Florence worked for thirty years in the Cushmann’s Furniture factory. First in varnish and then later she was promoted to Shift Leader on the upholstery floor. Her hands were calloused from years of manual labor in the factories and motorcycle mechanics in her spare time. Not to mention, on weekends she was known to bail hay or milk cows with the men on her mother’s farm less than a half-mile down the road. The old farmers never flinched when she showed up early in the morning, hoisting the bushels into the back of the wagon. She was one of the guys. Her neice, my mother, says she’s “as cute as a button. Always was.” She also says Florence, or Flossie, as my mother called her, was never one to turn down a challenge. Her brother Joe had a big mouth, always talking a big game and then leaving the dirty work for her to clean up.
The story goes, Joe spent one hot August afternoon outside the General Store telling his friends how fast he was on Flossie’s motorcycle. Both were in their mid thirties at the time. Joe got his friends so riled up, talking shit to them that they challenged him to a race against one of the crowd’s cousins. Joe, realizing Flossie would never let him touch the bike, let alone race it, ate his words when the challenged cousin showed up outside the farmhouse. Flossie came out of the barn, wiping grease off her hands onto an old rag. Joe whimpered that he’d gotten in over his head once again, telling her how he bet the guy he could beat him on her prized bike. Flossie looked the stranger up and down, looked at Joe cowering nearby, then back at the stranger, then turned and socked Joe straight in the stomach. “That’s for getting me involved in your bullshit,” she said. “And this,” she said, stomping down on the kick start, “is for you.” With that, she peeled out of the driveway screaming, “If you catch me, you got my bike.” The stranger gave chase, but didn’t stand a chance against her. She knew those roads like the back of her hand. He would get close, only to lose her around a sharp or gravel-ridden bend. Just to keep it interesting she would slow on the flats so he could find her again, only to peel away and lose him again. He finally caught up with her when he stopped for a drink at the Eagles Auxillary downtown. There she was, pulling from a draft with her left hand, cracking open peanuts with her right. She bought him a drink and they shook hands. Flossie always did like a challenge.
Flossie met Juanita, whom the family calls “Syke” at a softball game between the Robertson’s farm and the Wilwoll’s. Syke was one of the Wilwoll boy’s friends. She came to play as catcher. She had a strong arm. Neither women spoke to one another that day, but Flossie “liked the looks of her,” she said.
Late that summer, another game was underway in the field behind the barn. Flossie was filling in for her brother, as pitcher for the Robertson’s and Syke was up to bat. No one else on the field knew how much was riding on the next few pitches. Earlier on, when both sides had stopped for iced tea and fresh strawberries, Flossie walked up behind Syke, who was leaning on a tree and whispered, “Ice cream’s on me if I strike you out next.” Syke looked horrified and suddenly Flossie was worried she’d overstepped her bounds. Syke crossed her arms and defiantly replied, “never.” Flossie’s heart stopped. “If anyone is paying, it’s me, when I hit that next pitch past the trees,” Syke said. They both smirked, Flossie made her way back to the iced tea and flopped down by one of the kids, and Syke picked up the bat to warm herself up for the next inning.
Soon the game was under way again and Syke was up to bat. Flossie tossed a few balls way right, teasingly, then let lose with a hard strike right down the middle. Syke looked mad. She furrowed her brow, dug her shoe in the dirt and twirled the bat over her shoulder. Flossie let another strike slide over home, easy this time and Syke took her chance. The bat ‘chink’ told the outfielders to look up and pay attention, but it was too late. The baseball sailed past the rabbit cages, past the flower garden and way past the trees. The boys spent the half hour between dusk and dark searching for the baseball, and Flossie and Syke went off for ice cream.
From then on they were seen all over the county on Flossie’s bike, drinking milkshakes at the diner downtown or fishing somewhere along the shady banks of the river.
When asked whether they were lovers, no one seems to have an answer. Not my mother or my aunt; my grandmother’s answer is “none of my damn business.” It doesn’t seem to matter to any of them. It doesn’t matter because to them, that’s just how it was. In the country it’s ‘live and let live.’
Flossie was a favorite among the kids. She had a big old German Shepard named “Judy” (after Judy Garland) that guarded the front door, but admittedly she wasn’t very good security. Instead of demanding respect or space when a stranger approached the door, she demanded a belly rub and a dog biscuit if you had one. Once you paid the toll to pass through, inside of the cozy two-bedroom home, Flossie’s walls were covered in bookshelves, with every classic and not so classic title imaginable. The tables were covered in half-read newspapers, or oily motorcycle parts. But despite the lack of table space, she never ceased to find a place for a few cookies and a “nip from whatever was on the top shelf,” as my mother remembers it. Her nieces and nephews recall mid-autumn afternoons spent playing chess or cards, a bit bleary eyed from the Snapp’s or Bailey’s. Juanita was known for her fresh-made strawberry jam. The kids (save my mother, who ate peanut butter and butter sandwiches every day for twelve years) had plenty of leeway when trading for collectables at school. Everyone knew how sweet and smooth that jam was. Those afternoons when Flossie was alternating between moving her chess pieces and adding wood to the woodstove or removing the boiling jars from the kettle on the stove, Juanita was busy straining every last seed out of the strawberries or adding another touch of sugar to her famous confection.
Midwinter when everyone had just about enough of the cold, Juanita would whip up some hot biscuits and bring them down to the farm with a jar of that jam and everyone would eat their fill, faces and hands covered in sticky residue.
My grandfather, whose hair had been grey since his twenties remembers them fondly. He says they were excellent horseshoe players when they were in their forties. My grandfather himself, is renowned in the Northeastern states as a master. His basement is chock full of trophies and plaques. They all used to travel to competitions together during the warmer months, arriving early to set the stakes properly and till the dirt to the perfect softness. Flossie liked to take bets on who would take first place, her or grandpa.
One competition, a few of the men complained that they didn’t think a woman she be allowed to participate, because the rules stated, “every man must sign the above binding agreement.” The real problem was that they’d heard about her and couldn’t stomach the idea of losing to a woman. My grandfather found the complainer and challenged him specifically to play against Flossie. The man threw a big fuss, but relented, saying if she lost then it would prove his point and no man would have to suffer that humiliation again. Flossie whooped his ass, playing a perfect game and my grandfather says he never saw him at a competition in the state of Vermont again.
Considering my family history, the lack of education, the back woods standard of living, it has never ceased to amaze me how little my family cares to notice difference. In fact, never once did I hear any of them ever say a disrespectful word toward anyone, any race or religion or other “minority.” I guess it just didn’t matter to them. My grandmother told me once that she had no right to judge anyone because she didn’t live a perfect life,” but there is some irony in that statement to me; if a person can go their whole life not judging other people, that seems pretty perfect to me.
Flossie and Juanita were different by most standards. No one in my family ever said it allowed, never treated them differently. They loved and were loved just like everyone else. I would imagine these truths contribute to my own sense of acceptance and thirst for equality for all people. It is my families love of the essence of a person, the goodness of a person that determines their worth, not who they choose to love or commit to, not what they are called, but who they are that has taught me how to see.