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.

Alice's new wig.

Alice’s new wig.

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 said she’d try to keep her feelings under control, but then came the butter churn incident. It was a turning point.
butter churn4

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.

From "Little House in the Big Woods" by Laura Ingalls Wilder; illustration by Garth Williams.

From “Little House in the Big Woods” by Laura Ingalls Wilder; illustration by Garth Williams.

“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.

Ludvig, aka Louie

Ludvig, aka Louie

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.

Martha and Louie_wedding070

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.

Christian and Josephine

Christian and Josephine

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:

sod house
Miraculously, Josephine had managed to save the same amount for all three of her girls and left them the money in her will when she died.

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.

North Dakota State Penitentiary

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:

cat churning butter

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?

12 Responses to “Trouble – Part Two: The Butter Churn Incident”

  1. John Says:

    I know I shouldn’t laugh … being stuck at a table, in a place that’s not your own, where they serve mediocre food, with a companion who’s a snooty busybody is not the best of situations for anyone.

    I laugh, only slightly … because it just seems to confirm my belief that life really is a circle … we start as children, work our way through teenage years, then adults, then, once we reach a certain age, we begin to swing around the circle, hitting our dramatic teen years again, even our childish years.

    My mom has days where I just want to shout “Really? Are you still in high school?” Or “That five year old at the next booth is acting better than you.”

    It’s the oddest thing …

    I am sorry, more than laughing … it has to be tough to not be able to hear, or converse as well as one would like.

    I know you’re her daughter, and you worry … but, really, wouldn’t Alice have told you, when you were growing up, that sometimes we have to share a table with people we’re not particularly fond of?


    • As I watch Alice make her way through the conundrums of life at The Place I sometimes do feel like a parent, and I want to remind her of those things she told me way back when. Unfortunately, she always has a quick answer. For example, there was the time she wanted to wear something that all the other people were wearing (or something along those lines, I can’t quite remember), and I said something she used to say to me to me when I was growing up: “Do you have to do what everybody else is doing?” Her answer was a fast, “Yes, I do!”
      I’m hopeless at parenting. I should have had children and practiced on them, knowing this day would come.


      • John Says:

        It’s funny you say you should have had children … I cannot even tell you the number of times I’ve thought that over the past decade … I never wanted kids, because I didn’t think I’d be a good parent … but, there are days where I wish I’d had them, so I’d have a better understanding of it all…..


  2. Beth Says:

    So Louie sat on the back porch and read novels, did he? Hah!

    Actually, Andrea, I see a family resemblance between you and Louie, around the eyes and expression.

    This story illustrates all the research that concludes that a deeply held opinion will trump the facts every time. I feel for Alice’s scorned writer within. I’d be mad, too.


    • You’re so right about the scorned writer within, Beth. There’s no assuaging her.

      No one has ever mentioned the resemblance between my grandfather and me, Beth, but I’m glad you see it. My brother, Michael, looked very much like Louie.


  3. Elizabeth Says:

    I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.


  4. Sandra Yudilevich Espinoza Says:

    I love your writing, Andrea! And sometimes, like today, I go through a range of emotions, thoughts and feelings in response to what I read–Sometimes, I think, “Go Alice”, and at times my response is a chuckle and some sympathy for the position you are in…dealing with someone who does not have quite what she wants, gets angry/frustrated/upset/bothered, etc…and has a hard time expressing it…so she does what Alice does…and then we SO want to “fix it for them” — and there is precious little that can be done…most of the time…so we do what we do. I applaud your patience, wish for sunny days, and I sometimes ache for Alice. And I agree with John who said, it is like we circle around to being children/high schoolers again. Growing old is definitely not for sissies.
    thank you.


  5. Oh dear, poor Alice and I have to say, poor Nadine for she is surely misunderstood even if she does get on the nerves! Poor Nadine for maybe not appreciating Alice’s tales. Your illustrations are beautiful as always and so ‘just right’ Andrea. I hope to read part three very soon – surely the world will right itself? Debbie X


    • Thanks. i wish the world would right itself faster than it usually manages to, but then who am I to conduct this symphony of misunderstandings and shortcomings and trumpet blares of dissatisfaction? Just the daughter, She of Little Power.


  6. Cheryl Says:

    As my mom used to say, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” Or was that someone else more famous who said that? At any rate (again, a famous mom-ism)…and as Debbie says, surely the world will right itself. How long can the dodgiest old crone hold out against Alice’s verve toward friendship?


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