The Hite Report on Shere Hite (2 page)

BOOK: The Hite Report on Shere Hite
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Later, my grandmother didn’t want to keep chickens anymore. So it began that every Saturday she would kill one for us to eat for Sunday dinner. There were usually about six of us, guests and relatives, at those Sunday afternoon dinners. Sunday dinner was served on a big table, covered by a hand-crocheted ivory tablecloth. It seemed very celebratory.

Often during those dinners my grandmother would tell me that I could have the little unhatched egg that had still been inside the chicken, as a special treat. She would fish it off the platter, while everyone watched. Those baby eggs were delicious, about the size of marbles. It was fun to put them on my spoon and then in my mouth, with the special Sunday silver. But, even with all this, I soon didn’t want to eat those eggs. It
made me feel mean, spoiled too, and strange. I didn’t like the way everybody at the table watched me.

But mostly I felt uncomfortable at those dinners remembering the scene the day before, when my grandmother would have to catch the chicken in the backyard. It would be squawking and screaming and running like mad in terror, gasping, trying desperately to get away from her. She would chase it until she caught it and put an old wooden bucket over it, except for its head, which she left sticking out. While the chicken was squawking frantically, in sheer terror, she cut off its head with one strong whack of a heavy axe. When she lifted the basket, the chicken’s body would still be flailing around, still trying to run for a few minutes. It made me feel sick, and upset. But I couldn’t protest as I was living with her, ‘Because your parents went away and didn’t take care of you’ according to my grandmother (not my grandfather). I had to go along with whatever she did. I was a non-paying ‘guest’ and had few rights. I had to be a pleasing, polite child, which anyway, I was – or tried to be – for the most part!

Was the chicken death really as brutal as I remember? After all, who would kill the chicken for us, if not her? Killing animals was typical of households so close to the country, to the farm. Children I went to school with raised pet cows and pigs that they loved, and then sold them at market to be slaughtered. They won prizes for it, which seemed strange, too. Perhaps it was her poverty that forced my grandmother to do this. It would have embarrassed her not to have a Sunday feast for her family, and she could not afford to do it in any other
way. But I watched her with horror. It was my first experience with pure, raw violence and power. It was horrifying. It seemed so heartless, cruel, so matter-of-fact. Sobering.

‘But what about your family? Didn’t you live with your parents?’

‘What? Where were my parents? Well, I lived with my grandparents.
were my parents.’

‘Why did you live with them? Where were your parents, your mother and father?’

‘I’ll get to that in a minute … But first, let me tell you, while it is so clear in my mind, what else I remember …’

My grandparents and I lived in Harry Truman land, in Missouri, quite close to Kansas, in the Midwest of the United States. My grandfather was a staunch Truman supporter and Democrat all his life. President Truman was from nearby Independence, Missouri. What a name! Not only was he from Independence, but he was also a ‘true-man’! My grandfather had many of the same manners, coming from a close-by neck of the woods, as they say there. Both men were about the same height (not tall), medium build, and wore similar styles of suits and hats. Their personalities were equal parts stubbornness, dry humour, and a gut belief in fairness. They believed that a fair share is deserved by everybody, that you don’t make fun of anybody, and somehow you get
through and help others when you can. I wonder if my grandfather would have dropped the bomb just as I wonder how Truman felt about having done it. Maybe his unexpressed regret was part of why he didn’t run for a second term. I liked the fact that Harry stuck up for his daughter, Margaret, who played the piano, despite the fun the press made of her. My grandfather was also a friend of newscaster Walter Cronkite’s father, since Walter was from St Joseph, too.

St Joseph, our town, was the seat of Buchanan County and host of the annual spring fertility rite for the entire area, the Apple Blossom Festival. The festival included a big parade in which almost everyone in town and the nearby vicinity participated. My grandfather was a ‘Shriner’. The Shriners (all men) marched in the parade every year. They wore spectacular, tall ‘Turkish’ hats, each with a large silver crescent moon sewn on the front. They had horses with special blankets with their insignia (lots of crescent moons) sewn on them too. The hats were very exotic and linked to some sort of secret Arabian rites, which all the members were sworn not to reveal. My grandfather’s hat (different levels wore different hats) was maroon and about ten inches tall, round, like a fez. It had a large black tassel hanging from the top all the way down the side. On the front was a great silver crescent. Wow! It was strange but wonderful. I never thought he’d have the nerve to wear it. All those men you saw in church looking so plain every Sunday, and here they were looking outlandish and acting as if it were nothing unusual!

Women were in the parade too, on the floats, some
wearing beautiful evening gowns – (even though it was full daylight) usually with low-cut bodices and skirts made of pastel tulle, voluminous yards flowing down lined with matching pastel satin, glimmering in the sun. The floats looked like large exotic animals proceeding down the street, with small humans in fancy dress perched on top, waving at the people who watched. Other women marched in bands, wearing parade uniforms, and many more rode horseback in cowgirl outfits. Some were even riding circus animals, since the Barnum and Bailey Circus and Carnival was there during the entire festival week. There were rides, a ferris-wheel, a tilt-a-whirl, sideshow games, and food – caramelled apples and giant pink cotton candy spun sugar cones, made in an old metal tub while you watched. It was all intensely exciting.

The rest of the year was not as exotic or as much fun as spring. I passed my time as a member of the Brownies and later the Girl Scouts, also singing in the church choir. For choir, which was boring, we wore white robes known as suplices. We put them over our clothes, and then, every Sunday morning, marched down the aisle, two by two, singing our sweet little heads off. We were supposed to represent innocence and purity (actually, we probably did). I had a nice, sturdy voice, and I loved music. I played the piano and clarinet, and was known locally as a ‘musical child’.

Our home was extremely quiet. We were  fundamentalist Christians. When you opened the front door of our house, the first thing visible on the wall inside the entrance was Jesus on the Cross. He slumped there, his
youthful head in perpetual semi-coma, the blood eternally dripping from his wounds, stopped in slow-motion as it ran from his hands, his brow crowned with thorns, and his feet pierced. This was the first thing I saw every day when I came home from school. It had a chastening effect. How could one laugh and be jolly in the presence of such suffering? Shouldn’t one lower one’s voice, at least out of respect or something? Underneath Jesus was a small bookcase of brown wood, which held a dozen books. Most prominently displayed, of course, was the Bible, the King James version. It had a mottled black leather jacket with ‘The Holy Bible’ stamped in gold. Next to it were copies of
a monthly religious magazine with daily meditations suggested for prayer.

Before I was old enough to go to school, I amused myself with a large doll collection. The rag doll was my favourite. We named her Sleepy, because her supposedly automatic closing and opening eyes didn’t work. I slept with her. She had blue eyes, like mine. The other dolls were beautiful and princess-like, and I was afraid to touch them. I did not mother any of them; rather, we had social get-togethers. Sometimes I tried serving them tea in a doll’s teaset I had been given. It came from Japan (stamped on the bottom), and had miniature porcelain cups with minutely perfect handles, small saucers in lovely lacquered colours – iridescent lilac, hand-painted with pale yellow flowers. But soon the tea ceremony turned out to be relatively boring. All
those silent dolls, and nobody drinking anything.

Then, for years my teddy bear (which I still have) was my sleeping friend and companion. I would tell him my secrets, and bury my head in his woolly brown nose when I was unhappy. I felt closer to him than I had even to Sleepy. Of course, with the princesses, I would never share secrets or chat, but serve them cake. Why? Because I had seen my grandmother do this at tea-parties with her visitors. The dolls were my visitors, but my teddy bear was my friend.

I was fascinated by one brown-haired princess doll. She seemed more beautiful and interesting to me than all the other blonde dolls, who seemed ordinary, and easy to understand. She seemed mysterious. I didn’t try to talk to her, because I felt it ‘would have been impossible’, and she wouldn’t have wanted to talk to me. I stared at her for a long time, trying to imagine what she was thinking and feeling. This was the only way I could imagine ‘playing’ with her. Today, writing this, I realize she must have represented my mother. She too had brown hair, and was beautiful and remote.

We had a communication beyond words: somehow, as we regarded each other, it meant something to us.

At bedtime, my grandfather would tell me stories. What I liked best, when my grandfather talked, me sitting on his lap, leaning against him in my pyjamas, were the descriptions of his horse Joe and how he and Joe had been pals who rode together all over New Mexico, when he was there with the Army during World War I.
(It was there he had met my grandmother, who grew up on a nearby cattle ranch.) Pretty, brown with a white stripe running down the entire front of his nose, from his forehead, between his big brown eyes, all down his soft furry head, towards his black nose. I asked my grandfather to describe the white spot on Joe’s furry face over and over. I loved to imagine my grandfather stroking Joe’s head, the two of them feeling such good friends, Joe nuzzling my grandfather.

Later, my grandparents bought a 35¢ children’s book,
to read to me. It was a Little Golden Book, and had the famous lines, describing the train’s thoughts as it went up a very steep hill, ‘I think I can, I think I can, I think I can!’ The train was able to make it to the top of the hill because it kept trying, and never gave up. The train was neither male nor female (as depicted on the cover), just a happy, smiling train. Efforts at trying and being positive, no matter how difficult the circumstances, were the ideal being praised. Perhaps this famous book came out of the Depression, something my grandmother and grandfather had lived through. They had had a hard time managing, and had to live with his parents for awhile. Of course the idea that ‘nothing is impossible’ is very American. You can do anything you set out to do.

I was lucky to grow up assuming I had the possibility to do anything I wanted in the world. Even in our small town, there was a very definite and obvious class structure, you couldn’t miss it. The larger world outside would be, I was sure, a meritocracy, like the Little Engine suggested. In fact, the school system in our town
was good, and did not skimp on education. I had six years of Latin, and ten of English, math and science. I was incredibly lucky to have healthy food, clean air, no TV, little radio, lots of exercise, a friendly black dog, school friends, a bicycle, a grandfather (better than a father, I thought – more fun), and a grandmother (overworked and overworried, short-tempered, but who gave me confidence that I was bright and pretty, and that women can do things).

My kindergarten teacher, Mrs Duncan, played Brahms’s ‘Hungarian Dance Number Five’ for us on a large, old wind-up gramophone she had, and we would all march around the room in a circle like she told us. It was great fun. The alternate selection she used was Shostakovich’s ‘Polka from the Age of Gold’!

Sometimes my grandfather would pick me up after school and drive me out into the country to see a roof he ‘and the boys’ (the men who worked for him, all non-union workers) were putting on somewhere. He had a small roofing company. Riding along with him, sitting in the front seat of the car with him and being ‘best friends’ was wonderful. His car, an old black Ford, was small inside, it had just two seats and there was a gear shift in the floor. I liked it.

I remember gazing out the window at the green countryside, full of lush crops, swaying in the breeze, and seeing the cows and horses slowly moving or just resting among the small hills and streams. The names of the tiny towns we passed were posted on signs along our
way. Platte, for example, was also a stream where everyone went fishing. You could wade in, the water only came up to your ankles at the edges, or, in the middle, to your knees. Other town names featured Liberty, and – believe it or not – Fawcett. (I still would like to know how Fawcett got its name.) Driving along on those long afternoon trips with my grandfather ‘to look at the job’, and seeing the hay silos, the farmers on their tractors (sometimes women farmers in overalls too), all this gave me a feeling of quiet happiness and contentment.

Later, my grandfather got a light powder blue Buick. He was extremely proud of it and kept saying I had helped pick it out, that he had asked me which colour I liked best. That was soon after colours in cars had first come in. Earlier, most cars had been black, and there was only one model. Our new car had shiny chrome trim front and back, and three holes along either side of the engine, a trademark of Buick. They were designed to indicate the super-strength of the engine inside: lots of horsepower!

During kindergarten and first grade, my grandmother would still give me baths and wash my hair in the kitchen sink. I remember I was afraid I would fall off the slippery white porcelain. It was very high up, and a long way to the floor.

On Saturday mornings, my grandmother would make chocolate fudge. Hers would harden perfectly every time (quite a culinary trick), and she would cut it into luscious, satiny squares. Achieving this semi-soft consistency had something to do with melting it to just a certain point. Then, later on my grandfather would
drive me downtown to the library, and drop me off for the Children’s Reading Hour. I sat with the other children in a circle on the floor, and the librarian, a woman, would read to us from a book. After this, we could browse around and look at any books we wanted. There were lots of picture books, too. The children’s library was in the basement of the adult library, down some grand marble stairs with a sculpture of a child looking like Gainsborough’s
at the top. I loved the library smell, a combination of old books and marble halls.

BOOK: The Hite Report on Shere Hite
13.42Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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