As I said in the original post about the triptych, I’ve been teaching my memoir students the triptych form over the last few years. During the first drafts, I encourage writers to use a one-word title that announces the theme that ties the scenes together. Today’s triptych writer is Elizabeth Corcoran Murray who took my Writing the Memoir class in 09/10. Her starting word for this triptych was “convenience.” Elizabeth is presently completing her memoir, Winds: An American Goatherd in Languedoc. You can read about her experience in France as a goatherd in the essay “The Urban Goatherd” featured in the new collection We Came to Say(Third Place Press).
By Elizabeth Corcoran Murray
Mauve or taupe? Did it really matter?
As I compared bathroom tiles in Home Depot, I reflected on another bathroom years ago, when, at age fourteen, I hunched over my bathroom floor, studying photographs in LIFE magazine. It was August 1967. The photos showed dancing men sporting wreaths of daisies while women swirled in flowery purple skirts in San Francisco, a million worlds away. I, a ninth grader at Lynch Junior High School in Holyoke, Massachusetts, stared longingly at the laughing faces. How I yearned to join those wild men and women.
More than a decade later, the wild freedom of the “back to nature” movement waned in most places, but thrived in southern France, where people had moved to the mountains to live off the earth. I joined one such family, a friend of my cousins, and I spent a year with them herding goats in a remote region of Languedoc.
The winter of ’80 was bitter, with icy winds careening off the Languedoc mountains. Every night the family snuggled near the one source of heat, a fire in the salle de manger, our “all purpose room,” where we worked, played and cut out the entrails of goats to make sausages. When I first arrived at the ancient stone home, I was disappointed to find only two small windows. As drafts seeped through the frosted panes, two windows seemed plenty.
The wood gathered by Francis, the father, burned in the wall-to-wall fireplace, pulling us together like commuters on a subway, crammed for our common purpose: warmth. We sat on the wall-length hearth, which was strewn with drying pants and shirts.
One November night, with a pile of socks the size of a small haystack, I picked up the wooden egg-shaped ball to begin to darn. With the egg in the toe of the sock, I took my threaded needle, and wove in and out one way, and then the other, until the hole was mended and the sock was again useful. I picked up the next sock, grey with a worn heel.
Ricky, a fellow English speaking goatherd, sat on the hearth, reading “Pride and Prejudice,” which my Mother had sent from America. The family gathered around the fire, not only for warmth- although every other inch of the home was cold- but for electricity. The room had the one light bulb in the house. Of course, there was no TV. We listened to Van Morrison on the battery run tape recorder I brought from America. Francis, the father, cut holes for the fresh smelling hide belt he was making, while the children spread their books and homework papers across the table. Bernadette, the Mother, cleaned the cheese cups to make goat cheese in the morning.
Squeezing as close to the fire as I could, I daydreamed as I darned one sock, then another. What would I do if I were home? I wouldn’t be sitting inside with long underwear, a turtleneck, a sweater, and a coat on. If there were a fire in the fireplace it would be for soft ambiance, only. I’d never think to darn a sock when Macy’s was a few minutes away. And would anyone make goat cheese? Never. That’s what Safeway or the A & P was for! Feed a goat, milk it? Spend several weeks making goat cheese? How utterly inconvenient!
Francis finished his belt and brought out a strange apparatus, like I had seen at Sturbridge Village, the replica of an early American community. A tin, metal pan sat at the bottom, with three tin prongs sticking up like poles of a teepee. Francis put small pieces of burning wood on the plate and said, and this is for your bed. It’s a bed warmer.
I took it up my two sets of ladders to my mattress on the floor and tucked the bed warmer under my covers. A half hour later, I climbed into bed and pulled the thin cotton sheets up to my chin, tucking my knees in tight to my tummy, relishing the warm spots from the bed warmer. I thought about how precious the evening was to me. With only one source of heat, we all clustered together. We were together, yet each in our own world. We were connected, yet apart.
There was something that increased our quality of life when we slowed down like this. Life seemed to have more meaning when we were all creating. It sounded like cliché, yet, suddenly, convenience seemed like a sad and dirty word. Convenience steals the best away from us, so we forget to slow down to appreciate what matters most our friends, our family, our passion.
Growing up in America, convenience was the Holy Grail. The foggy afternoon in 1967 when I was studying those San Francisco flower children in LIFE magazine in 1967, my Mother interrupted my reverie. “Dad’s home! Time to eat”.
When my father came home – after gin and tonics with the boys at the Yankee Peddler– it was time for supper. My sister and I grabbed some newspapers and spread them out on the living room floor. “Move them back from the TV,” my Mom said, as she did every night. “You’re going to ruin your eyes sitting that close. “
We sat behind the newspapers with our legs crossed; elbows on our knees, glued to Donna Reed and My Three Sons. The television’s blue light blazed as our Mother carefully laid out our TV trays in front of us. Our napkin, fork, knife, and spoon, were properly placed ala Emily Posts with a glass of fresh homogenized milk in the right hand corner. The centerpiece, the steaming Swanson’s fried chicken TV dinner, had its tin foil cover peeled off so the chicken and apple cobbler flavors could rise and meld together. Gruesome? No, my favorite dinner. A perfect evening!
As Ricky Nelson sang his ballads on Ozzie and Harriet, I eagerly dove into my juicy, sweet fried chicken and powder puff of potatoes with a smack of drippy yellow liquid swimming on top. The tin tray of the TV dinner neatly was divided into little slots, with smallest in the middle filled with the tasty apple cobbler. Covered with a lumpy brown texture, perhaps Elmer’s glue and brown sugar, a runny yellow triangle swam in a sticky juice resembling mush, more than apple. Furtively, I dipped into the cobbler before touching those pencil thin rods called green beans.
By the first commercial on TV, dinner was over. I carried my tin tray and dumped it into the garbage. I returned to my spot on the floor, out stretched on my stomach, my ankles up to the ceiling, my elbows on the floor, my chin on my hands, and again the television devoured me. All too soon, my Mother said, “8:30. Time for bed.” Another quality evening in the life of convenience.
But in France that arctic winter of 1980, when I fell asleep on the toasty mattress I shared with the family’s daughter in their tiny loft, I drifted to sleep thinking about the cow I would milk in the morning. After a breakfast of warm milk and chicory, I trotted down to the barn to milk the huge, orange bovine who had stepped on my toe four months ago, whom I hated, and who was the family’s darling.
As Ricky squeezed her udders, pouring milk into the silver bucket, I thought about the evening when we’d pour the milk in a glass jar, shake it until our arms hurt, then pass it on to the next person, again and again until butter was perfect for spreading on the fresh bread we toasted with a stick over the fire in the salle de manger. Ricky stood up and I took my turn milking. Thick, sweet milk slowly spattered, dinging on the bucket.
As Ricky herded the goats up the hill, I headed to the stinky chicken coop with a bag full of grain to feed the noisy chickens, while I searched for the eggs. On shelves? Behind the door? Under bits of hay? It was hide and seek. Back at the house, I added wood to the fire, washed the garden dirt from the carrots, and peeled the potatoes. I added the vegetables to the simmering goat stew meat before returning to the fire to re-patch Francis’ leather coat.
I was reminded once again, how different breakfast would be if we just spread our margarine on the toast we pulled out of the toaster, or drank our fortified grocery store milk, or opened a can Chef Boy Ardee stew and ate Sara Lee lemon dessert. How different to go to Macy’s for a new leather coat on a whim. Our farm life was hard, but convenience, I decided, was a dirty word.
The Home Depot tile department seemed like a huge cavern as I gazed one more time at the mauve and taupe, a silly distinction, it seemed to me. I turned the cool, smooth tiles over in my hand, and finally said “mauve” for no reason except to leave before the fluorescent lights caused purple swirls before my eyes.
I wondered about my life today, in this era of internet and Facebook and hybrid cars. I’ve never fed my daughter a Swanson TV dinner in front of The Simpsons and I usually made birthday cakes from scratch. I don’t mend my socks by the firelight, but I do hold on to holey ones to use for cleaning instead of throwing them out. I mostly give presents of “experience” rather buying lots more “stuff.” And I’ve never owned a storage shed. I don’t gather eggs around the chicken shed, but I do, sometimes, buy my eggs from my neighbor.
It’s funny all the things we learn. “Not being perfect” is one of those. “Convenience is a dirty word” is another. Some days, when I am harried and my daughter needs to get to soccer and I have a deadline and the septic overflows and my husband is late at the office, a little convenience can be okay. As long as no Swanson TV dinners are involved.