Thursday, August 16, 2007


When I was a girl, no one ever worried about getting skin cancer from going out in the sun. We welcomed those warm rays, because Michigan has too many days without them, and ran around barefoot in the grass, enjoying those all-too-short days of summer.

In contrast, today's sunshine is a killer. One must slather this awful stuff over the exposed flesh and hope that the sun's rays do not penetrate this layer of protection and cause flesh-eating sores to develop. The ozone layer that used to be up there in the heavens to filter our sunshine is now either missing or diluted, turning that life-sustaining globe of fiery warmth into an enemy rather than a friend.

I can remember riding on a wagon to the Alfalfa field, my legs dangling toward the ground, the sun pounding on my head. My father, felt hat perched on his head, drove the team and the wagon jostled and bumped its way along the trail, an almost invisible path through the tall grasses leading to the field, which lay warm and inviting in the sunshine, its harvest emitting a wondrous aroma.

We would help my father lift the bales into the wagon. Sometimes Hubert was there to help out, and then the day was even more fun, as he would pitch hay at me or pick me up and toss me into a pile of it. We were so acclimatized to the sunshine that we never suffered from sunburn, but rather got browner and browner as the summer wore onward.

We always had a crowd at the Farm on summer Sundays. The mornings would be warm and quiet, then one by one, the cars would turn into the driveway and the day would begin. Herman and Dorothy would arrive in that rattling old car that Herman was so fond of keeping, their brood of children in the backseat, the little one on Dorothy's lap. Eldin was my companion, the oldest of that bunch. He was a pale little guy, with a serious outlook on life, and would follow me around like a little wraith, always asking questions about life in general. According to Eldin, I was the world's expert on flora, fauna and human relationships. With the answers I gave him, I don't know how he kept his job with the telephone company, where he eventually became management. I must have raised him right.

Herman was a big, easygoing man with a ready laugh and tales to tell. In his youth, he had always written stories, sitting at a table with his pen in hand. His wife, Dorothy, was one of my favorite sisters-in-law. A pretty woman with dark hair and a nice figure, she was always kind and even stopped by to pick Helma and me up to take us to town with her when she went on errands. She was a bright spot in our rather dull daily lives.

While they were building their house, Herman and Dorothy stayed with us at the farm. One time I remember finding Dorothy's costmetic kit on a counter. Ignoring that was impossible for me to do, so I busily explored the contents, ladling all sorts of stuff onto my face. The results were, I thought, really gorgeous. I spent the next half-hour staring into the mirror, comparing myself to Lana Turner and Hedy Lamarr, deciding that I was movie-star material, worthy of Clark Gable's loving attention.

Dorothy wasn't so happy when she found the mess I had made with her make-up. It is the only time I ever saw her angry. She reported the misdeed to Herman and he and Mom accused me of pilfering.

"Who, me? I am innocent of all wrongdoing. Must have been Helma!"

There I was, with my rose-pink cheeks, my smudged, smoky-blue eyelids, my black rimmed eyes, my cherry-red lips, but I felt anyone should see that I was innocent of wrongdoing. What saved me from doom was the fact that Herman decided the whole thing was funny and laughed heartily at my painted face and my expression of innocence. Dorothy couldn't resist laughing, either, so I escaped the guillotine, even though Mom wasn't so forgiving. She felt that make-up was sinful and that women should not be "adorned." I was definitely adorned.

One time, I walked in on Mom in the storeroom and she had the flour bin with her and, using a powder puff, was dusting her face with flour. She stepped back guiltily when I barged into the room, hiding the powder puff behind the flour bin. It was my first indication that my mother was willing to risk the fires of Hell in order to look a little prettier. A little dose of Tammy Faye would have done my mother world's of good. How easy it is for humans to make all sorts of silly rules for themselves, then suffer guilt and self-recrimination when these rules are too stringent to keep.

As humans, we strive for perfection, but we never quite reach our goals. Thus, we hear of the ministers who succumb to the pleasures of illicit sex, hide their homosexuality, or suffer from pedophilia, hiding their afflictions behind a facade of moral superiority. We are an entire race of imperfect people, yet we hold up an ideal that few of us can attain, laden ourselves with guilt and shame when it is discovered that we are not what we pretend to be, and flog ourselves mentally for just being human.

I have often wondered what guilt my mother must have felt for dusting her face with flour, and I have also wondered what silly soul made up that Biblical rule, because it is a petty and useless phrase. Why shouldn't people adorn themselves, if they so desire? Does it make them better people to walk around with the pimples dripping pus or unplucked eyebrows? Does a little lipstick really matter? I would imagine that, back in Biblical times, many women brightened their lips with a little berry juice when no one was looking. I would have, then I would have wrapped my rough, ragged robes in a sexy fashion around my body before going back to my job of herding goats.

We live in a strange world, where some women choose to wrap their heads in cloth, or worse yet, climb into stitched cages...the burkas...and hide from the eyes of strange men. Even if a woman could be compared to a rare jewel, what use is owning a rare jewel if noone sees it but one's self? The only real purpose of a rare jewel is to display it to others, to feel a sense of satisfaction and superiority because it is yours.

I have given up trying to interpret human behavior. The best I can do is try to interpret my own, a task that is pretty much impossible. Like Eldin, I am a pale wraith wandering about, asking questions that have no answers. I would like nothing more than to bring back that haywagon, load it with sweet-smelling Alfalfa, and ride it along the bumpy, enchanting childhood trail.