Featured in Colorado Review
Our Little BerthaFeatured, Nonfiction
Published Fall 2011
* Header image from http://www.flickr.com/photos/24787340@N00/92283867/
The light in the doorway, the long unfinished homecoming, the old men on their haunches and the smell of manure in the wind, the smell of the inside of my hand . . .
Everything is muted in this place—even the beginning.
Iowa: A slow grinding of continents and now the soil is merely the remains of glacial drift, a lucky convergence of minerals and terrain. Still, I wonder how this place came into existence. It rolls as you watch it, like the sea. It goes on forever but it never begins. There is a low feeling to living here, of being pushed to the earth and rubbing your hands in the dirt. You think of weather. You can see far enough off. You predict snow, rain, and wind, but after the heavy threat of winter, the remaining seasons are a steady run of nothing much. Cobwebs lace the ears of corn, grasshoppers stick to your shoes. Just before harvest, the land is a little bit greater, more golden, and the cicadas so loud the heat seems to be rubbing its legs. The cows take a slow lick from a puddle. A flick of an ear, and they lope their way home. This is the place of simple appetites and small wonders. Of never drawing attention to yourself and keeping your hands in your pockets, your eyes sharp on the horizon. It is the place where I was born. Decades ago, it would have been the rest of my life, but it’s been years now since I’ve returned.
There were many things that came up to discourage us, my great-grandmother wrote a year before her death. But we refused to be very discouraged.
It is January in Boston, the winter after I turn thirty, and I suppose that’s how long it takes to get a good look at things. In the late afternoon, the sun sets with alarming efficiency and already my windows are dark. A snowstorm is set for the night. Even now I can feel its weight. I am locked inside, sitting at the windows with a notebook and pencil in my lap, and the sky up here from my top-floor apartment is full of wind. Beneath my window, voices of passersby remind me there are better ways to spend a Sunday afternoon, but I am beginning at least.
In my new situation, newly alone, with a job at last at the university to sustain me, my mother has become a nervous woman again and has decided to visit me in Boston. Though she puzzles over dependent women, the sudden and freeing divorce of her youngest has left her afraid of my rootlessness. It is a cold day, my mother tired of walking. We sit in a café with two cups of hot chocolate, and she takes a stack of papers out of her purse. “Look here,” she says. “This is your great-grandmother’s. You might want to learn something about your family now, don’t you think?”
I squint at the pages but do not touch them. There are fifteen in all, poorly typed, with my great-grandmother’s name and date of birth—Melva Current, 1880—at the top. Perhaps my life, she writes, and that of my dear husband has meant little or nothing to anyone except to us and our immediate family. Turned at the corners, the pages seem weightless, though her account covers more than seventy-one years.
I stop reading. All I have are questions, but my mother has eased herself out of her chair and pulled her cardigan straight. “I think I’ll buy one of those praline things,” she says, pointing at the display. “Do you want one?” As if she hasn’t just handed me an entire life.
I have my great-grandmother’s pages for a month before I begin to make sense of them.
In all the years I’ve been gone, the empty bowl of Iowa has become entirely something else. My mother says I should see it now. All sorts of newcomers, companies sprouting in the fields, a wave of technology with their windowless buildings, so it doesn’t matter where the companies are, only that the rent is cut-rate. Salaries bring the workers in, the low cost of living. Neighborhoods spread across farmsteads like a leak. Iowa, with its open air, its agelessness, its clean-hearted politics. “You should see the new Hi-Vee,” my mother says. “Shelves to the ceiling, so many you have to crane your neck, and all the walls are windows. It’s a sight.”
I look out my apartment window and try to picture it. The East is so overgrown and rich, even the ghosts here know what they want and how best to get it. My brother and sister and I, we have all left—they to the mountains and I to the sea. Like the body of someone dear open on a surgeon’s table, the Midwest belongs to us and we to it—a warm, throbbing, living thing. But we can’t stand to stay in the room for very long.
Mercy Medical Center, Des Moines, 1986. My mother took a guest room in the hospital, and my pregnant sister needed a hand getting in and out of her chair. Her husband and my brother waited with us in the canvas seats, both a decade or more my senior, while I was the unlucky age of fourteen. After a week, my father’s eyes opened and his cheeks grew wet, but the nurse said it was an effect of the air, nothing else.
It wasn’t until my great-grandmother’s last year, when she was already seventy, that she decided to record the events of her life: And now here I am in February 1950, she wrote, broken hearted and sick in mind and body, begging God every day to take me to him or heal my afflicted body and show me what to do. I don’t want to stay in this world. It is not my home, but for some reason I am left.
The pages of her account end there, with more dread and longing in every sentence than I have heard altogether from my reticent family in more than three decades. Born and bred a farmwoman, my great-grandmother bore three children, grandmothered six others, and was a great-grandmother to seventeen. In the few pages I have, she repeated the word work eighteen times; God twenty-two; love eleven; and references to death, accidents, or sickness, twenty-nine. Skimming the pages, a few lines set the theme: On August 26, 1908 our fourth baby was born with yellow jaundice and she died in September. . . . In November of 1909 Mother Hess passed away. Father Hess passed away in January of 1913. . . . In February of 1910 my father Martin Current passed away. In May of 1913 my dear Mother passed. . . . We worked awful hard, much too hard. . . . In 1920 we worked harder than ever. . . . In May of 1925 I was almost killed when grinding feed. . . . In 1927 my oldest sister Amanda passed away. In 1928 my sister Merinda passed away. . . . 1934 was one of the worst years we had. . . . 1936 brought us another year almost as bad as 1934. . . . In June of 1939 Frank became seriously ill again, his illness lasting almost a year. . . .
The pages are muddied, a copy of a copy, the original typed out by her daughter—my eccentric great-aunt. When I look at photographs, there is nothing in my great-grandmother’s face that hints at such distress. She is tall and sharp as a razor, her finger crooked at whatever child off-scene isn’t doing what she expects. My great-grandfather raised their house out of the dirt, the building a testament to industry and care: latticework beneath the eaves, carved porch rails, and a clean white fence. The sun reaches a narrow corner of the porch, but there isn’t a hint of dust. In less than a year, the place will have burned to the ground. Alone out front, my great-grandmother stands in the photograph as if by sheer effort against the wind. Here I am. Here I am, she seems to be saying. Where else would I be? Hers is not a face of questions. Not, at least, until October 1949 with the death of her husband, Frank. I had always said my husband’s name must be Frank, my great-grandmother wrote of the day she met him, and since this man’s name was Frank, I thought perhaps this is my Frank.
Now in reading the pages she left, I can’t tell where my great-grandmother made her mistake, the one that set the tenor for so much loss: Was it in marrying a man she loved? Was it in not marrying a man she didn’t? Was it that she stayed in one place? Or that she never left?
My father was the eldest of two on the family farm, the only son. He was the sole member of his graduating high school class. When he was in his twenties, his mother died, and there must have been a quickening to his existence, the sense that things could be lost on the turn of a dime. So he went into the business of saving. A PhD in finance. A university professor until the end of his life. A year ago, we sold that farm to a man who’d been renting it and giving us a share of the crops. The house, we’d torn down years before, an attraction to vandals. We made a fair profit, I guess. No one in my family had lived or worked on the place in more than fifty years.
When I was ten, my father gave me a tape recorder he’d stored in the basement. The slot for the tape was bare, no cover. Five white buttons fatter than piano keys. At family gatherings, I thought it my duty to record what was said and just how much. In the background my aunts and uncles sat on flowered couches with overfull paper plates in their laps. The talk was about food or weather, a story about a cousin who tried to rope a deer the same as he would a cow. “Dan’s been afraid of those deer ever since,” my uncle laughed. Often on these visits, the great outing was to pile the grandchildren in a station wagon and drive a half hour to watch eighteen-wheelers unload their grain into grain elevators. “Raised up on their noses,” or so we used to describe the trucks. In pencil, my mother labeled each recording I made to give its proper context: September, Mom’s, 1983.
As everything my father bought, the tape recorder was secondhand, old and close to useless, before he carried it to the basement to be saved for a later time. Now when I listen to my father’s voice on one of those tapes, he is swearing at the machine. There is a short in the cord he seems to be fixing, and the tape starts and stops as he twists the cord and straightens it, a riff of cursing so broken that even my mother laughs into her hand when she listens. But what is most surprising is the sound of his voice. Lighter, thinner than I remembered, at odds with a world that should make things that work a lifetime but never did. According to my father, most of our household appliances were “lemons” from the moment he tore the clearance tags off.
Some of what I remember of him seems little more than fiction. I can say that my father was a tall man and his height did him few favors. I can say he was gangly and thin, even his fingers. He was long in every sense and frighteningly pale. Once, on our only trip to visit his sister in California, he walked out on the beach with his pant legs rolled and stood barefooted in the surf, watching the ships. Hours later when we returned to my aunt’s, his feet were aflame, the water having washed away his careful lotions. He went without shoes for days. (“No, he never did,” my mother says. “Your father would never be so coarse.”) My father’s hair was long at the crest. A heavy lock above his forehead. When he stood in a wind, it would rise from his head like a sail. There he was, with his tie and his pocket full of pens, his belted trousers, a short-sleeved undershirt peering out from his collar and through his clean button-up shirt. When they buried him, the hair was flat on his head like a cap, a shade or two off, his hands were on his stomach, and clear-colored threads held his lips shut.
God’s ways are mysterious ways, my great-grandmother wrote. I keep asking why, and do yet.
At the end of his life, we found the strips of paper my father kept in his pockets and the drawers of his desk—verses of poetry, lines from novels, songs, advice he’d heard. I’d always considered my father a numbers man. Although the shadowy side of him had an ear for jazz. Still, here he was in this truncated account of favorites—all scribbles and phrases—while at the end of her life, my great-grandmother’s words came out all in a rush. It was as if, after her husband’s death, she believed she had died herself and no one could hear her anyway, no one except God—and by then she already had a thing or two to say to him. I am sick, my great-grandmother wrote, and I feel myself getting weaker every day. But I must try to go on with my story before I forget.
A story, my great-grandmother called it, though no one in our family had ever told stories in the normal sense. Whatever might be considered fanciful didn’t make the cut. At the heart of it, what our storytellers said was always true, and they didn’t bother with anything that wasn’t.
I do not remember anything that happened before I was five years old, my great-grandmother began. I was very ill on my fifth birthday, and I remember when I improved Mother would put blankets and pillows in the large chair and place the chair before the fireplace and the fire burning was very beautiful. I remember my Mother next to me while she was quilting or picking wool, or any work that she could sit down to do. When I began to get tired, she or one of my sisters would carry me back to bed. But I cried every time because I had to go back.
Iowa. Hardly a good consonant in it, but the people I know there are as straight and sure as the horizon, whittled clean, and they don’t tolerate any fancy business. In my great-grandmother’s time, bleached sheets on the line were the only thing worth judgment. My mother speaks of salmon as if of an exotic meat. “Bright-eyed,” my ex-husband once said of my midwestern friends, himself a Californian. Now in the East, I have difficulty translating my temperament. I don’t care much for baseless fits of anger or misery, consider it bad form to react to any word or misdeed without a great deal of thinking. My tongue is plenty sharp and quick when the subject is distant and there are no casualties I can foresee; otherwise, you might as well grab a magazine and take a seat, because it could take me a while to get the story out—even if in pieces—lest I stir up undue fuss or pity.
When I was in elementary school, I packed a lunch with a friend and we set out along the railway to walk the distance between our town and the next. It seemed important to pick a place and head out as far as possible, pointing at what we thought was the crest of the neighboring town’s water tower, a blue bulbous nose peeking out over several miles of fields. But distance in Iowa isn’t always a tangible thing. The place is so wide open, you can’t tell where you begin or end, and we were always looking for its limits. We carried backpacks of thin supplies, candy bars and apples and an old pocket-sized camera, to mark our adventures, though I don’t believe we used it even once. Thing is, in a place like that, a mile will have passed and you can hardly mark the difference. We felt the ache in the soles of our shoes, the dryness in our throats, but that water tower remained straight ahead, never gaining size. The rails we walked hurtled onward, and the land at our sides lay green and flat and fell toward the horizon without event. After several hours, we stopped and turned in a slow circle. The sun had shifted overhead. The shadows of what trees remained had shrunk to stubs, the air gauzy with dust. Pressing fingers to our cheeks, we touched the beginnings of sunburns. Both of us were dreary and heavy-footed, though the rails ahead still promised a wondrous unknown, a thing for storytelling. When finally we talked about heading back, my friend was the first to turn around.
No matter how the place has changed, Iowa for me remains the same—a constant brooding. A lost landscape where the smell of farms coats you with a heavy sheen, a smell that feels like home to me, even now. While others cover their noses, I breathe it in like paint fumes and go a little bit off. There is a warmth and mustiness to the smell, a between-the-legs kind of stink. Still, going back isn’t part of my plan. I need Iowa to stay the way it was so that it can remain mine—a haunted, mud-filled-up-to-my nostrils sort of place. With the light coming in and the far-off horizon, I knew what to expect. The future, the present, the past—I could hold it in my hand, blow on it to remove the dust. Here in the East the landscape is so busy I have to save myself from thinking, What next?
When my mother first arrived, I took her to Boston’s Chinatown, a mere fifteen minutes by foot from my apartment, thinking it might impress her.
“How did you find this place?” she said.
“I walked here. It’s famous.”
“You walked here by yourself?”
We stopped in one of a dozen Chinatown markets, each no larger than three or four aisles, and my mother picked a chicken foot out of a bin and stood staring at it, trying to figure out what it was. I didn’t really think such a thing should seem so foreign, seeing as how her own mother had broken a chicken’s neck for the dinner table nearly every month of her life. I suppose my mother hadn’t been in that place for some time. Of course, she still lived there, but once removed—in a carpeted townhouse all her own. Good god, she must have thought, holding that foot. Where has my daughter gone? Her cheek twitched. She rested the chicken foot in the bin among a dozen more and headed out. When she stood in the street again, she took a breath and coughed for several minutes.
“You okay, Mom?”
“Yes,” she said. “Just a tickle.”
What you have to understand is that I come from a place of restraint. Of people who hold their cards close to the chest and project only friendliness. My uncle once described a dinner my mother had made him, a pot roast with carrots, corn, and peas, a slice of devil’s food cake for dessert. But he didn’t have much room for cake, he said. Understand, we talk by way of things that are inanimate and distant, and in doing so we are telling you something important. The pot roast was warm and just a touch raw, my uncle said, but really he was telling me about the recent death of his wife of fifty years and how he had taken to long drives that began on Iowa country roads but soon stretched to the plains of Nebraska and the Colorado mountains. He might be gone a week at a time. And if he said that the roast was dry to the taste or that he had a bit of gristle in his teeth, what he was saying was this: I am overwhelmed by the emptiness of this country. I can’t drive far enough to get all of it in my mind at once. His wife, a woman near two hundred pounds and largely beautiful to all of us, was the person who had weighted him to this earth and given him four large sons and a daughter who could out-sing all of them. Just under seventy, his wife had died far too young, and now he was set loose and traveling. What was it, that gristle in his teeth? There are good things and bad things, he was saying. And both come at the same time. We are always searching. But if I tell you I don’t have room for any more, it’s because there’s so much room—out there, on the road. There are so many places to go.
When my father grew ill, my family sat together in the hospital room and sometimes we talked, small gestures or jokes, though mostly we didn’t. Sometimes one of us got up to use the bathroom or went out with our hands in our pockets, returning with cups of coffee and a yellow bag of potato chips. We were never a family who didn’t care to eat. A week before, my father had suffered a brain aneurysm. He was fifty-nine. There had seemed little warning, but afterward we could name the weight he’d taken on and the white in his hair, his sudden exhaustion. Now, only the monitors told us he was alive.
Of the five of us, I was the baby of the family and therefore still waiting for significance. My sister was seven years my senior and pregnant with my parents’ first grandchild. My brother would soon become the family patriarch. He had always seemed untouchable to me, a witty trickster. He was the one I trailed after and annoyed for most of my younger years until as a teenager I turned shy. That day, he hadn’t said a word for most of the afternoon. When I woke after a few minutes of dreaming in my chair, he took my hand from my knee and gripped it on the armrest between us.
Later, my mother would favor a chair in the corner of her bedroom, the television on. She would become a diehard for daytime dramas. “My shows,” she would call them. She has watched over the deaths, marriages, murders, and hospital scenes on these same shows for over twenty years, the youngest actress soon a grandmother both in real life and on screen. My mother’s new house is altogether white, save for the blue stuffed chair in which she sits. She never bothered with gardening. She prefers her vegetables canned and rarely walks in the sun. She was raised on a farm during the Depression, but you would never know it. Alone in her house with only the television, I wonder how she spends her time and how many other lives she has imagined for herself. My mother never remarried, never even considered it. “All those women who think they need a man,” she says. Yet in the same breath, she asks if I can’t find some nice boy to help me with a ladder or carry a chair up the stairs. Once, when a neighbor asked her out on a date, several years after my father had passed, she laughed. She has found her own way of leaving, I guess.
I have heard that children absorb melancholy in the womb. During the days and weeks of my father’s illness, my pregnant sister was eating and drinking a slow kind of grief every night. We always worried about her first child, our little Hannah, whom I remember sleeping on my chest when she was just weeks old. I was astonished by her size. Hannah is twenty now, and after a few missteps and family phone calls, we think she’ll be all right. But back there in that waiting room, my sister stood next to my father’s bed rubbing her belly, as if given time she could bear them both—father and daughter—whole again and alive.
I remember this: In our basement, my father taking his trombone from its case. He has a small stool there, and he sits to piece the instrument together, clearing the valve with spit. He does this early in the evening, after dinner, and not very often. He closes himself away in the belly of our house, all cement floors and walls, the place we have stored things better left forgotten. On the floor above, we hear only a low kind of bleating and a muddy trail of chords. But every so often a note lifts, and then another, as if the house has finally found its pulse. When he finishes, he takes the instrument apart, fits the pieces into the velvet slots, and shuts the instrument away in the cubby beneath the stairs.
His health began to fail, my great-grandmother wrote near the end of her story, until in 1948 he was looking awful bad even though he said he felt all right. Frank still worked hard. That year he got a message that his last sister had passed away and on his 80th birthday. He was the only one left of a family of thirteen children.
All of the year 1949 he worked hard all summer. Then on the 29th of August he came in and said, “Dear, I’m dizzy this morning.” I sent the children to see the Doctor about him, and they had just got home when my darling fell to the ground as if dead. He lived 53 days after falling.
I turn the pages my great-grandmother left behind, see the photographs my great-aunt must have pasted in the margins. The faces are mostly severe—mothers, husbands, and sons having to sit so long for the camera that it proved too painful for a person to hold a happy expression. In truth, the worst of them seems close to collapse. With such faces, how can we see anything of ourselves in our ancestors’ lives? What I have written is true, my great-grandmother declared in her final sentence, but only a sketch for there are many more things, both pleasant and unpleasant, I could have written only my strength will not hold out.
Here with my paper and pencil, the snowstorm has grown to a white-out, the streetlamps phantoms and my windows nearly blank, so now I have to look inward to see anything: the echoes, the coincidences and omissions, this constant eerie voice of an old woman, here in my hands. I am only in the middle of it, my own story that is, and I am just now beginning to understand that there are patterns—from one family member to the next, from one event to another. My great-grandmother never did break her own pattern, despite all her ferocity. What loss in her early years set the tenor for all the rest?
On turning back to the early pages, I reread a passage I had overlooked, only three paragraphs in: My youngest sister Bertha was born when I was seven years old, my great-grandmother wrote, and Mother let me rock her, so that was heaven to me. But shortly before I was eleven years old, our little Bertha died, and for a number of years I looked, or seemed to be looking for her, but she never came back.
Seven years’ absence, and I am only now considering a trip home. My mother’s townhouse sits across from my high school’s parking lot, though I’m not sure I remember the street. My close friends have remained there or moved back, happily raising their children to attend the same elementaries where we met. In the cemetery, my father is buried in a plot under an oak with a good view of a cornfield. My mother’s name is inscribed on his stone, though the space after her birthdate and dash remains blank.
Here in Boston, I have a recurring dream. When I was younger it came every other month or so, though now it may come only twice a year, if that. In my dream I sit in my old house with the television going and the terrible gold shag underfoot. My mother stands in the kitchen, making dinner. There’s someone at the door. The knob turns: The person is letting himself in, as if he lives here. Gangly and black-haired, a man lumbers into the living room, sets his briefcase beside the couch where I sit, and takes his place in his favorite chair. It’s my father, looking as my father always did. His wire-rimmed glasses still pain him, and he drops them now on a nearby table and rubs at the depressions on his nose. Though I am my young self in this dream and home again in the house where I was born, I know he does not belong here. His death was over twenty years ago.
Still, there is no surprise at his presence. My mother stays in the kitchen, hand on her hip, stirring tomato sauce in a pan. The television flashes. None of us speaks. Somehow I understand that my father has finally decided to come home. That when he left, it didn’t have anything to do with a blood clot or a coma. It was a matter of choice. He had grown tired—that was the story. Or he had run off with another woman. Or he had sought a different kind of life, free of student exams and briefcases, maybe one with a little more jazz. In any case, wherever he went, he grew tired of that as well, and now he has returned, sitting in his chair, where he might close his eyes for a moment and drift before my mother calls us to the table. As if it were the most natural thing in the world.
Michelle Hoover, author of the novel The Quickening, teaches writing at Boston University and Grub Street. Her short stories and novel excerpts have appeared in numerous journals, including Prairie Schooner, the Massachusetts Review, Confrontation, and StoryQuarterly, and in Best New American Voices. She has been the Philip Roth Writer-in-Residence at Bucknell University, a MacDowell Fellow, and the 2005 winner of the PEN/New England Discovery Award for Fiction.