And Wife

3 10 2010

In 1975, “Dr. Rynearson, and wife, won the Golden Cine award for their film, “Hypochondriacs and Health Care: A Tug of War.” It was in bold print on the front page of our hometown newspaper. Nice!

I, however, was the “and wife.” Granted, the good doctor had done his share. It was his way of practicing medicine that was being featured. He had been the speaker at a meeting where he had connected with a filmmaker, but “and wife” had written the screenplay for the film. Together we had created an entertaining and meaningful film. Our sons were proud of us but after the article in the paper, they started calling me, “and wife.” They thought it was very funny.

In 1965, just ten years earlier, shortly after we’d moved to this town, I chaired a committee to organize a community theatre. My friend, Ann, the mayor’s wife, went with me to the newspaper office to tell them of our progress. We gave the editor the names of the two actors in our first show: John Jefferson and Sally Abbot. He asked if John Jefferson was a doctor at the local clinic and we said yes. “We never refer to Doctor’s by their first names.” he said. “We always list them as Dr.”

Then he asked what Sally’s husband’s name was. We told him. He said he had to list her by her husband’s name, Mrs. Ted Abbot. “But,” I protested, “this is the theatre. People are acknowledged by their first names, their own first names.”

“I’m sorry he replied, that’s the policy of the paper.”

“It should read, the part of Henry will be played by John Jefferson and the part of Eleanor by Sally Abbot.” I said.

“Sorry” he said, “that won’t work for us. We’ll list them as Dr. John Jefferson and Mrs. Ted Abbot.”

“You mean if I were in a play, I’d have to be listed as Mrs. Robert Rynearson?”

“That’s right,” he replied.

“What if it were Elizabeth Taylor,” I protested.

“Well,” he exclaimed, “this is just a small town.”

Until that moment I hadn’t thought of the site we’d chosen for our home as “just a small town.” I’d thought of it as a place where my husband could work at an excellent clinic, my kids could be raised in a safe environment and I could continue my work in the theatre. I’d met hundreds of people. Everyone I knew called me by my first name. I wasn’t an appendage of anyone. I didn’t even belong to the Medical Auxiliary, for heaven’s sake!

I could feel the blood rush to my head. I was about to shout at this impossible man who happened to be the editor of the paper, when Ann pulled at my arm and rolled her eyes. She thanked him and said we would be leaving. She was appalled too, but her life in politics had strengthened her tolerance and self-control. She was often referred to as “the Mayor’s wife.” Every time I heard it I wanted to shout out, “Ann, is her name. Her name is Ann!”

Then thirty-two years after our talk with the editor of the paper and twenty-two years after the Doctor “and wife” had won the award, it happened again. I honestly thought the world had changed. It was June of 1997. My husband was retiring from the clinic. Many people lined up at the reception to say good-bye. I was there beside him, the loyal wife, smiling at people I knew and some I didn’t. The reporters from the paper were there. It was quite a lovely event with good food and abundant flowers. It was as it should have been.

Again, we made the front page, shown standing in a receiving line. He was smiling at someone on his right and I was shaking hands with someone on my left. The caption under the picture was “Dr. Rynearson (the wife) Retires After Thirty-four Years of Service.”

I was lying in bed when my husband handed me my glasses and the paper. He told me to read the front-page article and he quickly returned to the kitchen for more coffee. “Is this possible?” I said to myself, when I first opened the paper? “Dr. Rynearson (the wife)….” It wasn’t even grammatically correct, much less appropriate. Had nothing changed in all those years?

In between the award, the theatre and the retirement, I’d actually accomplished quite a lot. People on the street knew me by my first name. I was publicly thanked several times and had my own name on the acting credits of a hand full of films. I’d even become a produced playwright.

So when a woman from a local club, asked me to be the main speaker for their monthly meeting, I asked if the local newspaper would be covering it. They said, “Yes,” so I said, “No.” The headlines would surely be, “Doctor Rynearson’s wife talks to local group about how one pursues ones dreams and establishes one’s own identity.”

But that wasn’t the end of the story. In 1999 our grandson was born. Bingo! He and his Dad were pictured on the front page of the paper. My husband again handed me the paper and again disappeared into the kitchen. “Where’s his Mother?” I shouted. She wasn’t feeling great and didn’t want to go back to the nursery where the photographer was waiting. I certainly understood that. “Read the rest of the article on the next page,” my husband shouted. On page two of the newspaper I read that he was the first baby to be born in the county in 1999 and was “the grandson of Dr. Robert Rynearson, who retired from the local clinic in 1997.” No mention of either grandmother! One was me, of course, and the other grandmother was a prominent lawyer in town.

Our son, Jim, who almost always finds the humor in life, read my story and sent this note. “Your story And Wife, sounds like a liberal feminist diatribe against all that is sacred and holy in our close to perfect male dominated world.

***

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The Recipe

20 07 2010

Lida Repp Rynearson

Read at the Farwell Celebration for Lida Rynearson

“Yes, I’d love to learn how to make apple pies.”

Every fall Lida and her helper, Emma, picked the Granny Smith apples from the trees at the north end of the yard. They always said, “What will we do with all these apples?” But by the first frost, all the apples were gone, to friends, neighbors and relatives. I was one of those relatives, Lida’s daughter-in-law.

What a terrible name for a perfectly good relationship. It implies that it is the law that you should love your husband’s mother and she should love you. It’s a recipe for failure and one that should never be followed. But the apple pie recipe was another story.

All winter the Rynearson family and friends enjoyed the apple pies – taken from the freezer and baked to perfection, the white sugar crystals bubbling on the top crust. “Will you show me how?” I pleaded. She smiled and said, “of course.”

The baking day arrived. We put pure lard into three bowls, Lida’s, Emma’s and mine, poured flower on top of the lard and I watched carefully as they both worked it into a soft crumbly mixture. They put a small amount of iced water into the bowl, gently formed the dough into balls, lifted it to a generously flowered board and coaxed it out from the center into an almost perfect circle. The pie tin was waiting. Apples, sugar, butter, and just a little more flour, and then the second circle, slit like a new moon, went on top. The last step was the sprinkle of sugar, then the aluminum wrap for the freezer.

I followed each step, always trying to be as good as they were, hoping Lida would be impressed… and I think she was, as I always was with her… without a law from any book, just a recipe from her head and a smile of approval from her heart.

I miss her.

***

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Deep Sea Fishing

11 07 2010

Ernest Hemingway

“We were wrong,” he said. “We should have cooked it long and slow.” His eyes opened into a vast experience, a mystery I longed to solve. The secrets of the universe were hiding there, I knew. This frightened me, and at the same time, compelled me to follow. I wanted to feel like he looked — strong, self-confident, filled with knowledge and compassion.

He was a famous writer who had come to the Mayo Clinic for psychiatric help. His doctor thought it would be a good idea for him to get out of the hospital. Maybe spend time with a family for Sunday brunch, with someone who had a pool where he could relax, where everyone was sensitive enough to treat him like any other human being.

My in-laws invited us to their pool one Sunday morning to be a part of this “perfect family,” assembled to make the writer feel comfortable and at home, and ultimately to help him get well. My husband’s sisters and brothers and their children were also invited.

By the time we arrived, it looked to me like everyone was being “oh, so nice” to him. They were also all being “oh so nice” to each other, which wasn’t usually the case. In the absence of a celebrity, they were quite human.

I helped our kids into their bathing suits, made sure their dad was watching them, and then went to help Lida, my mother-in-law, with the food. It made me anxious to think a famous person was down there by the pool. We were told to call him Ernest, but I knew I could never do that. Lida said, “Dear, you’re missing the party. Why don’t you take this tray down and see if anyone wants to nibble on the cheese and crackers while they wait for brunch.”

I carried the tray down to the pool and quickly handed it off to my sister-in-law who passed it around. I watched, hoping to learn how to behave, but it all seemed so phony.

He was sparring with anyone who would return his playful punches and telling the older children about his experiences in the war. Despite his gray hair, he was strong and lean. He was trying his best to be social, smiling, perhaps hoping to establish a real relationship with someone.

I had always been shy, not very good at small talk and easily intimidated. This writer was no ordinary person. What was he thinking when he said yes, he’d like to go to some nice people’s pool and be with their children and grandchildren? What could he get from us that he didn’t already have? What did he know that I needed to know?

When our eyes met, I looked away, determined to give him his privacy, determined not to look like I thought he was an object to be gazed upon, some more-than-human being. Also, I didn’t know what to say. We had been told to treat him just like one of the family, but there was no way to look into his eyes and think he was just one of us.

Brunch was served. Mounds of fresh fruit, eggs cooked with chives, in a double boiler, sweet rolls from the bakery, coffee, and juices of all kinds, papaya and mango, special for him, and orange and tomato for the rest of us.

For weeks we played this little game, pretending he wasn’t someone special. My husband even invited him for dinner one night. I hadn’t said more than hello to him. I’d avoided any conversation by pretending I was so busy with my children that I didn’t have time for anyone else, not even a famous writer. And now I was going to cook for him… dinner.

His favorite food, he said, was Green Turtle Steak. My husband said he had a friend in the Florida Keys who would air mail the steaks and then he said, “My wife will cook them.” Oh sure, I could cook. I was a good cook, but turtle wasn’t a staple at the grocery, and I didn’t know anyone who might have cooked it.

When we got home that day, I rushed to my kitchen. The Gourmet Cook Book seemed the most likely place to find a recipe, but I closed it immediately after reading a recipe that ended with, “Hang this for two weeks in your smoke house” and “serve on a yacht.” After another look, I narrowed the choices to three recipes: turtle steaks broiled, turtle steaks baked in white wine, and turtle steaks sautéed, all on page two hundred seventy. I took the book with me to the next Sunday brunch.

When everyone else was busy, I approached the table where he was sitting. He smiled as he indicated I should sit next to him. It was as if he had been waiting for me. We looked at the recipes and agreed on broiling the meat. It was quick and not too much work, and the flavor of the meat could be satisfactory to him. He was delighted. I didn’t feel nervous anymore because we had a mission. We had Green Turtle Steaks coming on the plane, and we had to get them cooked.

Neither of us had to worry about what to say. I was comfortable talking with this famous man, and he had a reason to listen to me and respond. From that moment on, we had lots to say to each other. We both liked to fish, we both liked to write, and we talked a lot about our families. Sometimes we just sat and watched the children swim.

He wanted to come to our house early the day of the Turtle Steak dinner, wanted to do some yard work, wanted to be outside, wanted to be useful. My husband suggested he mow our lawn.

We watched out the window as he pushed the mower back and forth in our tiny back yard. He was lost in the experience. He didn’t notice the woman who walked right past him.

My neighbor had company that day, and had told her guest to come over to our house and get her bread from the top shelf of our freezer. She walked down the sidewalk through our back yard, into the garage, got the bread and retraced her steps. She glanced over to see who was mowing but said nothing. She picked up her pace and was out of breath by the time she got back. “It’s bad enough for me to go into some stranger’s garage and take bread out of their freezer,” she said to her host, “but they have a gardener who looks just like Ernest Hemingway.”

So, we sat down to dinner and began our eating adventure. First our forks met with some resistance, then our knives, and last of all our teeth. If you sucked on the meat, it tasted quite good, but if you were trying to chew it, forget it. I was embarrassed, he was disappointed, and my husband didn’t know what to say. Then it dawned on us that together we had failed. “We should have cooked it long and slow.”

We began to laugh and lost control thinking about how we might use this turtle leather. Our children came in to see what was so funny. My husband said, “Never mind, it would be too difficult to explain.”

We spent the rest of the evening talking about our guest’s fishing experiences. He told us he was about to be dismissed from the hospital and would be going home. We were happy for him, that he could go, but sad for ourselves. Both my husband and I had fallen for this honest man who told wonderful stories and who genuinely liked us. It was the kind of friendship where no one expects anything of the other except what’s happening at the moment.

Before he left, he made us promise we’d come to Florida and join him on his next fishing expedition. We wondered if he really meant it. We both said we would find the money somewhere and would be there. All he had to do was call.

His driver was to pick him up at nine. When the time came, our children said good-bye to their Pa Pa Bear, the name he had insisted they call him; my husband shook his hand; and I sneaked one last look into his eyes before we hugged good-bye.

He had handed us a book when he’d come earlier that day, before he’d mowed our lawn. We’d said thank you but hadn’t stopped to see if there was an inscription. The book was still on the end of the buffet. I ignored the dirty dishes and the rejected green turtle steak and opened the book to the first page. The inscription was to the two of us: “Here’s hoping we can fish together sometime. Your old sparring partner, Ernest Hemingway.”

It was a copy of The Old Man and the Sea.

“Will you look at this,” I said, “He really wants us to go fishing with him.”

***

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The Hose Shower

11 07 2010

Harper, Mia, Kali and Marjorie Rynearson

Look, I said to my husband. I pointed to an amazing sight just outside our kitchen window. Three young girls washing each other’s hair. “Can we take a hose shower?” Harper, the eleven year old had pleaded. “Of course” I said, not really knowing what I was agreeing to. ”We just want to wash our hair,” she shouted back.

Harper and her fourteen-year old sister, Mia, had been visiting for several days before their seventeen-year-old sister, Kali, arrived. The three were bonded to each other as only sisters can be and although they fought like teenagers at home, the separation had shaded the anger and their affection for each other bloomed. Mia and Harper helped Kali unpack her bags, showed her where all the goodies were in case she was hungry, helped make up her bed, jabbered about friends back home, compared their new bathing suits, and cannon balled into the pool.

“Let’s go to the mall!” one of them shouted, and they all agreed. Another said, “I need to wash my hair before we go. They all agreed they all needed to wash their hair.

We watched them squeal and laugh as they lathered soap into each other’s thick mops of hair. They were all kneeling on a bright blue thick swimming pool mattress, facing each other, leaning forward. They took turns with the spray nozzle, blasting water it at each other’s heads. The massive amounts of soap suds bubbled off the side of the deck.

With a background of blooming peach colored bougainvilleas and butterfly friendly lantanas, the three then lathered each other’s heads with conditioner. More squealing, more visual delight for me. They were not aware of their joyful creation.

Acrobats at the Cirque Fernando by Pierre-Auguste Renoir Art Institute of Chicago

It was like the Renoirs at the Chicago Art Institute, one of the two young girls in a circus ring, holding succulent oranges, or another across the room called the Sisters. Weeks before I had found myself in tears looking at those two paintings, and as I watched these three girls I started to cry again. I don’t remember ever feeling that way about my sisters and I’m not sure why. Do they write about such things in Modern Maturity?

My older sister is three years my senior. She’s very social and always had lots of friends. She often allowed me to hang out with them when they came to our house.

I remember one time being angry with her because she was hogging the sink, washing her hands before dinner. I stuck my tongue out at her and she lathered it with the soap she just happened to have on her hand. I also remember us wrapping each other up in a rug and being terrified to find I couldn’t move my arms or legs once she’d rolled me up. Did she feel that way when it was her turn?

I remember insisting I share the proceeds of my piggy bank with her, since she had spent all her money. She resisted… a little. She still has a wonderful sense of humor, is smart, capable, thoughtful and caring.

My younger sister arrived during World War II, nine months after our Dad returned to his post in the US Navy, and nine years after my birth. One of the few memories I have about her child hood, was the day I asked her if our Mother had given her the “facts of life” speech. She was twelve and I was twenty-one, engaged to be married, and perhaps thinking about having my own children. I was appalled she didn’t know anything and proceeded to explain as much as I could.

When she got older, Mother showered her with elegant cloths and sent her to an expensive college. She was beautiful. Her approach to life has always been optimistic, and she seems to be able to do what she decides to do and to forget or rationalize things that don’t work out quite right.

As I write about them, I feel the urge to sit them down on a blue swimming pool float, in front of a bougainvillea, lather their hair with soap and then spray them with the hose. If we lived closer to each other, I would do it at least once a week.

I looked for sisterly love with my sisters-in-law and found friendship and respect but they were not my sisters. They could not have been thrilled with an outsider coming in to share their brother and their father… to become part of their family. I didn’t understand the implications of that until recently.

There wasn’t time for carefree frolicking during my child rearing years. I thought nothing should come before my kids. Where in the world did I get that idea? Four boys, who, of course couldn’t understand what I was missing, never told me who wore what or who was dating whom. I had to ask one of the neighbor girls. And all my friends were in the same position. We called ourselves the “Ya Ya” sisters after a book by the same name, but in truth, we never had time for just us. There were always kids snaking through the yard or hiding under the table..

I was determined to be a good mother-in-law, which may not have been the best way to approach it but I needed some female relationships… sisters, daughters, friends… whatever. I recall not being a perfect daughter-in-law myself to my husbands mother, who did her best, I know, to draw me in. What made me think it could be much different when I was in that role?

Then there came a major change in my life. A one-way ticket to Chicago, for one person, me, to pursue my dream of working in the theatre. And in Chicago, I found some do-fore sisters, several women who respected my opinions and empathized with my aches and pains, separations, obligations, political views, etc. For twenty years we walked and talked, drank coffee and met for meals. We shared our deepest feelings and encouraged each other to excel. We sympathized with each other when things seemed unfair.

I remember being amazed that these wonderful women liked me, as much as I liked, no loved, them. And I still do. If I had spent the last twenty years living just around the corner from my sisters, I believe we would have had the same feelings for each other.

My younger sister and I talked every day when she was trying to get through a divorce. How could that bastard have left such a wonderful person as my sister? Day after day she cried and we worked on the answer to why this had happened. We concluded he was just a jerk. It couldn’t have been anything she did.

I tried to be there for my older sister when her husband died and sixteen years later when her companion died, but we were separated by a thousand miles and it was not easy to hug her and cry. I know now I should have gone to be with her.

As I watch my granddaughters, I grieve for the relationships that have been compromised by circumstances, distance, and time. And now I want my sisters to pour too much soap on my hair and rinse it out with too much water from a spray gun on the end of a hose. It seems to me like a plausible goal, one worth pursuing.

***

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Gentle Vignettes (And Some Not So Gentle)

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