Saturday, June 4, 2011
That was Then, This is Now
In the kitchen of the small house I grew up in, seven of us would sit around the table (there was no dining room in rural Backus) and eat our meals. Next to the door leading to the front porch was a porcelain sink set into a metal cabinet. Above it was a medicine cabinet that held aspirin and probably my mom's heart pills. I know it held aspirin because one afternoon my sister Jane and I decided to pretend we were nurses, while Mother took a nap in the next room. We took turns dispensing them, and by the time Mom woke up, we'd lost track of how many had been dispensed. Jane was slightly older and apparently could recall she'd only taken a couple. Having gone down with the requisite spoonful of sugar, my number was somewhat less knowable. Unfortunately, I was treated to the salt water solution technique. I was forced to drink it, which induced vomiting - into a cast iron fry pan. It was a harrowing experience. Pure hell comes to mind. Then she kept an eye on me. Not much else to do. Times were different then, especially for country folk. We didn't do much doctoring.
Next to the sink was a tall, or so it seemed at the time, singular wooden cabinet with a simple metal latch. Inside was the sugar container, a white porcelain pig with red kerchief. The creamer, if there ever was one, no longer existed. Next to that was the door to my parent's bedroom and then the cook stove. No, not an oven and range, a cook stove, wood-fired, one of those with a warming oven next to the wood box and a tall back, a lot of cast iron and what was once very shiny metal. The back held salt and pepper shakers. The salt and pepper shakers were wooden heads with painted faces and baker's caps and when you turned them over they cried. I don't know why, they just did, and it provided occasional bouts of entertainment when all other possibilities had been stretched thin.
There was an opening between the kitchen and the living room that had no function but probably passed for an architectural detail at one time. Hanging on the wall next to it was this small framed picture with a quote that surely must have been my mother's prayer. I have it hanging in my kitchen now. It has a lot of miles on it.
By the doorway going into the living room, (not leading to, going into), stood another cupboard. Then there was the table, a red and white metal rectangle covered with oilcloth, the kind you once bought from a roll in the back of the hardware store. The somewhat matching chairs were also white with red. I should remember, as I got my head stuck in between the back and the seat one hot summer day (Don't ask. Couldn't tell you). Hank, the neighbor man, was called to take the chair apart, but not wanting to call attention to myself, at the last minute I freed myself through sheer willpower. My ears burned and itched, but I was free. I was five years old at the time.
We always knew there would be a meal on the table. It may have had potatoes from the garden as a main course, but it was food. In the winter there was probably the dreaded venison. It took me a lot of years to realize that venison didn't always taste like meat gone bad. It's all in the cutting up of it, the preparation, if you will. When it's winter, with deer season long over, you cut it up fast and you freeze it even faster.
Sitting around this table could sometimes be a very pleasant experience. Banter and humor played a large part, as well as talk about politics, religion, and the possibility of "flying saucers." I didn't come by my interests randomly. My father sat on one end, I sat on his right, with my back to the windows that looked out at what passed for a garage and the field beyond. That field played a large role in our lives.
Other times, it was not so pleasant. If someone politely asked for something to be passed, I would remind them that they could reach it. More than occasionally, middle sister Chris would share an opinion, and the older siblings would tell her to go back to her cage. Squabbles broke out, feelings got hurt, and tears were shed. And not always between the siblings. Sometimes I sat numbly and waited for the storm to pass.
Those were the tough years, but we didn't talk about it. We were poor, but didn't know it. At least not in any way that caused damage to our souls. And, we were fortunate. It did not always remain so. My parents worked hard. Life improved. In those days it seemed easier to rise above your circumstances. In small towns, banks gave legitimate loans to legitimate people for legitimate reasons. That's how it was. It's not that way anymore. And it might never be again.
This Saturday morning, I am reminded of a poem I heard Bob Hicok read on PBS a few months ago. It still sits in the back of my mind, called forth now and then to remember that there are a lot of folks who are looking at life through another lens and it doesn't look promising. The poem was written in 2004, but like many poems there's a prescience about it that surely hasn't escaped Mr. Hicok.
"Calling him back from layoff"
I called a man today. After he said
hello and I said hello came a pause
during which it would have been
confusing to say hello again so I said
how are you doing and guess what, he said
fine and wondered aloud how I was
and it turns out I'm OK. He
was on the couch watching cars
painted with ads for Budweiser follow cars
painted with ads for Tide around an oval
that's a metaphor for life because
most of us run out of gas and settle
for getting drunk in the stands
and shouting at someone in a t-shirt
we want kraut on our dog. I said
he could have his job back and during
the pause that followed his whiskers
scrubbed the mouthpiece clean
and his breath passed in and out
in the tidal fashion popular
with mammals until he broke through
with the words how soon thank you
ohmyGod which crossed his lips and drove
through the wires on the backs of ions
as one long word as one hard prayer
of relief meant to be heard
by the sky. When he began to cry I tried
with the shape of my silence to say
I understood but each confession
of fear and poverty was more awkward
than what you learn in the shower.
After he hung up I went outside and sat
with one hand in the bower of the other
and thought if I turn my head to the left
it changes the song of the oriole
and if I give a job to one stomach other
forks are naked and if tonight a steak
sizzles in his kitchen do the seven
other people staring at their phones
Painting: Andrew Wyeth "Groundhog Day"