Monday, September 27, 2004

Great Aunt Lelah, the Black Sheep

The entire weekend was devoted to conquering the collywobbles that have been laying me low (accomplished). During one of my many nonproductive moments, I pulled a book off my shelf written by my Great Aunt Lelah.

Great Aunt Lelah was what passed for a black sheep in our family. Born sometime slightly prior to the turn of the 20th century, she earned her Black Sheep Badge when she got pregnant before getting married, although she headed off a full-blown scandal by marrying the perpetrator, an English bloke and a drinking man whom her strait-laced, teetotalist, small-town Iowan family never cottoned to.

As a young woman at teacher’s college she had been told she should consider becoming a writer, which according to the author blurb on her book “was a goal to which she greatly aspired.” Unfortunately, she met up with that English lothario and sealed her fate. For the next six or so decades, she raised a family, did housework, and wrote nothing. (I’m paraphrasing from the blurb.)

Great Aunt Lelah did not get around to writing the book until 1974 when she was 80 years old and the Englishman was safely dead. The novel, Bobby Schantz, is purportedly the story of a nine-year-old boy. He's bears no resemblance to any nine-year-old boy I’ve ever met. On the Goofus and Gallant Scale of Wholesomeness, Bobby is an uber-Gallant. Examples:

“ ‘Oh, dear,! I hope grandma didn’t look in here. I forgot all about making my bed.’ In seconds, he had the bed made. And just in time, too...he took time to gather up his toys, and was at the table in plenty of time.”

“ ‘I can stand on that stool and hang your dresses up if you put them on hangers, said Bobby.... “My you have pretty clothes, Grandma. I like that lavender dress, and this pink one is pretty, too.’ “

Bobby, however, is just a foil for the real hero of the book—the grandmother, that is, a thinly veiled version of Lelah. The grandmother doesn’t do anything traditionally recognized as heroic nor does the novel’s plot arc contain even the tiniest hint of conflict. Every single page is either about preparing a meal (“Are we going to have Rinky Dink salad today?”); eating it (“I’m just too full of rolls, but I just can’t refuse Dutch apple pie.”), or cleaning up after it (“Now the dishes, forever with us, whether we are tired or not. I’ll wash them tonight.”) No one ever gets in a fight, says anything mean, or gets bored at church (“Bobby, his eyes sparkling, whispered to his dad, ‘I sure like Reverend Brower, don’t you?’ “).

Well, they say write what you know, and Lelah clearly did that, but how sad that her life experience boiled down to so little at the end of 80 years and that she felt it necessary to present it through such extremely rose-tinted spectacles. All she felt qualified to write about was meals she had cooked for her family. She wasn’t even a very adventurous cook, sticking with tried (tired?) and true Middle America recipes that featured canned kidney beans and hard-boiled eggs.

In my view, Lelah ended up a casualty of the societal conventions of the time and place in which she lived. I think she spent most of her life trying to “make up” for her “mistake” and win back her family’s approval by pouring all her energy into being a perfectly subservient wife and mother. Judging from Bobby Schantz (which, it must be said, is pretty awful and was published by a vanity press), it’s hard to imagine she really had the makings of a writer, but had she started younger and gotten some encouragement and guidance, who knows?

I met Great Aunt Lelah when I was a kid in the 1970s at some 50th wedding anniversary banquet or another, but I don’t remember a thing that set her apart from her presumably more virtuous sisters: Mildred, Gertrude, Evangeline, Alta, Eloise, and Mamie. They all seemed impossibly and inpenetrably ancient and old-fashioned to me in their bead-studded hairnets and lace-up schoolmarm shoes. Situations like this are a perfect example of why youth is wasted on the young. What I wouldn’t give to be able to talk to her about her book and ask her why she buried her dream of being a writer. Oh yeah, and maybe I’d ask her for the recipe for Rinky Dink salad.


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