Blanche and I are in her garden. The Iowa air is full and rich, redolent with the scent of thick black earth, green growing things, the sweetness of flowers. When I get close to her, I smell her sweat, see it running in rivulets in the multiple creases in her skin. Her brown eyes under curly eyebrows are fierce as she flails away with the sickle at weeds who have the audacity to grow in her garden and bury the potato patch. Her whole arm rises and falls, sails of flesh hanging from her substantial bones. I am fascinated by her, how she can be so old, her body with its variety of wrinkles and drapings. She is more alive than anyone I have ever known, passionate about weeds, about her tomato plants and her raspberries, her strawberries, her woodpile, and the fire she builds each day in her wood cook stove. Blanche is the hero of my life. Blanche is with me every day, even now.
Blanche’s life in her eighties is that of the earth, of growing things. Soil, green leaves. Life. Her garden. Her life and the life of her mother, Josephine, a life of farm and earth. Blood and slaughtered animals; births of colts and calves and lambs in the barn at dawn or in the middle of the night. Death. Burial. Milk and cheese, chickens, beheaded chickens spouting red blood over the dirt yard. Births at home. Many deaths from the birthing of babies. Midwives delivering, mopping the brows of the laboring mother. Josephine and Blanche were both midwives. There was always mud. Frozen water. Outhouses. Heated bricks tucked among featherbed and quilts in the icy winters. Quilting in the living room. Bodies laid out in death in the living room. Blanche tells me of these things as we sleep together in the featherbed in her daughter Edith’s house. I am eight and she is eighty, and the stories drone on and on during the hot summer nights of my childhood.
Blanche’s mother, Josephine, and father, John Peter, were farmers. He had emigrated to the United States at the age of five from Germany and Josephine’s family came from Ohio in the 1850’s, transported to Iowa after the land was officially rid of the Indians, the Sac and Fox, and the Mouscatin, tribes who fished and hunted on lands beside the Mississippi. It was for them that the little town, Muscatine, once called Greenwood, was named. The midwest is full of the names of those who bodies lie silently beneath the rich land plowed for corn and sorghum, tomatoes and melon. I would stand still in the open fields and imagine the Native Americans, we called them Indians, lurking behind trees, silently tracking us in their moccasins.
It’s true that I had quite an imagination, but after doing research as an adult and finding out how whites stole their land, I wonder if I was simply able to listen more deeply than those around me to stories emanating from the very soil where I stood. For it is true that the Indians were cheated out of their land, the state of Iowa is named for one of the tribes of the Midwest. Their lands were deeded to my great-grand parents and other Germans who wanted virgin lands for farms in the 1850’s. I heard that a lone Indian or two would come begging. Mark Twain lived in Muscatine for a time, haunts on the Mississippi being one of his favorite places.
Whatever the history of the place, my family was Germanic, stark, grim, and unsmiling, if you can trust the photographs from that time. They believed in the value of work, self-reliance and stubborn survival. Tears were for the weak. One cried alone in secret about the things that were too strong to bury completely. By the time Blanche was eighty, she had a mound of buried, yet very alive feelings.
During summer days, Blanche and I spend a lot of time in the garden, out back near the mink pens. Blanche is bending over the earth, wearing her sunbonnet, digging up weeds. She is bowed like a water witch’s wand, skirts gathering around her ankles in the front and riding above her knees in the back. Flesh-colored cotton hose are rolled up on an elastic just below her knees. Blue veins make a map on her legs. Sweat drips from her nose. She gnashes her teeth and yanks, muttering to herself. Thick ropes of melon stalks and huge leaves the size of small umbrellas wend their way across the sandy earth, called “The Island” where most of the family was born. It is called The Island because of a slough that connects with the Mississippi River, cutting off that area from the mainland. By now the slough has been filled in, and the area is known for its huge, juicy watermelons. The farms along the highway near the mink farm have watermelon stands, and sell a bounty of summer crops: tomatoes, peaches, and especially sweet corn. It is no accident that Iowa is at the heart of America. Or is it the stomach?
The heat of the July day rises up from the land, and everything smells like fresh air and earth, black and loamy. The tomatoes are ripening, round globules of green and yellow, pendulously hanging from the vines, the red of the tomatoes high contrast against the green. Blanche snaps off a tomato and bites into it. Juice runs down the crevices of her chin. Above the red tomato and her long nose are her deep-set, wise eyes behind gold rimmed spectacles.
“Mmm,” she mutters, suggesting I pick one myself. I hesitate. Everything is too raw, too close to the earth. I am awe-stricken and a little frightened. There are bugs and dirt everywhere. Flies are buzzing and ants crawl all over everything. Gnats fly in my mouth and stick in the corners of my eyes. At night there are mosquitoes who eat me in particular, and of course lightning bugs. But right now Blanche is gesturing and I must follow her directions. I pluck the tomato with a satisfying snap. Everything smells of tomato—acrid and a little bitter. The skin doesn’t give in to my teeth. I feel stupid, and look around for Gram. She would definitely discourage me from eating something without washing it. She is afraid I will die young in her care, and it will be her fault. But Blanche is a pioneer woman, born in 1873, and she tells me to eat it.
“Come on, bite down hard.”
“But it’s dirty.”
“You got to eat a peck o’ dirt ‘fore you die. Come on.” She smears little yellow seeds around on her chin with her sleeve. I think she is unsophisticated and rough, and feel immediately guilty of that thought.
“Come on. Try it. It’s good for ya. Nothin’ like the fruit of the earth. This is what it’s all about.”
I finally pierce the skin and the juices flood my mouth and run down my throat. I choke, surprised at the instantaneous tart juice, suddenly flooded with the tomato, the sun on my head, the smell of earth and Blanche’s sweat. Her eyes laugh behind her glasses, her mouth curls up a little.
“Good, ain’t it?” She says and turns around to savagely hoe the weeds that try to take away her vegetables. She fed her children from her garden summer and fall every year of their lives. She taught them how to plant and reap and grow things, and how to can them for the winter. The life of the land belongs to Blanche, just as it did to the Native Americans who planted corn on this very spot. Blanche sucks in air, and spits out a few seeds. They will take root next year, and provide volunteer plants, free, nurtured by the soil and the sun and the deep rooted water under the land, the Mississippi sending out its life giving waters, part of the endless cycle of life.
If Gram came up just then, her eldest daughter, the different one who prides herself on being a sophisticated lady, a citified woman as they call it, she would shriek and pull me away lest I be contaminated against the program to be a lady that she has set up for me.
But instead, I grab another hoe, and learn how to cultivate the garden.
“See you get that weed out, root and all. Pull ‘em all the way out or they’ll take over. Just like some people I know.” She chuckles deep in her throat.
“Now, never you mind. It’s a sin to gossip.”
“Tell me about your mother.”
“She had your own Mama’s name.”
“Josephine?” I shrill, excited to hear this. I love to hear about my Mama.
“Your Mama was named after my Mama.” She pauses to wipe the sweat with a handkerchief she pulls out of a deep pocket in her dress. Her fingernails are caked in black threads of dirt. Her fingers are long, arthritic, bony. Thick like a man’s. Her forearms are tanned and wrinkly, all muscle. On her upper arms hanging flesh swings back and forth as she works. I am almost embarrassed to watch it move, but everything about Blanche is interesting, as if she’s a species that’s extinct and she is the only remaining exhibit.
“Tell me about your Mama.”
“Oh, there’s not much to tell. Hard working woman. Delivered babies for half the county. Best blackberry jam in the world.” She pauses, remembering. “Life was different then. You got no idea, young lady. People’s lazy now, think the world owes them a livin’. Times was hard. But no matter what, we always had enough to eat. Yes sirree, we always had food on the table. And my papa would give his right arm to help a neighbor.”
I notice the theme about them having enough to eat, and feel the pull of wanting to know this other Josephine.
“Did she die?” Blanche glances at me sharply, scraping at the earth with the hoe. She doesn’t answer right away. Seems to be thinking. Hardens her jaw and clamps her teeth down, making an indentation across her bottom lip. “She died near to when you was born. We all got to go. But everyone loved my Mama.”
“Did my Mama know your Mama?” I watch Blanche, but take delight in watching the roly-polys curl up when they are touched, ants scampering around their little mounds of earth. There are millions of bugs living full lives out here.
She answers in paragraphs and gulps of breath. She vigorously throws the hoe toward at a patch of weeds that have gained ground, tearing at them angrily.
“Oh Lord, yes. Your mama when she was a little girl would visit her in Muscatine, and after that she’d come to see me at the farm where your aunts and uncle were growing up. Such a pretty little girl, your Mama. Those brown eyes. Poor little thing.” She pauses a moment. I wonder what she means. “But she don’t do right by you, now. I tell you that. At least Lulu has the sense to take care ‘a you. But this business ‘tween Lulu and Josephine…well you’re too young to hear about all that. I don’t know…I just don’t know about those two.”
This conversation is loaded with innuendo and hidden, underground stories. I want to find out the truth but it seems unapproachable directly. I decide to return to the subject at a later date, sensing there is indeed a great deal I don’t know, and imperative that I find out. It has to do with my mother. It has to do with me. And Lulu. And Blanche. All the way back.
After a huge dinner of chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, corn on the cob, sliced tomatoes, rolls, red jello with banana, and apple pie, after sitting outdoors to watch the traffic on the highway, rocking lazily in the metal lawn chairs, listening to the murmuring of voices in the dark, it is time to ascend the steep wooden stairs. Clump, clump, clump go Blanche’s black shoes with thick heels. Her ankles are thickened and the distinct odor of her body wafts toward me. The lace of her slip tickles the backs of her cotton hose.
The fluffy, high bed rises halfway to the ceiling in the musty smelling room. Its roof line cuts across the top of the bed, and two windows allow the air to stir only a little. The air is thick with heat and the smell of the past. The room is piled along its edges with unused furniture, a rocking chair, a discarded stuffed chair with ripped upholstery. Clothes hang along the sides of the walls, dresses with tiny prints, faded, with cap sleeves; two rifles lean rakishly and dangerously against the far wall. Hats with ripped veils stuffed with tissue paper sit atop upended glass jars. The pulsing sound of the highway comes through as Blanche lifts her arms and peels away the clothes that cover her.
Rippled flesh rustles and swings, dancing to the movements of her body, at once graceful and awkward and she catches her breath tight, then releasing it in gusts, as if moving is hard for her. I turn away, blushing. Seeing all that flesh is not something I am used to. She doesn’t seem to mind being seen. I wonder why she can be so unabashed. She does turn her body slightly as she pulls on the white cotton nightgown whose hem falls across the top of her feet. I catch the sight of pendulous lumps of flesh near her waist. They must be breasts. I have never seen breasts like that. My mother’s are soft and round, and Gram’s are pouchy and hanging, but not that low, or flat. Her toes are bent and the nails are thick and yellowed. Yet her feet are soft and tough at the same time. Her skin is puckered all over with veins, bumps and nodules.
I keep turning away and looking all at once, not wanting to miss any detail, yet embarrassed to be so curious.
“You gonna sleep standin’ up?” she inquires, pulling back the chenille bedspread. The smell of sun and fresh air laps around us.
“The bed is so high.” It reaches to the top of my shoulders.
“Feathers? What kind of feathers?”
“Duck, Goose. Nothin’ like a feather bed. Been sleepin’ in ‘em all my life.”
“Feathers,” I say, rapturously poking at the loft, leaving tiny fingerprints.
“Well, gonna sleep in your clothes?”
“Can I turn off the light?”
“Whatever you want. Wiped a lot of baby’s butts in my life. Skin don’t mean nothin’ to me.”
I snap off the light gratefully, blushing again, my whole body flushed with shame. Her casual attitude about flesh amazes me.
After taking off my shorts and top and slipping on my summer nightie, I clamber over her bony shins and large feet and tuck myself along the wall. The idea of sleeping with Blanche seemed wonderful. But now, this large ship of a woman, her hips curving high, her bony shoulders sticking up, the flesh of an eighty-year-old seems too real. Soon the cadence of her voice begins, and I follow her as she begins the stories that will stay imbedded within me for the whole of my life.
Stories about the life of the farm, getting up in the morning before dawn, slopping the pigs, milking the cows, not all the time, but if need be. The men had their chores and the women had theirs. She baked bread several days a week, gathered firewood, cooked for a family of eight, which in the summer included ten or more hired men; cleaned, gardened for the food to take them through the winter. Always did the washing on Mondays.
“The big black iron kettle in the front yard. Fired the wood up, got it to boilin’ threw in them clothes and stirred with the washin’ stick. Lye soap I made myself. Used the wash board to get them clean. No self respectin’ person puts a wash on the line for the neighbors to see that’s not clean. After the washin’–then the rinch water.” (She said it that way–”rinch.”)
“Before them new fangled washin’ machines, we wrung them out ourselves and pinned the clothes on the clothesline. Washed for eight, all workin’ men, and dirty kids. You don’t know about dirt unless you live on a farm. Took all day. God help ya if it rained.” She shakes her head, her curls rasping against the pillow case. I see it all–Blanche reaching and sweating. Children scampering. Dirt and dust, pigs and cows. Pillows of fresh baked bread. Churned butter. I want to be there too.
“Was Gram there?”
“Lulu? Gosh sakes no. That girl–always one for gallivanting. She went to live with her grandma, Josephine, my mother, remember, in town, to go to high school. Things was far away then. No cars. You walked or had a horse, or you didn’t go. We was poor people, had work horses, and one other for deliverin’ the milk and eggs. Lived seven miles outside of town on the Island. Lulu always so different. Not like the other kids. She had a different Papa, you know. Lewis. He died and then I married Mr. Thompson. That Lulu–always was different. A dreamer. Guess she still is.” Blanche pauses. Breathing hard. I think she’s gone to sleep.
“You know, life is full of sorrow. Full of things you don’t understand. I’ll never figure out some things. No matter how hard I try.” She sighs. “Full of things. Delivered the neighbors babies, we did. Never forget the night that one of them died. We tried so hard. Two days labor. Tried everything. Nowadays, I suppose that baby would have lived. But there’s no way to outsmart God.”
“Why did Lewis die?”
“He breathed his last right ‘side me. One day, just fine, the next, dead of twenty-four hour pneumonia. He was just a boy. Seems like yesterday. Can’t believe I’m eighty. Life goes so fast. Don’t you forget that. Don’t you miss a minute.”
“He was Gram’s Daddy? Did she miss him?” I know what it’s like not to have a Daddy around.
Blanche turns over onto her back. In the dim light I can see the beak of her nose aiming straight toward the ceiling, eyebrows thick and curly above her closed eyes. “Such talk. Talk don’t make nothing different. Lewis, he was only twenty-two. Both of us, just kids. Never forget it. Never as long as I live. Too much dyin’. There’s always too much dyin’.” She sighs again and turns. “You’re too young to understand.”
She is silent. The sound of her breathing, in and out, keeps me awake. I feel more awake now than ever in my whole life. I am cast back into time, her time, the nineteenth century. Swirling before me is Lewis, who died so young. Gram’s father.
When I imagine Blanche struggling with the wash in the yard, making butter, milking the cows, she’s old, as she is now.
Suddenly, I realize she was once young, at the beginning of her adult life. By now marked so much by time she is different for living it. This history happened sixty years ago, too long to put my mind around. As I lie there, the lights of the cars on the highway making shadows across the ceiling, Blanche’s great white form snoring beside me, I am catapulted beyond my child self and perception. Time seems to expand and loosen up, trailing behind me in tatters, yet with windows and doors, ways to see in, thanks to her story.
At that moment is born my fascination with history, aware for the first time that the past fashions the present. I begin to understand there are roads that start out and lead to places we do not choose. This map on my body is drawn by Blanche, and I will have to sort it out as I grow.
Lewis is a ghost figure, another ghost father like my own, always looming behind my grandmother, standing near Blanche. He is someone to be curious about. This curiosity will lead to all of us looking for him, for his grave, which will not be found. But Lewis will continue to hover throughout my life, with the single picture I have of him, a young boy of twenty-two, his large innocent eyes gazing ahead into a future he will not live to see. His features are perfectly ours—Lulu’s, my mother’s, and mine. Forty years later, I will look for Lewis, and find him.