Thursday, June 2, 2011

My Kingdom for a Vegetable, and Family Secrets of Abuse

We're on the road still, and I'm rediscovering something I always forget until I return to Minnesota again: how well-nigh impossible it is to find any restaurant anywhere in the state's small towns that has a good selection of vegetables on its menu.  Steve's cousins, whom we've visited in big clumps day after day, could not be kinder and more hospitable, and they invariably serve us what they call "a little lunch," regardless of the time of day.

But said lunches wreak havoc with my digestive system, when I eat them on a daily basis, since they invariably consist of sausages with bread and pickles, potato chips, perhaps a tiny, tiny bowl of sauerkraut, and potato salad.  The vegetable is, if one discounts the pickle, usually another tiny, tiny plate of lettuce.

Yesterday, we visited cousins in a small town near St. Cloud, and they insisted on taking us to their town's cafe for its noon buffet and salad bar.  And here's what was offered.  I am not making this up.  The salad bar consisted of: a bowl of tired lettuce, shredded and less than half full, so that one feared taking more than a spoon of it; a tiny quarter plate of chopped onion; an equally tiny plate of baby carrots with perhaps four carrots on it; a large crock of dill pickles; crocks of cottage cheese, mayonnaise, potato salad, and cole slaw; and various dressings.

And here's what the buffet offered: pizza; lasagna; mashed potatoes; tater tots; a "hot dish" that consisted--you guessed it--of ground beef topped with tater tots; cheese toast; corn; and chicken noodle soup (emphasis on "noodle").  Heavy, heavy on the carbs, a diabetic's nightmare.  And with nary vegetable in sight, unless one counts the corn as a vegetable (and Steve tells me a potato is a vegetable for Minnesotans).

I'm not complaining.  I'm just intrigued.  And I do freely admit that one could find similar horrific meals in small-town Arkansas, though there is a longstanding tradition there--at least in the southern and eastern (the lowlands) part of the state--of small-town cafes offering a plethora of fresh, garden-raised vegetables at noon time, throughout the year.  Crowder peas, purple hull peas, pinto beans, butter beans, pickled beets, fried okra, okra and tomatoes cooked with onions, smothered or fried squash, string beans cooked with new potatoes, scalloped eggplant, smothered cabbage, cole slaw, corn on the cob or fried, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers accompanied by fresh hot peppers: these are the kinds of meals with which I grew up and which my family expected to find if we happened to be driving through the state and stopped at small-town cafes for a noon dinner.  

I find the meat and potatoes no veggies approach to eating incomprehensible.  Health-challenging.  Stomach-churning.  And I fear that our whole culture is headed in this direction, so that I have been completely unable to read David Kamp's United States of Arugula after he proudly announces early in the book that Americans eat better now than ever in our history, have access to a greater variety of foods that are of higher quality than those available to previous generations, etc.

He's wrong.  I remember very well the ordinary farmers' market dotted all around my state as I grew up, frequented by ordinary middle- and working-class citizens, that had an amazing variety of delicious locally grown fruits and vegetables, none of which is easily available now even at the pseudo-farmers' markets that truck in produce from California and Texas and try to pass it off as local produce.  We're going the opposite direction.

There's food, and there's family, and I'm noting a fascinating pattern about the latter, as Steve visits cousins, swaps family pictures, and listens to the stories the pictures inspire.  For instance, there's the wedding photo of a brother of a great-grandmother of Steve, which a beautiful, witty elderly cousin of his living on a farm outside St. Cloud has now shown him twice.

Always with an embarrassed laugh when she brings it out.  And with the same story: I remember Uncle Franz very well.  He would come to visit us before he married late in his life, always with a new car.  And he'd want us little girls to climb into the car and sit with him on the front seat.

Grandma (his sister) would watch out the window, and when she saw this happening, she'd knock on the window, point to us, and wave us inside.  She didn't want us sitting in the car with Uncle Franz.

This time, when his cousin told him this story, Steve asked her why her grandmother objected to their sitting in the car.  And the cousin simply laughed and said, She didn't want us sitting with him on the front seat.

There's a story there, isn't there?  The uncle who married late in life, and who loved to coax his nieces to sit in a closed car with him.  And the sister who knew about her brother's proclivities, and who watched like a hawk to prevent her granddaughters from being with him in the closed car.

There are stories like this running through all families, I'm convinced.  And they're often not told, except with hints and embarrassed laughs.  They're told more between the lines, in the fine print, than in the headlines.  You have to listen carefully for them.  And women know them and tell them selectively.  Women transmit the knowledge contained in these stories far more than men do.

Stories like this certainly exist in my family.  Only after we had all grown up did two of my cousins, both women, tell me about an uncle of ours, the alcoholic husband of one of my mother's sisters, who persistently tried to pull them onto his lap and grope them.  They had never told anyone about this as we grew up.  They were afraid and embarrassed.  They blamed themselves for the perverted behavior of their uncle.

And there's the horrific story my mother told me not long before my father's death, the story of something he did in the final year of his life when his alcoholism had significantly robbed him of humanity, which I myself have never told anyone.  Not even my brother.  Because what's the point, now?  What's the point of adding to the burden we both feel as we remember what the constant drinking, years on end, did to our father's mind and soul, particularly in the final year of his life?

And there's the story an aunt whispered to my mother, her sister-in-law, about a brother of my grandfather, who tried to molest her when she was a girl.  She never told her parents or anyone else about this incident, because she said she knew--she just knew this--that my grandmother's brothers would kill the uncle, their sister's brother-in-law, who had tried to rape his niece.  They'd string him up and shoot him as he hung from a tree limb.  

Women transmit this hidden knowledge generation after generation.  And it's knowledge that's buried in the heart of all families.  Though those who think the American South is a place of singular barbarism would like to believe that only Southern families have tales of incest and familial rape, Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres reminds us that these tales exist, as well, in heartland families that appear on the surface to be everything we dream of as an embodiment of solid American values.

Only at this point in history are those burdened with the knowledge of these dark family sagas willing in large numbers to break silence about what they know.  And it seems to me this is all to the good.  Knowing helps us prevent the ongoing abuse of female children in family circles, which has been tolerated for far too long in many cultures, including our own.  So that all the women in these families who knew what was going on, but felt powerless to prevent it or change the situations of abuse, had to carry their tragic knowledge in helpless silence.

To me, it seems all to the good that this silence is now being broken.

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