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The Shape of Boxes and Sour Pickles

Dill Pickles- Mrs. Harry Jon Kroll

2-3 Full Cucumbers, cut in quarters length-wise

½ cup White Vinegar

1 ½ tsp fine white salt

Jars and jars and jars sitting on the shelf and dusty, waiting

Make it fit to mask the taste. Always make it fit.

My great aunt Lonita was a force. She lived on the family farm, the same that Clara and Rudolph had owned, and the woman seemed to draw energy from the very earth that the house had grown from. She was built sturdy and broad like every other woman in my family, and her voice was made for hollering across pastures and screaming after a bad round of cards. Here is what I remember:

The drive to get to her house was long and arduous with little between it and civilization but the old general store turned daycare turned general store and endless miles of cornfields. In the summer, there was the constant drone of cicadas and grasshoppers and for some reason, the air became weightier, heavier the closer to the farm we got. Everything was so still out there, like it was waiting, remembering a time that there had been more life, the family home bustling with generations of children and a steady flow of “neighbors”, those that lived at the closest five miles away. Now, only Lonita and her husband Harry Jon knocked about the halls.

The house itself was old and proud, if a little sunken. Like that old farmer relative that can still tell you the exact season to foal, still has the frame that gave him the strength to move mountains, but his body has started to crumble around the foundations. Weathered. Lived in. A little lonely in the middle of the midwest corn desert, the gravel road overcome with ditch lilies and hollyhocks and brambles, established cottonwoods looming high over cucumber patches and grass that was always yellowed and dry. The warped wood barn in faded red, the lowing of the few cows they had. The bleats of sheep that were “too damn stupid for their own good”, burn pile out beyond their enclosure that was filled with amazing treasures from every family that had been there before. And the meanest chickens you have ever met. An aside:

Lonita loved peacocks. She and her sister shared that love, of victorian extravagance and beauty. They wanted tea roses and ivy. They got shrub roses and summer squash. And the meanest damn rooster. That monster always came running for you, as soon as you left the safety of the front porch. That’s why Lonita kept a Louisville slugger next to the door. I remember her in an ankle length floral purple dress, running out after me with that bellows of a voice screaming:

“Oh lord. The monster is goin’ after her!”

I don’t know if you’ve ever been a small child staring down death in the form of a great horned rooster, but I can tell you I saw the face of the devil that day. I was convinced that my tiny little life was over right until Lonita swung with 100% all American maple and the reckoning of god. That rooster had his first taste of flight, and my great aunt’s immediate response was:

“Well. I think I killed it. We’re going to have to eat the stupid thing and he’s a tough old bird.”

How much more Minnesotan farmer can you be? Practical, pragmatic and an absolute Amazon in the guise of an aproned aging mortal.

The house always smelled of sauerkraut and something warm and musty. The windows and screen door open in the summer because there was no central air, and for some reason, I can never remember thinking of that kitchen in anything but the hazy light of the midafternoon. The floors creaked, smooth and reacting poorly to modernization. Jars of canned goods lined the shelves, at odds with her trappings of grandeur, the knicknacks that called to a life she and her sister Monica couldn’t afford in gilt edges and hand embroidered finery. But she made one hell of a pickle, and she was a deft hand at cards when the fold up table came out on visits. Small wonders and miracles for that. No tea roses or English gardens or grand romances.

But she did get her peacocks, eventually. Harry Jon, in a transaction of mercy, took some unidentified eggs left behind at an auction. He was a terrible farmer, and an ass of a husband, with a soft spot for animals. Built himself an incubator, and hatched the most useless creatures on this earth: far too delicate for the frozen tundra they inherited. And so they lived in her basement during the winter to keep them from freezing or from the foxes getting at them. The racket was ominous and terrifying when at night they shrieked the sound of their people.

It was a strange house, and she ran it with an iron will and calloused hands and the innate ability to make everything smell awful and taste wonderful.

I remember this woman as a towering behemoth behind purple plastic rimmed glasses with these fierce hazel eyes that saw everything and a sardonic smile that said she knew exactly what kind of trouble making you got up to when you were left to your own devices on her property, it was on your head if you walked away with tetanus.

I remember all of these beautiful and funny as hell moments and at her funeral, all that priest in his stupid smock could do was praise her for being a good and fertile wife with a fear for the lord.

He couldn’t even say her name right, and the only value he had for a woman he didn’t know was that she bore children and was afraid of what came after.

I knew Lonita. That woman was afraid of nothing, not god, nor the devil nor some satanic monster chicken. Those hands did not lovingly bring seeds to life from barren earth for some celibate fearmonger to petition on her behalf for the sanctity of her soul.

All of this to say, I have a deep and rash distrust of authority, and of men in general these days. It’s watching from the sidelines what happens when a woman tries to live in a world formed in patriarchy. It’s the husband’s name on the recipe written by the wife. How so much of a woman’s life gets mashed and boiled down to those few base components: what could they give to the rest of the world, what was their value as divided by the resources they needed in order to be allowed to take up space. What unforgivable sin she committed for limping along at the end of a long bout of cancer, unable to shoulder the weight of everyone else’s needs because that brash and brawny lady had been whittled down by chemo. Her net worth, pared to withered remains in an oak box and still they couldn’t let her leave one last time without calling attention to her most redeeming quality: what others could take from her. She had been in so much pain.

There were three daughters born to the Schmeazing family: Evonne, Lonita and Monica.

Each of those women had choices taken away from them when they were married. Each of those women lived a tragedy cloaked in the guise of what was right and respectable. Get married, have children, apologize for the space you took: self erasure is your penance for existing. Evonne got married at 15, had three children by the age of 18. She died young of ovarian cancer, while her husband cheated on her. Monica quit high school 6 months before graduation, her husband tried to throw her out of a moving vehicle, and she lived the rest of her life terrified that he or his family would come back. She rarely left her doublewide. Lonita was the only girl of that family that finished with her diploma, and even then, her husband chastened her for not being beautiful enough. Not being thin enough. Not being enough.

I have never been cute and petite. I have always been a large human, my bodily real estate rising up and up and up for years. Like every woman in my family, like Rudolph Schmeazing, I took up space, I was made for surviving the long winters. All three of those women were gorgeous, so full of potential and joy and fierce generosity and I watched as they were drained dry and asked to be small, looking desperately for their safe harbors in the world to grow. Watched as men dictated what kind of value they held and how good they were allowed to feel about the people they had become. I have felt so many times the shape of that life sneaking around me, loudly and blatantly announcing itself in the shape of departments, directors, administration: people of “power” relegating the terms of my existence and cramming my puzzle piece into their larger pictures. I do not want to be forgotten, reimagined as a man would see me, carved enough until I fit in my last box.

I think often of my great aunt.

Lonita looked alive on that farm, larger than life: she needed a whole countryside worth of space to thrive. I want that same broad space to grow and be.

So here is what I remember: Lonita was deserving of better parting words, all three of those women were. and I had such a fierce desire after that itchy day in church pews to see what she would do with a baseball bat and that priest’s eulogy.

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