Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
The Assembly of Godwomen

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It was not the yipping of coyotes that carried the Werthers into Bisbee, Arizona, as the sun slid its palm across the Mule Mountains. What swept them along was the bleating of their not-quite-two-year-old son Mitchell. "Mommy. Mommy. Mommy." Sonya had to pee. She'd had to pee since they landed in Phoenix but didn't want to slow them down. She'd collected the suitcases, three of them, plus the huge car seat and the Kamper Kids backpack, loaded them onto the luggage cart and pushed it 20 feet, going back to fetch Mitchell in the stroller, then pushing him 20 feet ahead of the luggage, and then going back again, ridiculously leap-frogging her way over to the car-rental counter and her husband. The heat in the car-rental lot was suffocating, and Sonya and Douglas just wanted to get the hell out of their jeans and socks and put some time between them and Phoenix.
They had not taken a vacation since going camping in southern Illinois when Mitchell was three months old. Back then they had a mantra: We will not be held captive by this child. It had been hot as hell in the Cherokee National Forest too, and after four days they cut the trip short, tired of huddling every night at 7 p.m. in a stuffy tent away from the mosquitoes. Before that trip camping had meant campfires and getting stoned and soulful conversations about -- what? Sonya could not remember. The droning in the back seat continued: "Mommy. Mommy. Mommy." And every once in a while a desperate strangled, "Milk. Milk," referring of course to her breastmilk, which she once would have climbed over the seat and bared her breast and torqued her back to offer her son. But now she just wanted to get to Bisbee to pee and have some peace, to somehow get to the moment when Mitchell was asleep and she and her husband could sit, alone, and return to themselves before going to sleep too.

She did not even know if there were coyotes in Bisbee, though there surely must be. It was the desert. Arizona. The West. She had not read up on the place, had not immersed herself in a novel set in southeastern Arizona, as once she would have done before a vacation. She no longer had the time. Mitchell did not want apple slices, he did not want cheese, he did not want water, he did not want to drink the orange juice from anything but the bottle it had come in, and he did not know how to do that without spilling it. As she squatted to relieve herself into the sand on a side road, she watched the sun and the shadows on the mountains and willed a wrinkle in the road, to go from here to there now.

Later, after they'd arrived at the guest house in Bisbee and their son was asleep, Douglas walked down the hill in search of food and wine. Sonya stood on the back porch and looked down at Bisbee: ten or twelve street lights hovering above a gulch. The town touted itself as a mile high; the houses clung to the sides of the mountains. "You fucking pussy," someone in the distance below yelled as the sky pinked and then purpled and then indigoed and then became dark, save the holes poked in it by the stars, which weren't as clear as she'd hoped when she had planned this trip in mid-winter Chicago. Or perhaps her contacts were just dry.

Douglas returned with a cheap bottle of red wine and foil-wrapped plates of tacos al corazon from a street vendor. She did not correct his Spanish, ate the charred chunks of flank steak and shaved cabbage rolled with slivers of red onion and lime in fresh tortillas. The wine with the chilis made a log of her tongue. They slept on either side of Mitchell, who slept soundly, his head in his father's armpit and his feet cold as stones punching Sonya in the chest. Before Mitchell was born she had loved to have her breasts fondled and sucked. Now her nipples were distended and sore all the time. If she lay on her side, they spilled out so far that Mitchell could step on them without trying, a fact that horrified her and which she joked about with her friends who were also now in their mid-30s and breastfeeding toddlers and no longer writing for magazines or cataloging East Asian esoterica or studying the sustainability of quinoa as a crop, or whatever they did before. Sonya didn't even know what some of her friends used to do.

~

The next morning Mitchell woke them at 4:40am, thrashing around and yelling "No!" and "Milk!" until she lifted her shirt and obliged. He crashed back to sleep across her neck, crushing her trachea until she could take it no more and turned her head, waking him for good at 5:15. Thirty minutes of milk and twenty minutes of trying to coax him to find his books and read quietly got them out of bed at 6 a.m. They made a pot of jasmine tea in an unwieldy, pink Fiestaware teapot. "Pee tot. Pee tot," Mitchell said. As he wriggled in his white jammies with the blue and red whales, Sonya's irritation dissolved. He was to be kissed and cuddled and tickled and loved, no matter how many times at 5 a.m. she wanted him simply to disappear and let them return to their single-but-married life.

The guest house was an old miner's cottage, turned kitschy 1950s, with kitschy cowboy collectibles, the kinds of things Sonya used to admire at flea markets and maybe sometimes bought but just looked out of place and neglected in her apartment. Lining a shelf above the breakfast table there were cowboy-boot salt and pepper shakers, cowboy-boot lighters, and various other cowboy-boot knick-knackery. The kitchen walls were apple green, the ceiling turquoise. The blue oil cloth on the table was printed with bowls of pineapples, bananas, and oranges. By the stove a shelf held copper cowboy hats and sombreros; the shelf above the sink held ceramic dogs. Over the stove, in an old movie poster, a lusty Mexican chiquita held three men on strings from slender fingers tipped with rose-red nails. España Sono Films de Mexico. Juan Orol presenta a Rosa Carmina y Victor Jonco en "Qué idiotas son los Hombres." Sonya and Douglas idly debated the translation throughout the week. "What idiots men are," she said. He said, "Men are such idiots." Rosa's eyebrows were like two darting black fish. Victor appeared, in montage, slightly below her right breast. After dark, Rosa, in midnight-blue spaghetti straps, gazed in reflection from the window of the cabin's open door.

Sonya and Douglas dressed and took Mitchell for a hike up to the town's water tank. The evening before, Sonya had pondered the graffiti sprawled on its side: "Die Danny Gonzales." Now she realized an agave shoot had partially blocked her view. "Eddie and Danny Gonzales," it said. Ahead of Sonya, Mitchell tramped up the rocky terrain holding Douglas's hand, then stopped with outstretched arms. "Kweeyu. Kweeyu," he said. Carry you. His father hefted Mitchell to his shoulders. Language was coming in bursts now, not just nouns and verbs but also phrases, the pronouns not yet right.

Later they walked down to the city park, a barren patch where they rarely saw other children that week, with two steep slides and a curved climbing wall. The play area was cushioned with shredded, splintery wood chips. They stuck to Sonya's hiking boots and then to the slide after she went down and then to the seat of her pants, burrowing into the skin at the base of her ass, itchy and prickly the rest of the day. Douglas was much better at playgrounds than she, much better at being amused by the repetition, down the slide again and again, as she wandered the park, examining the spray-painted stencils left by some clandestine public artist. Geronimo held his rifle and snarled from the wall of the amphitheater. Dick and Jane, hand in hand, stared blankly from the free-throw line.

That night they cooked bratwursts on the grill, Douglas chopping onions and boiling the beer, letting Mitchell plop the raw sausages into the boiling pot with his bare hands. At bath after dinner Mitchell shrieked when they tried to put him into the clawfoot tub. Douglas undressed and got in with him, and Sonya sat on the closed toilet, reading aloud a picture book about cats.

"Your ass devours that toilet seat," Douglas observed. Sonya winced, suddenly felt a whale, felt the center of the universe, where she did not ever want to be. She dried Mitchell, dressed him in jammies, wrestled with him on the king-sized bed, trying to read him a book, willing him to lie down and cuddle into her side, as she had always imagined children did, before she became parent to one who, owl-eyed with exhaustion, would climb over her like a monkey, crushing her breasts, stepping on the soft parts of her arms and legs, bending her extended knee backward in one step. "Stop it," she hissed, and Douglas came in, relieved her, settled their son into sleep as Sonya looked out the window at the squat greasewood trees on the mountain to the east, iron-red soil burning in the sunset against the blue sky, the evenly spaced trees reminding her of day-old stubble on Douglas's cheeks.

She used to marvel as a child at how her mother's butt could overflow the toilet seat, when she herself had carefully to balance to keep from falling in. Before Mitchell was born she had been Douglas's muse, would pose for his camera like a beautiful woman. Once her mother had snapped a photo of him snapping a photo of Sonya, and they had seemed, beneath the big blue Minnesota sky and beside the alfalfa field her grandfather's father had farmed, as if they inhabited their own private world, Sonya's hands on her hips and her head cocked, Douglas crouching into his camera as if he would devour her. At least that's how her mother's snapshot had appeared to Sonya. Shortly after Mitchell was born, a friend with an 18-month-old and another on the way commented that middle-aged women are invisible -- that no one sees them on the bus or in the store. Are mothers invisible too? Sonya sometimes thought she'd given birth to an eraser; as Mitchell became more beautiful and alive, she was dissolving. It was a moping thought, she knew, and one that she should avoid. It had been a long winter, and she was flabby from lack of exercise, from another year spent taking care of someone else unable to care for himself, and she was only now slowly figuring out how to take care of herself too.

Douglas was an ass. He'd been an ass when she met him ten years ago and when she married him five years later. She was no Rosa Carmina -- she was short and blondish-brown-haired, green-eyed with a fine nose and angular jaw. Pretty but not lusty. Que idiotas son los hombres.

~

The Minutemen Project had arrived in Bisbee the day before Sonya, Douglas, and Mitchell. While Mitchell played on the old miners' train outside the historical museum, Douglas went to ask around for a lunch recommendation and chatted with a man from Mother Jones and a woman from CBS news out of L.A. NPR had reported on the project they day before the Werthers left Chicago: white men come to the border towns to make a point this April, that the Border Patrol was doing a shitty job protecting their jobs, and if the government wasn't going to hunt down and round up undocumented aliens, the Minutemen would. Sonya and Douglas debated what a Minuteman looked like. There were lots of tattooed muscular men riding through town on Harleys, lots of rednecks with little eyes and well-cared-for Ford F250s, a few survivalist-looking, monochromatic, four-wheel-drive vehicles whose owners they never saw but which had gas cans strapped to their sides. Sonya and Douglas drank lattés and talked about the pope's death and Illinois going to the Final Four, while Mitchell hollered "Money! Money!", hand outstretched for the train fare. He was in what Douglas's therapist-sister called the "selfish-repetitive" stage.

"You think parenting is mind-rot. Imagine what it's like to be in prison," Douglas commented.

That morning, Mitchell had gazed up at Sonya in the morning sunlight, his eyes shining, a smile stealing onto his face. "Love you," he said for the first time. And then laughed, so pleased with himself. "Love you." His gray flannel pajamas had a bulldozer and a dump truck on them. He was starting to look like Douglas in the eyes.

In the guest house's kitchen cupboard Sonya had found several useless cookbooks: Today's Wok Cookery (the guest house had no wok), The California Pizza Oven Cookbook, The Assemblies of God Women Holiday Cooking. This last she could not put down, read from cover to cover, alternately wondering who those Godwomen were, and also that Americans actually ate the way those women cooked in the early 1970s, when she was a toddler. Nearly every "salad" recipe was a gelatin mold; the most horrifying one she held up for Douglas to see and guess what was inside, the black and white photo showing individual servings of ivory-colored towers, obviously molded in and upturned from glass juice tumblers. The mystery "salad" towers were flecked with dark squares and topped with a curl of something. "Is that shrimp on top?" Douglas guessed correctly. "So they must be some sort of shrimp yellow thing," he determined. Indeed, the "Patio Shrimp Salad" was in the Halloween Salads section. Sonya listed the ingredients: unflavored gelatin, milk, sour cream, salad dressing, vinegar, seasoned salt, shrimp, chopped celery, green peppers, and pimiento. "Gross," Douglas agreed. He had grown up eating Jello salads and had hated them: green Jello with crushed pineapple and cottage cheese being the most egregious offender of his childhood dinner table. Sonya had always been intrigued by that about him -- that his mother had made fried chicken with Total flakes and Jello salads, while her own mother's kitchen coup de grace was cream of mushroom soup. They seemed to be two vastly different varieties of the same species: women who doctored packaged food into a meal.

Sonya's mother's doctoring skills didn't go much beyond cream of mushroom soup. Sonya's favorite childhood meal had been a stove-top hamburger and rice dish with cream of mushroom soup that, thinking of it now, Sonya realized was rather like risotto. But what she most remembered were crock-pot meals of stringy beef and carrots and puddles of orange-colored fat lolling on top, or canned beets from her mother's friend's farm, cooked in their own juice on the stove and no other seasoning.

The Godwomen were much more creative in their kitchens, though the results were no more appetizing. Alma Tinsley from Eminence, Missouri, had submitted to the holiday cookbook a recipe for "Beef in Costume for Halloween," the photo of which showed a roasted pumpkin with a window in its side, barfing out what looked like goulash. Some of the recipes Sonya jotted down: gingerbread pineapple upside down cake (you could substitute butter back in for vegetable shortening, couldn't you?) and a St. Patrick's Day corned beef boil with turnips and parsnips. Also recommended for St. Patrick's Day was an avocado slush. While Douglas and Mitchell raced around the dining room table, she read the cookbook. She brought it to bed and read it while pre- and post-nap nursing. Each section included a peppy introduction meant to get a homemaker's creative juices flowing about the holiday season ahead. Even the lesser-celebrated holidays were included. For Lincoln's birthday, a rustic theme was suggested. "You can carry the rustic pioneer theme of this Lincoln's Birthday meal into your party decorations and invitations," the authors suggested. "Write the invitations on brown paper, or, if you are very talented, on burlap. Serve your dinner on a bare wooden table with heavy burlap placemats to echo your theme. Whatever you do, be comfortable with it. After all, this is your party."

Memorial Day meant camping and cooking over a campfire. "Start with pan-fried fish -- freshly caught by your proud fisherman in an icy cold stream or lake near your campsite." Sonya recoiled from such language. 1971. Didn't the Godwomen know that the women's movement allowed them to hunt and fish too -- or to make their proud fisherman grill their own damn dinner? It was a knee-jerk reaction: after all, Sonya did all her household's meal planning and cooking -- save grilling -- and had given up long ago on Douglas cooking even one night a week, as many of her friends' husbands did. Still, the more deeply she read, Sonya sensed a wistful chord to the Godwomen cookbook, as if Mrs. B. Morris McKenzie and Mrs. Della Pearl, the planning committee chairs, and their comrades were well aware of the great exodus from the kitchen that was well underway by 1971, even among the women in their assembly halls. The 4th of July and Easter introductions tried desperately to stir the home fires among the day's young wives and mothers. "Remember the family reunions when we were growing up? The ever-building excitement, wondering who would come, who had new babies, seeing which of the cousins had grown the most. Shouldn't your children have the opportunity to experience all the wonderment of a family reunion at least once during their lifetimes? And wouldn't it be marvelous to recapture the spirit of family togetherness once again!"

Suddenly Sonya saw the cookbook for what it really was, and it made her sad. Across the nation the aging women of the Assembly of God had rallied to document before it was too late what it took to make a home for the holidays. They contributed their best recipes and probably their pin money to make a cookbook -- with four-color photos sprinkled liberally throughout and an illustration up front of women in miniskirts and shift dresses carrying trays of devilled eggs. With long, curled eyelashes and thick straight hair pulled back by headbands the same color as their dresses, this phantom younger generation of Godwomen were as alive and lovely as the women Sonya remembered on her mother's Kotex boxes and the dusty Summer's Eve carton at the back of the bathroom cabinet. These women were feminine. And feminine was what made a home.

Never mind that the ideal was already hollow by the publishing date; despite the odd contribution for old-world sweets such as Hoska, a braided yeast bread with raisins and walnuts, more often than not the recipes called for canned salmon and onion-soup mix and dollops of "salad dressing" quickly browned under the broiler before serving. Those Godwomen didn't know what was coming. No four-color cookbook could defend against the social upheaval that by 1976 left Sonya's own family headed by a single mother and briefly on welfare while Sonya's mother went back to complete the degree she'd left off to bear children while her husband finished school.

~

One evening, while Douglas and Mitchell bathed and Sonya hunched in the bathroom corner over the cookbook, the guest-house owner rattled the screen door. "Hello?"

Sonya hurried out to meet Tad Muller, a tall red-headed woman who always wore bright red lipstick and her hair swept up and back. Tad was a painter; her muses were cowboys and dogs. Two of her paintings hung in the guesthouse, one of a young boy, eight or nine, in a too-big cowboy hat and slim jeans bunched under a big belt buckle at his even slimmer waist, a lasso in his gloved hand. The other was a rear view of a cowboy mounted on his horse looking over his shoulder and beyond the frame. He had a spectacular ass. So did the rodeo cowboys in a series of 1950s black-and-white photos hanging on the opposite wall. At a gallery in town, an artist had painted cowboys as if in stained glass, the folds of their jeans each a pane of indigo. "Did you see the butt one?" the gallery owner had asked Sonya, out wandering alone while Mitchell napped. "Cowboys have great asses, don't they?" Sonya replied. The woman was very thin, in her 50s, platinum blonde, and she wore an ivory linen shift that hung, perfect and unwrinkled, to her ankles. Her lids were silver, her lips frosted pink. "We should all ride," she said sweetly.

Sonya held the screen door open to Tad, who remained outside. "There's a buzzard display, if you want to come see it," Tad said. "They just got back into town." It took Sonya moment to focus, first on Tad, and then beyond her, to see the birds in the sky above the dip between the two mountains viewed through the screen door, to stop listening to Douglas and Mitchell splashing in the tub and to understand what Tad meant by a buzzard display.

"God. They're just floating," Sonya said and stood still. Tad was gazing up. "It just--" the woman touched her fingers to her heart, "brings tears to my eyes." She left Sonya standing there, walked the 22 steps up to her house above, and squatted on the crumbling cement retaining wall at the end of her walkway and watched, absorbed.

The buzzards numbered more than 20. Sonya released her shoulders and her brow, her jaw, which she usually clenched without realizing it. She tried to make a pattern of the birds as they braided the sky, weaving in and out, sometimes dropping and sometimes lifting, never predictable, never in time, yet always graceful. She was watching the fall and rise of air currents, Sonya realized, but it was more than that. The birds' wings were outspread, their hearts bared in their breasts and buoyed by the dusk, the cooling air. They flapped their wings at uneven intervals -- it was not as perfect as a painting or a poem. Their dance was sporadic and yet it was still a dance. They were beautiful not because they didn't know they were beautiful but because they were doing what made them happy.

Suddenly Sonya felt nagged by Mitchell's bedtime fast approaching and went back inside. "It was Tad," she told Douglas, naked in the cloudy bath water, his receding hair wet, his eyes crimped at the corners, his half-tanned-half-pasty arms handing her their perfect little son. "Baff. Baff. Daddy. Baff. Mitchell. Baff," Mitchell told her.

Douglas looked expectantly at Sonya, who shrugged. "She just wanted to show us some birds."


Sharla A. Stewart, a writer and yoga teacher in Chicago, is mother to Michael, two and half, and baby number two, due any day now. Her writing for the University of Chicago Magazine has ranged across academia, covering the rise of behavioral economics, a recent rift in the discipline of political science, and the search for an elusive subatomic particle. “The Assembly of Godwomen” is her first published piece of creative writing.


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