LISA O’NEILL

March 28, 2010

Women’s Work

I used to collect things. When I was young, I filled Tupperware bins with my collections. With my hands, I smoothed over natural stones—amethyst, jasper, emerald—kept them in a beaded suede bag that I had purchased with allowance money at the Grand Canyon gift shop. I made my mom take me to Arby’s each week to get a different plastic California Raisin character. I collected tiny wooden furniture for a nonexistent dollhouse. These I kept in a wooden display case that hung on my wall. I found satisfaction in grouping these items, in having more than one thing that was the same.

Some of these collections seemed to be started for me, when the initial items were given as birthday or Christmas gifts. Others I gravitated to on my own. I wonder about this compulsion I have to collect and gather items, whether they be shot glasses or colonial muskets. Why did I find a sort of satisfaction in adding to what I already possessed? Was it an attempt to make sense and order? A collection implies more than a compulsion to own something but certain somethings.

Growing up, our house had common spaces in which the three of us lived and breathed: the kitchen, the living room, the dining room. Then my parents had their bedroom and I had mine. Beyond that, they each had a room that was primarily theirs. My dad’s was the study, where he kept bookshelves of psychology books to reference in his work as a therapist. His roll-top desk had file drawers where he kept the income tax information and important documents. There were folders for family vacation plans and for local restaurant menus. The top of his desk was nearly always immaculate, with stray papers stacked neatly to one side, a square post-it pad pushed towards the back, a pen sticking vertically out of a penholder.

My mother’s room has been called numerous things over the years: the art room, the sewing room, Mom’s room, the guest room. More often than not, when I think of the room to myself, it is as the junk room. Not everything in the room was junk, but things that didn’t have another logical place ended up there. Broken toys that needed to be fixed, dresses that needed to be taken in or let out, catalogue items that needed to be returned all wound up in Mom’s room. One of my favorite television specials growing up was the claymation Rudolph the Rednose Reindeer. I thought of that room as the Island of Misfit Toys, except for our stuff. Our possessions were sent there because they were in disrepair or didn’t fit anywhere else. Then, they were buried and forgotten.

Every now and then, my mom would go into the room on a Saturday and clean it up, get things in order, stack boxes, box up what needed to be returned, but the room soon went back to its previous state of maze-like chaos. I don’t know if this was because she couldn’t bear to throw anything away or she honestly thought she would need all of it someday. There is security in excess.

A good part of my mother’s childhood was spent harvesting. Her mother sent her outside to get the leaves of a plant that would be boiled down to make a horrid-tasting tea that helped with a cold. After washing the clothes by hand in the porcelain washer with the crank, she hung them to dry in the air, scented by the nearby magnolia tree. Then she went out and collected them, reaching up and freeing the cotton dresses and pants from the wooden clothespins on the rotating line.

On the best days, my mom picked figs. There was a long-sleeved smock she wore and a hat, because otherwise, as her mother had warned her, the milk of the fig could burn her skin. There were bugs all around that swooped towards her ankles, towards her neck, but she remained focused. For what were now only figs would become preserves, would become homemade tarts.

*

Maw Maw and Paw Paw Woods owned a dry goods store, but before it was a store, it was a small shoe repair shop. They began experimenting by selling related items out of the tiny shop. Salesmen came around Gueydan every month or so, selling their wares out of the back of the truck. People would barter with them, offering livestock or crops in exchange for fabric and tools. Paw Paw began to purchase items and order items special to sell in the store. They bought multiple pairs of thick work boots that men would wear in the fields or offshore drilling for oil on the Gulf. They bought denim overalls. They didn’t have enough in cash or trade to buy so Paw Paw borrowed from a relative, always paying them off just as soon as he had the money back. When they realized that a permanent fixture for purchasing goods was needed in town and a space became available, they opened up a dry goods store beside their house on Main Street.

They figured out a system of symbols at first when counting, since neither of them had a formal education. They taught themselves their own version of math. Josephine had stopped at first grade, when her momma needed her to help take care of the young ones and the house. Ivy had stopped at third. He always held those two extra years up in front of her, as a way to show his value. Woman, the echo of his voice rang out across the linoleum floor of the store. Woman, go get me a glass of water. Woman, go see if we have any more of these shoes in the front. Woman. Woman. Woman.

Customers could buy on credit but they couldn’t buy more until they had paid off their debt. Sometimes it was hard to get the money owed from people. He had moved his handwritten sign from his small repair shop to the front counter. It read: “We do not clean boots. We fix them.” One time, a man from down the road brought his mud-coated boots and set them on Ivy’s counter. Ivy didn’t say a word. He just watched the man as he turned around and walked out the screen door. When the man returned the next day and found his boots still sitting there, still dirty broken, he was angry. A man of few words, Ivy simply pointed to the dirty leather cowboy boots and then to the sign. The man picked up his boots and left in a huff.

Ivy was a man who liked for everyone to know who was in charge, especially his wife. His first wife had died in childbirth for their son, Jaycee. My dad’s theory is that Ivy was a hard man because he never allowed himself to feel his pain, because he never allowed himself to grieve for her. While it was common for Cajun couples to not show open affection for one another, my mom has said that she doesn’t know if her father loved her mother. After his first wife died, Ivy couldn’t handle the kids so they went to live with relatives. Only when he remarried to Josephine did they return. Maybe he remarried because that what was expected or because he couldn’t bear to be alone. In whatever case, Josephine was a replacement.

She seldom stood up to Ivy, but a few times, she did. Ivy had forbidden a basketball goal be put in their driveway. There was no time for games when there was work to do. But one day, her son L.P. came home with a piece of piping and a distressed slice of wood. He painted the wood, and then let her know when he is ready for her. Josephine showed her eldest son where to dig the hole.

“Ici,” she said, pointing to a place in the ground.

Then she took her strong hands and rolled up the apron that she wore over her plaid housedress to form a sort of belt and stood there with her hands tucked in. She faced Ivy’s dry goods store so that he could see her. She stood there, unmoving, staring straight ahead until her sons finished installing their homemade sports equipment. The time will stick out as one of the only times her children remember her putting her foot down. Her children wanted to play basketball and they would play basketball.

When the boys were done, she unrolled her apron, pressing the creases out across her thighs and went back to the house, up the steps and through the screen door into her kitchen to start supper. The boys played basketball until dark, and Ivy never said anything about it to his children.

*

Long before she developed Alzheimer’s, Josephine was a forgetful woman. She was good at making things. She was good at hiding things. But she was not always good at remembering that she hid them or where she put them. Her children used this Achilles’ heel to their advantage. When they stumbled upon some divinity fudge in a tin can in the hall closet, they would take it to a secret hiding place and munch on the sweet powdered sugar concoction until only powder remained. Then they would go sweetly to their mother in the kitchen.

“Ma, you are going to have to make some more divinity. You’re all out,” they’d say, holding back smiles.

“Oh, mais non, you ate all my divinity.” She acted exasperated but she was really more flattered than anything. Food was a way she showed her affection for her family and she was glad that her children liked what she made.

Josephine grew up poor. The house she was raised in had dirt floors. The family could afford to build a roof or a floor and a roof seemed more important. She was one of thirteen children. Her father, Aristile, never held down a real job. He made the moonshine. He would go out hunting for turtles to be made for turtle soup. For some, the dish is a delicacy. But because it was all they ever had, his children once grown would get nauseous at even the mention of turtle soup. Josephine’s mother was a hard worker. She took whatever odd jobs she could, for cash or more often trade, to keep her children fed. Stacks of clothes to be ironed flooded her kitchen table. Other people’s children ran around the house under her watch. She employed her children in helping out. They did things that children don’t today. Daughters began sewing at five years old. They were in the kitchen, helping with boiling pots and pans from a young age. This wasn’t considered negligence. It was considered giving them an early start to their practical education. It was them fulfilling their obligation to the family.

I wonder if Josephine wanted to hold onto things because she had the sense that at any moment, they might be taken away. If she had some stored up, then she could put her mind at ease. Her children would be clothed. Her table would be full.

Maw Maw’s adult house was always clean and her kitchen immaculate, despite seemingly always being in the process of cooking something. The mess was wiped quickly away. Her sister-in-law Rosa would make her kids scrub down the entire house before they had company over. She also used to wash the church linens, putting them in the freezer for awhile so the ironing would be easier. She might be diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder now, but then, she was just a good housewife. When you had to make things stretch, it became more important that your house be in order. You couldn’t hide behind the folds of luxury. There was very little keeping you from poor and worthless.

My second cousin talks about the German kids who lived down the road growing up. They always came to school smelling like sausage and eggs. Every Cajun knew you had your house clothes and your fancy clothes. You didn’t go to school in your house clothes. You didn’t want to go to church smelling like your breakfast. Such rules were understood in a community that had little money and tremendous pride.

My mom had a thing about doing the dishes right after dinner, without fail. My room used to drive her crazy to the point where, after telling me fifty times to pick it up, she would do it herself. Although the “junk room” existed, the common spaces were neat and organized.  She was a pack rat. She was also clean.

*

After Ivy died of cancer, Josephine’s mind started to go. Before the formal diagnosis, her children noticed small changes. She became irritable more easily. She couldn’t remember the names of her neighbors or grandkids. Recipes embossed on her mind were suddenly gone. She didn’t know how to make them. Then, she didn’t remember where she put her recipes.

Once she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, her children took turns having her live with them. Because we were far away in New Orleans, she would only stay with us every few months. When she came though, she stayed for two or three weeks.

I was eleven when she first came to stay. I was on Christmas break and didn’t have school. Alzheimer’s had been explained to me, and though I didn’t understand the science of it, I understood that something was wrong with Maw Maw’s brain. I also sensed intuitively that something was not right. She did not seem like the same woman I had known.

One afternoon, my mom went out to run errands and left me home alone, babysitting my grandmother. This was in days before cellular phones and my mom said she would call to check up on us, to see how we were doing. Maw Maw was doing fine, sitting with me in the living room watching television. At about three o’clock in the afternoon, she got up and went to the kitchen and stood silently staring out the glass-paned front door.

I walked to the kitchen.

“Maw Maw,” I said. “Are you looking for something?”

Her face tensed up, anxiety in the lines around her eyes and forehead.

“My daddy was supposed to come get me and he’s not here. He was supposed to come get me.”

I was completely unprepared for this moment. What was I to tell my grandmother about her daddy, who had died decades ago?

“Well, I’m sure he’ll be here soon,” I said. “Why don’t you come back in the living room and sit down?”

Now, I had exasperated her. “Didn’t you hear me? My daddy is coming for me. I have to wait for him right here.

I knew it wasn’t her fault she was yelling. I knew that her anger wasn’t really directed at me. But it still made me shudder to be talked to that way. Please, Mom. Please call.

About ten minutes later, the phone rang.

“Lisa, honey, how are you? How’s Maw Maw?”

Holding back tears and dropping my voice to a whisper, I sputtered out the situation.

“Maw Maw thinks her daddy is coming to get her. I told her she could go back in the living room where we were and wait there. She didn’t want to. She’s just standing there, Mom. What do I do?”

She paused. “I’ll be home in five minutes.”

I don’t remember what happened when she got home or if Maw Maw just forgot about her daddy coming to get her. I do remember the feeling of fear at having my elderly grandmother talk as if she was a five-year-old. And looking back, I see that I understood in that moment that she would never be the same—that with her losing her memory, I had lost her forever.

Things started disappearing one by one. My mom’s wooden spatula. My dad’s windbreaker. My favorite peach-colored scarf. We had a feeling about where they would be. My mom asked her about it first.

“Mom, did you take Lisa’s scarf?”

“No, what are you talking about?”

“Mom, did you take it because you wanted to wear it? It is a long peach scarf?”

“I told you. I don’t know anything about it,” she said, and then turning to me, continued, “Maybe that lady took it.” And with her gesture to my mom, I understood her to mean that lady to be my mom, her daughter.

“Mom, I did not take it,” my mom told Maw Maw.

“Let’s have a look in your room.”

Mom unzipped Maw Maw’s suitcase and opened it to reveal, among many other things, my peach scarf. I didn’t even want it anymore. I wished I had just stayed quiet. She could have it.

“I don’t know how that got there,” Maw Maw said, and on her face, I could see a trace of shame.

My mom carefully took out the items that belonged to us and placed them on the daybed.

When recounting this story later, we would laugh about it. We laughed about the ridiculous and random stockpile of kitchen utensils and articles of clothing and scraps of paper carefully tucked into her suitcase. Because really, what else is there to do?

*

Josephine was a talented seamstress. With no money to buy patterns, she made them herself out of old newspapers, holding them up to her children’s bodies. “That looks like it’ll fit,” she said.

For my mother’s senior dance, she wore a dress that was Robin’s egg blue, Virgin Mary blue and fashioned out of silk and tulle. Her mother made it, measuring the fabric, sewing up the hem. In the picture of her, she is a vision in blue with her jet black hair and her tall slender frame. The skirt bellows out from her waist.

Josephine loved to sew, but she also loved to quilt. She would take scraps from clothing her children had worn out or grown out of and fashion them into a colorful design. One of my favorite quilt of hers has a goldenrod back and trim and all the squares have the image of a girl, dressed with a bonnet and dress and apron. Each girl has the same silhouette but is outfitted in different fabric.

When I was living in San Francisco, the work of the quilters from Gee’s Bend, Alabama came to the De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. Gee’s Bend was named for the first white landowner in the area, and the African-American women in the small rural community southwest of Selma, Alabama were descendants of slaves that worked the cotton plantations. After the civil war, their freed ancestors became tenant farmers for Joseph Gee and Mark Pettway. During the Great Depression, the federal government purchased land and homes for the community. As this African-American community was largely isolated, they had to take care of their own needs. There was no place to buy fabric so they used what they had. They made patterns in their heads and used old denim overalls with the knees worn out and torn cotton housedresses for fabric. Their quilting—mixing traditional American and African-American styles with geometry and abstract concepts—has passed down through years through six generations.

They made the quilts beautiful because they loved to be creative and challenge themselves artistically, but they made them in the first place because they were necessary. Winter was cold. Houses had poor insulation. They needed the warmth that the blankets provided. Then suddenly, their quilts were elevated to high art, hanging on shiny white walls in museums across the country.

They had been “discovered” by an art collector in the 1980s, but it was not until 2003 that a curated exhibit of their work toured the globe. The New York Times hailed the quilts as “some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced.”

I went with an older colleague to hear the quilters sing one Sunday. In front of a large abstract wall mural made of dizzying dots, six of the women began to sing spirituals for the audience, the spirituals they typically sing when they are quilting. One woman began the singing and soon the others joined her. The sound of their harmonies, their resonant voices echoed off the walls of the foyer.

The women’s humor was inserted in quotes from them and the video running at one part of the exhibition hall. One woman talked of the ugly orange polyester pantsuit that had been donated to them. Nobody else wanted it, but she said, “I’ll make something with this.” What resulted was a beautiful abstract geometric design, a sort of homage to hard angles and material that is challenging to work with.

One quilter Mary Lee Bendolph said, “You have to have a mind made up to piece a quilt. Because if you don’t have a mind made up to piece that quilt, it ain’t going to never go right. I sew one or two pieces together and lay it out on the floor and look at it and see if that don’t work. Sometime it’ll work out. Then I get another piece and I sit there and sew, and when I sew it all together and sit there and look, I say, “oh, that look beautiful.” Then sometime it don’t look good to me at all.”

Typically, quilting is done in layers. There is the top fabric where the design is, insulation material inside, and a backing layer. The typical steps taken to build a quilt are:

1. Deciding on a pattern, on fabrics, on batting (or insulating) material

2. Measuring and cutting fabric to size

3. Piecing (sewing patches or blocks together) to make a design for the top of the quilt.

4. Layering the pieced top with batting and quilt backing.

5. Quilting (or sewing in decorative patterns to join the three layers) by hand or by machine

6. Trimming the edges of the quilt and sewing the edges so there are clean lines.

The Gee’s Bend quilts emerge from an organic process that is only possible because the quilters trust the vision in their heads and move forward from there. As I looked at the large quilts on the wall, the rhythmic pairing of strips of violet with fuchsia and white, the vertical and horizontal lines, I was struck with the feeling that this was important work. It was important work because these quilts were both beautiful and necessary.

While I was walking around the gallery, I called my mom. I explained the quilts made out of found material, and I could almost feel her nod her head on the other side of the line. She reminded me of the dresses and shirts cut and sewn from old patterned feed sacks. She told me she wanted to learn how to quilt. Maybe, she said, we could try to do it together.

Over the years, I have asked my mom to teach me to sew. She seems willing but there never seems to be enough time. I have asked her to mend things and they sit for years next to her sewing machine. She is busy with work and there is no time for mending. The reminders of what hands have done though are in her house and in mine. On a bed in the room where I sleep at my parents is a quilt my paternal grandmother made for the two of them when they wed. And on my bed in Tucson is a quilt also made by my Grandma. She made it for me before I was born. When I am back in Louisiana visiting my parents, my mom folds Maw Maw’s goldenrod quilt with the bonneted girls and places it the end of the bed, in case I need it. The edges are worn, but the blanket is still useful.

*

In a picture on my desk, my Maw Maw has her arms raised and I am turning. The photographer has caught us mid spin. I must be three and she in her seventies. Her eyes are invisible behind cat-eye frames. I keep it on my desk because it reminds me of her. I want to be reminded of her because for some reason, more so than any other family members who have died, I feel her loss. I don’t know how to explain it except that when I think about her, I feel a hollowness in my chest, as if someone has just scooped out some of my insides. I wanted to tell her story, but all I could find from dredging my own memories and collecting bits of scraps from others isn’t enough to make a whole. I have to settle for a patchwork of her. I make myself a vision of who she was from odds and ends.

When Josephine’s children could no longer take care of her, when she required constant attention, they put her in the Gueydan nursing home. Her body still held the plumpness I knew from when I was a little girl, but I could tell her bones were atrophied and creaky, ready to snap at one false step or one hard squeeze. Her skin seemed as white as the walls of the nursing home she lived in—all the luster that once was there, gone. But more disturbing than her physical presence was the noticeable lack of her mental one. That tired, confused expression almost always on her face. She didn’t know who I was. She didn’t know who my mother, her daughter, was either. And I knew, even at my young age, that this wasn’t her fault. I did, however, feel like it was a waste of time to visit someone who didn’t even know me.

One time when Mom and I went to visit her, I saw my seventh grade picture tacked to the bulletin board next to her bed.

“Mom, it’s Vera,” my mom said to her mother, who was lying in her bed.

Josephine looked up without expression.

“It’s your daughter.”

Looking at her mother’s arm, my mom saw a large blackish bruise.

“Mom, what happened?” she asked, her voice lowered.

“Ivy Woods,” Josephine replied.

Although verbal abuse was evident in their marriage, physical abuse had never been spoken of, if it did occur. I remember feeling disturbed at the allegation. Now I remember it and wonder, with her inhibitions now gone, was she free to tell about what she had to endure, something that she knew not to speak about when her memory was there?

When I got a handwritten message from a memo pad handed to me in Religion class my sophomore year of high school saying that my mother was here and I needed to come to the front office immediately, I knew something was wrong. I saw my mother’s face, red from crying, before I walked through the glass doors. I cried into her shoulder when she told me my paternal Grandma died and cried harder because I wished it was my Maw Maw. Grandma O’Neill was the one who knew me. This must’ve been difficult for my mom—difficult to know that I wished her mother was the one who died.

Four years later, Maw Maw died. I remember my mom at the funeral. She was the one who had left Southwest Louisiana and her hometown Gueydan, population 2,042, at eighteen. She had the college degree. Always viewed as the creative and worldly one by her brothers, she was chosen to give the eulogy. I watched as tears surfaced in her eyes and heard emotion rattling in the back of her throat as she spoke. But the woman she was describing was not someone I knew. The vivaciousness, the stubborn nature, the prankster personality. They were all things I had mere glimpses of in passing.

I question my own reasons and motivations for feeling something missing from my life because I didn’t know her. Maybe I feel the way I do because we seem so different. Mine has always been a life defined by words—literature, poetry, song lyrics—read on paper, and my Maw Maw couldn’t read. Until recently, I have never felt at ease in the kitchen—always worrying I’d mess something up, cut myself with a knife, always following the recipe with precision—and my Maw Maw cooked like it was something she was born to do. I have difficulty sewing a button back on, and she made clothes for herself, her husband and her children from scraps of found material with no patterns.

I wonder what our conversations would have been like if time and circumstances would have given us the chance to know each other. Would her only daughter’s daughter feel like a stranger, so different with her urban upbringing and formal education, or would she see, however faint the recognition, scraps of herself sewn into me?

*

At some point, no one knows when exactly, Josephine began taking items from the store and tucking them in hiding places in the house. Tube socks. Sacks of rice. Leather belts with intricate carvings. Shoe polish kits. Children’s pajamas. She put them in pillowcases. She shoved them in drawers. She hid them high up on shelves. When she eventually died and her children and grandchildren went through the house, there were enough goods buried in the house to open a whole new store. Instead, her children threw a garage sale. I remember marking items with neon green, orange and pink dots. My mom had arranged a color-coded price system. All of her preciously hid items, and some that she kept in plain view, were laid out on folding tables in the carport. All her hard work set out for sale to the citizens of Gueydan.

I asked my mom later about certain items I remembered from the house. She told me they were probably sold at the garage sale. I asked her why she didn’t keep more. They were all so overwhelmed at the time, she told me. They couldn’t think. They just needed to clean house.

Lisa O’Neill is a writer, teacher of writers, and a graduate of the University of Arizona’s MFA Program in Nonfiction Creative Writing. In addition to teaching students pursuing undergraduate degrees, she co-teaches writing workshops with incarcerated writers in Pima County, Arizona through the program Inside/Out. Although she lives in Tucson, Lisa often centers her writing on the place where she grew up and the geography closest to the heart, Louisiana. She recently completed a nonfiction manuscript, Vessels, which explores the physical, cultural and historical landscapes of her home state as well as her hometown, New Orleans. Lisa appreciates people who experiment and play with sound, language, color, texture and light in whatever form this play takes. She blogs at dictionaryproject.wordpress.com.

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