Monthly Archives: May 2024

The Spice, the Aunt, and the Hoosier Cabinet of Mysteries

The Survivalist’s Basement

A beautiful Hoosier Cabinet and a one incredibly happy housewife.
Image by Popular Woodworking

When my sister and I were young, we were deposited on the regular at my grandparents’ farm just outside Claremont, South Dakota. I loved this house and feel like I learned it all by heart, from the back door we always used, through the utility room to the kitchen, to the front room with its gold carpet, up the stairs to two bedrooms – every part of the house including the screened porch, where we ate our meals in the summer. 

On to the depths! As an adult, I avoid an unfinished basement, but back then it was a dank mystery calling for exploration. We reached this one from the back entry, where stairs led down into a sturdy and somewhat organized area with cement walls and a dirt floor.

My grandfather, a devout John Bircher, buried caches of gold and silver coins under the dirt (for use as currency after the collapse caused by the commie invasion). My grandmother stored canned goods (enough to outlive the commie apocalypse) on shelves that also held a radio for storm updates during tornado season (or, for my Bircher grandfather, reports on the commie horde that would soon be storming South Dakota). Other than that, the basement wasn’t used for much, but in the event of a commie apocalypse, it would be a key factor.

The stairs were gated, but not in a way that would deter a commie horde, more in a decorative way. Grandpa had commissioned a black wrought iron gate, secured by an iron ring, with “V O” worked across the top. This stood for his name of course, but to my sister and I, it stood for “Village Orphanage.” That was the game we played down in my grandparents’ basement. We were orphans. And the basement was the orphanage. 

The Village Orphanage

Like most kids, we liked games where the adult disappeared and we were left to survive on our own. And a basement was a great place to act this out, as our conceptions of an orphanage were dank and comfortless, just like a basement. One summer, our play was organized around a mysterious Hoosier Cabinet that just appeared one day down there in the middle of the basement. It was a marvelous example, oak with a tin countertop, upper cabinets and lower tiny drawers, and chromed latches that functioned perfectly.  

We loved that beautiful cabinet and the odors it emitted; oak, tin, cloves, and the dark, dried berries of allspice that filled one of the spice drawers. It had probably come from the kitchen of a Swedish or Norwegian family, where savory spices are rare, but cloves and allspice are used freely in baking. My sister and I mixed up meal after meal for the orphans on that tin counter, utilizing our imaginations and the fascinating contents of the drawers.

We did this for a summer, until one day we went through the gate and down the steps and the cabinet was gone. It had vanished just as mysteriously as it had appeared. We didn’t ask our grandparents about it. We went to our mother with the disappearance of the Hoosier cabinet. “Oh, that was your aunt Elaine’s,” she told us. “She bought it at a farm auction, and stored it here until she could get it back to California.”

The cabinet was not ours. It never had been. And we were shocked.

The Hoosier Cabinet Whereabouts

The cabinet belonged to our artistic Aunt Elaine (you can see some of her art here: Elaine Cain Tiles). She had taken the source of those bewitching aromas to La Habra, where she lived in a real adobe ranch home surrounded by citrus and avocado trees. She was beautiful and mysterious. When I was very young, she kept her hair in a long golden braid down her back. Her refusal to cut her hair scandalized my mother and grandmother, who went to the beauty parlor on the regular to have their own hairstyles maintained. And there was Elaine, her brow perpetually smoothed by the weight of all that hair falling to her waist.  

Mom and Elaine had a contentious relationship from childhood on. There were times they were speaking, and times they were not. Like my grandmother Lucille, my aunt was maddeningly oblique.

Lucille Foster Odland
I think this is my Grandmother Lucille’s senior photo – sent by my cousin

Grandma Lucille could wriggle off the hook of an uncomfortable topic like you wouldn’t believe. We would try to get her to talk about anything that wasn’t lovely like it was a contest. You just couldn’t do it. She preferred to discuss things that were lovely, and for which she was grateful. That hard parts of life simply didn’t fit into her endless stream of positivity and gratitude.

My brother Steve had some of this, too, a way of edging sideways to avoid certain topics. For Steve, it was more that he had a version of history that contained glaring errors and weird confabulations. I would try to pin him down on something, and he would gleefully skip away from anything he wished to avoid, delighted at his own wiliness. And while I admire that “telling it slant” in, say, the poetry of Emily Dickinson, in a living person it can be very hard to understand or tolerate.

My Mysterious Aunt

With my aunt, evasiveness was almost an art form. She could be extremely witty, and was flirtatious to the point of coquetry, but she used these as tools to keep the conversation exactly where she wanted it to be. We talked every few months on the phone over the years, especially after Mom died, but she never really told me anything.

I wasn’t asking about anything awful or painful. I would ask simple things, like, where do my cousins live? How many kids do they have? What do they do? And she would hem and haw and evade, as if it were somehow imperative that I never have information about her kids (I am thankfully in touch with one of my cousins and she is an absolute delight).

My admiration of my aunt was tempered by this frustration. Elaine and my mother had a lifetime of sisterhood, with all the conflicts and troubles that brings. I blamed their times of estrangement on my mother, because we always blame everything on our mothers. But in the years of talking to Elaine after Mom’s death, I understood how maddening her conversational evasiveness would have been to my confrontational mother. Conversely, my aunt must have found Mom dangerously direct.

Aunt Elaine had secrets, I guess. More secrets than just the big one, which involved my predatory grandfather. The closest we came to discussing this was after she read my Trailer Park book. She was troubled by my treatment of my villains. She asked me, “So there is no love for them? Just death?” I told her, “No love, Elaine. Just death.”

Talk about oblique. Talk about telling it slant.

My villains are one-dimensional in that book. Of course they deserved punishment, but I understood what my aunt was telling me. She loved her father, and I loved my grandfather. But men like that create divisive and destructive family patterns in order to operate as they do. They create the kinds of divisions that fracture bonds to limit information sharing. He was crafty and specific. I was not one of his targets, but I have been living with the aftermath of his ways for my entire life.

Opening the cabinet of mysteries

Some years ago–I’m having trouble remembering exactly what year, I think about 2010–she and my uncle were passing through Portland and she asked me to meet them for coffee at the airport. The airport. Why the airport? I have no idea, other than that it was the most neutral territory she could think of.

She was charming and oblique, as always, apologizing for some fractional weight gain as if I would care, steering the conversation away from my cousins and over to her writing projects. But she did introduce me to their little black poodle, who had waited for them in the van while we visited. It was so clear that she cherished this dog way I cherished my dogs–freely, openly, with her whole heart and a ton of babytalk.

I did have a very direct conversation with my aunt after I learned that my cousin David had died. She and my uncle were sitting in their apartment, unable to make themselves go down to the dining room. She told me that the last conversation she’d had with him was months before, and it had been an angry conversation because he was adamant that they move out of that ranch home and into a place where they could have better care for their significant medical issues.

He was so angry with her, and she was so angry with him. She told me she’d worried that this furious exchange would be their last conversation, but it was her own death she worried about, not her son’s. In the months that followed, my aunt didn’t speak to David, but she and my uncle did sell their home and move into an assisted living apartment.

That’s where they were when I called. “What do we do now?” she asked me. “Are we supposed to just go downstairs? What do we say?” My heart broke, thinking of the two of them just sitting there, unsure of how to go on with their lives in the face of this loss.

I continued to call my aunt. Occasionally she would call me. She told me about Sunday singing sessions at the care place, her request list full of songs I’d never even heard of. She still gave me zero information about my cousins, but I didn’t push it. My uncle passed away during Covid, and Aunt Elaine lost most of her mobility. The isolation during those years was hard on her–her meals were delivered and she saw no one–but she assured me, “I’m a tough old bird. I’ll make it.”

Because we talked on the phone, I have some sense of who she was. Before that, I felt like I’d created an aunt out of random memories, mostly formed when she brought my cousins to visit when I was very young. Elaine bringing my mother a still-life painting in radiant shades of gold that my mother later got rid of out of spite. Elaine in our kitchen in Aberdeen wearing a full skirt, a white peasant blouse, and huaraches, making us eggs and adding salsa, an incredibly delicious and exotic condiment in 1968 South Dakota.

I only visited her house once. I stayed overnight in 1977 when my whole family was there for a trip to Disneyland. I remember beautiful Saltillo tile floors, a hand-painted writing table, and a kitchen was made for a diminutive cook. My branch of the family is quite tall. I think the counters hit just above my knees. As an adult, I saw her when she came to two of my sister’s (five) weddings, the first in 1979, the third in 1988. She was supervising an art installation in Poulsbo in the late 1980s and I saw her then. There’s even a photo of us together somewhere. Maybe my sister has it.

My aunt Elaine died on my birthday this year. I feel like I barely knew her. When that makes me sad, I remind myself that that she probably wanted it that way–to leave here with her mysteries intact.

Elaine Odland Cain
Aunt Elaine

A Life in the Library

Claremont

I come into memory in Claremont, a South Dakota town of perhaps fifty people with no library. We were visited by the bookmobile. I was probably too young to check out books but remember going in and looking at its shelves in wonder. I thought that maybe a person (me) could live in a vehicle like this, surrounded by books and only books.

A bus with a view, 1967 / via Bibliobussen

Here is a wonderful pictorial essay on bookmobiles. Bookmobiles on Messy Nessy

In first grade, we had a classroom library, a shelf of Little Golden Books we divided by desirability. A book’s desirability was completely defined by the presence of flocking. I coveted the flocked bunny, but would settle for the cowboy with the fuzzy chaps just to have one of the better options.

Aberdeen

I finally went to a real library in Aberdeen, walking there of my own accord in second and third grades. L. Frank Baum lived in the Dakota territories at some point, so Aberdeen had a small theme park in his honor and the library had the full array of the Oz books. I worked my way through the shelf, then asked the librarian for something else. Something like the Oz books. She led me into the adult section and found The Wind in the Willows.

I found it challenging at age seven. The words were long and the phrasing was British and the story was actually written for adults. Mr. Toad’s lack of self-control deeply disturbed me, but I was still glad when the washerwoman smuggled him out. I think my fear of unjust confinement started with this book because I can’t stand any narrative where someone is in a prison for a crime they didn’t commit or in a mental hospital when they are not ill. Or maybe the book didn’t create these fears so much as activate them. Who knows.

Rapid City

We lived in Rapid City for one school year. We went to the public library fairly often as a family–a new family, as we acquired a stepdad who would soon adopt us. Our last trip there was specifically to return whatever books we needed to return before we moved to Minnesota. While I waited for everyone in the family to be ready to leave, I picked up a book and read a chunk of it (I read quickly). The main character was an orphan named Muffler, so named because he was found wrapped in a muffler. He had the ability to enter some kind of alternate reality where things were as they should be. In this place, cats were huge and dogs were small. I believe the gigantic cats could also talk. Also, there was a unicorn.

Well, this seemed like a wonderful reality to me. I was riveted. But we were moving, it was time to leave, and I couldn’t check out this book. I remembered putting it back on the shelf, my pangs of disappointment, all tied up with the fact that we were moving again.

Minneapolis

Edina was rough on me. Sensitive, goofy, South Dakotan me didn’t stand a chance against those Edina girls. But the school librarian understood me. She was a tidy, quiet woman with curled silver hair and glasses. A librarian archetype. She steered me to the Narnia books, which transported me and broke my heart, and the Black Cauldron books, which (to my ten year-old mind) were mythic. But she didn’t know what that Muffler book might be, to my great disappointment.

Oregon

But back to libraries. I used our local library all the time when the kids were younger. We combined a trip to the library with a visit to the creek, where the girls fed stale bread to the orange-toothed nutria. My home library was mostly books I’d hauled around since I was a child, adding paperbacks as I could, rereading my favorites.

The public library saved me, because my then-husband complained if I bought so much as a magazine, so buying books was out of the question. I thought it was because he was cheap—and he was—but in retrospect, I believe he resented how disengaged I was when I read, how completely absorbed I was by books. “You’re not even here when you read,” he’d complain. That was, of course, the point.

I started buying books secondhand when he left.

The lost book is found!

Remember the book about Muffler? I thought about this book for close to thirty years. Does it surprise you that I would be haunted by a book about giant cats? If it does, you don’t know me very well.

The trouble was, I’d forgotten the title. Over the years, I asked friends who read fantasy books, but no one remembered anything like this. I looked in card catalogs at my local library and turned up nothing. Eventually, I got on the Internet and tried search engines.

I dutifully typed what I could remember about the book into Netscape Navigator and then Google. An orphaned boy named Muffler, giant cats. Nothing ever came up.

Finally, someone steered me to a community on Livejournal (I loved Livejournal) that hunted down book titles based on your descriptions. I tried three times before someone replied. The book is Grimbold’s Other World, by Nicholas Stewart Gray.

See? A Unicorn and everything.

I found a copy online, ordered it, and waited. I have had a few disappointing rereads in my life but this book was not one of them. It’s nicely written and utterly charming in a young reader way. Lots of dialog. Dragons. Unicorns. Grimbold is the cat who leads Muffler into a night world that holds both danger and beauty.

Today

I buy books secondhand all the time, even when I swear I won’t. But I’m at the thrift store, and there they are, and then they’re mine. And of course I am completely addicted to the ease of buying books online. I use Amazon and the rest of the internet to track down any arcane title, including my used copy of Grimbold’s Other World, or the complete works of Betty Macdonald, or whatever strange little rabbit hole I wish to dive into. I have so many books to read here at the house that I stopped going to the library. This is ridiculous. I love libraries and I still wish I could live in a bookmobile.

But come over to my house and take a tour of my bookshelves. I actually do live in a library. It just doesn’t have any wheels.