Katie Botkin

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Aunt Nancy

A Letter from Katie Botkin in Iowa:

Katie in her grandmother’s taffeta ball gown. Photo by Matt Stauss.

My great-aunt Nancy is 82, and she still lives in the house the Swedes, her own grandparents, built in 1885. In 1977, she came back to help take care of her mother and father, and the farm. In fact, she has been taking care of the farm off and on since she was a child. She says she has the “agrarian imperative” that my grandmother never felt, and she still wears her faded blonde hair in two braids folded over the top of her head, and as we sit in the cool interior of the big house, which her father built in the 1950s, she tells me of the time she learned first to braid. She skipped out to tell her father, Oscar, that she could. She expected him to be thrilled with this new skill. Instead, he turned to her and said, soberly, but approvingly, “It is good to be independent.”

My grandmother, who is ten years older, did all the glamorous stuff — worked in New York in the fashion industry, went to Europe, decided she wanted to live there, had exciting boyfriends who painted her picture and bought her silk that she made into ball gowns. One of these gowns fits me, very snugly. Or it did a couple of years ago, when I was almost emaciated. The waist is all of 22 inches.

Aunt Nancy wonders aloud how anybody could be that skinny. And I’ve never thought about it before, but I’m glad that not everyone in the world wants to run away to Paris and be glamorous. I mean, I do, but if everyone did, I would never have experienced the farm, had these memories, come back from Europe to this.


The letter in the basement

Photo by Katie Botkin.

A Letter from Katie Botkin in Iowa:

One of the things that I do when I come to the farm is tiptoe around the basement and peek into drawers. The ancient trunks are so fragile that I don’t dare disturb them, but I look at the children’s toys from the 1950s, and crack open one or two of the books on the shelves.

USSR, the story of Soviet Russia, printed in 1944, has the mysterious inscription on the front page: “to Melchior, who once took a mote from mine eye.”

There’s a cigar box at least 50 years old that I discover contains nothing but chalk sticks and sawdust. I find a paint box with crumpled-up envelopes folded inside to protect things. I unfold one and gold paint dust comes off on my hands, and I can read the spidery writing, postmarked 1923.

I think my favorite thing I ever found in this basement was a memo my grandfather wrote when he married my grandmother. It was addressed to his geophysics company, and to the best of my memory, went something like this:

“To seismologists, computers:

“May it be known that John N. Botkin disappeared the morning of —, and turned up irrevocably married to one Halcyon Heline, a farm girl from Iowa.”


Stories from my grandmothers

The grandmothers. Photo by Katie Botkin.

A Letter from Katie Botkin in Iowa:

Grandma, my mother’s mom, and Grandmother, my father’s mom, are talking at the table. Grandmother is telling stories of Europe after the war. She went over on a steamer with her mother and her father, who worked with the president’s farm bureau at the time. Her father was interested in what was going on agriculturally in the countries that were just coming out of the war.

“He wore a nice hat, and a nice overcoat, and he looked prosperous. When he told them his credentials, they treated him like a senator or something. When we were in Berlin — I think it was Berlin — Berlin was nothing but a pile of bricks — they gave us our own rail car. It was all done in red velvet,” says Grandmother.

Meanwhile, she had made friends with people on the steamer ship to Europe, and managed to find a job with the American Embassy in Paris. So she ended up staying in Paris for a few years.

“You were very brave to do that, so young,” says Grandma.

“It didn’t occur to me to be afraid,” says Grandmother. She talks about one of her colleagues at the Embassy, a girl who had been living in England. “She said she was always hungry. When she heard there were jobs in Paris, she said, I’m going to get one, so that I can eat,” says Grandmother. “She learned French in something like three weeks so she could take the test to work there. She was very determined and very bright.”


Arriving at the farm

Three generations on the farm’s tractor. Photo by Katie Botkin.

A Letter from Katie Botkin in Iowa:

I land in the Midwest and call my dad, who has come to pick me up from the airport for a family reunion. I’d left Paris when it was still dark, and about 22 hours later, it starts to get dark again in Iowa. I fall asleep in the back seat as we head into corn and bean fields, out to the farm where my ancestors have lived for approximately the last 150 years. The Swedes came over and eked a life from the prairie, building one house, and then another. In the 1950s, my great-grandfather built yet another house, and this is where I go now, through the screen door I have been opening at every family reunion since I’ve been big enough to reach the handle.

I arrive at the farm at around 11 p.m. and my grandmother wakes up. I go into her little bedroom and kiss her. “Hello, Grandmother,” I say “I’ve come all the way from Paris today just to see you.”

“Well,” says my grandmother, who lived in Paris herself for awhile “Isn’t that nice.”



A cruise on the Seine

Cruise on the Seine in Paris

Photo by Katie Botkin.

A Letter from Katie Botkin in France:

In Paris, I’m attending Localization World, which is basically concerned with how to make money in other languages, or at least other cultures. Part of the backstage production involves how to get attendees from the conference venue to our cruise for dinner. We’re paying nearly 100 euros for this dinner cruise on Le Paquebot, supposedly the biggest ship on the Seine, so we’re expecting good service.

There are busses all arranged, and I go down and find them outside the Palais des Congres without too much trouble. So far, so good. I jump in. It’s egregiously hot inside, and the Italian man across from me starts to complain. I run to the front of the bus and ask the driver to turn the air on. He obliges, and we’re off.

We pass the Arc de Triomphe, and make our way to the Eiffel tower. We descend to a small quay and the driver stops. Everyone gets out. Unfortunately, where there should be a luxurious dinner boat, there is nothing. Everyone stands around waiting for something to happen. I go off to the nearest boat to see if maybe they’ve forgotten to put out the welcome sign for us, but it’s locked. By the time I get back, someone has figured out that we’re on the wrong quay. The bus driver is attempting to explain this in English, but it isn’t working very well. I step in, and he switches to French, pointing down to where the boat is actually waiting. I can’t go there easily in a bus, he tells me, but it’s a three-minute walk, just on the other side of the Parisian miniature of the Statue of Liberty.

So I lead the crowd to the boat, where there’s a whole committee standing with plastered-on smiles and a strained look in their eye. We’re the first bus to make it to the destination, which is not a promising sign.

We wait for awhile, and others trickle in, some on foot, some by way of the busses. Apparently, their busses got lost as well, but the drivers were able to work it out to close proximity. Soon, there is only one bus missing. Someone checks Twitter. There’s a tweet from a passenger: the bus has gotten stopped by the police because the driver was talking on his cell phone trying to work out where exactly the quay was. At this point, a group of passengers decided to take matters into their own hands, got off the bus in the middle of traffic, and started walking. In the wrong direction.

Chastised by the police, but duly notified of where to go, the last bus driver escorts his remaining passengers to the boat. They get out. The welcome committee waits for the last twenty people or so, nervously checking the time. The boat is almost two hours behind schedule. It starts to rain. Ten more minutes, they say. We’re only waiting ten more minutes.

The last twenty appear down the alleyway, dressed for dinner in their heels and ruffles. They approach, clop-clop-clop, and march down the gangplank, plunk-plunk-plunk. They are hungry, as is everyone else, but dinner hasn’t been served yet, because the boat hasn’t left.

When it is served, it’s a bit sparse, although it’s tasty. We float past Notre Dame, we float under the Pont Neuf, we have prolonged views of the glittering Eiffel tower. I decide that the price of entry must have been for the experience. Paris by night isn’t bad, even in the rain.

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