Sep. 3, 2003

Idaho Potatoes

by Kathryn Kysar

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Poem: "Idaho Potatoes," by Kathryn Kysar from Dark Lake (Loonfeather Press)

Idaho Potatoes

I don't know if the story is true: during the Depression, Grandpa
was a tenant farmer in Idaho. Each winter morning, Grandma
gave Virden and Ardis a hot baked potato. They walked to school
down the flat Idaho roads, powdery snow blowing against their
cold pink cheeks and frosted eyelashes, their mittened hands
holding the prayers of steamy potatoes. To keep warm, the children
spoke of pleasant things: singing in church, eating summer apricots
in the neighbor's orchard, whispering to the chickens in the damp,
dark henhouse. Virden imagined proudly riding atop the vibrating
tractor, its hum loud enough to make men shout. Ardis worried:
she had to stay clean, she couldn't play in the trees. Only alone in
the hen house as she collected the eggs was she happy, each stolen
brown orb damp and warm and pulsing against her skin like the
morning's baked potatoes.
At the school's playground, children ran and screamed. Ardis stood
on the side of the trampled snowy field while gangly Virden ran,
toes pointed in, ran with the pack of skinny boys, joking, laughing,
and shoving. In her perfect Shirley Temple curls, in her starched
cotton dress and wool stockings, in her worn coat buttoned up to
the neck, she waited for the older girls to ask her to play. She
waited for Mrs. Youngquist to call them in to class. She waited
for lunchtime when she could join her brother on the rough
wooden bench in the corner to eat boiled eggs and cold potatoes,
the white middles flaking into their mouths, the browned skin
crispy, cool, and comforting on a cold winter's day.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of playwright Caryl Churchill, born in London, England (1938). She began writing plays while a student at Oxford, and after graduation landed a job writing radio plays for the BBC. In 1974, she joined the Royal Court Theater in London as a resident playwright. Her two most successful plays received their first staging at the Royal Court; they were Cloud Nine (1979) and the Obie Award-winning Top Girls (1982). She's also known for her inventive use of language—she often uses overlapping dialogue, rhyme, music, and nonsense dialogue. In the one-act play Blue Kettle, (1997), for instance, the words "blue" and "kettle" are randomly inserted into the dialogue with increasing frequency, until at the end of the play they're the only words being spoken.

It's the birthday of anthropologist and author Loren Eiseley, born in Lincoln, Nebraska (1907). He spent most of his long academic career as a professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, where he taught from 1947 to 1977. He was interested in the dating of fossils and in extinctions during the Ice Age. But he's remembered today as a writer of popular books about anthropology and evolution—books such as The Immense Journey, (1957), The Unexpected Universe (1969), The Night Country, (1971) and The Star Thrower (1979). Writing about the evolution of the brain and the development of consciousness in humans, he wrote: "For the first time in four billion years a living creature had contemplated himself and heard with a sudden, unaccountable loneliness, the whisper of wind in the night reeds."

It's the birthday of American architect Louis Sullivan, born in Boston, Massachusetts (1856). He studied architecture at MIT and in Europe before making his way to Chicago in 1875. He found a city that needed rebuilding after the Great Chicago Fire four years earlier. In 1881, he became a partner with Dankmar Adler in the firm of Adler and Sullivan. In 1886, he was commissioned to design the Auditorium Building in Chicago, considered one of his masterpieces. His motto: "Form ever follows function."

It's the birthday of American writer Sarah Orne Jewett, born in South Berwick, Maine (1849). Her father was a country doctor, and she thought about becoming a doctor herself. Instead, she turned to writing, and had her first story published in The Atlantic when she was just 20 years old. She wrote about the people of Maine and about the old country ways that were quickly dying out around her, and earned a reputation as one of the finest writers in the "local color" tradition. Her first collection of stories, Deephaven, came out in 1877. Her most famous work was the collection The Country of the Pointed Firs, which was published in 1896.

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