December 8, 2006
Volume 34
Issue 49
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Saturday, May 30, 2020



Not Thinking Straight by Madelyn Arnold
On being good
There is a point past which our paranoia hurts us more than what we fear hurts us. Where is that point? What about just being our sweet little selves?

Needing a last few credits, I took a course in composing Oral Histories. An oral history is a close-to-eidetic transcription of the account someone gives about his or her life - more like a map of the events or journeys that person has undertaken than a story, or group of stories. By taking the class, I had agreed to find at least one person willing to discuss the topography of his or her life. Naturally, I was hoping to find someone who was interesting, and I found such a person in my elderly neighbor, whom I'll call Mrs. Smith. Then-Lover and I had a kind of relationship with her.

At the time we lived in a strange little house near Green Lake (in the Latona area) and Mrs. Smith lived over the back fence. I seem to remember her telling me she had lived there at least since the Depression, and whatever her house lacked in Yuppiness, it made up in feist. Her back porch was affixed to the house like a barnacle to a boat, and every now and again some kind person (or someone she hired) propped up its steps.

Due to a pestilential conspiracy of branches and leaves overhead, almost no sun reached her yard; it was hard for us to recognize how much she loved to garden, hard to watch the little bits of geranium she set out hopefully in pots every spring - they never had a chance. We could do nothing about that, but Then-Partner and I had a pretty good-sized garden, from a good deal of sun. If we couldn't bring a little bit of sun into her yard, perhaps we could bring it to her table.

Her front yard did get the afternoon sun, and she had trees and flowers which could bloom to beat the band; but we had plums and apples, as well as vegetables. At first she had seemed shy, but after a while we were able to talk a bit, then to entice her to take some lettuce, some carrots -- that sort of thing. And as soon as I saw we could share our tomatoes - God knows we had tomatoes coming out our ears - we were parting with our precious Ball Dome jars of green-tomato relish. My grandma and I had loved canning, especially making green-tomato relish. And Apple-plum jelly. And Quince-plum jelly. And... But I get ahead of myself.

Mrs. Smith and ourselves had had exactly no relationship for the first year we had owned that house. And, then, one day she stopped fooling with her sad little geraniums, unbent herself, and removed her gardening gloves. She set them on the wood fence between us, and I observed that she didn't see our old dog anymore. Was anything wrong?

Our sweet old Gertrude had died. Showing that utter unromance that was her hallmark, Mrs. Smith said: "She was a nice dog, quiet and compact." And left me to mull this over, pulled on her gloves and turned back to her gardening.

Soon after, we got a silly pup (the light of my life) - our not always quiet, but nicely compact - dog, Alice. She learned quickly, loved ecstatically, and the first time she encountered Mrs. Smith, leaped joyously into her arms. Surprised into spontaneity, the old lady squeezed our dog like a doll. Thus vamped, it was easy for Mrs. Smith to share our tomatoes; and as for me - love my Alice, and I'll love you.

That was the summer I was taking Oral Histories, but Then-Partner and I hit a rough patch: she was very ill, and couldn't work; and while I had been a Teaching Assistant while doing lab work, lab hours were few in the summer, and there were no TA's. Almost every cent went to utilities and mortgage.

Still, we had more green food than we needed; we were comparatively young and strong (and also vegetarian - very cheap). Over the back fence was my busy neighbor trimming small kindling, fussing with this and that, wearing one of her three basic outfits; maybe she wasn't well-off...? It was easy to ask her to be interviewed, her life recorded in the History Project of Washington State; and she seemed genuinely flattered to be asked.

And so, one day a week for several weeks, I sat on an overstuffed chair nursing a tape recorder, asking questions and sipping tea - admiring some 50 years of tchachkes in and on the many shelves and cases in her living room. Her childhood and schooling, farm work, Dustbowl Years, War Years and children washed over me. It was wonderful. I was fanatical at transcription, playing tapes over and over; making sure I got every single detail exactly right.

It is the custom to show each person the final transcription of their Oral History, and I was on my way to show her my final draft, coming along the angle of another neighbor's garage. But for some reason I stopped the way you do when you hear your name...

You won't believe it. I've been talking to one of them. No, they aren't renters, but you just won't believe this ... police are saying they aren't even illegal!

She sneered that we were things. She said no doubt we were doing certain things...

And the way that one dresses - !

I didn't hang around any more. And I didn't try to get her to look at the last draft.

From her disgust, her inflections, she knew me as vile. Had she really seen us...? Though we usually went upstairs; usually left the light off. More likely, she had seen us holding hands - that's enough to get prejudice working overtime.

It's always seemed peculiar to me that we have to defend what ought to be personal, even blushingly private; almost like describing our toilet habits to strangers. And, then, comes the look: why do you have to mention [being Gay], followed by the inevitable after all, I don't talk about my [heterosex]. But they do. They don't let us be other than our sexual habits -- at least not the Mrs. Smiths of the world.

I still gave her plums and tomatoes anyway. Just because she's teeny-minded doesn't mean that I have to be...

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