Edna, with her mouth closed, was not a fashion model, but she could have passed for one. She was stretched and slender everywhere: swan-necked, narrow-waisted and -hipped, her long, lean legs tapering into finely-turned ankles. She had elegant feet, graceful fingers. Her dresses hung from her straight, narrow shoulders as if flawlessly draped on a J.C. Penney mannequin, one of those matte-painted, bald ones with staring, vacant expressions. If I think of Edna in this way, remember her as still and silent and sphinxlike as a mannequin, I see her beauty, even now, forty years later, as if she were right here in front of me.
Edna with her mouth open was something else entirely. The first and last and only thing you saw about her was teeth. Edna had the worst set of buck teeth I have ever seen, or will ever see in my lifetime. If Edna’s body was classical in its architecture, like the fluted column of a temple in its pure vertical simplicity, her open mouth was positively Baroque, all curves and angles jutting this way and that—excessively, extravagantly deformed. No garden-variety overbite, Edna’s teeth were so dominant they took over her face and everything else about her person. Yet for all their mesmerizing there-they-are-ness, I couldn’t ever really look at them. When I try to pull the image of her teeth up in my memory and take a good, long look—stare at them in my mind’s eye the way I never could in real life—I can’t seem to get a clear picture.
Or maybe I can. It began with her gums, which protruded far beyond the frame of her thinly-stretched upper lip. Fully exposed to the air, Edna’s gums were pink and healthy-looking, but somehow reminiscent of an internal organ not meant to be visible outside the body. The teeth themselves projected even farther forward into space, and also crossed over one another, not a one of them in its rightful spot. Just to look at Edna’s teeth was painful; you imagined having them in your own mouth, stretching your lips to fit, trying to contain them in a space too small to ever manage. You couldn’t help but look away while you unconsciously ran your tongue over your own front teeth, feeling them still there in their proper places, smooth and wet under the movement of your tongue. You’d give a small, relieved sigh, and press your lips together, the upper and lower meeting easily, effortlessly, over your own, merely ordinary, teeth.
Who was Edna to me? Just a woman of my mother’s generation, though older than my mom by maybe a decade. I must have watched her more closely than I realized, back when I was a young girl, then a teenager, wondering about her life there on a farm a few miles west of the one where I grew up.
As painful as it was to look at Edna’s teeth, how much more painful it must have been for Edna to have them. This, too, could be clearly seen: the way she raised her hand to her mouth to shield it from view when she spoke, when she laughed. And, it may surprise you to know, she spoke and laughed often. You might think she’d remain silent and observant, only listening to the conversations flowing around her at the church Mary Martha Guild or the neighborhood Home Projects club. When Edna listened, she kept her lips closed and followed the stream of talk, her shiny black irises darting from speaker to speaker, her head tilting like a hen’s eying the ground for a piece of cracked corn. But Edna was not shy, as you might expect, nor a wallflower, despite her unfortunate teeth.
Edna’s voice was the second thing that ruined one’s initial, closed-mouth impression of her. It was perhaps more high-pitched than most, but with this wobbly up-and-down range that also included some low, guttural tones. When Edna talked, the words exploded from her mouth as if she simply had to say something, even if she knew it would be better to stay quiet. She began in a burst of high notes, then ended low, her phrases punctuated by trills of nervous, stuttering laughter. Surely the way Edna spoke was influenced by her teeth, the rapid staccato of words, her difficulty with enunciation, but there was more to it than that. Her voice had a swallowed, gobbledy quality that must have been simply how Edna sounded, teeth or no teeth. Truth be told, Edna’s voice resembled nothing so much as what you’d hear coming from a poultry barn full of caged white turkeys: that loud, shrieking up-and-down gobbling that almost makes you want to scream, yourself. And what with her skinny, stretched-out neck and those bird-bright eyes, the resemblance to poultry was all the stronger.
Whenever Edna joined into conversation, she talked so fast and her words were so garbled that it was hard to understand what she said. I noticed how people sort of skipped right over her and continued on with their own line of thought, which come to think of it, is how most conversations seem to be carried on, even without Edna or someone like her in the group.
Maybe part of my fascination with Edna was because she had this thing that was so obvious to anyone who saw her. I almost said “so obviously wrong,” but there wasn’t anything wrong, really, with Edna’s teeth. They still functioned: she could eat and speak and just plain live with those teeth. They just weren’t your normal, everyday set. There were other women in Boon Lake Township who had something different about them, something obvious to anyone looking. Sharon Meyers had a goiter, a big one, round and pink, like an extra breast attached to her neck. Louise Steffen wore leg braces and walked with a terrible see-sawing limp. As a girl she’d had polio and was shut up in an iron lung for months, learning to walk all over again upon her release from that metal prison.
But unlike the trials of Sharon and Louise, Edna’s teeth weren’t caused by an illness. It was simply how they grew in. And even though Edna held her hand over her misshapen mouth, everyone could still see it. I wondered how she could carry on with such a conspicuous flaw and still remain so cheerful. Because secretly—and this may be the heart of the matter—I felt like something was wrong with my own mother or, if not “wrong,” then at least “not right.”
On the outside my mother looked normal enough. I watched her assemble herself, layer by layer, when she got ready to go out, the way she armored herself to face the world. Girdle, slip, dress. Hairspray, lipstick, powder. Coat, gloves, handbag. The same stuff all the other ladies wore. Mom was neither pretty nor plain, stylish nor frumpy. Not fat, not thin. She could have been anybody’s mother, if you saw her from a distance. But she was my mother and I saw her close up. And there was something wrong with her, some hidden flaw. It was nothing that showed on the outside, no obvious defect to cause her unhappiness. But she was unhappy. Could other people outside my family see it, too, concealed beneath her armor of normalcy?
It was Mom, after all, who taught me to be so observant, always on the lookout for imperfections, especially female ones. When I was a teenager, she often recited the litany of my faults as we stood doing the dishes together, telling me what was wrong with my hair (lank), my clothes (tight), my posture (slouched). Her own mother had done the same for her, Mom told me, back when she was young, helping to correct her flaws. The ones that showed, anyway.
But back to Edna. You might think from what I’ve told you that she was unmarried, an old maid as she would have been called in that time and place. But no, Edna was married to a farmer named Lyle Lubke. Lyle was as silent as Edna was voluble. He was average-looking, possessing no physical characteristics to distinguish him from all the other farmers I knew, including my own father, with their insulated coveralls and Redwing boots and oil-stained work gloves. In summer they wore canvas caps from the feed store or the seed corn supplier; in winter they switched to plaid wool hats with the earflaps turned down. Cigarettes drooped from their lips as they went about their work, milking the cows, feeding calves, watering heifers, forking down silage, fixing the barn cleaner, the tractor, the water pump, the electric fence, always something: fixing, fixing, fixing.
I can still hear Edna’s voice so clearly in my mind, but I couldn’t describe Lyle’s if my life depended on it. The neighborhood men always talked amongst themselves about how Lyle had fought in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, and while he’d come back from it alive, he wasn’t the same as he’d been before. Not only did Lyle never say a word about the Battle of the Bulge, he never said much about anything at all. He was a deeply silent man, but his reasons for that were known and respected, and people let him be.
Edna and Lyle had five children, spaced apart over twenty years. The three boys’ names all began with the letter W, the two girls’ with a J, I don’t know why. The two girls and the youngest boy took after Edna, though their teeth were less flamboyant than hers. The two older sons favored Lyle in looks and manner and even speech—making solemn, slow statements only after measured consideration. The three who resembled Edna talked like her as well, that same high-low, swallowed gobbling that made it hard to understand their words.
Joanne, the elder daughter, babysat for my siblings and me once, staying at our house for a few days when my parents went away on vacation. She was tall and slender, like Edna, but more modern, with harlequin glasses and a dark blonde flip. The first night when Joanne was making supper, I brought a Mason jar of canned peas up from the cellar for her to heat on the stove. Instead of pouring the extra liquid down the sink, Joanne carefully drained it off into a coffee mug. “Who wants the pea juice?” she called out in a gleeful tone, holding the cup high. Huh? My sister and I were horrified. Pea juice? “Don’t you all drink the pea juice over to here?” Joanne said. “We all fight over that at home.” No, we said. You can have it. She drank it down, although with less pleasure than she might have felt in the face of our disinterest.
The next day at lunch it was the same thing with the pickle juice. Joanne said her family loved pickle juice. Olive juice, too. It was a treat to them, a delicacy. What a waste it was for us to pour it down the drain. I imagined Edna in her kitchen, holding up a cup of brine, a green-tinged nectar made of salt and vinegar to tempt her brood.
It’s not such a big thing, the Lubke family’s drinking of strange juices. It was just one of those glimpses into the mysteries of other people’s lives, those being lived inside the walls of farmhouses that seemed as impregnable as fortresses. For all the ways the people of Boon Lake seemed exactly alike—landowner farmers, either Catholic or Lutheran, all with German surnames—there were still these small, secret differences between them that I began to collect. Maybe Joanne did the same thing, only in reverse, when she returned home from her babysitting stint. Guess what? she may have said the next time her family clamored for castoff pickle juice. The Schaefers don’t even save it. They just pour it down the sink! And they might have shaken their heads at us, wondering how it could be.
My quest to gather information on the Lubkes wasn’t easy. Their farm was set so far back from the road that nothing could be seen except the rounded, silver top of their silo sticking up above the cottonwoods. They had the longest driveway of all the families on our bus route, a whole quarter-mile, heading straight north and disappearing into the planted windbreak. Wayne, the youngest son, was closest in age to me, in the same grade as my big brother, Bill. Wayne had asthma, the only kid I knew that did—another mystery back then, asthma. I didn’t know how to spell it, but it sounded exotic. When the school bus stopped to pick him up on winter mornings, Wayne came down the aisle to his seat, red-faced and gasping from the cold. He’d be bundled in a stocking cap and scarf, his breath frosting the wool over his mouth, eyelashes icicled, nose dripping as he thawed. Every morning he sat down on the bench seat beside my brother, across the aisle from me, and just wheezed. That’s OK, Wayne, we’d say, patting him on the back gently. Just breathe. We stayed quiet and listened to the wheezing of Wayne, feeling each whistling, gasping inhalation as if it were our own, hoping he would get his breath back soon, for all our sakes.
I’d sometimes think of Wayne at the end of that quarter-mile straightaway, having walked its length, or worse, run it if he was late, with the winter wind cutting across the land, so flat that even on the calmest days it never stopped blowing entirely. At the end of some farmers’ driveways you’d see a little shelter put up for their kids to wait for the bus. Most were simple lean-tos, strictly utilitarian, but some were made more charming, almost like playhouses, painted up in colors, with shingled roofs, a door, even windows. There were no such bus shelters for the farm kids out our way. I mostly saw them on the road to Hutch, the big town we went to on Saturdays to buy groceries. Those must be for rich kids, my siblings and I would say to each other. Richer than us, anyway. Probably spoiled—can’t even take a little rain. We’d scoff at the coddled babies we imagined. Still, I thought Wayne could have used one of those.
I traveled up the long driveway to the Lubke place only one time that I can remember. I must have been about eight when my family went to visit; I can’t recall the occasion. To me, it was like they’d let down their drawbridge so I could cross over the moat and enter the gates of their citadel. Except the Lubke’s citadel turned out to be a split-level ranch, white and featureless. It had replaced their old house, a two-story frame building original to the farm. Well, not exactly “replaced”—instead of tearing down their first house and starting fresh, they just built the new house alongside the old. After all, as structures go it was still perfectly good, so Lyle had turned it into a storage shed. There it stood in the dooryard next to the barn, its weathered gray clapboards cracked and cupped, the nail heads blooming with rust.
I was dying to explore it, so Wayne took my siblings and me on a tour. The first floor was impassable, stacked full of straw bales which blocked the sunlight and muffled the sound of our footsteps. Wayne led us up an enclosed stairway, the walls still covered in faded maroon paper, its pattern of silvery-gray ferns swooping across the walls and making me dizzy in the narrow passage. Halfway up, near a window, the wallpaper hung in shreds around a hole in the plaster, bigger than a fist, about the size of a pie plate. Beyond the crumbled edges of plaster and lath was a dark space, the innards of a wall you normally don’t get to see. Wayne stopped as he drew level with the hole. From within came a sound, a rhythmic pulse.
“Watch out, there’s bees in there,” Wayne said.
I froze. “Do they sting?” I didn’t know what scared me more, the bees or the hole.
Wayne shrugged. “They won’t bother you if you don’t bother them.”
I crept up the stairs, clinging to the far wall, hearing the low hum of insects. A few bees flew drowsily in and out of the hole, light from the window picking out the edges of their wings.
The second floor was mostly empty and uninteresting, as Wayne had forewarned: rusty metal bed springs, an oval wooden frame without a picture. All I thought about later was the dark hole that held the secrets of the house, abandoned to the stifling straw, the subtle bother of bees.
Edna must have looked at that old house every day, visible out the window from her kitchen sink. Did she think of the early years of her marriage spent in that house as she stood washing dishes in her new one? It was right there in front of her, tall and plain. Sometimes people stop noticing things like that, sights they see every day. But I didn’t think about all this when I was eight. It’s only now, looking back on it, that I wonder how Edna felt, what she noticed out her window. My own mother stared out the kitchen window all the time when she did the dishes. There was nothing to see but a thin grove of ash and elm, but she wasn’t looking at the trees. She was somewhere else, far away.
Years after my visit to the Lubke place—I must have been about fifteen—my mother called me to the phone one afternoon. It was Warren on the line, the middle Lubke boy, asking me to a dance that Saturday at the Gibbon Ballroom. Warren was four years older than me, already graduated from high school. I had never said a word to him in my life, nor had he to me; he was one of the silent Lubkes who took after Lyle. “No, thank you,” I told him. “I guess not.” I was so surprised he’d asked me out that I couldn’t even think up an excuse. What could we possibly say to each other on a date? I, too, was the shy and quiet type.
“Hold on,” he said, when I was about to hang up. “Wayne wants to talk to you.” Wayne came on the phone, and in his rushed, garbled voice, so much like Edna’s, asked me out to the very same dance.
“Wayne,” I said, “I just told Warren no, I don’t want to go.”
“Well, I just thought you might want to go with me instead of him,” he said. “He’s older so he got first crack.”
Was that what I was to the Lubke boys—someone to take a crack at? Warren had gone into farming with his dad right after high school. He was probably starting to think about finding a wife. And Wayne? He was easier to talk to, but still—he was just the neighbor boy, my brother’s friend.
“No thanks, Wayne, I don’t want to go with either one of you. No offense, though.” There was no reason to be mean, although I did feel a little offended. Also a little flattered.
“OK then, we just thought we’d try. Bye, then. See you on the bus.”
Neither of them ever asked me out again, which was a relief. I didn’t see myself as someone who would settle for the boy next door, the way my mother always let it be known she had.
Occasionally my brother Bill spent the day over at the Lubke place, helping with some farm work and then staying on for dinner. One time he came home with a story, which he repeated so often over the years it became a joke. Bill described the Lubke clan gathered around the table, imitating the way they—the talkative ones, that is—shouted over each other, grabbing for the food and shoveling it quickly from plate to mouth, jabbering away the whole time. My brother parroted Wayne, with his mouth full of mashed potatoes, saying to Edna, “Ma, these potatoes taste like shit.” “Yeah, Ma,” Warren echoed in his deep, deliberate voice. “They do. They taste like shit.” Then they both had second helpings.
The first time my brother told this story, I couldn’t believe it. Bill was laughing and astonished at the same time—laughing at how Wayne’s already hard-to-understand speech became nearly unintelligible with his mouth full of mashed potatoes, yet what he’d said came out clearly enough for everyone there to understand and even repeat. And he was astonished that Wayne, a boy his own age, would say such a thing to his mother. The more Bill repeated it, the funnier he thought it was, but I was aghast.
“What?” I said. “He said that! To his mom? What did she say?”
Bill shrugged. “Nothing.”
“Well, what did she do?”
“Nothing,” he said again. “She just looked down and kept eating.”
“And what about Wayne’s dad? What did he do?”
But Bill’s answer was the same—Lyle had done nothing. It was so different from what our own father would have done: the instant crackdown of a slap on the face, then banishment from the table after the extraction of an apology. More punishment later if deemed necessary. Dad would never have allowed us to speak like that to Mom, no matter how bad her cooking. (And truth to tell, she’d never been much of a cook. Maybe that’s why we never criticized our mother’s cooking at all. It was one of those sore spots you didn’t dare poke at.)
Even worse, Wayne had used a swear word at the table, and to Edna, his own mother. Our mom didn’t permit any swearing in her earshot, not even darn or jeez or golly. To her, those words were just substitutes for swearing, as bad as the real thing. So to swear at your mother, in front of your father, about her cooking! Unthinkable. But what I did think about, whenever Bill told that story, was Edna’s acquiescence, her head hanging over her plate. And about Lyle’s, too, in not rising up to defend his wife. Another glimpse behind the walls of their fortress, another mystery I couldn’t comprehend. At least it made me feel less guilty about having turned down Wayne and Warren’s invitation to the dance. (I hadn’t thought I felt guilty about that, but I must have, a little.) Because I knew I wouldn’t want to end up with someone who could talk to his mother that way, or even someone who stayed silent upon witnessing such an insult.
That’s not to say that my own mother never hung her head over her plate as we sat down to supper. She did, and as the years went by, it happened more often. Sometimes, on one of her bad days, she’d run from the table into the bedroom, slamming the door behind her; from the other side we could hear her sobbing. After a minute, my father would sigh and push back his chair, go in after her. My sister and I would take up their unfinished meals, sliding the plates into the oven to stay warm. Moodiness, melancholy—it doesn’t matter what euphemism we might have applied to our mother’s depression, because we never spoke of it. Maybe we thought if it wasn’t named, it could remain hidden, invisible—even nonexistent.
About Edna, I haven’t much more to say. Perhaps it’s only because I know so little about her, have so few stories to tell, that I think I can paint a complete portrait, when all I have to go on are the barest few points of a dot-to-dot puzzle. When I try to connect the dots, I can draw in the lines wherever I want, and think in the end I’m able to render her whole.
But when it comes to the Lubkes, I will forever remain standing at the end of their driveway, straining to see their homestead tucked away in the trees, a quarter mile away. It’s a distance I can’t achieve with my own family, growing up in the midst of it, too close to be able to see us as an outsider might. Not a simple dot-to-dot, the puzzle of my family is more like a thousand-piece jigsaw, one of those maddeningly complex ones made up of all one color, all one texture: a golden plain of wheat with no horizon line. The dark, green depths of a cornfield in August.
At sixteen, I stopped watching and wondering about the Lubkes in their farmhouse-fortress to the west. My own family was coming apart, our own fortress crumbling. I spent that year, and half the next, preparing to lose my mother. I worried over how it would come about, imagining a nervous breakdown, perhaps, followed by a stint at the state hospital in Willmar. Or she might run away, as she’d threatened, leaving the farm to begin a new life. Or, if neither of those scenarios, the one I most feared and could not let myself envision beyond a single word: suicide. It was as bad as a swear word in our house, another of those words we were never allowed to utter.
But that’s not what happened. Instead, when I was seventeen, I lost my mother in a way I’d never anticipated, when both she and my father were killed in a car crash. It was nothing I’d thought to prepare for, but merely an accident that took their lives. In the dark time that followed, I’m sure Edna was there, amongst all the other church women who brought us casseroles and cakes. But the secret attention I’d once bestowed on her had lapsed in my grief. I didn’t give the Lubkes another thought until, half a year after my own loss, I got the news that Lyle had died of a heart attack. He was sixty years old. People said he was too young, and looking back on it, I guess he was. But since my own parents had been just forty and forty-one, I didn’t consider dying at sixty such a tragedy. Not so much as I might now that I’m approaching that age myself.
People said that Lyle was out in his barn when he suddenly collapsed and died. They didn’t say who found him. I hoped it wasn’t Edna, but still pictured it: her standing at the kitchen window, looking out toward the barn, thinking that Lyle was late coming in from chores. Finally, going out to get him. It was June when he died, the beginning of summer. The bees would have already come back to life, as Edna walked (trotted? ran?) past the old house on her way to discovering his body.
How did they put it again? He died of a silent heart attack. Or: He suffered from silent heart trouble. Something like that. Of course Lyle had died in silence, I thought. All his troubles were bound up in silence. I imagined him working alone in the barn, only his herd of black-and-white Holsteins to bear witness as he crumpled to the concrete floor. The water troughs, a fallen pitchfork, the warm flanks of the cows surrounding him, while somewhere in his memory Lyle was still at war—in the trenches with his weapon, the bodies of comrades to his left and right. A Silver Star lying in the darkness of his dresser drawer.
On a visit home from college the following year, I heard some neighbor ladies gossiping about how freely Edna was spending Lyle’s money. “Maybe she thinks she’ll nab another husband,” one said, “getting herself all fixed up like that.” The arch tone of the speaker’s voice matched her cocked eyebrow. “At her age?” the other replied, and they laughed—dry, knowing sounds like crows cawing in trees. When I turned away they probably went back to gossiping about me, how I was misspending my own inheritance, going off to art school in the city instead of staying home to take care of my younger siblings. I didn’t have to hear it to know what was being said. Everyone watched everyone else out there in Boon Lake. Our fortresses were not impregnable. There were holes in our houses.
The next day I went to a service at my old church. Down in the basement kitchen afterward, where the Mary Martha Guild was making egg coffee and setting out trays of bars and cookies, I saw Edna. She stood straight and tall as always, her figure as slender as ever. But even with her mouth closed, I saw right away that there was something different about her. She wore a beautifully-cut dress of peacock blue wool, with a paisley scarf tied artfully around her neck. Edna with her mouth closed was still birdlike, but the birds she resembled were peacocks and swans, not chickens and turkeys.
When she saw me—I must have been staring, although I didn’t mean to—Edna met my gaze and smiled. Had I ever seen Edna smile before? Talking and laughing, yes, but had she ever smiled like this, directly at me? She held out her hand as she came forward, saying my name in a slow and careful way, as if we had just been introduced for the first time. Edna, with her mouth open, smiled and said hello and asked me how I was doing. The lights overhead reflected off the metal braces covering her teeth, like hundreds of diamonds showering the room, glinting from every surface.
by Katherine Schaefer
First Place, Creative Nonfiction Prize