March 30, 2021
Growing up the oldest of 12 on a small ranch near Mount Saint Helens, I returned to the Pacific Northwest with my wife, Amanda Powell to teach Literature and Folklore at the University of Oregon in 1990 after living various adventures in San Francisco, Denver, the Ozark mountains, Los Angeles, Boulder, Chicago, and Cambridge, MA. My stories, mainly about growing up on Cowlitz Prairie and then being a Franciscan nun, appear in magazines including Blue Line, Soundings, Mount Hope, and Slippery Elm (where the story here, “At the Door” was published).
I have written many scholarly and historical works including a book on historical ballads and stories of cross-dressing women, Warrior Women and Popular Balladry, 1650-1850 (www.press.uchicago.edu ). An avid musician, I perform and compose songs and hymns and have recorded two albums: Dangerous Examples—Fighting & Sailing Women in Song and The Aunties Song Kettle—Songs for Kids of All Ages (downloads and cd’s available from www.cdbaby.com ) My ranch childhood in a beautiful place with a diverse, lively, and musical family and my early experience as a Franciscan propel my passion for storytelling, for women heroes, and for the culture, history, and stories of our past.
At the Door
Not far from our place there’s a little spook house, brown and old and run-down. Jammed inside its two or three acres is a scary jungle of trees and bushes, and piled up in there, tools and engines, boxes, barbed wire heaps, lean-to's and shacks, boards and pipes and all kinds of weird stuff. Almost any time of day you hear growls and yowls: birds, goats, dogs, cats, peacocks, monkeys, and who knows what else. We’re pretty scared of it.
My cousin Michael stays with us one whole summer, when my aunt and uncle’s house in town burns down and the cousins almost die but don’t. One day four of us crouch in the ditch across the narrow road from Julius's front door. The door is closed tight behind tangled vines that reach from one side of the house to the other.
"Bet a nickel you won't go up and knock on the door," somebody says.
Who has the nerve? Gangly Michael, who isn’t from the prairie? He is three or four years older than the rest of us and has a Scout badge (which he wears most of the time). Stocky little Danny, the youngest and quietest, only just finished first grade? Neighbor Jimmy, same age as me, sneezing with hay fever, chewing on sweet grass stalks? Or me, the girl?
We all take shallow breaths. To the left of the paint-peeling door, the monkey that Julius keeps perched in a cage on the seat of a torn-up kitchen chair rustles and pulls away at the stuffing that oozes out from the ripped vinyl. "Skwaaaak—E-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-eech!" he screeches through his teeth. He knows perfectly well that a plot is hatching here in the wet, reedy ditch.
The sun climbs. Lunch time’s coming. Somebody's sister might shout out the face-saving call to eat. But it hasn't happened yet. I weigh the options.
One possibility—a sneak knock. Circle around from the right, going down a ways in the ditch until you’re across from the tangle of fence at the side of the house. Then, up. Dash across the road. Scoot along the fence, careful not to get caught on all the poking-through barbs and branches, wires, nail-stickin’-out-boards, car parts, and rusty junk. Would it count if you use a stick, say a broom handle or small stick, to tap on the door from the side… then hightail it? I hesitate, propose my idea, tugging at my cowboy hat. This could be viewed as chicken. But since no one else raises the question.
"No, we wouldn't want to do that." Michael speaks for everybody. "It has to be a real knock, you know, like you're going for a sandwich or to shake hands or something." Another gulp. I can’t picture it. Who knows what Ol’ Julius might do if he answers the door? What about the monkey? Even as these thoughts travel my mind, the monkey jangles the door of his cage. I don't believe I'm up for it.
We pause and lean in toward skinny Michael, with his tan fishing hat and canvas-covered canteen. After all, he must already be a teenager, and it seems pretty much his idea. He rubs his neck. Shrugs. Crawls out of the ditch. Pulling down on his rumpled hat, he crosses the narrow road toward the monkey. Jimmy, Danny, and I look on as the canteen bobs at his side. When he gets to the house, his left hand rests on the canteen and his right lifts to the door. The monkey bounces and screeches. We stare through the reedy grass that rims the ditch. Peacocks start yowling and join the monkey. Dogs take to barking.
Michael's hand reaches to rap on the door. My heart flutters and thumps. Birds chirp in slow motion, far away. Puffy clouds trickle across the sky. Then… the mud-colored door flies open. Ohmygosh… It’s…. Julius!
Everything stops. Like the Fun House at the county fair when the ride breaks down and you’re stuck in the mirrors. Will we ever leave this ditch? Will Michael disappear in the doorway? Will our parents wonder what happened to us?
Stooped, Julius holds a wriggling puppy. They’re both kind of little in the doorway. Julius is smaller than I had pictured him. But every bit as messy. Raggedy pants hang from suspenders. His tangled hair and beard and eyebrows sprout this way and that way beneath his crumpled hat. He doesn’t look like anybody I know.
Leaning forward, he pats the monkey's cage. Speaks some strange words. Waves his free hand. Nods his head. Takes a step toward Michael. Jim and Dan and I watch from the ditch. Our mouths drop. Our breath comes fast. This is one of those silent movies, or a television cartoon when the sound isn’t working. In slow motion, Michael’s hat, along with the rest of him, backs up. Nods. Backs up. Nods. Backs up and nods again. Everything strips to black-and-white.
Then the sound comes. Drifting across the grassy prairie, the bells ring out noontime from the mission church. “Lunchtime! … lunchtime!” Michael turns to face us from the road, his face white as ice cream. His eyes seem about to pop out of his head. Taking hold of his hat, he sets off running toward our house. Scrambling in retreat, Jimmy and Danny and I claw and clamber our way out of the ditch. The bells clang on. Up over the edge. Quick, fingers, quick! Grabbing at wet reeds, tufts of crabgrass. Out of the ditch… Up, up, up. Scramble onto the road.… Oops! A plastic pistol slips from its holster. Quick—get it. Run. Pant. Cowboy boots scuffle down the road. Whoa! Down goes a hat. Quick, pick it up … Back on your head. We race and stumble down the road. Follow the racing Michael to the kitchen door on the other side of the house, away from Julius’s. Home safe.
Nobody wants to talk about it. So we don’t. Winded, we slide onto the benches around the table. Mumble grace. Look sheepishly at each other. Pass plates and sandwiches. Drink our milk. Listen to what the girls have been doing all morning and the little kids. Hardly say a word.
One lunch time not long after, when Michael has gone back to his rebuilt house in town, Julius knocks on our kitchen door. When our mother answers, he takes off his greasy hat. He is wearing the same old blue bandana, suspenders on his pants, and dirty boots. His smelliness bites at your nose. What’s he saying? He’s brought some pink and white roses in a coffee can. Mom seems surprised, takes the flowers, and says, “Thank you.” We huddle in the kitchen—me, Dan, Kris, and the little kids, Terry and Paul and Jo, watching Julius and our mother in the doorway. We can’t believe it.
After that, Julius comes knocking every now and then. He brings peonies and roses, sometimes fruit—apples or pears or blackberries. Each time our mother takes the fruit and thanks him. After he leaves, she washes and washes the fruit, again and again. Sometimes even vinegar-washing won’t make things smell right. We’re never quick to eat it.
When he stops by with flowers and fruit, nobody understands what Julius is talking about. He hardly ever says words we know. Mainly he points and nods. Finally, after quite a few visits, Mom figures it out. Julius is Catholic like us, and he has come to the prairie from Poland. So, he needs a prayer book.
She sets to work. With the help of Sister Marietta at the school, a prayer book comes in the mail with everything in it written in Polish.
The next thing you know, every Sunday morning on the way to church, we stop at Julius’s door. Dressed up in the hats and dresses, jackets and ties that our mother made us, we cram and scrunch and press and bunch ourselves without a word as far to the left side of the station wagon’s back seat as we can get. To make room for Julius, who gets into the car on the right. Sunday after Sunday, Julius and us, going to Mass at the mission together. Pretty soon, it’s almost like we’re regular neighbors.
Nobody else knows how it started. When Jimmy and Danny and Michael and I set out to knock on Julius’s door. But Julius opened the door first.