding the Reflecting Pool and the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where so many people got  up to speak that day and where so many of my heroes had spoken before. I know that Rosa Parks spoke, but I do not remember what she said. Mostly I remember an endless search for people selling water, in tiny six-ounce bottles for $2 each, highway robbery for water in 1993, but it seemed I could never get enough to drink. And I remember the seas of people in colored tshirts, like slices of a pie chart. There was the NAACP in one color, then the AFL-CIO in another, then some smaller union or state delegation in a third and a fourth and a fifth. I remember the tshirt vendors and wish to this day I’d bought the better looking $10 tshirt, which was white on black, instead of the cheaper $5 one, which was white with yellow and blue lettering. And I remember that on the bus ride home, our first stop was at a strip mall pizza joint outside district, a place where we were so rambunctious from exhaustion and dehydration that we left a tip for nearly fifty percent of the cost of our meal by way of apology.

It was, in short, the sort of experience you go to not so much because of the experience itself but so that you can say that you were there. I wore my tshirt back to school with pride, though no one seemed much impressed. But I was impressed. I had been there. I had been there with my best friend, who had been to the 20th anniversary with her mother when she was seven. I had stayed the night with the mother of my mother’s best friend, who was there for the big deal, the real thing, in living memory. I was there.

Later I would read about the problems with the March — how a lot of the SNCC kids hadn’t even wanted to go, how John Lewis’s speech had been censored (or toned down, depending on your point of view) so it was less critical of Kennedy, how a lot of the real activists thought it was just a big show. I got a bit cynical myself. I’d been to a few other marches on Washington, and after awhile they all start to seem the same. Take the bus (or drive, in my later, more decadent years) for twenty-four hours, get out and protest for eight hours, get back on the bus. Listen to a lot of people speak for three minutes each. See the event get no news coverage whatsoever, except perhaps for a picture of a guy on stilts (“why do they always take a picture of the guy on stilts?” my late friend Meg would say) or a giant puppet.

Later still I’d be in Wyoming watching the inauguration of Barack Obama in a school cafeteria, where it was being shown under duress. I stood in the back and cried, knowing that no matter what a disappointment Obama already was, or what a disappointment he would prove to be, that there was something miraculous about this, something to take note of. My friend Tim said some years previously that he assumed we’d have a black man as president before we had a woman, but that he’d probably be a Republican. I thought that was probably true but that it wouldn’t happen in our lifetime, and yet there was a black man being inaugurated. There was Aretha Franklin singing. There it all was, streaming through on a TV in a room full of tense white people, and me, crying.

Today I had the 50th anniversary of that great March on Washington streaming on the second monitor in my office, though I only got to watch bits and pieces of it. The other day in the car I broke down in tears listening to bits from John Lewis’s speech there on Saturday, and I went in to my son’s daycare and attempted to explain to them all what it meant. I was there twenty years ago, I said. I was there. “Oh, you must have been a child!” someone said in response, I assume in an attempt at flattery.

I’ve seen at least three stories lamenting the lack of a Republican presence at the event — amusingly enough, from the Washington Times, the Wall Street Journal, and MSNBC — bipartisanship exists in the media, people! Mark the day! I get the lament, but in a way I am glad. Dr. King was not bipartisan, although he was no great fan of any party. But he was explicitly political. His was not the politics of flags or commemorative postage stamps of inventors and entertainers. He was not, in his lifetime, someone everyone got behind because he had a dream. He was a leader in a movement that wanted to cash a check, that wanted jobs and votes and admittance as full-fledged members of society, not just drinking fountains and abstract ideas about character and freedom.

It’s pretty common in my circle of friends for people to post links every MLK Day to “A Time to Break Silence,” King’s speech opposing the Vietnam War, or to mention that he was speaking to striking sanitation workers when he died, or to talk about how yes, he did associate with Communists. But all of that is rare in official King celebrations. Making his birthday a national holiday was a triumph in many ways but also a disservice in some ways to the causes for which he fought.

Eradicating racism isn’t just about loving your neighbor and joining hands (although perhaps a little more loving your neighbor would have saved Trayvon Martin, and Amadou Diallou, and countless others before them). It’s about figuring out how to end the discrepancy between the black population of Iowa as a whole and the black population its prisons. It’s about ending the (sadly) quite reasonable fears that people of color have about being stopped by the police or even about being doubted in customer service transactions. It’s about people like me — people who think of ourselves as enlightened and with it white people — reading about how it’s actually not really helpful or cool to describe times we’ve witnessed racist behavior to people of color, because it just reinforces to them that such behavior exists rather than making us look cool for recognizing it.

So Republican leaders were invited to today’s commemoration and they didn’t show up? Well. Perhaps that should tell you something. Perhaps that should tell us that Dr. King isn’t just a faded memory, the sort of person you dig out when you want to think harmonious thoughts and sing “Kumbayah” off key, but with feeling.

Today I ordered a poster of the famous photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X standing side by side, smiling. I’ll feel like a little bit of a white girl poser when I hang it up in my office, but it will also remind me of something important: that both men are people my mother told me were important. Both were people she let me stay up late or go out at night to learn more about. Both had dreams, and both worked on those dreams through any means they found necessary.

The pie chart of colors I saw at the 30th anniversary march in 1993 was beautiful and inspiring but also depressing, as if each slice of the pie were only there for a part of the dream. I didn’t see that color coding on the Mall today, though perhaps that was due to the rain. I don’t have a solution to it. But I want to try. And I want to believe.

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

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.