Read The History of Great Things Online

Authors: Elizabeth Crane

The History of Great Things

BOOK: The History of Great Things


for Susan, my sister

and for Alice, champion, who always says
keep going

Binghamton, 1961

ou're late. Two weeks, forty-one hours late, nine pounds, ten ounces. That's a lot. That's like a bowling ball coming out of me.

—I've heard this part before, Mom.

—Just let me have my say and then you can have yours.


So you're a giant bowling ball coming out of me. If bowling balls were square. It hurts like a bitch. Honestly. No one mentioned this detail to me in advance. I may as well be pushing out a full-grown adult. Wearing a tweed pantsuit. Think about that. That's what they should tell kids in sex ed. Not that sex ed exists now, because it doesn't. Sex exists. Not ed.

It's 1961. Your father is in the waiting room, of course, because that's the way it is at this time. No dads, no home video, no breathing techniques. All fine by me, though I wouldn't hate for someone to mention to me that Pampers exist now. Your father is escorted in as soon as they've cleaned you up (god forbid the father should have to see that?) and handed you over to me all wrapped in a pink striped bunting, and when Fred comes
over it's very dear, actually. He peeks down into the bunting, and I see a pleased look on his face that's different from any I've seen him have before. He's not usually terribly expressive, as you know. But I can see how he feels about you already. I hand you over and realize he's never held a baby before, that maybe we should have practiced with your cousin or something, because you're a little unsteady passing between us, but once he's got you he's got you.

The next day, we take you home. You're a good baby, thank god. Sleep through the night, don't fuss too much, drink formula like a champ—nursing is not considered “modern,” even by doctors (by most, it's considered icky), and I am perfectly happy to accept this wisdom. And you are exceptionally beautiful. A thicket of dark curls on your day of birth that soon soften to a light brown, dark eyes that soon turn blue—I still don't know where those came from, since Fred and I both have green eyes, but it's fine, because your blue eyes are huge and you're nicely plump, with deliciously squishy baby legs even though my insides and my crotch still feel like the baby Godzilla just left my uterus. Grandmother Crane sends a beautiful layette from Marshall Field's: a delicate linen dress, a hand-crocheted cardigan, with matching bonnet and booties, though the whole set gets ruined pretty quickly, not very practical for a baby. I told her I'd just as well have stuff from Penney's, but of course that wasn't good enough. By the time you're old enough to walk, between Mother and me, you have an almost exclusively handmade wardrobe. She knits some absolutely darling little sweaters, and I make dresses, some of them smocked; sometimes I make matching dresses for us, and for your doll Bibsy if I have some selvage left over. In any case, you're a very well dressed, absolutely beautiful little girl, everyone remarks on this, and I am very proud.

Until the tantrums start, around the typical age, two and a half or so. I won't be around for some of these, but one time there's a particularly huge fuss about cleaning up your kitchen set.
Time to clean up! But why? Because it's suppertime. Well is it suppertime or cleanup time? First it's cleanup time, then it's suppertime. But why? I'm not finished! Because it is, Betsy. But I'm not finished! Yes, you are for now. No! No! I'm not! I'm not finished! I will never be finished!
I had read in Dr. Spock that you're supposed to throw your child in a bathtub of cold water during a tantrum, but on this occasion there's no time for that, and now that it's happening I can't imagine how there'd ever be time for that, you'd basically have to have a bathtub full of cold water ready to go, though with the increasing frequency of your fits it might be worth it. So I run to the kitchen and grab a glass of water and throw it on you, and sure enough, you do stop yelling for a brief moment, no doubt because you're completely stunned.
I'm going to tell my daddy on you!
you say, and I have to leave the room, otherwise I will laugh.

—I'm thinking you have an unfair advantage, at least when it comes to my first eighteen years, because you were there.

—Not always.

—Good point.

Muscatine, 1936

kay. Muscatine, Iowa. June of 1936.

You're born in Muscatine. Edna, your mother, has been a homemaker since your older sister, Marjorie, was born a couple years earlier. Before that she worked at the Heinz factory for a while. Walter, your father, is the editor of the
Muscatine Journal
. Member of the lodge.

—Which lodge?

—I don't know, some lodge. A lodge is a lodge.

—Don't tell him that.

—Mom, Grandpa's long gone.

—Well, so am I, Betsy, but you're talking to me.

—Okay, whatever! Let's say it's a Moose lodge.

—Let's say? You don't think we should try to be accurate?

—Well, it's not a memoir. It's just a story.

—But it's a true story.

a true story, though. That's not what we're doing. Do you think you know my story?

—Yes. I don't know. Maybe. More than you think.

—Lemme just keep going.

You're kind of a sickly baby. You have the croup a lot and your father is always at work or at the lodge, doing lodge things, making secret lodge greetings with the other men in their fezzes, smoking cigars and telling bawdy jokes. Your mother's tired all the time though she never complains about it one bit. Marjorie isn't any much easier than you, she hasn't had the croup, but she's a handful. Won't go down for a nap, not ever. Always loud and asking annoying questions nonstop and by the time you're born she's already got an opinion about everything.

—I dunno about the croup, but so far the rest of that is pretty believable.


But you're a good kid. You and Marjorie share a double bed until she goes to college, and you fight a lot (or, all the time). You think Marjorie is a pill and Marjorie thinks you're a pill and you're both right, but it's a different era, and you're well-behaved kids, nobody rats their hair or makes out with boys, none of that. Well, Marjorie comes home and kicks you out of the bedroom one night for a sleepover with a girlfriend (you are part miffed to be kicked out, part happy to get to sleep downstairs in the den by yourself), and when you go back upstairs to brush your teeth you hear her giggling and giggling with her friend Effie and you hear some boys' names you haven't heard before, Roger and Ted, and Effie asking Marjorie to tell her everything,
about what it was like, and you don't know what
is, you're maybe eleven at this time, but you know it's something you will never, ever do. You just know.

When you're fifteen, your first boyfriend takes you to sophomore prom for your third date.
Told you
, you say to Marjorie,
sticking your tongue out at her.
Be careful or I'll cut that off, sassypants.
You ask her,
How come you're not going to the senior prom, Marjorie?
knowing full well that she didn't get asked because her boyfriend just dumped her for the most popular girl in school.
Prom's stupid
, Marjorie says.
Only prisses go
. The boyfriend is cute enough, a bit of a dullard, on the debating team,
, picks you up in his dad's Buick, you're wearing a pale lavender tulle dress you and Mother made together, absolutely dreamy, and having a boyfriend is definitely better than not having a boyfriend, your sister was right about that. The girls who don't have boyfriends are either ugly or are tramps who'll go with whoever. You want to get a pin. Sooner or later all these boys want hanky-panky, though, so each year you solve this problem by simply trading in last year's guy for a new one; in succession these boys are heartbroken—this is the heartbreak of three boys' lives, though you'll never know it. You join the school chorus, switching after years of humdrum clarinet, something you're enthusiastic about, maybe for the first time.

Your father doesn't know that Effie's great-grandmother was colored (Effie herself doesn't know this yet), because if he did, she would for sure not be sleeping in a room with you and your sister, would not be over at the house at all. You know this because of that time you invited your friend Ginny over to play dolls and didn't think to mention the color of her skin. In retrospect, you should have thought to mention it, since Daddy had more than a time or twenty or thirty made his views on the subject clear. You've heard him come home from work grumbling about how
ever since that pinko Truman's been in office the world's gone to heck in a handbasket. Robinson in the majors, and now they're voting in the House? Malarkey.
It'll be years before you add any of this up, you don't know who Robinson is or whose
house he's talking about, you just know to steer clear when he gets on a tear like that. Still, when Ginny comes over and your father comes home from work and you ask if Ginny can stay for dinner all he says is
, but you haven't ever seen him look like that before, like there isn't a more horrible thing in the world to him than Ginny being there for even another minute, and you're fairly sure Ginny knows that too, even though her being a little girl is maybe the only reason he doesn't say anything more before he goes and gets your mother. Grandma quietly (though visibly ashamed—she's a good Christian woman who isn't in the habit of sending people away, colored or not) helps Ginny gather her things to go home.

After, Ginny and you are forbidden even to speak at school, so you ask questions:
Why not? Why not? What did she do?
(You almost ask
How will you know if Ginny and I speak at school,
but that's likely to result in a swat on the bottom, plus you're sure he
somehow know if you and Ginny speak at school, you never forgot him telling you that newspapermen have
eyes and ears everywhere
.) Your father tells you he's disappointed that you don't already know, which is disappointing to you.
Those people should stay with their own, Lois
, he says, which is a punch to your little gut,
Those people
—what this means about what Ginny did wrong, and what you did wrong by bringing her over—and you make a plan in your mind to be friends with Ginny when you grow up.

—Okay, you're pretty good at this.

—Thanks, Mom.

—I mean, that might be made up, but it could have happened. Maybe it did happen.

—Well, but it's important that everyone understands this isn't what actually happened, only what
have happened.

—That's what I said, Betsy. It could have happened. I said “could.” In this case, it's fairly close to what actually did happen

—Yes, but that's not what I want. I want it to be only things that could have happened but didn't. I want the characters and their relationships to be real, but not the exact circumstances. Only similar, believable circumstances.

—But wait, why does it matter what the reader thinks about it?

—Because it's the whole premise of the story. We're sitting here having this conversation because there was so much about the other's private lives that neither of us really knew. You know what I mean: I wasn't alive when you were a girl. I might know a story or two you told me about your childhood, but a lot of times it was just like, “Daddy wouldn't let me have my black friends over.” So this way I can make that a more fully realized story, filling in details I couldn't have known. We can even make up whole scenes based on nothing more than scraps of information. I know where you were married. You know where I went to college.

—Sure, I get that. I'm just saying it
be true. I still don't see why it matters how people read it.

—I don't know, Mom. Because it just does.

—That sounds like a Lois answer.

—I am your kid. I'm never unclear about that.

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