• Motherland

    The kitchen is small and the carpet is an ugly seventies pattern that reminds me of autumn; oranges, olives, browns, and yellows. Now that I think back to it, I think it funny that we had carpet in our kitchen in the first place. The cupboards match the esthetic, chipped, wooden, brass hinged doors that hide my mother’s dishes, mixing bowls, measuring cups, and Christmas and Thanksgiving platters.

    She stands like a baseball player; feet shoulder width apart, her motherly curves swaying with the dancing rhythm that is baking. I envy her curves and I envy the white flour that flakes off of her workingwoman hands as she kneads mounds of dough. Her cookbooks surround her like a scholar to her studies.

    The cookbooks are my great-great-grandmother Appel’s. I look at them like bibles. Hidden secrets and spells that will belong to me someday. They smell like yeast and like home. I want to plunge my fingers into their pages just as my mother plunges her hands into her bread matter.

    I want them all, but am too short to reach the countertop and my hands are too small and fair to beat the rising dough into shape. My mother lets me play with an extra piece of dough that has fallen from the counter. It is a piece of mom’s handiwork and of my great-great-grandmother’s recipes, but it is small, and I never could make a small ball of dough into a large loaf of bread.

    In 1898, Catherine, Katie Sheurmann sails to the United States from Russia. She is three years old, born in Germany. She and her brother are infected with fever and her brother is supposedly tossed overboard to reduce infection upon the ship. He is rarely spoken of in the family again. On Easter Sunday, Katie’s fever breaks and she survives the trip to Ellis Island. In New York she declares the United States home, and Nicholas II loses another native daughter to his land.

    Every Easter Sunday we would visit my grandma Linda, and grandpa Gary Appel. Their home was a two story building, erected in 1911 on the edge of the St. Joe river bank in St. Maries, Idaho, they moved into it in 1963. It suffered many floods but in the flood of 1974 they added a level to insure the home from anymore water damage. It was a house that was in sync with the river, yet battled with it, but it was a home nonetheless.

    My mother grew up here; I grew up here, as did my brother and our twelve cousins, five aunts and five uncles. If we weren’t home, we were at grandpa’s. If we needed a place to stay, we stayed at grandpa’s. If it was Easter Sunday, we were at grandpa’s. It was like religion, though my immediate family had no religion. I guess we worshipped family. My mother worshipped family, and she taught it to us through my grandfather Appel’s love and wisdom and home.

    In the early nineteen hundreds, a man named Heinrick Appel sails from Saratov, Russia on the ship Laskov to Ellis Island. Later he migrates to Colfax, Washington where he lives with his wife and children. Katie Sheurmann becomes the nanny to his household and he gives himself the American name Henry. Katie becomes impregnated by a Native American man.

    When Henry’s wife dies, he marries Katie, and in 1916 she gives birth to her half- native son, Raymond Robert. Henry adopts Raymond as his own and Katie allows her child to bear the last name of Appel.

    There is a small, 4” by 2” frame on the mantel of our stone fireplace. The man trapped inside is in Sepia tone, is handsome and exotic looking. My mother points to his carefully sculpted face, high cheekbones, and darker complexions and features. He has a wide, long nose and wavy black hair, a wide jaw, and wears a black suit. He appears to be in his twenties.

    “This is your great grandfather Ray,” she tells me. I hold the paper frame in my small hands and examine him. He seems too different to me to be family, but I sense something like my grandfather Gary in him. It’s the nose. My brother has the same.

    “Great grandfather Ray built the house and the barn and put up the fences,” she tells me. I examine our home like a surgeon. Our living room ceiling is tall and unreachable, I imagine him hoisting up the wood. I can see him place each stone of the fireplace and lay down ugly carpet that matched the kitchen, later to be replaced in the living room with more modern emerald cushion. I imagine him laying the fence that surrounds the property and feeding the cattle in the barn. I picture it in Sepia tone.

    When my father uproots a rotting fencepost in the corral, I feel semi-guilty, like we are pulling great grandpa Ray’s teeth from his mouth or scalping him, but the farm must be kept up to par as the cows mow their way through the tall growing grass, as we fatten them up to eat them at dinner.

    I am ten. The corral is grassy and roles with the mountain, a sea of gold and green the in the summer, and an icy ocean in winter. In springtime the cows graze here, bathing in clean sunshine while moving their mouths in an unknown rhythm only cows know best. We welcome baby cattle onto our farm. They graze on their mother’s swelling milk bags and cry when she is not around.

    I watch as my first cow is born. I hang from a gate inside of our rotting, wooden barn. My small legs are poking through the slats and arms are grasping at the splintering wood. Wide eyed, I see the cow expel the calf from her body. This is what birth is. It is new and curious. I feel my stomach with a hand.

    The opaque sack, bloody yet strangely clean, falls to the ground softly and a calf; a living, breathing, being pops out like a jack-in-the-box, surprising yet fascinating. My father watches nearby and helps the slick, blonde calf out of the placenta. It tries to stand. Its mother has afterbirth hanging from her behind. I don’t feel sick. I am a “mountain girl” as my father calls me. I am curious. I think she will mind the bloody chord hanging from her, but she ignores it and begins licking the baby’s wetness instead.

    My father walks up to me. His hands are covered in afterbirth. Like the mother cow, he doesn’t care. His boots are rubber and dirty. His flannel shirt hangs loose from his coveralls.

    “What do you want to name her?” he asks.

    This calf is a gift from my dad. I feel proud and loved. I think of snack time with Dad, almost only time with Dad. We crack open a bottle of Coke and munch on crackers and small, green, vinegar flavored vegetables.

    “Pickles,” I say.

    Later, when in college, I tell my father I’m a vegetarian. He points out my Alex Gray, shirt, a shirt depicting many geometric shapes and colors and a man in meditating position. I tell him about attending the Tonasket Barter Faire, leaving out the heavy doses of marijuana and ganja food I had consumed. I trust my mother has left out the same. He asks if I’m a hippy. No, I say, I’m just turning over a new leaf.

    He says he thinks it’s great I’m being independent and not following those “sheep” around. Before we part ways outside of the restaurant he turns to me in his coveralls. He is a hard working man and for the last four years a more involved and great father.

    “You know you can always take the girl from the mountain,” he says, “but you can never take the mountain from the girl.”

    I think of home.

    When I am in eighth grade, one of my less favorable teacher’s walks up to me before a class assembly. She pulls me to the side and I stare at the large mole on her cheek, wondering if she had heard me talk about her with my classmates in the hallway, wondering if I had done something wrong. I was a good kid, but guiltily gave into school gossip. I felt bad for a moment.

    “Now don’t freak out, Kelsi,” she says to me, grasping me by both shoulders as if I would run away from the news she was about to tell me, or mysteriously melt into the grass. I freak out.

    “I think your house is on fire,” my ears go static. “I think you mother is stuck.”

    I walk hastily towards my Aunt Cheryl’s car. My brother sits inside. He seems calm. My heart flutters and my legs are numb. Tears push at my eye sockets, burning. My mother could be burning. My home is burning. I think of my great great grandma Appel’s trunk she sailed over from Russia with, my mother’s odds and ends that filled it; black sand from an exotic beach, her homecoming tiara, her wedding veil. I think of the cookbooks great great grandma gave to my mother in death, and my mother huddling in a corner against the scorch of flames.

    I sit in the car. My palms are sweaty. I start to cry.

    “The house is on fire and Mom is trapped?” I ask. My brother is two years older. I wonder why he is so calm. He sends off sirens.

    “The house isn’t on fire,” he says. “The barn is.”

    “Your mom isn’t trapped,” my aunt tells me, “she just can’t get the pickup out of the driveway; it’s blocked off by fire trucks.”

    I hate my teacher even more and my mother becomes more precious to me.

    My mother points out another face on our fireplace mantel. “That’s grandpa Gary when he was nineteen and in the army. He is great grandpa Ray’s son.” I examine grandpa Gary’s picture and compare it to great grandpa Ray’s. They seem similar in ways, the same broad, long nose. Later I will look at my great great grandmother Katie’s immigration paper’s and see that she too had the same nose, but slightly cleft in the middle, and gray eyes, the color of mine. All the women of the Appel decedents will inherit the nose, a piece of Grandmother Katie. Where I lack in she and my mother’s cook books, I make up with trait. I love my mother’s cookbooks, but most of all, I love that she is my mother.

    I walk into the restaurant that Mom works in. I am sixteen. She avoids eye contact and sends me to the car. Two days before I had lashed out in rebellion. It was New Years Eve. I lied to my mother as to where I would be staying. I drowned myself in alcohol. I lost my virginity to my brother’s best friend and drove home, fallen from grace, my abdomen sore, hearts in my eyes, but with a killer hangover and guilt that threatened to break my sanity.

    Two days it took in St. Maries for my mother to find out that I had lied and one for the entire school to learn that I had slept with Michael. It was proof that the town was too small to live in. Her silence was my prison. She had no idea what I and Michael had done that night; that her daughter was no longer a little girl or innocent, but dirty and a liar. That her daughter had been excelling in sports only to descend into depression and self-mutilation, hiding scars on her thighs from her teammates in the locker room, from her best friend, from her own mother.

    “I’m really hurt,” she tells me from my doorway. There are tears in her eyes. My heart breaks and I cry and say I’m sorry. I approach her while she sits on the couch, watching some comedy show we had enjoyed the week before. Now it was bitter and the jokes fell flat in my ears. I look on the beautiful woman who had raised me and taught me compassion and to be strong. I had a moment of weakness and turned my back on her. I could tell her anything, but I was young and in love, and ultimately in hate with myself.

    “Mom,” I admit, “I had sex with Michael.”

    One week later. “Mom, I need help.”

    In fourth grade my first boyfriend, Travis, breaks up with me. His mom didn’t agree with our relationship. I sit in the loft of our home, crying into my sheets. I have one friend that is a girl and am one of the boys, but I don’t understand them or the heartbreaking feeling I get when one doesn’t want me. I don’t understand until later that it’s called rejection and will fight with it for the years to come.

    My mother enters my room and sits next to me. Dad is downstairs reading his newspaper or outside farming, I don’t really know, but mom has stopped kitchen duty to see what has happened. She has an omnipresent smell of her face powder and whatever she decides to cook that night, sometimes steamed carrots, sometimes bread dough, and other times sugar cookies. The smell reminds me of heaven and I roll in it.

    “What’s wrong?” she asks. No pity, just a simple question between mother and daughter.

    I sob out the day’s events from the he said she said to Travis’ rejection. I feel pitiful and sorry for myself. Mom holds me close and tells me the age old advice.

    “Boys aren’t worth crying over.”

    For years I have tried to come up with a simile or metaphor for the smell of my mother’s face powder but have failed. The only answer I can comprehend is, “It smells like Mom. Like comfort. Like home.”

    Three weeks ago my mother and I walk into Azteca in Coeur d’ Alene. We both order iced tea and talk about me at college. My grandpa and grandma Appel were forced to sell their home on the river a year ago. They now live in Coeur d’ Alene in a small suburban home, no fishing, no river to watch their grandchildren swim in, no more Thanksgiving dinners with the entire family.

    My Grandpa Gary and Grandma Linda sit across from us in the booth and order Pepsi and water. Grandpa’s oxygen tubes snake out of his nose and into the portable carrier. He has regained some weight, but still looks broken and his memory is failing. He can never go back to chasing the grandchildren on Easter, or flying kites with us in the field. There is no field, only a few square feet of fake grass and the deathly white walls of suburban living. He hates it, and I hate it with him.

    Grandma hands me a mailing tube and my mother and I shake out the contents. We examine the copies of paper, two copies for each of us; one of great-great-grandmother Katie and great grandpa Ray’s catholic confirmation papers in German, great-great-grandpa Appel’s immigration papers, and Katie’s citizenship papers.

    I compare Katie’s face to my grandfathers and notice the nose again, the eyes, my eyes, and the dark wavy hair. I feel as if I had known Katie in life, she seemed all too familiar and real in the small two by two portrait pasted to her citizenship documentation. She looks like my mother and brother, like my grandfather and aunts and uncle, like my cousins. I look at my mother and I think about traveling to Russia.

    I think of my mother’s connection to me and the compassion we share for trust and family love. I think of my mother’s connection to her great grandmother and her cookbooks. I think I’ll make my own connection to grandma Katie. I think next year, I may celebrate Easter once again, but this time in Katie’s memory. I think I’ll make homage to the motherland.