In his Aug. 20 commentary “May the old America, the one I loved, endure,” Garrison Keillor said some things that are absolutely right. “We are,” he said, “here for a brief time. We would like our stay to mean something. Do the right thing. Travel light. Be sweet.” His Uncle Gene also was correct about not blaming everything that went wrong in his life on the party in power in Washington. But there were things in the tongue-in-cheek article that I’d like to say just a few words about. I am, at the moment, feeling the need to point out another perspective.
The days Keillor writes about — the ones he loved that were filled with community, common decency and empathy — were my days, too. I knew church suppers. I knew baked chicken and potato salad, a dinner roll and a side of beans. I also knew that my aunts, Myrtle and Gertrude, weren’t always delighted to be in a hot kitchen making chicken a la king when their feet hurt and their glasses steamed up and someone was always wanting more coffee. They, too, might have liked to be served and not always be the servers.
I remember that Billy, the boy across the street, was ostracized because he was, well, different. He played the piano and he didn’t like football and he didn’t like girls, either. Teachers seemed to turn a blind eye to his being bullied, and I don’t recall anyone at all being there to protect him.
As for the families who lived on the edge of town, the ones who could never quite get their houses going past building a foundation, the ones who sold woven baskets by the side of the road and whose dark-eyed children your mother didn’t encourage you to play with at school — I don’t remember the community embracing them, either.
Those times when “work was sociable” and “people watched you and commented” might not be remembered the same by all of us. I don’t remember my mother and her friends being praised for raising children and cooking and taking care of a house and ironing their husbands’ white shirts. As for unmarried women, the accepted roles for them were being a teacher, a secretary or a nurse. If they did work at jobs other than that, their wages were not the same as the men who were working the same job. As for playing sports in school, there were no teams nor athletic opportunities for girls. No one was commenting on our great pass or tackle last Friday night. Being a baton twirler and a cheerleader did not draw much acclaim.
Keillor is a wise man who has a wonderful way with words. His art is a story. But his tales of a better time in the past are only stories. His look over his shoulder is through the lens of a tall, white man. That is the lens he was given. But the story of a time and place can be seen and told differently by someone who is not tall and strong, not good-looking and not even above average. Someone who has a darker shade of skin, who speaks with an accent, who doesn’t know the words to all those beautiful hymns.
As for those North Dakota farmers now turning over their land into vineyards — well, I say good for them. Those men and women can, I’m sure, still care about justice while they savor a glass of wine with their Brie. And why shouldn’t they? “Style,” as Keillor says, “is not what keeps us going. We survive by virtue of people extending themselves… .” So I add these words to his: people who are extending themselves, yes, and people who have learned from a not-so-perfect past and are willing to walk in another’s shoes.
Toni Easterson, of Northfield, is an artist.