Archive for July, 2010

Should you ever wish to expose me as a narcissist, you might point to a moment in my youth where I propositioned that someday I live on a hill and my family live in lower houses surrounding me. I did not suggest that they live next door as my grandmother and her grandmother did on a little street in Swayzee, Indiana. Not even down the street as my father’s brother now lives from his parents, a stone’s throw if you have a good arm and the chosen stone is heavy enough to pick up some momentum. No, I wanted to live on an elevated out-cropping, hoarding the best view of the stars for myself.

Fortunately, my family didn’t interpret it quite like that and I’m fairly certain I didn’t mean it that way either. It was undoubtedly something said during an all-too-soon departure, where everyone stands around and exchanges hugs and leans through the windows to give kisses or comment on the odometer, or peer into the back windows and ask whether we checked under the bed for forgotten shoes. Maybe I was in the back seat of the Subaru and we joked about future meetings and living arrangements like people sharing the last few bites of cake, nibbling bits off the corners, pressing our forks to pick up crumbs, as if by drawing it out this way, we could make the conversation last until the next visit.


My earliest memories with my mom’s side of the family place us all around a metal basin full of cold water and fresh picked apples ready for cider. My three-year-old arms are in the cold water up to my elbows–it darkens wristbands of my coat and draws goose bumps on my wrists. The smell of dust coats the barn floor and the flowery smell of my Aunt Becky’s shampoo is wafting toward me from across the water. There’s the dull thump of the apples bumping each other in the water, sometimes the squeaking of their skins. Finally, there’s the sound of the conveyor belt, carrying inspected apples to the presser, always circling. I’m not sure how many times I was a part of this autumn ritual; I was still young when the Dougherty Orchard stopped producing cider on a large scale—maybe I was really only there once—but the image has a quintessential bearing, real or imagined, on my identity. “My family has an apple orchard,” is a phrase I uttered no small number of times in elementary school show and tell.


Grandmother lists available ingredients and turns over the kitchen: summer squash, beets, onions, garlic, fresh corn, swiss chard, all grown by my grandfather and great-uncle. “I’ll just wash the dishes,” she tells me. It is a good arrangement. I am happy there: planning squash soup and beet salad, a frittata, and pizza, a clafoutis with the Michigan cherries. Happily Busy. Every time someone comes into the kitchen—my Grandmother, back from her meeting with the women of the Methodist Church; my mom, in from the garden; Aunt Sarah, just arriving from work— they ask what they can do to help. A bowl sits between the sinks, garlic and oil re-gathering in the bottom, a whisk resting against the side. “Oh, I’ll wash dishes,” they say, “I can do that!” I don’t wash a dish the whole time I’m there.


Aunt Sue reminds me of the hill scenario: “You know, you used to want to live on a hill, surrounded by all of us. What if we supplied you with ingredients and you cooked for all of us, too?” I am reminded of a treaty simulation during fourth grade Native American history. “If you read for a whole day,” the student teacher proposes, “we will give you three days off of school.” I have been assigned to play the Indian chief, and I think it sounds like a pretty good deal. We agree to the treaty and the traders inform us that our days off will take place all in a row, the week after school is already out. I ponder the hill. You will supply all the ingredients, I think, what is the catch? Maybe it’s the dishes. That could make a lot of dishes.


Grandmother takes me to the Marion church to make noodles for a fundraiser. In the kitchen, members of the congregation mix the dough and run it through the machines, then fluff the noodles with flour. Grandmother and I take the trays, spread the noodles on the papered tables in the sanctuary. She shows me how to shake the dough through my fingers, to sift out the dumplings so that it falls in even curly piles across the surface. Two hours pass. It’s work akin to pea shelling and corn husking, to addressing large mailings at an office job I used to have—a little conversation, and I could do it all day.


Grandmother has a way to wash dishes, looking through the window toward the bird feeders and the trumpet vine growing over the shed, past the overgrown gravel lane where we used to pick the pineapple weeds just to smell them. She washes the plates first, and they dry fast. She talks about my great-grandmother and how she would whistle up the walk to see her, talks about the people at church and a bag I made for her that she uses to carry books at conferences. She washes the bowls and they drip onto the plastic mat. It has been a decade now that we have lived over a day’s drive away from my extended family. 20 trips back and forth and often times I’ve felt idle without my Montana friends. I’ve written many lost lists and watched far too many “That’s So Raven” reruns for one person’s sanity. This time, I don’t spend an idle minute all week. One meal over, and I start planning what to do with the bunch of beets Uncle John set in the sink.

Grandmother rinses the glasses, stacks them close together along the rack. Her process is zen-like, no questions about her next move, a measured method like shelling peas or placing apples on the conveyor belt. A hummingbird comes and goes.  I watch as butter sizzles in the skillet.


Read Full Post »

A bit of a pickle

I once got myself stuck in a mint green un-zippered skirt that wouldn’t come over my head.

In Traverse City, Michigan.

At the National Cherry Festival.

In a Porta Potty.

I may have bumped into wall, and I kind of cringe to think of it, because I am capable of eating a lot of cherries in one sitting. I have done it. And while I won’t fully admit to the after-effects, I can only imagine the smelly plights that a porta-potty, unlucky enough to be placed at a festival celebrating easily poppable stone fruits might endure. I’ll just say this: prunes take a lot of flak, but it’s not all their fault.

My senior year of high school, I went through a skirt sewing phase, by which I mean I came home every day from school and I sewed a skirt. By the time I got to the sixth or seventh one, I wasn’t even using another skirt as a pattern anymore. I would just cut four rhombuses, two taller, two shorter. Sew the front together, sew the back together, sew sides, hem bottom, hem top. Bam! Skirt!

There was only one problem. Having already passed through puberty, I had these pesky protuberances above and below precisely where I wanted the narrowest part of my skirt to fit. And so, each of my waists had to be large enough that I could weasel my my way into it, but not so wide that it would fall over my hips.

Learn to sew a zipper, you say? Why, yes, that does have some rational grounding. In fact, even I was not so thick as to not see the logic in the general availability of fastened skirts in department stores. Because to pay money for a skirt that takes you five minutes to fit over your head in the morning, a skirt whose application requires you to pause briefly to breathe before holding your breath again, so that your rib cage won’t expand and your shoulders won’t move as you force a cotton weave to stretch to it’s greatest capacity–to pay for that, well, that would be absurd. But, when your primary objective is to quadruple your skirt collection, ease and wearability be damned—well—then an hour spent learning to sew a zipper means an hour thoroughly squandered. So it was that I showed up to school the last month of senior year, with each day a new skirt.

I have talked a lot about getting the skirts on. I have not so much mentioned getting them off, and I should, for while getting them on was a bit of an ordeal, shedding them was something I usually opted to behind closed doors, where no one was around to hear the grunting or knocking that ensued when I extracted my body from the tightly hemmed bondage. It usually involved undressing from the waist up, so as to not restrict anything in places where it could not be adjusted. Without fail, I would find myself bent over trying to will my shoulders into my ears as my hands tugged at the bottom hem.

So, of course I had some inkling of the endeavor at hand when, at the Cherry Festival, we readied ourselves for a swim. Even though I wore my very appropriately cherry printed swimsuit underneath my clothes and could easily have stripped down to that had my wardrobe involved functional pieces, I marched to the porta-potties. No unintentional exhibitionism here!

What I had not factored into the equation was the sticky nature of sweat and the expanding effect that a hot summer day can have on the skin. What I had not planned on was inserting myself directly into the movie scene where the girl, having forgotten to lock the porta-potty door, stumbles into it and out into the world as she works to pull her skirt over her head. She finds herself strewn on the ground amidst gaping onlookers, her legs askew, her head obscured by said skirt, her cherry-print bikini bottoms exposed for all to see. This is the stuff front pages photos are made of—at least that’s what I would be on the look out for if I were the photographer at the Cherry Festival. A fresh perspective. A bit of an edge.

In the end, we had to cut it off right there on the beach, the failure of my porta-potty mishap hanging from my person. I stood there, hunched with my dad’s pocket knife and seam-ripped the skirt from my hips. All-told, this is rather a sad story. The original handy work was never the same again.

Today, I embark on my summer adventure which once again includes a trip to the Cherry Festival. The cherry swimming suit will surely adorn my luggage. I’m not sure about the skirts yet. You might imagine one would have learned her lesson, but alas, while I have more actual sewing patterns under my belt now, the fact of the matter remains: I have still not learned to sew a zipper.

Read Full Post »