Monday, September 17, 2018

Jaki Jean on the Blue Wave in Meadows Place

Earlier this week, my mother Jean & received the above post card, addressed to Jaki & Lavera Jean Ettinger.

For the past thirty odd years I have voted in Meadows Place, knowing that Texas District 22 was bright red.  I had to smile at the idea of a blue wave in this particular not quite one square mile city.

I first cast my vote in 1972, the first year 18-year-old citizens were given the right to determine which elected officials would call upon 18-year-old males to fight a war they did not create.

It was a powerful experience.  I went to the polling place with my Republican father Jack & my mother Jean.  (I did not know until I was a grown woman that Jean never discussed her votes with Jack.  She currently refuses to vote for any Republican.)

Our neighborhood Meadows Elementary School was a polling site for District 22.  When we entered the school, my parents were directed to the cafeteria, where the Republican primaries were going on.

I joined those voting in the Democratic primary in a kindergarten classroom.  (Years later, my eldest son was assigned to that same classroom.)  The five people in the room welcomed & hugged me.

Tempting as it is, I will not even go into the symbolism attached to the two sites.

My first vote was written on a paper ballot.

While 1972 was my first year voting, I had spent years of my childhood at my father Jack’s feet, watching both the Republican & Democratic conventions.  My job was always to keep track, state by state of the votes.

Sitting on the floor next to Jack, I listened to the speakers with the same solemn & serious attention that I gave to our minister every Sunday morning sermon, every Sunday night sermon, & every Wednesday prayer meeting.

And in the background of that rapt attention, there was the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War & the beginnings of the first wave of the Women’s movement. 

Although my father Jack never understood, all those conventions & conversations groomed me to reject the party he believed to stand for the direction our country should take.

Jack groomed a Democrat.

I often wonder if Jack’s father John Simpson Alexander Ettinger, an avid Democrat, somehow groomed a Republican.

Receiving the Blue Wave in Meadows Place card surprised me. 

I joined the Meadows Blue Wave Facebook group immediately. 

The population in Meadows Place is somewhere around 5,000 residents.  Among those residents are a substantial number of children under 18.  Meadows Place has one of the highest turn outs in Fort Bend County – a very red county that also just happens to be one of, if not the most diverse, counties in the country.

In the 2016 election, over a thousand registered voters in our little city did not vote.
I think about statistics a lot these days.
Approximately 25% of Americans eligible to vote do not register.  Among the 75% registered voters, approximately 40% choose not to vote.

I try & wrap my mind about these numbers. All those voices never heard, all those votes never cast.  What changes those voices & votes might have initiated.

Here in Meadows Place, our Blue Wave group is a pocket of resistance.  The odds are stacked against us  in this very red Texas District #22.  A district once dominated by Ron (not Rand) Paul & Tom Delay.

Meadows Place Blue Wave targets voter participation & voter registration.  And those one thousand plus registered voters who did not vote in 2016. 

Every day, with each outreach, our numbers grow.   And those numbers will continue to grow & prepare for 2020.

Our group is described as: 

Meadows Place TX Residents who are working to turn Texas Blue in 2018, 2020 and beyond! Our mission is to increase civic engagement, build community awareness, participate in community outreach, and meet our Blue Wave neighbors! Please join us!

We are just a small pocket of resistance.  But, if within every less than one square mile area, pockets of resistance develop, change will emerge.

In my role as a perennial English major, I have found pockets of resistance in the most unlikely texts.  Resistance against linear progression, resistance against accepted norms, resistance against the cultural construction of identity & gender, resistance against a narrative of women constructed by male writers.

Recognizing those pockets changed my reading, my perception & certainly my interpretation of texts within the literary canon, & texts that emerged outside the canon.

And taught me to seek out pockets of resistance in life, & in politics.

Meadows Place Blue Wave is an emerging force outside the canon of politics in our city, county & state.
I choose to read & interpret Meadows Blue Wave as a pocket with purpose & promise.

Waves invade the shore, recede & eventually move back to sea only to return . . . 

Monday, September 10, 2018

Jaki Jean on Remembering Willa & my Life as a Daughter-in-Law

When I got married on an April 6th all those decades ago, among the wedding gifts I received was Better Homes & Gardens Cooking for Two.  A few years ago, I downsized my obsessive collection of cookbooks.  But Cooking for Two was one of the few dozens I kept.  Some keepers were chosen for sentimental reasons, others for the frequency of us, some were cherished gifts. 

Cooking for Two is only 96 pages, the last ten of which are devoted to The ABCs of Cooking for Two – equipment, shopping lists, food storage, little tips for big successes, substitutions for ingredients, guidelines, herbs, hints on wine, ways with cheese.

My copy has browned pages, torn pages, pages assaulted by spills & splatters, stars indicating favorite recipes, notes in the margins, measurements that have been completely obliterated by use & neglect.

Much like the text of my life.

The other night I made one of my tried & truly delicious recipes from the Easy on the Budget Main Dishes section – Oven Beef Stew.

For decades, I have attempted to duplicate my mother Jean’s beef stew.  At times I came close – but almost only counts in horseshoes & hand grenades. 

Each attempt was both a failure & a challenge.

Oven Beef Stew answered the challenge.  Not because it tasted like my memory of Jean’s stew – but because it became a frequent visitor in my culinary life.  It involves red wine & a massive amount of basil.

After tucking the Oven Beef Stew in the oven for its two-hour journey, I picked up Cooking for Two & looked through the pages, trying to remember where, why & with whom I shared the results of the starred & stained recipes over the decades.

And then, in the Remembered Recipes Tailored for Two chapter I spotted a starred recipe in the Meal Plans Just for Two section:  Oven Swiss Steak.

And I thought about Willa, my now deceased ex-mother in law. 

Willa was a different kind of cook than my mother Jean.  She melted processed American cheese slices over plates of spaghetti.  She made tuna fish sandwiches with mustard & pecans.  She served chipped beef over toast for breakfast.  She put giblets in the gravy at Thanksgiving & Christmas.

The giblets totally grossed me out. 

But Willa also made some amazing dishes – fried shrimp (I still use her recipe), a fierce roast beef, yellow squash with onions & cheese, a moist turkey with cornbread dressing & three kinds of pies on holidays.  And always, two cakes from her favorite bakery – Italian Cream & German Chocolate.

And of course.  Swiss Steak – previously unknown to my palate.  The other night, I made Oven Swiss Steak from Better Homes & Gardens' Cooking for Two.

And reminisced about Willa.

About all the egregious, unforgivable, toxic moments she brought into my life. 
Moments that fueled my need to escape my marriage to her son.

Willa called me Cindy, her son’s previous girlfriend, for months.  She made corned beef brisket every Sunday we visited – which was just about every Sunday until we joined South Main Baptist Church.

At the time, I was certain I did not care for corned beef.  Once, my father-in-law, in my presence, asked her why she always cooked corned beef when she knew I did not like it.

Her reply was:  My son likes it.

(Note:  I learned to love corned beef via my friend Susan Foster.  I also learned to appreciate dove breasts held together by a toothpick with a slice of jalapeno, fried & served with gravy from Susan.)

Willa & my father-in-law were at least twenty something years older than my parents.  My spouse was their youngest son.  They married a bit later than others at the time, waited seven years to have their first son & then another seven before they had my spouse.

The family joke was that they only had sex twice.

I remember being astonished at the possibility that a married couple would only have sex every seven years.  My parents had four children in thirteen years. 

Looking back, the lack of a prolific sex life must have been an inherited trait.

Memory is elusive, written upon by time & perception & growth.

All of Willa’s drama, so egregious at the time, no longer angers or befuddles me. 

Calling me by a former girlfriend’s name, repeating a conversation about my appearance (she thought I was beautiful – my father-in-law disagreed & pronounced me pretty but not beautiful), confronting my mother Jean at the wedding because Jean wore a long dress & Willa wore a short dress & Jean should have told Willa to wear a long dress, laughing with my sister-in-law about how I ironed on the wrong side of the ironing board, the dramatic feigned heart attack, admonishing me because I did not prepare her son’s plate or let him win at backgammon,  & the accusation that I had searched for & examined the contents of her checkbook.

That one still pisses me off from time to time.  In our all too many weekend visits, we took our laundry & I took my school books.

I did the laundry & I studied.  (And ironed on the wrong side of the ironing board.)  My spouse watched sports with his father or worked in the massive garden he had installed on his parents’ land.

One afternoon, during what proved to be the last weekend visit for months, I set up my books & notebooks on the dining room table.  The dining area was a fine, sunny, impressive room outside the kitchen & only used for holiday meals & my weekend studies.  An entire wall contained a built-in china cabinet, complete with drawers & storage cabinets.

I no longer remember if I needed a pen or a pencil or a pencil sharpener, but I asked Willa if she had what I needed & she directed me to the far-right drawer on the cabinet wall.

I found what I needed & went back to folding laundry & studying.

It was still afternoon when my spouse came in & asked me if I had rummaged through the far-right drawer & looked into Willa’s check book.

Because, he explained, his mother had witnessed me snooping into her check book.

It was a true What the fuck? moment.  But in those days, I had not yet learned to think what the fuck, much less scream it out loud.

He seemed convinced that my snooping into someone’s check book was something less than unthinkable.  He kept insisting that his mother insisted that she saw me take out the check book & snoop.

Somewhere in the midst of all his questions – are you sure you didn’t take it out while you were looking for a pen (or pencil or pencil sharpener)? – I drew the first line.

I gathered my things, my clothes, my purse & keys & got into my VW Bug & drove to the house that Jean & Jack built.

Jean listened.  She touched my arm & listened as I spoke & ranted & asked what the fuck in different words.

Eventually my spouse found me at the house that Jack & Jean built.

Jean had the look – the one with a raised eyebrow.  She listened as he apologized, begged me to come home with him.  She listened as he tried to defend Willa’s accusations
And when he was finally done rationalizing, Jean spoke:

In all my daughter’s life, I have never seen her this unhappy.  I have never seen this look on her face.  If you are unable or unwilling to stand up to your mother, to support your wife, then you need to return my daughter to her father & to me.  I don't want to see this look again.

That day, Jean reinforced her unconditional love for & support of me.

Knowingly or unknowingly, Willa gave me the first line.  And made it possible for me to leave when the final line was crossed.

My mother-in-law’s story was complicated.  It is easier, now that time & experience have written across the text of my memory, to remember that.

Willa grew up in Montalba, Texas & was one of two siblings.  Her brother was the favored child wonder.  Her father died when she was young – the story goes that he developed pneumonia one winter because he refused to use the chamber pot & insisted on defying the inclement weather to use the outhouse.

Willa’s mother was a talented seamstress & that talent supported the family after her husband died.  Single mothers were not the norm in Montalba, Texas.  My spouse told me that his grandmother developed a loose reputation – real or imagined or invented by gossips.

Willa never graduated from high school.  But she was incredibly articulate.  I was blown away by her vocabulary.  An avid & ardent reader, she did not follow in her seamstress mother’s craft.

Instead, she developed amazing secretarial skills & was a legend at the typewriter.  Willa met my father-in-law at a dance.

My spouse’s father Barney came from a well to do railroad family in Palestine, Texas.  He was the youngest of four siblings.  It was after he used a fire at home to withdraw from Texas A&M that he met Willa.

Willa always felt she married up - & she married into a family of siblings who welcomed her.  Her mother’s heart was firmly focused on Willa’s brother.  Long before & long after his death.  

Barney’s family absorbed her & gave her equal sibling footing & focus.

Even though Willa’s brother was the favored child, Willa’s mother moved in & was waiting when Willa & Barney returned from their honeymoon.

My spouse’s grandmother left Willa & Barney’s house only twice.  Once, when Willa begged her brother to invite their mother for a visit.  (Brother sent Mama home after three days.) The next time Willa’s mother left was when she died.

I often think about Willa’s history & how it formed her.  Just as her own mother chose a favorite, Willa chose her youngest son.

In spite of all those manipulations, all the guilting, all the drama, Willa was, in her rather strange way, good to me.

She encouraged me in pursuit of my education.  More than once, she insisted on paying for my tuition & my books, even when I told her my father was set to do it.  Twice a year, she bought me a working wardrobe. (apparently, my Big Smith overalls did not meet her standards.)  She spent time with me, sharing her stories, sharing the text of her life.

She loved musicals & she loved that I watched them with her.  We talked about books we were reading, about books we both had read.

A long time, almost a year, passed between the incident of the check book allegation & my reappearance into the family fold.

My spouse had continued to visit his parents without me.  I continued to stay at home & read, waiting for someone, anyone, to apologize & absolve me of the allegation.

The one thing I missed while staying at home was my niece, with whom I shared a massive mutual admiration.

Willa, always aware of the potential for manipulation, set the scene for my return to the family fold, with her granddaughter as bait.

Telling her favored son that our niece missed me & was asking for me every time she made the trip from Dallas to Houston.

In the end, I succumbed & accompanied my spouse to his parents’ house.

To see that seven-year-old wonder child.

No one apologized, no one absolved me, no one withdrew the accusation.  Part of me no longer cared – my niece truly was a wonder child.

But Willa had given me the gift of drawing the line.

And when that line was crossed, I left everything, even her chosen son & that precious wonder child, on the opposite side of the line.

I did not eat any of Cooking for Two’s Oven Swiss Steak tonight.  My brother declared it awesome.

It was not, of course, Willa’s recipe.  It was my attempt to recall a memory, a taste of what was fine about her.

Perhaps another day, another attempt.

But not today.  Some memories are still left on the opposite side of the line Willa made possible. 

Willa, Barney, Jaki Jean & Willa’s Favored Son