Friday, April 6, 2012

Ironing the rags

Lately it seems like the past is near.  Like the things that haunted past generations are trying to get their hooks into my own generation, into me.  I act out old patterns without meaning to, think old thoughts as instinct, and what was the past is still right here inside of me.  I am inscribed.

It started with my mother-in-law casually asking me if I packed my husband lunches every day.  That seemed odd and old-fashioned.  Two days ago, I felt my husband was not doing his share of the cleaning in preparation for a visit from out-of-town relatives.  I resented how it seemed to be my role, as the female, to prepare the house and be the hostess. 

Then there was yesterday's dinner with the relatives, an event so filled with heavy statements, lingering ghosts, and clues to the mysteries of my family that today on Good Friday I am still digesting what it all means.

Before people arrived, I cleaned the last things, straightened a pillow, put on the tablecloth.  I spun the patterned plates I inherited from my grandmother as I positioned them before each chair so that the blue carriage scene faced the correct direction.  I cut hyacinths and a daffodil from the front yard and placed them in a vase in the middle of the table.  My aunt and uncle had driven across the country for an Easter visit, so I wanted their first impression of my house to be a good one.

Before my mother and aunt arrived, it was me and the guys - my husband, brother, father, and 84-year-old uncle who hadn't seen me since my wedding.  The first thing my uncle said as I greet him is, "You've gained some weight!  It looks good on you."  It seemed like he expected me to thank him for the assessment of my body shape in front of three other men.  I said, "Okaaaaay . . ." and someone changed the subject as I fumed in silence. Suddenly, my breasts and stomach felt huge and prominent.  I wish I weren't so affected, so upset.  I wish I didn't know I would remember this for a long time.  I wish I didn't monitor my eating so he wouldn't think I eat too much - so he didn't think I deserved this larger body I now have.

I spent the night sucking my stomach in for this asshole who I only see once every few years.  As if that would disguise it - the obvious fact that I have gained a lot of weight, and it's visible and everyone can tell, everyone has known for some time now.  It's not my private secret just because no one else is rude enough to bring it up except my inappropriate 84-year-old uncle.

This rude comment coincided with a rather adult moment - the kind of old-fashioned, classic adult moment that centuries of women have been groomed to orchestrate: I am greeting relatives who have known me since infancy as a grown woman and as a wife, in my own home, as hostess for a meal.  I am proud of my husband and my house, and proud of the woman I have grown up to be.  Look at this happy life I have made for myself.  Look at the flowers from my own yard on the table. 

I stare across the kitchen at my elderly uncle, clutching his glass with two hands so he doesn't drop it, confessing that my aunt no longer trusts him to drive, asking for everything to be repeated because he can't hear.  I've gained weight, but he has new hearing aids.  Time marches on.  It's not worth it to make a scene by expressing my rage.  I am actually the one with power here - youthfulness and health.  I need to let this go.  

When my aunt and mother arrive, my aunt has my dad go re-park my mother's car so it is not so far from the curb.  As her husband follows her sister's orders, my humiliated mother tries to joke that she's being put in her place by her big sister just like the old days.

During the meal, my aunt reveals that in childhood my grandmother made her iron everything, even her father's undershirts, even the rags.  She didn't have to iron her father's underwear, but there was a particular way to fold each one.  After ironing, the rags could be folded and stacked - they wouldn't stack nicely if they had been wrinkled.  When my aunt grew up and got her own house, my grandmother offered to give her some of her rags and was mad when my aunt said that she didn't want my grandmother's rags. Imagine how much my grandma thought of her rags!  My grandmother who survived the Great Depression, who in her rural childhood wore dresses sewn from the fabric of flour sacks and grew up to live in urban Cleveland having these rags, this superfluous fabric, that she made her daughter care for and fold and stack.

My mother and aunt discuss how their childhood church - where they were baptized, went to school, gave confession, got married, and buried their parents - was recently going to be closed but the Vatican is making them re-open it.  They are much relieved that the Vatican has taken this step, despite the Catholic money problems stemming from all of the sexual abuse lawsuits.

I sit next to my mother, our similar soft bellies pressing against the dinner table.  She reminds me to bring an extra hardboiled egg with the deviled eggs I am assigned to bring for Easter dinner in three days.  It's an Eastern European family tradition to cut the egg into pieces and each person eats from the same egg "to keep the family together."  How pagan, I think.  She mentions ham, kielbasa, sweet potatoes for Easter dinner.  Garden of the Gods salad.  Usually there would be fried homemade pierogies, but this year my mother is making a renewed attempt to control her weight.  My brother asks if he's supposed to bring anything and my mother says no.

My aunt explains that when, long ago, my grandmother asked her doctor if she should quit smoking, he told her that it would be bad for her health because it would make her too nervous.  So she kept smoking.  My uncle says that quitting smoking was the hardest thing he ever did and every day he still thinks about smoking.  He talks about the navy.  On the boats, he worked in the laundry.  I don't say this but I think, the navy, that's where you got your tattoo, the tattoo that my grandmother always assumed you were a bad person for having, because people get tattoos in jail.  He asks my husband, "Did you ever smoke?"  In front of my mother, the only right answer to this is no, because in her eyes, only bad people smoke.

My mother expresses shock that my brother never told her he's been going to a physical therapist for weeks.  I mention that that very day, I had done as I was told and called her ten minutes after my doctor's appointment to let her know how it had gone.  My husband says, "Wait, what? You had a doctor's appointment today?" It is probably strange that I agreed to call my mother after my appointment.

I show my aunt and uncle the project I made in a Park and Rec. weaving class I took for eight weeks.  I describe how there were dozens of looms in the basement of an urban elementary school.  They ask if I still have the loom they gave me years ago, plucked out of their many looms and weaving projects and boxes of yarn that crowd their Cleveland living room.  I explain that I took this class so I could learn how to string it up.  "How to sley it," my uncle corrects.  He runs his fingers over the cloth, spreading it out and then re-folding it, examining how the ends are finished and the different patterns in the sampler.  "Houndstooth," we both say.  My aunt says she can't see one mistake in the cloth.  My uncle tells me it is very well-done, and I believe him.

Part of me wants to tell my mother what my uncle said to me about my weight, because I know she will understand precisely how it made me feel and we will gasp together in catharsis and validate each other's appalled reactions.  But I will not bring it up because I know it will actually hurt her to hear.  She will hate him.  And she has to serve him an eight-course Easter dinner in three days and share the hardboiled egg pieces with him and care for him as he sleeps in her house with his hidden tattoo. I look more like her every day, the shape of my body changing to match the round, comforting shapes of her body.

I hear her tell my husband as she's putting on her coat, "My mother would have loved you.  I so wish you could have met her."  Just before the group heads out the door, my aunt and mother are reminiscing about how their mother was so strict and about all of the Catholic school they went to, and my mom says, "People wonder why I never acted out or had a rebellious phase. I never had the slightest chance!"  But I know her too well.  I know she rebelled by eating what she wanted and savoring it.  By getting a doctorate and being more successful than anyone thought she would be.  By taking up space.



  1. I followed you here from APW. You have a brilliant voice. I rather enjoyed spending time with your's been a long time since I hosted my first family dinner, y'know across many years, miles and cultures it's the same as it ever was. All the best with your weaving, writing and marriage.

    1. Thanks T.Allen, you are my first follower! I appreciate the kind words. Family dinners really bring out the drama, for better or worst.