Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Unwilling Spectator

When Sister Erdman licked her lips, which was frequently, it obviously didn't satisfy her lips' natural need for moisture. Her tongue dryly scraped and rasped futilely over her thirsty lips, clicking desperately to quench the craving. When I finally found courage to ask her why, she explained it was a side effect of the medicine she had to take. It was a disturbingly fascinating habit to observe. I wanted her to do it often. Willed it silently. Water gave no relief at all. I've had 'dry mouth' a few times, but it wasn't even a close relative compared to her suffering.

In the small, strict, rule loving church I grew up in, every adult's name was prefaced with 'Sister or Brother'. The older people would be respectfully addressed with their last name, the younger adults with their first name.

Sister Erdman's first name was Edith, which no one dared to use. Brother Erdman and she looked a lot like the models for Grant Wood's American Gothic painting of the severe Midwest couple holding a pitchfork, except they weren't dressed like farmers, hungry looking or poor.

He always sported suspenders, a starched white shirt tucked into dress slacks riding loosely up over his stomach. She wore belted jersey dresses modestly covering her neck, knees and elbows along with thumping, sturdy shoes from what looked like an antique store. Her feet and legs were stuffed like sausages into long, thick, flesh colored cotton stockings, held up by a garter. For the longest time, I imagined she was hiding wooden legs. (That was before the trip.) He wore little round eyeglasses with delicate curved ear pieces, she wore plain, outdated cateyes....professor/librarian style.

Books and scholarly study along with letter writing were their orderly passions. We were invited into their prim home when mom offered to cut Brother Erdman's slick, brylcreemed hair. Sister Erdman's thin, long hair was skinned tightly and severely back in a flimsy, flat pancake on the back of her neck. Her one concession to decoration was the tip of a lace hanky peeking out of a pocket and one very disciplined wave pushed in above her forehead, held in place with plain pins.

One summer, after her husband died, she invited me to be her companion during the annual camp meeting. It was an adventure, a free ride and a comfortable place to stay. The novelty being this; she was pulling their travel trailer, and I had never camped in such style. She helped me feel like I was doing her a favor. Three hours later as she manhandled the trailer into it's predetermined spot, I was wondering what I had agreed to. Her vision wasn't so good!

She slept on the bed. I pulled out the kitchen benches and slept soundly until I woke to unfamiliar noises - her attending to her morning 'toilet'. It took an excruciatingly long time for this procedure. I stayed as still as ice with my eyes clamped shut. I did not want to see what I could imagine and hear all too clearly and close by. The trailer was small~

She first filled a bowl with water, dunked a cloth, then slowly lathered it with soap, the bar rolling over and over. She started from the top, heading downwards underneath her tent like flannel nightgown. Her face must have been heavily whiskered as my eyes popped open to try and figure out what the rasping sound of sandpaper was. It was both horrifying and fascinating to listen to the cloth getting rinsed, re-lathered and applied to her sagging, loose underarms. The suds gurgled in the unshaven atmosphere. That poor cloth disappeared for a long time, drowning quietly underneath her heavy chest.

When she lifted her nightie to wash 'down there' the sudsy cloth squished and flapped energetically underneath the modest covering. I tried my hardest to think up something distracting. There weren't any ipods with earbuds at this time. Unfortunately.

When she finished washing her feet, she dried everywhere, brushed her teeth and dressed piece by piece underneath her tent. Since she didn't have a full beard or mustache by the end of the week, I'm assuming she shaved when I was out. She didn't shave her underarms or legs. I came to the conclusion that wooden legs didn't sprout hairs.

This was a ritual I didn't want to be a spectator for, but somehow couldn't wake up early enough to escape the trap of the trailer in time to miss it. She must have really believed that old saying, 'cleanliness is next to Godliness', because her thoroughness was lengthy, legendary and unforgettable.

Having just gotten back from North Dakota, where pioneer living is still quite fresh in every one's memory, it makes me wonder if they just looked away, closed their eyes and ears to all the personal human activities and bodily functions taking place inside a 10x10 soddy or shack? It was common for families to have 6-10 children all co-habitating in a cramped space! None of the children seem scarred for life................ neither am I. It is easy to imagine the woodshed, wagon or haystack being put to good use once in a while, huh? :)

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