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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group


A Memoir of Food and Longing

Christine S. O'Brien

St. Martin's Press


Chapter 1

I am ten and standing in the doorway of my parents’ bedroom. My mother is lying in her evening clothes, a cream pantsuit and heels, her towering five-foot-eight frame prone like a felled tree on the hardwood floor of the hallway. It’s almost midnight. My father is crouched beside her, one hand on his bent thigh. Murtle, our latest live-in, is crouching, then standing, then crouching again. She is in her uniform, though it is half zipped, revealing the upper part of her bare back, and she is barefoot and not wearing stockings.

“Go back to bed, Christine,” my father says, barely glancing at me.

Murtle takes my arm and gently guides me away from my parents’ room, where I had been asleep in their bed, waiting for their return from a dinner party. She leads me through the door of my brothers’ rooms and into the playroom.

“The ambulance weel be coming,” Murtle says. Her voice is lilting and soft, though the pressure of her squeeze on my arm is firm. “Your mother weel be fine.”

From the playroom I peer through the crack in the door and into the dim hallway. Murtle and my father stand as men in jumpsuits lift my mother onto a gurney, then follow the men as they push it, its wheels rolling loudly on the bare wood, away down the hall.

* * *

It’s springtime and my mother, nine, walks through her father’s orchards with Topsy, her family’s Saint Bernard. Topsy touches the back of my mother’s leg with her cold nose. When her father brought the puppy home, she was tiny with oversize paws. Now, at three, she is big enough for my mother to ride. Though the farm is filled with dogs, her mother always keeps a small dog—there have been multiple Tippys, Jippys, Trixies, Skippys, Spottys, Fidos, and two Lassies, but Topsy is my mother’s favorite. The dog never leaves my mother’s side, even standing guard across her body as she plays in the sandbox.

My mother reaches out to pet Topsy with her left arm, crooked at the elbow, the result of a fall from a stepladder when she was fourteen months old. The doctor, who had been retrieved from a Sunday night church meeting, didn’t set the bone correctly. He also administered too much ether, which resulted in ether pneumonia. By the time her parents took her to a specialist in St. Louis, it was too late to correct the set.

Girl and dog pass through the rows of fruit trees. It is the job of my mother and her older sister, Audrey, to pick the fruit for eating or canning, but it is early in the season and the trees are still heavy with blossoms. Spring is the time to catch bullfrogs and bring them home to eat, their legs still jumping in the pot while they cook. It’s a time of waiting, for the lilacs to bloom at the Nessings’ up the street, for the yellow roses to open along her mother’s trellises, and of course for the fruit blossoms: apricot, apple, peach, plum, pear. Spring brings freshness and life, the dark of the freshly plowed pasture, the feel of the smooth, slick, black soil of her father’s first furrow between my mother’s bare toes—the first plow line determining all the others, its degree of straightness being the mark of a good farmer. Spring brings the winds of March, the thundershowers of April, the tiny streams rushing down the tracks of the field road, the peachy oranges and pinks of the sunsets after a late-afternoon rain, the green-and- yellow tornadoes. It also brings the funnel cloud when the sky becomes as dark as the newly plowed earth and my mother’s family rushes to the cellar, freshly picked raspberries spilling onto the porch, a flying sheet of tin roof slicing through the air past Uncle Russell’s head, her mother holding the screen door closed while the apricot tree uproots ten feet away.

My mother leaves the fruit trees and heads toward the riverbank. When my grandmother married, her own mother believed her daughter was moving to Siberia. My grandmother had spent her childhood in St. Louis; her mother had been a schoolteacher, her family city folk. In her new home as a young bride, my grandmother had to carry any water she needed from the pump in the chicken yard past the coal shed and the smokehouse, where the sausages were hung, into the house. The well was set up with ropes and pulleys to draw up the milk and butter that was kept suspended just above the water in buckets to keep it cold. There was no heating, no plumbing. In the winter, when my grandmother mopped the kitchen floor, it froze. Coal was used to light the stove in the kitchen, the oil stove in the dining room. The cistern box on the roof collected just enough rainwater for washing hair or making soap, which required an interminable amount of stirring. My grandmother used the lye and all the fats and oils she had saved for several months just for this purpose. The cistern box was also a handy place for my mother and her sister to churn ice cream using the cream their mother had saved. They sat on the freezer loaded with rock salt and covered with a gunny sack and talked while they cranked the core for homemade root beer, shaking it to see who could get the most foam. After church in the summertime, my mother’s mother always cooked the same Sunday dinner: fried chicken dipped first in flour mixed with salt and pepper, mashed potatoes and milk gravy made by using grease the chicken had been fried in, adding flour to brown it slightly, and pouring the milk in until it was smooth and creamy. Vegetables were simple and incidental, always corn on the cob or something green from the garden. My mother loved these dinners, as she loved resting all Sunday afternoon, reading the funnies, playing games with the dogs. Late afternoons her family, as did most everyone else’s, went for a Sunday ride, usually to the island farm to observe the progress of the crops or to the farms of customers—my mother’s father sold tractors in addition to his farming—to compare progress. My mother’s house had been a stagecoach stop. Her grandmother told her about storing cabbages, apples, and carrots in the ground during winter; digging the burrow and laying the vegetables with hay and dirt on top so the freeze didn’t reach the food. As a little girl, this grandmother had, from my mother’s upstairs bedroom window, watched Native Americans, faces bright with war paint, canoe down Choteau Slough, which ran beside their home and served as a cutoff before a dangerous stretch of the Mississippi, where the river passes over a series of rocky ledges called Chain of Rocks Reach. The house, built by these grandparents, had been a labor of love, constructed entirely with wood and pegs. Even the spiral staircase leading to the bedroom had been assembled without nails.

At the bank of the levee, my mother checks, as she does each day, to see if the pussy willows are out. It seems like magic that from a plant stalk comes curled fur as soft as the newborn kittens in the barn. Not yet—they are green buds. At the crest of the levee embankment, dog and girl meander alongside the river. The Mississippi brought my mother’s family to Illinois. Her great-grandfather, a cabinetmaker from Switzerland, had come up from New Orleans on a riverboat. The money he’d earned for the trip was counterfeit, a fact he’d discovered only while attempting to settle his passage—at which point the riverboat captain steamed to shore and deposited him on a steep bank just south of St. Louis.

On this morning the river is brown and muscled, moving fast, riding high on its banks. My grandmother sits at the kitchen table in the mornings now, the radio on, listening to the river forecast. The past few days have been warm and the snows are melting in the north. The farm sits in a basin that centuries ago was part of the river itself. Now that it’s spring, my mother’s father and uncles police the levee daily for fox or mole holes, anything that might allow for a break. Boys from town, all the farmers within miles, and the Army Corps of Engineers help fill and carry sandbags to build the levee higher if a crest is predicted. If the levee breaks right at the house, the river will take everything in one giant roar. One morning last spring, after a levee break half a mile away, my mother woke to cold black water lapping then climbing the stairs of their basement. It filled the kitchen, the living room, and the dining room ankle-deep. Later she rode with her father in his boat across the island fields, looking down at the tops of the yellow flowers as they passed over the sunflower patch. One March, Uncle Eck, downriver, had the river change course and most of his farm washed away. But a flood is both a blessing and a curse; deafening from miles away, it carries the silt and topsoil that fertilizes the land.

My mother stops now for a moment to admire the Chain of Rocks Bridge, which spans the Chain of Rocks Reach. Here the river makes a wide curve known as Sawyer Bend, named for Tom Sawyer’s legendary adventures. For all the hours she spends with Topsy, wandering along the sandy banks of the Mississippi, my mother is most excited whenever the opportunity arises to ride in the car with her father across this one-lane bridge, which, because of its forty-five-degree turn in the middle, is, in itself, a dangerous journey. At the turn, a car has to slow, but this is what my mother waits for. Suspended over the mighty bend, she drinks in the view, both upriver and down, of the Mississippi rushing on its long journey to the Gulf. My mother often imagines Huck and Tom hanging out in the sloughs she knows so well around the islands her father farms, Gabaret Island and its neighbor, Mosenthein. But she can’t fathom the bravery, even in story, that allowed them to dare travel the long stretch of formidable river in between, and she is grateful to be crossing it on a bridge and not in a homemade raft.

My mother and Topsy head down from the levee, back through the pastures, to the house and the barn. Before Topsy, my mother had loved Puzzums, named by her mother after a dog in the Barney Google cartoon strip. My grandfather hacked off all their small dogs’ tails at the second joint, but Puzzums was born a natural bobtail. My mother dressed the little dog in doll clothes, gave her rides in her doll buggy, and set up the play table where Puzzums sat at her own place mat with her own cup of tea. One afternoon a carful of teenagers, driving on the roadway in front of my mother’s house, swerved their convertible at the dog, who liked to chase passing cars. Laughing, they doubled back and ran her over as my mother and Audrey watched in horror. My grandmother consoled my mother with a doll she had stored away for Christmas. Puzzums was buried in the doll’s box, beside the sandbox, the spot outlined with stones. Later a river flood caved in the dog’s grave.

My mother now reaches her grandfather’s potato field, which sits on a portion of her father’s land. On summer nights she sits inside the screened-in porch, watching the fireflies hover over the long rows of dark green plants. Her grandfather grows potatoes, as his father did before him. When she visits his farm, my mother walks out to the tomato field, holding a tin can with a wire handle to collect the green tomato worms off the plants. On the hottest days, her grandfather drives his hay wagon filled with watermelons to the workers in the fields who are hired from the neighboring town of Venice. These workers aren’t allowed on the streets in white towns after dark, but she has noticed how much they love her grandfather. As they stroll along the field road, my great-grandfather sings their spirituals to her:

I’m a comin’, I’m a comin’,

for my head is bending low;

I hear the angel voices calling

“Old Black Joe.”

* * *

My mother and Topsy reach the barn. Just in front of the hay entrance, Jack, the hired hand’s German shepherd, is gnawing a bone. Topsy trots over and Jack reluctantly gives up the bone to the bigger dog. My mother squats to put her arm over Jack’s shoulders to console him. Rather than allowing himself to be soothed, the dog lunges, grabbing her face in his jaws. She sees his tongue and throat as he shakes her like a doll.

“Jack!” Uncle Russell roars. He had been setting up a combine nearby. The German shepherd drops my mother, and Russell picks her up and runs with her, her face bloodied, into the house.

In town, the doctor cauterizes the slashes below both eyes, the teeth marks on her eyelids and over her jugular vein; the gash was deep but spared the vein.

That night my grandfather announces he is giving Topsy to a farm four hours away. Once, my mother had been throwing rocks against the side of the coal shed to make her terrier, Scotty, bark at her. Topsy, ever protective, grabbed the animal in her jaws and shook the smaller dog until she was dead.

“He feels Topsy can be unpredictable, too. She could do the same, or worse,” her mother says. “To you or to a neighbor child.”

My mother pleads for him to change his mind, tells him Topsy, unlike Jack, would never hurt a child. But her father, a staunch, practical man, is unmoved. Two days later he packs Topsy into his Ford and heads off, tires crunching across the gravel.

Copyright © 2018 by Christine S. O’Brien