"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, August 27, 2015

A Discombobulated Life–How Making No Sense At All Can Turn Out Well In The End

Velva Plane grew up on a farm in a small town in Iowa about 100 miles from Ames.  It was not very different from any other rural community on the Great Plains – a few more chickens than the Battles and fewer milk cows that the Taters, but the deep well, the barn, the tractors, and the haystacks made it familiar, recognizable, and very much home.                  



Velva was an imaginative, creative little girl, and after her chores were done after school she made little slides for the frogs by the pond behind the house, pulled the wings off fireflies and stuck their pulsating bodies on her wrists to make glowing necklaces, and made dolls out of straw, old calico, buttons, and sewing needles.

She was a good girl who always obeyed her parents, prayed piously at church every Sunday, and was one of the best pupils in her class.  It was only after her tenth birthday that she began to change.  She was as respectful and loving as she had always been, played quietly by herself in the barn and in the fields, and continued to do well in school; but she had become strangely and surprisingly ‘discombobulated’, the word her mother used to describe her habit of mixing things up. 

Image result for image rural iowa church


Thank God she still knew right from wrong, but she would prattle on about insignificant events as though they were the most important things in the world.  She couldn’t stop talking about the new stop signs that had been posted on Court and Main Streets in town.  London, Iowa had been too small for any stop signs or traffic lights, and Velva thought it just wonderful that her hometown was growing up.  For weeks that was all that she could talk about. She told of how Mr. Handley and Mrs. Jones had waited a full minute politely waving each other on; or how the bread truck had not stopped and nearly hit Pastor Lickens.

She talked about the stop signs to all the neighbors, her teachers, and her schoolmates.  She remembered who had stopped, who had run the sign, how many trucks had squealed their brakes, and which bicyclists stopped and which continued on through.

She told anyone who would listen about the pies at the county fair, the funny new dress that Belinda Fall had worn to church - the exact same one that Mrs. Acres had worn to the swearing in of the sheriff in June – and the visits of the Peppers’ second cousins.

In short, she had become a repository for all the minor, insignificant happenings in the town, and recounted them eagerly every chance she could get.  She never noticed that her listeners always looked at the bell tower, or adjusted their trousers, or watched the swallows nesting in the church belfry.  She had no idea that her collection of incidental, trifling stories held no interest whatsoever for anyone but her.

Image result for images 50s midwest county fairs


She grew impatient with her mother who had never bothered to remember any details of Velva’s stories. “Mother”, she said sharply. “Don’t you remember? I told you about Mr. Grover’s grandniece who came to visit and and tripped over her broken shoelace; and Mrs. Grover had to lace it up with twine from an old sparrow’s nest, and no sooner did Petty take two steps but the twine unraveled and her shoe flip-flopped all the way up the stairs.”

“No, dear.  I don’t remember”, said her mother; nor did she have any recollection about the Randolph twins and their dog; or the time their mail had been delivered to the next county; or how she had found a partially-sprouted kernel of corn in her porridge.  Her daughter simply remembered things that no one in their right mind ever did. She wondered what with so much useless information stored in her brain whether there ever would be room for anything else. 

“It’s just a phase”, said her father. “She’ll outgrow it”; but she never did, and in fact her repository of random people, happenings, and incidents got fuller and fuller. The most remarkable thing about it was that the new bits and pieces of London, Iowa never pushed out the old.  The storeroom simply expanded to accommodate the new items.  No number of passing years could dim the memories of the remote past.

As she got older, her habit of registering, recalling, and telling irrelevant stories gained a new dimension.  She began to store things – old, faded blouses, toys a niece or nephew had left in the attic, dishware which was cracked and worn but still watermarked with the Jug and Crown of Markfield China, Wolverhampton.  Her house, while never the home of a hoarder, was still filled with memorabilia – not the usual theatre tickets, pressed flowers, snowy glass paperweights, and Eiffel Towers, but just old, used family items.  The frock her daughter wore not on the first day of school but the third week after Halloween. The golf ball that Jimmy Watson had lofted into the petunias one Spring. The crayon nubs her son had used to draw a ghoulish picture of the next door neighbor.

Image result for images old english china

    English Chippendale in Red, Johnson Bros.

Then, as she approached fifty, her obsession gained yet another dimension.  Slowly but surely any meaningful ideas she might have had about art, music, economics, or culture got crowded out by grommets, washers, fabric, eyehooks, pins and needles, recipes, measurements, and labels. Whenever anyone turned the dinner table conversation to something other than the here-and-now, Velva changed the subject. “You’ll never guess who I met at the supermarket the other day”, she would begin; or “Have you tried baking in a 12” pan?”.  In the middle of another’s thought, she would interrupt. “That reminds me of my Aunt Betty who always got sand in her bathing suit and started to cry no more than ten minutes after we had set up the beach chairs and umbrellas.”

Velva had gotten married not long after she had left high school.  By then she had become so disassociated and ‘discombobulated’ that she would have married anyone; but Bob Phillips, the son of a family friend, farmer, and grain merchant, was a luckily good match. He had no interest in marrying a smart woman, only one who would help him out on the farm and raise the children; so he overlooked Velva’s strange obsession.

Velva’s was a case of a woman who did no harm, who bothered no one, but who had somehow constructed a random world meaningful to her but meaningless to everyone else. This characterization might sound harsh.  After all no one really leads an irrelevant life, and who can possibly understand the mind of another?  If one were being generous, Velva Plane might have constructed her own unique glass menagerie, except instead of delicate figurines, it would be comprised of old hanks of cloth, apron sashes, and spatula handles. What did it matter if Velva had nothing interesting to say, if there was liveliness and texture within her own mental rooms?

Image result for images williams glass menagerie


The surprising thing about Velva Plane was that there was no reason for her to end up as peculiarly obsessive as she had become.  She had intelligence, a very attractive suppleness, and a pleasant manner.  Women with far less had gone on to worlds of fashion, business, or academia.  Even those women without the particular will to overcome the patriarchy and social conservatism of the times and to make it into a man’s world, had become delightful hostesses, enterprising volunteers, and successful PTA members. Yet Velva chose a much more prosaic, unengaged, and uninspiring life.

In hindsight, she may have been genetically predisposed to viewing the world as a pastiche of meaningless, unrelated bits. Perhaps her intelligence never formed completely enough to make sense of things, to see patterns, or to conjugate the bits and pieces of life around her.

Few people where interested or patient enough to find out what made Velva Plane so…well, plain. In fact, invitations were few and far between because no one wanted to sit through a long dinner listening to her random and unconnected stories.  As she got older, she became more isolated.  Yet here is the crux of the story.  A life without sense or meaning; one made up of only incidental memories; and one untroubled with intellectual, moral, or ethical crises might in fact be the best one – the best of all possible worlds.

As she spent her last years in a retirement home, Velva was not unhappy at all.  She banged on at dinner about distant relatives and even more distant recollections; but the old widows around the table paid no attention, wrapped up in their own thoughts or as happens in these places, thinking no thoughts at all.  “My second cousin in Phoenix”, Velva began as she sat down, and ninety-five year-old Basker Henry shook out his napkin from its ring, fixed it around his neck, and said, “I’m hungry.”

Velva didn’t notice his indifference; but that was what made her special and a survivor among survivors.

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