Friday, November 11, 2005

Chapter 2

How I became the Grinch

Oh my, Christmas! I love Christmas! Not so much for the gifts, which are eternally lame and mostly useless, but for the doo-dah connected with it- you know, the songs, the lights, the smells, the hustle for time. Everybody wants you but no one wants to really give you what you need, only what they can get a return for. I don’t mean a store return, I mean an ‘owe me’.
The best time I think I ever had gift wise was my second Christmas with my second husband- I gave him a list to choose from and he got everything on it. Went to the specialty kitchen store on Cary Street and bought every single item. And we celebrated with his family in West Virginia.

Of course, it was stuff to cook with- i.e. feed him, to make his life better, that kind of thing. No matter that I use very little of it now- the stainless steel drainer, yes, and....hmm. I’ll have to think about that. It’s possible that’s the only thing left twenty years later.

I don’t cook much anymore. Who does. really? My Thanksgiving turkey comes from Ukrops, so does the Christmas ham- they have these great dinners for $50-70 bucks. Comes in a box with everything: cornbread, sweet potatoes, even green beans that hardly anyone eats. You have to have something green, even if no one eats it. Like how when I was a kid we had the fruit course in the form of Ambrosia Salad Deluxe. Del Monte canned fruit cocktail (thick syrup), shredded coconut (Baker’s only), and baby marshmallows (Kraft). I think the recipe was on the marshmallow bag.

Having an entire meal cooked for you is the ultimate decadence, whether it’s at home or in a restaurant. I’m just that tight-assed Puritan Work Ethic. Having a holiday meal cooked for me is the most irresponsible thing I can do for mankind. And it makes me feel lazy and thoughtless.


"She doesn’t even cook a turkey for her family?"

Fuck that- my kitchen is small, I get not one finger of help and I end up exhausted and stressed from what it isn’t. Buying the turkey pre-cooked is not because I don’t have enough love. I do think it’s decadent, though. And geez- you still have to warm it up!
Not that decadent and laziness are unheard of in my background.

Aunt Wynter used to make pumpkin pie filling in this huge vat, and even then you’d have to stir really slowly so it didn’t spill over the edge. It must have been an old canning pot- the huge kind you use to lower the rack of jars into the boiling water. She’d use canned pumpkin- Libby’s, I think- and then add her own mix of spices. Not teaspoons full, but cups full. Cinnamon, nutmeg- I used ‘Pumpkin Pie Spice’ in one can, Sauer’s here in Richmond, but not her. Every spice was separate, carefully measured, even smoothed over with a knife.

They used convenience items, too. It must have been in the sixties when the pie crust came in sticks, like butter. Uncle Howard would be dispatched all over Houston to get a dozen or more sticks. She’d roll them out to perfection and I’d crimp the edges with a fork- perfectly. Every time, perfectly. I was a crimping fool, flour covered, sticky, tired, but everyone was done perfectly.

She’d be a nervous wreck by the end of it all. I think she had undiagnosed low-blood sugar, depression, and general dyspepsia and melancholia.

Later, frozen crusts became popular. No crimping needed. Only the Pet brand crusts are decent, though. I guess. I’ve never dared try any other. As if I’ve baked a pie in the last ten years. I made a peanut butter pie a couple if times until I lost the recipe. I can’t even remember what’s in it- but it’s no-cook. Ice box pie. Bought crust.

One of the things I asked for and got in the complete list Christmas was a huge canning pot. Not as big as Aunt Wynter’s and never really planned for canning (though I bought a book from the Ball Corporation and another called "Put By" a wonderful old-fashioned term for preserved food).

I mostly used it to make vats of chili and soak Virginia Hams. At least until I admitted I hate Virginia Hams, or more correctly. Smithfield Hams. Way too salty and far too much preparation needed. And the knife. There’s a story.

Digression to the DMV 1971

I worked at DMV- the Division of Motor Vehicles for eleven months in 1971. It was located in the huge airplane hangar looking building in those days, not the slick modern thing it is now, on West Broad Street. The best thing about working there was being a quick walk to the Sears & Roebuck It was a great job in a lot of ways, I learned about the world. I saw first hand how women were treated in the work world, too. No woman in my family ever worked, except Aunt Margaret, and she was single and taking care of Mamaw, since Papaw died in the fifties. All the others stayed at home. Aunt Ola sold butter and eggs, Mamaw altered and made quilts, but all my models were housewives and homemakers. Except Aunt Margaret, but she needs more explanation than I can give right here.

It took me a few weeks to notice all the supervisors were men. It took me a little less to realize all the work was done by women, smart women, some of them, who really knew what was what. It took me hours to figure out Mr. Cooke, my immediate boss, was a creep. He was the kind of mad who got cute girls up against filing cabinets and pressed them into the metal so they couldn’t move. He also had complete control over raises, firing and hiring, and there were no grievance boards in those days. It was a state job, but he was the agent for the state.
I had been given a Virginia Ham and the Boston in-laws were coming for the holidays. He called me into his office and presented me with this long, thin knife. "This is the only way to properly cut good Virginia ham, it’ll cut slices so thin you can see through them. I want you to use it to when your husband’s family comes down." Then he insisted in standing behind me, really close, and showing me, knife in my hand, his hand covering mine, how to cut the ham. He’d lean forward, then pull back, lean, then pull what seemed like endless slices from an invisible ham.

I checked out of my head- it was an accustomed reaction, the next thing I really remember is sitting at my desk with that horrid knife wrapped in the kind of soft cloth you store use to store good silver. I put it under the car seat and didn’t touch it again until I put it on his desk the next Monday, with a little box of cookies and crap from the weekend.

I hated that job because of him (and the other men- there were those who would push up against you in the hallway to the bathrooms, one guy ‘slipped’ and grabbed my breast for balance. I’m not crazy, this stuff used to happen, not everywhere, but some places were worse than others.

My job was to dictate letters onto a tape, put the tape in a box in the wall that opened onto the typists on the other side. Someone would type the letters. give it back, and I’d proof it, put in a request for documents (if needed) by leaving it in another box on another wall where some clerk would pick it up and return it with the documents, and I’d type and envelope and send it to the mail room. When the system worked, it worked well. When there were endless corrections, incorrect documents, or troublesome cases, it all went to hell. We all did everything we could to avoid having to call a supervisor. The women office managers were wonderful, but often mean-spirited and bitter. Why wouldn’t they be? They had zero chance for advancement, low salaries and had to put up with sexual predators. At least the pretty ones had to deal with the latter.

I’d do sixty to eighty letters a day. They eventually put me on ‘special plates’ and problem clients. I was the only one in there who had been to college, and the clearest writer. I learned written diplomacy. Senators would not be re-elected and want to keep their plates, high rollers would want special numbers (and they’d get them) and I got to sort it out. I even met the governor- Linwood Holton? But he didn’t see the stacks of letters they made me hide- we were always three to four months behind in those days.

And I started gaining weight. A hundred pounds went to one-twenty in a one year span, mostly thanks to two mandatory coffee breaks that had to be taken away from your desk. At least we’d walk to Sears during lunch, but we had to go to the break room where there were always, always pastries and doughnuts and I was young and hungry.

Always hungry.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Chapter 1

Sometimes I wake up to the smell of catfish cooking. Cornmeal, bacon grease, the sharp hot odor running in my head so strong I keep my eyes closed a few minutes more so it doesn't go away.
That's how I keep the details from fading away, the red checked oil cloth, open window, real plates, real forks, honest to god cloth napkins. I ironed them myself.

I used to. Iron napkins. Water in a spray bottle, the hiss of the iron on scorched brown cloth. There isn't any smell quite like that one, fresh and clean, old and brown all at once. Makes me think of mamaw and Aunt Wynter and the house on Lake Houston, though I don't think we ever ironed much there. That was for fun.

I ironed at home. Or at Nanny's. I must've started when I was four or five. Handkerchiefs, pillowcases, stuff like that. Things that were flat and foldable. No aerosol cans of starch, just the water bottle. The one at home was a spray bottle, heavy plastic that you couldn't see through. I think it may have come from Sears & Roebuck or Newberry's, it was more like something you'd use in a garden, for aphid spray or something.

Nanny's was a tall jar with holes poked in the lid. She was more enterprising than my mom; she'd use what she had rather than spend money on something she could make. It kind of dumped big splotches of water on what you were ironing, though. Nanny was clever and creative, but Momma had class. Or wanted to.

I grew up thinking I could do anything. But I should do it with a certain finesse, not in a common way. That was the biggest sin I could commit, to be common. You could be a stripper, but you better be like Gypsy Rose Lee. You could be an actress, but Joan Crawford was everything Bette Davis wished SHE was. Class. Jackie Kennedy had class- even though she was Catholic, which she couldn't help, being raised in France.

Momma made me practice how I would act at her funeral (this was before JFK was shot, but when that happened she must have said a hundred times over those three days when that was all the news there was, "There- That's it, Sharon Ann. Look at her standing like a statue, never making a move. Shaking hands with strangers and heads of state. If you can do that, you will make me proud."

I didn't dare cry, or flinch. She’d say all these awful things. how she'd be mangled in a car accident, how she'd die in my arms from a sudden stroke, or how some crazy person would beat her up and she'd crawl home and die on the front steps.

We'd practice this shit, for god sakes. Once a week, at least. I had a hat and a black veil. I was stone-faced and deadly. If I'd known the word sociopath I probably would have tried for that.

Now that I'm older, some people never know what I'm thinking. I have a hard time showing affection, I've been desperately in love a dozen times and only a few friends have been able to read me. It's good in some situations, but it doesn't help when you want to like someone, or them to like you.