Danger By Its Stem by Elizabeth Langemak

Bush of Poison IvyMy mother’s mother was a city girl, and no number of chickens – their heads popping off on the block as her husband relieved each body of brain – could make her otherwise.

Not that she didn’t try.

This is the story she told us: growing up in Chicago, waiting tables and helping out in the kitchen of her parents’ restaurant, she learns plenty about what chicken looked and smelled like at the far end of its journey: delicious.  Chicken fried, chicken dumplings, chickens roasting whole, chicken arriving fresh from the butcher, wet, shiny and clean as a picture of a baby in a magazine.

But the chickens on the farm are different.  They start at the beginning and end in her hands, slightly shy of the restaurant.  They come soft and cuddly, arriving impossibly through the mail in rough wooden crates, growing quickly into roosters and hens.  They are demanding and motherly, and they have personalities but not names.  Never names.

When she tells it, this story about killing chickens is never really about killing chickens.  It’s actually about my grandfather and what it means to marry him.  In the story he comes home a soldier and then turns into college man, enrolling at Iowa State, joining the swim team and leaving four years later with a degree in poultry husbandry.  He buys a farm in eastern Wisconsin and moves there with his new wife.  In their wedding photo, she holds a bouquet so round and full that it obscures her hands up to her wrists.

Saying words like “grandmother” and “grandfather” make it hard to see who these people really are.  My grandfather’s name is Robert, but he goes by Bob.  In the head-shot he has taken before he leaves for the war his face is angular and muscular, the kind of photo that makes it look like he has a capable body, like someone men and women would be secretly pleased to be friends with.  The photo is in black and white but the photographer has painted his eyes a subtle blue and, below that, his uniform a green that’s almost gray.

My grandmother’s name is Frieda, and she goes by Fritzie.  She is nearly six feet tall and wears heels anyway.  Her outfits always match.  In the best photo of her, taken after Bob has been in Germany for nearly six months, her hair is a curly halo around her head.  Her shoulders are bare.  As the story goes, her shoulders are bare to begin with.  She tells the photographer that the picture is for her boyfriend, who she’s only known for a total of twenty-four hours and who will be gone another year and a half.  The photographer frowns and then pulls the draped cloth down a bit further.

By the time my grandfather is in a barn in Wisconsin, piercing the brains of chickens with a tool designed for the job, chopping off their heads and handing the swinging bodies to my grandmother for cleaning, he has probably spent less than a month in any sort of building with her.  He has changed his religion to marry her in a church with lofted ceilings and mosaics of stained glass light speckling her dress. The chickens hang between them like flowerless stems, heads piled into a bucket nearby.  Their hands are bloody, and it has not yet dawned on them that the chicken business will fail.  What they know of each other is perfect in that it is still mostly what they have imagined.

When they meet, my grandmother is already years-deep into her time at the restaurant, trading shifts with her sisters, tucking tips into her apron, learning recipes forwards and backwards.  A family friend persuades her to work Bob into her schedule somewhere between a golf date with her current boyfriend and the musical she and her mother have tickets to see.

This is the guy for you, the friend says, and when she meets him she can see why.  So can her sisters.  The man who would become my grandfather arrives early to pick Fritzie up for their date, and sixty years later she can still remember coming home from This is the Army to the image of his big, spit-polished black shoes propped up on the footstool, glued to legs so long they jut out into the hallway.  Her sisters are everywhere, frantic and happy.  One is making him a drink.  Another meets her at the door and offers to loan her a pair of short-supply pantyhose.  Her brother says they could borrow his car.  A third sister catches her on her way up the stairs: If you don’t want him, she says, I’ll take him.

This story, the one I’m thinking of, starts in the living room but then ends on the farm: on a sunny afternoon about six years after they marry.

It is the kind of day that wafts through screen doors and into the house, the scent of grass skimming over the air like stray flecks of mown hay.  My grandmother takes my five year old mother for a walk down the lane that runs parallel with the farm’s longest field.

By this time, she has some idea of where she’s going.  But this isn’t quite the point.  She knows her way through the fields, but she also knows her way to the compost pile, and to the ditch near the road that pushes up fat plugs of asparagus every spring. When she wakes up with a herd of cows on her lawn, she knows which neighbor’s fence has broken.  She knows how to get to the outhouse in winter while pregnant, and how to get back to Chicago for Christmas.

When I think of my grandmother at this moment, I see myself, and not just in the way my cheekbones bear up her face, as my sister’s does, and also my mother’s.  I think I am seeing what she might have felt on that day: the hard-won stability that, over years, turns a new place to a known place.  The way that pretending familiarity eventually becomes the real thing.  I see the way that things must feel so right that she has taken her daughter out to pick a bouquet, and I feel I am watching the field brim so completely with breeze-bent flowers and flowering weeds that when they get home they divide them between two vases: one on the sill, one on the same Formica table she still uses in her kitchen when I am in high school.

If my grandmother had not told me what happened next I could easily have imagined that, too: the visit from the neighbor lady.  The friendly talk that slows and scatters as the neighbor’s eyes fall on one vase, and then the other. I can see the neighbor’s question slap my grandmother out of her confidence like a rider from a horse that’s stopped short: What are you doing with all this poison ivy in your kitchen?

Years later, my mother tells me how grateful she is to my grandmother for never appearing with advice in the moments when it seems like she is messing up most brilliantly.  And then I see: when she tells me this it is like she is handing me a thread that I can pull and watch come up through the seams of my own life, popping through in every place she might have critiqued or corrected me but decided not to.

After a while I think harder, and so I tug at the thread a bit more and I see the farm rise up, and inside it my grandmother’s war marriage in all its hope and hazard, the gamble of chickens, and then, anchored to the bottom with a tiny, delicate knot, a kitchen decorated in poison ivy by a mother and her young daughter.  I see the moment of its green beauty, and then also the moment that beauty might have evaporated in a cloud of correction.  But the story ends differently, and it is an end that makes beginnings my grandmother can’t yet see: she leaves the ivy in the vases.  She shows my mother how to handle danger by its stem.  She teaches us how know nothing, and to somehow be unhurt.

Elizabeth LangemakElizabeth Langemak lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
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  • I’m impressed by how much you convey, how much history, how many connections. By the end, I feel like I know the people I’ve met here. My favorite part is the description of gathering the “flowers”. Great lessons too — I’ll try to remember them with my own daughters. 🙂

  • Alice Schmid

    Oh Liz, I LOVE this! Your grandmother would be so proud of this story. It’s beautiful!