Fresh FIction Box Not To Miss

Gwendolen Gross | Bread, Puppets, and Summer

August 17, 2011

Gwendolen GrossTHE ORPHAN SISTERBecause it is summer, and because a woman at Oberlin College, Ma’ayan Plaut, gave me adjective sandwich recipes for THE ORPHAN SISTER, as I wait for the kids’ camp bus I am thinking of bread, and wondering what my mother used to do in the summer. There were three of us, my sisters and I, and mostly we didn’t go to camp, we went to the summer house and were creatively, actively, deeply bored in the sweet green timothy grass and lupines. We drew pictures and pretended moss banks were enchanted beds. We bickered and cleaned a thousand dead flies from the windows. Claudia and I made face paint from ground-up rocks: mica chips silver, iron oxide red. We read, and read, and read and made birthday ice cream with a wooden hand-crank machine and cream we got from working on the dairy farm. We grew.

We used to ride up to Greensboro, Vermont from our house in Newton, Massachusetts, three girls, parents and the dog, taking turns in the way back of the Jeep Wagoneer, bouncing on the wheel well that sounded like going, going, going and made your bones buzz. Once we were there, dad would go back home for work, and Mom would shuttle us to early-morning swim lessons at the lake (deep! cold! Perhaps it’s there my sister Claudia Rose fell in love with open-water swims) or let us roam to the local farm to help, or we’d travel to town where one gift shop and the Willie’s general store would occupy hours of slow summer meandering. I wrote letters to my friend Lisa, decorating envelopes like the Queen of Hearts, the Monopoly board.

Then there was one summer we went to Bread and Puppet Theater. My youngest sister was too young to go, but Mom drove us—maybe it was an hour from Greensboro?—and left us to help make puppets and prepare for the summer performance. That year in particular, it was about the Resurrection of the Washer Women. Probably it was about the downtrodden taking back beauty and life, also there was probably some religious thematic material, but to me (coming from a not religious household), it was about learning to walk on stilts (climb atop the hood of the school bus to strap these six-foot babies on—nothing like the hand-held ones Dad made us at home), to lift and animate the thirty-pound stick of washer-woman wing while running down the bowl of green hill, to paint puppet birds the size of the Jeep and to watch adults take collective delight (never mind the possibly illicit 70s sorts of activities and the charismatic director, wild eyes and supposedly many-wived—I write only from childhood recollection and rumor here, nothing factual) in creating a spectacle thick with meaning.

What did my mother do? Did she take photographs while my sister Becca napped in a stroller? Did we even have strollers? I think of this because it is summer and I wait for camp buses. There is some inconvenience, sure, but Mom must have had to do a lot to allow us our magics. And doubtless we demanded distractions.

When the performance came, the sky was steel and the green grounds gray and brown with several days of rain. We danced on stilts, the man who made his bread and garlic aioli opened his free bread booth. It was indeed a circus, though the animals were all puppets, animated by children and adults who meant every flap of the great white birds’ wings, all the nuance of elephant dance. It rained—we ran. Then, at the last, when we came down the hill with our resurrected washerwomen, the sky peeled back gray and the sun flashed forth and it was one of those moments it doesn’t seem possible there isn’t some plan of some sort, from someone, something, fate or God or nature. The bread made your mouth hurt with intensity, and after running down the hill into the sunset, we wanted more.

I realize this is a mouthful for a single blog post, but it starts with sour bread and garlic aioli. Perhaps if it were an adjective sandwich it would be Revolutionary. Perhaps it would simply be a noun that works both ways: Summer.

Gwendolen Gross

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