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Scrapbooking for Fun and Profit

I had the resolution this week, before classes resumed, to get outside and roam more of Manhattan’s streets. Instead I’ve been sitting here, waiting all day for UPS to drop kick to my curb the two boxes I shipped from San Francisco after the New Year. Like my mother I tend to collect things like photos, letters, report cards, newspaper clippings, theater programs, books, rough drafts, emails, and other keepsakes that would be absolutely useless to anyone else. Over the years, through my many moves, I’ve managed to streamline and organize much of this mess. When I was in Minneapolis over Christmas, however, I poked through an old wooden chest full of such memorabilia that belonged to my mother. Knowing I had a week in SF ahead of me, I culled through the chest for the more important items (like my mother’s SAT scores: 640 verbal, 600 math), loaded several stacks into my bags, and flew to SF where I stayed for a very rainy week in my old apartment, sleeping on the couch (since the Ex had taken over my room), sorting through everything, rain falling on the eucalyptus trees outside, Louie laying at my feet, Law and Order marathons on the television. I hit three art supply stores before finding some suitable albums and archival-quality glue at Flax. And that’s how I spent the week acting like an old lady, using the word “scrapbooking” like a verb, seeing a few friends, and inventing new lies for the question, “So how’s New York?”

At the end of the week I had filled three seventy-page albums with four generations’ worth of family archives, and had only reached my high school graduation. So I shipped the rest with the albums, two thirty-pound boxes that are taking their sweet time reaching me here in New York. It’s been one of those projects which, in the future, I’ll be grateful I tackled, but that in the short term left me a bit obsessed and dizzy from glue fumes.

I got a little emotional going through a few piles of my old letters, pausing now and then to try and conjure a face to match the name “Chuck,” signed on a couple of letters, who wrote expressing his wish to fuck me on his living room floor “by the fireplace.” You’d think I’d remember someone who expressed his feelings so articulately, but I was a bit wild when I was younger, and I can’t be expected to remember¬†everyone.

Leaving Manhattan, Kansas

I am a senior majoring in Agricultural Communications and Journalism with a minor in Animal Science. Ever since I was little, I have been exposed to agriculture. My father and brother are both in Agricultural Education. Living on a small acreage, I learned more about livestock production as I co-owned a small farrow-to-finish hog operation with my siblings. By majoring in Ag Communications, however, I feel I can be more diverse and learn more about other areas of agriculture, including more about the grains of Kansas! Not only am I learning about Agriculture in Iowa and Kansas, but in the future I hope to study abroad in France.

My mother’s father was an editor and a professor at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas, and before he died he set up a scholarship fund for future K State students. When my mother died I was the oldest descendent on her side of the family and became the contact person for the scholarship fund. This means, essentially, that I do nothing. The university handles everything, and once or twice a year I receive in the mail a packet of letters from the recipients of the Genny and Lowell Brandner Scholarship, thanking me for my help and generosity. A packet arrived today, eight letters addressed, “Dear Donor,” each containing bits of the student’s background.

I grew up on a registered Holstein dairy, and hope to go into dairy promotions and advertising or work for a dairy publication. I am dual-majoring in Agricultural Communications and Animal Science and hope to use these degrees to promote consumption of milk and increase the awareness of dairy’s importance.

It’s strange to sit at my desk in my little studio in the other Manhattan, reading these letters during winter break from my own studies. To be thanked for my generosity when it’s safe to say I’d probably spend their money were it really mine to give. My mother attended K State, no doubt with her father’s encouragement, before meeting my father in Philadelphia at a conference of college yearbook editors, where he was visiting from Indiana. After their marriage they lived for a short time in Stillwater, Oklahoma, where I was born, before escaping for the more liberal climate of Columbia, Missouri, where my father pursued his Master’s degree and where my brother was born. Later there were moves to Wisconsin and Minnesota. I am without a doubt a product of the Midwest, and occasionally I imagine what my life might have been like had we remained in Oklahoma or settled in Kansas, attending K State and writing similar letters: I have always had strong ties to the beef industry and with your help I hope to continue my dedication to the industry through a future in writing and possibly issues management.

The chances were slim. My parents were closeted homosexuals (unaware of each other’s secret desires). And while she may not have entirely understood herself, my mother bristled at the conservative atmosphere of Oklahoma and persuaded my father to move. She also left the Catholic Church shortly after their marriage (my father was raised a Methodist), a decision she did not share with her parents, who believed that we regularly attended Mass. The deception lasted many years after my baptism at St. Isidore’s. When my grandparents visited us in Minnesota we’d go to St. Rose of Lima on Sunday morning, where my parents pretended to belong for the duration of her parents’ stay. I was actually the one who unwittingly broke open the scam, casually discussing with my grandparents my activities in “Sunday School”, which Catholics call by another name.

Later, after my parents’ divorce and their individual departure from the closet, my mother met a woman who lived on a small farm a few minutes outside the Twin Cities. She worked at an honest-to-god dairy, hooking up electric pumps to cows’ udders. She couldn’t afford to pay her electricity bill so our visits to the farm were lit by kerosene lamps and the kitchen’s wood stove. For a few weeks there was talk that my mother, my brother and I would move to the woman’s farm and, being the obedient type, I tried to imagine a life of flannel shirts, work boots and hayseed, rising in the mornings to milk cows before walking in the snow to the small schoolhouse, where I’d hide my suburban manners in order to fit in, which considering my lesbian mother was an unlikely outcome.

Instead the romance faded and my mother met another woman, previously married with two children, and the six of us moved into south Minneapolis, in the city proper, to a three-story house near Lake Calhoun and the Uptown neighborhood, which in 1985 was where the punk rockers hung out, tantalizing me with their mohawks, safety pins, and defiance.

And so instead of majoring in Agricultural Communications I’m pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing, in the other Manhattan, opening packets of letters from K State and poking fun at students who will find real jobs and make more money than me upon graduation. Of course I’d rather slit my wrists than work for the beef industry, and to this day I thank my mother for saving me from Catholic guilt and red state culture. Later, following her divorce, she’d speak fondly about The Wizard of Oz. She even adopted a cairn terrier, the same breed as Toto. At the time I thought it was simply about her home state of Kansas, but maybe it was because, for a short while, Dorothy had the courage to leave.

I’m not really the oldest descendent of the Brandners. Her brother, my uncle, is still alive. He was born with Down’s Syndrome and lived at home until he was thirteen, when he had a stroke. After that his parents felt the burden was too great and he was made a lifetime ward of the state. He lives in a “community home” in Goodland, Kansas. At 57 he has long passed the life expectancy of people with Down’s. For the last fifteen years he’s had a legal guardian, a retired Air Force colonel named Chet who volunteers his time. He visits Uncle Allan once a week and takes him out for ice cream. We trade emails and he assures me that Allan is well cared for and has “no real needs”, his way of telling me not to worry. He even assures me that a small fund of four thousand dollars -“just enough to carry funeral expenses”- has been set up for Allan. He tells me that Allan is able to take Communion occasionally, and signs his emails, “May God Bless You.” I don’t tell him that I’m not a Catholic.

I visited Uncle Allan once, when I was thirteen, with my mother and her partner. We took a detour on our way to Colorado, and for a hundred dusty miles I stared out the window, unreasonably excited by the sight of real tumbleweeds skittering across the highway. Upon entering the home a large group of patients, most of them adults with mental disabilities, descended upon us, excited by the novelty of visitors, patting our heads, moaning, drooling, and wrapping sticky arms around us. It was like being in a warm, fuzzy Dawn of the Dead. I kept a queasy smile glued to my face. The nurses came and gently extricated us from our new friends, and brought us to a small classroom where Allan sat with a doctor at a low table covered with children’s toys. Allan was on the lower end of the communicative scale, speechless since the stroke and unable to understand his relationship to us. Or I imagine he didn’t understand. I don’t know what he was thinking at the time, but I felt a tenuous connection to him as he sat there pounding square pegs into round holes.

My mother was only a year older than Allan and they were close growing up. Their father had an impenetrable German work ethic and spent most of his hours at the university. Maybe he felt shame – a distinguished professor with a mentally retarded son – and preferred to let others handle the situation. His wife was prone to depressions and when angry with my mother would disappear into her bedroom for days on end, refusing to even speak to her. This left my mother in charge of Allan, and she’d help him bathe, dress, and eat. After his stroke, when he became a ward of the state, his parents ceased all contact with him. It wasn’t until many years later, as an adult, that my mother found him and began corresponding with his caretakers and visiting Allan. She urged her father, by then a widower, to join her on these visits, but he refused, and died without ever seeing Allan again.

Some of this story I knew and some of it I heard from my mother’s partner on Christmas Day, when I interviewed her in Minneapolis. She was generously candid about these and other details, some of which were a little painful to hear.

“How much do you want to know?” she asked.

“As much as you feel comfortable telling me,” I replied.

“It’s interesting,” she said, “when you look back at your life…Susan and I would look back a lot because we both had these straight lives…how you go with what’s expected of you. And for some reason, you don’t have within you the ability to say ‘no’ or go a different direction. She, you know, thought ‘get married’, met your dad, thought ‘that will work’, then have kids. She never wanted kids. I mean I hate to say that to you, it has nothing to do with you, but she never wanted kids, and she said she’d have never had kids if she had been strong enough to say or know who she was. She didn’t think she was a good mother, but she also didn’t want to be a mother, and I think it came from having to mother Allan.”

Some things that are painful to hear don’t come as a surprise. I suppose the pain is in the confirmation, the spoken words that matched the truth that’s bounced around inside me since I was kid. But the pain dulls quickly, followed by an odd relief,an exhalation as pieces fall into place.

Later, when I admitted that I sometimes worry about my future, considering that my uncle has Down’s and that my mother died from ALS, a neurological disease, she said, “Yes, I’ve always felt like you and your brother might want to live your lives as though you weren’t going to live as long as most people.” Considering she was a nurse I didn’t take her words lightly, and again it was the possible confirmation of my fears that unsettled me. But neither do I take them as gospel, and now that I’ve admitted my fears I will undoubtedly live to be 112, eating apple sauce, wearing golf pants, and ogling boys in Miami Beach.