Covered Wagon Woman


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Steve returns with the little Greek chorus, enchiladas, the charger for my cell phone and added minutes, among other things. He asks me to leave the phone on so he can contact me. I know little of cell phones and have resolutely chosen not to learn but now circumstances have changed: I will learn to use the cell phone. The little Greek chorus picks up a cutting board and asks what it is; Steve upturns a basket, puts the cutting board on top of it, and says “It’s a table.” We make a couple more tables from cardboard boxes, one set square and the other flattened and laid on top of it.

Taking Steve’s comment about a cabin in the woods, I begin to develop a model for living: covered wagon woman. If HUD, the Board of Health and Adult Protective Services came in, they would not find my lifestyle to be acceptable but if any of my female ancestors, stretching back three hundred years in this country, came in then they would understand.

Advertising has created a television commercial in which elderly people with diabetes squeal and complain about the terrible pain of doing finger sticks. Really? It is a feckin’ FINGER STICK, people, not a limb amputation. How do you think women made the trek west in covered wagons? In the first place, they walked. Wood and iron wagon wheels, no springs on the wagon, at best a rutted dirt track to drive on—it was too bumpy to ride.

At end of day the men circled the wagons, not to protect against hostile Indians—that was a Hollywood creation—but to form a paddock for the domestic animals that were being herded west. The cook stove would be off-loaded—if there was wood to be found for burning—and Mama would cook supper with whatever she had, hoping that there was water in the area. They would sleep on the ground under the stars, or under the wagon if it was raining, then wake before dawn to cook breakfast, reload the wagon and set out on the one to ten miles that they would travel each day.

One woman, traveling alone with an old man, wrote in her diary about falling behind the wagon train. Stopping for the night, expecting the old man to die before dawn, sitting up on a starless night with wolves circling her camp. And in 2013 we are supposed to be afraid of A FINGER STICK? Ferchrissake.

I am an urban pioneer woman. After months of being kept bedridden by the hospital, and the nursing home that illegally took away my wheelchair, now I will get out of bed and walk. I make coffee. I thaw homemade vegetable soup from the freezer. I take it downstairs to the Community Room to eat in a place where my neighbors gather. Jacquie asks her aide to bring me a pillow and pillow case direct from the clothes dryer. I call my young friend MaryKate, home for the holidays, and inquire if she can come help me. She asks if I need her to bring anything and I say no, just her willing hands.

During the night I have an acute attack of diarrhea and can’t make it to the bathroom in time. I deeply long for the call bell and Theresa or Bob coming to get me cleaned up and back in bed, but there is no call bell, there are no aides or nurses, so I begin the laborious and necessary clean-up. My legs are trembling with weakness. Half an hour into the process, I have an episode of rectal bleeding. I have toilet paper and hot water but no washcloth or soap. I am standing, stooping, twisting and assuming positions that I have not held in many months. The nursing home and hospital found it expedient to keep me in bed. Now, of necessity—I am alone with my covered wagon in the dark of night—I do what needs to be done, ever mindful of my lower back, my history of twisted sacroiliac, and the certainty that if I fall then I will be killed and eaten by wolves before morning.

After an hour, I have cleaned up to the best of my ability and gone back to bed. I sit in the dark, looking out the window. Streetlights sparkle among the buildings and trees that climb up the hill to the park, where leafless trees parade across the horizon. The top two-thirds of the window frame the cold night sky. I sit there a long time before I recognize what I am feeling: pride. I took care of myself.

I sleep peacefully.

In the morning, I call MaryKate and ask if her mother would loan me a towel and washcloth. MaryKate arrives with towels, washcloths, soap, shampoo, deodorant, frozen dinners and a marble cake. She washes dishes while we talk. Then we talk while she helps me with a shower. Having a very small water heater, the water turns to ice before we’re done. (And if, on your covered wagon journey, you have a choice of ice water or no bath, which do you choose? And how clean was clean in 1840?)

I haven’t bathed in about a week, and have been wearing the same clothes continuously for four days and nights. It is a blessing to be, relatively, clean again. As we continue to talk, MaryKate plucks up the sheets that have been on the floor for eight months and makes the bed. This is the history of womanhood: as we have worked together, we have talked. And is a certain young man suitable for MaryKate, and what heart care does she need while she decides? This is woman’s work: taking care.

About annecwoodlen

I am a tenth generation American, descended from a family that has been working a farm that was deeded to us by William Penn. The country has changed around us but we have held true. I stand in my grandmother’s kitchen, look down the valley to her brother’s farm and see my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Hannah standing on the porch. She is holding the baby, surrounded by four other children, and saying goodbye to her husband and oldest son who are going off to fight in the Revolutionary War. The war is twenty miles away and her husband will die fighting. We are not the Daughters of the American Revolution; we were its mothers. My father, Milton C. Woodlen, got his doctorate from Temple University in the 1940’s when—in his words—“a doctorate still meant something.” He became an education professor at West Chester State Teachers College, where my mother, Elizabeth Hope Copeland, had graduated. My mother raised four girls and one boy, of which I am the middle child. My parents are deceased and my siblings are estranged. My fiancé, Robert H. Dobrow, was a fighter pilot in the Marine Corps. In 1974, his plane crashed, his parachute did not open, and we buried him in a cemetery on Long Island. I could say a great deal about him, or nothing; there is no middle ground. I have loved other men; Bob was my soul mate. The single greatest determinate of who I am and what my life has been is that I inherited my father’s gene for bipolar disorder, type II. Associated with all bipolar disorders is executive dysfunction, a learning disability that interferes with the ability to sort and organize. Despite an I.Q. of 139, I failed twelve subjects and got expelled from high school and prep school. I attended Syracuse University and Onondaga Community College and got an associate’s degree after twenty-five years. I am nothing if not tenacious. Gifted with intelligence, constrained by disability, and compromised by depression, my employment was limited to entry level jobs. Being female in the 1960’s meant that I did office work—billing at the university library, calling out telegrams at Western Union, and filing papers at a law firm. During one decade, I worked at about a hundred different places as a temporary secretary. I worked for hospitals, banks, manufacturers and others, including the county government. I quit the District Attorney’s Office to manage a gas station; it was more honest work. After Bob’s death, I started taking antidepressants. Following doctor’s orders, I took them every day for twenty-six years. During that time, I attempted%2
This entry was posted in Housing, Independence, Poverty, Power, Powerlessness, Values and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Covered Wagon Woman

  1. Sue Schuh says:

    Anne – you are an incredible writer! Welcome home… Sue Schuh

    • annecwoodlen says:

      Thanks, Sue. As a result of trying to reclaim the bed that the judge says belongs to me, the Iroquois has now said that if either Steve or I appear on the premises then they will call the police. LOL!

  2. dee says:

    O so lovely

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