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Cheri’s Books

Canned Fruit

I have been sorting through old files of stuff, deciding what to throw and what to save. Occasionally I’ll come across something I forgot that I wrote and judge it worthy of resurrection. This piece was written for the final day of a women’s studies class I taught at the University of Minnesota in 1980.

My mother showed me how to cook peaches until they turned translucent. She lifted the halves out of the syrup on a spoon and held them to the light, watching for the moment when the glow seemed to come from within. Then she slipped them gently into canning jars lined up in rows, adding enough liquid to make the buoyancy levels even, although she never took them to the county fair. The seal she tested three ways:  lying awake at night listening for the reassuring pop from the kitchen, tapping the lid in the center to make sure there was no give, holding the top of the jar at eye level to see the indentation. These are the things my mother tried to teach me, that I tried not to learn.

The translucence of a peach did not satisfy my craving for light. The force of the vacuum seal that stilled growth indefinitely was too strong for my metaphoric sensibility. I would not be watered and sugared down, confined in glass, preserved until consumed. Literature corroborates my fear: Mary Coleridge’s imprisoning mirror, Sylvia Plath’s bell jar, Snow White’s glass coffin.

In our house the well pit off the basement did double duty as a fruit room. There, on pine board shelves behind recycled kitchen curtains, my mother kept the literal fruits of her labor, away from the light and the heat that might decay them. Once-growing things were stored away, suspended, awaiting times of need that came often: beans, tomatoes, strawberry jam, even sickly sweet watermelon rinds. Little was discarded. Someone should write the history of canning. Had women not perfected it, men would not need wars to kill each other off. They would die agonized, inglorious deaths from malnutrition and food spoilage. There would be no history worth recording.

After seeing Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” I took sponge baths at the bathroom sink for months. But the shower scene was only the second greatest terror. When my mother sent me to the fruit room for tomatoes, I balked. I might meet her there, the hag who spun around at the policeman’s touch and mesmerized me with her bony grimace. As I felt for the light cord I imagined her death-cold hand groping for mine. She would get me and put me up, suspend me in sugar water, preserve me like herself in that underground dankness away from the light.

The first time I ever canned on my own, a bat flew out of the pantry and swooped across the kitchen. I worried, first, that it would defile my perfect peach sauce and second, that it would tangle itself in my hair. True to my upbringing I screamed for the resident man, but he, playing Bartok badly on the violin, had his own reasons to fear the bat’s revenge. Together, shielding our hair, we trapped her in the window, imprisoned her in glass, and ignored her flailing and screeching as best we could. The next morning, her will weakened by the light of day, she slipped meekly into a coffee can and accepted her liberation with indifference. Now, in retrospect, I understand her significance. She had come as an emissary to be present at my initiation into canning. She meant to defile my peach sauce, to dip her wings in it, reminding me that I am one of that lineage: the descendant of brewing witches, of the skeletal mother stashed in the fruit room, of my own mother lifting her peaches to the light. I wonder now what uncanny destiny led me to write my Master’s thesis on I∂un, the Nordic goddess who guards the fruits of immortality.

The strawberries and rhubarb in my garden are ready for canning, and I am ready to admit to my heritage. Rumor has it that “Cheri is getting domestic,” but the rumor lacks the subtlety of interpretation. I keep my jars in public view. My peaches glow in the sunlight. Decay, after all, is not the only possible consequence. They might ferment or crystallize. The compelling metaphor is no longer the vacuum-sealed jar, but the fruit inside, peeled and carved by women’s hands, cooked to translucence, suspended in time, stored behind old curtains in dank basements. To recover it, to claim it, I have to face the skeletal hag and brave the bat who might tangle herself in my hair, taking me for a witch. To taste the fruit, I have to break the seal.

This is my rhubarb jam. It is sour and sweet, biting and soothing. Even its colors are paradoxical: the pink taint of feminine shame on the green of spring’s promise. This is certainly a female image. Have some.

Mom Drifts Away

As my mother, Ardis Register, slipped deeper into Alzheimer’s, I sketched out some prose portraits of her and put them away in a file folder. I was not ready to “do” anything literary with her illness, nor am I now. This one turned up again, nearly fourteen years after her death, and I thought I might as well post it here. I wrote it on August 1, 2002.

Mom seems especially alert this late afternoon. She is lying on her side in bed, running her hand across the wall and jabbering, the word we use–although I balk at its belittling–for her attempts to talk. When she hears my voice she turns her face toward the ceiling. One eye is stuck shut and her cheek is swollen and blue. She had rolled out of bed before lunch, in a show of physical energy and motion that surprised the nursing staff. We don’t know if Mom surprised herself. She made no complaints and has none now, even though the bruise looks painful.

Two male aides–African immigrants like much of the staff–come in to get her up from her nap. It takes two of them to hoist her into the wheelchair. She’s a good forty pounds beyond her lifetime normal. Waiting in the hallway, I hear her protest a little–”na na na na”–but when they wheel her out to me she is smiling. I ask if she wants to go sit by the window, and she says, “Ya.” If she recognizes the intonation of a question, how much more does she understand?

I sit in a chair that backs onto the window and pull her up to face me, knee to knee. Immediately, her eyes roam to take in the scene. She is looking at the sky, following the drift of the clouds. She fastens on something–a feature of the building next door–and leans a bit to peer around me and stare. She says, “Ooooh,” and reaches out toward the telephone on the table beside us. I have an inspiration. I call home and ask my daughter Maria to talk to Grandma a little. I hold the phone up to her ear. She jabbers back, but I don’t see the signs I am looking for: recognition, pleasure, or even a startled response at the voice in her ear.

Sometimes–often today–she looks right at me, fixes her gaze on my eyes, and laughs. I decide to test some primal memories. “Kan du snakke dansk?” I ask, using her first language. She doesn’t recognize it, so I make the sentence longer. “Er du en pige som kan snakke dansk?” (Are you a girl who can speak Danish?) This time her eyes light up and she laughs heartily. At what, I wonder. My pronunciation? The very idea that her daughter–or this friendly stranger–is speaking Danish?

I sit and listen to her jabber on, wishing for real conversation. The best we can do with her, I know, is patiently keep her company. In the jumble of nonsense syllables I hear the words “I think.” And then again, she begins a spiel with “I think.” “I bet you do,” I say. “I bet you do a lot of thinking.” Who knows the quality of thought in this sadly encrusted mind? And what might she think about? Longings? Old regrets? Or just the daily staples: Curel rubbed on her dry arms? A cup of thickened water? The rip of Velcro as her slippers are removed at bedtime?

Her hands are busy today. Sometimes one hand grasps and pulls the fingers of the other, but mostly she is reaching. She leans out so far to explore objects that I worry she will fall again. She reaches down and folds one of the wheelchair’s footrests part way up. It is all just exploration, aimless really, the reaching an end in itself, no matter the object in view. That’s what I think, anyway, until her hand lands on my thigh and she begins to rub it vigorously back and forth. I know better than to make the obvious leap. It is not a sign of affection, at least not affection for me. She isn’t looking into my eyes, but is intent on the object of her rubbing. She has found the love of her life, the inanimate love of her life: fabric. “It’s seersucker,” I tell her. “Can you feel how bumpy it is? Remember seersucker? You used to sew with it.” She looks at me and smiles.

My Absence

To the three or four of you who might have come this way looking for an update or a new blog post, my apologies for neglecting this site nearly all summer. Here’s the short version of the story:  At the end of May, I headed down to the University of Chicago for my class reunion–the only time I have ever attended. Alas, I began to feel sick almost as soon as I got there, and by June 2 I was hospitalized. I spent a lonely week (my classmates had returned home) at the University of Chicago Medical Center, until June 10 when I was caravaned up Interstate 94 by a classmate, a daughter, and a couple of friends. I have been hanging around home ever since, gradually regaining strength, and depending on the bountiful kindness of many friends. I started driving a week ago, and after doing little more than reading for two months, I have begun writing about an hour a day on my Petersen’s Cafe project. Nothing new is up on the webpage yet, but I hope to do a bit of revision and posting soon.

Here are some books I read:

Rory Stewart, The Marches, an account of walking along the Borderlands of Scotland and England and a memoir of the author’s colorful father.

Edward McPherson, The History of the Future, an intelligent, provocative set of essays, thoroughly researched, by a former colleague at the Loft Literary Center now teaching at Washington University in St. Louis.

Peter Geye, Wintering, the 2017 Minnesota Book Award winner for fiction; a mystery/thriller/family drama that beautifully evokes the Boundary Waters.

Zeke Caligiuri, This Is Where I Am, a memoir and Minnesota Book Award finalist by a man incarcerated since his early 20s who grew up in Minneapolis’s Powderhorn neighborhood and attended South High at the same time as my daughter.

Laura Lippman, Wolfe Lake, a family drama by a popular mystery writer; not as engaging as I had hoped.

Penelope Lively, Consequences, The Purple Swamp Hen, and Ammonites and Dancing Fish. I had not read Lively’s work before, and I was so taken by her gorgeous sentences, clever verb choices, and credible characters that I went on a minor binge. I’ve now exhausted what’s in my neighborhood library around the corner.

Imbolo Mbue, Behold the Dreamers, a novel about Cameroonian immigrants in NYC, their aspirations, their struggle to stay in the US without jeopardy, and their simultaneous fondness for home.

Now what have I forgotten to include?  I can’t say what I’m currently reading, because I am doing pre-publication reviews of two manuscripts.

A Minnesota Book Award!

The Big Marsh: The Story of a Lost Landscape has won the 2017 Minnesota Book Award for Minnesota Nonfiction, the category for works of nonfiction with subject matter related to Minnesota.

Petersen’s Cafe 2: Herman High Remembered

Herman High is a bum.  A bum isn’t a bad person—just somebody with no place to live and no food to eat, somebody who wears the same clothes over and over and wanders around begging. Herman High doesn’t beg, though. He doesn’t talk at all. He’s “dumb,” like “deaf and dumb,” but not deaf. He turns his head if you sneak up behind him and make noise. I don’t do that.

Herman High is kind of scary, but he won’t hurt us. He’s very tall, and he looks like Abraham Lincoln’s ghost. He has black hair and black clothes and a gloomy look on his face, but no beard and no stovepipe hat. Still, I think of Abe Lincoln whenever I see him coming.

He walks up and down the street in Alden and sometimes turns into the restaurant. He doesn’t say anything, naturally, and he doesn’t really look at other people, even if they say, “Hi, Herman,” which makes us kids laugh. It’s his name backwards. One day I decided to try some lemon beer, which is really just pop. I sat at the bar to drink it, but about halfway through, I had to go to the bathroom, so I left it on the bar. When I came back the bottle was empty. Pete and Gar said Herman High had come in and finished it, just like he does with bottles and glasses of beer left standing. Even if it’s only dregs, he picks it up and drains it. I didn’t mind so much that he drank my lemon beer, because it was too prickly on my throat, anyway. I will be more careful with my orange pop and my cream soda.

Sometimes after Herman High drains the stale beer, he walks back to the lunch counter. If Grandma sees him coming and is fast enough, she might dish him up some food or hand him a sandwich. (She calls it a “sanvits.”) He doesn’t like to sit down long, so soon he walks back out, his eyes staring straight ahead. Grandma twitches her head and shoulders a little and mutters “Oh hadda”* or “Goopevas.”** She doesn’t mind so much that he doesn’t pay, because she feels sorry for people who have it hard. It’s the smell he leaves behind, like a musty old coat, that bothers her.

Pete and Gar say that Herman High sleeps in an old run-down car behind the Hazle Hotel. It’s full of boxes, and Pete and Gar have seen him rummaging around in there. Maybe he keeps his stuff in those boxes, but probably not soap or a toothbrush. He must have a razor, but he doesn’t use it very well. His face is sometimes stubbly, but not like it’s on purpose. Maybe he has treasures in those boxes that we can’t even imagine. It’s probably just junk, though. We never see him with anything. He wanders around empty-handed, his arms down stiff at his sides. Herman High is a Mystery Man.

*O Herre (Oh Lord)   **Gud bevare os (God preserve us)

Petersen’s Cafe, Alden, MN

I was unusually lucky to get to spend many days of my childhood in a small-town beer joint. My maternal grandparents, Francis and Alma Petersen, were the owners and proprietors, the bartender and the cook, the rule enforcer and the wise comforter of Petersen’s Cafe. If not the heart of Danish American life in Alden, MN, “the restaurant,” as we relatives so grandly called it, served, at least, as its huffing lungs. The extended family gathered there on Sundays and holidays, and my family lived upstairs with Grandpa and Grandma and Uncle Kenny for several months while my dad was on strike from his packinghouse job. I learned by watching and listening how a community enfolds the people who huddle at its margins:  the mentally ill, the alcoholic, the lonely, the no longer useful, the disowned, the displaced, the abused and their troubled abusers.  I got to know enough eccentrics to welcome the spice they add to a life that may look dreary and dull to outsiders. I was only eight when Grandpa Frankie’s weakening heart compelled them to sell the place and move into retirement in Albert Lea. (He lived another twenty years!) Yet I remember names and faces and incidents as vividly as only a curious child newly attentive to the world around can.

I have resolved to write some of these memories, first adhering to the limits of memory and including the misunderstandings and false assumptions created by childhood innocence and the long passage of time. Only after I have plumbed my memory will I turn to the historical record to see what I can find there to supplement, challenge, or affirm my memory. I don’t expect this project to become a book, so I will, I think, be content to blog the bits of it here from time to time. I figure I don’t have the life expectancy to undertake a lengthy research project like those my books have required.

Of course I have had to ask myself why I think my fragile recollections of the years 1945 to 1953 in a long since razed and forgotten beer joint/cafe are worthy of literary attention. Here are my answers:

–Because it was a treasured time of childhood, innocent but with an undercurrent of human suffering.

–Because people of little note deserve their dignity as much as the famous do.

–Because I was so fortunate to know eccentricity up close and to see how it is absorbed into a community.

–Because I have not done justice to my mom’s family and my Danish heritage.

–Because so much has been lost and laid flat by commercialism and suburbanization.

–Because Petersen’s Cafe is full of stories.

(P.S.  There will be photos if I can get my scanner to work again. Here is one, of Christmas at the restaurant. I’m on the left, age 2.)

A Near Century of Voting

Today, August 26, 2016, marks 96 years since American women won the right to vote. For the first time in U.S. history, we have a woman running for President with a serious chance of winning; yet her public image has been sullied by decades of misogynistic vitriol. I know it when I see it, because I am of her generation. Suffrage helped launch a century of progress for women, but it hasn’t come easily.

I’ve been thinking all day of my first time celebrating the Nineteenth Amendment, 46 years ago now, on the 50th Anniversary of Women’s Suffrage in 1970. A Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago with a dissertation left to write, I had moved to Minneapolis the previous year and quickly become active in the local women’s liberation movement. The Suffrage anniversary had been declared Women’s Equality Day in Minneapolis, and workshops and other events were planned in several venues downtown.

I took the bus downtown intent on some hearty discussion and vigorous public action. I would start my day at a workshop on Women and Economics, certainly a pressing topic. A panel of women with careers in banking and finance sat at the head of the room, before rows of chairs set up for a listening audience. One speaker offered us investment advice; another read us a pompous speech about how banks benefited women and told us with no embarrassment that her boss, a male bank president, had written it for her. The panel was well-dressed and coiffed and bejeweled, while much of the audience wore cut-off jeans. I began to feel as though I had entered an alternate universe. When the panel invited questions from the floor, I had mine ready:  How could we talk about investing when most women had little money to invest? The average working woman earned only 57 cents to the average man’s dollar. Married women could not get credit in their own names. One of the actions we had planned was for women to line up and submit applications to the city’s department stores for their own credit cards. I remember well how one of the panelists responded to my comments. With treacly condescension, she urged me to be patient. She understood that some young women were eager for that first mink coat, but such rewards took time.

Yes, Women’s Equality Day was actually two celebrations:  One for the respectable businesswomen who had “made it” in a man’s world, and another for those of us envisioning fundamental change in gender expectations. When I walked out of that workshop I looked up toward the observation deck of the Foshay Tower, the city’s tallest building, and saw what I hoped would be there: the banner reading “Women Unite” that a few women from the Twin Cities Women’s Union, a socialist feminist group, had planned to spirit up the elevator and unfurl. By this time, too, other guerrilla theater actions were drawing the attention of people on the street, as well as those emerging from the traditional workshops.

I was looking forward to using lunchtime to invade the local patriarchy by insisting on being served at one of downtown’s Men Only restaurants. My first choice was the Men’s Oak Grill on the twelfth floor of Dayton’s Department Store. It turned out to be everyone’s first choice: a crowd of jubilant women swarmed the elevators and escalators. I tried the Doctors’ Dining Room at the Physicians’ and Surgeons’ Building, which was reputed to admit any business-suited man but look skeptically at women claiming to be MDs. That, too, had a long line waiting to be granted admission.

Next on my list was the separate men’s corner of the restaurant in the basement of Powers Department Store. A woman I knew from the Twin Cities Female Liberation Group gestured to me to take the empty chair at her table. The wait staff had apparently been instructed–or just decided–not to offer us any resistance, so lunch was quieter and more routine than we had expected or hoped. I got to talking with the woman across the table from me about what we might do that would be really significant and effective. Gerri Helterline, a N.O.W. member, had been making the rounds of high schools to talk to classes about women’s liberation, and I had been doing the same for the Twin Cities Female Liberation Group. We had made the same observations about classroom dynamics. Some boys snickered and made comments under their breath; some girls giggled and batted their eyelashes at the boys, while a few girls in the front watched us intently, in silence. Afterwards, as others cleared the room, those girls in the front hung around and told us about the sex discrimination they suffered at school.

Gerri and I decided to meet again, to bring a few friends, and talk about how we could get closer to the core of the problem. Our speaking engagements left us feeling like “The Freak of the Week” and we had no way to follow up on their effectiveness. We wanted to talk to teachers and administrators and to the public officials who set policy for K-12 education. Before long we had constituted ourselves the Emma Willard Task Force on Education, and we were conducting teacher workshops, meeting with school administrators, and collating a book of curriculum materials around my dining room table. For years we filled orders for that little book, Sexism in Education, which sold by word-of-mouth all over the English-speaking world.

Somewhere along the way Gerri decided to restore her name to the one she grew up with, her so-called maiden name. She filed an application to the court and paid a fee of $14. Her husband, Dan, accompanied her to court to swear that he had no objections, and I was one of her character witnesses, there to testify that she wasn’t planning to defraud anyone. The judge’s ruling was memorable: “Well, if movie stars can do it, I don’t know why you can’t.” Gerri Helterline left the courtroom as Gerri Perreault. She is one of many unsung feminists who made a huge difference in young women’s lives.

More events scheduled

The blogging bug hasn’t bit yet. Maybe it will when the temperature cools into fall. In the meantime, please check my reading schedule by clicking Public Appearances above.


I’ve been busy doing readings of The Big Marsh, so I haven’t kept my blog up-to-date, nor do I want to feel the pressure to do so. One reader, however, told me that he couldn’t find any information about the new book on my website, so I’ll use this space briefly as a navigational guide. Check the menu that runs along the top of the page. Click “Books” for information about any of my books, including how to buy them if they are still available. Click “Public Appearances” to see if I have any readings scheduled or to listen to an interview archived online. If you’ve come to my website to read the blog, please be patient. I’ll write when the impulse strikes. Thank you for your interest.

The Guardian Angel (part 2 of Shock and Awe)

Once I was discharged from St. Eriks Sjukhus, I continued my journey through the Swedish women’s movement. Karin Westman Berg, who might be called the Mother of Women’s Studies in Scandinavia, welcomed me into her labyrinthine Uppsala apartment, where I would stay many times throughout the 1970s, and invited me to a symposium on the novelist Fredrika Bremer attended by literary scholars from around the world. In Örebro, I slept on silk sheets for the only time in my life–at the home of a Swedish communist. In Göteborg (aka Gothenburg), I read documents at the Women’s History Archives and stayed in a commune where two guys waiting to ship out as crew on a cruise popped popcorn every night–a rare delicacy in Sweden. My favorite memory from that time is waking up to the clomp-clomp of wooden clogs as little kids hurried off to school. I ate blood pudding in Lund, smothered in lingonberry sauce to make it palatable. There I was hosted by the Radical Women’s Group, several of whom were named Birgitta–the Swedish equivalent of the Kathy and Linda and Judy of my generation.

Although it was an exciting, productive, stimulating trip, the fear that I might get sick again at any time never left me. It turned into a stomach-churning anxiety the day I boarded the Malmö to Copenhagen ferry to begin the trip home. In those days, there was one clear option for a graduate student living on a fellowship to afford a trip to Europe: the 21- to 45-day excursion fare on Loftlei∂ir, the Icelandic airline, from New York to Luxembourg. After the ferry crossing, my trip home would include a 19-hour train trip from Copenhagen to Luxembourg, with transfers or layovers in Hamburg, Köln (Cologne), Koblenz, and Trier, followed by an 8-hour flight from Luxembourg to New York, and a 3- or 4-hour flight to Minneapolis. There was simply no allowance for pain, fatigue, or worse, systemic infection.

I sketched out my travel schedule in a letter home, so I know that I bought a sleeping car ticket for the 11:40 p.m. departure from Hamburg–a luxury I generally avoided. Next to my anticipated arrival in Koblenz at 7:48 a.m. I had written “breakfast.” I would board the train again by 8:29. After a restless, breathless night in the sleeping car, that breakfast in Koblenz became one of my most vivid memories, one I like to revisit.

The restaurant at Koblenz was not an intimate room tucked in a corner. It consisted of tables placed out in the open, under the high dome of the railway station. Even though it was prime breakfast time for the passengers on my train, few of them claimed the tables. I took a seat at one toward the center while the tables around me remained empty. I ordered a Tee Komplett, uncertain whether my stomach could handle the bread and pastry that accompanied the tea. I knew I needed to eat in order to have enough energy to lug my suitcases from place to place, but I had grown afraid of my own digestive system.

And then . . . I don’t know how else to say this . . . a middle-aged woman in a neat blue suit appeared at my table. She simply smiled at me and sat down in the chair across from me without a word. The other tables were still empty, yet she chose mine. When the waitress came by, she ordered a Kaffee Komplett. We sat there together, in silence, eating our breakfasts. Whenever I looked up, she was watching me intently, with a kindly smile and a gentle look of concern in her eyes. I could only smile back.

When it was time to board my train, I stood up, smiled a farewell, and walked away. All that quivering anxiety that had troubled me through the night had miraculously washed out the ends of my fingers and toes. I felt calm and confident for the rest of the trip. So who was she? Where did she come from? What did she know or perceive about me? It doesn’t really matter. For those 41 minutes, she served as my guardian angel. And she’s been with me since, not in the flesh, but recalled in memory when I think I can use her help.