Monday, June 09, 2008

Apron Strings

--picture from the lovely Fresh Figs

David’s parents are visiting right now, a few days in to an eight-day trip. The weather is miserably hot and humid here (high 90s on both fronts)--doing nothing to prevent tensions from being higher than they ought to be.

Grandma and Grandpa are wonderful people. They not only humor but support us in all the crazy things we do, and they care passionately about our wellbeing and the wellbeing of our child.

But we have our conflicts, as it seems all families do. We live pretty different lives and feel connected to pretty different things—although honestly, the differences are often really small once you look to the big picture. (I like every vegetable and spice I have tried or haven’t tried, while they like stuff they know and stuff that isn’t green. They like Clinton and I like Obama. Can’t we all just get along?!)

I think many of my own issues are related in culture clash. Having grown up in the South with one set of manners quite at odds with their New York set of manners (and don’t say this is an oxymoron as it will only encourage me), I often feel that they’ve deliberately been rude to me or to someone else they care about or even to a stranger--when they had no such motivation.

The other big issue for me is personality. I want to think about ideas and discuss complexity absolutely to death. I grew up with a family that worked in precisely this way. David, at least usually, is also fed by that kind of discussion. But not everybody loves it. Some people are much more content without big issues and complex ideas constantly on the table.


David, Son, and I watched the first season of the Waltons recently. As a child raised basically without television, I managed to see an awful lot of Mr. Rogers, Little House on the Prairie, the Watergate Hearings, and the Waltons—that wonderfully gentle series about a young writer growing up in Depression-era Appalachia with his large family.

John-boy’s grandparents lived with the rest of his family. Mother Olivia lived every day with her mother-in-law--a kind but very strong-willed no-nonsense woman named Esther--in the same house.

Clearly Olivia is, in addition to being a child’s fictionalized memory of perfection, a much better person than I. She is calm and kind in the face of great adversity, self-reliant during the era of the Depression, and thin and beautiful and not even gray-haired. All after giving birth to seven children, rearing them, and surviving polio on top of it. I am none of these. (I think I identify with Esther more than I do with Olivia.)

But I think there is something else about the relationship between Olivia and Esther. They lived a life where the two of them worked together—HAD to work together—to assure the survival of their family. They gardened together, picked together, cooked from scratch together, and put up food for the winter. They washed and ironed, mended, quilted, made clothes, etc. together. They had a common purpose--one that meant they not only had the same experiences but knew it was only by working together in harmony that they could sustain the whole clan. This sense of shared purpose seems to make an enormous difference. I'm struck by how much their days are defined by pulling on their aprons, tying the strings, and getting to work--together.

I don't want to romanticize what they did. It was incredibly hard work, work that must have been anything but rewarding much of the time. (You spend thirty minutes washing the dishes and they immediately seem to get dirty again. Then you do it again, and again--pausing long enough to do the same with the clothes in the other washtub.) It was a time and place of firm gender roles that did not allow Olivia or Esther to make any significant choices about what work they did.

But it did foster connection, and it is for that that I hunger.


Right now, David and Son are with Grandma and Grandpa at the movies. I sit in Borders' air conditioning (which we don’t have at home) finishing Son’s homeschool review.

I picked up a lovely apron (although not nearly as lovely as the one I linked to above!) to put on my café table while I write. I am not planning to purchase it, but looking at it reminds me to have more patience.

To keep quiet and calm. To be a lot more grateful for all this extended family is.

To learn to work together—even if it doesn’t mean the same thing that it meant for Olivia and Esther.

To put this cloth over my head, wrap it around my self, and tie the strings as we go forward.


el said...

That IS a lovely apron, and believe me I would not have admitted that as little as 5 years ago.

I read a book last fall that I absolutely loved. It is called Little Heathens, about a woman's childhood during Depression-era Iowa. The author is Mildred Armstrong Kalish.

I guess the major social difference between that era and our own is the fact that multiple generations did live together, it wasn't an exception. Whether that gives you strength to get through the next few days though? Probably not! ;)

Carrie K said...

It is a nice familial relationship, not without its own conflicts. I suppose every family and every era has their own unique to them and their times.

Alexandra said...

I love the Waltons...! All the best with the family dynamics!

Lisa said...

I have never seen the Waltons even though it was my era. Maybe I should rent them out. My only comment though is how can you survive a DC area summer with no AC?

Madeline said...

You grew up watching the same tv I did in my mostly tv-less house! I would add Mary Tyler Moore and Carol Burnett. But the Waltons! How they did shape me. I remember my mom saying on a tumultuous day between my brother and I, "why can't we just be like the Waltons!" : ) I have some MIL issues and she lives five minutes away, on the land that we farm. So, I understand. This was a lovely post. I'm glad to have found your blog.

The Purloined Letter said...

The only way we can survive a DC summer is by going to the bookstore and the movies and out to eat on all the really scorching days....

We have a room unit in our bedroom which we turn on a few times a summer. It has been on the last three nights. And Son sleeps in our room on those nights.

We occasionally think about installing central air--but as soon as it has cooled down enough to move, we go through a cooler spell and are just fine. We seem to forget how unbearable it sometimes gets!


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