(Essay in progress, 2013)
When we bought the farm in 1988, I had never lived in the country and had never owned a barn. We moved in on a bright autumn day and quite suddenly my view from the kitchen encompassed two silos and a gas pump, a large population of bluejays, and six acres of grass and creeping charlie. There was space for our children, and room for my husband to yell at his dogs with impunity. There was also a flagpole.
It stood in front of the house, on the corner of the top of the hill, between an enormous pine and a precipitous drop off to the driveway. The cement that anchored it had been shabbily finished off some years earlier, like so many things on the farm, with an un-square square of little concrete bricks. The first year, I put in red petunias, and discovered there was only an inch or so of dirt. They languished.
There are a lot of things to do with an old farm in the first few years and the flagpole just stood there for quite some time, unadorned. The rope was rotted off and, although it had been constructed so that it could be lowered to the ground, the bolts were long rusted in place. A year went by before I went out one day and whacked it around in an unscientific manner, eased it to the ground, and re-strung the rope.
It was my mother who gave us the flag, pulling it out of her big car along with other presentations for the new old house. She brought a tea cart, two little chairs she’d been saving for me for years, and, wrapped inelegantly in a sheet of old plastic, rough-folded, the flag. “It’s huge,” she said. “It’ll look great up there.” Where had it come from? “It was Nora’s.”
* * *
When I was a little girl, we lived in a Chicago suburb built entirely around a series of country clubs, where the street names were golf-ish and vaguely Scot. Brassie, Braeburn, Bunker, Caddy. The yard was long and deep and had enormous trees in front. Way in the back, where it was bushy and unkempt (there was no gardening in our family), you could duck down and then jump up on a pair of boards that crossed a little ditch that ran water in the spring. Scrambling up an incline, you emerged into the air and light and openness of the Illinois Central Railroad commuter line. There were probably six or so tracks, although it seemed like more, and across that forbidden expanse were the tops of houses where unfamiliar children lived. I didn’t know anyone in that neighborhood.
It was an IC trunk line. Freight trains clanked by in endless parade, each car swaying a little differently, the couplings holding hands. At night, the City of New Orleans sped along, and in its downlit windows you could catch an occasional glimpse of arm, or a woman’s hat. Each morning, commuter trains arrived from the south, and stopped at our station. Every twelve minutes between six and eight, all the fathers in town got on the trains and left for the city, leaving behind a society made up entirely of women and children. Women drove men to the station in those days. If they were late, they came fast down our street, careening toward the station, turned an impatient left to go under the viaduct, and paused to let the departing breadwinner leap out, with the inevitable briefcase and newspaper. In the winter, the men wore topcoats. In the windows of the passing trains, standing or sitting, they all swayed in unison, absorbed in their papers, which were triple-folded in a curious commuter kind of way. No one conversed. They never looked up.
So, northbound, they probably never saw the southbound trains, heading from downtown out into the suburbs. When those trains, fewer, stopped at the Flossmoor station, the ladies in station wagons went back, slower, and waited at the end of our street. Women got off the trains, coming to work carrying string bags. Each one got into a station wagon and was driven away. Sometimes there were children in the back and sometimes not. But the women driving were always white; the women arriving were always black. The ladies were picking up the maids. Ours was Nora.
I was a child, living a small and circumscribed life. It never crossed my mind that both drivers and passengers in those station wagons were women. As I look back now through the tunnel of years and geography, I see that they probably had more in common with each other than with the heads-of-household who had departed on the earlier trains. But gender was nothing to bond over then, at least if you were female. And color was a division so deep as to be subterranean. At least if you were a child. Or at least if you were white. Or at least if you were me.
The only black people I ever saw were the maids. There might have been an occasional handyman or gardener, but a black man, even if ruled by white women, would have been a cause of uneasiness, unless he was elderly and safe. Black women were just women, of course, and just colored. It was natural to tell them what to do. Even a young housewife could do it, even a child. They appeared in the morning and disappeared at the end of the day, into the viaduct and gone. It never crossed my mind to wonder where Nora went.
I don’t remember ever picking Nora up in our station wagon, or in the big green Chrysler. She must have walked. The house wasn’t far down the block, almost too close for prestige, in fact, although it was large and gracious looking. I do remember the way she walked with her string bag full of cleaning supplies. Bent over and heavy, she was slow, in shoes that seemed shapeless. I remember knowing that she shuffled. Shuffled is an odd word for a little girl to know.
There is much about those years that I do not remember. My father was getting worse by then, and had probably begun the drug abuse that would be the proximate cause of his commitment a few years later. Life in the house was a silent, somewhat fearful affair and life outside the house was entirely artificial. Much, or most emotion was simply shut down. The physical state of the house, except for the two front rooms and the foyer with the fountain, reflected the systemic and deep disorder of life there. Maybe Nora just cleaned the two front rooms. No one could have cleaned up the whole thing.