Creamed Onions 1945 by Sally Clay
When my father was inducted into the Army in 1944, I was sent to live with Mommy at my grandmother's apartment in Cincinnati. My mother came from a family of strong, argumentative women in a era when a woman's independence was a cause for embarrassment, and divorce was a scandal.
Although my great-grandmother Eastman had died years before I was born, her presence was still felt daily in my grandmother's household. Grandma Eastman had been a woman doctor of the homeopathic school. She was something of an entrepreneur, trying to market a concoction called Grandma Eastman's Salve, and she was a well-known suffragist who worked to achieve the vote for women in Ohio. Today her name is engraved on a plaque at the Cincinnati City Hall.
Although an imposing public figure (my Uncle Bro remembers her marching for women's rights wearing a yellow banner across her "ample bosom") Grandma Eastman was a tyrant in her own family. Her word was never to be disputed, and she dragged her grandchildren, my mother in particular, throughout her practice from hospital to sick bed and back home to endless chores, all with relentless control and demand for performance. The entire family stood in awe of her, in death as in life, and under her shadow her two sons and their families developed a restless striving for creative excellence coupled with a stubborn and egotistical righteousness.
Nonnie, my grandmother, was also such a strong personality, and that is probably why my grandfather, Grandma Eastman's oldest son, had married her in the first place; but it was the same reason why they were later divorced. It was a pattern repeated often in the family, and probably was the principal explanation of my own parents' divorce. For all the dichotomies that I was later to endure in coping with my divorced parents, the one constant factor was the creative striving that I sensed in them both, along with an almost missionary insistence on their very personalized and internalized philosophies (each one anathema to the other). For my mother, as for my father, it was as it had been for Grandma Eastman--particular obsessions were a matter of almost sacred trust. All such obsessions were to be bitterly defended and desperately maintained at any cost.
Mommy's creative ambition was focused on the genteel domestic and social life she had lacked as a child. Her father had provided decent enough homes in his career as writer, editor, and erstwhile real estate entrepreneur--but the homes had never been stable and income had never been sufficient. Even before the divorce, relations between Mommy's parents had been strained, and the divorce itself left the burden of guilt on my mother as the oldest child. She blamed her own mother (my grandmother) for the breakdown of the family and for her own disrupted childhood.
It was at about the same time as the opening of Gone With the Wind that my parents met and were married. My father was no Rhett Butler--but he was a fiery young lawyer from a wealthy family, and life in the little Southern town of Mt. Sterling, Kentucky, promised a good approximation to the Tara of my mother's dreams. As wedding presents she received a staggering assortment of sterling silver, crystal, and fine china--amenities the Eastmans were not always able to afford. She and my father made a handsome couple--both short, dark-haired, and full of high spirit and ambition. I think it was in both of their minds to become the leaders and first family of that little town. The little house on Sycamore Street was to be only a stepping stone to greater things to come after my father established his law practice.
Some years ago I found a picture of my mother taken a few years before her marriage. Her hair was short and dark and curled coyly around her face, and she wore a lacy, high-necked dress that set off her tiny waist. She was lounging languorously on a velvet-covered horsehair couch, smiling in a consciously seductive innocence. She knew what she wanted. And, like her father, she wanted to marry someone who was her counterpart in a common destiny.
But perhaps such a destiny--the destiny of a noble ambition-- cannot have a counterpart, for the only common destiny of my parents was the same as that of my mother's parents: a life of bitterness and disappointment, and divorce.
My mother--whose talents included a love of children, a keen sense of interior design, a flair for entertaining, and a literate ability for conversation--found herself thrust upon a wartime society that no longer had the time or the faith for the accommodation of such talents on a noble scale. She yearned for domestic art--grand domestic art--but she had never learned to live in a home, and she had not been trained to work in the world.
So after her dreams of life as a Southern Lady were shattered by the reality of divorce--and all the scandal that divorce in a prominent, small-town family then implied--Mommy moved in with Nonnie and began plans to open her own business, a nursery school.
At Nonnie's I became aware of environmental details and contrasts. At my grandparents in Mt. Sterling, I had lived in a world of space and light, a world of diamond clarities in which I was myself a raw and precious jewel. The living room was a vast expanse of Oriental rugs and tall windows, a showcase into which children were admitted as ornaments, as temporary variations to its ordered silence. E.E. would bring me down to visit in the late afternoon, and I would be expected to perform Sunday school songs and to talk politely with the adults until Louis rang the chimes for dinner and we relapsed again into silence.
Nonnie's apartment was on the top floor of a bank building in Hyde Park Square, with a small living room full of street noises and shadows. There was little light in the front, where the living room faced the sooty square and the noise from the trolleys and the traffic intruded long into the night. At the other end of a very long hall, past the bedrooms, was Nonnie's kitchen and dining room, which were flooded with the afternoon light. I was always drawn to that end of the house, where I would sit myself down at the table trying to understand the constant sound of water on the roof--it was the ventilation system of the movie theater two doors down.
"It's not raining," I finally informed my grandmother, "it's only water dripping," and she was delighted with my wit and perception, bragging to all her friends and guests about my observation. "Only water dipping," she mimicked me endlessly. It became a family joke.
So I was accepted as a full-fledged member of the household, as I had not been in Mt. Sterling. But I was also introduced to the ambiguities of adult conflicts. My mother and my grandmother argued frequently, arguments that usually began as a dispute over correct techniques of household management and deteriorated to allegations of guilt, cruelty, and malice. These fights often took place in connection with family dinners and were often joined by my other aunts and uncles.
"But Mother, you know that Grandma Eastman always halved her onions," my mother insisted one Thanksgiving morning. "Creamed onions simply cannot be made with whole onions. It isn't done."
"Betty, you don't know what you're talking about," Nonnie replied. "You were just a child, you don't really remember. I've cooked these onions hundreds of times with Grandma Eastman. In fact, she used my mother's recipe."
My mother's voice rose in indignant panic. "We never used that recipe! You always wanted to use it, you were so determined to dictate things. But you can't cook creamed onions with whole onions. The onions would never absorb the flavor of the sauce. Why don't you believe me? You've never believed me! I always helped Grandma Eastman cook the onions--and I remember every minute of it!"
Nonnie collected her full bulk and proprietorily straightened up dirty dishes in her kitchen. "You always have to get everything your own way, don't you, Betty? If the facts don't fit your idea of what you want, then you just change the facts. Here you are with a four-year-old child come running home to me because you insisted on remolding the entire Clay family to your version of Southern hospitality. And you wonder why Bill won't support you in the manner to which you are accustomed. And here he is in the Army and leaving behind a law practice that is barely established yet. Just who do you think you are that everyone should drop everything and do as you say? This is my kitchen, daughter, and I will make creamed onions as I see fit--and the way they are supposed to be made, I might add."
"You always do this!" screamed Mommy. "What right have you to bring my life into this? Why do you always take everyone else's side against mine? You know that the Clays are wallowing in money--and Bill Clay is no innocent young attorney. He has power in that town--power. And he is trying to ruin me with his power and his money, you know he is--he is using every trick in the book to take Sally away from me, and you stand there defending him. He is a vulture, that man! He knows all the laws and how to use them, and his family has all the money in that town, don't you forget it! Do you think I want to live with you in this grimy city, with you and your vile tongue? That man is doing this to me! You know he is! He's twisting the law and the minds of all of my friends against me. If he has his way, I won't get a cent. Sally is your granddaughter, and I am her mother. I am fighting for her life, and here you stand taking that man's side! What right have you to do this--what right?"
I was sitting with my coloring books at the dining room table in the other room, and I absorbed every word that my mother said. I had heard the same words before but had managed to ignore them. This time I listened more carefully, the emptiness of the dining room surrounding me and the dripping of the water from the ventilating machine across the graveled roof fading to a rhythmic, mechanical pulse.
Mommy was crying. "All I ever wanted," she wept, "was to make an attractive, shining home for my child--the home that I never had when I was a child. All I ever had was chaos and dirt, and anything I ever did to make things pretty was denigrated and ridiculed. But you'll never understand that, Mother. My brother and sister were always right, weren't they, and I was always wrong. And now Bill--that monster, Bill--is all sweetness and light, and I, your daughter, am the one who suffers your reproach. It's always been that way, hasn't it, Mother?"
Nonnie was still puttering with the dishes and the stove. "You think what you want to think," she answered tersely. "You won't listen to anyone else anyway. But as long as you are in this house, I'll expect you to cooperate with me in my own kitchen. I am making creamed onions the way Grandma Eastman made them--the way we have always made them--and when you have your own kitchen you can do whatever you want to with them. No one is ever going to love you, Betty, as long as you behave this way."
I put down my crayons and waited for my mother's reply, but all I heard were her sobs and the reverberations in my own mind of what she had said. What was it that she had said about me? What did I have to do with creamed onions? What had my father done, and had he done something bad to Mommy? Was it my fault that my mother had been banished from Mt. Sterling? I could not understand. I understood only that my mother was crying, and that things were more wrong for her than they had ever been for me. I left my coloring books on the table and walked up the hall to the living room where the furniture squatted in brown and purple masses.
I sat on the stiff horsehair cushions of the couch--the same couch where my mother had posed for her photograph. I felt strange and alone, the only living thing in that dark room and the only person that I knew for certain, for I no longer knew my family. I loved my mother, Nonnie, and my father, and I had until now admired each of them with a pure and total acceptance of who they were. But for the first time I perceived a sharp and ugly side to the adults that I had admired. I sensed a hostile force in my father, a callousness in my grandmother--and a puzzling, aggressive grief in my own mother that made me feel at the same time pity and anger. Simultaneously I felt in myself a recognition both of emotional weapons and their wounds; with my childish generosity, I wanted to assimilate my mother's anguish and my father's anger, to take them to myself so that I could make my parents mine again before I lost them. For with this new knowledge had come a new kind of loss--not the loss of a hat or of toys or of a house, but a loss of certainty that aroused the need to fight and to struggle to regain it.
A trolley had stopped on the square below, and a police siren broke the rumble of holiday traffic. Tiptoeing to the window, I balanced on one knee on the arm of a chair and studied the street four stories below. Some people were climbing onto the trolley across the street, some were going in and out of the Jewish delicatessen just beneath my window; cars pulled over to the side to let the police car pass. Were they all people like my father, my mother, and my grandmother? I did not think so. I was certain that regular people were all people of good spirit, and that these people were all very simply preparing to meet with their families--families that all had mothers and fathers together--to be happy together with no arguments like the one I had just heard and no ugly and sharp feelings that could wound the ones that they loved.
The people on the street--the people of the world, to me--became like mechanical dolls, moving in an environment of no question and no surprise. They also moved in an atmosphere of light only, unaware of the shadowy room where I now knelt feeling for the first time the painful pressure of unwept tears. I envied the people, remembering my own bright and ordered existence in the little Southern town. But I also cherished my new understanding--a new kind of caring that was at the same time painful and sweet.
I was sick a lot in the three or four years after the divorce, and I became used to spending a lot of time alone, both in daytime and in the dark. At Nonnie's, the Jenny Lind daybed in the shadowy study off the living room was made up for me when I was sick, and I lay there for long stretches of time soothed by cool, wet washcloths on my forehead as I listened to the street noises. I felt as warm and as alone as a baby curled in a womb and, like a baby, suspended in time anticipating entering the world. For me, the prospect of starting school seemed like a kind of birth.
I was enclosed in a female world, conscious always of the presence of my mother and my grandmother and the ghost of Grandma Eastman, whose spirit and the spirit of other dead ancestors seemed to reside in the massive grandfather clock that ticked loudly in the other room and which displayed the mysteries of time with the sun, moon, and stars that moved above its face. Its resonant ticking was like a mother's heartbeat and proclaimed the triumph of the darkness inside over the glare of the world outside.
After dinner (served on a tray) Mommy would move me back to the bedroom that we shared off the long hall. There I would listen to bits and snatches of after-dinner conversation between Mother and Nonnie. I would lie in the dark and stare at the night sky through the window; especially I would study the moon. Through the long window panes beside my bed I would watch the moon rise and I would speculate on its composition, especially when it was full. My mother had already introduced me to the planetarium where, sitting in artificial night, I had watched fascinated as the moon and the planets were plucked one by one from the sky and enlarged to geographical entities. Shortly before my fifth birthday, Mommy had taken me to see Fantasia, a movie which virtually changed my life. If the planetarium had introduced me to an understanding of space, Fantasia, with its portrayal of prehistoric earth and its dinosaurs, opened up for me an appreciation of evolutionary time. I felt drawn to, almost obsessed with, the experience of vast distance and time, and the silence of empty space.
When I was recuperating from a long bout with scarlet fever followed by German measles, I lay in bed one night, staring at the moon radiant like polished silver and swirled with craters, and I puzzled at the myths that I was expected to accept by anonymous grown-ups. The moon was not green cheese and there was no man in it; it was something more serious than that, and more real. The brilliance of it, and its stony persistent presence in the blackness of space, insisted on an eternal reality of things not just beyond earth or beyond humans but beyond life itself.
If the shadows and the rhythmic punctuations of street noises in Nonnie's living room invited me to an interior life, the gleaming swatches of moonlight in an otherwise dark bedroom testified to an illumination more basic than the glare of street life. I felt a joy in these moments of solitude that at the time I could only express by voicing an interest in clocks or stars or dinosaurs. I could not express such things, but nevertheless I expected to find their explanation in such places as church and school, and I knew that what I experienced had something to do with God.
I think it was about the time that I had scarlet fever that I asked Mommy, "What is God?"
She told me, "God is everywhere and is in everything." She then held my hand, and smiled at me in confident silence.
I don't recall that she ever cluttered up the definition with sentimental statements about God's love for this, that, or the other, or with statements of specious causality such as, "If you are good, God will take care of you." Mommy always was, I think, basically a mystic--she always communicated the experience of God--and it is just as well, because her definition made a lot of sense to me, and it is still about the clearest spiritual statement (partly expressed, as it was, through silence) that I have come across.
From the start, I rejected the pressures of organized religion. When Mommy enrolled me in a Catholic preschool taught by nuns, I listened with suspicion when the nuns read to us their version of the creation of the earth--Disney's version appealed to me much more; Fantasia's depiction of fire and water, green plants and stumbling life, seemed more to the point of things than did the nuns' anthropomorphic and willful Creator. The nuns really did not seem to care much about me or the other students, and my suspicions were confirmed when they confiscated the shiny new pencil case (my first) that I had proudly brought with me to school one day. At the end of the day they denied that they even had it, and I never saw it again. Soon after that, Mommy withdrew me from the school. But the damage had been done--I now regarded school with cynicism and religion with hostility.
Shortly after my run-in with the nuns, Mommy opened her first nursery school in a two-story frame house that she bought with her divorce settlement. She also joined an Episcopal church and enrolled me in Sunday school. This was the first of many Sunday school experiences that became an aggravation to me.
In Mt. Sterling, my father belonged to the "Christian" Church, or the Disciples of Christ, a moderate fundamentalist denomination. In Mt. Sterling, I recalled, Sunday mornings had been a time merely to play and to learn songs such as "Jesus Loves Me," which even then I considered silly and which I learned primarily to please my father and my grandparents. All the way through elementary school I was, along with my sisters, required to perform Sunday school songs before my grandmother, who in later years was bedridden.
Sunday school in Cincinnati represented my first lesson in hypocrisy--such instruction as we children received from harried teachers consisted of stories from the Bible presented with simpering sweetness as if they were material for Little Golden Books such as the ones my great grandmother Clay had read to me. I do not think the other children were any more taken in by this than I was, because Pandemonium reigned throughout the class and nearly reached riot proportions before the session ended. Often in desperation the Sunday school teacher discarded her teaching materials and handed out coloring books and crayons.
I felt strange and out of place in those Sunday school classes; my peers were eager merely to be entertained at all cost, and their protests were motivated from sheer disrespect and boredom. They were easily pacified with toys.
I was not so easily pacified, but once again I could not say why--I simply thought there was something wrong with me that I could not go along with the general restless surge. But from all the talk about God that I had heard from the time I was able to hear, and from my few rudimentary glimpses of space and light, I was genuinely curious--even seeking. What was that beautiful silence that I had experienced while looking out into the night? If God is good, and if He answers prayers, why were my father and mother apart, and why did I not have a home and parents like other children?
Because I complained so bitterly about Sunday school, my mother started taking me to church with her instead. It was an old-fashioned Episcopal church built of deeply stained wood inside and out, and the atmosphere of warm, shadowy darkness at least provided the spiritual environment I had expected, and that I could understand. Although I was too young to appreciate the ritual, I was satisfied to kneel quietly with my mother and to acknowledge my inarticulate desire for the holy, and my mother's experience of it in silence.
The new question that had formed in my head--the one that had been suggested by all the promises made in Sunday school about the why of hate and hurt, about the ending of hurt--that question remained, and grew unanswered. The God of meditation and solitude and darkness provided comfort and solace--as long as I knelt or contemplated. The God of love that everyone talked about was not so manifest.
Prayer never made a great deal of sense to me. How do you talk in words to space or light or silence, when that is not the way it has talked to you? And my first tentative supplications were never answered the way they would be if God really was what they said He was: "Please let Mommy and Nonnie stop fighting," or "Please make Mommy and Daddy love each other." There was no answer.
I saw little that was holy in the way anyone, adults or children, behaved. There was nothing but chaos at Sunday school in the clash of childish energy with mismanaged adult power; there was nothing of the beauty or dignity that all children instinctively respect when they see the genuine thing.
What I had seen of adult behavior did little to establish any correspondence between human love and elemental spirituality as I had experienced it in the silences of Nonnie's apartment. The human love that I had observed in my family was a passion strangely lacking in respect or compassion. The only inkling I had of any other kind of love was the unconditional love that I myself had received from adults but which they did not give each other. My mother's gentle applications of cool washcloths to my hot forehead when I was sick, and Nonnie's delighted appreciation of my precocious observations--these were loving attentions that they reserved almost exclusively for children.
The war was just ending, and the era of postwar babies and of Dr. Spock and nuclear families was taking hold. For people who had survived the Depression and the war and the disruption of a whole society, life itself seemed to have lost some intrinsic holiness. Only children were perceived to be innocent--innocent of the monstrous bomb that had concluded the war and innocent of the new, easy prosperity that now was based upon the power to kill and control.
Childrearing became the supreme, and perhaps the only, virtue in a world that was fast becoming ever more separated from human values and more possessed by the mechanics of power. The community and the extended family became mutated into the nuclear family, an artificial culture in which children were sacred.
When I was very young I was treated, as many children were and still are, as something precious and wonderful--and sacred. But the problem with sacredness and with the worship that follows it is that, when it is directed toward a person, the person becomes a substitute for spiritual reality, a material possession, an object. It was for that reason, I think, that even as a child I viewed the worship of the man Jesus with baffled resentment.
Unconsciously I dismissed what I heard in church and Sunday school but kept in my heart what my mother had told me and what I myself heard in silence.
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