Sunday, February 20, 2011

Useful


                I went to college to learn to use the things I learned, a co-op college where we worked every other semester or trimester they called it – like being pregnant, only I have never been pregnant.  The women in my family breed.  I went to college; I did not breed.
               I went to college, to this co-op college, and once I went, there was no going back.  Only I went home most every weekend because my roommates, three girls from New Jersey, threw parties when their boyfriends from back home visited.  And besides, even though I wanted to go away, I did not want to leave. 
               Once when I was gone, these Jersey girls found my diary.  I must have left it in my room.  I must have forgotten to take it with me.  That was not the worst thing, having my private words read out loud.  Not the worst, some girls reading to boys taking hits off bongs, playing quarters on the floor, reading aloud about the first time a woman’s mouth – about how she never did that, that girl back home, that girl who said you can if you want, so I did until – gross was the word she used, the same word those Jersey girls used when their boyfriends were in the room listening to the first time a woman’s mouth – which was not the mouth I wanted to be the first, but the mouth of a woman with a man’s name, a woman I met at a bar I was not old enough to be inside, darker than any place I had ever been before, a woman I did not love but liked well enough. 
               These details made no difference to the boys with bongs.  It did not matter if I loved her or not; it did not make any difference which mouth, whose tongue, it was all gross. 
               Still, that was not the worst thing.  The worst was walking around the suite later, asking if anyone had seen my diary, the black and red notebook with the anarchist symbol.  They looked at me and asked, what is an anarchist symbol, and walked into the bedroom or bathroom or out the door, late for class.  Class was what I was also late for on that December morning: Masterpieces of World Literature, which my diary with the anarchist symbol was not, so it did not matter that I had lost it; it did not matter that it might be back home.  I might have left it on the coffee table in the living room or on the kitchen counter, and my mother could have read about the first time a woman’s mouth – and the worst thing for her would be that it was not gross for me.  The woman with the man’s name did something that neither of us thought was gross, and that made all the difference when I was eighteen and away from home for the first time, but always going back, when I was eighteen and feeling different in that woman’s bed, in the apartment with the roaches and piles of clothes, which I could see beyond the top of her head through my knees.  All that was gross – the roaches, the dirt – but not the thing she did. 
               She was very kind, but I did not stay in the city that weekend either.  She walked me to the Greyhound bus station and did not ask why I went home every Friday, and I could not tell her that what we did had become a party favor for boys with bongs because I did not know this yet, and she did not know them, so it would not have mattered.  What did matter was that my journal was not back home, which was a good thing, and another sister had a baby, and they had to cut her to get the baby out, and I was an aunt again.  So, I took the bus back to the city and then the train to my suite, and the next day in Women’s Studies, we heard a lecture by a woman with the same first name as my mother’s real mother. 
               I say real mother because my mother had another mother.  My mother’s real mother died when she was nine.  Soon after, her father married a young Yankee woman from Maine, only a few years older than the oldest brother.  Nine children, no mother, hard times.  What little the family had, they lost.  What little my mother’s real mother – a smiling but frail woman – put her hands on, she turned to magic, so that warm milk and biscuits became iced cakes, the kind in shop windows.  My mother’s real mother made magic, but that woman from Maine, she was too young to make magic, and anyway you cannot make magic out of nothing, even the nothing the family got from relief – cans of ham, slabs of butter, boxes of brewer’s yeast that my mother and aunts carried home from town.  It was all this woman’s fault, this woman from Maine – this woman who did not speak French, who went to a church where people spoke only English and did not burn incense or sing in Latin – all her fault, the banks and bread lines – all her doing, this Mary from Maine. 
               Years later, when my mother was older, she learned the word Depression and realized that what had happened to the family was not Mary’s fault.  If anything, Mary had saved the family, gathered the children together after they had been parceled out to relatives and neighbors, took them to the library for the first time and brought them home scrap paper from the mill, showed them how to swim and paddle a canoe, taught them not to steal Mr. Thayer’s golf balls and then say they found them in the woods for the nickel reward he offered the neighborhood children. 
               This was Mary, not my mother’s real mother, but my real grandmother – or one of them – and she lived until the fall I moved to the city, my first fall at the co-op college, and then she was found dressed and dead on her bed. 
               When we cleaned her house, we found a large Sears and Roebuck cardboard box, and my mother and aunts said, Look at this, but no one knew what to do after we looked, so I said, I’ll take it, I’ll keep it.  Inside the box were oil receipts and torn envelopes postmarked 1938, 1947, 1956, other scraps of paper covered corner to corner with words, Mary’s words, which no one had thought much about in almost forty years, never thought Mary still wrote them down. 
               My mother and aunts remembered their father laughing at the young Yankee who could not cook or speak French but who liked to scribble down words on scrap paper, and who liked to fish.  I remember casting out lines as a young girl, dangling night crawlers off flimsy poles, dropping bait into the Miller’s River behind my grandmother’s house, bringing up only eels, but my grandmother pulled in hornpout and trout because even if she had never learned to cook, she could fish.  My grandfather Damien laughed at her fish, laughed at her words, laughed at her sitting at the kitchen table late into the night – scribbling, he called it.  She paid him no mind, they said, head bent low, forehead almost touching the Formica, putting words down on scrap paper that her step-children would fetch from the printers downtown.  Go there, she would tell the children – now grown old, now cleaning out this crumpled riverside cottage – go, ask, and they will give you the paper they cannot use. 
               This was my mother’s stepmother, Mary.  My mother’s real mother Germaine, whom I never met, died when my mother was nine, after ten pregnancies and nine children, died younger than I am now, but in Women’s Studies that Monday after the weekend my journal disappeared, the other Germaine – Germaine Greer, the feminist Germaine, with dignified gray hair and a purple shawl draped over shoulders wide and angled – this Germaine talked about women’s art, and even now I can remember sitting in that lecture hall with the sun streaming in through ten-foot high windows, hearing the words pottery and quilt, practical and domestic.  Women’s art, the other Germaine said from the podium, is a useful thing.  That is why it is not valued, not in museums, not in galleries.  We use it, wear it, eat with it, sleep with it, cover our sick children with it.  It breaks.  We make a new one.  It wears.  We start over.
               I took the Greyhound home again.  New Year, but no winter break – second trimester, my first co-op position.  Come spring, I would be working, which is what my parents liked about my college: practical, an education I could use.  I could not break it or lose it or wear it away; it could not be taken from me, like my journal, which I still could not find, but one Saturday I found something else. 
               I was at my other grandmother’s house – my last one now, my father’s mother, a short, stout Canuck who spoke French to her sisters when she did not want me and my sisters to understand – my other grandmother, my Mémay, who lived in a tiny apartment on French Hill with no backyard, no river, no eels. 
               It was February, and I was cleaning her apartment, which I did every other weekend.  She paid me, she said, to help with my schooling.  She paid me too much to polish, vacuum, and put away clean clothes.  She lived in elderly housing: a small bedroom, a small living room, a small kitchenette.  All she needed, she would tell me, glad for my help with the cleaning, glad to help me.  She did not understand why I went away, but was glad when I came back and helped me because she knew the cost.  My parents had explained to her about the co-op job, and she said this was a good thing, as she ladled out chicken soup into bowls with tiny flower patterns. 
               Every time I visited, she fixed us lunch.  We would sit at the counter that separated the kitchenette from the living room and swallow spoonfuls of soup.  After lunch, I would put away the rest of her clean clothes, and then drive Mémay home with me, so she could go to church with us because this was what we did.  But what I had never done before was open the bottom drawer of her dresser, or if I had, never moved the pile of bedding, never lifted the linens to reveal the bottom blanket, never noticed that the bottom blanket was not a blanket at all, but a quilt, the kind I had learned about at school. 
               I unfolded the cloth.  Mémay dismissed it with a wave of her hand, oh that, that’s my summer blanket. 
               But where did you get it?  I asked. 
               Get it?  She said.  I made it.
               She made it, pieced it together when she was pregnant with my father, worked on it with her sisters and mother in a circle in her mother’s kitchen.  I spread the quilt on her bed, fanned it over her heavy woolen winter blanket.  The squares were random pieces of cloth lined up in such a way, stitched together in such a way, revealing a pattern only on closer look.  Did they come from pieces of clothing?  No, she said, and I was disappointed.  The other Germaine, the Germaine from college, said from the podium that women made quilts from fabric once worn by grandfathers and great aunts.  I wanted this quilt to carry a piece of a Civil War uniform or a scrap from a yellowed wedding veil. 
               Shirt pockets, Mémay told me, and pointed to the faded squares.  We’d steal them, take them home with us, a few each night.  The shirt pockets that didn’t pass inspection, the ones we didn’t stitch onto the shirts. 
               Cluett, Peabody, and Company.  Mémay retired from this mill the year I was born, after fifty years of stitching together other people’s dress shirts.  The foremen didn’t let us, she whispered, as if they could still hear, as if the mill were still making men’s dress shirts – impeccably inspected for every thread and weave, arrow-sharp in their angled crispness – the empty mill three streets down from her elderly high rise.  I picture Mémay nudging rejected shirt pockets with the toes of her high-laced shoes, until they are close enough to bend over and snatch, stuff into her own pockets, day after day, until she had gathered enough. 
               They must have made a half a dozen quilts in all, she said, over the years.  Then they stopped, maybe when her mother died, she could not remember.  One sister moved away, the others had children of their own.  I fingered the fabric, cool and soft, but worn, tired, half a century old.  Each pocket a different pastel – blue, beige, yellow, pink, striped – but faded, almost white, like the rusty, tea-stained white of the backing.  Almost time, she told me, to put the quilt on the bed, almost warm enough to take out the cotton, fold away the wool. 
               I told her what this Germaine from college had said and she said: Germaine, that was your mother’s real mother’s name. 
               Yes, I know, but this Germaine who came to lecture our class, she said that until we stop using women’s art, start preserving it, putting it in museums and galleries, praising it, nothing will be left. 
               Mémay asked me to help her fold the quilt.  Night’s still cold, she told me.  We’ll have to wait. 
               She waited for spring and it came.  She took out her cotton quilt, folded away the wool, and every other Saturday I would see the quilt on her bed, and then I did not see it there again. 
               My mother told my aunt when they were sorting through Mémay’s things that Dora said I could have a blanket I had once admired, and this was true.  Mémay had made my mother promise that I would get the quilt when she died because I would know how to use it, she had said.
               For a while, I did use it, and it covered me well, and then, I did not use it any longer.  I found a rack from which to hang it because it is the only one left from that crowded kitchen on French Hill.  No other cousin remembers such a quilt, so I show them Mémay’s, and they agree, it is beautiful: worn and torn and stained, beautiful to look at and beautiful to hold.  It does not matter that the patches are pockets, not good enough for once-starched dress shirts long since thrown away, pockets discarded and stolen because the factory decided they had no use.  It does not matter that high-laced shoes nudged the pockets under long dresses until they could be lifted and tucked into secret places not discovered on the way out of the mill at night.  It does not matter that no general wore a piece of my quilt, that no lace from a wedding veil is stitched into its corner.  The quilt covers me well once a year – it is all I can do. 
               And now it is almost time to remove the quilt from its rack, unfold it corner by corner, lay it across my bed, and use it just one night, the first warm, spring night.
               I will shower myself clean.  Naked, I will crawl under the cool, worn cloth, take out the cardboard box and choose one of my grandmother’s poems to read.  I will read the poem to the woman in my bed, try to find my place in this family history.  She will help me to fill in the empty space that is my first year away from home, that story penned in secret, in a black and red notebook with an anarchist symbol, penned in private, then stolen and read aloud. 
               I cannot read aloud from that journal on this first warm, spring night, but I can read my grandmother’s words and know that it does not matter that I do not crawl under the quilt with the first woman I loved or the second; they are as lost to me as the journal.  But the woman under the quilt, she will be here, with me now, and we will be gentle with the cool cloth that covers us because the cloth is old, older than we are, and when the soft, faded pastels wrap us shamelessly close, we will not be gentle because we are not so old yet, and it does not matter that the woman was not here last spring, she may be here next, and we are here now, and it is a good thing to use this quilt; it keeps us warm and it keeps us covered.
 

..... This story originally appeared in the Iron Horse Literary Review.