My mother always tells me that I had to have gotten my artistic bent from my father because she was a woman of science and logic and he was full of shit and tall tales.
Of course, she told me this not because she thought that I was full of shit and tall tales, but because she was continually astonished by the numerous and significant differences between the two of us. How could a daughter be so markedly different from her mother, even accounting for the typical generational differences? She tried to get me to fit into certain boxes that made sense to her. At the same time, I think she’s rather proud of it for me, even while she openly admits that she “doesn’t get it.” Every poem is “very nice, honey…I sure can’t do that.” She hangs my paintings on her walls and stores newspaper clippings of a poem I wrote in high school and the time I won second place in the spelling bee in my baby book. She’s happy that I’m finally finishing an English degree and planning on grad school, because I “should have been doing that kind of thing all along.”
In the line of women from whom I’m descended, I’m the first to pursue a four-year degree, and the only member of my entire family to aim for an advanced degree. I’m the first female who had the option of wearing pants to school from Kindergarten through graduation. I’m the first to grow up “city” and the first not to give birth to daughters. As my sons grow, I know that I and the women before me will be lost in favor of their paternal genealogy, because that’s how we do it in America. We marry, and whether or not we take our husband’s names, the lines continue through the men and terminate with the women. I often wonder who I might have been in a matriarchal society. Would I have been given a different first name, perhaps? Would I have been raised in the rural prairies of the Midwest or would my family have stayed in Germany? Schiesse. Who would I be if I’d had to grow up in effing Germany? I’d never have gotten fat; that much is certain. Germany can take its bratwurst and sauerkraut and bitter beer and shove it right up its lederhosen.
Here’s what I know:
Great-Great-Grandma was born in Germany in 1879. Her name was Elisabeth but for some reason she was called “Bauke” and I have no earthly idea what that’s supposed to mean. She married a German soldier and had a daughter, also named Elisabeth, who died in infancy. Bauke went on to have four more children—two sons and another daughter—before the family emigrated to the United States in 1911. They arrived in Baltimore on the ship “Chennatz” on May 16th, and denounced their loyalty to Germany and its Emperor, William II, whereupon they became naturalized citizens and settled in Franklin County, Iowa. It was apparently unimportant to record how they got from Maryland to Iowa and whether or not anything interesting happened along the way. He became a farmer, and Bauke became “Bessie.” In 1915, when Bessie was 36 and “too old” to have more children, she gave birth to my Great-Grandma, Bernice Bessie. Perhaps she risked giving her child her own name this time because she viewed the birth as a good omen—another “firstborn,” technically, since she was the first to be born on American soil.
Bernice was a farm girl who grew up to become a farm wife. That’s all there is and all that mattered. I was sixteen or so when I asked her why she never ventured far out of her dying little Iowa town (Swaledale, population 195).
“This is where God wants me, this is where I’ll be.” And then she motioned me toward a batch of cookies, because there was nothing more to say about the subject.
She and my great-grandfather had five children. My grandmother—Lois—was the firstborn. She and her four siblings grew up in a two-bedroom farmhouse. The three daughters shared a bedroom, the two sons had the attic. Somehow, Swaledale managed to collect enough boys to make a football team, because Grandma was a cheerleader. I once saw an old photo of her in her circle-skirted cheer uniform, sitting on top of a car. My grandma was a total cutie. Her 1952 graduating class included one other girl and two boys. Later that summer, she met my grandfather, Don, at a dance hall in Clear Lake. (Seven years after this, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper would play their last show here.) Grandpa eleven years older, tall and solid, with a bemused smirk and ears that stuck out. Like her father, this man was a farmer. They married in February 1953, and had my mother—the first of their five children—in March 1954. Grandma and Grandpa kept a small farm outside the little town of Garner in northern Iowa, and they worked it side-by-side. According to my mother, she was “in charge” of her siblings a lot while the adults were in the field. According to my uncles, my mother was a bossy pain-in-the-ass and a tattletale who looked for reasons to stay inside while everyone was in the field. I love my mother, but I also know my mother, and I’m inclined to believe the uncles.
In the mid-1960’s, they gave up the farm and moved into town. Grandpa went to work at Iowa Mold and Tool, and, once her fifth child went to high school, Grandma became the first in her line to take a job outside the home. She worked on an assembly line building electrical boxes for something. I’m sure I’ve been told in some detail what they were, but frankly, they sounded very utilitarian and boring, and I didn’t have much use for things like that. There were books to read, pictures to color, and dolls to dress up.
My mother bucked tradition from the beginning. She didn’t become a homemaker or a farmer’s wife. She jumped between waitressing gigs and community college and waited all the way until she was twenty-one to get married. When she did marry, instead of a jug-eared farmer, it was an ex-con biker. She was pregnant with me six months later, and it wasn’t long before the three of us moved to Amarillo, Texas. We were only there for a while, because in mid-1978, my mother caught my father out with a “one-armed, red-haired bitch,” and we returned immediately to Garner. I have no conscious memory of the south, but I like to think that it’s where my ingrained and unwavering aversion to cold weather happened. Otherwise, everything starts in Garner, as far as I’m concerned.
Grandma, Grandpa and Mom served on the Garner Volunteer Ambulance Service—a very necessary thing for a town full of elderly where there was only one family practitioner and the nearest hospital was twenty miles away. I remember, as a young child, being dragged along to their practices and being allowed to draw on a chalkboard while the adults were testing each other on their response and CPR skills. Every so often, I’d get to look inside the ambulance or someone would let me take a turn with “Annie,” the CPR dummy. I’d yell at her just like I’d seen them do a million times. “Annie, can you hear me? ANNIE, CAN YOU HEAR ME?” I’d pretend to listen to her breathing, give her a little kiss on her plastic mouth, and then beat on her chest with all my tiny might, hoping to get a mark to display on the machine that showed whether or not I’d been strong enough to help her. I never was strong enough, and Annie died every time. Eventually, I lost interest in saving Annie and touring the ambulance.
Mom was inspired to nursing school. She became the first woman in her line to establish a career, the first to end a marriage in divorce, the first to move away from her filial region. She was a single mother the whole time my brother and I were living at home. I didn’t have a gaggle of siblings to boss around, or farm duties to help with. My mother didn’t invest much time in cottage artistry, and she worked weird hours, so every other month, we were latchkey kids. I read books. I drew pictures. I went for long, meandering walks and daydreamed and made up elaborate scenarios.
I grew older, I grew more cynical. The 1990’s happened. Third Wave Feminism happened. I became the first “intellectual” in the family. I was the first to openly admit a lack of faith. I was the first to openly discuss politics and vote Democrat. I am the first, near as I can tell, to think that knowing these things is important for something other than a genealogy chart.
The more I think about it, the more strongly I feel that I did get my creative tendencies from my mom. Not via genetics…just as a gift.
That’s how we can be so beautifully different, Ma. You made me this way.