2003 by Judith Nakken
I was my mother’s house-slave; chattel propagated for the express purpose of freedom to sculpt her hair and nails and the wet clay or papier-mâché’ that dominated our dining room table. At seven and eight I dusted and daily swept the wood and linoleum floors of the rented wartime houses, my short-handled broom often leaving splinters if I gripped too close to the sawed part. I could rinse a brush-scrubbed floor and wax it better than any housewife when I was nine and it was a routine part of my “Saturday work.” By age ten I did the laundry every Sunday during the school year, and on regular Washday Monday during summer vacation. Mama was particular about “the wash,” as she called it.
In the basement of the house I lived in from 1947 until I escaped the South Dakota prairie in 1952 was the dour Maytag washer and the separate, wobbly, roll-about rinse tubs. Three rinses were mandatory, and she had better not catch me stinting. I washed the whites, then the coloreds, then the darks in the same water, wringing them all into empty wicker baskets. When the soupy, gray water was drained from the machine I filled it again and the wet clothes sloshed around in the first rinse water in the same order. Then they were wrung into the rinse tubs, the last one laced with Mrs. Stewart’s Bluing. There I swished them up and down by hand.
The Maytag’s hard rubber wringer was electric and had a mind of its own. Have you heard the expression “tit in a wringer?” It’s not so funny when you’ve lived it. But I digress.
She was particular, and I hated her. I despised her beauty and her indolence and her nitpicking, and I hung a perfect wash in order to escape her tongue. In 25-below weather - not uncommon in Eastern Dakota in those years - she still insisted that the white wash be hung on the outdoor clotheslines before I went to school. “Freezing whitens the bedding and underwear,” she swore. I unpinned a thousand tons of stiff-as-a-board sheets and tee shirts on the dark winter Monday afternoons of my youth. I manhandled them awkwardly down steep wooden steps, careful not to break them, just to unfreeze and dry them gray-white on the lines in the basement. There they joined the colored clothes, Father’s work clothes, us girls’ couple of dresses and Little Brother’s jeans.
She added the ironing to my chores in seventh grade, and the mending the summer I graduated from the eighth. Raised during the Great Depression as she was, nothing was discarded if it could be darned or patched. Little Brother routinely tore out the knees of his jeans, and Father’s work shirts had many three-cornered tears from being caught on the spikes of the electric poles he climbed. The mending basket was full when she sat down with me that summer Tuesday.
“Mend before you do the ironing each week,” she instructed. “That way you can press out the patches when the iron is cooling.” She showed me how to darn Father’s work socks with the big needle and the soft darning thread, “loose, now, so that it won’t bunch up when it shrinks in its first wash.” I had a vivid picture of the whack I’d get if Father’s foot got blistered from my bunched-up darning, so I paid close attention. Her pale fingers, so adroit at carving and sculpting and piano playing, flew in and out as she demonstrated the techniques to be used. She issued a benign giggle at my left-handed clumsiness, and I felt a cautious love for her.
I cannot forget that day; the cedar chest on which we sat side by side, her scent as she bent to show me how to match the fabric and tack it under a 3-corner rip, her insistence that I use a thimble when making the invisible stitching around the patch. My senses still record the warmth in my chest and the damp at the corner of my eyes as our shoulders touched and I basked in the feel of her. I cannot forget the day because it was the last time I was ever lulled into la-la land by any hint of togetherness. Too soon she was unhappy with my patchwork, shrieked, ripped and set me to the task again.
I became a perfect mender. Dry-eyed, silent, perfect. Sublimely soft, darned socks and flawlessly patched shirts and jeans adorned my family until the summer of ’52.
I married at barely sixteen, a young farm boy turned Marine who was probably destined for tragic death on a frozen Korean wasteland. He could care less about washing and patching but wished wholeheartedly that my mother had taught me some culinary skills. I had as little experience with cohabitation as I did with cooking - in the dysfunctional home where I was raised we lived together on separate planets - and none with love. My childish demands and search for perfection made me less than a perfect wife. He didn’t go to Korea and I took our child and left him alone in stark government housing without a backward glance.
It was, however, an era when a woman’s ideal was husband, house, and 2.8 children, so I married again at nineteen. He was older and well-to-do and adored me and I tried desperately to keep my feet on the conjugal planet. But suburbia, an automatic washer and conversations about the crabgrass battle grew stale, and part-time jobs and part-time school did not fill the perfection void. I took my jewelry and 3.0 children and left the pleasant California culdesac without a second thought. “Why,” he asked at divorce court.
“Because,” I answered. Because. It was enough reason for me and for my loveless heart.
Milt was different, as was the wild ride of the next marriage. He was 43 to my 28 when we flew to Vegas on a whim and found time to tie the knot between piles of chips and bottles of champagne. He was a blue-collar working man who trained Labrador Retrievers, hunted birds in the Imperial Valley and epitomized America and Apple Pie. “I’m gonna be sorry I did this,” he said as he stooped to kiss his bride in the gaudy chapel. “But, oh, I love you so.”
He did, I know, and I had a hitherto unknown feeling for him. Unlike any other man he confronted me and, unlike any other of my marital relationships, I did not ignore him. I didn’t treat him well, of course, but I was uncomfortably aware of his presence in my life. I screamed, cursed, threw things. “What is really the matter with you right now,” he’d demand when we were arguing. “How can (whatever the topic was) be so important as to turn you into a shrieking witch?” I’d yell louder, break something important, and he’d ultimately go to his sister’s for days or weeks. Our good times - taking the boys to dog trials, valet-parking his battered pickup while we lunched at the Brown Derby, drinking French Seventy-Fives at the Serene Room’s piano bar, the single bed where a sweet dawn would find our two long bodies nestled like spoons - kept us together for nearly three years.
It was during a good time that Milt was ecstatic one day. He’d scored two - count ‘em, two! - American-made work shirts in his size at a closeout store. “Probably the last two in the whole U.S. of A.,” he griped as he took them from the battered sack to show me. They were long-sleeved in the shaved flannel he preferred, with intricate, colored stripes on a background of light gray and pale green. Perhaps I was glad for him and his find, but what I remember is only an intellectual curiosity about his American-made obsession.
He tore the sleeve on the new gray shirt the first day it was worn. It was a small, three-cornered rent and too high on the arm to roll the sleeves over it. You’d think he lost a child, or at least a puppy, the way he carried on. He tossed it with disgust to the bottom of the closet and it lay there until the weekend. He was working overtime and I was doing the working woman’s Saturday chores when I picked it up.
There was plenty of material inside the placket to rob a piece for patchwork. “It’s a huge challenge,” I mused. “That pattern is very small and structured, hard to match. But I’ll bet I can still put a perfect patch on it.”
I ran to the dime store for pale gray thread and sat in the good living room light to tackle the job. I had not lost my touch. As I pressed the new patch with a cooling iron, the rip and its stitches were rendered invisible. Perfect again, I thought and, puffed with pride, hung it on his side of the closet and went to firmly inspect the kids’ Saturday work.
It was days later when he came from the bedroom with the shirt in his hands and a bemused look of adoration on his face. “Honey, this is so beautiful. Oh, sweetheart, what a nice surprise.”
I don’t know what I responded. I’d moved on since the patch challenge was conquered and it didn’t have anything to do with him, anyway. I heard him showing it to his hunting partner, though, as they left for a weekend. “Look at this. Can’t even see it. Judith did it for me.” I was proud that he was proud; you know what I mean?
Our final bad time arrived. He was gone and I was throwing his stuff methodically onto the cement slab in back when I spied his favorite shotgun standing up in the corner of the closet. I’d seen him bragging about it and the cost of its added and hand-carved stock alone, and I took it by the barrels and pounded it against a steel corner post in the front yard until it lay in parts and splinters.
His voice was hoarse with emotion when he collected his things. “Even you would not do this, Judith,” he said, and he gathered the pieces of the shotgun and left me for the last time. I missed him, once in a while.
A generation passed; my progeny escaped and created house-slaves or scapegoats or beloved children of their own. Life crises afforded me late maturity and the seedlings of insight into myself and the world in which I had to participate if I would live. Little Brother declined to participate and died a violent death before his thirtieth birthday. Mama was gone soon after, and Sister and I discovered we had not one shared memory from all the years we lived together. I spent an increasing amount of time in introspection and was just beginning to recognize the enormity of my early disregard for others when Milt came to my city on a train.
He was visiting World War II army buddies across the continent on an Amtrak pass. One of those pals lived here, and he called my daughter from the hotel. “We’re the only kids he ever had, Mom,” she chided me. “I’m having him to dinner, and you’re going to the Red Lion to pick him up.”
He was sixty-six and nearly blind, his lean Texan’s body fattened to bursting, yet the years disappeared when he spoke. “You’re still purtier than a speckled pup,” he drawled as I stepped into his room, and soon we were chatting like old friends, as in the best of our good times, only better. He told me of his wife and their fine life and I spoke of my work and my children and their children.
“No jewelry,” he noted and pointed to my hands. “What ever happened to that big diamond of yours?” I told him the pat and comical story of how I sold it for a song to get out of L.A. and how I’d never looked back.
“Remember that Tiger Eye you gave me, Judith? My hands got too fat for it, and my wife prefers I just wear my wedding ring, anyway. Remember it? It’s in that jewel box there.” He gestured at a small leather case on the dresser next to me. I lifted the lid.
Was I supposed to notice it, the cloth that enclosed the ring? I tried to read his eyes behind their coke-bottle lenses, but his demeanor didn’t change and he went on with his friendly chatter. Great shame rose and threatened to spill from my throat and I turned my head to blink away moisture. Then I took the ring from the box. Its 20-year-old wrapping humbled my existence.
“Yep, that’s it!” I forced gaiety as I held them in the palm of my hand. “Shall we go to that girl’s for dinner now?”
He stood and rummaged
for his key card while I re-placed the Tiger Eye in the center section
of the jewel box. Its two-inch square wrapper of striped, pale gray flannel
was the last thing I saw as I dropped the lid, the perfect three-corner
patch in the center surely a symbol of something.
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