Single Life

At 71, my father, Carroll, has been single for two years.

“What’s it like?” I ask. “Do you think it’s different from single at 30, or 40?” I’m in a relationship at the moment, but considering the impermanence of modern lesbian relationships, this is information I intend to store for the future.

He looks at the sky and smooths his gray mustache. “Probably not,” he says.

We sit on the deck of his tiny trailer in a run-down resort in the California desert. We are drinking vodka and grapefruit juice, perhaps a bit too fast. Vodka is his drink, not mine. He likes whiskey, he says, but his system just can’t take it. Gin gives him an asthmatic reaction. But with vodka, he says, he’s never had a hangover.

He has returned home from his travels to a stack of mail and he reads it as we talk, half-glasses perched on his nose. “This GD insurance company. I’ve been fighting with them for months. Who’s this from? Oh, my friends the Carlsons. You remember Ben and Karen. They’re coming to visit.

I move the stack of mail around and spot an envelope with recognizable handwriting. It is a card from my brother, Don, a notoriously poor correspondent.

“Dear Carroll,” it says, “Hope you are enjoying life in the desert. Everything is fine up here. I recently moved into a new apartment with a new roommate, a college student at the university. I’m working really hard on the Little Theater production of Cinderella, and work is going fine. Hope you had a good holiday.”

“Have you talked to Don lately?” says Carroll.

“Not too long ago. He seems to be doing fine.” I don’t elaborate. Why should I explain, when Don does not, that he plays the part of the fairy godmother in Cinderella? I have met the new “roommate,” a young man who clearly does not have his own bed.

Carroll leans back in the old metal deck chair and gives me a look, but asks no more questions. He has never wanted to know the details of my brother’s private life, nor mine, and we have never told him in so many words.

“That was something, Liberace dying,” he says.

“Yes, it was sad.” What I think is Don hasn’t had the test. I’m terrified that he is positive. For a moment I wish I could talk to Carroll about it.

“I don’t think it’s right that people should be able to hide the cause of death like he did,” he says.

“I think it was a terrible thing they did to him,” I say. “He should have been allowed to die in peace.” Carroll makes some more protests, but he’s not much of a fighter and I don’t feel very argumentative at the moment.

I go back to riffling through his mail. “What’s this?” I say, turning over an envelope with flowery handwriting.

He has saved the good stuff for last. “From Irma,” he says, opening the envelope and scanning the card quickly. He passes it to me.

A teddy bear in a lacy bed looks forlornly out from the card. “I think of you daily and miss you enormously,” it says.

Somehow I have the feeling this thinking and missing is not reciprocal. “How sweet.” I take a swig.

I suspect Carroll had been seeing Irma before my mother died, but I try not to hold that against her. Carroll was a little too pushy about it was all, wanting everything to be okay. He insisted I meet her, and the one time I did, she seemed fine. She told me Carroll was the first man who’d appealed to her in fifteen years.

“You’re obviously putting some distance between you and Irma,” I say, pulling myself out of the chair.

“She drinks too much for me,” he says. “I tell her I think she’s an alcoholic and she doesn’t like that.”

“I was just getting up to freshen our drinks,” I say, thinking Irma’s habit must be serious. For as long as I can remember, Carroll has had a drinking problem. Cracked up two company cars. Always had a pint under the front seat. During my childhood many a dinner was eaten in the tension of his absence.

I duck into the trailer’s kitchen. “Are you trying to cut down?” I ask through the screen door as I assemble juice, vodka and ice.

“The doctor bugs me about it. I try to watch myself,” he says, “but when I’m with Irma I drink more. It’s harder to control. I don’t want to get mixed up with an alcoholic.”

“I think that’s smart,” I say, resisting the burden of my mother’s anguish.

The trailer is spare as a monk’s quarters. Only one picture—of my brother Terry’s children—is displayed on the kitchen table. There are no pictures of my mother or the four of us kids, and none of her things are here. She collected old things, I believe because she wanted a link with history. When she died, Carroll ignored our objections and sold the farm and the contents of our childhood home. “What do I want with things?” he’d said. “I’ll die soon anyhow.” Then he bought a pickup and went on the road. Later, he tried to make it up to me. “Take it,” he would say about objects I expressed interest in, but there was nothing I really wanted then.

I walk back out, hand him a drink, sit across from him and pick out another large envelope. “Who’s this from?”

He smiles, devilishly I think. “That’s Eleanor, my South Dakota girlfriend.”

This one has a serious message lettered on the front.

“I hope only that you can love me just the way I am,” it says. Inside a handwritten message adds, “I do hope someday this can be so.”

“What does this mean?” I ask.

He ponders the card. “Can’t figure it. She’s a pretty hippy gal. Maybe she thinks I want her to lose weight.”

“Why would she think that?”

“Oh, I’ve commented on it,” he says. A fat girl survivor of years of badgering from thin parents, I decide I’d rather not get into this.

“Who’s your girlfriend here, the one your neighbors were razzing you about?” I ask.

“Blanche? She’s a class above the rest in this place. Likes to have a good time. Likes to dance.”

I have never thought of Carroll as particularly handsome. But in his set he is the belle of the ball. Last night at the local resort dance he never lacked a partner. Women approached me and asked, “Is that your father? He sure is cute.” I haven’t seen such flirting since my generation of lesbians all discovered each other.

We look out on the slough, where fishers glide by in rowboats toward the Colorado River. Fish aren’t biting tonight. The local colony of ducks flap wings and chase each other in a frenzy of mating. I wonder why my father and I so often seem to find ourselves in the company of mating animals. I hope he senses my discomfort and doesn’t call attention to this ritual.

“The ducks are sure sexy tonight,” he says. “ ‘Let’s chase each other ‘round the room tonight.’ Ever heard that song? They played it at my sister Jesse’s fiftieth wedding anniversary.”

“It doesn’t look like much fun to me,” I say, watching a drake hold a hen under the water.

“Probably is for him,”  he says.

“So what about sex?” I plunge in. “Do these women you’re dating like sex?”

He’s pleased I asked this question, pleased to have a chance to talk about it, I think. “Hell, yes, sure they do. Irma can take it or leave it though. She can be cold but I don’t care about that. I was never one to demand sex. I never in my life said ‘I’m not getting any here, so I’m going somewhere else.’ ”

I’ve finished my drink and want another, but am afraid to break this train of thought. “What about Eleanor?” I ask.

“Now Eleanor is a different story. She’s quite a bit younger than me—fifties I guess. you know those middle-aged women, they’re sexy.”

“Yes I do,” I say, feeling middle-aged. “So you just returned from a tryst.”

“Well, you know my cousin Buford died. I had to go up. But the funny thing about Eleanor, she doesn’t want anyone to know. She’s real involved in the church, and she’s afraid someone will find out about us. I kind of get a kick out of it. She kicks me out by five o’clock so they won’t see me there in the morning. But she is something in bed. I tell her ‘if your church friends only knew what goes on in this house…’”

I have developed a sudden interest in a broken thumbnail and am picking at it intently.

“Eleanor thinks I’m really sexy,” Carroll says. “But I’m really not. You know, she expects too much of me. They all think I’m sexy. I can’t figure out why.” I rip the thumbnail off and it begins to bleed.

“So what about Eleanor? Are you getting serious?” I ask, sticking the thumb in my mouth to stop the bleeding.

“Naw. I know she’d like to get married, but I’m not gonna do it. Don’t you worry. I don’t intend to get married again.”

“What makes you think I’d worry? You’re an independent person. You can make your own decisions.” But, of course, I’d hate it if he got married to some woman other than my mother.

I hug myself. The sun has gone down and the evening is suddenly cool.

“Well, what do you say we get cookin’?” Carroll raises his furry black eyebrows at me, gets up and moves into the trailer.

The prospect does not excite me. His bachelor diet of sausage, Spam and fried potatoes gives me heartburn. “Let’s try something different tonight,” I say, opening the refrigerator, which contains little more than ingredients for various alcoholic concoctions. I pull out the biggest thing in there, a heavy rectangular package. “What’s this?”

“Government cheese,” he says. They give it away to senior citizens every two weeks at the surplus store. I want you to take that with you when you go.

“No thanks. I could never eat all this. I live alone, remember?”

“No, I want you to take that.” He is using his sergeant voice. “I can get plenty more where that came from.”

“No, really, I don’t like processed cheese. I would never eat it.”

“You take that,” he insists. “Give it to your friends.”

“Look, I appreciate the offer,” I say. “Maybe we can cook something with it tonight. Does your oven work?”

He finds some matches and kneels down in front of the little propane stove while I start turning knobs on and off looking for the one that controls the oven. “I never did figure out how to use this thing,” he says.

I am watching as he works at lighting it when the air around his head explodes with a whoosh. He is knocked backwards and ends up sitting on the floor against a counter.

“Dad, Dad,” I yell. “Are you okay?” I get down in front of him and his eyes finally focus on me. I can see his thick eyebrows and lashes have been singed. He rubs the melted nubs of hair on his arm. I discover I am crying.

“Knocked the piss out of me, but I’m okay.” He looks puzzled.

“I’m kind of upset,” I blurt out. “I’m afraid Don might have AIDS. I can’t stand to lose him, too.”

Carroll’s face betrays no anger, only resignation. “He’s always gone for men, hasn’t he?”

“Yes,” I say, and more to atone for indiscretion than anything else, I add, “and I love women.”

“I don’t understand it,” he says, “but I’m glad you’ve been quiet about it.”

I give him a hand up, then wipe my eyes quickly on my shirt sleeve. He smoothes the ruff of hair around his bald head and tucks in his shirt. I decide to cook something on top of the stove.

“Hey, I want you to see something, he says. “Look at my gold nugget.” He pulls what looks like a huge nugget from his pocket. It is attached to a gold chain.

I’m immediately skeptical. One of his favorite pastimes is making up stories about found objects or people he sees in passing, or family history. Years pass and fiction melds with truth. “Where did you get this?” I laugh.

“Well, now, some people might think this is strange,” he says, eyeing me as he places it in my hand. “You know your mother had a lot of dental work done over the years and she had her teeth pulled the week before she died. This is made from her gold teeth. I want you to take it.”

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Breakfast at 16th Avenue July 27, 1938

“Breakfast, girls,” called Gerda. She had already been out to open the chicken coop and the hens’ cluckings came through the open upstairs window. The smell of coffee boiling wafted up from the kitchen below where Gerda cooked breakfast on the wood-burning stove in the kitchen. Gerda always served coffee in the morning, and also as the Swedish custom, in mid-afternoon. This afternoon the coffee would be cooled with ice delivered weekly by the iceman. Betty and Flo made their way down the steep stairs.

The Wick family home on 16th Avenue So.

The family had taken out a mortgage for $3500 to buy the house on 16th Avenue South in 1921. It had been built by Gerda’s brother, Albin Lunstrum, who had brought his carpentry skills from Sweden. Most of the houses on Johnson’s Corner, the Swedish neighborhood, had been built by hand by Albin and his brother-in-law partner, Axel Jacobson. They were boxy two-story clapboard-clad frame houses with generous front porches, a popular style at the time. The family had come to Yakima after having failed at chicken farming near Roseburg, Oregon during WWI. When Ben was offered a teaching job at Yakima High School, Gerda was happy to join two sisters, two brothers and some cousins who had also immigrated from Sweden.

Ruth smiled good morning from her place at the dining room table which she had set for the family. She had fixed her light brown hair in a neat Marcel wave and she wore a floral cotton dress. Her well-scrubbed rosy cheeks shone with radiant good health.

“Don and I have set the date for our wedding,” she blurted. “I wanted to wait till you were all here to tell you. It will be August 30 at the Presbyterian Church. Of course I want my sisters to be bridesmaids.”

“Congratulations!” chorused her sisters, mother and father.

“Will there be time for Momma to make your dress?” asked Betty.

“Oh, I won’t need a dress. I can wear the suit she made me last year. It’s very stylish,” Ruth said.

“Gee, you’re in an awful hurry,” said Flo. “Where do you and Don plan to live?”

Ruth’s wedding announcement

“We’ll find an apartment in Yakima. Of course you know this is all your fault for introducing us.” Ruth was looking forward to having her own home, away from her bossy older sister.

Flo was happy for her sister, but worried about the family’s welfare. She silently calculated the loss of Ruth’s contribution to the mortgage payment. Ruth brought in $60 a month from her job and she could thank their father for that. He had rung doorbells for the Democrat running for county auditor who had won the seat in 1934 in the wake of FDR’s election two years before. Ruth got a patronage job and now she would lose it when she married. Women were expected to give up their jobs when they married and there were even laws prohibiting married women from working. She and Flo had paid the hospital bill for their father’s care after his coronary. If he ended up in the hospital again it would be all on Flo this time. Ruth would be a married woman starting her own family. At least with the vacated bedroom they would be able to house a boarder, thought Flo.

“Good morning Daddy. How are you feeling?” Flo bent to give her father a kiss on the cheek and a hug. At 58, Ben was looking old. His still abundant head of hair had turned from black to gray and his blue eyes seemed sunken.

“I’m feeling quite well today,” he answered. “Did you see that we got a letter from Eva yesterday? She says she’s doing well in her nursing program. I think my brother Erick’s loan to her was a good investment.” He had retrieved the morning Yakima Herald and was dividing the sections to be shared. Both Flo and Ben usually read a book or newspaper as they ate. For breakfast this day Gerda served homemade toast, boiled eggs she had collected from the little hen house and the first of the fresh apricots she had gleaned from the Pacific Fruit Packing Co. The canning season had begun and Gerda was preparing to get started on stone fruit. As hot as it was, this would still be a canning day. Gerda had procured boxes of culled apricots from her seasonal job as a fruit packer and they would spoil if held for processing. Apples, the primary crop of the Yakima Valley, did not ripen until the late fall.

Eva graduated from the nursing program at Swedish Hospital in Seattle

Flo scanned the front page. It seemed little news was good in this Depression year. Five of the Negroes who had been attacked earlier in the month by a mob of 200 whites in Wapato had filed a lawsuit against the local marshal, deputy marshal and the county sheriff for failure to enforce the law and protect them from the mob. (They would later lose in court.) The Anti-Japanese League, the American Legion and the Grange were still harassing Japanese farmers in the Lower Valley where they leased land on the Yakama Indian reservation.

“The American Legion is still trying to run the Japanese out of town,” said Flo. “No matter that they’ve been here longer than most of the Legionnaires.”

Abroad, Jews in Germany were being ordered to report to police to receive identification cards. The war in Spain continued, but, even with thousands of volunteers from around the world joining the Republicans to fight, Franco’s fascists were winning with Hitler’s help.

“Why won’t our government take a side in this war and send armaments?” asked Flo. “Can’t they see this is the ultimate fight for democracy?”

“I don’t think public opinion supports our intervention,” said Ben. “But that doesn’t mean it’s right.”

In Yakima, agriculture was always front-page news. The cherry crop, harvested in the first week of July, had been ruined by the hot weather.

“The farmers complain every year, no matter what the weather,” said Ben flatly. “It’s either too rainy in June or too hot in July.”

Orchardists and farmers nervously geared up for harvest season, hoping they would have enough migrant workers and that labor agitators demanding higher wages would stay out of the Valley. A strike by the Wobblies had been put down five years earlier and the stockade built to hold the strikers still stood downtown, daring any to stand up for better conditions in the fields and orchards. None had.

Farmers advertised for migrant labor and migrants traveled from Mexico and other states hoping to find work. They were housed in several labor camps called shacktowns. Some had tiny cottages built by the farmer. Others were built by the migrants themselves of scraps of wood and found materials. Growers did not want to let the migrants get too comfortable. They were urged to move on after harvest season.

Sisters Flo and Betty

After breakfast Flo would drive the family Model A to work at the State Highway Department in Old Yakima several miles away, dropping off Ruth at the county offices downtown. Betty would take the streetcar to her part-time bookkeeping job at the butcher’s on the west side of town. Ben had a summer break from part-time teaching jobs. Gerda had arranged for her sister Anna to come over to help her can the apricots.

Flo slid into the driver’s seat and put on the horn-rimmed glasses that corrected her nearsightedness so she could see to drive. Girls with glasses were seen as bookish and unattractive, and she only wore them when absolutely necessary, never when her photograph was being taken.

Flo sometimes imagined that the four sisters were like the sisters in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, although the comparison didn’t altogether work. They had lost a sister to typhoid fever just as the March sisters had lost Beth to scarlet fever, but Elizabeth had died at seven, not 17, and that was 18 years ago now. The Wick sisters hadn’t written and produced plays like the March sisters had and they weren’t genteel poor like the Marchs, just plain poor. But Flo saw herself in Jo, the tomboy reader, writer and intellect of the four. She pushed against the constraints of gender and rejected the idea of romance and marriage just as Jo had in her youth. As the oldest sister after Elizabeth’s death, Flo saw herself as the family caretaker, not in the traditional female role, but as the wage earner who took over the father’s role after he had been laid off from his teaching job six years before. The school superintendent who laid him off seemed to think that Ben’s four daughters could support the family and Flo took up the challenge.

The Wick Family July 27, 1938

Dear Readers,

As I delved into my mom’s scrapbook from her time as a Red Cross “donut girl” in Europe during WWII, I began to wonder what motivated her to sign up for a job so close to the front lines in the war. What were Americans in small towns thinking about the wars in Europe and how were they affected? I was moved to look into my mother’s childhood and young adulthood in Yakima, Washington, and that research resulted in my last essay, Make America White Again, about the roots of racism in my hometown. I just read a fascinating book of creative nonfiction, We Were the Lucky Ones, by a young author, Georgia Hunter. It started as a blog about her Polish Jewish family and how they escaped the Holocaust during the war. That book inspired me to look deeper into my own family history.

So before I jump into WWII, I want to explore what my mother and her family’s lives were like as Europe was gearing up for war and the US was still stuck in the Great Depression. I chose to tell their story in one day, July 27, 1938, in five short chapters. Chapter One follows.

July 27, 1938 started out hot and it just got hotter. Flo and her younger sister Betty had left the window in their upstairs room open all night but when the alarm woke them the room was still hot.

­Flo had come in late the night before after Betty was asleep. When they were both awake she confronted her sister.

“Where were you yesterday? I came by the butcher’s to see if you wanted a ride home after work. Were you with Cecil?”

Betty’s face reddened. “Well….”

“He’s a married older man, Betty. He will destroy your reputation.”

“There is nothing going on between us. He just likes my company and he gives me things. Look what he gave me.” Betty opened a small box to reveal a gold necklace.

“This is terrible,” rasped Flo. “You must never accept these things from him. Return it to him and hope Mama never sees it.”

“But I don’t want to give it back,” complained Betty. “Look, here’s proof I’m a good girl.” She pulled from a large envelope a certificate signed with three names. It was titled The Senior High Society of Christian Endeavor DIPLOMA and it certified that “Betty Wick has for three years been a member of the above mentioned society of the First Presbyterian Church of Yakima, Washington, and that now she is affectionately graduated and earnestly commended to the Young Peoples Society of Christian Endeavor.” It had the gold corporate seal of the church with a red and a white ribbon pasted on.PresbyCert

“I’m sorry,” said Flo, gently putting a hand on Betty’s shoulder. “You must return the necklace. Tell Cecil your family says these gifts are not proper.”

Flo did not know what to do with her younger sister who, at only 16, seemed so very different from herself. But she loved her dearly and put some effort into protecting her from their mother’s wrath. Their Swedish mother, Gerda, had early on been influenced by her own sister Ellen who had joined the Pentecostal church and who believed that movies, dancing, playing cards and makeup were deadly sins. Flo and Ruth, the oldest sisters, had been most affected by their mother’s religious piety, which forced them as teenagers to lie about attending movies and to wipe off makeup before going home. By the time the youngest sister, Betty, came along, Gerda’s strict rules had relaxed but she still expected rigorous moral standards to be met.

The sisters each had their own bed ever since their two other sisters, Ruth and Eve, had taken live-in housekeeper jobs. Ruth had recently returned to the family home when she got a job as a stenographer. She now slept in one of the downstairs bedrooms. Betty, who was still in high school, had shared a bed with Eve as a child and Flo and Ruth had slept together. As kids, the four sisters had all shared the one big attic room accessed by a narrow unlit stairway from the kitchen. Gerda, a master of many skills, had hung cheery yellow flowered wallpaper, painted the fir floor a dark red and made a braided oval rug from scraps of wool left over from old clothes people had given her. One light bulb hung from the ceiling in the middle of the room. It cast light through the window into the yard at night indicating that Flo was reading instead of sleeping. Their father, Ben, would see it and call up the stairs, “Turn off the light.” Sometimes she did, recalled Ruth.

Neither sister wanted to get up. Betty liked to sleep in whenever possible, but that was rarely allowed in this household where early-to-rise was the rule. Each had her chores, although Flo, now the main breadwinner in the family, was exempt from most household chores. Gerda took care of the cooking and canning, shopping, washing, ironing, sewing and knitting of clothes, gardening and cleaning, with some help from the girls. Ben was still recuperating from a serious heart attack, which had landed him in the hospital a couple of months before.

The sisters took turns using the indoor toilet and sink in the downstairs bathroom where they also dumped their chamber pots. Bath day was Saturday and all family members used the same water from the little tank in the kitchen heated by the wood stove. The youngest went first with poor Dad last. Sponge baths at the sink supplemented bath day during the week. Flo was feeling sticky and grimy on this Wednesday. To make matters worse, she saw blood in the toilet. Her period had started, which meant she’d be in pain with cramps for the next couple of days. She found the bottle of aspirin in the medicine cabinet above the sink and swallowed two pills, taking the bottle with her. At least she didn’t have to wear rags as she had when her periods had first begun, but Kotex pads were just one more expense to deduct from a tight budget. She found the box of Kotex hidden behind folded towels in the linen cabinet and took several to hide in her bag to take to work, making sure she was not seen. Menstruation was something to be hidden and not talked about, except with her sisters.

Flo was glad for the family’s indoor bathroom and running water. In their last home on the chicken farm in Meadowview, Oregon, they’d had only an outdoor privy with a Sears catalog for toilet paper and a water pump near the back porch. She returned to the bedroom to dress.

Sorority sisters (Flo and Ruth at right)

“How was your gathering last night?” asked Betty.

“It was great fun. We took the potluck out to Mrs. May’s lawn. We’re planning for the summer party next weekend up in Naches.”

Flo had been out the night before with her sorority sisters at their bi-monthly meeting. She had pledged the working girls sorority, Epsilon Sigma Alpha, in 1933 and become the chapter president in 1936, organizing the social outings as well as discussion groups and business meetings. She was now a central person in the sorority and in the Business and Professional Women’s group, representing them at conferences around the state and at national events. She was a busy woman, working 44 hours a week as a stenographer as well as spending many hours doing organizational work and singing in the Presbyterian church choir.

Flo pulled newly bought cotton underwear from their shared dresser. Since she had been working she’d been able to afford her own underwear and some clothing, although Gerda sewed most of her wardrobe. Betty still wore the underwear Gerda had made from bleached flour sacks—crude brassieres, underpants and garter belts.

Flo picked out a white cotton blouse and darker-colored mid-calf cotton skirt to wear to work. It would be hot in the State Highway Department office too. As she rolled on rayon stockings to her knees, she thought about their father, whose health had been poor for the past several years. He had gone back to working as a bookkeeper and part-time teacher after his heart attack because the family needed his income. During her school summer vacation Betty had been helping him with the bookkeeping job at a butcher shop. Flo wished he didn’t have to work at all.ShoeSlogan

Their wardrobes may have been skimpy but the one thing the sisters had plenty of was shoes. Flo loved shoes that showed off her shapely ankles and legs. The year before, she had won a year’s supply of shoes for a slogan she had composed for Fashion Week. Her winning slogan, out of 40,000 entries, read: “I like Paris Fashion shoes because…their smartness and quality make feet fashionably well-shod and comfortable….Their reasonable price keeps them within my budget…yet does not cramp their style.” She had allowed Betty to pick out one pair of the eight she had won and the shoes still graced their shared closet. Flo was always submitting essays, ditties and slogans to contests, and she seemed to win most of them. The year’s supply of shoes was the prize she was most proud of.

As they each combed and shaped their short dark hair into place before their shared mirror, Betty tapped Flo’s arm. “What’s eating you, sis?”

“Oh, I’m just worrying about Dad. I know he says he feels better but he seems so fragile since his heart attack.”

“Well worrying won’t get you anywhere. Let’s put on a happy face for him.”

Writing to Mom about Sex Etc.

10-67Over the years a horrible sickening black mold has infected the room next to the garage where I’ve stored boxes of my old stuff. In order to access anything from that dark cavernous space I must wear a respirator and gloves. Now that I can use my iPhone to photograph papers and store them in my computer, I’m slowly archiving them. Chucking the mold-infected sheaves into the recycling gives me great pleasure.

1-17-69
January 17, 1969

I’ve imagined that the mold was introduced from items that had previously been stored in my grandmother’s root cellar/basement in my hometown of Yakima, I guess because the smell is similar. That’s silly, but it started me wondering about molds and how they travel. It might be stachybotrys atra (also known as black mold). Whatever type of mold it is, and there are more than 100,000 kinds, it is nasty and takes little time to activate my asthma if breathed in. Molds require moisture to grow. When we were remodeling this building in the early 21st century I discovered a crack in the foundation that allowed moisture

May 20, 1974
May 20, 1974

into the storage room. I patched it, but of course that did not rid the room of mold, and perhaps there is no way to get rid of it. Removing the contents might help.

This week I’ve been pulling out my mother’s papers to aid in reconstructing her life in Yakima and her work as a Red Cross Donut Girl in Europe during WWII. I still have Flo’s cardboard American Red Cross suitcase issued to her in Washington DC and then carried from Italy through France and into Germany during 1944-46. She saw the liberation of Dachau, so I suppose the evil mold could have traveled in the suitcase from Nazi concentration camps. It’s a theory.

74?
A Thursday in 1974
74
A Sunday in 1974, Seattle

When I opened the suitcase I found two scrapbooks that my mother had assembled in the 20s and the 30s, a sheaf of her letters, and a bundle of letters written by me to her in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. These I perused immediately. What a gift, that my mother had saved these letters! In the days when people wrote letters as a primary way of communicating, I wrote my mother often just to tell her what was going on in my life (long distance phone calls were expensive).

The letters span a period from the fall of 1967 when I first left home in Yakima to start college at WSU in Pullman (a 190-mile three-and-a half-hour drive away), up to the summer of 1981 after I’d moved into the house where I’ve lived ever since here in San Francisco. I haven’t yet counted the number of different addresses where I lived in Pullman, Seattle and San Francisco during this time, but it is certainly in the double digits.

10-23-76
October 23, 1976, San Francisco

The most frequent subjects of the letters were money—borrowing and paying back, the cost of things, not having enough—and job hunting. I’m glad for the mundane everyday minutia, what things cost in 1970,

“The prescription for progesterone that cost $1 to fill in Yakima cost $13 in Seattle. I should have sprung for the $6 bus ticket and bought it there.”

the many jobs I applied for and was rejected from (newspaper reporter, telemarketer, printer’s apprentice, waitress, library clerk, federal civil service, county extension agent, phone operator, bus driver).9-4-77

“Thanks for your help. Didn’t include you as a reference. It’s never a good bet to use a relative, especially your mother, no matter who she knows and how well respected.”

11-28-78I was struck by the close relationship between my mother and her daughter, the “never trust anyone over thirty” feminist revolutionary. No doubt this was the work of my mother’s efforts to maintain a bond, more than mine, but the letters make it clear that I depended on her for a great many things besides loans—support in whatever endeavors I worked at, help with writing, bouncing off opinions about politics and life in general. She was truly my rock and I hope I was hers.

7-19-77
July 19, 1977, San Francisco

Letters from 1967 through the spring of 1969 when I lived in dormitories (the only option for female undergraduates then) are filled with reports of studying, dating boys, finding rides home, gossip about people from Yakima and complaints about the cost of books and clothes. I’m surprised at how conventional I seemed, but I don’t think this was just a put-on for the benefit of my mother.

After I moved off campus in the fall of 1969, my letters expressed interest in “alternative lifestyles” and “building viable counterculture community institutions.”

I wrote about founding the League for the Promotion of Militant Atheism:

“College campuses need more militant anti-Jesus freaks.”

I wrote about politics and social change, racism, feminism, sex and gay liberation. I had embraced the unconventional.

So very many things changed during those explosive years, but some things never did. The last of these letters, dated 8/18/81, starts:

“Here’s some money I promised. Still looking for work.”5-5-77

Wedding: A Story About Family and Queer Fashion

“Jesus Christ, it’s 1979. Why do they need to get married? They’ve been living together for five years. No one in the family disapproves. Why do people feel compelled to have the state sanction their relationships?” Don let me rave. Neither of us could answer these rhetorical questions. He couldn’t have been any less enthusiastic about our brother Tim’s wedding than I was. We knew that neither of us would ever have a family wedding with all the attendant fussing, well-wishing, presents and cultural sanction, not that either of us would want one.

“You don’t suppose there’s any way we can get out of going,” he said in a resigned tone.

I considered this. Our attendance seemed like a small price to pay to avoid the disapprobation that surely would result from our absence. “We can stay in the background. At least we’re not being asked to be bridesmaids.”

I could hear my brother sigh on the other end of the phone. “To be a bridesmaid,” he said, “has always been a great fantasy of mine.”

“I see what you mean. If I could be best man, I could rent a tuxedo. Fuck! What will I wear?” Don was silent, and I knew he wasn’t worrying about what I’d be wearing.

“Don, if you’re thinking about wearing a dress, just forget it right now. This is not the big city or some trendy college community. This is cowboy country. You’ll get the shit kicked out of you.”

When we said goodbye, I wasn’t entirely sure I’d convinced him, and I wondered how my outrageous brother managed to stay alive without me as his constant bodyguard. He insistently challenged assumptions about dress and gender, which was a dangerous thing at a time when the moral majority felt its grasp on the reins of cultural definitions slipping.

The truth was, just by being my natural self, people—both children and adults—were always confronting me about the nature of my gender. They would yell out of windows or from cars as I walked by, “Are you a boy or a girl?” Or I would be mistaken for a gay man. “Faggot!” they would yell, and speed off before I could correct them: “You idiot! I’m a dyke!”

I had learned that knowledge of gender is extremely important to people. They need this information before they know anything else about you. And once they get you pegged, to be surprised makes them inexplicably angry. All their assumptions are suddenly being challenged. It’s like you’ve called into question some intensely personal assumptions about who they are in the world.

I figured the problem wasn’t me, but how people expected women to look and act. To be feminine required performing unnatural acts—shaving one’s body hair, wearing sticky make-up and carefully coiffed hair, being quiet, wearing odd clothes and uncomfortable shoes, walking with short picky strides. I had practiced these ritual gestures at one time, but the feminist movement had released me. I was free and I was never going back now.

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An example of what women were expected to wear in the 1970s. Hot pants were required for many waitress jobs.

Unfortunately, my freedom from convention left me completely unprepared to dress for Tim’s wedding. I had no dress-up clothes. As a matter of principle I’d stopped wearing dresses in 1970. Since then the contents of my closet had been recycled from thrift stores. As a working electrician in those days of butch dykedom, I could just wash my flannel shirts and jeans and wear them to the bar. No one I knew ever got dressed up, and if they attended weddings, they never told me. So what does a nonconforming, revolutionary lesbian wear to a heterosexual wedding?

At the airport I searched the Nordic crowd of Seattleites for Don’s dark head. I never knew what to expect. He’d been a hippie with a thick ponytail and full beard last time I’d seen him, but personas changed from year to year. He was not at the gate and I wandered until I heard my name called from a waiting area.

Then I saw him, relaxing back into one of the lounge chairs like a queen, newly clean-shaven and wearing giant turquoise butterfly earrings, a flowing scarf wrapped around his shoulder-length hair, tied in back. “I thought it was time to relinquish my male privilege,” he smiled.

In the short 150 miles or so between Don’s home at the foot of the Olympic Peninsula to Yakima, the land cracks and dries up like the edges of those Janis Joplin posters you rehang in each new collective house. Snoqualmie Pass takes you from a rich, dripping, evergreen rain forest over the snow-capped Cascades, past ski resorts and the shorn heads of clear-cut hills in to the Kittitas Valley, flat pasture dotted with Black Angus cattle.

Up over the Manashtash Ridge, a new freeway replaced the winding two-lane road along the Yakima River. Beyond irrigation, only sagebrush–ubiquitous in the valley–flourishes. From the west side of the ridge you can see the town of Ellensburg surrounded by the patchwork of pastures, ground crops and brown earth, and above that the sharp white peaks of the Wenatchee Range. As you continue east, your nose dries up and your hair electrifies, the sky turns intense blue and if there are clouds they look like puffs of bleached cotton. Then, just before the Yakima Valley appears below, if you look to the south, you see the round, white tip of Mt. Adams peering over those dusty brown hills, incongruous.

On that March day the chill air cracked and the sagebrush cast bright shadows on patches of snow as Don drove the Subaru down into the valley past big cattle ranches and their animals with thick winter coats, then smaller farms, past apple and pear orchards just starting to bud.

Our mother, Flo, rushed out to meet us as we pulled into the gravel driveway. She was dressed in her usual polyester pantsuit in bright colors. We hugged her thin frame in turn. Then, as she stood back to look at him, she brushed my brother’s hair away from his face. “Don, I wish you would do something with your hair.” (He had diplomatically removed the scarf.)

Don frowned. “Oh, Mom.”

I thought Don’s hair was beautiful—thick and dark and curly. I’d always wished I had inherited that head of hair from our mother. I might be wearing mine in the same long style. Instead, I wore my straight brown hair short, lately in the shag style Jane Fonda popularized in the movie Klute.

“Ok, you guys, come on in,” she said, “I want you to see the new solar addition Tim put on the house.”

Flo was never much of a housekeeper, but she was a genius at making this century-old farmhouse feel like home. We had bought the run-down five-acre place when I was ten, and remodeled it ourselves. Flo had filled it with antiques she’d collected from junk stores before they were called antiques and priced to match. She always had to show us her new finds.

We visited for a while, then went out to say hello to our younger brothers Tim and Terry, whose four-wheel drive pickups were parked further up the driveway. My parents’ place, which sat down in a hollow, had several outbuildings, all painted Swedish red with white trim like the house. The big old barn had been converted to a garage. Next to it was the chicken house surrounded by its chicken-wire pen. On the other side of the garage was the three-stall horse barn on which I’d painted a stylized picture of a horse years ago. Between them was what we called the doghouse, a rectangular structure that was once a container crate. Someone had given it to my father years ago, and he set it on a slab and cut a door in it saying he’d have a place to go when he was in trouble with Flo. Over the years we’d fixed it up into a nice little apartment with electricity and running water and windows. All of us had used it at one time or another to get away from the house. I’d stayed there on summers home from college. For the past several years Tim and Diana had lived there together.

Tim answered the door, a tall, solid figure with a sparse beard and lanky brown hair. “Hey, how the fuck are you?” he said. We passed hugs around. “I’ve got some great pot this year. We’re just drying out a little.” He pointed to the toaster oven. “Smoke a joint?”

Don smiled. This was what he’d been waiting for. Yakima’s hot dry summers are perfect for growing pot. Tim and Terry grew fine pot when it didn’t get harvested prematurely in the middle of the night by one of their delinquent friends. One year they threw seeds around the farm indiscriminately and plants came up everywhere. One or two flourished in the middle of the gravel driveway.

We threw ourselves on the old foldout sofa. Terry passed out beers.

“So, what’s the plan,” I said to Diana. What family events are we signed up for?”

My girlfriends are giving me a shower tomorrow,” she said. “The wedding’s on Saturday. It will be fun, you guys. We’ll have dinner at the grange hall afterward, and Tim’s friend Duane plays in a band. We can all dance. Tim’s been taking dancing lessons.” Diana was a dancer and a ballet teacher. I don’t believe Tim had ever danced in his life or wanted to.

“What are you wearing,” I asked.

Diana waltzed over to the closet and pulled out a plain white dress that was made interesting by the triangular pieces of green hanging like stalactites from the hem. It reminded me of a costume I’d seen in a performance of Peter Pan. “I made it myself,” she beamed.

“It’s beautiful,” Don and I exclaimed in unison. We looked at Tim.

“Bought a suit,” he shrugged.

“It’s very handsome,” said Diana, replacing the dress in the closet and pulling out a blue suit. “We had trouble getting it to fit in the shoulders. He’s so wide.”

Tim sucked at the joint and then smiled sheepishly.

“Now don’t worry,” Diana said, “You’re going to look great.”

“I have to go shopping,” I said.

The next day my mother and I set out to find me a wedding outfit. Together we slogged through the department stores of my hometown, reliving painful memories of past shopping trips. I had never liked girls’ clothes, and could only be induced to wear a style my mother called “tailored.” Absolutely no frills or puckers. She’d understood. She’d never liked frilly clothes either. But she was five three and slender. I was five eight, and until my twenties, decidedly plump. More often than not, when I found the rare piece of clothing that suited me, it didn’t come in my size. This had always mystified me. I knew there were plenty of other big-boned gals like me, but the people who designed clothes hadn’t discovered us yet.

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Remember the polyester big-collared shirts and beltless pants?

Sears was filled with nothing but polyester. Pants with no pockets and elastic waistbands. Over the years I’d developed a clothing checklist. I preferred natural fibers, and I wouldn’t wear pants if they had no back pockets. “Don’t be silly,” my mother said.

I was indignant. “I intend to wear these pants more than one time,” I reasoned. “Where will I put my wallet?”

At Montgomery Wards I insisted on starting in the men’s department. I liked the color of a greenish suit on the display and convinced the clerk to let me try it on in the men’s dressing room even though I knew what would happen. Those seventies-style men’s pants were not made for my body. In the size that fit comfortably on my thighs, the waist was inches too big. These were not the kind of pants you could cinch up with a wide belt. They were the kind with the self-belt made of the fabric to fit a man’s waist exactly. When I emerged from the dressing room my mother was not impressed. “Oh, Molly,” was all she said. I knew she was right. I felt like a used car salesman.

We arrived at the Bon Marche irritated and frustrated. The Bon Marche is the Macy’s of Yakima, WA—clothes to aspire to. My attention span for shopping had always been short. And we had never shopped at the Bon when I was a kid. It was out of our price range.

I began to sift through racks of Misses slacks while Flo checked to see whether all the suits had skirts. Suddenly there it was. A rack of pants with back pockets. I was so happy it took me a minute to discover that the pockets were only half-pockets, not really big enough for a wallet. Why they do that I’ll never understand. “Fuck, do they think putting regular-sized pockets in would cause us to grow penises?” I asked my mother.

“Why must you use that word,” she scowled. “Try them on.”

The pants did fit me better than the men’s. I actually liked how they looked, even though I was still pissed about the pockets. “I hate giving money to a clothing industry that refuses to meet my needs,” I said. But I was ready to compromise. I knew I’d never find anything better.

My mother returned with a navy polyester jacket, size 12. Women’s jackets are always too tight in the shoulders or too loose around my waist, but this one wasn’t bad. Before I could complain, she said, “I’ll buy you the jacket.”

Later she asked what shoes I’d be wearing. “Don’t worry,” I said, “I brought my Frye boots.”

Flo insisted I come to the shower, even though the boys didn’t have to. It was just as inane as I’d imagined. Diana was obliged to ooh and aah politely over every gift, no matter how useless. My mother had anticipated that I’d come to this heterosexual event empty-handed and resentful, so she’d bought a present from me. I was as surprised as Diana to discover I’d given her a set of wine glasses with their own rack. Flo never said a word about it.

The day of the wedding I was still searching for an appropriate shirt to wear with my new outfit. My father’s closet had always served me well in the past. We’re about the same size and he has short arms for a man. Whenever I’d visit, he’d send me away with several of his old shirts, which I’d wear with tails out over jeans until they began to fray right at the spots where my ample breasts stuck out the farthest. I found a tasteful light blue number with a faint check. I was looking for a tie when Don breezed into the bedroom. He was wearing bright pink pants and a purple jacket, a pink polo shirt and platform shoes. He sashayed over to the dresser, pulled back his flowing hair and began putting dangly earrings in his pierced ears.

Flo was right on his heels, and she closed the door behind her. “Don,” she wheedled, “I don’t ask you for many things, but I’m asking you not to wear those earrings.”

“Flo, stop making such a big deal out of it,” he said in that artificially low voice he uses when he’s annoyed. “I’m wearing the earrings.”

My mother looked like she might cry. I wished I could make her feel better but I was sworn to defend my brother. “I don’t understand why you must make things so hard for me,” she said. She threw up her hands and walked out.

Before the end of the evening when I felt compelled to admonish my drunken father to stop copping feels off the female guests, he had said to me that he thought I looked “sharp” in his shirt and tie.

Later, when we were dancing, I felt the only wardrobe mistake I’d made was not to wear a bra. I hadn’t thought pointy breasts would really go with my outfit, so I wore an undershirt and let the breasts seek their natural level, about halfway to my waist. But jumping around with no support was painful. Don and I were especially popular on the dance floor, in direct proportion to the amount of alcohol consumed by the wedding guests. I never lacked a partner. All the women loved me.

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