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Books for Everyone!

April 2013

The Chicken


I once had a rather hostile relationship with the chicken. I would bake several chicken breasts and then, after they cooled, one of them would be wrapped to go to work with me for lunch. I wouldn’t eat the thing, but I would carry it back to my apartment, ostensibly for dinner. Dinner was always something other than the chicken. The poor slab of poultry would sit in the frig, awaiting another journey the next day in the brown paper bag to the office world.


Husband was dating me at the time, and he mentioned that the chicken was well-traveled. At some point, it probably should not be eaten. He did ask me why I went to all the bother of cooking and transporting the chicken.


“Because I should eat more chicken.”


“Then why don’t you eat it?”


“Because I don’t really like it.”


But I did not massacre the bird. These were carefully prepared chicken breasts that I never ate. You can blame the obvious influence of my internal committee which, at that point in my life, was two dozen strong.


My committee has since become much smaller; it became counter-balanced by my Inner Grannies. Yes, there are two of them.

Ida Mae Bryson was born in 1888 in New Jersey. She was the mother of my mother who was an only child. Ida Mae was the youngest of three daughters. Her father, Alexander Bryson, was the fiercely stern Scots of the photograph that I described in “Incoming Signals.” I hypothesize that this youngest, spirited daughter, born in the Victorian era, spent much of her life rebelling against this fearsome man. While her two staid older sisters became maiden schoolteachers, Ida Mae married a bit late in life for her generation. Her husband, a younger man, was my German-Swiss-Austrian grandfather. He died of a stroke while taking out the garbage one night, several months before I was born.


By the time that I was five years of age, Ida Mae had burned down several kitchens. I recall on “The Antiques Roadshow,” a professional antiques appraiser/expert was explaining to the audience how to determine if something was made of Bakelite or just plastic or even ivory. I turned to my children and explained why my grandmother was a menace in the kitchen and how I knew well the smell of Bakelite: “It was an odor typical of whenever my grandmother cooked. All of the handles of her pots and pans were cracked.”


It is possible that she did not like the chicken much either, but I know more of what she did like. From five to seven years of age, I spent much time with my grandmother in the wallpapered room that had been “my room,” but was given to Ida Mae when she came to live with my family of origin in a large, two-story, early 1900s-era farmhouse in the then-very rural northern New Jersey. At the time, Ida Mae was in her early seventies and was quite a character.


She was short, about five feet in height, and quite heavy, with tiny feet and hands. She smoked Pall Malls, and had been doing so since her youth. Her once-flawless ivory Irish skin, inherited from her mother, “a MacBride,” had become wrinkled like crepe paper. She had a smoker’s cough, but that inconvenience did not deter her from smoking. Cigarettes, though, were not her worst habit, and emphysema was not her most serious medical condition. She’d become an age-onset diabetic and had to inject herself with insulin. My ferocious fear of needles probably dates back to my observing her rather inefficient injection of her veins. I did help her with her bedpan; I’m okay with certain body fluids, as long as they are not red.


And she loved cookies. Ida Mae was the Cookie Monster before its time. Of course, she had to eat the diabetic cookies, but she never really did. While I was coloring in my coloring book, and talking to her about which colors of Crayola crayons I was going to use (and blend) for the clouds, Ida Mae had put away the box of diabetic cookies and was taking out the Stella Doro box of cookies from a place that, even at five years of age, I knew not to find out about. My guess is that the box was hidden somewhere in a dresser drawer. My dog, Trixie (named after the cereal), was half-beagle; I’m sure she would have scouted out that box under the bed.


Ida Mae would take a bite of the raspberry thumbprint cookie, shrug, almost giggle, widen her round blue eyes, and put her impish little finger to her rosebud mouth. I never told.


She was a sweet, kind, loving, quietly willful woman whom my mother said I reminded her of greatly: “happy with the most simple of things,” “able to amuse herself with almost nothing.” Sadly, her daughter, my mother, was not happy, even with the most ornate of things; and could not amuse herself with anything. She used to tell me, “Debra, write stories with happy endings.” I have tried. You see, I had to protect my mother from herself, and protect myself from her as well.


When Ida Mae was eighty, she fell and broke her hip. Her back had been ram-rod straight, but her obesity made walking hard on her. By then she was in a nursing home, but every day she still wore a somewhat formal dress and her Enna Jetticks, those black, mid-heel, tie-up oxfords on her tiny feet. Her thick beige hose were still rolled down around her amazingly thin ankles. Her silky hair was no longer silver with many flaxen strands like it had been when she was in her seventies. Her hair was now simply gray, but she always styled it and wore a tortoise shell clasp or barrette.


Ida Mae had been very vain about her hair while she had gone about combing it with her mother-of-pearl comb. She’d used a hair cream with a scent that is redolent in L’Occitane Shea Butter Hand Cream. And yes, I think of her every time that I use this hand cream. When I first used this product, I was taken back in time even more than Proust and his Madeleine. The French do scents well for that reason alone.


Of course her broken hip led to the hospital and then to pneumonia, and then she died. She was born on April Fool’s Day of 1888 and lived past that eightieth birthday, but just barely. I never thought she was a fool.

My other inner granny was born Artis Woerner. This woman was the grandmother of Husband. She was born in Kansas in November 1911; her family moved to California when she was a child. I now have pieces of furniture from her Kansas childhood, ones that she called antiques, and so I call them antiques. Husband, her grandson, emphatically states that those pieces of furniture, including an old cabinet from a garden shed that I used for clothes for several years, “They are not antiques.”


“They are antiques,” my inner granny and I retort. “They are almost 100 years old and they are antiques.” But “we” both know why they are antiques: because they are from her Kansas childhood.


When I dated Husband, we each lived in different areas of Sacramento; Artis lived by herself in Grass Valley. She was 73 that November when Husband and I became engaged. That next month, Artis went into Mercy Hospital in Sacramento for her heart bypass. That hospital was an awful place, but I suppose in my mind most hospitals are. There was the typical fog in December encasing Sacramento and the foothills and so relatives could not travel from the foothills to see Artis in the hospital during visiting hours. I offered to go, at night. My apartment was not far from the wretched place; I was, for once, not working overtime.


It had been many years, decades, in fact, since I’d been in an intensive care cardiac unit. The last time I’d been in one, I was nine years of age, visiting my father, a Dutchman who died that next year. The procedure known as coronary bypass surgery was just being pioneered, but the heart of this brave man was beyond repair by that point in his life. Not much had changed about the look or smell or feel of such a place, except this time I was visiting a woman to whom I would become extremely close, the loving, sweet, stubborn woman who would become my truer inner granny. Artis was a small woman, but she was big in a lot of ways.


I believe it was during my second visit that she awoke and looked at me.


“Now what are you doing here?” Artis had a kind but direct way about her.


“Well,” I sighed, “I’m here in Sacramento, alone; and you’re here in Sacramento, alone, so I thought we could be alone together.”


She very softly laughed. It was the beginning of what some might call a beautiful friendship. For me, it was the beginning of the life that I would call my own.


Artis took up oil painting when she was seventy. I also painted at the time, in acrylics, and we would discuss the difficulty in waiting for the “right season” and finding “uninterrupted time” for our artistic endeavors. I had just begun to sew quilts, and I would bring my latest work up to her in Grass Valley. She was always impressed. She bought me a little ceramic bluebird that I named “Artis.” I still cry when I recall how it accidentally fell off of a mantle and shattered on the tile floor. I was packing to move. Up till that time, much of my life had been spent packing to move. Artis taught me how to pack not to move.


When I was pregnant with my daughter, Artis died in her sleep of an aneurysm. I’d not told her that this second child was that most-prized of things on both sides of the family: a girl. It was a judgment call. I’d not wanted to upset her. Her behavior when I was pregnant with my son had become comedic. She purchased a blue maternity dress for me that was the size of a small tent. She’d driven all of her relatives crazy, asking their opinions about that dress. “Grandma” kept asking me if “I” was big enough yet to fit into it. I did not tell her that I altered the thing to fit by cutting away most of the garment.


After I’d informed Husband about the death of “Grandma,” he said that maybe a little piece of her soul would be with Baby Heart, the “grand”-daughter that she would never see. A large part of the spirit of that small woman certainly found its way into the mother of Baby Heart; and that precious “grand” daughter would one day inform her mother that she has an “inner granny.” (We were looking at clothes online, and I pointed out a dress for myself. Dear Daughter said, “Yes, that dress would appeal to your inner granny.”)


Artis had known much sorrow in her life, but she’d triumphed over all of it. Her only child, a son, Husband’s father, had not triumphed over most of his sorrows. Thereby hangs many tales, perhaps even the tale of the chicken. Husband believes that I’ve turned the Chicken into something more meaningful.