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The Sweetheart Season

A limestone rainbow hung over the gate to Margaret Mill. The topmost section of the arch was ornamented with a crown of wheat. Beneath this crown, carved in an arc, was a motto in Latin. "Spinning straw into gold" was the official translation. And a date: 1898. The date, the crown, and the motto were only visible while passing under the rainbow on the way into the mill. On the way out the limestone was blank.

My mother showed me this one day when I was a very small girl. We took our bikes and a fried chicken lunch from my great-grandfather's house to the falls. It was a day in a dream, cloudless and full of light. My mother wore denim shorts and hiking boots. We stopped to rest at the mill gate. White and purple morning glories coiled about the wrought iron, and a flock of invisible birds sat among the flowers. I remember this because my mother pointed out to me how each bird was calling only its one or two repeated notes, but how, taken as a whole, they made a melody.

A car passed us on its way out of the mill. A woman leaned from the window. "You're Irini Doyle, aren't you?" she said to my mother.

"I used to be."

"I recognized you right off. You had a great arm." She turned to me. "She had a great arm, kid," she said. She drove on through. Inside the mill I was given a tiny metal airplane. My mother identified it as a P-38. Under ordinary circumstances I would have had to eat an entire box of cereal to get it.

The Date

Eighteen ninety-eight was the year Henry Collins fled his Bostonian creditors and the shock of his mother's death to hide in the tiny community of Magrit. In 1898 he walked the stony path behind Magrit Falls and put a curtain of water between himself and his past. He was not a local; he couldn't know that in 1882 Miss Opal May had thrown herself over the falls on the day of her own wedding, all dressed in white, and her veil had been found more than five miles downstream with two fish netted inside it, and that Jeb Tarken had eaten one of the fish and from that day forward suffered from nightmares of suffocation that startled him awake, making him clutch the blankets and gasp for air. But Henry did sense that the spot was touched by some longstanding sorrow.

It suited his mood. The sound of the falls was a steady scream, obliterating all other sound. The space behind the water was cold and dark. Henry had forgotten how hot and bright the day was. When he emerged on the other side of the falls, he was momentarily blinded by the glare. It was in that moment, deafened by noise and blinded by light, that he was visited by a phantom. The hallucination was entirely aromatic. Henry Collins, in a wilderness of savage water, a man as thoroughly alone as any man has ever been, strongly and unmistakably smelled bread baking.

Magrit was too far north to be wheat country and the closest area to the south that might have served was already seriously over-wheated. But an omen is an omen. Less than a year later Margaret Mill stood just downstream from the spot where Henry had first smelled it. He had named the mill for the falls and for his mother.

The Crown

The mill was the first of Henry's projects to prosper. It would remain the basis of his fortune for the rest of his life. In an age when the world seemed to be made for the sole purpose of providing room to vigorous and propertied men, men with that extra little bit of go and the capital to feed it, Henry Collins found himself, at last, in the breakfast cereal business.

This was a fortuitous fit. It combined his love of science with his love of conquest with his love of invention with his love of philosophy with his love of money. Breakfast cereal was the wilderness, first tamed, and then eaten. It was family, it was America, it was a wholesome and American alternative to grain's other uses, a point that Henry made clear in his 1906 pamphlet, Barley, the Janus-Faced Seed.

During his long career Henry made several contributions to milling in general and to the breakfast cereal field in particular. He introduced the concept of the Scientific Kitchen; he created Maggie Collins, a lady in a red-checkered apron who represented the Kitchen. Maggie authored a line of cookbooks, then branched out into etiquette manuals, and by the 1940's was a magazine columnist, combining household tips with family counseling. Three letters taken from an issue of the magazine in the early forties illustrate the range of concerns on which Maggie was considered expert:

Dear Maggie,

No one in my family will eat the end pieces of a loaf of bread. I have always eaten them myself, because I believe waste is wicked, particularly when so many in Europe are going without, but I don't really like them either and eating them makes me feel put upon. Any suggestions?


Dear Maggie,

Every time I pick up a magazine I am told how much easier the American housewife's life is in these modern times. If this is true, then why are we still mixing the coloring into our oleo by hand? Can't somebody market yellow oleo? How hard can this be? Does it take a rocket scientist?


Dear Maggie,

I was recently at a dinner party where Jews were discussed. I had no wish to be rude, neither did I wish to listen to the conversation. What should I have done? Do you think we will ever see an end to intolerance?

Maggie herself was a fiction--over the years a variety of men and women at the mill wrote under her name, which explained the unevenness of her marital advice--but in a poll taken in 1945, she was named the most admired woman in America. She was not eclipsed until the late forties, when her star set quite suddenly as Eleanor Roosevelt's continued to rise.

In the 1940's, well past the age of retirement, Henry invented Sweetwheats, America's first puffed and sugar-coated cereal. According to the ad campaign, the puffing resulted when the germ of the wheat was forced through the barrel of a special cereal gun on which Henry held the patent. In fact, the gun had been abandoned when an early prototype exploded, leaving Henry, who was operating the gun at the time, with the permanent sensation of hearing bells ring, a condition he gamely described as festive. The introductory campaign continued with a ten-gun salute in ten targeted cities in the Midwest, although the equipment involved in the process now bore a closer relationship to today's popcorn popper.

The crown in the limestone was made out of wheat, but was shaped like the laurel wreath.

The Motto

As a young woman my mother worked at Margaret Mill in the Scientific Kitchen. Her father had worked there as well, as the staff chemist. My mother left the mill and the town of Magrit sometime before I was born. We rarely went back and my mother was vaguely unhappy whenever we did--things were wrong somehow, things were not as she remembered them, this was not Magrit. Magrit turned out to be a hard place to find again.

But the motto continued to have a particular importance in our family. It was quoted often as I was growing up and always in reference to me.

By way of shorthand my mother would call me a spinner. This was a polite way of saying I told whopping lies. My mother always did this, always put the best face on everything, filtering the world through her own generous and charitable spirit. This was not lying, not the way that I did, although the results were often far from truthful. "I'm just fine. You go and have a nice dinner" were the last words she ever said to me.

She was a good parent for the kind of kid I was. Another mother might have believed, and might even have convinced me, that I was untrustworthy, tricky, or evasive. In fact, I was all these things. But I was driven primarily by a love of drama. My mother always made it seem like a gift.

She hardly believed in evil at all. When confronted with undeniable evidence of malice or cruelty, her fall-back position was that it would be punished. She was not a religious person; she was not talking about the afterlife. "I wouldn't have his nights for anything," my mother would say sadly. Or "I wouldn't want to dream her dreams."

The story I want to tell now is a story my mother told to me. It takes place in a time before I was born, a time I must work to imagine. When my mother told it to me, it was a very short story. I have been forced to compensate not only for her gentle outlook, but also for her spare narration.

You would do well therefore to keep always in mind that this is a story told by two liars. It is possible, our fictional impulses being so opposite, that we may arrive together at something clear-eyed and straightforward, the way two negative numbers multiplied together produce a positive value. If this happens it will be by accident. It is not my intention. I will go so far as to say I would consider it a disappointment.

Chapter One

In 1942, with much ceremony and sentiment, a new portrait of Maggie Collins was hung in the entryway to Margaret Mill. The Margaret Mill Story, a thin pamphlet given out to mill visitors all through the forties, identified the artist as Ada Collins, Henry's second and final wife. The portrait was an anniversary present to Henry, done between the wars. It differed from every other depiction of Maggie in two obvious ways: it was the only portrait in which she was not wearing an apron but was instead in evening wear, and it was the only portrait done entirely in the medium of breakfast cereals. It was the highlight of the Margaret Mill tour. The skin tones Ada coaxed out of flakes and farina were nothing short of remarkable. Henry in the flesh had never looked so lifelike.

Page 2 of the Margaret Mill pamphlet contained a vaguely erotic look at wheat. The individual grain was described as hairy at the apex, with a small embryo and a large development of endosperm. A sample grain was pictured in cross-section, in the very act of germination. There was also a list of wheat pests, illustrated by a pen-and-ink drawing of the adult chinch bug with an ambitious, predatory look on its face. The list ended with the fungal killer, stinking smut. The pamphlet's forgotten author achieved an astounding degree of drama, given the inherent limitations of the subject matter; the title of this section was "Wheat!"

Sometime in the early forties, Henry iced the portrait of Maggie over with shellac in an effort to preserve it against a sudden infestation of chinch bugs or stinking smut. Maggie's colors suffered in the process and the portrait took on the yellowish tones of an old photograph. This had its own charm, but was not the effect intended by the artist. It irritated Ada whenever she saw it and she saw it until the late forties, when Maggie had her troubles, and the portrait was quietly removed from the mill and stored behind Collins House, in the potting shed.

The work was rediscovered in 1982, intact, thanks to its coat of varnish. At this time it was reinterpreted as a radical statement on the role of women and rehung in a show in Chicago whose theme was the kitchen, next to a recent painting of an oven through whose glass door a well-groomed woman's head could be seen, cheerfully roasting. But this is the happy end of Maggie's story.

The beginning is in 1947, when the portrait still hung in the mill. This is the year that Irini Doyle graduated from high school and took a job in the Scientific Kitchen. Of course, a lot of women all over the country were going back to the kitchen after the war, but for Irini it was a promotion.

During World War I the troops had been fed primarily on cereal grains, by World War II these had been demoted in nutritional importance in favor of meat and dairy. Margaret Mill spent the early days of the war producing breakfast cereal for the troops, but it was a devalued effort that could be accomplished by the almost entirely female staff. In 1943, with manpower and gasoline both in short supply, the milling and the production of cereal were moved south. By the end of the war, only the Scientific Kitchen part of the operation, only Maggie's part, remained in Magrit, where the emphasis was on R and B--research and baking. Irini was assigned to the B team.

Later Irini would become my mother, but in 1947, she was only nineteen and this is not my story in any other way except the largest possible one, that I am the person telling it. You must keep in mind that I've not been nineteen myself for many years now. If, from time to time, a more cynical, more fatigued tone creeps into my mother's teenaged voice, you'll know I've slipped up, and that's me, not her. She's the mother and I'm the daughter, but she is young and I am not; this is one of those time-travel paradoxes and we just all have to deal with it.

Irini Doyle's great arm was the right one. It was larger than her left. This is true of most right-handed people, but in Irini's case the difference was pronounced. She attributed this to her stint in the Scientific Kitchen. Nineteen forty-seven was, she always told me, a whale of a good time. The fighting was over, the air-raid drills were over, rationing was over. "You can't imagine what VE Day felt like," she said to me, more than once, and it's quite true that I can't. And that I resent this, just a bit.

In 1947 Magrit was a world whose every aspect was touched, however lightly, by victory. They had all been hearing about victory for so long--there was the victory garden, the victory coat, the victory penny, the victory salute, Victory cigarettes, and Elizabeth Arden's Victory-Red lipsticks. But this was the real deal, the capital V with the thumbs pointing out and the arms like wings, not the later, unhappy, close to the body, sixties version. The simplest, most ordinary tasks--mowing the lawn, folding the laundry, dusting the sideboards--took on a temporary luminescence.

These people had just fought and won a war. Everything they later learned about this war affirmed the necessity of it. Perhaps uniquely in the history of American warfare, it was a war with popular support. But even beyond that, as it was performed on the radio and sent home in dispatches, it was a war that seemed to provide an entire generation with evidence of their essential goodness, their innocence, their generosity. It seems to have been a war waged in an almost total absence of doubt. To us today, of course, this might as well be fairyland. The people who raised us are no more like us than the fairies are.

Irini was nineteen years old, and even though she'd lived through a whole war, nothing yet had hurt her enough to leave a mark. This makes her even harder to imagine.

She had dark hair that changed color with the seasons. In the fall it had a red tint, in the summer, gold. her eyes were brown. She accented her full lower lip with dark lipsticks, curled her hair with home permanents, and wore it fastened back with bobby pins. She made herself earrings by attaching golden sequins to her lobes with clear fingernail polish. She padded her shoulders, tweezed her eyebrows. She wore stockings with a seam down the back, when she could get them, and made the seam line with eyebrow pencil on her bare leg when she couldn't. She used a peppermint-scented soap, so she always smelled of peppermint, overlaid with whatever other spices they might have been using that day in the Kitchen; some days peppermint and thyme, some days peppermint and cinnamon. And after several months in the Scientific Kitchen, the muscles of her right arm were so enlarged that once, just outside a Chicago trade fair, a sculptor begged her to model for him, just her arm, for a Winged Victory. "Your arm is like something by Michelangelo," he told her. "Your arm could be in the Sistine Chapel." At her peak she could mix fourteen loaves in a single morning, best record in the Kitchen by three.

The Scientific Kitchen was a sea of stainless-steel sinks and spotless white counters. It smelled of yeast and caramelized sugar and was kept always at the perfect temperature for growing bread--warm. Its purpose was to see that no woman, whatever her lack of talent, judgment, or experience, would ever again suffer the humiliation of a failed meal. The Kitchen combined the technology of the home with the procedures of the laboratory. Ingredients were measured with pharmaceutical accuracy. Temperatures were checked with scientific precision. Results were noted in lab books and shared in weekly meetings.

The linkage of housework to science was Henry Collins's particular pet. In the collective mind of Margaret Mill, the typical housewife was intelligent, methodical and forward-looking. The Platonic idea of housewife was Maggie Collins, a tidy, indefatigable, even-tempered, ageless woman with a working knowledge of the chemical properties of gluten, a penchant for standardized weights and measures, and a proselytizing impulse when it came to the seven basic food groups. She dressed in an apron rather than a lab coat; she relied on measuring spoons rather than graduated cylinders; but she shared the scientist's obsession with reliable, predictable results and she might have made pipettes an ordinary everyday kitchen item if they hadn't been so hard to clean.

She was as interested in innovation as she was in codification. During the war she was magnificent. Food shortages brought out her creative side. She published a meatless spaghetti recipe using half a pound of pureed breakfast cereal rolled into balls and browned quickly in hot grease, and also a four-part piece on raising rabbits in the home. "Contrary to popular belief, they can be housebroken," she wrote. And suggested, "After you've eaten them, a lovely coat can be made of the pelts." She created "flurkey," a sort of wartime turkey dinner with stuffing and potatoes and relishes--with everything, in fact, except the turkey itself.

"Don't talk to me about the French," Henry Collins sometimes said, as if anyone in Magrit was likely to. "Don't talk to me about the genius of the male chef. There's no one so willing to take a chance on a spice she's never heard of than our Maggie Collins. She was using saffron in the thirties."

Henry's retirement years coincided with the shrinking activities of the Magrit part of the mill, but he continued to take an interest in the Kitchen. He didn't come in often. He would get absorbed in something else, space travel or bird migrations, but then he would suddenly be back, showing up at the odd moment, wandering through, and taking in deep breaths of yeast. A hand-painted sign was hung over one of the sinks as guidance and inspiration to his employees. "What would Maggie say?" it asked enigmatically.

"He's in love with her," Fanny May warned Irini when she first started in the Kitchen. Fanny ran the Kitchen. She was ten years older and built to a much larger scale than Irini. There was enough difference in their size to make them look incongruous together, a dachshund and a shepherd, a canary and an emu.

The Mays were an old Magrit family, descended not through but around the same Opal May who went over the falls rather than marry. Their offspring tended toward the female. Fanny was particularly female. In fact, she was a dish.

Fanny showed Irini a blue ceramic cookie jar on the counter in a corner. "If you say out loud that Maggie isn't real, and Mr. Henry hears you say it, you have to pay a fine. You have to put money in the cookie jar. And then Maggie gets to spend the money on something she really wants."

This would be a practical item. Maggie had lived through the Depression.

The blue cookie jar was in the shape of a grinning pig whose head came off. Irini looked inside. She saw seventy-six cents--three quarters and one zinc penny. "It's not the problem it once was," Fanny added. She was referring to Henry Collins's reduced hearing.

In 1947, people believed that no two snowflakes were alike. Current research has thrown this into doubt, but holds it to be true for ears instead. You'll be surprised, I bet, to hear that even identical twins do not have identical ears. But I digress.

Henry's ears were quite large, with lobes as big as thumbprints. From time to time he would stick a finger into the hole and vibrate it alarmingly. "His brain itches," his wife, Ada, offered as explanation. It was fondly said. They all knew that Henry had a busy brain.

Fortunately his ears did not stick out, but were nicely folded back. In shape they resembled the leaves of an exotic tropical. But they were all show. By this time Henry had persuaded himself that his hearing loss was an actual asset, that it gave him an additional cunning, making him that much harder to deceive.

We are often told to value our eyes over our ears--seeing is believing and don't believe everything you hear, and one picture is worth a thousand words--but these aphorisms are only words themselves and therefore testify against their own validity. In fact, it is as easy to show a lie as to tell one and maybe easier. Henry's own large and capable-looking ears were a case in point.

One evening in early April Irini's father asked Cindy May, Magrit's telephone operator and Fanny May's littlest sister, to call her. "Your pop wants you at Bumps," Cindy May said. "Again. He says you're his little love and it won't take but a minute." Bumps was her father's most frequent location, a bar within easy walking distance from home.

"How far along is he?" Irini asked.

"Somewhere between pensive and patriotic."

Irini's father's patriotic stage was usually short-lived. Uniquely in Magrit he had had difficulties with the war. Too old to serve, and too honest to pretend he minded, Irini's father was uncomfortable with the national spirit of elevated morality. He found the war as reported at home preposterously glossy. "Just because the Nazis were bad, that doesn't automatically make everything we did good," he might suggest when no one had said that it did.

Or he might want to talk about the bomb. "The human race is hanging by a thread," he would shout, not without a certain relish. He had a superior tone, as if he were the only one in Magrit who was concerned, when Maggie Collins herself had addressed the issue in a column published back in 1946. "Over and above all else you do, the prevention of atomic war is the thought you should wake up to, go to sleep with, and carry with you all day," Maggie had written, and you couldn't get much more concerned than that.

But let's be fair. The Japanese military had behaved despicably at Pearl Harbor and even worse throughout Asia. And the bomb had ended the war. The Hiroshima maidens would come to the United States for the best plastic surgery the world could offer, all bills to be paid by Uncle Sam. American lives had been saved. In fact you could argue, as Vannevar Bush of the Carnegie Institute had already argued, that Japanese lives had been saved as well. Without the bomb, Bush pointed out, Japan might well have faced its eventual defeat with a nationwide orgy of ritual suicide.

And then there was the Atomic Energy Commission, already predicting a future of atom-powered cars, cheap and abundant food, plenty of leisure time for all, and no more wars, ever, as the new critter, Mr. Atom, worked his magic. Irini's father was stubbornly refusing to see the bright side. This was so like him.

Fortunately, his drinking gave Magrit a way to be forgiving. "It's just the liquor talking," someone would say, buying him another, pushing him quickly out the back of his probing stage and into his pain-free.

Soon after this, he would begin to sing. "Lili Marlene," perhaps, if he was nostalgic, or his personal favorite, "Take a Leg from Any Old Table," if he was playful. Songs in which love was hopeless or had gone bad and you either died of it or had expected it to turn out this way all along.

And yet, from his mother to his wife, whom he'd married late, to his daughter, his own life was rich in women who loved him.

Irini put on a heavy coat, blue with leather buttons, and black knitted gloves. Crusts of tired snow lay on the grass along the streets. There were no sidewalks in Magrit except for those in the two blocks constituting the downtown. There the walks were the kind that glitter. "Step lightly. You're walking on diamonds, Irini," her father said once and for many years she took this literally.

The day was just past sunset, still light out but extremely cold. Sometimes, but not often, April was spring. This year it was the dead end of winter. There had been snow that very morning, big flakes but not many, so they only stuck in the hollows and the shaded sides of trees where there was already snow to hold them. They had performed the kind of spring cleaning of which Maggie Collins does not approve. Not a real cleaning, nothing that involved muscle. Just a new clean layer over the soiled old one, the way you sweep dirt under the rug, cover a stained tablecloth with a fresh.

This was not a pretty effect, merely a tidy one. The snow was as dry as Styrofoam. The grass on the hills was the color of straw, tall but dead and brittle. Even the evergreens were gray. In contrast, the birches were more beautiful than ever, with their thin, elegant trunks and the white of their bare branches lacing against the evening sky.

It was hot inside Bumps. Her father was seated at the bar, talking animatedly to a man she didn't know. With one hand he gestured to Norma Baldish, the Bumps evening bartender. With the other hand he drank. "Norma's great-grandmother once subdued a violent lumberjack with nothing but a potato masher. Just drew it, never even had to mash with it," he was saying. "In this very bar. Isn't that so, Norma?" Her father was a poetic, sentimental man, a wonderful storyteller who often moved himself to tears.

Behind the bar was a sheet of polished brass, pressed with a pattern of flowers. It was a piece of the original bar, saved by the original Baldish family from the fire of aught-five. Irini's father saw her approaching in it, warped and repeated in the petals, a daisy with eight Irini faces, all growing large as they headed his way.

"Irini!" He took a gulp and spun around on the bar stool. He didn't look like a corporate chemist. He had the thin, lupine, four-o'clock-shadowy look of a partisan. "What a delightful and totally unexpected treat. What a surprise! This is Thomas Holcrow." Her father gestured to his drinking partner. "He's from Los Angeles. He plans the train schedules. Can you imagine how methodical the man must be? So many people depending on him. Can you imagine? Thomas, this is my daughter, Irini."

Irini attempted without success to smooth her father's hair, still rumpled from the winter cap that now covered one knee. Holcrow watched her with an unsteady gaze. She stood five foot three and weighed 105 pounds. The heavy coat probably made her look even smaller.

"You're on," Holcrow told her father.

Her father had bet his bar bill Irini could beat Holcrow arm wrestling. Irini took off her coat, but not her gloves. Holcrow's breath was wet and inflammable. His hand was much bigger than hers and even through the gloves she could feel how warm it was. The match lasted less than a minute. "Holy mackerel," he said as he went down for the count.

"Isn't she something? A face like Maureen O'Hara and an arm like Jack Dempsey." Her father's spirits were unbearably high. "Cheer up, Holcrow," he said. "I'll buy you a drink." To Norma Baldish he said, "Two beers." To Irini, "You run along home now. This is no place for an impressionable young girl. Does your father know where you are?" To Norma, "Just put them on my tab."

He did not come home for supper that night. Just before midnight she woke to the sound of his voice. "I will not wake my daughter," he was shouting. "Not for anything." He stood on their front step and she could hear him through the window just as if he were in the room with her.

Holcrow had followed her father home and was demanding a rematch. Irini inferred this; she could not hear Holcrow at all. "She is not some sideshow exhibition. She is a growing girl." Her father's voice was crisp with indignation. "Go ahead. Break the window. Break down the door! I'll never get her up. She has work in the morning!"

Irini heard the sound of smashing glass. Two minutes later her father knocked on her bedroom door. The knock was ever so soft, a knock designed to bother her as little as possible. "Irini, can you help me? I seem to have cut myself."

Irini put on her bathrobe. "Did Mr. Holcrow break our window?"

"No. I dropped my bottle."

Irini went to look out the front door.

"He's gone," her father said. "He had an engagement. Just as well. What a sore loser. I swear, it almost makes a man afraid to ride the trains." Her father held out his hand. He had cut across the tips of two fingers and was bleeding. "No need to put anything nasty on it. Some of the whiskey splashed over it on the way out of the bottle. It's as clean as can be."

Irini went to the medicine cabinet for the iodine. Her father closed his eyes. "I'm just a little sorry everyone at Bumps saw you win," he said. "I could have lined up the matches if I'd thought it through more. It was just a happy inspiration and I didn't think it through. You were a trump, though. You were beautiful. Two seconds and you had him pinned. Did you hear that little squealing sound he made? If I'd thought it through more I would have told you to make it look more difficult. Ouch, Irini! Ouch, my love!"

Maggie Collins writes: "No open wound, however small, can be considered trivial. Bacteria gather at the site and begin to enter the body immediately. The quick use of an antiseptic is the first priority."

Maggie Collins writes: "Every girl must learn early not to compete in sporting events with men. It is not the possibility that she might lose that must be avoided. It is the very real possibility that she might win."

"No good ever came to me from arm wrestling men," my mother always told me, and these are the words I've tried to live by.

Excerpted from The Sweetheart Season © Copyright 2004 by Karen Joy Fowler. Reprinted with permission by Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Sweetheart Season
by by Karen Joy Fowler

  • paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0345416422
  • ISBN-13: 9780345416421