Rilke Meets the Little Red Hen

First, someone had to run down to the basement and get the big, blue-speckled pot from the shelf under the stairs. This person was the Little Red Hen, whose job was simply to say “I will!” any time my father said, “Who will help me get the pot from the basement?” or “Who will get the flour from the pantry?” or “Who will grease the loaf pans?”

The Little Red Hen, if you remember the children’s story, grew her own wheat and baked her own bread while the lamb and the pig and the cat sat around saying “Not I!” every time the hen asked who would help. It was a true story. We had a cat then, and I can’t remember even one time when Fluffy helped bake the bread.

After you got the pot from the basement, you had to get the black scale with the big round dial from the hearth in the family room. You probably had to move a bowl of walnuts out of the way. Then, my father would weigh the big blue pot, set the scale to the new zero, and start pouring clouds of flour. My father made so much bread at one time that it was easier to weigh the ingredients than measure them. In retrospect, it might just be that he thought it would be more fun. He was an engineer.

Let’s leave my father in the kitchen baking bread circa 1970 for a minute.

On New Year’s morning this year, Fred went to the grocery store, and when he came back I was sitting with my laptop at the kitchen table. I had pumpkin bread in the oven and I was writing about this line from Rilke’s “Requiem for a Friend”:

“I have my dead and I have let them go and was amazed to see them so contented, so at home in being dead, so cheerful, so unlike their reputation.”

I’ve always loved that sentence. I was working on this essay and thinking about just how many dead I have. I was making a list, tearing up a little, and when I told Fred what I was working on, he said, “That’s life.”

I knew what he meant. Growing up in a huge Roman Catholic family, if you learn anything (well, anything other than that you shouldn’t have sex) it’s that people die all the time. Out of the blue, a relative I barely knew would die, and normal life would stop to dance around the ritual. My mother would send flowers. We would put on school clothes and go to the funeral home. At some point, we would end up at an aunt’s house eating ham and potato salad that a neighbor had brought by. If we stayed at the funeral home until it was closing, we would kneel in the hall while one of the men led the rosary. (I liked this part. The ritual reciting of the words made me feel ancient and alive.)

Today, though, the Little Red Hen isn’t reciting Our Fathers and Hail Marys in strings of sorrowful mysteries. Today she’s standing ready to say, “I will!” while her father checks the notes in the 1946 Woman’s Home Companion Cook Book. On page 116 in the recipe for WHITE BREAD: Straight-Dough Method, where the cookbook says “6 cups of all-purpose sifted flour,” my mother has penciled in, “5# 10oz flour” and then, maybe as the family grew, “7# 6 oz,” and finally, “8 ½+ # in mixing pot” (which I’m assuming is the blue speckled pot, since I’m the last kid and the recipe stopped growing). Where the Woman’s Home Companion says “milk, scalded, 2 cups” my mother has penciled in “8.” 2 ½ teaspoons of salt has been replaced with “10” and later simplified to “1/4 cup.” My father baked a lot of bread.

Back in my kitchen in 2015, I am taking pumpkin bread out of the oven and thinking about another line from Rilke. I read “Archaic Torso of Apollo” when I was nineteen, not long after I had left Pennsylvania for the first time. I’ve never understood the poem. The speaker is looking at a headless statue of Apollo that bursts with life. After a series of striking descriptions, Rilke says this: “for here there is no place/that does not see you. You must change your/ life.”

What the hell, Rilke? The urgency of the lines, which Mark Doty describes perfectly as “winging out of nowhere,” hit me hard at nineteen and has never left.

Meanwhile, back on Marvle Valley Drive, yeast are swimming to life in a pot of warm sugar water. I’m swimming, too, across ideas, and decades, and time zones. I can’t make this essay stay put. I’m more than seven hundred words in and I still haven’t mentioned that Friday afternoon in November. I was driving a bus full of kids back to Albuquerque from Santa Fe. I was driving straight into the sun, which was leaning hard into the horizon.

I was disoriented. You think of driving from Santa Fe to Albuquerque as heading south. What was the sun doing directly in front of me rather than off to my right? (Off to my right, by the way, I was looking through one of those school bus doors that folds opens with a metal rod. Just being on a school bus makes me think of book bags, and knee socks, and rolling down Irishtown Road to drop off some boy the driver called Buddy right in front of his house. It was kindergarten in Pittsburgh. It was raining.)

I was trying to figure out how I was driving due west on I-25 South when a sentence “winged out of nowhere” into my head. “Things are changing in me, and I do not know where or to what end.” (What the hell, Rilke?) The sentence followed me home. It climbed into bed with me. It stuck around through the holidays.

I would have happily traded it for the Little Red Hen’s eager “I will!” when it was time to knead the dough. She loved that moment when the dough would start to breathe back against her hands; when she’d realize that this pile of flour and salt and water was alive.

It would be dark by the time my father’s bread finally came out of the oven. We cut it hot and slathered melting butter on slice after slice after slice. We were all there then: Pat, Judy, Paul, Meg, Clare, and me, crowded around the kitchen table in our pajamas, breaking bread.

To paraphrase the title of an Ann Patchett book, this is the story of a happy childhood. I am the youngest of six kids. Eight if you count the two babies who didn’t live, one on either side of me. Most of my siblings are alive. Some of them, I think, read these essays. A few years ago, my Uncle Larry, the youngest of my father’s siblings, sent me a Christmas card. “We’re the cabooses,” he said. I love that image: the littlest sibling chugging along behind the big kids, trying to catch up, trying not to get left behind as they round that bend off in the distance before I get there.

In Albuquerque Fred is putting the groceries away and I tell him I have finally figured out how to write an essay about something other than dying. “But those are your best ones,” he says.

So one more thing. I am thinking about Ann Patchett because not that long ago one of my friends sent me an email about her book, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. Elizabeth said, “It’s a collection of short stories, basically about becoming/being a writer, and it makes me think of you. Her voice reminds me of your writing, and I love her writing.”

She lent me the book, and I loved it, and I loved that she said it reminded her of me, and then, about a month later, she died. It wasn’t a surprise; she had been outliving pancreatic cancer with matter-of-fact grace and gusto for two years. Lately when we were playing music together in her home, she would say things like, “You should play this at my memorial.” This weekend, we will.

Then about a week ago, my friend Jacqui from first grade sent me an email asking me if I had read Ann Patchett’s This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. “Her voice is so much like yours… that I thought I was proofing a book for you the whole time that I read it,” she said.

Sometimes everything feels like a sign.

January has come and gone. That sentence from the bus is still following me around. I keep meaning to write a letter to Ann Patchett. Those of us who are still here are off on yet another wild loop around the sun.

I want to say that it’s good to be here, and that maybe it’s ok to move on. Something, I don’t know what, is going to happen next. And even though my friend Deena thinks I might have a clue “what this messy life means,” that’s pretty much everything I know.

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One thought on “Rilke Meets the Little Red Hen”

  1. Well done Heather. Like you, I am the caboose in my family-always chasing my older sisters! If I recall correctly, I had some of your Dad’s home made bread. A college trip with many grand memories!

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