The Clerestory Podcast S1 E25

The Oklahoma Tenant Farmer and Me
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A Work of Art

That hot June night, my mother made me ride with her in the dark blue Dodge out to Route 38, what we thought of as “the highway.” Really, it was just a two-lane road that led from our small South Jersey town of Mt. Holly, surrounded by farms, to almost any place a person might want to go. On that particular evening, my mother needed to drive to the Mt. Holly Diner, pull into the parking lot, and wait for the Greyhound bus, due to arrive from Miami at eight o’clock.

When we entered the parking lot, I glanced over at the red-roofed diner. Ever since we’d moved to Mt. Holly three years before, from Rhein Main Air Force Base, Germany, I had spent lots of time hanging out at the diner with my friends. We sat around the large Formica tables after football and basketball games, gobbling down French Fries and burgers, and slipping quarters into the small, table-side jukeboxes. Being in the car with my mother, about to pick up my grandmother, I prayed no one I knew from school would see me.

Elizabeth Somlo, my father’s mother, was supposed to be on that Greyhound bus, coming to visit my mother, sister and me, while her son, my Air Force dad, was stationed miles away, at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, in Vietnam. My father, Colonel Lawrence A. Somlo, commanded an Air Evacuation squadron, based near Saigon.

When I was a child, Grandma and Grandpa Somlo lived in Cleveland, where my grandfather photographed clients and made prints, in his portrait studio on Detroit Avenue. The year I entered the fourth grade, he closed the studio and retired, leaving Cleveland’s cold, snowy winters behind, to settle with my grandmother in Miami Beach, Florida.

I have a few scattered memories of visiting my grandparents at their modest Florida home. What I most recall was that their water wasn’t heated with gas or electricity but by the sun. This was almost unheard of during that time, in the late nineteen fifties. It meant that on cloudy days, we were forced to take cold showers. I felt sorry for my grandparents because, I assumed, they couldn’t afford a house with reliably hot water. I also remember my grandmother rinsing out plastic bags and hanging them on the backyard clothesline to dry. This seemed sad to me, as well. No one in my world felt the need to reuse anything.

I had always considered Grandma and Grandpa Somlo different from most people I knew, because they were originally from Hungary and sometimes spoke a language I couldn’t understand. When speaking English, they pronounced the letter “w” as if it were a “v,” an obvious sign they weren’t full-fledged Americans, and they occasionally misused or mispronounced words. If that wasn’t enough to set them apart, they ate very different food from my family’s bland roast beef and mashed potato meals. The clothes they wore were also distinct, and in my mind, made them look like poor refugees, barely off the boat.

Waiting for the Greyhound to arrive that night in the parking lot outside the diner, I wondered how that summer was going to turn out, especially now that we were about to be saddled with my grandmother. I had just finished my freshman year at American University in Washington, D.C. I had also lucked into what I hoped would be a good summer job, working as a counselor in a program for migrant workers’ children. And in my off-work hours, I was spending time with cute, blond Jeff Taylor, a guy I’d had a crush on during my junior year of high school when he was a senior, and who I’d never in a million years thought would be interested in me.

The bus pulled into the parking lot a few minutes after we arrived. Smoking an L&M cigarette and blowing the smoke out the cracked-open, small side window, my mother suggested we wait in the car, until the Greyhound had parked and the passengers began to step out. It was hot outside and humid, and mosquitoes would be buzzing around.

I watched the bus slow down and stop. Moments later, the driver stepped out. Even in that heat, he was wearing a tie, with a short-sleeved, light gray shirt, dark pants and a large-brimmed cap.

He walked to the side of the bus and yanked open the door to the luggage compartment on the side. Then he bent over and started lifting out suitcases and boxes, as men, women and a few kids, made their way down the steps to the ground.

I kept my eyes on the passengers, searching for my grandmother, while occasionally glancing over at the diner. Neither my grandmother appeared nor any of my former high school classmates. As the shiny silver Greyhound emptied with no sign of Grandma Somlo, I wondered if she’d missed the bus or decided not to come.

I started to say this to my mother, when it looked as if all the passengers had disembarked. But then my mother blurted out, “There’s your grandmother.”

As she said it, I moved my gaze back to the bus door. There, at the top of the stairs, she stood.

She looked exactly as I remembered her, but with one exception. Whenever I thought of my grandmother, I pictured her in the kitchen. As she prepared to descend the bus steps, the one thing missing was her ever-present, faded cotton apron.

Even at her advanced age, she was still a sturdy woman, solid and wide. She had on a blue-flowered cotton housedress that wrapped around her ample midsection and tied at the side. Even in that heat, she’d pulled a black coat over her dress, that grazed her calves. On her feet were the shoes I always remembered her wearing – thick-strapped white sandals with a short, wide heel, the sort of shoes she must have worn as a girl, before coming to America. As if the sandals weren’t unattractive enough, she had on a pair of white ankle socks with them, folded over once.

Instead of walking down the steps, my grandmother stood without moving at the top. I realized she was probably looking for us.

“We better get over there,” my mother said, and sighed.

At that, my mother and I got out of the car.

As we got close to the bus, I could see that my grandmother was hanging onto the thin straps of two fat, brown paper shopping bags. Crammed full, the bags bulged out at the sides. Because of the bags, my grandmother didn’t have a free hand to grab the railing and step down.

“Go up and help your grandmother with those bags,” my mother said, shaking her head from side to side.

I was reminded then of how unhappy my mother had been on learning that Grandma Somlo wanted to visit, especially since my father wouldn’t be around. The week before, my mom had made my sister and me help her clean the house, which we generally kept at a reasonably messy level when my father was gone. My mother and I both knew that my grandmother was a bossy sort. My mother feared Grandma Somlo would simply take over, as if it were her house.

We also feared that once she arrived, my grandmother might never leave. She hadn’t told my mother how long she planned to stay. My mother was afraid to ask.

I glanced over at the diner one more time, before heading to the bus steps to help my grandmother. No one was coming out the diner’s front door or stepping inside. The crazy thing was, in the two years I’d lived in Mt. Holly prior to leaving for college, I’d hated the town and couldn’t wait to leave. Why I suddenly cared about what people there might think of me, I couldn’t have said.

As I climbed the bus steps, I peeked over to see what was packed in my grandmother’s bags. Once I reached the top, I knew. The bags were filled with pots and pans, knives, and all sorts of cooking utensils Grandma Somlo probably felt she needed to bring, having assumed my mother didn’t own them.

“Hi, Grandma,” I said, when I got to the top.

She flashed me her familiar grin, a cross between a smile and a sneer, then planted a damp kiss on my already damp cheek. I looked at her face, suddenly reminded of something that had always scared me. My grandmother had two different-colored eyes. Her left eye was blue, while the right eye was brown.

When I think back to that long-ago summer, which happened to be the last time I would see Grandma Somlo, though I couldn’t have known it then, I picture my grandmother in her rightful place, in the kitchen. In my memory, she is always there. When I got up in the morning, no matter what the hour, she would be sitting in that same chair, closest to the stove. Late in the afternoon, I would find her there as well, her cotton housedress hiked above her ample knees, a cold glass of beer in her hand.

She cooked and baked, even though my mother, sister and I didn’t want to eat the heavy, high-fat dishes Grandma Somlo made, since all three of us avoided food we thought would make us gain weight. Some mornings, I watched as my grandmother rolled long thin ribbons of dough across the Formica kitchen table, snipped off small pieces from the end that hung down over the edge, with a pair of scissors, and then quickly formed round dumplings, in the center of her flour-dusted palms. Sometime in the afternoon, she would stew the chicken in the scary pressure cooker, until the meat practically walked off the bones, and warm a thick, rich, bright orange paprikash sauce, for coating the chicken and dumplings.

The first part of the summer I left the house just after the sky grew light. In the second half, my schedule reversed, and I went to work about midday, returning home when it was getting dark. Throughout the summer, I accompanied the driver, a woman named Marge, out past the edge of town, to where the farms started. She would steer the van off the main road, onto narrow dirt paths, until reaching some worn-out house that looked as if one strong storm could bring the whole structure down. These were the homes in which our clients lived, parents who labored all day in the sweltering fields.

The purpose of the county program for which I’d been hired was to give children of migrant farmworkers a nurturing, fun, and even educational summer opportunity, so their parents wouldn’t have to take them into the hot fields. Unlike today when the majority of migrant farmworkers are from Mexico and Central America, the people who followed the crops in the late nineteen-sixties included African Americans, mostly from Florida, and poor whites, the majority hailing from Appalachia. The program was split into two parts, one for Spanish-speaking children and the other for English speakers. Since I didn’t speak Spanish, I worked in the English-speaking program.

Part of my summer job was to interact with the parents of the children we picked up and dropped off. One of the white families in the program, the Watsons, had four children, two girls and two boys. I’d been told that in their last school, all four Watson children had been placed in special education classes.

My supervisor in the summer program, Ann Wagner, found the placement of these children strange. Acknowledging that all four had speech problems, Ann said she believed the kids to be quite intelligent.

As I got to know the Watson children, I discovered that they were bright, curious and interested in the world around them. At the same time, whenever they spoke, I had trouble understanding. The kids sounded as if their mouths were full of food.

By the time Marge and I reached the Watsons’ house in the morning, the children’s father had already left for work. Mrs. Watson was friendly, but we were all rushed at that early hour, so there wasn’t much time to talk.

In the second half of the summer, Marge and I traveled the back roads outside of town just as the sun was getting close to setting and the farm fields were drenched in a golden glow. Everyone had more time then. When we stopped at the Watsons’ house, the kids often shyly asked if they could show me around.

One late-summer evening, I followed my favorite of the Watsons’ kids, Jessie, as he showed me the pigs they were raising, in a muddy pen behind the house. After watching the dirty, adorable animals sniff and snort through the mud, we walked toward the house, where I was surprised to see a tall, thin man standing next to the back door. He had on faded overalls, with the left strap undone and hanging down. His gaunt face was browned by the sun. He appeared old enough to be Jessie’s grandfather.

It turned out that this was Jessie’s father. After Jessie introduced us, Mr. Watson gave me a quick nod and grin. At that moment, I saw that he appeared to be missing his front teeth.

He said something to Jessie that I didn’t understand. But in all of those words, I heard what I hadn’t expected. When he spoke, he sounded exactly like his children. It took me a moment to realize that the kids’ unusual manner of speaking must have been picked up from their dad. Their dad couldn’t pronounce some words correctly because of the missing teeth.

My grandmother continued to cook and bake throughout the summer, even though my mother, sister and I did our best to avoid eating much of what she made. We were more interested in losing weight than indulging in thick slabs of Grandma Somlo’s dark, home-baked bread, her rich sauces, or her many-layered, buttery pastries.

Somehow, though, my grandmother managed to meet willing eaters, while shopping in the Acme for ingredients. She mostly kept the whole business a secret from my mother and me, but we knew she cooked up batches of stuffed cabbage, wrapped the cabbage in aluminum foil, and slipped the packets into the freezer. Every couple of days, she would pull the packets out, drop them into one of the brown paper shopping bags she saved, and head off on foot to visit her newly-made friends.

I’d spent so much of my military brat childhood as the new kid in school or on the block, desperately trying to fit in and appear like the other kids, that I couldn’t see my grandmother’s differences as something to celebrate. Almost everything about my grandmother embarrassed me, from the old-fashioned way she dressed to her heavily-accented English and outdated beliefs.

At the same time, working in the migrant program was opening my eyes to people unlike any I’d ever known. Until that summer, I had often thought of my family as poor. The military apartments and duplexes in which we’d lived were generally shabby and small. My mother often complained that we didn’t have enough money. If she bought me clothes, they were always low-priced, pulled off the racks in brightly-lit, department store bargain basements.

But poverty, I was beginning to see, was starkly different from anything I’d ever remotely experienced. An infant in the program’s nursery was suffering from malnutrition. When one of the nurses met with the mother to find out why, she discovered something surprising. The mother didn’t feed the infant baby food, because she didn’t know how to read. She assumed there were complicated preparation instructions on the baby food jars that she wasn’t able to comprehend. So, the infant was given candy and other non-nutritious food that didn’t require anything read, in order to be eaten.

A reporter from the local paper, The Mount Holly Herald, spent several afternoons and evenings that summer interviewing staff and parents, and a photographer snapped photos. In early August, the resulting article about our program appeared on the Herald’s front page.

As soon as the article came out, the phone started ringing in the program office. Several parents were furious at something the reporter had written. Those same parents refused to let their kids return to the program. One father, a man who had just been paroled from prison, was threatening to come to the office and hurt someone.

In those much less culturally sensitive times, the reporter had characterized the homes in which some of our families were living as “shacks.” Not surprisingly, the families felt both angry and ashamed. More than that, they believed that we in the staff had betrayed them. The mothers and fathers had trusted their children to our care, assuming we were looking out for their best interests. The article broadcast the opposite, loud and clear.

Several days later, the program’s director did manage to get the paper to run an apology and a retraction, and the children who’d been kept home were allowed to return. In the end, we all learned something, especially me. For the first time, I had gotten a glimpse of the complex contours of poverty and its challenges, and seen what a different life the families in our program led from middle-class people like me.

Throughout that summer, my grandmother told me what to do, as if she had suddenly become my mother. I did my best to ignore her. She thought it was shameful that my mother allowed me to go out with my boyfriend, Jeff, after nine o’clock at night. I tried to explain to her that since I didn’t get home from work until eight, I couldn’t see Jeff any earlier. I also argued that we weren’t doing anything wrong, just going out for pizza or a burger, and sitting and talking in his car.

Of course, she found my choices of food outrageous, especially since she spent so much of her days cooking. Over and over again, my grandmother warned me that I would get sick, not eating enough some of the time and then indulging in food, like pizza, that she considered poison.

Jeff kept his beautiful straight blond hair long. He was an artist and a musician, and looked the part. We both wore faded jeans and tee-shirts. Grandma Somlo thought Jeff dirty and rude, neither of which was true. But this was what she’d concluded from his appearance, which offended her.

Like me, my mother was exasperated by Grandma Somlo. In normal times, I argued constantly with my mother. But now we had a common enemy, and for maybe the only time in our lives, except when I was a baby, we bonded. The house wasn’t clean enough and the food my mother made was bad. Those were just some of the criticisms Grandma Somlo leveled at my mother on a regular basis. We didn’t know when she would leave, but for both my mother and me, it couldn’t be soon enough.

My last week of work before I was to head back to college, I fulfilled my grandmother’s prediction and got sick. At first, I couldn’t stop vomiting. When I’d rid myself of everything in my system, I fell into something like a coma, hardly remaining awake for more than a few minutes at a time.

\What I most remember about that couple of days was briefly emerging from the fog and seeing my grandmother sitting next to my bed. Every time I opened my eyes, she was there, her one blue and one brown eye studying me. In her hand, she held a cool damp washcloth, that she wiped across my forehead and down my arms.

Two days before Grandma Somlo was scheduled to return to Miami, she baked a cake. That morning, as she pulled ingredients from the refrigerator, including the half-dozen eggs and pint of sour cream she planned to add, my grandmother announced that she had turned seventy that day. She added that she planned to bake her own birthday cake. If left to my mother, sister and me, Grandma Somlo knew we would make her a cake out of a box.

Since it was such a special occasion, everyone agreed to eat a piece. After my grandmother cut the cake, I took a moment to admire what she’d created. It had somewhere between twelve and fifteen of the thinnest layers imaginable, with each layer of pastry covered in fruit, nuts or cream. There was no way to think of that cake, except as a work of art.

A few months later, we got the news that Grandma Somlo had suddenly died.

“Stomach cancer,” her daughter, Midgie, told my father.

She went on to explain that my grandmother had refused to see a doctor about the pain she was suffering from, until a few days before she died.

Many years later on a cool, fog-free afternoon, I found myself standing in front of a pastry-filled window, on Columbus Avenue, in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco, the city where I lived. The many-layered cakes and some of the cookies looked like desserts Grandma Somlo had once made.

I took in the name of the place, Café Europa, written in gold lettering across the top of the window. For some reason, I felt drawn to step inside.

Standing in front of the glass counter, I leaned back to read the food offerings, written in white chalk on a long, narrow blackboard. There was sour cream soup and stuffed cabbage, Hungarian goulash, and even my favorite of Grandma Somlo’s sinfully caloric dishes, chicken paprikash.

“Vat can I get you?” the somewhat pudgy, gray-haired man behind the counter asked.

Instead of answering his question, I asked my own.

“Are you Hungarian?”

“Yes,” he said. “Do you know Hungary?”

“No,” I responded. “I’ve never been there. But that’s where my grandparents were from. My grandmother used to make all this food.”

I waved my hand toward the chalkboard, then paused. My throat felt tight, and my eyes were starting to water.

“She used to make pastries like this,” I said, pointing to the counter, as I forced myself not to cry.

“Lucky you,” he said, and grinned.

I didn’t bother to correct him or explain anything about my relationship with my grandmother and her cooking. Instead, I let my gaze leap from shelf to shelf, as I tried to decide which of those luscious-looking delicacies I was going to order and enjoy.

Patty Somlo’s most recent book, Hairway to Heaven Stories, was published by Cherry Castle Publishing, a Black-owned press committed to literary activism. Hairway was a Finalist in the American Fiction Awards and Best Book Awards. Two of Somlo’s previous books, The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil) and Even When Trapped Behind Clouds: A Memoir of Quiet Grace (WiDo Publishing), were Finalists in several book contests. Her work has appeared in Guernica, Gravel, Sheepshead Review, Under the Sun, the Los Angeles Review, The Nassau Review, and over 30 anthologies. She received Honorable Mention for Fiction in the Women’s National Book Association Contest, was a Finalist in the Parks and Points Essay Contest and in the J.F. Powers Short Fiction Contest, had an essay selected as Notable for Best American Essays, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net multiple times.

Discover more from Patty Somlo.