What next, and how?

in ASK YOUR LIFE/OPINION by
BY MADONNA HAMEL

Not every woman wears an apron. If you’re past eighty, you quietly don the faded floral beauty you’ve worn since before the war, to wash dishes or bake a pie. You can’t remember where you got it, was that the one from John’s sister? Or did your daughter give you it that Christmas they decided to spend the holidays with Frank’s folks? There was a recipe for gingerbread cookies in the pocket, with the words: “Next Christmas we’ll make these together!” scribbled in the corner.

If you’re in your twenties chances are your apron is bib-less, but if does have one, it’s probably covered in something post-modern, like: “Well-behaved women don’t start revolutions!” to remind your guests that, yes, you are in the kitchen, but you choose to be, no one’s making you wear this apron. No one is expecting supper on the table when they get home. In fact, you are cooking for your boss at the design firm where you work. She’s a ‘foodie’, although you’d never call her that to her face, because that sounds snobbish and glib, at the same time. And besides, she’s bringing the wine.

If you’re between forty-five and sixty-five it’s likely you “don’t do aprons.” Never will. Don’t even ask me why!

One afternoon while helping prepare a funeral lunch the church basement kitchen. I opened a cupboard and out spilled a stack of them. Some were covered in embroidery, others were pleated little skirts for tiny waists, some were hemmed in rick-rack or extraneous ruffles, others were all starched practicality, with sturdy ties and spill-catching bibs. I took them to the museum in the hopes that somebody might claim them, but nobody ever did.

I began haunting thrift stores the kitchen sections of thrift stores. Again, I’d find works of art, each one unique in design, colour combinations, elegant lines, or crocheted and filigreed with intimate personal touches. I bought them all. At 99 cents each I could afford to. I started wearing them around the house, especially the ones with pockets for my glasses, keys, phone, pen, and paper.

And now I’m in Regina, preparing for Apron Pocket Archives, a performance using stories drawn from archival material including memoirs, letters, stories and art focussing on women’s lives on the prairie from the mid-eighteen hundreds to today. There are twenty-two stories in all, each with an accompanying collage employing text and image. Twelve of the collages will be on display.

The three of the stories to be performed are: Sorry. Go Back. Will Pay, about a mail-order bride who got a telegram from her betrothed offering to send her back home, after he spied her from afar, but she decided to stay anyway; Stooking Under the Moon, about a woman who joined the Woman’s Land Army to learn how to farm and be near her husband and learns there is nothing she loves better than to stook at night with her husband on leave under a full moon;  From Femme Sauvage to Sage Femme; about a Metis woman who gained respect and friendships through her medicinal powers.

I’ve had the chapel at the John Paul ll Centre all to myself now for almost a week now. The light from the gold and red stained glass windows have a calming effect on me, and just about everyone else who comes in. The Sisters of the Precious Blood prayed within these walls, and now, the remaining few live, still cloistered, behind the Centre. I’ve been toying with whether or not to invite them to the show. I scan my script to see if there is anything untoward that might offend them. I don’t want to offend anyone, if I can help it. I’ve never been one of those performance artists hell-bent on shocking others. The truth is, I’ve gotten into enough trouble in my life without even trying. Do we really need to go out of our way to mess with people’s heads? What would be radical, at this point in my life, at this precise time, would be to send people home calm, serene and at ease, ready for a good sleep.

Shock is the go-to quick fix for troubled souls needing instant relief. Relief comes as diversion, distraction, and can come in many forms. But it’s not the same as freedom, I’ve come to realize. Freedom means staying with the feelings that seek relief, until the feelings subside, which they always do, or so my friend Mary assures me. She happened to be in Regina for the week and I imposed myself on her for dinner. Being a prairie girl from an early age, I needed to run some things past her.

Knowing what you know, about the church and the deeply entrenched beliefs about the power of the devil and how the priests came armed with the word and the protection of angels…does this ring true?
And I read from a segment in the story where the jilted bride takes up painting and is asked to paint religious images on the rectory walls.

“The new priest hired me to paint the parlour in parables from the Holy Land  while he traveled to set up parishes I filled it with grasses, and masses of bison darkening the hills under an endless sky and when he returned, and saw what I had done he never said a word, he just looked me in the eye. And I never broke his gaze. He stirred his tea and gripped his spoon. And then he rose and left the room and came back with my pay. One side wonder, the other side fear the two live that near. You can’t have one without the other or you’d have no coin. You can only see the shelter against the sky, I only ask: “what” now? I don’t bother with “why? Good then”, and he made to leave the room, then turned and said: “thank-you. And when you’re done here there’s the kitchen needs painting, too.””

She read it over and then she asked me: do you always write in rhyming couplets?
“I don’t just write like this, I talk like this now?  I’d stop it if I knew how.”
“ I say, do what you do, and I believe it will ring true. As for me, I knew men and women of the cloth who were not evil nor arrogant sons of bitches bent on breaking children. I was a sickly child and they took me and nursed me. I’m not saying there wasn’t great damage. I’m not even sure if the subtle powers of kindness can ever be seen or heard over ham-fisted, hard-hearted crime. “

Working on art always stirs up things. Like, I had an uncle who was a priest and he served in these little towns. He thought he’d escaped the farm when he joined the seminary and they sent him to Belgium. And they brought him back. They never gave him help, they left him alone. They found him hanging from the rafters of his own home. I spend less time prodding the corpses than dredging up the good. When’s the last time you asked: What now, and how?

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