Wednesday, April 27, 2011

My Mother's Ducks

When I was a little kid, there was a war going on.  Today we have wars that never touch us, but that one came right into our living rooms.  Japanese submarines frequently turned up in Monterey Bay and the blackout sirens would wail, warning everyone to turn out all the lights so we wouldn't be a visible target.  Our floor lamp was actually designed for this -- the base of the lamp had a very low wattage bulb under a faux-marble diffuser which would just throw enough light on the floor so we could see where to step.  We had blackout shades that cut off all light to the outside.  We could hear the big guns from Fort Ord, across the bay. Sometimes we could see tracer bullets. Those were scary times.

Some of those memories are funny now, like the time my Aunt Lucy came over during a blackout and stepped into my big pile of rubber squeaky toys -- about a bushel basketful.  I thought that was hilarious.  I was about three years old at the time.  Not long afterward, the whole mess of my rubber toys went to "the war effort."  I felt very patriotic, going with my mother to turn in my toys to make tires for the soldiers.

Today, furious at a tornado warning that came in the middle of my bread-making, I remembered another vignette from the war. My father had been duck hunting and brought home a fine bunch of Mallard ducks.  My beautiful mother had taken great care preparing them, stuffing them with pieces of oranges, onions and celery to season them. She was just ready to put the big roaster full of ducks into the oven when the blackout sirens went off again.  This time was even worse; the neighborhood air raid wardens came to the door and told us we had to evacuate to the hills.  That really set my mother off.  She was furious!

I can still hear her hissing through clenched teeth, frowning so hard her eyes were squinched shut, "Those goddam Japs are not going to get my ducks!"  And to prove she meant it, she pulled a kitchen chair up in front of the oven and sat down on it with a shotgun across her lap.  She was not about to budge.  My Aunt took my Grandmother and me up into the coastal hills, but my mother refused to go.  When we got back, she was still sitting there with the shotgun across her lap.  Her ducks were safely defended from the enemy, the submarine was long gone and all was well with the world.

Today when that tornado siren went off , I could really relate to my mother and her ducks.  That goddam tornado was not going to get my bread!  It was at a critical point -- time to punch it down, rest it and form it into loaves.  If I didn't do it at that moment, the bread would be an over-raised, ruined mess.  That was not happening!  I worked quickly but without leaving out any necessary steps to get the bread formed and into the pans to raise for the final time.   After the pans were neatly lined up and covered with a cloth, I joined Laura in our safe place in the hall with one of the dogs and a cat. Not long afterward, they cancelled the tornado warning.

The other dog, Suzy, has moved permanently into her safe place -- the bathtub.

photo credits: Laura Hoffman, Suzy; MaryAnn Jackman, bread.


  1. Brilliant, as always. You have captured the rage we all felt over too many tornadoes. Yet, once again, we survived while there were too many who did not. I personally am battle fatigued by tornadoes, just as your mother was by the War. Your vignette reminds me of Simone de Beauvoir writing about the brave women of the Resistance railing over their destroyed cosmetics at a time they wanted to be beautiful. As Germans destroyed lives and property, de Beauvoir criticized the women for being so superficial. She then admitted she was wrong. You, my love, just like your mother of blessed memory, and I continue to battle injustice everywhere. And yesterday's massive tornado outbreak was yet another battlefront.

  2. The very idea of insisting that life go on in a normal, orderly way in the face of life-threatening danger is a form of denial, but it may also be a kind of sympathetic magic -- a way of insisting the world conform to your own desired reality.
    My hear goes out to the hundreds (!!!) of people who lost their lives to tornado outbreaks these past two weeks. They are not something to make light of. May their memories be for a blessing, and may everyone get to taste the roast duck and freshly baked bread of their lives in safety and peace.
    Nota bene: my mother was not a racist, despite her use of the epithet "Japs." We were at war with Japan, and the Japanese were literally threatening her home and family at the moment. Under normal circumstances, she would not have said that. She worked hard for the respect and dignity for all people during her life.