Politics and canned tomatoes

During the summer of 1973—while I canned fifty quarts of tomatoes, fifty quarts of tomato juice, and twelve pints of catsup (not to motion the green beans and corn)—less than two hundred miles away Men in Power were asking what did Nixon know and when did he know it. Toiling in my narrow kitchen—with its five feet of counter space, a Youngstown metal sink, and an ancient four-burner electric stove—I devotedly followed the Senate Watergate Hearings on a fifteen-inch black and white TV. I wanted answers too.

Frequently I’d interrupt the flow of work to wipe my sweating forehead with the tail of my sleeveless blouse. Operating all at once, the four stove burners rivaled a Bessemer in emitting BTUs. Two blue and white speckled enamel canners occupied two burners; on another a tea kettle maintained a low whistle. On the fourth burner a pan of water boiled.

As Tom Daschel posed questions to men who swore to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, I prepared tomatoes for easy pealing, briefly immersing them in the pan of boiling water. Nixon was in hot water too, and everyone knew him to be a sweating man, even when he sat in the air-conditioned Oval Office, signing his now besmirched name. Had he been in my kitchen the heat would have convinced him he was in hell.

While H.R. Haldeman scalded the truth, I stuffed whole tomatoes into quart Mason jars, which I filled to the top with boiling water from the tea kettle. From a sauce pan resting on the sink drain, I lifted sterilized lids, placed them on the jars with tongs, then screwed on the metal rings. The whole country was getting screwed, I thought.

After placing a newly filled jar in each slot of the two wire racks, I gently lowered the heavy racks into the boiling water bath. Pausing to rest while the stove carried out its responsibilities, I sat at the kitchen table staring at the TV, engrossed in Daniel Inouye’s line of questioning.

The simple life, that was the path my husband, Jim, and I had chosen. Self-sufficiency. A quarter of an acre in tomatoes, corn, green beans, and other vegetables, enough quart boxes in our twenty-cubic foot freezer to feed us until next harvest. Quite an accomplishment for a young woman who’d grown up in the city and a young man whose previous gardening experience had been limited to picking green beans for his mother and reluctantly weeding alongside his father.

In addition to relying on our garden we kept two milking goats and two rabbits. Every spring we bought a hundred baby chicks. Some we kept for eggs; most, though, met their maker and ended up in the freezer alongside the vegetables.

Contrary to what we’d assumed, maintaining a successful garden required more than poking seeds in the ground and waiting for them to mature. We relied on knowledgeable neighbors for advice and read organic gardening magazines, of which some suggested that gardeners keep records of what they’d planted and when. The simple life, we discovered, was more complicated than we’d anticipated.

Life was turning out to be complicated for John Dean, as well, who testified for seven hours one day. But he’d kept records, could tell the senators what Nixon and Haldeman and Ehrlichman had said in his presence. Pulling the weeds of deception out by the roots, he was.

My glasses steamed as I lifted the racks out of the canners. One by one I carried the hot jars to the counter, lining them up on layers of dishtowels, then began the process all over again: dipping whole tomatoes into boiling water, removing their skins, putting on lids, lowering jars into the water bath.

Our garden was a political statement, something young people of the 1960s and 70s did to declare our disdain for the Establishment. We refused to buy into the capitalist dream, shunning the symbols of affluence and power. That summer everything on my little TV supported our decision. The government was corrupt, and the Watergate hearings were proving it.

Still I was shocked when on a July day, while I was stirring a batch of catsup, Alexander Butterfield testified that Nixon recorded conversations and phone calls. So there was evidence that would point to the truth. To make sure I didn’t miss anything I walked away from the pan to stand beside the TV. By the time I returned to the stove the catsup was sticking to the bottom of the pan, scorched, ruined.

Jars on my kitchen counter cooled. Every now and then a lid would ping, a sign that the jar had correctly sealed. Two at a time I carried them down the basement steps into a small dark room lined with shelves. Evidence of Jim’s and my success at being self-sufficient.

“Now I’m just a country lawyer,” Sam Erwin said, obviously shrewd in spite of his self-deprecating words. A country lawyer butting heads with urbane fellows acting as if they were above the law. Stepping away from the stove to cool off, sweeping a strand of wet hair from my face, I pictured Erwin as a young man laboring in a garden not unlike ours.

In 1973 our young bodies were agile. For hours we would bend over a hoe, work on our knees. Dirt caked our hands, got under our fingernails. Had Erwin’s hands once looked the same way? Surely the fingernails of Halderman and Ehrlichman were well manicured, their cuticles not ragged.

When I dropped in bed each night from exhaustion, in those brief moments before I fell asleep, I considered the sleepless nights many in Washington were experiencing, innocent and guilty alike. Senators Howard Baker and Lowell Weiker worrying about how the Republican Party would ever recover. Charles Colson and G. Gordon Liddy becoming aware that they might spend years in prison; Butterfield and Dean fretting about betraying those they’d worked for. Then of course, Nixon himself. He couldn’t be sleeping well.

Why was I so obsessed with watching the Watergate Hearings? In many ways they were like a soap opera, where any minute the plot takes an unexpected turn. At times I imagined I heard background music change tempo, the tune become somber, dramatic. Yet I, like many Americans, sensed that history was being made; that bringing down a president was no light matter; that the country would never be the same.

There was probably a more personal reason, as well. In spite of Jim’s and my goal of self-reliance, of our choosing to isolate ourselves from capitalist society, I recognized that we could never be separate. Just as I had vowed to stay married for better or for worse, I was a part of a country for better or for worse. I was tied to its fate.

A Future with Hope (for survivors of domestic violence)

(In cleaning my computer files, I found the following essay. I don’t recall if/where it was published but thought these words might be of help to someone right now.)

It seemed natural for Linda to take her personal problems to her pastor. He listened kindly as she described her husband’s quick temper, the way he sometimes got so mad he hit her and bruised her body. Linda needed to hear someone say, “This is wrong. God intends that the relationship between husband and wife be one of mutual respect.”
Instead, the pastor said, “Go home and try not to anger him. Jesus set an example for us: that we are to suffer for his sake. God will not give you any more to bear than you can handle.” Then Linda and her pastor knelt and prayed.

Our faith should be a source of empowerment and healing. Yet churches have more often than not failed women who live with domestic violence. Some ministers preach that divorce is a sin, or that a woman is to obey her husband. Sometimes members, refusing to accept the truth that abuse occurs in Christian homes, ignore signs that women or children in the congregation are being abused, physically or emotionally. “What happens in a family is that family’s business,” church people may say.

In Victim to Survivor: Women Recovering from Clergy Sexual Abuse, Et Al says of her childhood, “People knew of my father’s drinking and physically abusive behavior, but no one intervened or said his actions were wrong….Mama tolerated his verbal and physical abuse. She coped by trying to ignore it and sought comfort in reading Scripture or listening to the radio evangelist extol the redemptive power of suffering.”

It might seem that the church, the entire Christian tradition itself, is not to be trusted with victims’ pain. But that is not necessarily true. Within many religious bodies, attitudes about the abuse of women and children have begun to change. Clergy are being trained to respond with compassion and to assist in finding safety. People of faith are sponsoring hotlines and shelters for women and children living with domestic violence. Christian groups are bringing new eyes and open minds to passages that have traditionally been used to suppress women. At the same time they are lifting up scriptures that empower victims and help them find healing.

Denominations (Jewish and Islam organizations, as well) have been speaking out against violence in the home, forming task forces, writing official statements, training leaders on how to respond. I am most familiar with what the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has been doing. In 2001 its General Assembly approved a policy statement on domestic violence, bringing to the denomination’s attention the causes of domestic violence, efforts the church can take to prevent it, and suggestions for ministering to victims. The statement is accompanied by a study guide for individuals and groups (available through http://www.pcusa.org/phewa/resources/resources-padvn.htm).

Because abusers within the Christian tradition have often hidden behind scripture, such as “Wives, be obedient to your husbands,” groups are challenging traditional interpretations. Christians for Biblical Equality deals with abuse issues on its website: (http://www.cbeinternational.org/?q=content/abuse).

FaithTrust Institute (formerly Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence) has for many years provided leadership and materials to the various faith communities: Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Christians. On its website (http://www.faithtrustinstitute.org), FaithTrust says of its mission: “We believe that the teachings of our religious traditions have been a source of pain and confusion as well as a source of strength and healing for those facing sexual and domestic violence.”

These three groups are only a small sample of the many religious bodies speaking to the issue of domestic violence.
What recommendations do I have for victims who are also people of faith? First, don’t think for a minute that God is testing you or has placed you in that situation for a reason. Affirmation can be found in Jeremiah 29:11: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” I believe that God’s intention for us all is that we be part of loving, respectful relationships.

Second, you may want to question your own understanding of scripture. If you’ve been taught that a woman is to obey her husband or that it is her lot to suffer as Jesus suffered, read what Christians for Biblical Equality are saying. Open your mind to alternate interpretations of scripture.

Third, find a spiritual guide. Before you turn to your pastor, consider what clues he/she has provided in sermons about marriage and the relationship between a husband and wife. If the pastor has spoken of the authority of the male and against divorce in general, turn to someone else. My own pastor tells of how often women, seeing a woman’s name on the board in front of the church, come in to seek her counsel because their male pastors have only added to their pain.

My mother once told me that fifty years ago a small circle of women in her church knew that Alice was regularly raped by her husband. They knew that Martha’s husband verbally abused her. From the pulpit the pastor preached that wives were to obey their husbands and that Jesus taught us to forgive seventy times seven. This circle of women, while they felt powerless to take actions that would free Alice and Martha, listened to and offered sympathy to their victimized sisters. Fifty years ago women were helping each other the best they could. Today many communities have faith-based agencies that can direct you to local resources, such as a shelter, and offer emotional support.

Yes, it is possible to find empowerment and healing in your faith tradition. The Psalmist speaks to your pain; Jesus suffers with you. Somewhere a pastor, perhaps not the one in your own congregation, has the training and will to accompany you. Somewhere there is a circle of support, women who have walked in your shoes or compassionate people of faith who want to share God’s love.

Nancy Werking Poling
http://www.nancypoling.com
Author of Out of the Pumpkin Shell
and
Had Eve Come First and Jonah Been a Woman
Editor of Victim to Survivor: Women Recovering from Clergy Sexual Abuse