Friday, June 1, 2012
White Trash in the Snow - Chapter Three (Jerrie Strauss chaperones a field trip to Azzolla City Hall)
White Trash in the Snow
Mayor Saplin hadn’t seen Jerrie Strauss in a dozen years. She didn’t even recognize the woman when she appeared along with another mom, a teacher, and Cristol’s entire third grade class (including a kid named Wrangler) for a tour of Azzolla City Hall. Mayor Saplin greeted everyone, told the moms “call me Rachael,” and ducked into her office promising, with a wink, to “be right back."
She reappeared moments later with a tray of “baked this morning” cookies and was rewarded with smiles from everyone. It was a fun day for the group of eight year olds who were thrilled to have a break from the classroom. The curious children asked many questions including, “Are you really Cristol’s mommy?” (answer, yes I am) and “Why do you have so many shoes under your desk?” (answer, because I’m out of room in my closet at home). They watched her sign a proclamation for “Truth and Honesty Week” and a boy loudly observed, “Wow! You write BIG!”
"Why do you write so big?" A little girl asked.
Rachael saw it as an opportunity to show off her knowledge of American History. “That’s such a good question!” she said. “My signature is big out of a great respect for the founding fathers, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, too, which it is that, of course, is that which they did when they wrote the most important document in the whole world.”
The adults froze. The kids stopped fidgeting. Jerrie Strauss replayed the words in her head to make sense out of them; it was a futile endeavor. Mayor Saplin went on, “Can any of you kids tell me - What is it that is that document – the most important one of any of ‘em, all of ‘em?”
A couple silent beats went by and she said, “I’ll tell ‘ya. It started when John Hancock, who didn’t have his glasses because Ben Franklin had stepped on them, signed his name extra large and…whereas…because, of course, he was a hard-workin’ patriot – all of ‘em had jobs - and of course, too, they needed to get the Constitution signed to create jobs. It was all about job creation. And freedom. And so, we have those great patriotic Americans to thank for our freedom to own guns, and have jobs, and I’m so grateful to ‘em that I sign my name really big, too when I’m being like they once were, signing stuff and all. And they lived on farms also, too.”
From the twenty or so puzzled looks she got, she decided the US Constitution must be in the fourth grade history lessons. Rachael beamed, proud of herself for having been able to remember that much history and give this bunch of little sprouts an extemporaneous history lesson.
The teacher made mental notes and used them for weeks thereafter, whenever one of her colleague’s needed a laugh and asked for a retelling of the mayor’s revisionist history lesson. In the moment, however, she simply changed the subject and asked the mayor to explain a bit about how local elections are conducted.
The moms assumed the Mayor was having fun, putting out a harmless tale so the teacher could give the kids the real lesson back at school. They mistakenly thought Rachael saw them as being some kind of community team. It was a fair assumption; after all, Rachael had finished her explanation of voting with the admonition, “Voting is what you do because you want to be a good citizen. Your own moms and dads can teach you about being good Americans, also, too. These two moms who came with you today are being good citizens by helping the teacher.” Then she turned to the women, gave them warm smiles, and said, “It takes everyone workin’ together, raisin’ this crop of young ‘uns up right.”
“It takes a village to raise a child,” the second mom offered.
“Yup, so true,” Rachael said, nodding.
“Have you read it?” asked the woman.
“– the one by Hillary Rodham Clinton.”
Rachael wasn’t sure what book this other mom thought she might have read, but for sure she hadn’t read it. “I wouldn’t be reading any book by Hillary Clinton. She’s a liberal.”
“Oh, I see,” was all the other woman said.
Everyone let the topic die out. Gone, too, was the feel-good atmosphere that had been permeated with cookies and camaraderie. Politics had spoiled it. And it wasn’t only the First Lady that had been judged and found unacceptable – the mayor’s friendly smile and designer glasses hid the truth. Rachael had been sizing up the chaperones and found them lacking.
She assumed that moms who went along on field trips must not have “real jobs.” Though subconsciously she envied stay-at-home moms and their ability to do what she wasn’t cut out to do (nurture), she cultivated a disdain for hardworking women who made motherhood their primary career. A pity, she thought as she watched the parents help get the children back on the school bus, whatever God-given talents those women have, they are going to waste. The Bible warns against burying our talents. Well, they’ll have to answer for that some day. Satisfied that she had put in a hard morning, she returned to her office, gathered her coat and purse, and headed off to get a manicure.
“The Big Tease” was Rachael Saplin’s favorite beauty salon. They specialized in prom styles for every day of the week.A few weeks after the third grade had been to City Hall, the mayor’s office received a complaint by the Big Tease owner seeking to have Jerrie Strauss fined for working out of her own kitchen as a beautician. The letter demanded that a cease and desist order be issued to stop her from cutting, coloring, and setting hair in a residential building because it wasn’t zoned for business and because Ms. Strauss didn’t have the professional licensing required to cut hair. Rachael thought back on the recent tour. She pictured the woman’s long, tussled tresses of champagne blonde hair. Oh my, Rachael thought, that woman is a hairdresser? She needs to update her own style. Then, as often happened, her thoughts changed tracks. Oh, but at least she works. Bless her heart.
Feeling that this was an opportunity to show that she didn’t play favorites, Mayor Saplin took the complaint to the recently hired city manager and said, “I know the person who filed this complaint, she’s my friend. But, I want all the facts and no special treatment.” Ten seconds after leaving his cubicle she was back with a stronger demand. “Get me an answer today.”
It turned out to be a frivolous complaint. The city manager’s report stated that Mrs. Strauss served so few clients her work could be considered a personal service for friends and family (“That’s no surprise,” Mayor Saplin remarked), which made it a moot point that Azolla had no licensing or zoning laws. (“Oh, yeah, I forgot,” Rachael said without embarrassment.)
No license issues, no zoning issues, Rachael smiled as she penned her name on letters to both parties with the big, swooping Rs and Ss. While signing the documents with flair, she was reminded of the bewildered look on the eight year old when, during the third grade class visit, she’d answered his question about her extra-large cursive. He was obviously too young to understand the history lesson she thought. No matter what she’d told those kids, that signature came from her ego not her patriotism.
The file was closed and everyone assumed that was the end of it. Then, four days later, the late morning mail brought the city manager and the mayor handwritten notes thanking them for their prompt and fair resolution. The signatory, “Mrs. Jerrie Strauss,” was brief and respectful, and wrote her name without exaggerated swirls. The manager was in Rachael’s office when the letters came. He opened his and said, “How nice of her.”
The four word observation ruffled the mayor’s feathers. A competitor in all things, she looked again at the card in her hand, appraising it critically. The words, grammar, penmanship, and signature were confident and moderate, and she knew her own writing, both mechanically and in content was not at that level – the level of an in-home hairdresser. An unsuccessful in-home hairdresser!
Rachael sneered “Who has time to thank public officials for doing their jobs? I could, too, send hand written notes if I weren’t busy running this town.” She flicked the card into the trash can by her desk. Then, she began picking up miscellaneous small items from the desk - a pencil, a pen, another pen – and threw each one into the trash separately in a childish display of temper. The stapler made a satisfyingly loud crash as it banged around, metal hitting metal, and she picked up the electric pencil sharpener next.
Embarrassed for his boss, the city manager collected up his papers and left the room.
Alone and angry, Rachael hit the speed-dial for her husband and rummaged through the trash waiting for the sound of the ringing. Tapping the edge of the card on the desktop in front of her, she grew impatient.
Tad was in the garage working on his Arctic Cat and thinking about lunch. He regretted picking up the phone as soon as he heard her speak. “You know, Tad, I work hard. Don’t I work hard? And I’d love to be home with the kids! Haven’t I always said that?”
He shouldered the phone and grabbed a rag, wiping grease from his hands. “Said what? What are you talking about, Rachael?”
“Pay attention Tad! I’m talkin’ about moms who stay home and perhaps work from home and of course, certainly pal around with other moms who stay home thinkin’ they are better than us moms who work and also, too, tryin’ to make us feel guilty.” She jumped up and started pacing back and forth, waving the thank you note like evidence in the hand of a courtroom attorney and yelling into the phone that was in her other hand. “God gave me talents! I have a CALLING! I’m the mayor because God put me here. The haters just make me stronger, Tad. They just make me stronger.”
Tad knew his wife was hypersensitive about being a working wife and working mom with young children. He blamed it on the open disapproval of “brothers and sisters in the Lord” who thought a married woman working outside the home was “a dishonor to her husband.” If he didn’t flippin’ care, why should they?
The screeching got louder, “…God opened the door, and I plowed through. I didn’t blink! I’m doing His work! I don’t have time to write thank-yous and go on field trips.”
Tad let her rage, and inserted a “Yes,” an “Uh-huh,” or a “You’re right,” here and there while checking for a leak in a hose. It all sounded familiar until she got to the cookies.
“And those were damn good cookies!”
He couldn’t help himself, he had to ask. “Rachael, what cookies?”
“The bakery cookies!” she shouted.
Huffing and chuffing sounds signaled Tad that it was safer for him to stay quiet. He checked the oil while she composed herself. When the sounds subsided, he tried to sound calm and rational, “Rachael, I don’t understand the part about cookies.”
“Pay attention, Tad! I told you! They were bakery cookies! The big, soft ones.”
“Hmmm,” he said, remembering he was hungry. “Sounds yummy.”
“Darned right. And peanut butter, also!”
He tried enthusiasm. “Cookies and peanut butter? A winning combination!"
“God, Tad! Not cookies and peanut butter! Peanut butter cookies!”
“Oh,” he said, “with that fork criss-cross…”
“Yes! Yup, yup. Everybody loved ‘em.”
Tad knew what to do. He was as good with Rachael’s breakdowns as he was fixing his snow mobile. “Rachael, you have a clear calling,” he looked around for a wrench, “Your way with people is why God made you the Mayor of Azzolla,” he tightened a bolt. “Like you said, everybody loves store-bought bakery cookies. Especially big, soft ones and peanut butter fork-pressed ones.” He jiggled a wire as he talked. “So, are you bringing some home today? That would be great because Field finished off the Oreos…”
“God, Tad, aren’t you listening at all? I'm talking about the tour – Cristol’s classmates – weeks ago – and those kids ate two cookies each, they’ve got no manners except, of course, the ones that do, like our Cristol, there are manners there, of course, and some of the other girls, but most of the boys though, why one of them ate four! And his mother was right there, but did she say anything? No, not a peep, so of course there weren’t any left, which is why you didn’t get any.”
Oh, I haven’t been getting any for a long time, Tad thought.
As Tad half listened and worked on the snow mobile, Rachael switched from defense to offense and began spewing criticism of a woman named Jerrie Strauss. Tad caught enough to understand that she was feeling defensive about working and that the feelings had been stirred up by a chaperone accompanying kids on a field trip. This chaperone was a stay-at-home mom who ran a business in her home, volunteered in the classroom, and (this part was a little fuzzy) made cookies from scratch. There was something about handwriting and cards that wasn’t clear to him, and then she mentioned Hillary Clinton and he was completely lost. So he went for the time-tested cure-all for the Rachael Heat Saplin blues: “No one does more than you, Baby. You’re not only Mayor Saplin, you are Super Mom – correction - Super Christian Mom! No one can take those titles from you.”
“Tad, you are so right.” Rachael was appeased. She loved titles.
Tad had been through this sort of thing many times. He could trace the onset of Rachael’s manic episodes of insecurity back to Easter Sunday when Cristol was six. Tad remembered it vividly. That morning, the very young wife of the youth pastor spotted the Saplins - Tad and Rachael, Field, Cristol and baby Maple – as they arrived for service. With Bible in hand, a ten-month old bouncing along on her hip and a toddler clinging to her long skirt, the woman worked her way across a crowded narthex to greet them. She gave Rachael a big hug and gushing, announced, “Mrs. Saplin, the MOPS are praying for you.”
Rachael smiled a polite smile and Tad laughed. “Mops? How about the brooms, don’t they pray, too?”
Rachael ignored him. The woman gave a look of tolerance, then said to Rachael. “He’ll begin to appreciate the Mothers of Preschoolers group soon enough.”
Rachael didn’t know exactly what that was supposed to imply, but she did understand the original message - she was receiving “prayer cover” from the church’s young moms group who called themselves MOPS. How nice of them to be holding her up in prayer. She was doing God’s work as a public official, they were her supporters. Rachael basked in feeling of being so important that the young minister’s wife, so busy with her own small children, was concerned about what went on at City Hall.
Just then, the toddler, dressed in a miniature version of the dress her mother was wearing, started tugging and whining at the young mom who gently said, “Hold still, Mary Martha; Mommy’s not done.” Looking up again, she told Rachael, “I have something exciting to share with you.” Her eyes were twinkling.“In my private prayer time this morning – the wee hours of the morning– God told me He is going to do a marvelous work in you, Rachael Saplin!”
Rachael was used to religious talk, she was raised with her mother spouting the lingo and she now used it around her own house. So Tad and the kids were unfazed by the message that might sound stranger to a secular person. Though they needed to find seats in the rapidly filling sanctuary, the Saplins all held back to let the minister’s partner finish her God-speak to Rachael.
The woman was in no hurry. Not yet. She smiled at the Saplin children one at a time starting with Maple, then Cristol, then Field. When she returned her gaze to Rachael and Tad she said, “Such a lovely family. Despise not God’s gifts!”
Now, that phrase was odd. What did that mean? Tad’s eyes widened. Rachael’s face froze. Despise? Is this criticism? Rachael searched for an appropriate response. Clueless as to what Mrs. Youth Minister was talking about, she followed a strategy that had become almost second nature: compliment the other person and yourself at the same time; feign humility while taking credit. “I am just a servant of God. And you all have servant’s hearts too, prayin’ so hard and all. It seems your prayers surely are powerful, ‘cause I’m seein’ the Hand of God movin’ and, oh, yeah, through Him, I’m cleanin’ up the town! Yup, yup, you and the other moms…mops…whatever… are tearin’ down the forces of evil, certainly, of course, and also it is for sure because of your prayer power fightin’ those unseen demons that God is moving in Azzolla! You betcha!”
She winked, startling the other woman who took a step back, dragging her toddler with her.
“Well, got to find some seats.” She began pushing Cristol and Field toward the sanctuary. “Do keep holdin’ me up in prayer in your nice little meetings” she said. Then, Rachael reached over and hugged the woman lightly.
The minister’s wife beamed. Rachael had a gift for making people feel she genuinely cared about them, and in a shallow way, she really did. Which is why she added yet another compliment by commenting on the mother-daughter set of Little House on the Prairie dresses the woman had obviously made for the occasion.
Mayor Saplin laid her hand on the other woman’s hand (the one not holding a Bible), and lied. “Such darling dresses! Mary Martha looks so cute today,” she smiled at the child. “Love the flowered print – isn’t that called calico? Where’d you get them?” She moved her hand to Cristol’s shoulder, “I’d love to get one for Cristol.”
Cristol, with heavy exaggeration, gagged and rolled her eyes at her brother. Field returned the look.
The adults ignored the children’s rudeness, but Rachael blanched when the twenty-year old mother of two said, “You will have to repent before your daughter can wear anything like this.” Each word drenched with sanctimony, she continued, “Unlike you, I know I am in God’s grace. My husband and children are my priorities, they mean more to me than worldly possessions and I am not seduced by power and fame.” A rosy color began to rise in Rachael’s cheeks as the boasting and rebuking continued.“ I made these dresses using God given talents. He blessed me with the ability to sew because I am obedient to His will. I strive to be a Proverbs 31 woman. I never had a lesson, but I can sew beautiful dresses like these because His spirit guides me.”
The self-declared saint bent down and pulled Mary Martha onto her other hip. When she stood and adjusted the plump little legs to encircle her waist the girl’s ankle-length skirt gathered high, revealing that the child was not yet out of diapers. The Proverbs 31 woman smiled again and chirped, “Praise the Lord. He’s going to do a work in you Rachael Saplin. I’ll save a place for you on Tuesday mornings!”
“Tuesdays?” Rachael croaked.
“Tuesday’s at ten a.m. That’s when us MOPs have fellowship. God said you will be joining us. Oh, bring the baby. We hire a babysitter and split the cost. The more of us, the cheaper it is.”
Giving Rachael a Judas-like peck on the cheek, the minister’s wife wished them all a “Happy Resurrection Day!” and hustled away.
Under her breath, Rachael hissed to Tad, “She’s nuts. A genuine fruit loop. What does she think? I’m not gonna quit a job I was elected to do to stay home and sew stupid dresses. How lame.”
Tad, distracted, barely heard her. He was watching the woman work her way through the crowd, marveling that she could balance unequal, wriggling loads on her hips, lug a purse, a diaper bag and a very large Bible, all the while wearing two inch heels and a dress so long that it occasionally became wrapped around her calves.
Rachael followed his eyes, “Come on,” she snapped. “I want a seat near the front where everyone can see we got here today. I’m not doin’ this for naught.”
At the last second, Tad looked back and saw the Proverbs 31 woman, kids still on her hips, exchanging an awkward hug with someone who looked a lot like the way he remembered June Cleaver. “Of course you can borrow the pattern!” one of them said.
At Easter dinner with the Heat clan that afternoon, Betty had hardly finished saying grace when Rachael shared the story of the “snotty woman” who made the “silly dresses” and had the “whiney kid” attached to her “hillbilly skirt.” Everyone got a good laugh, and Rachael was temporarily mollified. When she brought it up again in the car on the way home, however, Tad knew the rebuke from a low level clergy person’s spouse meant much more than she was letting on.
After that, Rachael was highly sensitive about her image as a mother; the slightest perceived criticism would make her crazy.
Tad recognized all the signs in the Jerrie Strauss episode, and he drew from past experience to handle the crisis at hand. Reassuring his wife of her superiority, generic platitudes were augmented with some cliché put downs of hairdressers to fit the meltdown at hand.
Rachael took the bait. Calming down, she said catty things about Jerrie Strauss’ outdated clothing, “last year’s colors, last year’s length,” and her over bleached tresses worn “too long for almost forty.” (The age was a dig, too. Rachael knew Jerrie was the same as she was - in her early thirties.)
Tad and Rachael decided they had nothing in common with this trailer park family other than Wrangler and Cristol having the same teacher. “It’s a very weak connection,” Rachael said.
“Thank God,” he said.
“Amen,” Rachael said.
Able to finally hang up, Tad rewarded himself for showing restraint by getting a couple of beers from his secret stash (Rachael, the Christian, didn’t approve of drinking). He took them in the house to find something to go with them that could pass for lunch.
Rachael had also decided to reward herself. She called it a day, and headed home.