The Jill Hill | Holding Patterns: Dowries

Below is Part 8 of 16 monthly installments for Visitant.

◄◄ Read the prologue / introduction
◄ Read Part 7: Twist: In Parts

What happened to those swell analog T.V. game shows with big-box prizes—Oneida ware, chinchilla furs, avocado-green refrigerators? Plenty of work remains for Mother, but Queen for a Day with host Jack Bailey gave wings to the hour. I couldn’t wait to watch.

Now, I, Dot Motley, ponder holding patterns. Oneida ware was the heritage of a 19th-century utopian community turned giant flatware company. For more than three decades, the community thrived in northern New York. Members did not wed or have children. They did, however, fork and spoon, enjoying impunity later eras derided and envied as free love.

In a weird twist, a prudish American public embraced Oneida ware as the must-have wedding present. Proper use required table manners, Ps and Qs. Hello to etiquette of salad forks, butter knives, and soup spoons. Heirlooms, matched patterns stayed together for generations.

Gathering wool, picking out accent dots for medleys, I ask myself why one union succeeds the test of time, while another ends like a bent spoon. The handle breaks, and the thing is over, done before the first tarnish or breath-cooled sip.

My parents’ marriage lasted because they parked my twin brothers and me with our grandmother, a merry widow we called Meemo. She lived in Lockport, New York, home to Joyce Carol Oates and one end of the Erie Canal. Her mother had been a Picture Bride, a girl who left Italy to marry a man shown to her in a photo, a man she didn’t know.

Meemo also married an older fellow and prospered. The secret? Unlike our parents, she owned a home, but refused to buy a car. Too much trouble come winter, she claimed. See these two feet? They walk, even in snow.

Lockport winters were bitter cold, and Meemo prided herself in the maintenance of a furnace, a log-eater that terrorized the basement. A short chubby woman fearless of the iron monster, she fed entire forests into the horrid red mouth. By winter’s end, the heat and steam frizzled the hair on the top of her head. She didn’t care.

Stoke the flames of Hell, joked she, or sleep with the Bogyman in an ice-cold bed.

We kids howled in mock terror.

Small towns buzz with gossip, and Meemo shared a party phone line clogged with other people’s beeswax. My brothers and I listened in and, after heavy breathing, hung up.

Meemo didn’t scold us. She laughed as we spilled the beans about new (Duncan Hines) recipes, hidden (Rockaway) wall safes, and the preacher’s wife (epileptic with a split tongue).

The Lockport carnival sounded the Indian summer love call. As soon as we kids saw the posters, we pestered Meemo. She wouldn’t go, but gave us a dollar’s worth of change for the Ferris wheel, turkey shoot, and one free choice.

At the Hall of Mirrors, we gawked in fear. What if my head did collapse and smothered my mouth with hair? Would my brothers’ legs buckle and grow paws with curved dark nails? Might my stomach mushroom, overflow my clothes, drag on the ground? With dangerous hair, stumpy knees, and multiple waistlines, who would marry my sideshow?

Skipping the turkey shoot, I parted company with my brothers and wasted a nickel with the fortune teller in a plastic turban. The carnie gave me a quick once-over and said, C’mon, kid, show me those life lines. For another quarter, you can have a palm reading about true love.

Nothing doing. I balled my hands into fists and stomped out, too chicken for two-bit possibilities.

About love, take the so-called Perfect Couple, Aunt Gail and Captain Jay, a handsome Korean War pilot. Gail was the taller one of Meemo’s twin daughters after Mom. She couldn’t swim, bowl, or drive a car, but she sure could play the organ. Jay gave his beloved a swell earrings, but he pulled a no-show at the altar. Aunt Gail tossed her bouquet, folded up her bridal train, and threw rice at the ogling crowd.

The best man drove her home in the brown-and-white Studebaker friends had decorated for the Catskills honeymoon. With her lace sleeve, Gail rubbed out the greasepaint. JUST MARRIED became JUST MARR ED. She returned to Meemo with her dowry, a velvet-lined standing case housing a deluxe 83-piece set of Oneida flatware.

Prime numbers give me the creeps, but we never heard again from the bomber pilot. Just the bill for his rented wedding tux.

Gail realigned her luck as a well-paid nurse, but where could a Lockport gal meet Mister Terrific? With those octave-wide hands, she played the accordion at class reunions, but never at tent dances because of the beer. The shoe store, dry cleaners, and A & P offered poor prospects, and Gail dismissed the Lothario roofer who shook his bucket of shingle nails and catcalled as she passed in a paneled skirt and seamed stockings. What a louche!

Pretty as she was, she never married.

In my book of love, Hanni and Rudi began as the Imperfect Couple. Rudi, older, courted Hanni, Gail’s shorter twin sister, and popped the question in the early Sixties. Childless they stayed together like a pair of potholders, too square for Chubby Checkers, banana bike seats, and strobe lights.

Those two first crossed dots in the offices of Bell Telephone. Switchboards ruled. Hanni, a new manager, had just hired the company’s first colored operator, a dark-skinned woman brave enough to apply for the job. Sparks flew, scorching suits. The smell of burning wool was in the air.

The applicant said she fixed sewing machines. Hanni figured the woman could handle the switchboard racket, rows of buttons, zillions of wires. Plus troubles at the other end of the line.

Trust me, black folks use phones, the woman told Hanni. We, too, dial operator for information. White people won’t mind my voice asking “How may I help you?”

Meet Bell’s new customer base, Hanni told Rudi, as he mopped his brow.

As for Rudi, he spoke English with a European accent. Shuttled from country to country, he’d escaped the Nazis as a teen and gained passage on a trawler bound for Argentina. His father of the same name was lost among millions. I sometimes wondered if he died in the boy’s stead.

Hanni told us that Ajka, Rudi’s mother came to America without a suitcase. Smart lady deposited her money in U. S. banks between the Wars. At her new Connecticut address, she enjoyed a full complement of household help from butler and cook to upstairs maid and gardener. They spoke halting English and harbored old war wounds—game leg, lost eye, night fright.

Hanni was not as pretty as Aunt Gail. She also wasn’t musical, but she was used to accents. We all were. We grew up hearing vat for what, fernt for weren’t, and afran for the crocheted afghan. My favorite Old Country speak for sandwiches was sambitchus, as in Sam, newly elected mayor and ambitious son of a rival matriarch.

Rudi was a different religion, but Meemo liked this son-in-law just fine. Never mind he was clumsy with the firewood and trailed bark in the cellar. Problem was, Rudi wasn’t crazy about Meemo’s cooking.

Our diet was produce homegrown in summer, home-canned for winter. Meemo determined Rudi would eat avocados. In the cold season, she ripened the rock-hard fruits on the cellar sill beside that belching fiery furnace. Turned out, Rudi loved avocados.

Upstate, avocado was better known as an appliance color than as a fruit. We kids stared astounded as Rudi poured heavy cream on his halved avocado and spooned the soft green flesh. Like the Italian Jesuits in Argentina, he said.

Say what?

Sitting at the head of the nicely set table, he didn’t share, but okay. Our plates were full, and we ate our food with Aunt Gail’s flatware, a fork and knife. Or else.

Rudi also stirred heavy cream into tea we drank with lemon. On Lockport reunions, Hanni would recount the slotted Oneida ware. All there, but Rudi’s days were numbered.

He died suddenly the day after Easter. The cause, the doctors said, was a latent virus endemic to Central European Roma.

Roma, who knew?

Rudi was Jewish, but gypsies, we learned, sheltered him from the Nazis, disguised the youth as one of them, and helped him gain asylum among Romani living in Argentina since the Catholic Inquisition.

Is the past a stranger to every family? Rudi never walked by a street musician, juggler or hurdy-gurdy man without dropping money in the cup, the cap, the monkey’s open hand. He loved his comforts. He also remembered life on the lam.

Talk about grit.

As for his wife Hanni, a recent postal issue of Making America Work honors women. The stamp featuring a female African American switchboard operator shows Hanni’s hire of long ago. Judge for yourself.

Rudi did.

Our beloved Meemo passed away in 1998. But, of course, grandmothers never die so long as there are accents, recipes, and dowry patterns. Clearing out drawers, I found an old black-and-white photo that shows the last Picture Brides from Tuscany, four women considered old at sixty. Side by side, dressed in black, they all look alike.

Widows in dark skirts—no slacks or open-toe. Their feet don’t touch the floor. Final women with hands and wombs seemingly too small for thirteen children and factory work—shallow pump parts, pot-metal flanges. Women almost too short to hang homemade angel hair to dry in corner tenements lost to urban sprawl and Chinatown.

But they did.

One of these women was my great-grandmother. Not sure which one, but I remember her story.

After the marriage broker showed her a chipped photo of a man in a St. Louie suit, she heard dollar bills singing in the bedsprings. Send me, begged she, too poor for school or the convent—she, my great-grandmama with girlish crush on tailored shoulders, pressed pants pleat, alligator spats.

As if clothes make the man, she left for California. Nervy bride learned how to eat with chopsticks, ride the tram, vote, make ends meet with miles of saved butcher string so GIs could parachute, sack villages, and blast Old Country vineyards the Picture Bride left behind.

Meemo also saved string, which she crocheted into doilies, caps, hairbands…you name it. She made do in her house, and who could forget the ugly black canvas window shades?

In case the Gerries flew inland over Lake Ontario, she explained, they wouldn’t see the lights, know where to bomb.

Those black-out shades lasted for decades. Meemo crocheted pretty new drawstrings. In remembrance, she said, of lives that gave us light.

I hold a crocheted doily to the light and send her greetings from a new century.

We the People fuss over yule logs, tend glow, watch civil wars around the globe

and at home on big-screen T.V.

We the Steeple don’t end civil wars. We tend them as wind-bent flames, legends—

each lad, a mother’s boy with homespun sweetheart true to cause.

Each lass, her own Walt Whitwoman, field nurse adjusting wicks, warming hands

with small night lamps fueled by slogans, failed songs, sticks of grass.

Pour a future thin as lacquer, try, across the land. Or, shake and fizz warm brown cola.

Bet the longshot, They the People, chancy Picture Brides.

My great grandmother moved east across the Canadian forests with Meemo and her husband to live in upstate New York. Her grandchildren, Meemo’s children, are my mother and my twin aunts. They went to college and forgot the Italian of Dante and the recipe for drip-dry angel hair. They fed me Campbell’s soup, tomato with crushed saltines on top.

Pop Art, they told me.

Like Andy Warhol was Italian. Or, wholesome.

But food makes the girl, forever falling down the hill after numbskull Jack. How many skinned knees does a girl need? Me—birthday girl too careful to blow hot wax on the icing, teenager too chicken to be a Picture Bride, woman wasteful of string?

I now know why Meemo loved to stoke the furnace. The black-out shades turned her female fire-thrower wilding in the cellar. No waiting on embers. Tossing logs in a shower of sparks, she chanced skin burns and singed hair.

Fiery Meemo was ready to take out Nazis.



► Next Installment | Deep Nectar: Rendezvous

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s