Skip to main content



American Wife

In 1954, the summer before I entered third grade, my grandmother
mistook Andrew Imhof for a girl. I’d accompanied my
grandmother to the grocery store—that morning, while reading
a novel that mentioned hearts of palm, she’d been seized by a
desire to have some herself and had taken me along on the walk to
town—and it was in the canned-goods section that we
encountered Andrew, who was with his mother. Not being of the same
generation, Andrew’s mother and my grandmother weren’t
friends, but they knew each other the way people in Riley,
Wisconsin, did. Andrew’s mother was the one who approached
us, setting her hand against her chest and saying to my
grandmother, “Mrs. Lindgren, it’s Florence Imhof. How
are you?”

Andrew and I had been classmates for as long as we’d been
going to school, but we merely eyed each other without speaking. We
both were eight. As the adults chatted, he picked up a can of peas
and held it by securing it between his flat palm and his chin, and
I wondered if he was showing off.

This was when my grandmother shoved me a little. “Alice, say
hello to Mrs. Imhof.” As I’d been taught, I extended my
hand. “And isn’t your daughter darling,” my
grandmother continued, gesturing toward Andrew, “but I
don’t believe I know her name.”

A silence ensued during which I’m pretty sure Mrs. Imhof was
deciding how to correct my grandmother. At last, touching her
son’s shoulder, Mrs. Imhof said, “This is Andrew. He
and Alice are in the same class over at the school.”

My grandmother squinted. “Andrew, did you say?” She
even turned her head, angling her ear as if she were hard of
hearing, though I knew she wasn’t. She seemed to willfully
refuse the pardon Mrs. Imhof had offered, and I wanted to tap my
grandmother’s arm, to tug her over so her face was next to
mine and say, “Granny, he’s a boy!” It had never
occurred to me that Andrew looked like a girl—little about
Andrew Imhof had occurred to me at that time in my life—but
it was true that he had unusually long eyelashes framing hazel
eyes, as well as light brown hair that had gotten a bit shaggy over
the summer. However, his hair was long only for that time and for a
boy; it was still far shorter than mine, and there was nothing
feminine about the chinos or red-and-white-checked shirt he

“Andrew is the younger of our two sons,” Mrs. Imhof
said, and her voice contained a new briskness, the first hint of
irritation. “His older brother is Pete.”

“Is that right?” My grandmother finally appeared to
grasp the situation, but grasping it did not seem to have made her
repentant. She leaned forward and nodded at Andrew—he still
was holding the peas—and said, “It’s a pleasure
to make your acquaintance. You be sure my granddaughter behaves
herself at school. You can report back to me if she

Andrew had said nothing thus far—it was not clear he’d
been paying enough attention to the conversation to understand that
his gender was in dispute—but at this he beamed: a
closed-mouth but enormous smile, one that I felt implied,
erroneously, that I was some sort of mischief-maker and he would
indeed be keeping his eye on me. My grandmother, who harbored a
lifelong admiration for mischief, smiled back at him like a
conspirator. After she and Mrs. Imhof said goodbye to each other
(our search for hearts of palm had, to my grandmother’s
disappointment if not her surprise, proved unsuccessful), we turned
in the opposite direction from them. I took my grandmother’s
hand and whispered to her in what I hoped was a chastening tone,

Not in a whisper at all, my grandmother said, “You
don’t think that child looks like a girl? He’s
downright pretty!”


“Well, it’s not his fault, but I can’t believe
I’m the first one to make that mistake. His eyelashes are an
inch long.”

As if to verify her claim, we both turned around. By then we were
thirty feet from the Imhofs, and Mrs. Imhof had her back to us,
leaning toward a shelf. But Andrew was facing my grandmother and
me. He still was smiling slightly, and when my eyes met his, he
lifted his eyebrows twice.

“He’s flirting with you!” my grandmother

“What does ‘flirting’ mean?”

She laughed. “It’s when a person likes you, so they try
to catch your attention.”

Andrew Imhof liked me? Surely, if the information had been
delivered by an adult—and not just any adult but my wily
grandmother—it had to be true. Andrew liking me seemed
neither thrilling nor appalling; mostly, it just seemed unexpected.
And then, having considered the idea, I dismissed it. My
grandmother knew about some things, but not the social lives of
eight-year-olds. After all, she hadn’t even recognized Andrew
as a boy.

In the house I grew up in, we were four: my grandmother, my
parents, and me. On my father’s side, I was a
third-generation only child, which was greatly unusual in those
days. While I certainly would have liked a sibling, I knew from an
early age not to mention it—my mother had miscarried twice by
the time I was in first grade, and those were just the pregnancies
I knew about, the latter occurring when she was five months along.
Though the miscarriages weighted my parents with a quiet sadness,
our family as it was seemed evenly balanced. At dinner, we each sat
on one side of the rectangular table in the dining room; heading up
the sidewalk to church, we could walk in pairs; in the summer, we
could split a box of Yummi-Freez ice-cream bars; and we could play
euchre or bridge, both of which they taught me when I was ten and
which we often enjoyed on Friday and Saturday nights.

Although my grandmother possessed a rowdy streak, my parents were
exceedingly considerate and deferential to each other, and for
years I believed this mode to be the norm among families and saw
all other dynamics as an aberration. My best friend from early
girlhood was Dena Janaszewski, who lived across the street, and I
was constantly shocked by what I perceived to be Dena’s, and
really all the Janaszewskis’, crudeness and volume: They
hollered to one another from between floors and out windows; they
ate off one another’s plates at will, and Dena and her two
younger sisters constantly grabbed and poked at one another’s
braids and bottoms; they entered the bathroom when it was occupied;
and more shocking than the fact that her father once said
goddamn in my presence—his exact words, entering the
kitchen, were “Who took my goddamn hedge
clippers?”—was the fact that neither Dena, her mother,
nor her sisters seemed to even notice.

In my own family, life was calm. My mother and father occasionally
disagreed—a few times a year he would set his mouth in a firm
straight line, or the corners of her eyes would draw down with a
kind of wounded disappointment—but it happened infrequently,
and when it did, it seemed unnecessary to express aloud. Merely
sensing discord, whether in the role of inflictor or recipient,
pained them enough.

My father had two mottoes, the first of which was
“Fools’ names and fools’ faces often appear in
public places.” The second was “Whatever you are, be a
good one.” I never knew the source of the first motto, but
the second came from Abraham Lincoln. By profession, my father
worked as the branch manager of a bank, but his great
passion—his hobby, I suppose you’d say, which seems to
be a thing not many people have anymore unless you count searching
the Internet or talking on cell phones—was bridges. He
especially admired the majesty of the Golden Gate Bridge and once
told me that during its construction, the contractor had arranged,
at great expense, for an enormous safety net to run beneath it.
“That’s called employer responsibility,” my
father said. “He wasn’t just worried about
profit.” My father closely followed the building of both the
Mackinac Bridge in Michigan—he called it the Mighty
Mac—and later, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which, upon
completion in 1964, would connect Brooklyn and Staten Island and be
the largest suspension bridge in the world.

My parents both had grown up in Milwaukee and met in 1943, when my
mother was eighteen and working in a glove factory, and my father
was twenty and working at a branch of Wisconsin State Bank &
Trust. They struck up a conversation in a soda shop, and were
engaged by the time my father enlisted in the army. After the war
ended, they married and moved forty-five miles west to Riley, my
father’s mother in tow, so he could open a branch of the bank
there. My mother never again held a job. As a housewife, she had a
light touch—she did not seem overburdened or cranky, she
didn’t remind the rest of us how much she did—and yet
she sewed many of her own and my clothes, kept the house
meticulous, and always prepared our meals. The food we ate was
acceptable more often than delicious; she favored pan-broiled
steak, or noodle and cheese loafs, and she taught me her recipes in
a low-key, literal way, never explaining why I needed to know them.
Why wouldn’t I need to know them? She was endlessly
patient and a purveyor of small, sweet gestures: Without
commenting, she’d leave pretty ribbons or peppermint candies
on my bed or, on my bureau, a single flower in a three-inch

My mother was the second youngest of eight siblings, none of whom
we saw frequently. She had five brothers and two sisters, and only
one of her sisters, my Aunt Marie, who was married to a mechanic
and had six children, had ever come to Riley. When my
mother’s parents were still alive, we’d drive to visit
them in Milwaukee, but they died within ten days of each other when
I was six, and after that we’d go years without seeing my
aunts, uncles, and cousins. My impression was that their houses all
were small and crowded, filled with the squabbling of children and
the smell of sour milk, and the men were terse and the women were
harried; in a way that was not cruel, none of them appeared to be
particularly interested in us. We visited less and less the older I
got, and my father’s mother never went along, although
she’d ask us to pick up schnecken from her favorite German
bakery. In my childhood, there was a relieved feeling that came
over me when we drove away from one of my aunt’s or
uncle’s houses, a feeling I tried to suppress because I knew
even then that it was unchristian. Without anyone in my immediate
family saying so, I came to understand that my mother had chosen
us; she had chosen our life together over one like her
siblings’, and the fact that she’d been able to choose
made her lucky.

Like my mother, my grandmother did not hold a job after the move to
Riley, but she didn’t really join in the upkeep of the house,
either. In retrospect, I’m surprised that her unhelpfulness
did not elicit resentment from my mother, but it truly seems that
it didn’t. I think my mother found her mother-in-law
entertaining, and in a person who entertains us, there is much we
forgive. Most afternoons, when I returned home from school, the two
of them were in the kitchen, my mother paused between chores with
an apron on or a dust rag over her shoulder, listening intently as
my grandmother recounted a magazine article she’d just
finished about, say, the mysterious murder of a mobster’s
girlfriend in Chicago.

My grandmother never vacuumed or swept, and only rarely, if my
parents weren’t home or my mother was sick, would she cook,
preparing dishes notable mostly for their lack of nutrition: An
entire dinner could consist of fried cheese or half-raw pancakes.
What my grandmother did do was read; this was the primary way she
spent her time. It wasn’t unusual for her to complete a book
a day—she preferred novels, especially the Russian masters,
but she also read histories, biographies, and pulpy
mysteries—and for hours and hours every morning and
afternoon, she sat either in the living room or on top of her bed
(the bed would be made, and she would be fully dressed), turning
pages and smoking Pall Malls. From early on, I understood that the
household view of my grandmother, which is to say my parents’
view, was not simply that she was both smart and frivolous but that
her smartness and her frivolity were intertwined. That she could
tell you all about the curse of the Hope Diamond, or about
cannibalism in the Donner Party—it wasn’t that she
ought to be ashamed, exactly, to possess such knowledge, but there
was no reason for her to be proud of it, either. The tidbits she
relayed were interesting, but they had little to do with real life:
paying a mortgage, scrubbing a pan, keeping warm in the biting cold
of Wisconsin winters.

I’m pretty sure that rather than resisting this less than
flattering view of herself, my grandmother shared it. In another
era, I imagine she’d have made an excellent book critic for a
newspaper, or even an English professor, but she’d never
attended college, and neither had my parents. My
grandmother’s husband, my father’s father, had died
early, and as a young widow, my grandmother had gone to work in a
ladies’ dress shop, waiting on Milwaukee matrons who, as she
told it, had money but not taste. She’d held this job until
the age of fifty—fifty was older then than it is now—at
which point she’d moved to Riley with my newlywed

My grandmother borrowed the majority of the books she read from the
library, but she bought some, too, and these she kept in her
bedroom on a shelf so full that every ledge contained two rows; it
reminded me of a girl in my class, Pauline Geisseler, whose adult
teeth had grown in before her baby teeth fell out and who would
sometimes, with a total lack of self-consciousness, open her mouth
for us at recess. My grandmother almost never read aloud to me, but
she regularly took me to the library—I read and reread the
Laura Ingalls Wilder books, and both the Nancy Drew and the Hardy
Boys series—and my grandmother often summarized the grown-up
books she’d read in tantalizing ways: A well-bred married
woman falls in love with a man who is not her husband; after her
husband learns of the betrayal, she has no choice but to throw
herself in the path of an oncoming train . . .

Excerpted from AMERICAN WIFE © Copyright 2011 by Curtis
Sittenfeld. Reprinted with permission by Random House. All rights

Back to

American Wife
by by Curtis Sittenfeld

  • Genres: Fiction
  • hardcover: 576 pages
  • Publisher: Random House
  • ISBN-10: 1400064759
  • ISBN-13: 9781400064755