Late-life Musings of an Unapologetic Feminist

Before my mother peeled a cucumber, she sliced off the ends, one at a time, then rubbed the cut ends against the remaining cuke to “draw the bitterness out.”  I never questioned the importance of this step; to this day, I ritually massage the cut ends before I apply the peeler. As I do so, years of reading and teaching about the suggestive power of language, the epistemology of meaning and metaphor, prompt me to approach the cucumber ritual more analytically, being inherently incapable of regarding anything, especially something as suggestive as a cucumber, as simply what it is. 

Let’s consider the lowly cucumber, the cuke, certainly an obvious, even comical, example of a phallic symbol if ever a fruit reared a penile head. Little green cuke of the pickle variety or giant of the salad genre, there they are. Look at them! They invariably suggest to the viewer specific male anatomy. Imagine what the lowly cucumber might have signified to generations of women, aproned and weary at their kitchen counters. On my mother’s side, I come from a long line of Yankee matriarchs with roots in Oakham, Massachusetts, the little town in the Brookfields settled by my mother’s maternal ancestors. As those women stood peeling and chopping in their kitchens, they were legitimately, albeit situationally,  armed with sharp and dangerous weapons. Thinking as a feminist of what I know of their specific lives and, in general,  about women’s lives in Puritan New England, I cannot refrain from reading into the cucumber cutting a symbolic circumcision, ritually related, perhaps, to the exorcism of chronic bitterness against patriarchal oppression. I suspect that some of those Yankee matriarchs might have employed their knives symbolically and cathartically, with enthusiasm that suggests more than a good cook’s culinary caution. Many witty conceits or tempting tropes have their dark undersides; else we would not snidely snicker. 

Consider the lives of those women, my foremothers, Yankee farm wives and their spinster sisters in the still-familiar chains, however well padded or plated, of patriarchy. Their lives were hard, and they were more or less powerless. Yes, they wielded authority over their young children. And they reigned over all things, animal, vegetable or mineral, in their kitchens. They (and we) have been fed the myth of cradle-rocking hands ruling the world, an image cultivated to keep women from accessing power in legislatures, at polls, in the arena of public life. It lives beyond its 19th century heyday when William Ross Harris in 1865 coined the phrase in his saccharine poem The Hand that Rocks the Cradle.  The fact that women still pay a price for entering the work world, the government world, the corporate world, the public world of (mostly white) men proves that the sentiment still informs decisions about a woman’s place in worlds outside the home. In the ongoing political discussions about the importance of the traditional family; in the fundamentalist religious validation of male supremacy in the home and on the altar; and in the demonizing of feminism, from inaccurate portrayals of dissension among feminist women to assertions that we live in a post-feminist world where full equality has been achieved,  proves that many of our leaders are still valorizing those cradle-rocking hands. Most recently, we see the chains that bind women being tightened again by the Supreme Court, the re-energized right wing of the evangelical movement, and the takeover of the House by right wing members who oppose support for women’s reproductive rights and protection from domestic and other forms of violence. (I note that some of those reactionaries are women.) Those pioneer women in Oakham rocked cradles and stitched quilts and spun and wove and washed and ironed and milked and gardened and prepared endless meals.  All the while many of them suffered abuse of their bodies and neglect of their spirits. While electricity, modern appliances, and access to convenient shopping have freed women today from many of those chores, we still do much of the business of running a home and raising children. We do all of the business of pregnancy and childbirth. And like my Oakham foremothers, women today suffer abuse of body and spirit, now compounded by imposed and internalized guilt for wanting to do more than rock cradles. 

For the Oakham women I knew– great aunt, grandmother, cousins first or several times removed–domestic tragedy occurred often. The stories I heard directly or while eavesdropping are, I think, representative of events in the lives of many women of their race and class. They may not have been everywoman, but they were many women then and now. Not all the stories were bleak. On car rides out to “the farm” to visit my great aunt and her daughter, my cousin, my mother told us about sledding as a child down the frozen hill behind the cow barn, about her great-grandfather’s enormous hands, his love for his dairy herd, how he would never strike a cow but could be quick with his fists with a careless human. Our spring visits were timed to coincide with the emergence of new asparagus that my mother ate on buttered toast topped with poached eggs. After  every visit, we went home with the asparagus and a slab of fresh butter. We also took home vegetables and flowers, slips of aloe or quick-to-rust Boston fern, and more stories fit for kids’ ears. The other, sadder stories we heard in snippets, through closed nighttime doors, eavesdropping when relatives gathered for funerals or reunions, late at night at rented summer cottages where grown-ups stayed up late to drink from clinking glasses and play cribbage and gin rummy, while talking about bleaker aspects of life on the farm.

One aunt married a brutal alcoholic who beat her and her children. Once I visited as a grown-up when she, an old woman had no care for propriety,told in a voice as flat as her ironed apron over the place where her breast had been before the mastectomy, about the birth of a “defective” infant, a son. They never named this baby, she said, because her husband wouldn’t allow it a name. “It” (she never used the human pronoun) only lived a few weeks, “poor little thing,” she said in her flat voice. Its father wouldn’t hold it, touch it, look at it. He yelled abuse at her for wasting time and energy on the baby, ordered her not to nurse the child. But she “couldn’t just let it die,” she said,  so she fed and rocked and bathed the little creature. When the infant died, her husband would not have anything to do with the burying either. I don’t know if she did that all alone; I hope someone helped her, but the story doesn’t say.  Her father, my great-grandfather, the man with strong hands who so loved his cows that he would beat a farmhand who mistreated an animal, helped his daughter out with money and food when the husband’s love affairs with the bottle left the family hungry or cold. But man to man, by the rules of that club, her father never interfered between husband and wife, between man and wife, never raised  those strong hands to protect his daughter and his grandchildren from the man who had the right as husband and father to abuse them. I don’t know what my great-aunt’s mother might have said to console her daughter in the midst of chaos and abuse. I doubt she suggested that her daughter leave her husband. My mother, telling the story, shook her head. “That was just the way it was back then.” My great aunt bore and raised several other children; I doubt she had access to any kind of birth control or much choice about having intercourse with her husband. I often wonder what she might have been thinking or feeling as she lopped off the end of a cucumber at her kitchen sink. What bitterness did she symbolically slice away?

Strong men, hard men silent men, drunken men, aloof men, sons of Calvin and Jonathon  Edwards, inheritors of stony soil and long cold winters, not totally to blame, surely, for all the evils of a system that made them heirs to the struggle for survival and for profit that walled them off from tenderness and intimacy. And their women, those Floras and Mabels and Bessies and Evas and Evelyns and Irnas and Enolas, what of them, their dreams and visions, their struggles to be whole, to protect their children, their daughters? In gardens and kitchens, on porches and swings, in bedrooms where they labored to deliver  babies, whole or damaged, male or female, into the world, women gathered to console and talk. They seldom, those women I knew, my mother included, wept or bemoaned. Often they joked irreverently about their men, their husbands and sons. They made innocently bawdy jokes about manhood itself. I have seen one or another of them hold up a big zucchini or, yes, a cucumber and make a laughing remark that I did not understand as a child and later dismissed with educated contempt, “too uppity,” as my mother would say, for rural smuttiness. Were these joking remarks small rebellions? Escape valves? Did one of them give a lewd little chuckle as she brought the knife down? Did two or three of them preparing a meal for a big family gathering exchange furtive grins over the heads of children as one held up a cucumber prior to the mutilation?  Perhaps they took their produce literally not having had the dubious benefit of studying postmodern ideas about representation. How can I know? 

All I can say in closing is that centuries of misogyny, sexism, and patriarchal oppression may certainly inform, at least subconsciously, the conception, creation and continuation of a symbolic, harmless ritual involving the mutilation of an insensate fruit like a cucumber with the benevolent goal of driving out bitter flavor. After all, some of my Yankee foremothers might have been midwives and green women; perhaps one or two of them were hanged as witches for rituals as innocent as the cutting of a cucumber.   Do we always understand what meaning is implicit in ritual? Is sticking pins into poppets actually dangerous?  Do we believe we invite bad luck when we break a mirror or walk beneath a ladder? Why do those superstitions endure?   I suggest that ritual practices or what some call “old wives’ tales” passed on from one generation to the next may express a group’s solidarity or they may be a kind of cultural glue binding one generation to the next. Many of you will say that a cucumber is just a cucumber, that the ritual of the cutting and rubbing of the ends is simply an ignorant or sentimental repetition of a useless kitchen rite. Some will say that this interpretation by an old crone feminist like me is just another example of overthink or man-hating emasculation  Perhaps, perhaps. I admit without apology that old stories such as Euripedes’ Medea, the biblical Jael, Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, and Lizzie Borden interest me deeply. And when I pick up a cucumber and a sharp knife in my own kitchen, Lorena Bobbit is never far from my mind.


One thought on “Cucumbers Cucumbers

  1. Paula, I love the way you bring everyday things to life. We never stop to think about them. Having read your blogs I find myself doing just that. While polishing my silver I think, what kind of life did you have before I got you. You do make me think and learn every day my dear friend.



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