Tuesday, December 23, 2008


Hanukkah and shabbos candles
Here's another installment of my Great American Lesbian Novel (in progress), Ginny Bates. If you are new to reading GB, go to the section in the right-hand column labeled Ginny Bates to read background and find out how to catch up.

August to December 2017

When Charlie was five weeks old, right after Myra's birthday, Jane and Gillam took their brood on a road trip through Oregon and into Central California, to stay with Anton and Jemima a while. They were gone for ten days. Ginny used her free afternoons to get a head start on canning. Myra joined her to blanche and peel basket after basket of Early Girl tomatoes for marinara and ketchup. In the evenings after dinner, Margie began coming over to help Ginny experiment with pickle varieties as the big stockpot of tomato sauce cooked down to paste.

“Frances is doing this in the restaurant, too, and at home in the mornings” said Margie. “I think the smell of tomato is embedded permanently in my pores.”

The fourth evening, Carly and Eric arrived with flats of kiwis and Meyer lemons. “Will you consult with us on how to make jam and curd from these?” asked Carly. He and Myra pored over cookbooks while Eric walked home to get bunnies for an evening forage in the damp garden, a sign on the gate warning Margie in case she came with the dogs.

“It's awfully quiet without them around” Carly said suddenly to Myra.

“I know. They're cyclones. I don't envy Gillam, driving for two and a half days with them all cooped up in the car” said Myra.

“And camping at night in that minuscule trailer” said Carly. “But I miss the racket. When our apartment window is open, I can hear them even when they're inside, a lot of the time.”

After Carly and Eric went home, late, Ginny began stretching a canvas. Myra heard the familiar sound and came to stand next to the worktable. After a minute, Ginny said “Do you not want me to begin a painting?”

“Oh, no, it's great. I was just thinking...This house has people over all the time, but it's really ours alone. It feels that way to me. We've not shared it with children, or fathers. Just me and you. And I really love that about it, Gin. I adore how we return to just me and you at the end of every day.”

Ginny put down her Exacto knife and slid into Myra's arms. “Me, too. Gillam followed our example, but Margie and Frances – do you see how contented they are, deep down? Margie so needed to be here with family, but she also needs Frances alone.”

“Carly and Eric, they look the same” said Myra. “Like Allie and Edwina. Mmm, you smell like dill.”

“Taste my fingers, they have a vinegar tang” said Ginny. After a minute, they moved back together a couple of steps and lay on Ginny's daybed.

“The lights are on” said Ginny.

“I don't care if you don't” said Myra.

After Gillam returned from their trip, he stopped by to return to Myra's car the child seats he had borrowed for the trip. He was noticeably irritable trying to transfer the seats, which were admittedly hard to get buckled in properly. Still, when he discovered Mimi had stuffed a combination of crayon and cream cheese under a cushion, he went off in front of Myra.

“I know my kids aren't brats, but honest to god, I got fucking sick of them. Jane had to sit in the back because she had to be next to Charlie, and all she could manage was keeping him fed, changed, and entertained. Which put the other three in the far back, and even with David in the middle, Mimi tormented Leah non-stop. Mostly Leah couldn't shut up, a running commentary on everything that streamed by the goddamned window, I can't believe how much she talks, and Mimi argued with everything she said. David goes into one solid whine if he has to sit for too long. By the time we stopped for the night, the last thing on earth they wanted to do was lie down and sleep, especially all crammed together in that stupid-ass trailer.”

Myra couldn't tell if he needed to pound on something or just let go and cry in frustration. She ventured “They aren't brats, Gillam. It was a lot for them to handle at that age, and you're a hero for taking it on.”

“Oh yeah, well pass it on to Jane, will ya? She won't get off my back about -- “
He stopped himself, swearing at a strap, which might be a ruse, Myra thought.

After half a minute, she said “About what?”

The seat was in. He stood up, glanced at her, and leaned back against the side of the car. “Once we got to Fresno, it wasn't any easier. Her family...None of the men except Anton ever lifted a hand to do real work of caring for a kid. They'd yell at them, or tease them, but never change a diaper or cut up food or -- “ He stopped himself again for a minute. “And her sisters, they kept talking about how amazing I was, drawing attention to it, you know, which didn't help the tension in the air. I began to feel like a trained monkey. I could see my kids start looking at me differently.” His fists were clenched, his knuckles white.

“Ah, hell, Gillam. They hit the real world of gender shit, right in their own family” commiserated Myra.

“And how. Plus – two of her brothers have hair that isn't exactly short, but it's that mullety or headbanger kind of look which apparently is another form of masculine – anyhow, they kept making remarks about David. About his hair.”

David's hair was long, fine, and still almost white. He liked it combed, glossy and often like a halo around his head.

“Fuck, Gillam. Did David hear it?”

“He was right there. He began looking at me for reassurance. Mimi, too, one morning as I was brushing her hair she asked me if her hair looked all right. They were confused, trying to make sense of the crap. I wasn't sure how much to verify what they were getting, because I was afraid of legitimizing it even as I explained it, you know?”

“I do know, Gillam. Where was Jane in all this?”

“Oh, usually busy with Charlie and Leah. Anyhow, we've been fighting about it ever since we left, though not openly in front of the little ones. I just – Mom, I know I don't have any slack about certain kinds of teasing. I know I didn't get trained to handle it, and Jane says our kids will have to deal with it, might as well learn from us, learn early, but...I think it's fine if they don't. I think I'm okay the way I am, limits and all.” His jaw was rigid.

“I agree with you, but of course I would. I'll keep an ear out for this coming up with the little ones, and pass it on to Ginny. We'll help them sidestep the misinformation. No matter the vast numbers of Leichtys, we've got 'em outnumbered, and your clan has day to day influence on your kids. They'll come out like you, honey boy.” Myra nudged his arm, and he grinned, though his eyes were still furious. She, too, was livid at the idea of David being hit with sissy ridicule at his tender age. But Gillam had to work this out with Jane, and she had said as much as she felt was respectful. She and Ginny could rant about it later.

On a sunny afternoon in mid September, Myra kicked off Science Day by putting Charlie in a sling and leading the other children outside. First they stood in the middle of the yard and Myra asked them to name everything they saw which was (a) purple, (b) mobile, and (c) digitate, with explanations of each term. The children ran back and forth, touching their discoveries and getting whispered help from Ginny, who was turning the compost.

To explore their next sense, Myra took them into the garden shed and asked them to close their eyes. After standing in silence for half a minute, she asked them to name what they could smell, with their eyes still closed.

“Somefing like poop” giggled David.

“That's fish emulsion, which we use as fertilizer” said Myra.

“Dirt” said Leah.

“Not dirt, dust” argued Mimi.

“You're both right. What else?”

“Rain?” said David.

“There is a moist pong in here, yes. I can tell there's mold, for sure, which comes from the rain” said Myra.

“Chocolate” said Leah.

“Bubbe has a couple of bags of cocoa shells she likes as mulch for some beds” said Myra. “Very good olfactory detection.”

“I smell something like Mama's chest where the blankets are” said Mimi.

“Excellent. That's cedar, which is another kind of mulch Bubbe uses” said Myra.

“Oyul” said David. “But not cooking oyul.”

“You all get blue ribbons for your keen sniffers” said Myra. “Charlie adds that he can smell the off-gassing of plastics. Okay, now to test our hearing.”

They sat on the back step and Myra tied bandannas around their eyes, even Charlie who was an exceedingly easy-going baby. “Good-time Charlie” she murmured.

“All right, don't peek. Tell me what you can hear.”

“Your breathing” said Leah immediately.

“Bubbe singing” said Mimi.

“Birds” said David.

“The waterfall” added Mimi.

“Cars” said Leah.

There was a click, and David said excitedly “It's the gate, is it Daddy?”

“Don't look, see if we can tell who it is by the sound of their walking” urged Myra.

After a couple of seconds, Mimi said “It's the other gate” and Leah overlapped with “Dogs, I hear dogs.”

“Hey” came Margie's voice. “Are you facing a firing squad, or what?”

Myra felt Moon lick her face. “We're exploring our senses. Did you kids know that dogs can smell 30 times more than we can, and their hearing -- “

“Ice cream!” shouted Mimi, ripping the bandanna off her head, “I hear the ice cream truck!”

Leah and David sprang to their feet as well and dropped bandannas on the ground. Myra grinned at Margie. “You got any cash on you? My pockets are empty.”

David and Mimi were racing to the front gate. Myra pulled off Charlie's blindfold and he blinked in the light.

“We'll go with you” said Margie. Myra called out to Ginny, “Amor, quieres un helado?”

“Um...Si, fresa. O mango.”

Mimi was tugging violently at the gate, unwilling to accept it would not open until her thumbprint was entered into the family security system – which would not be until she was 21, Gillam vowed. They caught the ice cream truck at the corner, and small hands were allowed to carry their confections but not rip into them yet, not until they were back in the yard and seated on a bench. “Otherwise they drop them and, oh the humanity” said Myra.

“They don't have strawberry, or any plain fruit that I can see” said Margie.

“Get her a nutty buddy” said Myra knowledgeably.

“Really? Okay. And a tutti-frutti bombe for me” ordered Margie.

Back by the pond, Myra helped Leah negotiate her push-up and fended away Charlie's uncoordinated grabs at her own Klondike bar. Ginny joined them and scarfed her nutty buddy. After they were done, and hands rinsed with the hose, Ginny led the older children off to explore their sense of touch in the veggie rows. Myra asked Margie, “Listen, this Sunday is Heroic Quest day, can we invade your yard if need be?”

“Sure. What's on the agenda?”

“Jason and the Argonauts. Ginny took a sheepskin and spray-painted it gold. I figure the pond here can be the Black Sea, and there's so many adventures, we may not get to the point of reaching Colchis, otherwise known as your yard. But when we do, I'll hide the fleece in advance in that tree by your garage.”

Margie was laughing. “Who gets to be Jason?”

“Well, it's Mimi's turn, and she'll do a great job. But among the Argonauts was Hercules, and Orpheus, and Atalanta. Not to mention the Boreads, who could fly. I don't think anyone will feel slighted as to a role. And since I expect this quest to last several sessions, others will get a turn at Jason. I myself plan to assume the part of Medea, eventually.”

Margie looked at her speculatively. “I would not have expected that.”

“Oh, I love Medea” said Myra with an enigmatic smile. “I think Charlie's due for a diaper change.”

“Well, we were on our way for a walk” said Margie, standing with her. “Just dropped in to say hi.”

At Halloween, Charlie had his turn at being the Little Potato, while his siblings raided the dress-up box and Ginny's skills to create unique costumes for themselves. By Margie's birthday at the end of November, Myra had finished her third and probably final edit on the first volume of her memoir. Ginny had offered to paint a new portrait of Myra for the cover, but Myra had asked if they could possibly use “Hettie” and Ginny was negotiating with MOMA for the rights.

Cathy came to Seattle for Hanukkah, the first night of which coincided with Santa Lucia this year. Cathy was charmed by the light procession and the entire tradition. A couple of nights later, at shabbos, after lighting two sets of candles, Cathy brought up how many cultures had a tradition of light festivals to offset the darkness of winter, the ancient fear of seasons which might not cycle back around. From there, the conversation slid into a reinterpretation of Demeter and Persephone, with Chris adding Native variations which also touched on mother-daughter themes.

Cathy said “Well, I was going to save this for the last night of Hanukkah, but -- “ She went to her room and came back with a wrapped flat box. “I finished going through all the boxes in storage, and I can just barely stand to give these up.” She handed it to Ginny.

Myra came to stand behind Ginny as she lifted the lid. Under the tissue paper, bold colors leaped out, looking like a cross between one of Mimi's fingerpaintings and Ginny's current work. Ginny's expression was stunned. She lifted the piece of construction paper, brittle with age, and turned it over to look for a signature. Myra noticed another drawing was underneath.

Cathy said “I'm sorry, I didn't label them at the time and, well, the best I can tell you is you made them in kindergarten and first grade. I don't know what their titles were, if you titled them all.”

Ginny had now seen the second drawing, and lifted it out as well. Eventually five were revealed, spread out on the table. Ginny pointed to one and said “I think I remember this. I think it's from something I saw on Captain Kangaroo.”

Primordial Ginny Bates thought Myra. “I've seen a couple of things David saved, but nothing this early” said Myra. Margie was crowding her for a look at the drawings. Gillam was holding Mimi back, saying she could look but not touch, while Leah was asking repeatedly “Who's Captain Kangaroo?”

Ginny finally looked at Cathy, and her eyes filled with tears. “I can't believe you saved these. I don't have anything from – when I was little. Not big pieces like this.”

Cathy was silent for a minute, her lips pressed together. She said quietly “You brought home something every day. And Daddy wouldn't be home yet, so you'd give them to Mother. She'd asked what they were supposed to be, look at them briefly, and hand them back to you. There was no question of pinning something up in our house, not even on the refrigerator – not her spotless refrigerator. So you'd take them to your room, and the next day she'd throw them away when she picked up after you left for school. I rescued these because I liked them, and because – well, I was only 13 or 14, but I already knew enough about kids to know...” Cathy's voice trailed off.

Ginny's voice was very low. “She hated it when I did art. She really, really hated it. I don't know if it was because it was something I shared with Daddy, or just her hatred of color and originality in general.”

Myra saw Cathy pause again. Finally she said “She saved my work, Ginny. Some of it. She had – an axe to grind with you.” They were staring into each other's eyes. “I don't know why. You did everything you could to be well-behaved and quiet.”

“At this point, Cath, I think maybe she'd planned to divorce Daddy and be with Barney” said Ginny. Barney was the man with whom Helen had had a decades-long affair. “I bet she'd talked him into leaving his wife – he was enough older than her, his children had reached college age and he could start over. But then she got pregnant with me, and there was no question of her facing the scandal if she left a newborn behind. I was the anchor that stopped her from being happy.”

“No, you were not” said Cathy emphatically.

“I mean, in her opinion” said Ginny. But Myra could tell it went deeper in Ginny than that.

Allie had picked up one of the drawings and was pointing out technique to Edwina. Sima asked “When did you give up? On bringing work home to her?”

“I don't remember” said Ginny. “I know by the time we began going to the Gulf Coast each summer, when I was five or six, I'd learned to not try to paint in front of her.”

“You were so crazed, that first summer” recalled Cathy. “You spent ten hours that first day doing watercolor after watercolor. Bubbe had to drag you away for meals.”

“And then, after you got married and moved out...” Myra heard the desolation in Ginny's voice. Cathy did, too. She put her hand over Ginny's. “I bought a sketchbook and kept things in there. But I camouflaged it. I copied sketches of living rooms, designs from one of old women's magazines on the first few pages, except I never transferred pattern or color, I kept it bland and stark. I told her I was interested in interior design, which was apparently acceptable. For my real work, I began at the back and worked forward, drawing or painting only when she couldn't come up behind me and catch me at it.”

Ginny turned to Margie and said “I'm so sorry I didn't hold you kids while I was painting, like I do with the grandchildren now. I should have gotten over it faster, I froze you out.”

“It's all right, Mama” said Margie kindly. Mimi was silent in Gillam's arms, looking intently at Ginny, her concerned expression identical to Gillam's.

“Where are those sketchbooks now?” asked Sima.

Ginny swallowed. “When I came out to college, I stupidly left them in my closet. Then, when I didn't come home for the holidays – she cleaned my room out. Threw away anything personal.”

“Number one bitch” said Chris matter of factly. Leah said “Bitch, bitch, pitch, rich, what's a bitch?”

Myra put her arms around Ginny from behind. Ginny leaned back against her and said to Cathy, “Did I ever tell you how Myra reacted, the first time I showed her one of my paintings?”

Cathy grinned. “She burst into tears because she said it was almost too beautiful to bear. You've told me more times than I can count.”

David beamed at Myra approvingly. “Bubbe is byootiful.”

“She certainly is, Dah-veed” said Myra.

Ginny whispered to her “Most of my life was a lie, until I got out of there. I lived a lie.”

“No mas” said Myra. “We're out of the woods, we're out of the dark, we're into the light.”

“I know that song!” yelled Mimi. She began singing it, and David joined her. Within a minute, so had everyone else. Gillam and Carly linked arms with David between them and led a procession of the younger folk along an imaginary Yellow Brick Road. Myra stayed linked with Ginny, next to Cathy, and heard Ginny murmur “Poppies.”

© 2008 Maggie Jochild.

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