The Washerwoman’s Genes

May 5, 2006

Culture War

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 12:17 pm

In school, at the Smith Street Elementary, I had a friend whose father was the pastor of the Methodist Church in town. I walked by it often, if I took a certain route to school. It was a classic white clapboard Protestant Church, with a tall, pointed steeple and, out front, a giant mock-up of an open Bible, the pages a golden yellow, the lettering archaic. I have not retained the Bible verse it bore.

We did a class play that year. My friend became notorious: she was not permitted make-up. Instead, she came to school with a set of fat waxy crayons, made for rouging the lips and cheeks. At that age, anything that made you different was a crucifixion. Kathy was brave, and the stage mother rubbed her mouth with color in front of us all. I knew the truth of the matter, even then: if you used it to make red your lips, it was “lipstick.” The capriciousness of grown-ups amazed me.

Grandma Josie was a Methodist, too. At that time, I was certain she was of another sort. In fact, she came to see that play. When my mother fought me to smear her stinky drug-store lipstick on me as I left the car that morning, my Grandma laughed along with her from the passenger seat. Then they drove around the building and sat in the auditorium to wait for the show to begin.

(I wiped off the stuff long before the curtain rose. They noticed. They spoke to me when I got home.)

My father told me years later that as a young teenager, his Methodist mother made him take the confirmation oath never to drink, dance, or smoke. He’d started smoking soon after that, I imagine, and had a drink of beer as a regular course. It was the end of church for him.

J. mentioned this oath, too, just recently. My older half-brother, he was reared by my father’s parents, by this same Grandma. He’d smoked for forty years, quit for health, and used what would be beer money to buy a boat.

I once got a glimpse of Grandma Josie’s religious bent.

She lived upstairs after Grandpa died, in a separate apartment my Dad built on our second floor. One day, I was permitted to go up and visit her. I think I heard she was lonely.

The television was on: she followed The Guiding Light. I could hear the music play and the announcer boom from downstairs. My mother said soap operas were garbage.

This day, Grandma asked me if I read the Bible. I felt as dumb as a child could be: I barely knew what it was. Catholics didn’t read the Bible—they went to Mass and had it read to them. She told me a story about a blind man who was overtaken with the spirit of God and went around preaching. He was on TV. For years I thought she had said Pat Robertson, but of course, that cannot be true. Whoever he was, she was astonished I hadn’t heard of him. I in turn was astonished that someone other than a priest, someone not in robes, someone without Latin, would go around preaching in a business suit and be believed. She taught me something from the Bible that day, opening it before me and turning the whispy pages and pointing with the long fingers we shared. Perhaps I was overwhelmed, but the actual details of this lesson are lost to me. All I can remember is her wanting for me to be saved.

My mother was scandalized when I came down and told her about my visit. “The nerve,” she railed to my father, “the nerve to give her a Bible lesson when she knows she’s Catholic, the sheer gall to push her beliefs on an innocent child.”

I was not permitted to go upstairs again, despite my pleas. My mother was up-front: “She won’t stop teaching you to be a Protestant.” “She does not respect your religion.” The women warred. Visiting of all types withered away.

The only other time I went to her apartment I was made to go.

Grandma lay in bed, on her back, in a night dress, her long gray braids down her shoulders and on to the coverlet. She had always worn them crossed over her head, like a crown, and now they lay long and ropey on the bedcovers. The tortoise-shellcombs she always wore in her hair to keep the strays in place were on the nightstand.

She was taken to the hospital the next day while I was at school.

I think now about how much loneliness there was. My mother, downstairs, cleaning the four rooms and a bath that were ours, running our clothes through the Whirlpool and hanging them on the line; starching and ironing school dresses and husband’s handkerchiefs; giving us oatmeal and oranges, toast and weak tea for breakfast; making tuna salad sandwiches for the moment we girls arrived home during the school lunch hour; cooking for our supper, chops or chicken or meatloaf or, for Fridays, founder fillet or cod cakes.There would be string beans or peas from a can, and potatoes, nearly always boiled, but always potatoes. And grandma, above us, would be doing pretty much the same, dusting her house, ironing her crochet-edged hankies, making a bit of food for herself, watching The Guiding Light, reading those gospels.

So we were not close, my grandmother and I. Later on, I questioned this. My friends had grandmas they saw every day, grandmas who knew them well, grandmas who doted on them. My mother told me her view: it wasn’t good for children to become too attached to their grandparents because they were going to die.

Her mother had died not long before: another granny I hardly knew.

Mom herself was not a huggy person. She never said, “I love you,” to me, not once in my life. It was, I suppose, to be understood. But never to be spoken, never dwelled on, never hinted. I didn’t know until much later, in college, even, that parents and children could say they loved each other.

Irish writer Nuala O’Faolain bitterly resented the coldness of her mother, the distance, the silence, the self-enclosed depressiveness. She feels the deprivation still, as a woman in her fifties. She never makes the connection: a population living through the holocaust of the Famine might well inure itself to human bonds, might well harden itself to love. And generation after generation, this self-protection would become a family trait passed down, a recipe for survival of the soul.

My daughter has called me twice so far as I write this: she is in the grocery store near her skating rink, with a short list of things I need for dinner. Do I mean her to find a big-and-juicy–brand tomatoes (she made that up) or just big, juicy tomatoes, as opposed to little grape tomatoes? Then, how big are medium onions, and would Vidalias be okay? There the phone again: there are no leeks—there’s a sign for leeks but nothing underneath, and there are scallions nearby. “Get scallions,” I say, thinking, garnish, thinking, she’s trying so hard, thinking, I could stop at the Korean market near the fishmongers tomorrow. (I am planning a bouillabaisse.) I say, “Love you.”

“Love you,” she says back: Three times now in five minutes.

I am near seizure when she drives at night, but I still say, Love you.


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