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American Wife(3)
Curtis Sittenfeld

In my own family, life was calm. My mother and father occasionally disagreed—a few times a year he would set his mouth in a firm straight line, or the corners of her eyes would draw down with a kind of wounded disappointment—but it happened infrequently, and when it did, it seemed unnecessary to express aloud. Merely sensing discord, whether in the role of inflictor or recipient, pained them enough.

My father had two mottoes, the first of which was “Fools’ names and fools’ faces often appear in public places.” The second was “Whatever you are, be a good one.” I never knew the source of the first motto, but the second came from Abraham Lincoln. By profession, my father worked as the branch manager of a bank, but his great passion—his hobby, I suppose you’d say, which seems to be a thing not many people have anymore unless you count searching the Internet or talking on cell phones—was bridges. He especially admired the majesty of the Golden Gate Bridge and once told me that during its construction, the contractor had arranged, at great expense, for an enormous safety net to run beneath it. “That’s called employer responsibility,” my father said. “He wasn’t just worried about profit.” My father closely followed the building of both the Mackinac Bridge in Michigan—he called it the Mighty Mac—and later, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which, upon completion in 1964, would connect Brooklyn and Staten Island and be the largest suspension bridge in the world.

My parents both had grown up in Milwaukee and met in 1943, when my mother was eighteen and working in a glove factory, and my father was twenty and working at a branch of Wisconsin State Bank & Trust. They struck up a conversation in a soda shop, and were engaged by the time my father enlisted in the army. After the war ended, they married and moved forty-five miles west to Riley, my father’s mother in tow, so he could open a branch of the bank there. My mother never again held a job. As a housewife, she had a light touch—she did not seem overburdened or cranky, she didn’t remind the rest of us how much she did—and yet she sewed many of her own and my clothes, kept the house meticulous, and always prepared our meals. The food we ate was acceptable more often than delicious; she favored pan-broiled steak, or noodle and cheese loafs, and she taught me her recipes in a low-key, literal way, never explaining why I needed to know them. Why wouldn’t I need to know them? She was endlessly patient and a purveyor of small, sweet gestures: Without commenting, she’d leave pretty ribbons or peppermint candies on my bed or, on my bureau, a single flower in a three-inch vase.

My mother was the second youngest of eight siblings, none of whom we saw frequently. She had five brothers and two sisters, and only one of her sisters, my Aunt Marie, who was married to a mechanic and had six children, had ever come to Riley. When my mother’s parents were still alive, we’d drive to visit them in Milwaukee, but they died within ten days of each other when I was six, and after that we’d go years without seeing my aunts, uncles, and cousins. My impression was that their houses all were small and crowded, filled with the squabbling of children and the smell of sour milk, and the men were terse and the women were harried; in a way that was not cruel, none of them appeared to be particularly interested in us. We visited less and less the older I got, and my father’s mother never went along, although she’d ask us to pick up schnecken from her favorite German bakery. In my childhood, there was a relieved feeling that came over me when we drove away from one of my aunt’s or uncle’s houses, a feeling I tried to suppress because I knew even then that it was unchristian. Without anyone in my immediate family saying so, I came to understand that my mother had chosen us; she had chosen our life together over one like her siblings’, and the fact that she’d been able to choose made her lucky.

Like my mother, my grandmother did not hold a job after the move to Riley, but she didn’t really join in the upkeep of the house, either. In retrospect, I’m surprised that her unhelpfulness did not elicit resentment from my mother, but it truly seems that it didn’t. I think my mother found her mother-in-law entertaining, and in a person who entertains us, there is much we forgive. Most afternoons, when I returned home from school, the two of them were in the kitchen, my mother paused between chores with an apron on or a dust rag over her shoulder, listening intently as my grandmother recounted a magazine article she’d just finished about, say, the mysterious murder of a mobster’s girlfriend in Chicago.

My grandmother never vacuumed or swept, and only rarely, if my parents weren’t home or my mother was sick, would she cook, preparing dishes notable mostly for their lack of nutrition: An entire dinner could consist of fried cheese or half-raw pancakes. What my grandmother did do was read; this was the primary way she spent her time. It wasn’t unusual for her to complete a book a day—she preferred novels, especially the Russian masters, but she also read histories, biographies, and pulpy mysteries—and for hours and hours every morning and afternoon, she sat either in the living room or on top of her bed (the bed would be made, and she would be fully dressed), turning pages and smoking Pall Malls. From early on, I understood that the household view of my grandmother, which is to say my parents’ view, was not simply that she was both smart and frivolous but that her smartness and her frivolity were intertwined. That she could tell you all about the curse of the Hope Diamond, or about cannibalism in the Donner Party—it wasn’t that she ought to be ashamed, exactly, to possess such knowledge, but there was no reason for her to be proud of it, either. The tidbits she relayed were interesting, but they had little to do with real life: paying a mortgage, scrubbing a pan, keeping warm in the biting cold of Wisconsin winters.

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