May 8, 2013
Recently, Alice told me the meat grinder story again. She doesn’t tell it often, for reasons you’ll understand after reading it. It’s a story about her and her mother, Martha, and, although Alice thinks it is a story about a daughter’s guilt, it is also a story about a mother’s love. Because this is the week before Mother’s Day, I thought I’d pass it on to you.
One winter morning Martha was in the kitchen baking bread when Louie returned from the butcher shop with a large chunk of beef wrapped in brown paper. He placed it on the wooden counter in the kitchen and kept his coat on as he walked out to the back porch to read another novel about swashbuckling Frenchmen.
Martha noted the meat and the new task to be done. She was always busy. She made her own soap out of lye, washed clothes and bedding for nine people (seven children) in a wooden tub with a washboard, baked bread, fed and collected eggs from chickens in the back yard, milked Nebba the cow who adored her and who, it was said, thought too much of herself because Martha had named her after a lovely Norwegian mountain range.
In her spare time Martha kept the house clean and orderly.
Half of every winter night she sat in the living room to stoke the fire in a coal stove, keeping an eye on the old thing so it didn’t explode and burn the (rented) house down or leak fumes and asphyxiate her seven children who slept upstairs, the older girls squeezed together in a double bed and the little ones and their baby brother on makeshift cots, two chairs shoved together.
Louie sat up the other half of every winter night.
Louie liked to read his French novels on the screened-in back porch, but middle of the night, stove-sitting time was Martha’s only chance to get any reading done. She’d only completed the fourth grade and then was pulled from school to work on the family homestead. But in that short time at school she’d learned to speak English (not spoken at home) and to read, and she read when she could.
(At some point the family also had a kerosene stove, which once actually did catch fire, and, even though it could have exploded, Martha carried it, by herself, outside so that the house was saved and nobody was burned – except her, of course; the flames scorched her arms and throat. But that’s another story.)
In a household of nine people everybody had to help out. Sometimes Alice ran off somewhere to get out of doing a task, but other times she worked willingly, especially if the work involved getting to be near her mother.
That morning, Martha left the bread baking in the hands of two of the older girls, LaRue and Mattie, and called Alice in from a game of stick ball to help her grind the meat. It would take some time. There was a lot of it.
The meat grinder stood ever ready, clamped into place on the edge of the wooden counter, its sharp metal teeth waiting at the bottom of a metal hole for something to churn on. With the firm and steady turn of its handle. it could cut away at a slab of beef or pork and transform the flesh of animals into thick, pink, malleable strings.
Alice dashed into the kitchen, shrugged off her coat, unlaced her muddy shoes, and placed them by the back door. She was twelve and breathless and excitable, a year younger than she is in this photograph:
And, by the way, here’s LaRue, part of the bread-baking team that day, dressed up for fun in her boyfriend’s clothes.
Alice noticed her two sisters were busy talking with each other. She had her mother to herself.
Gray light filled the single window that looked out on the vacant lot where the stickball game continued, but the window was too fogged with steam from the baking to see how the game was going. Alice didn’t care. She didn’t think of herself as missing out. It was rare to stand quietly side-by-side with Martha, and now she stood close to her mother, who wore a white apron and smelled of warm bread. The fire in the kitchen stove kept the kitchen almost hot in contrast to the Dakota chill outside, the air cut to shreds by a wind that had slowly been gaining strength as it lashed across the prairie that morning.
Alice’s fingers quickly thawed and soon she got into the rhythm of what Martha wanted from her. Her mother would chop off a chunk of meat and then push and poke it into the grinder with her forefinger and middle finger while Alice turned the handle round and round to grind it.
Like all tasks, this one took on its own rhythm: cutting and pushing and poking and grinding, cutting and pushing and poking and grinding, over and over. Down went the meat into the hole. Round and round went the handle under Alice’s firm grip. Out came the ribbons of meat from the grinder’s wide-open mouth.
At first mother and daughter talked about Alice’s siblings. LaRue and Mattie stood nearby at the stove, but Martha and Alice wanted to account for everyone. If Alice didn’t know Marie’s location, Martha did (upstairs, sweeping the attic). Or if Alice knew that Lillian had wrapped herself in LaRue’s old woolen coat and run over to a friend’s house, Martha reported that Pearl was in the living room playing blocks with Lew. Soon everybody in the household had been pinned to the domestic map. Alice turned the handle. Martha cut and pushed the meat with her forefinger and middle finger down and down again. Cutting, pushing, poking, grinding.
The pile of beef sitting on the brown paper in a puddle of blood shrank ever so slowly. The window rattled; topics blew in and blew out again: the maneuvers of the stick ball game, the books being read, the weather (that sharp wind!), the tasks waiting to be done, the eventual destiny of the meat (a meatloaf), and all else that could be discussed in a hot kitchen on a cold day by a twelve-year-old and her mama until the twelve-year-old began to get too warm and quite bored and came to resent the pile of animal flesh in its bloody puddle.
Cutting, pushing, poking, grinding. Would it ever end?
Finally Beef Mountain dwindled to a molehill – nothing left but a slimy ridge that Martha pinched together and dragged across the slippery paper to stuff down into the grinder’s mouth, mushing it into place as Alice, bursting to be free again, said with each turn, “All done! All done! All done!” And she gave the handle a final, dramatic, and unnecessary whirl while Martha, who wasn’t expecting it, still had her fingers shoved deep inside to get the last bit of meat in.
Martha screamed as the grinder sliced off the tip of her forefinger. Alice stood unmoving; her own mouth fell silently open.
Martha snatched up her apron to wrap tight around the wound. LaRue and Mattie rushed to bend over their mother who sank down and then back against the counter. Both girls nearly fainted at the sight of blood oozing through the white cloth. LaRue was the first to pull herself upright and run out the back door. “Papa come!”
It was Louie who rang for the doctor and Louie who turned the grinder’s handle in the opposite direction, forcing the monster to release the fingertip, but there was no surgeon in a little prairie town. The doctor did what he could, meaning he wrapped Martha’s finger in a bandage, clean and white and thick and soft, but the pain could not be stopped.
Alice wept, of course. What else to do? She loved her mother more than she loved her own life. Helpless, the children gathered around and then dispersed. They lived in a house in a prairie town in a time when nothing was easy; work still had to be done, the bread removed from the oven to cool, the meals cooked, the chickens urged back into the chicken coop, the cow fed and watered, the dishes washed, and so on. Shocked by what she had done, bewildered by how she had done it, Alice walked through the day in a daze, never far from Martha.
Late in the afternoon the wind that had tortured the prairie all day suddenly increased. Louie examined the bucket next to the coal stove and pronounced it empty.
Because the parents watched the fire all night, the children were expected to bring in the coal. They took turns filling the bucket. Tonight it was Alice’s turn to fetch the fuel for the night’s long fire, which meant she had to leave her mother’s side.
Going out to the coal shed attached to the back of the garage was Alice’s least favorite thing to do under the best of circumstances. Far from the house, the shed was colder than any place in the whole world. Its wooden door hung loosely on hinges caked with rust. Usually, this darkening time of day was the hour she had to perform the dreaded task. The bucket, heavy to begin with, weighed as much as ten cannon balls when filled with clumps of coal; nevertheless, it must be lugged from the shed all the way back to the house.
Alice stood for a moment on the back porch before diving into the wind. A long, wide plank of twilight filled the space between the house and the garage. She buttoned up her coat all the way to her chin and walked the length of it.
The wind beat at her. Furious, she tried to beat it back, bending her body forward, ramming at the enemy headfirst. If only by the power of her will she could push it back where it came from; if only she could spin this whole day backward. Her mistake had cut straight to her soul, a wound from the wounding she’d done to her own mother that she’d have to carry for the rest of her life.
By the time she reached the shed, the wind had done her one favor: the wide door stood open. She entered and tugged it shut behind her. Alone for the first time all day, she put down the bucket and cried as hard as she’d been wanting to cry. She deserved to be this cold, this battered by a horrible wind, this alone in a dark place. She would do the work asked of her from now on, and she’d never be impatient or naughty in any way. She must always help and help gladly. She wouldn’t need anything of her own again or ask for anything ever.
She reached out and felt for the clumps of icy black rocks that surrounded her in the near total darkness. One by one, she placed them in the bucket. Her face was so cold the tears felt like flames on her cheeks. Still, she welcomed this grief. She deserved it.
Behind her the shed door clattered. She ignored it. The wind, she thought.
A moment later the hinges screeched. She turned to see a flicker of lantern light precede her mother into the darkness. Behind Martha, the wind blared like a trumpet across the treeless landscape. Alice ran to pull the door shut.
Martha kept her right hand, wrapped in its gleaming bandage, close to her breast, but she’d tucked her left hand into one of Louie’s old gloves. She placed the lantern on a high shelf, then reached out with her gloved hand to grab a knob of coal. She dropped it into the bucket that stood in the middle of the floor and reached for another.
Alice quickly joined in. Side by side they gathered the coal in less than half the time it would have taken Alice to do it alone. By the time the wind blew them both back into the house again, Alice’s cheeks were too numb to feel her tears any more, or maybe they had stopped altogether.
Some other blog posts in which Martha appears: