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The Eloquence of Objects, the Demise of Material Culture


ISSUE:  Autumn 1995

Upper Peninsula Michigan Household, Circa 1963:
Winter dresses up early for Halloween.
I have to wear a snow suit under my devil costume—
I almost stay at home and read. I read the real
estate page. Where are these estates
in our tar-paper county—why do the ads try
to convince us every day that these are real estates?
I hide words in pockets of my first blue jeans—
red flannel lined, sent from Sears.

At home we have a Bible with pictures of sad people
in robes and wild hair. Only Samson and Delilah interest me.
I’m up to C’s in World Book, generally a disappointing set.
The librarian downtown lets me bring in penny candy.
My mother never says a word about the romance
novels I read until I’m pale. These books make me think
I’m going to live a lot of love. Sometimes I join my family
in black and white at our console TV sent from Sears.

I never see my father read a book. He makes up
stories to tell us about the whales he saw
when he was crossing over from Finland, about the black
   bear

chasing him home from school—nature stuff like that.
He reads Outdoor Life out loud.
“This Happened to Me” is my favorite part.
Some guy almost drowns in a fast river when his hip boots
  fill up—
then he lives to write about it.

One afternoon I notice a page turned over in the catalog.
A package arrives: frog green hip boots sent from Sears.
He tells my mother he’ll only wear them in
knee deep water out at Cheney Lake.

November: my father reads in the Ironwood Daily Globe that JFK is coming—one hundred miles away to Ashland.
He takes us. The helicopters chop the air so hard my braids lift off my
   chest.

We hold salted nut rolls as the President talks.
My father, a shy, generous man
who cuts meat for a living, gets to shake JFK’s hand.
“They saw my Bell and Howell and must have thought
I was a reporter,” he says, afterward, flushed. My dad,
who quit school at twelve to run the family farm,
gathers himself up, suddenly American, on the way home
  from history.

Our neighbors come over on Saturday night to watch
the home movie my father took with his camera
sent from Sears. Shirley Ahola says, giggling, “Jack
  Kennedy is

too handsome to be president!” and John Maki wants
to shake my father’s hand. The camera eye flutters
through the bundled crowd and leaves out every word.

The next week at Central School Miss Anderson sobs
in front of our class and tells us the news. “Pray,”
she whispers and lets us go. Walking home I say the word—
assassination, assassination—it whips and hisses
over cracks. At home my mom is actually home—that means
she’s working nights again and will smell like ether
in the mornings—she pushes an iron slowly
like a brick, but there’s nothing on the board. She doesn’t
  want
to talk; she gives me a sad look, whispers “pray.”

I leave her alone to find something to hold.
I get out Sears catalog and look
at shapes and words: Seeded Voile, Armoire, Chifforobe,
Half Slip, 36 Inch Vanity, two pages of men looking dumb
in lumpy briefs and saggy boxers, twelve pages
of “Foundations”—women trussed up in nylon, spandex,
   powernet.

Low Voltage Transformer. Plumb Bob of Solid Brass
in Leather Sheath, Big Top Priscillas with Rod Pockets—
   things

a girl could use. I love the sound
of Pintle Hooks, Lunette Eyes and Couplers;
whatever they might be or do, I want them.
The book weighs heavy on my lap. I’m suddenly exhausted:
it will take me years to order fact and artifact.

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