"Give a Piece a Chance." — Books. Blog. Pie Classes. And a Pinch of Activism.

The Ladies from Ames

I was sitting outside on my back patio this morning, drinking coffee in my pajamas when a group of women came around the corner. They were wearing name tags so I knew they were the visitors Molly (the American Gothic House Visitor Center administrator) had told me about when I saw her earlier while out walking my dogs. Yes, I was walking my dogs in my pajamas – or, more specifically, my long underwear cum pjs, fleece bathrobe, and rubber boots newly purchased from the Tractor Supply Company. Normally I would change into my bib overalls (newly purchased from Orscheln’s Farm & Home) at the start of the day, but I’ve slipped into a lazy routine the past few days as the mornings have been cold and I don’t like feeling the biting chill on my bare skin when changing clothes. Yesterday was so cold I simply slipped my overalls on over my pajamas, and never did bother to change later, but that seemed so pathetic, a dangerous addictive habit (bad enough that I’ve given up on my most basic beauty efforts like a swash of lipstick, but worse because lately I never even brush my hair), I thought today I would just finish my coffee in the sun and then go upstairs to put on a skirt before the ladies’ tour group arrived. Well, they had arrived. En masse. At least I had tamed my hair back into a ponytail.

I had teased Molly earlier that if she needed to do any extra schmoozing with the ladies – about 50 filled the tour bus – I would let them come inside the house. She smiled her cute wry smile and said thanks but that wouldn’t be necessary. “Okay,” I said, and continued down the bike path, shuffling along in my farm boots with my coffee cup and dogs.

It didn’t occur to me that a group from Ames, a three-hour drive from Eldon, would arrive by 9 a.m. True, Iowa is not prone to heavy traffic, unless you get stuck behind farm equipment on a two-lane highway, but still they made good time. They had left at the crack of dawn, motored south through the state capital and into the rural hinterlands, and now, here they were. Standing in my backyard.

“You must be the writer,” they said. Clearly they had already been at the visitor center and been prepped by Molly.

“Yes,” I answered, looking up from the document I was reading. “And I’m still in my pajamas.”

“That’s okay,” they assured me. “If we lived here we’d still be in our pajamas too.”

“Do you want to see the house?” I asked.

“Really? You would let us come inside?”

It was a no brainer. Of course they were curious. Of course they wanted to see the inside. I will never forget my own desperate curiosity to see the inside when I first arrived as a tourist. And now I was in a position to grant people access, keeper of the kingdom, custodian of the castle. Be nice to me and maybe I’ll let you in. “Yes, you can come in, but let me run upstairs and make my bed first.” Never mind that the sink was full of dishes, papers were heaped high on my desk, and — egads – the sofa pillows were not fluffed.

Not all 50 women filled the house at once. They came inside in waves. But with each cluster came a new set of questions. Is that your own furniture? Who did the paintings? How long do plan to live here? How much rent do you pay? Won’t it be cold in the winter? What do you write?

I answered the questions – yes, my sister and grandfather, I don’t know, not much, yes, and I’m going to write about you on my blog – and then handed out business cards. The question that came up over and over was one – a double one, really – I would have asked myself. Where are you from and how did you end up here? Very good question. For which my answer became pretty standard after delivering it a few times:

I had been living in Portland, Oregon, and came to Iowa this summer to be a pie judge at the Iowa State Fair. I was born in Ottumwa, just 15 miles from here, and lived there until I was 12. We moved to Davenport, where I went to high school and graduated early so I could get out of Iowa and never come back. (The ladies all laughed at this point.) After the fair I came down here to visit my old childhood homes. I was on my way to Fairfield to do a radio interview and I saw the sign for the American Gothic House. I had no idea it was here! I discovered the place was for rent and, well, I didn’t make it any further. And now I do all my shopping in Ottumwa. It’s a place we always made fun of after we moved, because it was so small. And now it’s like going to a big city for me. I even went to a movie there on Friday night, “The Social Network.” It was the film’s opening night in Los Angeles, New York, and…Ottumwa. (More laughter.)

“This must be a very inspirational place to write,” they commented.

“Well, yes,” I smiled, “except that I’ve been having a terrible bout of writers block. I’m trying to write an essay for a big magazine about how pie has helped me heal from my grief.” And this is where I dropped the bomb on the unsuspecting women. “My 43-year-old husband died from a ruptured aorta a year ago. I’d like to think pie has helped me heal, but the truth is I’m still grieving.” I handed a small framed picture of Marcus to one of the ladies to diffuse the deliberately awkward moment. I really must stop being so depressive. And so blunt.

But the discussion progressed, as it invariably does when the subject of pie and adversity comes up, and the stories – their stories – came pouring forth.

Pie is more meaningful than old world family recipes. “My mom was an immigrant from the Czech Republic. She’s 97. We recently went through all her old recipes to make sure we could record them all.” (The woman telling me this story rattled off some names of the Czech dishes, but as I don’t speak Czech I can’t tell you what they were.) “My mom was staying at my house while we were making all these recipes and had a dream about lemon meringue pie. That was dad’s favorite. So we looked for a recipe and then made it.”

Pie saved the farm. “My grandmother lived on a farm and was going to lose it if she couldn’t come up with some money so she baked pies and sold them. People loved her pie. They lined up to buy it. And my grandmother saved the farm.”

Pie saved the American Gothic House. “I read that the American Gothic House had gotten really run down, the community was poor but they cared, so they got together and sold pies to raise the money to renovate the house. So you see? Pie plays a big role here. You are living in the right place.”

I hadn’t heard that story about the American Gothic House but I loved the astuteness of this woman’s comment. I have no doubt in my mind I am living in the right place. I know in some unspeakable, indefinable way that I am exactly where I am meant to be at this point in time. I can’t say yet why. I just know. I know it in every cell in my body. It is experiences like the one this morning, a busload of ladies from the Iowa State University Women’s Club showing up unexpectedly in my backyard, that make living here so rich. These women shared their stories, their enthusiasm, their curiosity, their appreciation. Some of them even hugged me when they left. My only regret is that I hadn’t made them pie. I think they would have liked that.

The visit by the Ladies from Ames and all of their warm, caring energy helped lift my spirits, and thus my writers block. But before I get back to working on that magazine essay I will go get dressed now. I’m still thinking about putting on a skirt, a long one. That way I can leave my pajamas on underneath.