|Oct/Nov 2004 Nonfiction|
Any severance produces two wounds that are, among other things, the record of how the severed parts once fit together. —Wendell Berry
Mother shuts off the vacuum cleaner. Coffee percolates in the kitchen. A man on the radio talks about the war. The laundry needs moved. The dishes need washed. There is a spill to scrub, a child to tend.
She wipes the Formica, waits for the god in the machine. A few stragglers left in the audience yawn. They have only stayed to see the gilded wheels and wings lowered onto stage with pulleys and strings.
Her father made a living fixing a factory's broken things. He left the farm each winter. Those months she could barely hold onto the smell of him, the cotton scratch of his shirts against her face as they rocked together in a drift of pipe smoke.
Fan blades, rubber belts, levers, wires and whirs and plug-ins. Debt, misunderstanding, lust, birth, luck. Mother turns the wheel of the possible as she rinses each blue dish.
My father comes home late from the office, bringing my mother a tape recorder with a taped-on bow. She prompts me to sing into its microphone: The wheels on the bus go round and round.
I don't have time to sing. A man on the radio talks about the war. The laundry needs moved. The dishes need washed. There is a spill to scrub, a child to tend.
I wake before dawn to blueprint a god. Joints and cogs, levers and supports stretch across paper like wings. I can weld or gild. I can wire or bolt, hinge and hitch.
I prompt my mother to speak into the microphone: I waited for something to happen, for anyone or anything to make it stop. In one day, we lost everything we'd ever known. Nothing we could do could get it back.
I rinse each old blue dish, feeling for a crack in the possible, search for a way to make the wheels, the pulls, the levers sing.
The belt binds, brings together, holds up, cinches in.
Mother doesn't talk about it unless she is asked. When she leaves the farm, there is a long bath somewhere with indoor plumbing, a visit to a flush toilet, and a scrubbing of every bit of soil out of her hands. She'll scrub with store soap, not the hard cakes of lye soap mother made. She won't remember the glass eye socket cup her mother used to rinse the lye out. She won't remember the lesson her mother gave her: "Now Dortha, if ya get lye in yer eye fill this with water and put it up against."
The bible belt, the wheat belt, the belt of burning whiskey, the belt of wind-breaking trees.
No one talks about it unless asked. No one knows the well water tears of her mother, the burn of the lye. And if she's clever, she'll scrub the language, too, scrub crik to creek and warsh to wash and divan to couch or even sofa. Scrub hot days in harvest time, the combines, the rare soda, glowing orange.
The farm is the mother country. There is another country of summer vacations and televisions and frozen food and airplanes. The country Mother came from is a dirty place with pig slop and hollyhocks and poverty. The winter means her father goes away to the factory in the city to try to pay the bills. The summer brings the darting crop dusters, the Harvest Celebration and shiny cars in queue.
There is another country taunting her as she gathers the eggs—everyone is clean, everyone works in indoor places, every mother is beautiful and wears a brassiere and Hoovers the floor.
The children leave the mother country, love the mother country, can't tell love from shame. Belts, buckles, the shiny things at the Five & Dime, with prongs that fit a dozen holes.
Buckled—each farmhouse caved in on its cellar, each barn caved in on its middle. Drive the land, the little roads, the hard roads—see the buckling in the belt, the shambles of the mother country, the ruin.
And each dead farm is a cinched-in notch. And each farm gone, the hundred thousand in Kansas alone, is the story of a family who left the mother country. And we children are an immigrant children, but no one talks about it unless you ask.
Belt—a hit, a whack, a smack, a fearsome thing. The black leather softness of my father's belt. The wicked sound of the belt against the bottoms of my childhood friends. Don't make me belt you. I'll get the belt.
Don't say goin fer at the dinner. Learn to put the eggs and the butter in the refrigerator (scrub ice box, scrub electricity, scrub civilization). Don't say warsh, though the "r" of it is like a sod block on the tongue. Don't look for the mother country. It is a ghost topography, a phantom land.
Unbuckle. Fall apart. Find a homeland under empty, under strip-mall, under
Mother, under shame.