blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1




Her arms belonged to a Hattie, potato-white, fat-puckered, floury, fat arms, which, when she lifted them to put away the jam, smelled sour. Hattie was a sour-smelling cook, finished work and in a coat—no sweater! Ugly boots and too-small scarf despite the cold. Outside in a running car Hattie's husband was waiting. He was the one to drive her. These were the baking days, those sighing days—less light and nearing holidays—when he brought Hattie here in the morning gloom and took her home, darkling.

Hard to see under the bill of his cap, a farmer's cap, and he, a farmer, smelling of mucked stalls and cheese. We had smelled him before. Mr. Rassmussen, Elmer Rassmussen as he was called by Nonna, whose house it was where Hattie baked. "Mr. Rassmussen is here!" from us in the mud room stalling for the cookies to cool, the awful sounding cookies that tasted so good: Springerle. "Does Mr. Rassmussen get any?"

Hattie says, "He has his heart to think about." Phony eggs and no bacon are what he has for breakfast now, poor man! They sold their chickens—what's the use? Hardscrabble is the word we think of, and the corn stalks' yellow clatter in the wind when the wind blats through, as it mostly does, in our country in the dead of winter. What a phrase! Don't use it. The dead go nowhere; we have dug them up.

(Mother has some babies in the ground, but I think they do not sleep.)

Hattie says, "Be careful you don't burn your tongues," and she shuffs to the car in her furry-cuffed boots. The path is all ice and she is stooped against falling.

The thought of her bare arms beneath her harsh coat makes us itch. Let's never be poor!


Poor Hattie was farm-poor and ugly, ugly and poor as the old women Nonna visited. Nonna took us to Miss Pearl's. "No thank you," we said to her awful cookies, polite girls and sisters, born years apart but matching. Miss Pearl, the dressmaker, pinned us for approaching birthdays that to us seemed far away. March could not have been as close as Nonna thought. All was drift or else instructions. Moments of clarity and surprise, I remember, bright hurts.

(My mother's face in a mirror we once shared first informed me of beauty.)

Frannie is oldest; I am youngest. A sister in-between would be nice—Frannie says. Frannie says it is sad about our brothers.


"Where were you girls?" from Nonna readying for Christmas, needling sequins to a camel for a saddle. The camel is for the three wise men. Across the desert! Under the stars!

Nonna didn't know about the dog, how he had plashed across the river and come home steaming. She didn't know how long we had played outside but that Hattie was here, yes; Nonna said she could smell it, and we could, too: the onion odor of the woman mixed with butter and almond. The coarse stink of onion grass and her rushed and dingy hairdo.

(Mother, I remember, unbuttoning even as she ran up the stairs, crying, "I can't stand myself!")


One day the pocky rain beat away the snow.

We made toffee without Hattie in the kitchen or Nonna to boss us. The toffee was oversweet and hot and dripped off a stick—from the garden? Impossible! Then our birthdays passed and we were in the garden. We were shoeless, sockless and putting on a play that Frannie had directed because it was her idea in the first place.

Frannie's flaxen braids went past her waist so she could sit on them and play Rapunzel.

(Did I mention that our mother was an actress?)

Hattie was not a woman of expression or patience, but she played our audience and gruffed, "What made you think of this?"

Sometimes her surprise surprised us as when we piled what we picked out, orange rinds from her marmalade, for instance, which she then scolded us to eat. But who likes bitter rind in jelly?

And why not swig vanilla? The way it smelled, we thought it would be sweet!

(She gets it from her mother they say about me.)

Frannie is Frannie and good, smart, responsible, those stout terms grown-ups use on us wearing their accurate faces. Hattie does not have so many faces. With her it's glum or smile . . . and she looks like . . . Eleanor Roosevelt! Hattie, apron off and in her everyday clothes, looks like Eleanor Roosevelt, top-heavy, jowled, a preposterous hat. Her teeth, too—Hattie's—are made out of wood and wooden-yellow.

Nonna says to us, "Be thankful for what you've got."

"I am!" Frannie says, and I say,"We are!"

We are, we are, we are, we are everywhere running through the house, shooed out of rooms. Go outside or watch TV!

In the old war footage the women wear scarves and rush across rubble.

"Aren't you glad you weren't born then?" Nonna asks because she was alive then. She lived through the war although not as meanly; nevertheless, she says, "Really, aren't you glad you weren't born then? Aren't you lucky?"

"We are!" but we like to pretend we are the dispossessed, and we pick at Hattie's coffeecake to make it last the war. The snow falls sideways; even what was close outdoors is blurred in so much weather. Will Mr. Rassmussen drive through it? The whiteness blows across the fields.

(I miss my mother.)


Stranded in the country! If the sander couldn't get through to us, how could Mr. Rassmussen. Hattie said, "His heart is old . . . I hope he knows enough to stay at home." By then the phones were down and the deep house groaned. The sound was the sound of ice settling over the lake, and we ran away from what we heard, ran throat-hurt through our Nonna's house. The magical house, the big house, the house I wanted as my own. The doors, when opened, huffed attic air, and we danced across the ballroom and slid to the windows and saw snow blind close trees. Who could get near us?

(In another house I put my mouth over Mother's and cried down to a baby, Can you hear me?)


Hattie is shouting at the phone so Mr. Rassmussen can hear. "See how the roads are tomorrow. Don't drive!" This big, ugly woman is in tears. Thirty-five years and she can count on one hand the nights apart with Mr. Rassmussen. They met when they were not much older than we are. Their daddies farmed. But it's never been dull. Farm life is full of incident: bladed equipment, animals, blood.

Tonight it's the story of the fox! Found midwinter, his flattened, frozen carcass breaks in half when PJ bats with it. That PJ! He came to collect Hattie once and walked in, calling, "Ma!" There wasn't but the one car, and Hattie beettling to it.

Out here the land is vacant. The small fields look sad.


We should have a fire and sit close, knee to knee, feet to the flames—let the heat stun us! We should get warm enough to wander. Nonna's house is very large and unlived in without kids. Nonna says she loves to have us visit. "You have no idea," she says. We roam and look into and open; we make the house ours and use different tubs; we strike fires in comfortable rooms because Frannie is old enough now; she can use matches. She lights the library fire and we laze and watch TV until we leave the dazing fire to lean against the windows in the sun room with the parrots. How cool it is, but what is that we smell? What is Hattie making?

Hattie says, "Now you're in the kitchen, you can help."

We stand beating and beating the frosting; it catches on our arms, so that we lick at ourselves until the frosting peaks, and we can make a road down the middle. We're done! Done and dumbed with sugar and listening—shhhhh.

The plough makes cow noises as it slogs up the hill; and somewhere men in clouds of snow are tossing sand and shoveling. Mr. Rassmussen, we hope, stays in; such strenuous work could kill him—his heart. His heart and his back! Hattie hopes the man is smart enough to make PJ do it. PJ is young. PJ is not much older than we are; but he smells like a man to us, rust-red and dense from his sweaty exertions. Unshaved, unwashed, uncouth. Uncouth? Frannie's word. She can be a show off, Frannie can. She can smarm her way into something sweet. Hattie simply forgets what time it is—almost dinner!—and she tells us stories. That day PJ and his older brothers went shirtless near the forage blower and came out bloodied with their own blood or something else's. Hattie's stories. The sick-making smell of skunk and the mutt's whining home from it. Who dared go near him? Even when he smelled of himself or of the sharp and marshy water he swam in, that mutt was not a dog to get close to. The rats in her barn sleeked through the sileage, fearless. Hattie's stories. Cows and horses, litters of kittens found egged in strawed places, this was how she lived. She left out sadness.


This happened in the middle of summer in the middle of another play of Frannie's devising. My part was small, but it called for me to swing the hammock until Frannie fell out. Of course, she fell too hard; but it was not, Nonna assured me, my fault.

Hattie said, "It's yews."

I hated Hattie then.

Frannie had her cast signed so many times it looked dirty—it was dirty! but she wrapped her arm in plastic and held it in the air when she swam, and she screamed if she thought I had splashed her. "Get a towel!"

(Mother used a hanger and scratched her own back bloody; I saw.)

Someone's coming; headlights rove over the snow, and Hattie hopes it is not who she thinks it is, but his headlights show in the falling: Mr. Rassmussen. The rest is darkness.

(They say our mother is happier where she is.)


"Lick," Hattie saying. "Lick the spoon."

Forked butter in a cup of sugar, I could eat it all.

"Lick the bowl, too. You can use your fingers."


What did Hattie know then that we did not?

(Mother had her secrets; she had more than most.)

The passenger door was ledged with snow that sighed over Hattie when she closed it.


Come back!  

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