NDSU Magazine logo - Spring 2004

previous story next story

Spring 2004

Vol. 04, No. 2


PDF Version
(Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader)

Email Us

Past Issues



My father loved any town's dump. We visited them like other people visited national parks, with a picnic lunch, trying hard to manufacture a sense of family togetherness that always came off better in pictures than in the moment of experience. With a strange mix of disgust and greed we would put on fuzzy orange work gloves, pile out of our van -- my father, his five daughters -- carefully walk over heaps of the discarded, the cast off, the left behind. Wood was what we were looking for, dressers, end tables, and chairs especially. We would take it all home to the basement where dad would sand it, rub it, and cover it with paste, slippery white jelly, pure magic. Then to dry on the sunporch, and back to the basement for a coat of "Shine in a Can."

Sometimes if a scratch was too deep or too much rain had fallen before our rescue operation, we got to keep some wooden treasure for our bedrooms or the living room. The stuff that came out of my dad's hands looking good as new went downtown to the old three story apartment building we owned and kept rented in part because it offered the only furnished units in town. Our renters were mostly new teachers coming to our small town just out of college, eager to fill our waiting blank slates, or elderly couples coming off the farm where the younger generation had taken over the farmhouse with its dining room sets, headboards, coffee tables and end pieces.

Sometimes when Dad would proclaim "no hope" for a cabinet or set of bookshelves, my sisters and I would drag it to the backyard, take our crumpled allowance to the lumberyard, and buy hideous shades of Watermelon Passion, Blueberry Hill Delight and Sundance Yellow. Stripes, polka dots, every leg two different colors, the grass around us dipped in glorious shades of July play, straight through to a ten-o-clock sunset. If I ever envied my best friend's white princess bedroom set, I never did understand why she couldn't paint it Juicy Strawberry if she woke up one day and wanted to.

My mother believed in fine fabric. She collected French decorating magazines, sent away for nubby swatches, rubbed them on her soft pink cheeks until she found one she couldn't put down. Then she sent away for a bolt. Months later it would arrive wrapped in lavender tissue paper with the name of the designer sprawled across it in fine marker. We hung the prized pastel tissue on our bedroom walls and let the frost seep through it. Our bedrooms wore the soft colorful clouds of a Minnesota winter sky.

Mom took the fabric to a custom upholstery shop in downtown Minneapolis and together, she and the clerks and eventually the soft, flushed-faced owner would decide what it should cover, a love seat, an in-laid side table or an overstuffed sofa. Then my mother would give them her father's name and tell them to bill him at the Florida address. After all, her parents wanted her to have some nice things, even though she was who she was and she had married "him." Somehow all their snobbery, of folks who actually made money during the depression, came to her in her decorating gene.

She loved to lecture us on the difference between living with craft and living with art. How it made you different people in the end to be surrounded by things that were original, one of a kind and things that came out of a mold, reproducible and often reproduced.

"Say something you've never said before" she would warn us. "And I am your mother, I will know the difference. I'm raising artists here, don't forget that." I guess that's why she approved of our bookshelves of fourteen different shades of green and a different variety of frogs painted on each level, our wallpapering fiascoes, even our trips to the dump.

I didn't know what my first boyfriend meant when he walked into our house and said, "How can you live like this?" Until I was finally invited to his home and asked to remove my paint dripped sneakers before stepping on the white carpet that matched the white sectional, and white lacquered entertainment center. Even then I thought I had the bigger question to ask. I began to see him as obscenely unoriginal, uncolored. When I tried to think of him before falling asleep, I couldn't picture him in my mind.


My mother was the first vegetarian I knew. I would come home from school to the aroma of parsnips and summer squash frying in garlic butter, artichoke hearts and goat cheese souffle, ground apricot seeds spiced with fennel and thyme, a rich black roux and brown basmati rice. Root vegetables, she told me, ground you in the ways of the earth and eating papayas makes you grow up wise like Athena. She knew the names of seventeen different kinds of beans, seventeen different colors. How to paint a room with the juice of one ripe beet. The secret was to juice it and then thicken the purple syrup with a little ground mint leaf.

For breakfast she ate creamy rice pudding with dates and pecans. She drank wild yam tea until noon when she switched to homemade plum wine with floating cranberries and lots of crushed ice. She taught me that drinking alcohol with crushed rainwater ice dissolved the toxicity of the drug and cleared your digestive system before dinner. Our house had the sweet smooth smell of garlic and mint dancing cheek to cheek to a Mel Torme medley, something you couldn't help humming to even though you can't remember the name of the tune. It also smelled, I have come to know, like a meatless house, lighter but more pungent with an unspeakable color mist on the kitchen walls.

As a child, my father carried a rifle for three years while he walked and watched my grandfather hunt grouse, geese, ducks, prairie chickens, wild turkeys, deer and rabbits. Barrel down, elbow bent, straight-ahead, march, turn slowly, and never shout. Then finally he earned the right to carry a bullet in his breast pocket for a year and then the fifth year of rising before dawn, following behind, he was allowed to fire, to kill for food.

Division of labor was a tradition in his family. After the men shot it and the women cleaned and cooked it. Dark salty breast of duck or the gristly thigh of a grouse or deep red venison stew. All of these were home and goodness to my father. He never understood what people meant when they said, "It tastes a little too wild for me." He smoked turkeys in the garage and roasted rabbits in the backyard in forty below zero temperatures. My mother let him eat meat in her house, just not cook it.

My memories of childhood mealtimes hold the tension of a presidential debate. "You do not have to ever eat anything with eyes, feelings and a spirit that is probably near us right now wondering why we hate it so." "Try one bite of this neck. It's the most tender part. People pay big money to be served this in a restaurant. Your ancestors all ate what they killed. It's your heritage."

Mostly I grew up on breakfast cereal. No living thing had sacrificed its life for my selfish belly, and even Dad ate shredded wheat with lots of brown sugar. Before I could read, I carried animal rights posters in lines in front of the state capitol, hoping no one would mention my down filled jacket. Sometimes, Dad would drive the kids home early so Mom could stay and get on the ten-o'clock news. We would drive through McDonald's on our way out of town, sing along with the Mamas and Papas on the tape deck. We were California Dreaming as the steam from the cheeseburgers clouded our orange Volkswagen Van windows and blocked our view of the snow-covered prairie, wide and deep as any ocean we couldn't imagine.


As a child I loved the incense and bells and beautiful glistening fabrics of the priest's robes and altar cloths. Catholic was the faith of my father's childhood. At his wake a woman told a story about a skinny six-year-old boy with black hair and eyes, walking slowly with his head down around the same church, kneeling, humming, saying the Stations of the Cross. This woman, square and stooped now, was a girl then and she approached the somber little boy with a secret. Don't say all of it. Skip the main part. Then we can play. And the boy looked at her hurt or confused and said, but I love the main part. This little boy is my father.

He worshipped with a passion and dedication that left little time for attendance at college graduation speeches or grandchildren's birthday parties. If he was absent from the events that marked his children's passing lives, praying was what he did instead in relationships. Still that boy with black hair and eyes, walking the same aisle, bending his knees, chanting.

My mother became a Catholic several years into her marriage, after my older sister asked her why we couldn't all go to church together like our neighbors the Erb family, who with their long hair wound around their heads, and their flat ugly shoes, marched out of their double-wide every Sunday morning looking like a true Jesus army.

So when I was eight, as a birthday present to my sister turning nine, we became a parade of long blonde hair, curled, clipped, then covered with white lace bobby pinned in place. To the Catholic Church of the sixties, girls were impure, not allowed on the altar, wrong from the beginning, us especially, an army of five daughters with no son for my dad. Still my mother did not completely join "Mary's Team" as she called St. Leo's Women's Circle Number Five, that she was assigned to. Suddenly my gourmet, vegetarian mom was expected to bring soft macaroni and beef based food to funerals and weddings.

At home we still faced the sectional sofa to the east after she was ready for the babies to stop coming. We sprinkled rosewater on our beds during full moon and grew pots of thyme and rosemary for her to bury her diamonds and pearls in when there was an eclipse and over the summer and winter equinoxes. There were no rocking chairs allowed in the bedrooms and no one could wear pink after midnight. We lit candles on our grandparents' graves on Christmas Eve. And we changed the words to the sign of the cross season to season.

"In the name of Maia, the spring is yours, may your magic keep us well, amen."

"In the name of Isis, keeper of the day, the source of all love, fill us full, amen."

Today I call myself a Mystical Pagan Catholic. I don't see auras or care who I was in my past lives. I plant my root vegetables and potatoes on Good Friday. I sleep after Thanksgiving Dinner, drunk on tryptophan and my own homemade cranberry wine. I say the rosary when I am fighting off an anxiety attack. Sandalwood works too, but it makes me cry. The thick sweet smoke reminds me of my father loving the Stations and wondering why you would skip the main part. Adulthood stole his peaceful childhood patience, made him restless and angry in his thirties and disappointed and sarcastic in his sixties. He became pitiful to me, partly because I do not believe that angry prayer works and I cannot imagine him appealing to God out of anything but rage.

My home is an eclectic array of garage sale finds and gifts from well traveled friends, some liberal, some artists, two old boyfriends of mine, now lovers, who work the land next to my husband's small grain and edible bean farm. My children's rooms are full of color coordinated modular furniture, purchased from a mail order company. They sleep on bunk beds with built-in computer desks surrounded by toy boxes, of different sizes, filled with hotwheels, beanie babies, balls, paints, and construction paper. I buy them boxes of two hundred and four crayons, hues unimaginable to me when I was a child and thrilled with twenty-four, firecracker red, lapis blueberry blush, pumpkin bread pudding.

My mother died too young for me to witness the eldering of her faith, nearly twenty years before my father, before his meanness overtook him and shown through like the grain of all the wood he polished and sanded and painted, but could never completely hide. I like to imagine that had she become an old woman, she would have become even more sure of her place beside the hollyhocks and crocuses of this seamless, wide landscape. Toward the end of her short life, she became fascinated by how like the Pacific Ocean she was and how unlike the hairy human male. Still her love for my father, and his for her, has created in me an unwavering appreciation for the other, other places in the world, other ways of doing things. Together they showed their children that difference is not a reason for distance, but rather a chance to see yourself more clearly. They never changed to be like each other but they also never walked away, arms thrown in the air because they were "just so different." Agreement and intimacy are not the same thing and I am thankful for that knowing.

When my father died, I was only relieved that he was finally free from his unending chore of praying for the unsaved, especially his five daughters, who still honor him with slivers under their fingernails and tuition bills to Catholic elementary schools. Holding the checks in the smoke of sweet jasmine incense ensures that the teaching only gets in so far, leaving much available for the goddesses to have for themselves.

My mother's death is a terminal loss for me. I do not expect to ever get over it. She was weaving a scarf when she died, blues and purples and greens of every shade she could find in old women's sewing kits she bought at auctions and estate sales. Made from the yarn of dead strangers, the scarf was enormously long and beautiful, with no clear beginning or end and no sign of being finished.

-- Carol Kapaun Ratchenski

Trinity first appeared in Resurrecting Grace, an anthology published by Beacon Press.

Student Focused. Land Grant. Research University.