Sunday, October 7, 2007

A Long Way to Memphis - March 2005

It’s a snowy night here on the coast of Maine. The grocery stores are full of hyped-up people provisioning for the big storm that we’re told will continue into late Saturday. Earlier tonight, in need of a date and with no desire to cook dinner, my husband Scott and I decided to go to a barbeque place called Beale Street in Bath where the motto is Because it’s a long way to Memphis.

The snow was coming down hard as we left the boys with instructions to call our cel numbers in case a psycho-killer tried to force entry or either of them experienced any bleeding that was determined not to stop. While driving across the tall bridge over the Kennebec River, Scott started to pass a slow-moving car just before our exit into downtown Bath.

"Don’t do that," I chided. "You won’t have enough time to get back in the right lane."

He pulled back behind the car and said, "Don’t be foolish, I would have been fine."

"I’m never foolish. Silly sometimes, but never foolish."

As Scott pulled off the exit to Front Street, he nailed me with the zinger, piercing an ancient tender spot.

"What about that hooked rug?"

I felt extremely accused, but said, "I thought I was a different type of person back then."

In the mid-80s, like many other innocent women whom I hope have also long since moved on, I went through a 'country' phase. Granted, I grew up in the country and knew a bit about canning and baking pies and picking berries and having animals around, but the country I’m talking about here was somehow cultivated in the kinds of magazines you find in your grocer’s check-out aisle. It was a look, and it often involved baskets hanging from your kitchen ceiling. These weren’t the berry baskets from my childhood that collected with all kinds of junk on a shelf in what I grew up calling "the back room."* (When we were done with one, we chucked it up there and hoped it would stay put.) No, in order to qualify for the country look these hanging baskets had to be antiques with provenance or ones you made yourself by stripping the bark from young birch trees with your teeth.

Another basic element of 'country' was the hooked rug, either antique or made yourself. In the height of my phase, c. 1987, I had a thing for hooked rugs. I bought a lovely antique rug, with the maker’s initials hooked in the corner, here in Maine. I took it home to where we were living in West Virginia and hung it on the dining room wall. I worshiped it for years.

Then I got the idea that I needed to hook rugs myself. I should have started with a simple seat cover kit, but no no no. I bought a huge canvas stamped with some primitive landscape and gave my best guess about how many packages of wool strips of various colors I would need. I contemplated many a different hook before settling on a nice wood-handled one. I filled out my order blank, wrote a check and mailed it in. (Such a catalog purchase strikes me as quaintly country now.)

A couple of weeks later, my package came, my Wells Fargo wagon in the guise of the UPS truck. Scott looked at me bemusedly as I unpacked about 10,000 wool strips and a 3' by 5' canvas. I was a little daunted myself but not about to admit it.

"You will never finish that," he said simply and walked away.

"I will too!" I shouted after him. "I'll finish it just to show you," but already I was feeling foolish and defeated. It hadn’t looked so vast in the catalog as it did draping over my lap and onto the floor.

Over the next couple of months, I ran into all kinds of trouble and finished – on the outside – perhaps 3.2 percent of the entire canvas. I kept it with my unfinished knitting projects in a canvas bag for ten years. Then I finally and quietly donated it to the local hospital rummage sale where some poor quixotic soul must have bought it.

Every once in awhile when the conversation lags, Scott will look at me and say, "You know, you never finished that hooked rug." He knows that really gets under my skin because he knows I want to be the sort of person who takes on a project bigger than I can handle and finishes it anyway.

I want to be the sort of mother who says, "If you aren’t up and dressed and sitting at the breakfast table by 7:30 tomorrow morning, boy, no computer for two days," and actually follows through. But then, at some point after school, I’m on a phone call for work and some kid will lean up against my chair with a pitiful look on his face, his hands in an attitude of prayer. "PLEEEEESE," he mouths. He kisses my rings. And after five minutes I break and say "Mmm-hmm" into the phone and hiss at the boy, "Okay, for a little while. Now shoo!"

I want to be the sort of person who exercises everyday, who doesn’t eat french fries, who puts clothes away as soon as they’re folded instead of foraging for clean laundry in the basket all week, who doesn’t pass over important stories on Google News only to click on "Russell Crowe targeted in al-Qaeda kidnapping plot."

I am still operating under the delusion that I am going to wake up some morning a person I will never be.

Actually, it’s a grand hope and some days I feel like it’s possible to transform myself. Grace Paley wrote a collection of short stories I love called, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute. There is a very short story in it titled "Wants" that commends itself to anyone who wants to be the sort of person who always drops off library books before they're due.

For those of you who feel, like I often do, "extremely accused," Grace and I can't promise much with regard to personal transformation, but I'm sure she joins me in the hope that you will feel like you’re in good company.

*It was a small room off the kitchen that would have served as a mud room if they’d never invented cars or driveways so that the fact that it was on the wrong side of the house wouldn't have mattered. It had a wide, heavy old-fashioned door with interesting hardware. Besides a second refrigerator, the back room had a broom closet where, for some reason, we kept fishing poles and an ancient work sink that was good for washing paint brushes…if you could get to it over all the other junk that collected on the floor. And it always smelled a little funny…kind of like puppy breath. Three years ago my mother sold the farm in upstate New York, and I don’t expect I’ll ever throw another berry basket up over the refrigerator again.

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