lundi 5 avril 2010

Standards of womanliness

Framing around the old door frame
(it's cemented into the wall)

There is one good thing about vacuuming: I can't hear my husband muttering and swearing at the lengths of metal framing over the motor. The sounds of the sawing become more violent, however, as the afternoon wore on into evening, and the evening darkened into night.

I vacuumed and dusted harder.

So, it turns out that framing out the walls for the insulation and sheetrocking really aren't a job for two at all, at least not if one of them is doing it for the first time and wants to take charge. In that case, it is better for the other to steer clear and demonstrate the willingness to work equally hard in another area completely.

I chose the kitchen pantry and plate cupboards. I threw away old foodstuffs and cleaned the dust and food particles accumulated stickily in the corners with abandon and commitment rarely seen before, and never in my grandmother's kitchen, oh, to pick an example entirely at random, because my grandmother never let anything in her house get that dirty. I remember a day when I was about 15 or 16. I was visiting in the summer, and I had decided to go out for a run. Somehow, I took a misstep and landed hard on my hands and knees in the gravel of the decaying "Old Road" that ran along the newer highway, paralleling the Saint Lawrence "Seaway", which was once a plain old river, until it was "improved" for cargo ships heading from the Atlantic to the Great Lakes during the time of my mother's youth. I knelt there on the broken pavement, ready to never get up.

The pain hadn't come yet. My knees were frozen stiff. When the pain did come, it was intense. Irrational, I wondered if anyone had ever died on the Old Road from a running accident. Would a passing car see me, kneeling there -- lying there, eventually --, and come to my rescue, while I, barely conscious, would tell them in the faintest of voices where to take me? Where I belonged, temporarily, that summer? I shook my head. That would never do. Only I could get myself home. That, or appear even more ridiculous than I already did with bits of gravel embedded in my knees, blood starting to trickle down toward my shins. The heels of my hands weren't in much better shape, but I used them to push myself up very gingerly and gradually. I made it to a standing position. Still no car had stopped over there on the faster road, just to my left and a little higher up across a strip of grass that made an embankment and a tree or two.

I took a step. I didn't fall down. I did this the remaining quarter mile to the house my grandfather built for my grandmother and my mother, a baby, in 1938, the year someone built the addition with the petit salon and entry on this old house, and on up the long gravel driveway to the garage, where my uncle was working on someone's car. He took one look at my face and dropped his eyes to my knees and led me into the house, straight past where my grandmother was fussing in the kitchen. I believe it was already after The Guiding Light, and she was back to business; my grandfather would be home on the stroke of 5 pm, the horn over at the state hospital sounding just before we'd sit down to dinner. My grandmother was up, frowning over the stove by 7 every morning, fully dressed in her girdle, nylons and a dress.

"Ladies do not wear slacks", said my grandmother, not until my aunt convinced her that pantsuits were perfectly ladylike in the 1970's, when she was approaching 60, anyway, and then coordinating sweater and slacks sets in the 1980's when she was ready for greater comfort still at going on 70 . She never did wear a pair of jeans.

I watched her cook eggs and bacon and Cream of Wheat on that white electric stove from my chair at the kitchen table, and I studied the different colored lights. There were red ones and blue ones, and there might have been yellow ones, too. I also worried sometimes.

"Why are you frowning, Grandma?," I asked. "Smile, Grandma. Grandmothers are supposed to smile," I added. I had ideas about these things. I read books. She turned to look at me and smile a real smile.

"I'm not frowning," she told me. She had been. I was sure of that.

Years later, in high school, someone watching me backstage where I was waiting at the ropes for the next scenery change asked, "Is something wrong? Are you unhappy?"

"No, I'm not unhappy, why do you ask?"

"You were frowning. You frown often." We don't escape our genes easily.

I worried about kisses, too, especially when my grandmother kissed me, which she did often.

"Grandma, you'd better be careful. You might run out of kisses," I told her. She smiled again. Maybe I said these things just to see her smile. I might have.

"Why no!" she exclaimed. "It's like love. The more you love, the more love you have. You can never run out of kisses." She gave me one, just to show me, and all was settled and good.

But that day, Grandma wasn't kissing her son or me as we headed through her spanking clean, white kitchen to the shiny, white bathroom, its floor suitable for serving tea. No, she didn't kiss either of us. She followed us straight to the bathroom door, her face as white as her appliances and trembling, but not for fear over my well-being. Oh my goodness gracious no! It was for fear that I'd bleed all over her clean bathroom that she shook.

"You're not going to go getting blood and mud all over my nice clean --" she began. My uncle reached behind him, and in one deft movement of his arm, my grandmother found herself staring at the hallway side of the immaculate white painted door.


I already worshipped him, only 6 1/2 years older than I was, and the best uncle a girl without an older brother could have, and in that moment, my heart clutched tight (not just from pain) as he set about removing gravel and bandaging up my leg, dripping blood and mud all over her nice clean bathroom floor.

I was sure. I loved my uncle.

But, Grandma, the kitchen is a little cleaner for my aunt's arrival. She'll be stepping around a big pile of sheetrock and rolls of insulation, but at least the plates will be in the cupboard my husband insists they should be.

I gave in.

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