Christmas at Aunt Ruth’s

When Uncle Corky finally married, the adults in the family agreed, apparently without exception, that Ruth would calm down his wild ways and that this was a very good thing. We kids weren’t so sure.

Corky was the one who showed up, one dead-broke Christmas, with a 12 foot Christmas tree draped across his motorcycle, like some modern knight errant with a very fuzzy lance. Corky was the one who got too (ahem) happy while he helped us decorate the tree, waited until the last minute to put the angel on the top, then lost his balance and fell into the tree. Corky was the one who brought gallons of ice-cream the night he babysat us, and we all sat up late eating ice-cream and begging for rides on his bike. Corky wouldn’t do it, because our mother had put the fear of God into him, but it didn’t really matter. We adored him anyway.

He met Ruth at the hospital, when he was recovering from what turned out to be his last bike accident. Ruth was older than Corky, a stern-faced woman from Southern California whose past was a mystery to us. Ruth’s pale indoor skin was set off by dyed black hair which she generally wore tied up in a bun at the back of her head. She wore dresses made of shiny, slippery flower prints, with lots of buttons up the fronts and white collars and little puffy sleeves, and her fingernails were bright pink, perfect ovals. She wore big, ostentatious pieces of jewelry which (according to my mother) her first husband had given her piece by piece whenever he had an affair. Corky, a house painter, was beneath Ruth’s class, so I decided he was probably the only one who would take her. I could never believe there was any love involved. We were a family of huggers and cuddlers and shouters, but the closest Ruth came to warmth was the occasional proffer of a cheek to kiss. Her cheeks were cool and smelled of powder.

The first time we met her, she came into the house just in front of Uncle Corky. We rushed around her and crawled up Uncle Corky, shouting for his attention.

“His name,” Aunt Ruth said, dripping ice, “is Floyd.”

He was never Uncle Corky again. The motorcycle disappeared. So did the ice-cream and the funky Christmas trees. So did Uncle Corky, to be replaced by a sad, sober, quiet little man called Floyd who didn’t have anything to do with Corky at all.

The family was grateful that she had stepped in to halt Corky’s downward spiral. It bought her way into the family and led to my parents laying down the law: we were to be polite to Aunt Ruth. We were to be polite to Uncle Floyd and not pester him anymore. We were to be polite to everybody. Nobody seemed to care that Corky had been disappeared.

Ruth and Floyd bought a house in the Central Valley town where my dad and Floyd had grown up, and where my grandparents still lived. Dad had moved away years before, first to Mexico where he met and married my mother, then to Berkeley, where he went to school and we imbued radical politics and a multi-culturalism that appalled my grandmother. The old lady thought it bad enough that her two oldest sons had escaped the Depression by finding work south of the Border; worse that both had married Mexican women; catastrophic that my mother had produced three half-Mexican kids. Aunt Virginia, married to Dad’s older brother John, was a pretty, attenuated thing with long, nervous hands and a narrow face, and said that she wasn’t really Mexican, she was French. Grandma thought that was classy. My mother’s family was Lebanese, but Grandma wasn’t impressed. The Lebanese probably poisoned people, the way the Italians did.

Grandma had a splendid array of racial preconceptions, many of them unique to her: the Portuguese drank; blacks shot people; Mexicans cut each other with knives; Asians ate cats; Germans were power-mad even in the PTA; Catholics were going to slit our throats in the middle of the night; Jews owned the Delta-Mendota Canal; the Irish liked only whiskey and poisoned the vats of beer… In her defense, I can say that she carved out exceptions for individuals she knew and liked. A young Portuguese couple moved into the house next door, and within a month the wife was my grandmother’s “little Porgatee and the cutest thing you ever saw.” The man who ran the local Chinese restaurant (where she ate regardless of cats on the menu) was “my little Chink.” We cringed, and were grateful that it wasn’t worse. And my little sister’s best friend Carla was, God help us, “my little Darkie.” At least my mother was never Grandma’s little A-rab. Aunt Ruth shared many of my grandmother’s prejudices, but mostly her hatred of black people. It was a problem for us.

We spent most Christmas holidays at my grandparent’s house. The Central Valley chilled down in the winters so it was hard to play outside but we tried anyway, bored by long solemn afternoons spent staring at my grandparent’s collection of rocks or paging through Grandma’s stacks of Readers Digest Condensed Books. Ruth and Floyd came over in the afternoons, a signal for us to put on our jackets and head outside to pelt each other with fallen olives from my grandfather’s tree and try to figure out where Corky had gone.

For the first few years of their marriage I kept expecting Uncle Corky to show up, peep out of the unsmiling Floyd face, but if it ever happened it wasn’t in front of us. How could a man who had had so much life in him become so stiff? Was it something we had done? This kind of suspicion is never far from a kid’s mind and, thanks to my mother, it was closer to mine than most. Try as I might, I couldn’t remember anything, not the slightest thing, that would have made Corky abandon us. Did he still show up around other people? There was no way to know, although I doubted it. Dad always looked a little sad when he was around his brother.

It became too great a puzzle to live with, so with time the question of what became of Uncle Corky slid into the background, leaving us with Aunt Ruth and her quiet, bitter, Corky-shaped appendage named Floyd.

Ruth and Floyd had no children, for which I suppose we should all be grateful, but they did have a succession of Chihuahuas. I don’t know where they came from; judging from the amount of attention they soaked up, they probably came from an expensive breeder. The first thing that Ruth and Floyd did, on adopting a new one, was over-feed it. Except for house-breaking and teaching it to stay off the furniture (which was covered in plastic) they gave it no discipline at all. Visits to their house always entailed loud noise from the animated bolster that was the current dog, and great pain around the ankles. We weren’t allowed to kick. As each of these miniature monsters died, Ruth and Floyd wept, went into mourning, and had the remains buried in a local pet cemetery, with appropriate headstone.

We stayed with my grandparents during the holidays. On Christmas Eve, our parents reissued their warnings about being polite and took us across town to Ruth’s house.

We crept along the path of plastic carpet runner Ruth had laid over the wall-to-wall, making sure that we stayed in the middle. We sat on the edges of Ruth’s plastic-covered furniture. When we used Ruth’s bathroom, we were so intimidated by the pristine guest soaps and immaculate guest towels, we wiped our hands on our clothes. I suspect she liked that. We sat with our hands in our laps or under our thighs, staring at the elephants.

There were hundreds of them, of china or alabaster or onyx or bone, some with plain, shiny finishes and others painted tan, or pink, or with great gaudy peonies along their sides. Some stood alone, others formed groups, yet others stood head to tail or in families, little golden chains hooking adult elephants to three or four baby elephants. They stood stolidly on four flat feet, or cavorted on their fore- or hind legs, or held their trunks up between threatening ivory tusks. One had a tiny spray of blue porcelain water spouting from its upraised trunk, others held china parasols dripping with fringe. Another balanced a circus ball: the ball was striped but the elephant was paisley. One carried an empty howdah crusted with rhinestones. Elephants populated every flat surface in Aunt Ruth’s livingroom, crowded glass shelves she had had Uncle Floyd build into the walls, jostled together on the sills of windows that were never opened. Dire threats were made to keep us
from getting close to any of them and Ruth’s face promised that the threats were not empty. And so we sat, staring at them, while the conversation ebbed and flowed. Children, Ruth said, were to be seen and not heard. I looked at my father in numb appeal. He just shook his head a little and went back to biting his tongue.

After we had been suitably intimidated, we were allowed to go through the kitchen and down the three steps into Uncle Floyd’s den, where he sprawled over a recliner watching sports and cursing, his empty fingers curved as if grasping the beer can they would never hold again. He wanted nothing to do with us. We were not supposed to make noise, and when we did he chucked us into the back yard, a constipated square of lawn clipped to within an inch of its life, bordered by beds of upright flowers. Here we scuffled along the concrete path, bored and arguing with each other, until Ruth came out the back door and scolded us away from the flowers. Her excellent marble cake never, ever made up for those hours of mingled boredom and terror.

As I became a teenager the holiday visits grew deadlier. Dad had taught me to think for myself and speak my mind, which had never endeared me to his family; as I grew out of childhood it became more difficult to keep my opinions to myself and keep the peace. I knew that Ruth knew this, just as I knew that she didn’t like me and knew that she knew that I knew and knew that she liked it that I knew that she knew. She sliced marble cake and poured out watery coffee, and goaded. Dad’s glance warned me to keep quiet, but I saw the blood beating in his temples as he forced himself to let things go. I didn’t understand it: wrongs were meant to be righted, evil was not to be allowed to triumph, mistakes were to be set right … except, apparently, during Christmas.

I think Ruth knew all of that, too, and went out of her way to exploit it. It came to a head on Christmas Eve in 1964, when I was 16. I came out of the bathroom wiping my hands on the back of my skirt, to hear Ruth conclude a story about going to the store to buy milk. Another driver had misbehaved. “He drove,” Ruth said, “like a nigger.”

It was not possible to be around Aunt Ruth without hearing that ugly word: it was her term of condemnation for anything she disliked or distrusted and she used it about clothing, hairstyles, music, food, and more. She knew how much my family hated it and how hard my parents bit back a reply for fear of causing dissension; it pleased her, as you could tell from the way the corners of her lips pulled in a little. That Christmas Eve in 1964 Ruth was especially angry. The previous Christmas she had been pleased by the death of President Kennedy, but Lyndon Johnson was a profound disappointment to her. I think she saw the Civil Rights movement as a personal attack and the Civil Rights Act as a personal betrayal.

“He drove like a nigger,” she said again. My grandmother nodded, my mother sat fuming, my dad’s temples throbbed, I sat on my hands and considered the death of elephants, and nobody said a word until Grandpa, the peace maker, said perhaps it was time for Ruth’s fine marble cake, and then maybe a few carols, and then home. “Santa Claus,” he said, and winked at me. My sister, five that year, bounced and shouted.

So we had some of Ruth’s fine marble cake. We kids ate it in the kitchen at the Formica table, bending over the newspapers Ruth spread out to catch the crumbs. Afterwards we joined the adults in the living room and sang carols. Each one of us in turn picked a song and everyone joined in: Away in a Manger (Grandma); The Little Drummer Boy (Floyd); Jingle Bells (Mom); Adeste Fidelis, which Dad and I sang in Latin while the rest sang it in English. Ruth, as usual, chose White Christmas and sang it with enthusiasm, almost shouting the word “white.” Dad’s temples started to throb again.

I was next. I knew the song I wanted to sing, and I started it with the second verse, the one about walking hand in hand. Ruth didn’t know the song but she liked it: she knew my dad didn’t care for modern carols and this one was so modern she had never heard it before. She picked up on the simple melody and joined in when I skipped the chorus and started a new verse, singing about not being alone. Soon I had the whole room singing with me as I took the song into the first verse, with the lyrics that even Aunt Ruth had to recognize. She made it all the way to the third “shall” before she choked:

We shall overcome
We shall overcome

Ruth’s voice faded. After another line, so did Corky’s.

We shall overcome some day
Deep in my heart, I do believe
That we shall overcome some day.

The grandparents smiled and nodded as the song faded into silence and into that silence Ruth said, with fury, “You sing like niggers.”

My dad gave Ruth a full, happy smile and said “Thank you. Yes.”

We never had to spend another Christmas at Aunt Ruth’s again.

Conversational Farming

The backside of the conversational farmhouse

Back in the early 1970s my father and brother decided to get back to the land, and Dad bought a 10‑acre spread in a small valley near Watsonville, California. The acres were mostly up‑and‑down. The farm was mired in the process of not becoming: in the last century it had not become a truck farm, not become an orchard, and most recently had not become a hog farm. The farm‑house started life in the mid- or late-1800s as a one‑room shack. At some later time later a room had been tacked to one side and another along the back, so the building resembled a frustrated letter L. Eventually a bathroom was added to one end and a kitchen to the other, but these weren’t improvements as much as they were accretions. Dirt crept up from the loose floorboards and god‑knows‑what sifted in from the roof; frogs inhabited the bathtub drain and lizards lived under the toilet seat. When I went down to visit, usually about twice a month, it amazed me that the place was still standing.

My dad, Dick, worked ten‑hour days teaching at the local continuation school and a night school ESL program to bring home the mortgage money, while my brother Rick and his friends spent their days sitting around the kitchen table drinking coffee and engaging in what I came to call “conversational farming.” They planned to put in a windmill, either in the valley where there was water but no wind, or at the top of a hill where there was plenty of wind and not a drop of water. I remember a short‑lived plan to hook a generator up to the septic tank in the hopes of producing electricity from methane, because somebody remembered seeing plans for such a device in a Whole Earth Catalog which they would get their hands on any day now. They decided to buy a plow horse and were very excited until they realized that they couldn’t afford to buy feed and they couldn’t graze the horse because the only grazing land was already scheduled to be a vegetable farm, which was going to go in any day now as soon as they figured out how to plow it which they couldn’t do because they couldn’t afford to rent a tractor and they couldn’t afford to feed a horse, but boy, when that vegetable garden went in they were going to sell organic vegetables down in Santa Cruz and make a bundle. I think the only thing these all‑talk‑and‑no‑walk back‑to‑the‑soil hippies succeeded in planting was a small dope garden up the hill amid the scrub oaks and dying apricot trees, until the deer discovered it and ate it down to the ground. Since deer apparently don’t get high, that was wasted too.

The conversational farmers did help Dad put in a small kitchen garden and construct a chicken house, and somebody bought three ducklings, the big white domestic kind. Two were slated to be pets and so were named Admiral Sir Elmore Duck and Gladys, his wife. The third was named Dinner, just so that nobody would mistake his eventual fate.

The chickens were a miscellaneous lot. I remember a couple of White Leghorns, and an Araucana which laid blue‑green eggs, and some scruffy brownish‑reddish hens, and a single rooster. The chickens were allowed to run around loose until the local foxes ate too many of them. Dad built a fenced chicken yard which worked well until a coyote came in over the top, so Dad put in a chicken‑wire roof and brought in more chickens.

I went down to visit one weekend when my son, the third Richard in the family, was about eight. Sunday morning, the conversational farmers suggested that I gather eggs for breakfast. I agreed. As I was on my way out, my father pointed out a stick leaning up against the chicken yard fence, and said it might be a good idea if I took it into the chicken yard with me. I’m a city girl, born and bred, and raised on books like Little House on the Prairie in which innocent and helpless young girls happily gather eggs from the farm’s chickens. I suspected nothing, even when the stick turned out to be more of a cudgel. I picked it up in my left hand and let myself into the yard. I locked the wire fence gate behind me and turned, already stepping toward the nesting boxes in the chicken house.

angry-chicken

Chickens, it seems, fly, especially when city girls come onto their property looking to steal their eggs. I turned to find the flock flying up and down, yelling and shrieking and darting at my face. I edged toward the hen house, protecting my face with my right arm. They kept a clear circle around me which I maintained with threatening waggles of the cudgel as I reached into a nest with my right hand and groped around. It was nasty in there. I thought I felt an egg, so I took my eyes from the mob for a moment – sure enough, a speckled brown egg. I picked it up and turned to find an infuriated chicken screeching and flying straight at my face.

I panicked. Without thinking, I threw the cudgel into my right hand, forgetting that this hand already held a nice, warm, brown speckled egg. It broke, dripping raw scrambled egg around the stick, over my fingers, and onto the floor of the house. The chickens stopped attacking me and started fighting over who got to eat the broken egg. It was appalling. Even more appalling was the sound I now heard from outside the pen. I looked up to see three generations of Richards rolling on the ground laughing at me, but by the time I got the pen door open and went after them they were long gone.

In time, the conversational farmers hired a dowser to find water in the valley. He came, he dowsed, he found an old cess pit, and he departed with half the farm’s stash in lieu of payment. An attempt was made to charm the neighbors into loaning the conversational farmers a tractor, but the neighbors (thick‑necked farm types all) weren’t interested in having anything to do with the commie‑pinko dope‑smokin’ free‑love semi‑naked hippies who had invaded their little valley. I think they were most upset by the resident would‑be Earth Mother, a chubby girl named Mayflower who dressed in fluttering rags and liked to dance naked under the full moon, to encourage growth in the crops that somehow were never planted. I didn’t care for her myself, nor did Dad, but she was the girlfriend of the only mechanic in the group and if they ever did get the money together to buy that windmill or tractor or generator or whatever they were going to need him, so Mayflower happily danced naked in the weeds while the conversational farmers stared, the neighbors peeped, and Dad revised lesson plans.

The seasons passed, the garden failed and flourished and failed again, the ducks grew up and grew fat, and the day came for Dinner to turn into his name. The other conversational farmers became sudden vegetarians and my dad was at work, so my brother picked up the cleaver and went outside. He caught Dinner (who thought he was a pet like the others, and would come up to you looking for food), stretched the duck’s neck over a tree stump, and – couldn’t do it.

You must understand that my brother is a very short man and has never come to terms with that. So far he had been able to blame the farm’s problems on others, who filled a long list that he would review periodically, re‑ordering it depending on who he currently found most offensive or who had most recently witnessed his failures. Reprieving Dinner was a non‑starter because he would have to explain why Dinner still graced the yard instead of the table, and he couldn’t blame anyone for his lack of nerve except himself. He had said he was going to kill the duck and by damn he was going to do it. So he went back inside, took up the shotgun, went to the yard, and blew the poor damned duck’s head off.

neck_of_white_duck

Dinner did what fowl tend to do in such circumstances: he ran around the yard with the remains of his head held on by a bit of skin and flopping against his neck, spouting blood like a fire hydrant. My brother went into the bushes and lost his lunch. After a while Dinner stopped running and pumping and fell down into the dirt, and a bit later my brother went over and prodded him. When Dinner didn’t move, he picked the duck up by one foot, carried it inside, and threw it onto the kitchen table. Plaster dust sifted over it like flour. Rick went back into the bushes and lost his breakfast. My brother was sitting on the stoop when Dad got home. He jerked his head toward the door and said, “I killed the duck.” Then he went into the bushes and lost his midnight snack.

My dad was also a short man, but he had come to terms with that years previously and was content with himself. He grew up in California’s wide Central Valley during the Great Depression, where he helped supplement the family dinner table with hunting and helped butcher the occasional pig or calf with which my grandfather was paid for his carpentry. So Dad had no problem gutting, plucking, and dressing the duck, and cooked it up in a wine reduction with new potatoes on the side. Dad said it was one of the best ducks he had ever tasted. My brother said it tasted like shit. The conversational farmers, forsaking their morning vegetarianism, dug in anyway.

Eventually Dad got tired of supporting the conversational farmers and required them to be productive so they moved away, taking with them dreams of windmills on hills and generators over piles of shit, and horses that never happened and fabulous vegetable gardens that produced just enough food for the gophers. Dad met the woman who became my step‑mother, who made him give up his long hair and earring, dressed him in pearl‑buttoned Western shirts and Tony Lama boots, and moved him into town. I don’t think my dad had ever been happier. Dad rented the farm out to a series of bleary‑eyed slackers who did nothing to keep the place going except to dig a cesspit when the old septic tank filled up, and nail flattened tin cans over the leaks in the roof. The old farmhouse rotted so thoroughly that the window sills would fall off all by themselves.

When Dad and my step‑mom decided to build their dream house on the farm, they thought to get rid of the old place by offering it to the local fire department, who could practice their technique while burning the place to the ground. The fire chief came by one day, took a look, and refused – the place wasn’t even good enough for burning and he wouldn’t risk his crew in it.

To everyone’s surprise, the old place didn’t want to go. It had been built of clear‑heart virgin redwood which over the years had become one with the nails, except those around the window sills, and it took contractors close to a month to pull the place down. Then my step‑mom took the place in hand, as she had taken my dad in hand.

Things that take a long time becoming leave ghosts.  The remnants of the old hog pens are long gone, as are the rotted apricot trees and most of the poison oak. In their place a cozy white house graces the valley floor, surrounded by porches which, in turn, are surrounded by my step‑mom’s flower beds and the fruit trees she and Dad planted. It has become a home, and I like visiting. Sometimes, after the folks have gone to bed, I spend an hour in a rocker on the porch, sipping a little Irish whiskey and looking out over the valley. Sometimes, especially when the moon is full, I can almost see a chubby, naked Earth Mother dancing through the flower beds, and if I listen with care I hear the sound of windowsills falling off, all by themselves.