“What in the world is going on?” my grandmother asked my grandfather as he crossed the yard. She was hanging the laundry to dry, my two oldest uncles playing nearby, my aunt in the cradle by her side.
Beyond her yard, sirens were blaring. Fireworks were booming. People were whooping and hollering.
“Put down your laundry and put on your hat,” he said. “We’re going to town. The war is over. The boys are coming home.”
It was November 1918.
That image has stuck with me 34 years after my grandmother told me that story: my grandfather striding across the yard. My grandmother, surrounded by domesticity, wondering, “What in the world is going on?”
It was a common expression back then: What in the world is the matter with you? What in the world am I going to do with you? What in the world am I going to do with this fallen cake?
But, it also told a piece of a story. I think the story went beyond my family, but it’s not always easy to tell how much is cultural and how much is familial.
My grandmother was born in 1889 in Kansas. When she was five, her family moved to Lawton, Oklahoma. “First there was nothin’. Then there was tents,” she explained to me. This was in 1979. I was recording her life story—it was to be a surprise for her 90th birthday.
She had wanted to be a telegrapher, she said. But she was nineteen, there were eight others at home, so she thought it best she got married.
And so she did. And so started a story about women and their choices: you could either be out in the world, or in the home, you couldn’t do both. A woman out in the world was a threat to the domestic scene—you might be more interesting to the man, keep him from coming home at night. The woman out in the world was barred from things domestic; to the woman in the home, she was as useless as the man she served when it came to things of the hearth and home persuasion. More man than woman.
Was that the story or is that how I interpreted the story? I don’t know. In retrospect, I think that storyline resulted from my grandfather’s philandering ways—an assault on my grandmother’s quest for domestic perfection and satisfaction.
At any rate, I have spent a good amount of time trying to reconcile my yearnings to be both a woman in the world and a woman in the home. It took me years to free the creativity that expresses itself in cooking, creating an inviting home, nesting—even cleaning (without the obsession). I chose a stealthy path of woman in the world. It wasn’t a career path, more like a quest. I was careful not to tread on the territory held by my grandmother, a territory that intimated my mother into stealthy submission.
I ate lunch at a bakery on Tuesday. This wasn’t a hippy-dippy bakery, my friend told me. It was more like the way my grandmother baked, buttery and sweetness. The aroma as we stepped into the shop confirmed it.
A woman named Betty (my mother’s name) invited us to sit with her. She was 83, born and raised on a dairy farm in Sequim, my new hometown, milked cows every day when she was growing up.
We got to talking about pie.
“Do you use lard or butter for your crust?” I asked. It is the closest thing I had to an intelligent question about the subject of making pie crust. I am totally intimated by pie crust. It is as mysterious to me as knitting.
“Half lard, half butter,” she said. “It’s all about not overworking it,” she said.
I’ve heard that before. Don’t overwork it. But as far as I can tell, you can’t tell that you’ve overworked it until its overworked. It’s a sensory thing—the touch and feel that comes with care and commitment to creating.
I find myself these days, not so much ignoring what’s going on in the world, as wanting a retreat from it from time to time—having time for and to reflect on things that are of what I have come to define as home. A friend’s father recently died at home. She called on her friend to be with her and her father during those final fours, that most intimate of time.
It is the intimacy of home, I think, that I have begun to embrace. I’m learning to bring all that I learned from being out in the world into the intimacy of my home. I think I am dispelling the curse and sentence domesticity was to the women in my family.
I wonder what my grandmother would think of Twitter. I find it baffling, wonder how you know when to shut it down, take a break from it. I think I tweeted once. But for her, who wanted to be the receiver and sender of news from the world, maybe she would have embraced it, setting down her knitting needles from time to time to tweet and respond.
“I’ve buried three husbands,” Betty, our lunch companion told us. “I think they thought the only way to get away from me was to die.” She was the very definition of 80 is the new 60. Lonely and sad to be a widow, somewhat baffled by it, but ready and willing to be vibrant and out in the world.
“I think you wore them out,” I said.
She smiled. “That’s how I’m going to look at it.”
I’d like to think that my years of working with words—the way I put myself out into the world—has given me the touch and feel for texture that her years of working with pie crust gave her. I do plan on trying my hand at making pie crust.
Knitting update. I am still unraveling.
I’m glad you are finding Squim freeing. Finding a balance between home and the world has always been a battle for me too.
Sometimes life gives us a chance to retreat a bit and we should relish it. Enjoy “dispelling the curse and sentence domesticity was to the women in my family.” I know the feeling.
Great story, Karen! Glad Washiington is a good environment for you to write.