How Ethel and Geraldine Made Caskets for their Memories
Arts and Crafts, 1990
Bright bits of paper... hot pink and red, dayglo blue. Magazine pages with pictures, large and small. Shreds of ribbon. Flowers, torn from napkins. Beads... and plastic jewels: Geraldine and Ethel make memory boxes for each other.
Geraldine cuts out pictures of chickens. She slices off one leg by accident. She puts the leg inside the box. She remembers the chicken they called "Peg." Short for Peg-leg. Peg was a good layer, even with only one leg. Mama cut the bad leg off with an axe. It was black and oozy, but Geraldine didn't want to throw it away. She wanted to fix it, and put it right back on the hen. She remembers searching the weeds for it and finally agreeing on a burial with flowers.
Ethel cuts out pictures of babies. Babies, and little girls. Girls with braids, brown hair, blue eyes. She puts them all inside the box. Buries them in beads. Blue, green and aqua. Geraldine glues beads to the outside of her box. Green and yellow, alternating.
"A tisket, a tasket, a green-and-yellow basket..." (She hums, sings, taps her foot.) "I wrote a letter to my love, and on the way I dropt it... I dropt it... I dropt it....."
When the bead string begins to look like a snake, she glues a brown plastic gemstone on for a head. Two small red beads for eyes. Then makes another. Another. Snakes intertwine and layer. She adds some rhinestones. The box begins to sparkle, like fireflies on a summer night.
"Yes, on the way I dropt it..."
Ethel plunges her hands into the gallon jars of beads. She likes the way they feel on her skin. Cool. Massaging and skin delicious. "Try this," she says to Geraldine. Beads pour from one hand to another. They flow like water. But dry and nubbly. Geraldine remembers swimming, sleeping, stretching. She remembers Ricky. (Again.)
Geraldine cuts out a frog, strokes its back with a fingertip. Drops it not in her box, but in her apron pocket. Ethel unburies the paper babies, then covers them with beads again. She pours the beads out and in on top of the babies, again and again. Geraldine paints her name in red on the bottom of her box. Ethel paints her box black. Then they trade boxes and unpack the images. Black paint sticks to Geraldine's fingers. Down through blue beads she digs to find a pile of babies and little girls in pigtails. She cradles them in her hands, humming a lullaby and crooning. She sways from side to side in her white plastic chair.
Ethel cuts out eggs to go with the chickens in her box from Geraldine. She finds an axe and puts that in too. When the counselor comes round and asks for a story, Geraldine says:
"Once upon a time there was a little girl. She laid in the bottom of the lake with water over her head. Water like a blanket, only cold. A big light came. It came down though the water and the girl thought it was an angel." Ethel says:
"We had lots of chickens and they laid lots of eggs. Brown eggs, white eggs, colored eggs. When they stopped laying eggs, we cut off their heads and ate them for dinner. Even the one whose leg I cut off. We even ate the ones we loved."
"We ate the ones we loved," Geraldine repeats, rocking the babies, whose blue beads cling to their gummy black paint.
(from a story created by Mary Taitt)