By Cerys Harrison
Henry Ford built Greenfield Village as a shrine to American commerce. He dismantled historical homes from across the country and reassembled them on the property he purchased in the middle of my hometown. Locals were hired, at minimum wage, to dress in period costumes and perform Americana chores for tourists like candle making, butter churning, hog feeding.
My father, a rabid Democrat, asserted the real reason for Greenfield Village was to keep ol’ Henry’s property taxes down. Regardless, each year he bought a family pass, and we spent many Sunday afternoons chugging around the Village in the 1873 Torch Lake locomotive that encircled Henry’s menagerie. I felt as if I was traveling between two worlds. One world held the clean, refurbished wooden benches on which we sat as we tooted past the pond with Stephen Foster’s steamboat on our left. The Southfield Freeway on my right led to another world, with Corvettes and Barracudas revving their engines.
I inherited a passion for gift shops from my mother and the one in Greenfield Village was exceptional. The summer I turned twelve I wrinkled my nose at the dolls with heads made from dried apples and the wooden hobby horses that had fascinated me the year before. Instead, I made my way to the section of the shop with racks of women’s dresses and matching bonnets, where shelves with Early American cookbooks and pamphlets with stencils for decorating rooms with Early American patterns soldiered next to packages of vintage sewing patterns. I imagined myself transported back in time to the general store in my cherished Little House books.
I wanted to churn butter with Ma Ingalls. I wanted to read books with Laura by candlelight. I wanted to wear bonnets and skirts that rustled around my ankles. I wondered what kind of underwear Early American girls wore. Those patterns weren’t on the racks in the Greenfield Village Gift Shop. I wondered, too, what Early American girls did when they got their periods.
“They used rags,” my friend Merilee replied as she crossed her delicate arms over her narrow chest and planted her Buster Browns firmly on her backyard grass. “That’s why they say, ‘she’s on the rag’.”
I wondered how Early American girls kept their rags in place. My newly acquired sanitary napkins were constantly sneaking out of their belt and laying at odd angles on my panties.
Merilee fixed me with squinted eyes. “Back then, girls didn’t run around all over the place like you do. They sat still and were quiet. So, the rags didn’t move.”
Merilee’s statements automatically carried the weight of authority whenever we had discussions. She was taller, eight months older, and she consistently brought home better report cards than mine. During Olden Days arguments, Merilee was especially persuasive because her father was a minister and her family lived as if they were in the Little House books. Like my own, Merilee’s family were Fundamental Baptists.
“And then some.” My mother rolled her eyes as she slipped her hands into soapy dishwater and looked through our kitchen window at the Hanson’s backyard.
As next-door neighbors and best friends, Merilee and I were often in each other’s houses. I studied the Hansons’ home as if it were in Greenfield Village. The rooms were dark with the curtains and blinds drawn, no matter the time of day or outside temperature, giving the entire house a musty, old closet smell. The small living room was cramped with bulky dark furniture, including an uncomfortable sofa with two matching stiff, boxy chairs.
“Is this horsehair?” I demanded of Merilee as I ran my hand over the unfamiliar, natty fabric of the living room couch.
Merilee rolled her eyes. “It’s tweed.”
“Feels like I’m sitting on a dead horse.”
To the left of the front door was the kitchen, twice the size of the living room, and Martha, one of Merilee’s two older sisters, was usually there. Large-boned and tall, Martha had just finished her high school freshman year, but she carried herself like a matronly widow, shoulders tucked forward, rarely making eye contact. She was solitary, quiet, and quick to respond when anyone made a request of her. I thought she could easily get a job churning butter at Greenfield Village. Her drab brown hair was long and twisted into a tight bun at the back of her neck. Her button brown eyes seemed smaller because of her bulbous, highly set nose. When I saw Martha walking from the parsonage to her father’s church, her movements were furtive, awkward.
But the Martha who ran the kitchen was a marvel. There, her movements were certain and forceful. The pies and cobblers she pulled from that antique oven were works of art. Her roasts steamed with fragrant juices wafting down the street to the delight of our neighbors. The pastries she delivered to the kitchen table were better than anything served at the cafeteria in Greenfield Village.
“Martha,” I gulped a bite of homemade apple pie, “you should call ol’ Henry Ford and offer to run the Early American Restaurant. Just send him some of your desserts. He’d hire you in a heartbeat!”
Martha ducked her head and gave me a grin that reached from one side of her wide face to the other before she scampered off to load the lunch dishes into the kitchen sink. Merilee gave me a sidelong smirk as she collected both our plates for Martha to wash.
The distribution of labor in the Hanson household perplexed me. Reverend Hanson spent most mornings working on the sermons he would deliver to his paltry congregation. Martha was responsible for everything that happened in the kitchen, all the cooking, cleaning, and shopping. Judy, the eldest, was the smart one. Her job was to do the laundry after she studied for the classes she would take in her upcoming senior year. Merilee was still being treated as a child by her parents, and their only requirement of her was to keep her eight-year-old brother, Archie Jr., entertained.
“What does your mother do all day?” I challenged Merilee. “My mother does all the cooking and cleaning. She does the laundry, too.”
“That’s because you’re spoiled,” came her familiar admonishment.
After lunch each afternoon, Mrs. Hanson sat in the uncomfortable chair by the front door. She smiled benignly, hands folded in her lap, easily blending into her surroundings. Her dark hair hung limply on her thin shoulders. Her black dresses reached the heels of her shoes, when she stood, which wasn’t often. I was fascinated by her stillness, her unaffecting voice, and, most of all, her complexion. It was thick, leathered, and wrinkled like the apple doll heads on display at Greenfield Village. I desperately wanted to touch Mrs. Hanson’s skin, to feel if the wrinkles were as parched as they appeared.
Each weekday afternoon, perched on that chair by the front door, Mrs. Hanson watched her husband like a crow on a telephone wire while her daughters went about their housekeeping chores. Her head dipped to the left as her eyes followed Reverend Hanson from the living room to the kitchen, then it dipped to the right as he moved from the kitchen to the stairs leading to his study on the second floor. Her hands were still, but her eyes skipped and jumped as she followed her husband trotting through the house.
Like clockwork, “Daddy?,” she’d call out minutes after Reverend Hanson returned to his upstairs study. “Do you want me to fix you a little something?”
“Just a cup of tea, Mother. If it’s not too much trouble.”
“No trouble at all!” Mrs. Hanson would shoot straight up from the chair. Off she’d scuttle to the kitchen, where Martha brewed a pot of tea and set a plate of cookies on a wooden tray with cups and saucers for two. Merilee, Archie Jr., and I would hear Mrs. Hanson softly knock on the study door, followed by the creak as it opened for her and, moments later, the click of the key in the lock. We knew what that meant. Merilee and I could play uninterrupted by her parents for the next several hours.
Both Merilee and I received transistor radios for Christmas and we agreed that CKLW, “Radio Eight-oh!,” played the best music in town. Every weekday, after her parents disappeared into the Reverend’s study, Merilee and I tuned our radios to 800 on our AM dials, slipped on our transistor’s wristlets and, each holding our radio against an ear, sashayed down the block. We toured our neighborhood from Telegraph Road to Crowley Park, from Lapham School to the railroad tracks singing along to Chicago’s “Colour My World” and Cat Stevens’ “Peace Train,” logging several miles each afternoon. Occasionally, we’d meet a kid from our class who screeched his bike to a stop and attempted a conversation. Merilee was unaware she had a habit of allowing her gaze to lazily wander from the boy’s hairline to his shoes and up to his eyes while her lips slightly pouted.
“Boys! Pfft! C’mon!,” I’d grouse, slipping my forefinger through the belt loop on the back of her pants and dragging her to consciousness.
That summer, we devoured teen magazines and I decided cut-offs was the look for me. I ripped and frayed my old jeans with fringe that hit mid-thigh. I wore my Keds without socks in a vain attempt to make my legs look longer. Merilee’s older sisters had recently handed down threadbare shirtwaist dresses in shades of taupe that looked like they were costumes from Greenfield Village. Her father allowed her to continue wearing pedal pushers and sleeveless blouses through the summer, but when we started seventh grade in the fall, her parents would insist Merilee wear those old dresses to our new junior high school. Although she and I didn’t talk about it, we both knew Merilee would have a lot of explaining to do to the other kids.
Merilee and her eldest sister, Judy, had the good fortune to look like Joni Mitchell when “Clouds” and “Blue” were the rage. Their blonde hair was worn long and straight with bangs that swept across their almond eyes. They looked sophisticated and svelte. I struggled with unexpected and self-conscious curves — hips and breasts that seemed to have bloomed overnight, and cheeks that retained their baby fat. If I had worn her pedal pushers and sleeveless blouses, I would have looked like I raided my grandmother’s closet. On Merilee, the look was stylish, retro.
One afternoon just before sixth-grade graduation, my mother and I stepped into Kresge’s Department store. While my mother debated the merits of buying Tupperware knock-offs, I wandered over to the makeup department to experiement with the Maybelline samples. I noticed Judy at the opposite end of the counter, poking through the Yardley display. I raised my hand in a wave as she stood, stunned, looking in my direction. Judy’s lips glistened wetly as she made a quick swivel to her right and bolted out the main door. Later that afternoon, while I unloaded my mother’s Kresge bags from her car, I glanced at the street in front of the Hansons’ house and saw Judy sitting very close to a boy in the front seat of his car.
I reported these events to Merilee one August afternoon when she lectured me
on the reasons God didn’t want people listening to rock and roll on Sundays. Tiger baseball games were okay. Like Reverend Hanson, we were fans and listened to every game on our transistor radios. The Reverend said listening to baseball on Sunday was in perfect accordance with the Bible, but listening to rock and roll was not.
“What about the rest of the week?” “The rest of the week is okay.” “Even The Doors?”
“The Doors are okay.”
“But they sing ‘don’t you love her madly’.” “They mean don’t you love her a lot.”
“I don’t think so.”
“That’s because you have a dirty mind.”
“What about Love Me Two Times? Does that mean to love him twice as much?”
“Sure. What else could it mean?”
“I don’t know. But I don’t think your dad would like Jim Morrison no matter what
day of the week it is. I mean, look at his picture in Tiger Beat! He doesn’t have a shirt on! And look at what it says his favorite meal is, pizza and beer! I think if your dad saw this Tiger Beat he would make you change the station when The Doors came on.”
Merilee frowned as she considered this because Jim Morrison was our favorite rock star.
“Daddy said rock and roll is okay. But not on Sundays.”
“Wait.” I shoved my glasses up the bridge of my nose. “Are you telling me I’m going to hell?”
Merilee’s arms crossed her chest. “Your family does lots of things on Sundays that they shouldn’t, like listening to rock and roll or going to Greenfield Village. It’s not just your family going to hell. All the people who work on Sundays are, too, even if they don’t know the Bible. Daddy says if your dad was a better father, your family wouldn’t have to worry about hell.”
My cheeks flamed as tears pooled in my eyes and the part of me that is my mother’s daughter chewed on my lower lip, but the part of me that is my father’s child won out. I squared my shoulders, wiped away the tears, and took a step towards her.
“I’m going to hell because my family does things like go to the Village on Sundays. All the people working there in the concession stands and the ticket booths, they’re going to hell, too, because the Bible says no one should work on Sundays.”
Merilee nodded firmly. “That’s right.”
“At Tiger Stadium, people working in concession stands and ticket booths on Sundays won’t go to hell?”
Merilee’s eyes flicked around her bedroom.
“Can you show me where it says in the Bible that God. Likes. Baseball?” My nose was an inch from Merilee.
“Daddy says listening to rock and roll on Sundays is a sin but baseball is okay!” Merilee’s Buster Browns stomped on the parquet floor.
I played my trump cards about her favorite sister, Judy.
“You are such a troublemaker. She had wet lips because she licked them, probably. And the boy who drives her home from school needs help with his homework.”
“Brother!” I hooted. “I hope I never have to help a boy with his homework if it means he has to put his arm around me to study!”
Merilee chewed her thumbnail and glared at me. “Daddy is going to be so mad.”
After this exchange, we spent less time together. Merilee resented learning her sister had worn makeup and socialized with a boy because she had no choice but to rat Judy out to her parents. I was furious that my closest friend, a girl who was older and smarter than me, parroted her father’s hypocrisy. We were at a stalemate.
Judy didn’t finish high school in my hometown. Not long after Merilee and I debated the sin of Sunday rock and roll, Reverend Hanson announced Judy needed to improve her relationship with God and she was sent to an evangelical high school in Indiana.
“It doesn’t make sense to me.” I huffed. “If Christians only stay with other Christians, what’s the point? Our preacher’s always saying how tough it is to be a Christian, but it wouldn’t be if everyone were.”
“You don’t understand.” Merilee glared at me.
“No. I don’t.”
“Daddy says the boys around here only think about one thing. He says we need to be around other kinds of boys.”
“The boys we know only care about baseball.”
Her eyes narrowed. “No, they don’t. And you know it.” “You mean they think about sex.”
“Yes.” she nodded, arms crossed and Buster Browns planted. “You and I think about sex.”
“It’s not the same.”
“You and I think about sex all the time.” “It’s different with girls.”
“It’s true. You and I think about it, but we would never do it.”
I rolled my eyes. “We wouldn’t know what to do.”
One Saturday afternoon in late September, Merilee showed me a letter from
Judy describing a proper boy from her senior class who proposed marriage on their first date. Judy said yes. Merilee thought this was very exciting and proof her parents’ decision to send Judy to their alma mater was the right one.
“Don’t you see? If she hadn’t gone there, she never would have met him. He wants to get married right away, right after they graduate. It’s so romantic!”
“What are they going to do for money?”
“They don’t need money, they’re going to college!”
Shortly after the receipt of Judy’s letter, Martha and Merilee each packed a
suitcase and waited in the back seat of the family’s Buick Roadmaster. I lay in bed staring at the clock on my nightstand. The day before, I sat on Merilee’s bed while she packed sensible shirtwaists and anklets, her copies of the Little House books, and her transistor radio. I promised I would get up early the next morning to wave goodbye from my porch, but I didn’t. My body felt as if it were made of stone as I imagined the black Buick pulling out of the driveway. Merilee broke her promise to send me her new address. I never heard from her.
As seventh grade rolled into eighth, I considered the loss of Merilee’s friendship to be an ache that had calloused over. The days spent pouring over teen magazines and learning the words to songs I shared with a best friend were wispy, infrequent memories. On the morning of my first day in high school, I climbed up the school bus steps to find there was only one open seat. Gwen, a girl I slighlty remembered from sixth grade, used an envelope to mark her place in a worn New Testament and beamed up at me from under white blonde lashes as I sat next to her.
We chatted about the reputations of our teachers as we compared our class schedules. We had none in common. Our conversation stalled. Gwen began twisting a lock of hair around her index finger. She suddenly blinked rapidly and grinned. Did I remember Merilee Hanson, the girl who used to live next door to me? I admitted I did, addled by the unexpected question. Gwen’s cheeks flushed as she pulled out the envelope.
“I just got a letter from her! During summer vacation, I went to the Bible camp Merilee’s brother-in-law runs in Indiana. We had such a great time! There are some people, you know? You just click with them. That’s how it’s always been with me and Merilee. Ooooh! Are you okay?”
“New contacts,” I lied as I examined the mascara smudges on my fingertips.
The summer I graduated from high school, I got one of those minimum wage jobs at Greenfield Village. I didn’t feed chickens at the Firestone Farmhouse or cook meals over the hearth at Cotswold Cottage. At the orientation meeting, I received my assignment to research the late 19th century Bloomer Girls and develop a character to play while on the job as a reenactor. I was given a bicycle from the Overman Wheel Company and a list of items to retrieve from the Village’s costume shop including, to my astonishment, underwear appropriate for an Early American Girl: a loose chemise and tight corset.
I soon discovered I had a plum assignment. I simply rode my bicycle around the Village, chatting up the guests at a Suffragette. On hot, sticky summer days, reenactors who had traditional women’s roles were stuck in their assigned house and the expression “slaving over a hot stove” took on real meaning. Their only relief came from brief excursions to fetch water or wood and from breezes that occasionally drifted past the heavy damask curtains in the houses. For me, the most challenging aspect of my job was getting used to riding a bike on the bumpy dirt roads that crisscrossed the Village.
The small group of roving reenactors included my summer boyfriend. Jamie wore a grey Confederate officer’s uniform that complimented his wavy, dark hair and aquamarine eyes. His character, Rupert Beauregard Calhoun III, was in Greenfield Village because he was making his way back to the family’s Virginia plantation after deserting his infantry regiment at Gettysburg. Rupert’s remarkably poor sense of direction being one reason he failed so miserably as a soldier. Jamie used his character’s AWOL status to scout out the best places on the grounds to sneak a cigarette.
I couldn’t look at Jamie without wanting to run my hands up his arms, to pull his shoulders closer, to kiss the mouth that tasted of Marlboros and Wintergreen Lifesavers. I was heady with lust. We met regularly in the secluded areas of the Village. Afterwards, he helped me pin my hair back into a Gibson Girl pompadour under my straw boater and dust the dirt from my bloomers. I navigated the rocks on the dirt roads back to the carousel in the middle of the Village; Jamie dodged in and out of trees along the outfield of the Walnut Grove Base Ball Field at the far end of the property.
Our affection for each other was mutual and finite. On Labor Day, Jamie would hop in his Mustang Mach 1 and take the Southfield Freeway north to Michigan Tech where he’d finish his degree in computer engineering. I had a one-way ticket to LaGuardia and a student loan for my freshman year in the NYU drama department.
One August afternoon, after Jamie and I clocked in at the Administration Building, we followed the path to the Josephine Ford Water Fountain at the entrance of the Village, a spot where tourists typically gathered to pull out their Instamatics for a snapshot before crossing the railroad tracks and setting out to explore the grounds.
I was walking my bike through the crowd, careful to avoid bumping into any of the guests when I saw that long, blonde Joni Mitchell hair. I abruptly stopped. She was no longer what I would have described as tall; she had maybe an inch on me. Her dress was made of the familiar thin, faded cotton, but it wasn’t a shirtwaist. She was five or six months pregnant. When the baby in the stroller next to her began squawking, she rummaged through the diaper bag on her hip, pulled out a pacifier, and plugged it in the child’s contorted mouth. A slight, older man scurried out from the Gift Shop carrying two large strawberry Slushies. He deposited one in the cup holder of the stroller and slurped the other between animated gestures at the buildings encircling the outer perimeter of the pavilion.
Merilee’s eyes followed the man’s jabbing finger. That’s when she noticed me looking at her from across the fountain. She tilted her head to one side, frowned slightly, then a smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. She said something to the man with her and made her way through the crowd. Jamie turned around a few steps ahead of me. “What?” he mouthed at me.
Merilee nodded at Jamie and addressed me, “Do you mind if I ask you a question?”
Her voice was soft, with no trace of the authoritative tone I remembered. I shrugged awkwardly. She continued, “Can we buy train tickets at the station, or do we have to go all the way back to the entrance and buy them at the ticket booth?”
I hesitated. Jamie interjected she could buy tickets for the train at either place. She nodded at him again, walked a few paces before pausing and turning towards me.
“Thanks,” she murmured. And she was gone.
About the Author: Cerys Harrison was born and raised in the home of the Ford Mustang, Dearborn Michigan. Growing up, she was fascinated with New York City and, after graduating from college during a recession, decided to move there, thinking it was more glamorous to be an unemployed actor than an out of work librarian. After a detour in advertising, Cerys returned to her hometown and libraries. And an occasional turn on the stage.