Lines on A Paper Napkin: A Memoir

Lines on A Paper Napkin: A Memoir

by Godfrey aka G2, Gretchen


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781450247764
Publisher: iUniverse, Incorporated
Publication date: 08/25/2010
Pages: 136
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.32(d)

First Chapter

lines on a paper napkin

a memoir
By Gretchen Godfrey

iUniverse, Inc.

Copyright © 2010 Gretchen Godfrey aka G2
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4502-4776-4

Chapter One

A Drawer Full of Memory

This book is my life, yet my earliest experiences are from the muddled mind of a muted toddler. As I sort through mental notes and thoughts of my nascent years, I often get scraps of memories, snatches of sound, feathered feelings.

When I was just learning to walk, I was stricken with a mastoid infection, and while toddling behind my mother in the winter snow, I collapsed. My older sister, only about three-and-a-half years old at the time, tried desperately to get me up. I would learn many years later, after several glasses of wine with my sister, that she had tortured me as I lay in my crib by biting my toes to make me cry and had secretly wished for me to disappear. Certainly, at three-and-a-half, she had no concept of dying; me disappearing, me not being there was what she wished for. Having me fall down in the snow, unmoving, scared her terribly. After I regained consciousness, I could not hear. I was deaf.

Being part of a really poor post-Depression family didn't allow for medical treatment, but I did survive the infection with no apparent brain damage, just a loss of hearing. Our small family rented houses or rooms in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Michigan. In a nook in the basement of one of these houses was a small rocking horse. One afternoon when I was about five years old, I was rocking madly on this carved horse, tipping it so far forward that its wooden nose was hitting the cement floor. Suddenly I was aware of a weird and scary sensation. I stopped rocking. The strange sensation also stopped. I began rocking, again reaching frenzy and banging the horse's nose on the cement. The sensation returned. I stopped. Awareness settled in. It was the sound of my voice, me squealing in delight. My hearing had returned.

One of the cures for earaches during this time was to drip melted butter or warm oil into an ear. Perhaps my immigrant German family had done this. I would never know. Perhaps in the heat of my passionate rocking whatever was blocking my hearing melted or broke loose. Sound had returned to my life.

I was born in a tiny Wisconsin town whose only fame is found in folklore. According to an old folklore text titled Bloodstoppers and Bearwalkers, the town of Hurley was famous for the prostitutes who were kept in stockades until the loggers and miners got to town. Try page 95 if you can find a copy. Circumstance made Hurley my birthplace.

My non-English-speaking paternal grandparents had emigrated from Germany to Wisconsin and had taken root in Hurley. I think my maternal grandparents were native born, but I'm not sure. What I remember most from very early childhood are lice, kerosene rubbed in my hair to kill the lice, haircuts with a bowl on my head, and sitting in a really small, round metal tub with my sister while my German grandma poured scalding water into it. Apparently we were being bathed, not boiled, for I did survive.

Years into my adulthood I would learn that my parents got married because my mother was pregnant with my older sister. One of five girls, our mother was really beautiful and really promiscuous. In any event, my dad married her and my sister and I were the end result.

After enough years to create some coherent memories, there were kids with ringworm (a dreaded affliction), chewing on warm tar pulled out from the cracks in the cement sidewalk, and frozen long johns on pulley lines hung between parallel apartment buildings in a housing project better known as a ghetto. The project was several long, skinny, dirty-toned two-story buildings with front doors facing each other, separated by an open space of dirt and tenuously connected by the pulley clotheslines. I remember gypsies who periodically appeared in town, always in good weather. We were warned that they would grab us if we got too close, stuff us under their billowing skirts, and take us away. I avoided all gypsies.

Although Wisconsin is famous for its cheeses and dairy products, we never had butter. The greasy mess we sometimes had was called oleo margarine. It came all white with a packet of yellow powder that we mixed into it. Hurley, Wisconsin, and Ironwood, Michigan, are adjacent towns in separate states. I assume the oleo came from Michigan. I could be wrong.

At the mention of oleo margarine, let me digress. I was a post-Depression, pre-World War II baby whose birth year is 1939, the fateful year Hitler invaded Poland, born in the dairy state of Wisconsin in a town abutting the Upper Michigan Peninsula, a Siamese twin to the town of Ironwood, Michigan. One could actually put one foot on Wisconsin soil and the other on Michigan soil. Walking between these two small towns was a daily norm since some families housed in Wisconsin and others in Michigan. In fact, my small family vacillated between the two towns as spare rooms and rent afforded. So I might be inaccurate in claiming the actual location of some of my very young and foggy memories. One fact I am sure of: one tin-clad apartment was on Copper Street, and Copper Street is in Hurley, Wisconsin. So there.

We were never anything but poor. And we used oleo margarine. I sometimes had the honor of miraculously changing the color of the greasy oleo from stark white to pale yellow by mixing the soft concoction with a wooden spoon. It was magic.

However, as I was writing this, my autodidactic personality kicked in (after all, I am a teacher), and I felt compelled to do some research into oleo history. It's fascinating not only because its history goes all the way up to the Supreme Court, but also because the product name is my name. Let me explain.

In the late 1800s, a Frenchman created a butter-like substitute from margaric acid. This fatty acid contained shiny pearl-like drops and reminded him of the Greek word for pearl, margarites. Voila! Margarine. Now, my name is Gretchen, which comes from the German name of Margaret, and means little Margaret. Many years ago I learned that the meaning of my name is "pearl." What serendipity.

History says that when margarine came to the United States as artificial butter in the late 1800s, it started a war with dairy states, beginning with New York. As the popularity of oleo rose, more laws sprung up. At the turn of the century, dairy militants reared their ugly heads, forcing the federal government to pass the infamous Margarine Act of 1886, hoping to reduce the spread of oleo. Amazingly, I never learned of this in my history or civics classes.

With oleo companies springing up like newly seeded grass, states began to pass laws in an attempt to hinder its sale. By 1902, thirty-two U.S. states lived under the oppressive laws and 80 percent of the population suffered margarine color bans, rules prohibiting adding color to naturally white oleo. The Supreme Court stepped in and struck down the onerous coloration of pink, used to get around the ban on coloring oleo yellow. How I would have loved to have added pink to that slimy bowl.

Unfortunately these controversies led to bootlegged colored margarine. Taxes were levied on margarine, yet consumption flourished. Increased prices in dairy products nudged margarine's use even more. Then came World War I and the butter shortage. A sharp increase in oleo consumption ensued. All the states imposed federal taxes and licensing laws, and many prohibited the sale of colored margarine. Then, in the 1940s, someone discovered that there were health benefits to using margarine in lieu of butter. Once into the throes of World War II, butter shortages again abounded. The Margarine Act was repealed, to be followed in 1950 by another Margarine Act, now allowing colored margarine sales. Consumption of oleo doubled. Even so, Wisconsin, a state of stoic and stubborn people, held out until 1967, when it too repealed restrictions of margarine.

I never knew any of this when I stood on that stool in Hurley, Wisconsin, watching the wonder of white turning to yellow. And until I did this research, I didn't realize just how my very name is part of the history of the not-so-famous Margarine War. Live and learn.

The mixture of cultures in our project didn't blend as well as the oleo. The tenement apartments housed every European nationality, and few people could actually converse with each other. When I conjure up memories of that time, my body still registers fear and defensiveness. I was born in 1939. By the time I would be able to play outside by myself, it would be World War II. Plus, I was part of a German-speaking family. Not the best of times. I can recall walking around the neighborhood, only tenement housing, loudly singing a ditty I had learned from I know not where. The lyrics were: "When the Fuhrer says we are the master race, we go oompah, oompah, right in the Fuhrer's face."

Naturally the Depression was still affecting the economy, so jobs and money were scarce. My dad could not serve in the military for some reason, so he worked as a cook in a Conservation Corps camp. At least that's what our mother claimed. My birth certificate shows his employer as WPA. Until my high school civics class, I believed that WPA was an acronym for a top secret government agency. Dad was a very tall (six feet, four inches), handsome, blonde man and the few wisps of memory I have of him are that he was gentle. Unable to get real work locally, he took a job far away from our roots in the middle of the desert in a place called Pioche, Nevada. He worked as a painter in a housing project there that may have housed people who were there for the atomic bomb development and testing.

Our greatest fear while there was rattlesnakes. During hot weather, the only weather I remember during our stay there, our mother wore rubber boots we called galoshes when she went out, usually in a bathing suit, claiming that she wanted protection from the snakes. Stories about near-attacks abounded, especially with those who were affluent enough to own automobiles. Everyone learned that the snakes crawled onto the engines and into the wheel wells to escape the burning sun. I never saw a rattlesnake. We did see wandering burros. They came into the housing project from time to time for handouts.

One time my dad put me on a burro's back and when it wouldn't move, whacked it on the behind with a flat board. The burro held its ground, and I went sailing through the air, and next thing I remember was being held in my dad's arms, looking up into his laughing face. I remember a water tower with a ladder. One of the neighbor kids managed to climb up and someone had to go up to get him down. The kid did this habitually until someone finally sawed off the lowest rungs of the ladder. I remember a fighter jet that buzzed the project and crashed not far away. Our small desert neighborhood stood in our gritty yard, we children in front, silently staring at a fat cloud of black smoke rising up from the hot sand.

Most of all, I remember sitting on the back steps of our unit, mixing sand from the biggest sandbox in the universe with water and making pancakes and shaping them into rabbits. My worst memory was when my sister took me to her school one day and the teacher asked me, a barely potty trained preschooler, to look at the clock and tell her what time it was. My sister stood livid and red-faced when the teacher laughed at my ignorance.

We moved once again, this time north to Sparks, Nevada, where sadly my father's life ended. I would only know that he died from an auto accident. Lured by tales of California, he and a pair of friends had driven to Sacramento seeking opportunity. Not having money to stay overnight, they were driving back when the accident happened high in the mountains on Donner Pass.

I remember sitting in the small space behind the seats in a two-seater coupe while my mother was inside the hospital visiting my dad and fearing for my life, which seemed in peril from a Mongoloid sitting on the porch swing of the house in front of which the car was parked. I had never seen anyone with Down syndrome before. Each time I peered out the window, she smiled at me. I was terrified for three hours. When my mother finally opened the car door, she tossed a simple, terse statement in my direction.

"Well, your father's dead." Crouched in the dark, I hugged my knees tightly, wishing myself small.

Dad rode back to our hometown of Hurley, Wisconsin, in his coffin in a baggage car of the train that carried my mother, sister, and I to where our lives had begun.

The last memory of my father was when my sister and I were made to kneel next to his open coffin, little heads piously bowed. Terrified at his waxy appearance, my sister whispered her first thought, "He looks like a broomstick." We both giggled and were immediately slapped and made to kneel longer, pretending to pray.

The ensuing four years were poor years punctuated by some good memories and mostly by hunger and deprivation.

As semi-orphaned kids in Hurley, my sister and I lived with hunger. We ate once a day. My waitress mother would leave coins in the apartment, and the first one who got home from school at noon grabbed the coins and ran down the block and around the corner to the A&P store. I was quicker and perhaps hungrier and so became the primary lunch runner. Years later, now married and a mother and in an English class at the university, I wrote about that experience in an essay that I have kept in my bulging memory file. Read it now.

"A Drawer Full of Memory"

For nineteen years I have been performing a weekly washing ritual. I wash, dry, and fold the laundry. Then I deliver the sorted piles to the appointed drawers of their sundry owners. When I put my husband's clothing in his chest today, I was amazed at the amount of socks there were. The idea of counting his socks had never occurred to me before, but today I counted.

There are twenty-eight pair of socks in my husband's drawer. I am overwhelmed. As I sit reflecting upon the vision of those twenty-eight pair of fat, knitted, multi-colored sausages lined and piled up in their dust-proof, cedar compartment, I find myself drifting back in time.

I'm seven years old. The sausages I see are on the inside of the butcher's case that my nose presses against. The end of my chilled nose is as flat as the coin I'm squeezing in my hand. "Same thing?" The butcher's words tumble down the front of the glass case. I know it's him above me because I can just see the top of his white paper hat and the ends of his red fingers curled over the glass edge. My hand reaches up, opens to expose the coin. Silently, he plucks it from my dirty palm. For a few moments my eyes caress the cheeses. Then a small, brown package is thrust down over the case. I grab it, swivel in the slick sawdust around my feet, and run for the door.

The sawdust still stuck to the soles of my shoes lets me slide for about ten feet. Once outside, the winter air stings my bare face. There is no snow yet, so I can run all the way home, the small, brown package held tight against my stomach. Home is three blocks away in back of a tavern and across the street from the fire department. Home is inside a torn screen door, up a short flight of sooty stairs, and behind walls made of corrugated tin. Home is where there isn't a fire because there isn't any coal.

I rush inside, oblivious to the cold that has sneaked in through the ruptured seams in the metal siding, and I run into the kitchen where my sister waits with a half bottle of ketchup. Eagerly she grabs the package and tears it open. The brown paper falls away to expose two red discs of bologna and a pair of pale rolls. For only a moment we savor the sweet smell of yeast rising up from the soft, fresh bread. Then we each snatch a roll, douse it with ketchup, and cover it with a slice of bologna. With the cold our dinner guest, we silently eat our only meal of the day.

Afterwards, as we walk slowly back to school, our girlish chatter is interrupted by the hammering noise the heels of my shoes make against the sidewalk. They slip off my feet with each step because I have no socks.

Twenty-eight pair of colored socks become a blurry rainbow as tears flood my eyes. I'm not sure if they are tears of sorrow because I had no socks or tears of happiness because I survived without them. I only know I must close the drawer and make the colors go away.

I also remember significant moments, like when I taught myself to read. Because our mother worked by day "slinging hash" in an aunt's restaurant and at night hung out at a place called Chicken in the Basket where she acquired an endless variety of boyfriends, my sister and I spent most of our waking hours during those years alone. Our prized possession, our only one, was a tiny pink plastic radio. We'd rush home from school or play to listen to favorite programs. My introduction to music, other than intonations during Catholic services, was from the Kraft Music Hall and the Railroad Hour.


Excerpted from lines on a paper napkin by Gretchen Godfrey Copyright © 2010 by Gretchen Godfrey aka G2. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1 A Drawer Full of Memory....................1
2 Four Squares....................11
3 A Donner Tragedy....................17
4 The Meadows....................23
5 Teachers....................31
6 A Nervous Prostitute....................35
7 The Question....................39
8 Mexico....................46
9 Club Zero Zero....................51
10 Gretchen the People....................54
11 Joshua Tree....................58
12 The Green Bucket....................63
13 Just Do It....................68
14 Ode to Mamie....................73
15 Jail Time....................79
16 Lovers and Friends....................87
17 A Fifty-Year-Old Gumby....................94
18 Knickknacks....................98
19 Forgiveness....................117
20 So There....................121

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