Trouble – Part Two: The Butter Churn Incident
July 23, 2013
While eating meals in the dining room at The Place, Nadine leans as far to the left as she can in order to eavesdrop on the conversation at the next table. She writes notes about what the four women have to say, none of which is of any interest to Alice.
Alice said she thought these women must notice the way Nadine leans in their direction, trying to hear them. And, day by day, she revealed more of Nadine’s transgressions:
After each meal, Nadine pushes her walker over to The Big Man‘s table and talks to him for a long time, preventing Little Caroline from stopping by to say hello to him. Little Caroline, the introverted reader, eventually gives up and goes upstairs to settle in with another book.
“Nadine knows Little Caroline likes to say hello to The Big Man,” Alice complained. “But she just stands there anyway, blocking the way. Why such long conversations with him every single night? I bet she’s gossiping about everybody, including me!”
Not only does Nadine talk to The Big Man, she stops to talk with as many men as time allows.
“If she likes men so much, why didn’t she ever remarry?” Alice asked me. “She’s been a widow since she was sixty-two! Now she’s ninety-five.”
I began to wonder if all this animosity was coming from the fact that Nadine seemed to have forgotten, or had never read, Alice’s newsletter stories. In every conversation we had, Alice continued on with Nadine’s shortcomings.
Although Nadine has only been at The Place a few months, she feels she has a right to jot down nasty notes about the food and slide them across the table. Worse, in Alice’s opinion, she is impatient with the help.
“She doesn’t even know them,” Alice said. “She doesn’t know how hard they work, the kids they support, their troubles.”
I always hope to talk Alice out of spiraling down into disliking someone at The Place and isolating herself. In this case, I’d try to point out Nadine’s good qualities, but actually, given these reports, Nadine was starting to get on my nerves, too.
I gently reminded Alice that she’d complained about some of the same things when she’d first moved in, and she still makes fun of some of the food they serve. Maybe it takes a while to get used to The Place?
No compassion forthcoming. “Oh, I never complained like Nadine does,” she said. “I couldn’t have.”
A few days ago Alice announced to Nadine that, given her thinning hair, she might buy a wig. She was testing the waters. She has already purchased a wig but hasn’t worn it to the dining room yet.
Nadine, with her thick silver hair combed straight back from her forehead, scoffed. “Oh, you don’t want one of those,” she said. “They’re hot! They make your head itch. Have you ever worn a wig?”
“Yes, I have!” Alice was flustered, but she tried to speak as boldly as she could. Still, she wondered how she would ever be able to wear her new wig to the dining room now.
One night she told me she thought Nadine was tired of writing notes to her. “She doesn’t like to do it any more. I can tell. Now don’t argue with me. She says something and if she has to repeat it more than once, she gets uppity and reaches for the notepad.”
It can be hard to keep repeating something to Alice, to try to think of nine different ways to say something she’s missed that isn’t the least bit important. She wants so badly to decipher what’s being said that she frowns and shakes her head and sometimes slams her fists on the table or a chair. And so, while saying the same words over and again, you are looking into a very angry face.
I sympathized with Nadine for being frustrated, but if she didn’t want to write notes to Alice then they shouldn’t be sitting together.
Alice was headed to the dining room for lunch when the butter churn at her family’s house in North Dakota popped into her mind. Because Nadine was of the same generation, Alice felt this would be a safe and interesting topic.
While they were waiting for their meal, they were served a plate of small rolls accompanied by tiny tubs of margarine. Here, Alice thought, was her opportunity.
“I miss butter,” she said. “I remember how us kids would take turns churning it and the churning would go so slow, but Mama made delicious bread and then we had our own good butter to go with it. It was worth it.
“Do you remember churning butter?” Alice asked Nadine.
“My father was a working man,” Nadine said bluntly, chewing the doughy roll. “He bought butter at the store and brought it home.”
Alice sat back in her chair, embarrassed. What impression had Nadine gotten of her own father in the stories she’d told her? She couldn’t remember now what she’d said about him.
She wanted to tell Nadine that her father was a working man too, but the truth was more complex. Sometimes Louie liked to drink a bit more than he should have done. He liked to read novels out on the back porch, a hobby that Alice admitted may have led other men to question her father’s ambitions.
Because of his wife’s family ties, the wandering Louie had chosen one of the most remote parts of the country as home, a place where the lovely Martha felt comfortable but one with almost no employment opportunities. First they tried farming, but that didn’t work out, so they moved into the little town of three-hundred people.
His work history, at best, was spotted. He’d worked in coal mines as an orphaned boy and later on ranches and farms. He delivered mail to far-flung settlements in a buckboard wagon and helped out at the sheriff’s office.
In time, Martha inherited some money from her mother, around $1200. This was butter and egg money that her mother, Josephine, had earned.
She’d kept the lion’s share of this income a secret from her unstable husband and hid the money behind a rough chunk of sod in the house where her children had grown up, a sod house something like this one:
With this small fortune of $1200, Louie bought a building in the little prairie town they lived in and named it after himself. Enough money was left over to open a store on the first floor. Later, he lost the store and the building due to nonpayment of taxes. He ended his working days as a guard at the state penitentiary, where his daughters could come watch softball games between inmate teams and get free haircuts.
How to explain all of this to Nadine? Alice wished she could remember how much she’d revealed already, as they were getting to know each other, but she had a keen pearls-before-swine feeling about it now that Nadine had insulted her father.
“Are you sure she was insulting him?” I asked. “Maybe she was just stating a fact. She didn’t churn butter because they bought their own butter.”
“Oh, she was snooty about it,” Alice assured me. “Quite snooty.”
Once again, I lay awake asking myself how to solve this new table partner dilemma, but then, all on its own, the world turned.
See food writer Alison Hein’s blog post about pioneers making butter and learn how to make your own. Alison’s cat, Magnolia, is featured at the end of her post. Here’s a preview:
I dare you to try doing this:
If you can do it, send me a recording. Feel free to practice until the final episode in this series, “Trouble – Part Three.” Or go make yourself some butter. Why not?