After my conception but before I was born, my parents chopped holes in the ice of Lake Cavanaugh to fish through. They survived the winter in a rented cottage with the wind coming off the lake by sleeping next to the open oven. There wasn't a heater -- it was a summer cottage, for summer people. My parents were winter people. They put all their money down because it was next to a lake they could fish from, and in a choice between cold and hungry, they chose cold. Fish plus metered-out potatoes equaled dinner every night.
I don't know if you've ever tried to catch a fish through a hole in the ice. I have. For fifteen years I chopped holes in more than one section of the same lake, and dropped line after line. When the holes would freeze over, I'd chop them again with a metal spear, taller than I'll ever be, tied to my wrist. Tied so when it finally broke through, I wouldn't lose the spear to the dark water below the ice. It's a day-long undertaking to chop a hole. For sport or survival, it takes just as long.
I've seen the huts in Wisconsin that fishermen drag onto the surface of lakes to break the wind as they lounge in lounge chairs, drink beer and drop lines. They have roofs, windows, and tackle boxes. Some of them even have televisions. My parents had no hut. They had rubber boots with metal buckles pulled over their street shoes, and gloves soaked and splitting.
I know the fish my parents ate must have been real, because I grew, eventually crowned in the middle of a lightning storm, and spurted into the world to my father's greeting, "she looks like a monkey." But I must be unlucky with fish, because I've never caught one through ice. I can't imagine how many hours perched over a sloppy hole my father spent praying for bites. I've spent enough not-hungry to know that it must have been a choice between slow moving fish and just plain eating snow.
These were the years they blew their noses in their hands, my mother told me. It took a year for me to ask, "What did you do with it?" She was ironing and didn't look up, "ran our hands under the faucet." I haven't been brave enough to ask about toilet paper.
Before kindergarten I was instructed what to say if the teacher ever asked what we had for dinner. She would, I was told, some time or another during a nutrition lesson, and I had better be prepared. The answer was steak, a green vegetable, and never potatoes. Bread maybe, but not potatoes. Cake was fine for dessert, but not Jello. Never, under any circumstances should I say hominy, blue gill, or pancakes. Meatloaf was a gray area.
When the oil ran out the whole family slept on the floor in the kitchen in front of the open oven and my mother cried. We slept in our coats, with our hoods up. My mother wore the same blue coat through every hard winter for years, and not because she couldn't find anything else she liked, but because she would not send us to school with sleeves too short from last year. "We're not Oakies," my mother said. And we weren't.
I suspect my mother may have been born in Oklahoma because there was all this Oklahoma stuff around. She wore a particular insignia sweatshirt until it was threadbare with nostalgia and disintegrating over her shoulders. But she told us Kansas -- born in a cabin in Kansas -- it sounded romantic like Little House on the Prairie. My father was a "hoosier," from Indiana, but we wouldn't be that either. "Change your pants, you look like a hoosier," she would say to him. Or "Stop eating like a hoosier." I never heard her say the word "trash," but we certainly lived in fear of being it.
My brother and I were never allowed to bowl. I wonder if she thought the mere experience would trigger some latent Oakie or hoosier gene, something she was trying desperately to suppress in us. If we bowled, we were certain to turn out like her brother -- a teen parent who smoked. Years later, when I stood in the driveway terrified and coming out to her, I remember thinking, "at least I haven't bowled."
My father was a teacher at the high school, they lied. In truth, he was the guy who schlepped audio visual equipment from classroom to classroom, and even, though they would never tell me, occasionally mopped a floor. When he lost the only real job he'd ever had organizing for the UAW, it was the 70's and women were being "liberated." So my mother put her infant, my brother, into daycare and went to work.
Unlike the women in the suburbs who could choose the age at which they'd leave their children nestled with nannies in their comfortable homes, for my mother, being liberated did not mean the "opportunity" to get a job. For her, true choice would have meant the option to stay home with her new baby without having to wean him. At first, she tried to make it to the babysitter's during her breaks, but he was too hungry in between. Left no other choice, she spent night after night rocking him back and forth, trying to get her desperate baby to take the bottle. She was desperate herself when he finally did.
In the tenth grade I got breasts. My mother viewed them as dangerous. They meant I was a slut who would never get into college, destined to marry a loser like my uncle. 20 years later I'd cry outside a department store, furious with my best friend who insisted I get sized because she'd seen my bra hovering precariously far from my torso. I wasn't that big, I insisted. But the tape measure said otherwise. The kind woman wielding the tape proclaimed that for 20 years I'd been wearing bras that were several sizes too small. My well-intentioned friend gloated. Outside the mall, I cried. Less for myself, and more for my mother.
I have avoided most of the hooks my mother feared I'd bite, even managed to make it through college. But I'm almost 40, and last year I made about $9000. A friend of mine, a doctor's daughter, told me "Being poor is fun. It makes you get more creative." She meant walks instead of movies. For me it means dying teeth instead of dental care, and a car -- good for nothing but growing weeds from its trunk. It means never, ever being able to say yes to going for coffee, let alone a meal. It means 5-year-old shoes, and socks that you know which one to put on which foot so the toe doesn't poke through. It means feeling stingy when a guest wants seconds of juice. It could mean screw the guilt when you get extra change, or not screwing it, and panicking later when you run out of tampons.
When the ice cracks on its own, it sounds a lot like thunder -- a big boom. Like an electric bass strung with thick piano wire strummed with fat fingers. It can be disconcerting to be in a section that cracks -- the split moving so fast you can't possibly follow it with your eyes, only track it with your ears. Although I've never had to fish through ice to survive, I remind myself sometimes that if I had to, I could. Freezing, I'd chop a hole and stand over it for hours in order to feed someone I love. Judging by intuition when to jerk the bait, I'd eventually get lucky, bring home an unlucky fish, hopefully to someone frying potatoes.