Monday, February 20, 2017

Feeding the Furniture

It's the depths of winter in Vermont. The deer in their deer yards and the bears in their dens are using up the last of their fat reserves. By this time each year, after months of having the heat on and despite the clouds of steam billowing out of our humidifier, my furniture, like me, is starving for moisture. The few wooden pieces that survived our downsizing look dull and gray, not unlike how many New Englanders feel about this time of year.

My husband and I didn't buy any of these pieces. They came to us almost fifty years ago from his Alabama grandparents, who knew that, as graduate students with two babies, we could barely afford to feed ourselves, let alone buy tables and dressers and chairs. Transplanted to the north country, in winter this Southern furniture wilts like a camellia in a New England garden. It wants care, nourishment, attention. It wants oil.

Household Goddess Bearing Oil and Rag, ca. 2017 A.D.
I get my bottle of furniture oil and look for a rag. I have very few rags now, having purged most of them in the Great Downsizing. I finally find one in which I recognize a piece of an old baby blanket and go to work on Grandma Ruby Violet's walnut dresser. It has two funny little drawers that used to hold her six pairs of white gloves, and where I now keep broken jewelry and old eyeglasses. The dry wood soaks up the oil thirstily, and I have to give it some extra passes with my rag.

Ruby Violet's kitchen table, now promoted to dining table, comes next. RV could hit a squirrel out of a magnolia tree with her .22, but she was a terrible cook, Her table is adorned with the circular burn marks made by the cast iron frying pan in which she cooked her fried chicken, the one dish at which she excelled. I love this beat-up old table, and massage oil into its every dent and crack.

The wobbly gate-leg sewing table, which I polish next, bears the marks of the serrated tracing wheel that RV used to transfer pattern markings onto fabric. RV liked to sew. For my honeymoon she made me a two-piece bathing suit, white with green polka dots, that scandalized my parents, who couldn't believe that my future grandmother-in-law would sew me such a daring garment.

Lastly I turn to an item known in the family as "Grandpappy's made-on-a boat chest." It's a vaguely Victorian piece made by a ship's carpenter as his steamboat sailed down the Mississippi. I have a vision of this carpenter, bored and sweating in the Delta heat, swatting mosquitoes and humming Negro spirituals to the beat of the paddle wheels as he sawed and planed.

It's the pathetic fallacy, I know, but I'll say it anyway: as I go around the cottage rubbing oil into wood with my rag I can practically sense the chests and tables relax and expand under my touch, can almost hear them heave a grateful sigh. When I'm done, I look at the scented, glowing wood around me and heave a sigh myself. Fallacy or not, feeding furniture is not a bad way to pass the time until that day in mud season when I can finally turn off the heat, open the windows, and let in some moist spring air.


Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Nun on the Bus

When the noon bell rang in the hill-top convent school of Nuestra Madre de la Merced in Quito, Ecuador, we would board the pale-yellow school bus that took us home for lunch. Two hours later, the bus would pick us up for our afternoon classes. And it was during that after-lunch trip that the drama of the motorcycles would unfold.

As the bus made its rounds on the cobbled streets, the boys from the Jesuit school in their uniforms and the ones from the American school in their leather jackets would come roaring up on their Vespas, Harleys, and Moto Guzzis and escort us through the town. On cloudy days there were fewer of them, and during the rainy season only the most ardent pursuers showed up. But on sunny afternoons they came out by the dozen, hooting, whistling and waving as they rode.

As the first motorcycle appeared over the horizon, the older girls would start to whisper and nudge each other, and with each addition to the procession they giggled and rolled their eyes and squirmed in their seats, trying to get a better look at the bikers. I was twelve at the time, and convinced that my classmates--who, due to the difference in school systems between Spain and Ecuador, were two or three years older that I--were insane. While the gawky Rodrigos, Pacos and Ricardos accelerating towards us sent the other girls into raptures, I watched Sister Imelda.

She was a young nun, newly professed, which is why she had been given the hopeless job of maintaining order and decency on the bus. She had a pretty face beneath her wimple, with ruddy skin, shapely eyebrows, and flashing green eyes. In her floor-length habit of white wool with wide sleeves and black veil she looked, except for the mannish lace-up shoes that were part of the outfit, almost elegant.

She sat near the front of the bus. As soon as a motorcycle was heard in the distance, she would straighten up in her seat, tug at her veil, and stare fixedly ahead, resolved not to let the bus chasers get to her. But soon there would be two motorcycles, and then three, and her face would redden and her knuckles whiten as she gripped the seat in front of her. When she couldn't stand it anymore, she would whirl around on her seat and yell "silencio!" at the giggling girls. But they couldn't hear her because of the motorcycles thundering behind us.

She would sit back down, adjust her veil, and clench her jaw. I could see her struggling to control herself, but as the whistling and hooting and roaring reached a certain pitch, she would leap up and fly to the back of the bus, her face purple with rage and flames shooting out of her eyes as she shook her fist at the bikers, shouting "imb├ęciles! malcriados! facinerosos!" This never failed to send the girls into fits of suppressed laughter and embolden the boys, some of whom leaned over to slap the bus as they sped by.

Poor Sister Imelda! I felt the indignity of her situation. She could either rail at the boys and be laughed at, or ignore them and appear to approve of their behavior.  As it was, the only thing that dissuaded our escorts, besides the rain, was the end of the route. As soon as the school's great iron gates came into view the riders would peel off one by one, like fighter pilots abandoning formation, and head to their own schools.

I wondered what Sister Imelda made of her trial. Perhaps she saw it as punishment for her sins. Perhaps she offered it up to relieve the sufferings of the souls in Purgatory (don't ask how that was supposed to work). I imagined that every day at dawn, as she headed to the chapel for prayers, she begged Our Lady of Mercy for rain.

Where is she now, my nun on the bus? Nuns last a long time, and she may still be living in the sisters' quarters on the third floor of the school. I wonder if, when she hears the bus depart on its rounds, she's glad that she's no longer young. As for those long-ago boys, her tormentors, do they now, driving their cars through the winding streets of Quito, remember the days when the girls they pursued were held captive in a yellow bus and guarded by a green-eyed dragon?