In the Sibling Discovery Project, we’ve been transitioning from one prompt to the next in a very simple way. I keep all our unused prompts in a zip-top bag in my office. At the end of each discussion, I pull the next prompt from the bag and announce it to my brother and sister. We spend a few minutes giving “top of mind” responses to the word or phrase.
When feed came out of the bag, we quickly rattled off a host of scenes and images from our farm family history:
- Feeding chickens
- Feeding the men at the table
- Scooping pig feed
- Carrying buckets of feed to the chickens
- Mashed potatoes and gravy for the milk cows
- Bottle-nursing calves
- Bags of feed piled at the store where Dad went to fill his nut vending machines (our farmer father operated a couple side businesses)
- Dad feeding the cats milk in the barn or on the porch—and not cat food, but table scraps and mice
- In later years, after we were out of the dairy business, a big pile of cat food on the back porch
- The granary where we kept the feed sacks and salt, and the wonderful smell of that little, single-purpose building
Clearly, we had plenty of memory material to fuel our creative fires. Yet when we met the next month, things had not gone as we might have expected.
* * *
Paul spent about three weeks dwelling on the word seed and came up with a really great idea. Then, the Friday before we were to meet on Sunday, he realized we had already worked with the word seed, and he’d been pondering the wrong prompt.
“Then I remembered our talk about all the other kinds of feed. Some of the best feeds I ever had were with Dad, when he ‘cooked’ a meal. Like a can of sardines and some Ritz crackers, with milk on the side. So I imagined how I might make a carving of that. I arranged the items into a still life but didn’t open the crackers or the sardines.” (I know Paul sent us a photo of this still life, but I’ve lost it.)
“Then I remembered a time Dad sent me out to work on the farm with a lunch,” Paul continued. “Sure enough, he gave me a can of sardines with no key. But a pair of pliers and vice grips will get you by. I felt very Wesley.” [That was our dad’s name: Wesley Terpening.]
* * *
With all the amazing farm-life imagery we had brainstormed, I expected to write a poignant essay or evocative poem. Nope. What came was a rather ridiculous comic strip:
I puzzled over what really belongs in that fifth frame. But it was fun to do something silly and completely different from my “usual” forms of writing. (Norma liked it. That was gratifying to this little sister.)
* * *
And that brings us to Norma. For some reason, the word feed caused her to feel intense anger. She actually decided not to work with it. But she kept bumping into that anger, which she decided was about misplaced expectations.
On the farm, we would commonly have men for dinner. “The expectation was that the girls would feed the men,” Norma said. “We were raised to do that, whether or not we liked it or were good at it.”
The same was true at church. “The women would feed people. No one ever asked if that was your best skill. It was just assumed. This is what you will do for the rest of your life. This made me aware of the difference between what I was raised to be and what I am called to do. Sometimes you choose things, then down the line realize it’s not as satisfying as you thought it would be.”
Norma also divulged a memory of coming home to the farm as an adult, bringing her newborn son for a visit. Unfortunately, she arrived just as our father was having his first heart attack. She entered the house, only to have Mom whisk Dad off to the emergency room, leaving her with the baby and me and Paul—all quite shaken. She made us mac and cheese. Homemade. “You sibs were so f*cking ungrateful,” she told us. We were used to macaroni from a box, I guess.
After all this mulling, Norma decided to return to the word feed and use art as catharsis. “I came up with this little piece that will not be art, but sits on an easel and makes me very happy. I thought the dialogue part of it was really interesting.”
As we reviewed this work, I commented that I like the way the stitching goes through the words “don’t come home” (a line from our mother that echoes in Norma’s mind … delivered something like this: “once you graduate and leave for college, we don’t expect you to come home”). Norma said she didn’t cross out those words intentionally.
“I did it all intuitively. I cut the block letters out freehand, all with stuff close at hand. It was fun to do, actually.”