“Com’in, sit down. Mary, do you take milk in your tea?” Tina said, motioning to the round oak table in the center of the kitchen. It was surrounded by a mismatched collection of appliances and cupboards, each from a different era. Utensils hung from nails in the wall in a pattern of apparent chaos. “There’s sugar in the bowl.”
“None for me, thank you.” said Mary. “This table cloth is beautiful, did you do the embroidery?”
“Me?, oh no, this is my Aunt Alice’s handwork. She was clever that way. She did it during the war.”
“Really! It looks new.” said Mary.
“Well it is new, in a way. It was in my hope chest. She made it for me, but I never married. I was saving it for a special occasion.”
Sean turned a deep red. Mary laughed.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you blush, Sean.” Mary said as she stirred some sugar into her tea.
“Well, I… I…” stammered Sean.
“He’s never brought a girl home to meet his family so it is a very special occasion, I’d say!” Tina said. “Unless you count Suzie Johnson.”
“Who’s that?” said Mary.
“Suzie lived in the next farm over. We were playmates. Her mother would bring her over, almost every day in the summer.” said Sean. “We’d play, kids stuff, you know.”
“Once, when Suzie’s mother and I were having coffee, Sean came in and told us that he and Suzie were going to get married someday.” Tina said.
“You never told me you were engaged!” Mary said, with mock anger in her eyes.
“Were were four, besides, we could have never made it happen. She wanted a big wedding and I wanted to elope.”
“How about you two, what are your intentions?” asked Tina. “Or is this one of those ‘modern’ arrangements?” There was a moment of silence as Sean and Mary looked at each other. “Oh it is serious, then.” Tina continued, “I don’t mean to pry. Well, actually, I do. You’re the only thing I have left to worry about, Sean, and now that you two are here, I’d like to know hat's going on.”
Mary looked at Sean, Sean looked at Mary. Mary nodded. Sean spoke:
“Aunt Tina, Mary is pregnant with our baby.”
“Oh. My. That’s good news, isn’t it?” said Tina. "When is the baby due?"
“It’s the best news, it really is.” said Mary. “I'm thinking it should be a New Years baby.”
“Not that marriage is a priority in our family history, but you are considering it, yes?"
"Well, it is a bit complicated." said Sean. "There are some legal complications."
"Nothing a good pre-nuptual agreement couldn't work out." Mary said, smiling at Sean.
Sean blushed again. "You two are ganging up on me!" he said.
"Really Sean, there's no point in extending your adolescence forever." said Tina. "I know some of the people at the Unitarian Fellowship, they can do marriages."
"… ." Sean sat open mouthed, at a loss for words.
The two women, who had only met a half hour ago, seemed to be of like mind as they looked at Sean, waiting for his response. Finally he spoke:
"Mary, will you marry me?"
It was Mary's turn to sit in silence.
"My goodness. I didn't mean for you to decide today." said Tina. "Sleep on it, and tell me tomorrow."
Minnesota State Fair Fine Arts 2014
Nothing like a little chainsaw sculpture to make one feel at home in the wilderness. The Weaver and I have been going to "our" place up North for many years now. We had thought about buying a lake place of our own, were even offered the chance to buy my father-in-law's old lake cabin, but the idea of maintaining another house three hundred miles away wasn't appealing. A few of neighbors are into this lifestyle, every weekend finds them fighting traffic for hours as they spend their days off mowing, painting and working on a house they live in less that a couple of months out of the year. More power to them, but I'm way too lazy for that.
We've returned to The Little Ollie Lake Cabin again and again. We find it to be just the right mix of comfort (sauna, washing machine) and wilderness (a stone's throw away from trails into the Boundary Waters) and, best of all, when our stay has ended we are free of obligations with only things we have to carry home are our memories. This year we were treated to an evening of food and stories, thanks to blog-pal Jono. He stopped in us at our cabin, which he remembered having
worked on years ago! He suggested we go to the Trail Center, a
lodge/restaurant a few miles away. It is the quintessential North Woods
establishment, with numerous artifacts adorning the ceilings and walls:
We were joined by "The Cooker" and "Stitch", Jono's partners in crime, as well as an animated server:
Everybody knew everybody, of course, both Jono and "The Cooker" had
worked at the Trail Center in years past. We shared a delightful meal, with several "sides" of stories from the north land. Afterwards came the "long goodbye" a hallowed Scandinavian tradition:
Even the parking lot was picturesque:
Thanks again to Jono and his "crew" who gave us a wonderful time.
"Tell me about what it was like when you lived on the farm, Sean."
Mary was driving, traversing the two-lane highway which ran between small towns in Northern Iowa: Rock Island, Spirit Lake, Estherville, on and on, each one containing a short Main Street lined with mostly empty storefronts, old buildings from a time when small towns were vital, growing places. It was the fourth day on the road, Mary and Sean were heading toward Sean's Aunt Tina's place, a few miles west of Decorah.
"She was nice to me, but could be stern at times. She was worried that I might get hurt when my mother was away. My grand uncle and aunt, Henry and Alice, were still alive then. They were old, Tina was younger of course, but already in her fifties. Sometimes, if I was lucky, Henry would take me to town to get groceries. He had a circle of friends he would visit; he would show me off. I was always called 'Marilyn's boy'. Every morning he would sit in his rocking chair and read the paper. I was not to bother him then. Usually Tina would be doing something in the kitchen so I would sit there, at the table, and 'do my homework'—that's what Tina called my drawing."
"What did you draw?" asked Mary
"Oh, cats and dogs and houses. Doodles, shapes, butts. I did butts real good."
"You still do." Mary said, smiling. "What else did you do?"
"By the the time I was four, I was allowed to explore the countryside. In the summer I remember going to the creek. I spent a lot of time there. I would throw stones at sticks floating in the water. There were fish too, little shiners, and mud turtles as well. Ducks. In the fall, during hunting season, I had to stay inside. In the winter I played in the house, mostly. There were quite a few books. I couldn't read yet, but I loved looking at the pictures. Sometimes Tina would explain what the pictures were about. My grandmother had left some books of strange modern art; when I asked Tina about them she would just shake her head and say 'crazy people pictures'."
"Your Grandmother? Who was she? How did she fit into the family?"
"Emily Carroll, Henry's sister. The artist. My mother didn't talk much about her. What I've gathered over the years, mostly from Tina, was that she had abandoned my mother soon after she was born. She just left. No idea who the father was."
"She left? And that was it? What happened to her?" Mary was intrigued.
"She had done the same thing before, with Tina, twenty years earlier. She went to New York City. They accepted her behavior then because she would send money back to help raise Tina. In 1933, when the farm was in danger of going under, she came back and paid off the mortgage. The next day she was gone again. She didn't return again until almost the end of the war, pregnant with Marilyn, my mother. A few months after my mother was born, she left again. She sent them money once, and then nothing. They never heard from her again."
"Did they look for her?"
"Well, they did what they could. All they had was her last mailing address, and she had left there without notice. Henry even went so far as to go out to New York City to look for her and he filed a missing persons report with the police. Nothing came of it."
"Tina wrote that your grandmother had some things you might want to look at. What do you think that might be?"
"I don't know. Art supplies maybe. There were a couple of paintings. In the attic there was a room, I guess you could call it a garret, which was always kept locked. Tina called it 'Emily's studio'. I was not allowed in. I think they kept it locked in the hope that she might come back some day."
"Sean, I hope you don't think I'm being nosy, but this is really very interesting to me."
"No, not at all. I'm just as curious as you are."
"I hope you don't follow in Emily's footsteps."
"My mother left me too, although she did come back. I can see your concern. Slow down, that's the Madison Road turnoff on your left."
Mary slowed and entered the county road.
"Tina's place is about five miles, on Happy Hollow Road."
Mary drove on, past fields of corn and soybeans, until Sean saw the sign. She turned on to the gravel road, two miles in was a mailbox with the name 'Carroll' painted neatly on it. Mary drove up the driveway.
"Are you ready?" asked Sean, "This is the place, the house is just ahead, behind those trees."
"I'm ready, Sean."
The driveway ended in front of an old farmhouse. It looked as if it had once been nice, but now it sorely needed repainting, as did the outbuildings. Weeds had taken over the flowerbeds, although the grass had been recently cut.
"Tina?" shouted Sean. "Tina, we're here!"
The screen door opened and a frail old woman with a cane stepped out, taking small, shuffling steps.
"At last! I was beginning to wonder if you'd ever make it." said Tina, her high pitched voice had a touch of a rasp, but was strong and unwavering. "Come here you two, I don't trust myself on these steps anymore."
Sean and Mary walked up to the porch and Sean gently kissed Tina on the cheek.
"Tina, this is Mary."
"Oh! I'm so glad you came." Tina reached out and her hand touched Mary's arm. "I was beginning to despair of Sean ever settling down, I can't wait forever, you know."
"Sean had told me so much about you, Ms. Carroll. We've got a lot of catching up to do." Mary gently put her arms around the elderly woman. "I'm so glad to finally meet you."
"Call me Tina. You kids come in, I just put the water on for some tea, you do drink tea, don't you dear?" said Tina.
"I'd love some, Tina."
"Welcome home, children…" said the elderly woman, "… Willkommen."
Hallgrímur's Magnificent 7%
The most memorable cultural event which I had during my 2004 trip to Iceland was experiencing a National Theatre production of a play adapted from Hallgrímur Helgason's 1994 novel Þetta er allt að koma (Things Are Going Great). My mind was, to use an overworked cliché, blown. After the play I had realized that there was a lot more to Icelandic culture that I had imagined; where had this collective hallucination sprung from?
Ten years on, I'm still learning. It has been hard to explain to my friends my obsession, but Hallgrímur expresses an eloquent case for The Arts, not only in Iceland, but for all humanity in his essay The Magnificent 7% in the Reykjavík Grapevine. A great, great summation of why Icelandic art and culture has become so important in the last thirty years. My impressions are, of course, shaped by a limited experience. But Hallgrímur's Grapevine piece really gives an excellent overview to a vibrant scene, and why The Arts so are important, not just in Iceland, but to everyone.
Poplar Creek, 2009
The Weaver and I are leaving today to traverse the arrowhead region of Minnesota and the Gunflint Trail by car, canoe and foot. With the chance of a little day trip to Iowa next week, our summer vacation has officially begun. Fear not, there will be a new installment of The Matriarchy on Friday.
The only place with a vacancy in Sioux Falls was a 'Family Style' motel, built in the shape of a lodge with a pool and hot tubs occupying the center court. Sean and Mary's room overlooked the pool where numerous children were boisterously playing; their yelling and laughing punctuated by the occasional shriek. A group of parents sat in lounge chairs along the pool, talking and reading, but keeping an eye on the kids all the while. While Sean was speaking to his aunt Tina on the phone Mary opened the curtains and looked out on the activity below.
"In a few years this will be us, with our kid, won't it?" asked Mary after Sean had hung up. "Did you ever do this with your mother when you were growing up?"
"No, we didn't do road trips, other than visiting Tina, and those were done in a single very long day, leaving early in the morning and arriving late at night. I think my mother had a thing about motels. When I was older I went to a camp in Minnesota twice, but that meant taking flights to Duluth and then a bus ride to the camp."
"Camp? I did a computer camp once, but that was in Redmond, not exactly roughing it. I thought it was dumb, I was already way beyond what they were doing. What was your camp like?"
"It was a wilderness-style camp, a few miles from the Canadian Border. I was pretty green when I first went but got into it really fast. I can still start a fire without a match. It was run by some people who knew my mother."
"What did your Aunt Tina say?" asked Mary.
"She's expecting us for supper, I think it's a big deal for her. She's a pretty good cook from what I remember. Meat and potatoes and farm fresh vegetables, but she always made the food taste special. I hope she's still up for it. I don't think we'll starve."
"I hope that I'm over my nausea." Mary said, "I felt pretty good all day today. I'd hate to throw up the first meal she served us."
"We'd have to tell her about the baby then, wouldn't we?"
"We'll tell her, Sean, she's family."
"Yep, she's all that left of the old Carroll line."
The children in the pool had all gone back to their rooms by the time Sean shut the drapes.
"I'm going to bed, I'd like to get an early start tomorrow so that we can reach Tina's before supper. If we start out by eight we can avoid the freeway." said Sean. "Are you coming?"
"In a bit. I'm going to sit here a little while, I'm still unwinding. Join you soon."
As Mary sat in the dark she pondered the events of the last couple of days. Her pregnancy wasn't really a surprise, the only thing she wondered about was why it had taken so long. She had gone off her birth control pills six months earlier, perhaps her body needed the release from the stress of selling her business before she could conceive. Mary came to the realization that ever since she began living with Sean she had been subconsciously heading for this result: motherhood, and, in her choice of Sean, a father who would be there—both in body and spirit. Mary also came to the awareness that this scenario had been her dream from a very young age, when she first became aware of the emotional space between her and her step-father. A family of her own, a real family. She closed her eyes, mulling these thing over. She was quickly asleep.
House. Looks abandoned, perhaps for many years. Walk closer, look through the broken windows. Walk around to the back. Door, hanging loosely, broken hinges. Inside. Kitchen, empty. Dim outline of grease stains where the stove sat. Wear patterns on the linoleum where the table was. Thousands of meals. Stairs lead down to the cellar; dark, dark, don't go there. Walk through house. Living room. Family celebrations, birthdays, anniversaries: Christmas. House full of noise and laughter. Bathroom, broken tile, dirty tub missing toilet. All the piss and shit and blood and soap and tears of decades. Up then, up the stairs, walk into bedrooms, sense the passion of couples grappling with loneliness in acts of quiet desperation. Then: hard times, bankruptcy, death. House becomes derelict.
Return to the hall. A sound. Pause. Wait. Listen. Something. Someone coming up the stairway. A blurry form coming into view. Try to scream. Screams can't come. A hand. Touching, touching me.
"Mary, are you alright? I heard you moaning in your sleep." It was Sean, standing next to her chair.
"Oh, I'm… it was just a dream… just a bad dream." Mary said.
"Come to bed. You don't have to sleep alone anymore."