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Weekend at Mom’s – or – She Ain’t Goin’ Gentle

What would we do without our mothers? copy

Everybody needs a mom. Image credit here.

Day I

Mom greets me at the door with life-changing news: She has ordered green-lipped mussel oil!

“Larry King uses it.”

Mom’s intentions are golden. She is going to cure a family member of a chronic illness. She has found the solution the doctors have missed. I am to learn all about the oil from her and then deliver it to the intended recipient along with the proper instructions.

We sit together, and I listen.

“Here, read the booklet.”

I read the booklet. I open the jar and sniff. I think about popping a capsule into my mouth and biting it when a vision intrudes, and I change my mind. A sea of terrified faces implores me with countless sets of tiny green lips. The word “lips” has personalized the creatures whose juices I am about to suck.

“And it comes with this DVD.”

“Well, that is very thoughtful of you, Mom.”

“All the way from New Zealand!”

“I see.”

“Now make sure Susan takes the oil each day for 30 days so I can call and have the next shipment cancelled if it doesn’t help. Well…they might have already sent the second shipment by then, so I would just have to cancel the third one. I gave them my credit card, you know.”

“Have you mentioned this to Susan? I really think you should discuss this with Susan.”

“They say 4-6 capsules daily for the first 30 days but I think that’s too much. Just tell her to take 2-4.”

(sigh)

Day II

The following day, I get up early and make breakfast. After that, I squire my Mom to Sunday school and church. My stepfather Seamus takes us all out for a hearty lunch. Following a gorgeous walk with my husband Henry, the family eats a dinner prepared by my sister, Gwen. We make sure–Gwen, Henry, and I–to be kind, attentive, and helpful throughout. Mom is a big talker, and we listen actively and respectfully. She has stored up many words and opinions, and the pressure has to be released. What is Wrong with the World Today receives special attention. We take care of all of the cooking and washing up.

At long last, it is time for me to curl up and introvert. Luscious!

“Jane, are you ready to watch the DVD about the mussels?”

Uh oh.

“Actually, Mom, I think I’ll pass.”

(exhales loudly) “Well, I’m surprised at you, Jane! Why not? This could be the key to Susan’s recovery.”

“It would feel like work Mom. And I’ll be taking the DVD to Susan anyway. I think I’d rather relax.”

(huffs) “Well, I bet Henry would like to watch it with me.”

He takes one for the team. I owe him big time.

Day III

Mom produces a page-and-a-half of yellow legal paper. She has handwritten a recipe she has been wanting to try.

“Here is the tuna casserole recipe. Thank you so much for doing this. I really need to lie down for a bit.”

“Sure, Mom! Happy to!”

Mom is worn out. She wanders over to the sofa for a nap. Mom is thrilled that we have finally come to visit but entertaining is exhausting. Who knows what we might get up to if she isn’t there to assist? Did I mention that Henry is 53, I am 52, and Gwen is 50? Mom is…it would not be polite to tell you, now would it?

Mom starts to drift off to sleep. But for the sounds of cooking and the subdued drone of the news channel, the house falls silent.

Following her directions religiously, I place the flaked tuna in the bottom of the pan and dribble the lemon juice–fresh squeezed!–over it. The shredded cheese, peas, and cooked noodles are mixed together and stand off to the side, waiting. I am halfway through cooking the sauce.

The silence does not last long. I feel a disturbance in the air and–

“Did you sprinkle the lemon juice over the tuna?”

“Yes. I used fresh lemons like you said to.”

“How much did you use?”

“The recipe didn’t give an amount. I just guessed.”

Mom’s gaze releases the Pyrex pan and fixates on the stove top.

“I think you are going to have to double that sauce recipe. It doesn’t look like you have enough to cover everything going into the pan.”

“Ok, Mom. No problem.”

I double the sauce recipe, and Mom disappears around the corner. For a moment.

Gwen enters the kitchen with a basket of dirty laundry. She turns the washer knob, activating a siren call. Mom materializes.

“Be sure not to overfill the washer.”

“Ok, Mom.”

“Here, let me. I want to make sure the load is balanced.”

“Ok, Mom.”

“Now remember. Once the washer fills, you have to use this plunger to push the clothes below the water level.”

(sigh) “I’m not going to do that, Mom.”

Gwen and I engage our psychic connection.

“No, really. You want to be sure the clothes are good and wet so they get clean.”

(silent lip biting)

“Just stand here and wait for it to fill so you can plunge it.”

(silent lip biting + rapid eye blinking + quivering nostrils.)

My mother is providing instructions in the use of her top-quality, high-capacity machine in excellent condition.

My mother is providing instructions in the use of a washing machine to her top-quality, high-capacity daughter in adult condition.

Mom pads out of the kitchen and back to the sofa. Gwen is watching the washer fill. I am crushing potato chips for the top of the casserole. We feel the pressure of each other’s eyeballs, look up, and silently message one another.

The washer has filled and begins to agitate. Gwen is not-plunging, and the sound of not-plunging pierces the air.

The end of the world still has not come. Gwen leaves the laundry room and steps around the corner. I relax and begin to arrange my potato-chip blanket.

The washer lid flies open. Plunging happens.

Mom, risen from the dead, has sneaked behind me to save the load of laundry and the future of the Western world.

Satisfied, she starts for the sofa a third time. But first, she checks my work.

“Are you sure you have crushed enough potato chips? I think you need more.”

Exit Mom. Enter Gwen.

(stage whispers above the kitchen noises) “Mom was plunging.”

“No!”

“She was. She was plunging.”

We are wound too tightly. We have swallowed exasperation, suppressed disrespect, spared feelings, and avoided mutiny. We have painted ourselves into a corner, and there is only one way out.

Gwen and I lock eyes in agreement.

I begin first. I bob my head like a chicken to the rhythm of the washer. Gwen joins in, swaying. We dance tentatively at first. Naughty snickers escape our lips. Shh, Mom is trying to sleep! Shhhhhh!

Soon we are stepping, gyrating, and waving our arms, our tribal dance growing in fervor. Pig snorts and raspberries escape in spite of tightly clenched lips.

We can’t stop, and we don’t want to.

By the time Mom rounds the bend a fourth time, our recovery is nigh.

Mommy! She laughs at us and with us. Mom is as she always was, though we may have to work a bit harder to find her. In the end, it is a small price we pay, a light yoke we bear, to uphold this sacred trust. It is our honor to protect her from inconsequence.

Postscript.: In my last post, I promised I’d publish a shout-out to the first person to guess the rationale behind my naming of a particular silly photo. The winner was Elaine Hill of Burtonsville, MD. She correctly guessed that the woman had not yet been “deflowered.”

Is green-lipped mussel oil is any good? I don’t know. Do Olympic athletes use it? I have no idea! But apparently a good number of Olympians trust Shaklee nutritional products. I know this because I became curious after talking with Elaine, and I did a bit of googling. Elaine is a Shaklee distributor, by the way, and she seems to know her stuff. Feel free to stop by her website and pick her brain.

Just so you know–I am not affiliated with Shaklee, and I have not been compensated for this mention.

 

 

 

 

 

Everlasting Gobstopper

Image courtesy of weheartit.com

Image courtesy of weheartit.com

Below, I have typed out a typical after-dinner conversation during what I am going to designate the I Didn’t Inhale Stage of early childhood development. I pause here for a nod to Bill Clinton, who attempted to set voters’ minds at ease during his first run for the presidency by explaining that while he had smoked marijuana, he hadn’t actually inhaled.

Did your kids go through this stage too? Though mine never went on to argue the situational definition of the word is (Sorry, Bill. Couldn’t resist!), I admit to being quite impressed at their dexterity. I thought you had to have an advanced degree to perpetrate these types of mental gymnastics.

One of my daughters was particularly adept. I have no doubts about her character development but let’s just say that if she ever decides to go into business, you’d all better hold on to your wallets.

Daughter: May I have some dessert?

Me: Sure. (giving her the dessert)

Daughter: (contented silence follows, after which daughter looks up with messy face) May I have more dessert?

Me: No. I think you’ve had enough for now.

Daughter: But I didn’t like it.

Me: Oh. I’m sorry you didn’t like it.

Daughter: (decisive) No, I didn’t like it. So I want some more.

Me: No, honey.

Daughter: (becoming agitated) But I didn’t like it! I didn’t like it!

Many other variants on this conversation took place. Imagine my dragging a tantrumming child out of Chuck-E-Cheese after an adrenaline-filled morning of gambling. Uh–playing, playing! I meant to say playing. For crying out loud! What is wrong with you people?

Me: Time go home for lunch and a rest.

Daughter: But I didn’t have fun! I didn’t have fun!

I have mixed feelings as I recall those days. I see our children’s tears of disillusionment and hear their protests. Their distress was very real and surprisingly pure. My daughters cried out to me to right what they perceived as injustice as surely as they would have sought me if a bully had yanked the lollipops from their mouths or the Pokémon cards from their sweaty little hands.

How could the dessert be gone if they were not sated? How could play time be over if they had not grown tired of playing? I was supposed to be their savior. But my NO could easily have cast me as persecutor. I was such a meanie.

It’s funny to think about now. But probably only because this was a battle they never had a chance of winning. Thank goodness. Envision the sort of adults they might have become had their coups succeeded! I can imagine any number of “rules” they might have extrapolated from their experience. Here are a few which come immediately to mind:

  1. Your job is to make me happy.
  2. It’s not over until I say it’s over.
  3. I get to have my cake and eat it too.
  4. Life is supposed to be fair—and I get to define fair.
  5. I am a victim.
  6. You owe me.
  7. It’s all about me.
  8. I shouldn’t feel pain.
  9. Rules are for other people.
  10. You are responsible for my feelings.

I hadn’t thought about this brief period for years. I might have forgotten this stage altogether if not for the surprising Summer of 2011.

Niko: I know we agreed that Hanna and I would only stay for four weeks…but not having the use of your computer made it impossible for us to do the activities and see the sights we had wanted to. I am certain that if we just stay a few more weeks, we can accomplish the things we want to do and still make this vacation a success.

SO.

We’ve decided to extend our visit by a few weeks.

Is that ok?

Me: I understand your frustration but that won’t work for us. Whether or not you extend is your choice but you will still have to leave our house on the agreed-upon date. I’m sorry, the answer is no.

Niko: But I didn’t have fun.

This post is part of The Story of Hanna, a true tale of love, friendship, betrayal, loss, and aging. Hanna was my best friend for over 30 years. Until the Terrible Summer of 2011 when things went terribly awry. For the prior installment click here. For the next installment, click here.

Hunger

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

Some nights my eyes flutter open just as I am drifting off. Panic rises in my chest. I curl into my hollow, scooped-out belly. Tears quiver and shudder, silent in the darkness, born of feelings which slumber when I am awake.

I need my mother.

I need to touch her and smell her. I need to drink her in for the day she no longer walks the earth.

I don’t understand the urgent messages which bypass my logic and shake my body. Maybe they are not meant to be understood, for to analyze them is to diminish their pull and mystery.

My flesh issues from hers. Our viscera are forever bound, transmitting dispatches almost too subtle to apprehend. Only in the gloaming of sleep can they find their mark.

I am a defenseless child, sniffling in the night: Mommy!

She is blinking back sleep when I arrive around 9 p.m. on Saturday for a two-day stay. I love her for primping, yet it distresses me to see her curling-ironed hair and powdered face. I want Mom au Natural, the mother of my youth, who appears once this old girl stops caring about appearances. I love her naked face and her straight, fly-away hair. I love her mom musk. It’s just a little bit stinky.

We hug, and we can’t let go. Who is clinging to whom? I feel her still-strong back under the thin padding of age, and I am reassured despite her stoop and slowing gait. I breathe into her neck, and I nuzzle her whiskers, which both scratch and soothe. I kiss her cheek, and I kiss her cheek again. I hug her, and I kiss her cheek once more. I cannot release her. Stay with me forever, Mommy!

My mother looks weary and fragile in the bright lights as she moves about the kitchen with intentional steps. Her efforts are redolent of Estee Lauder and longing. And meatloaf, of course. She has my dinner warmed and ready, just in case. Just in case her girl is hungry. Tit for tat. We are both starved.

I eat. Every bite is delicious. I am afraid of taking too many nibbles, of eating her all up. She must be protected, conserved.

I command: Tell me when you want breakfast, and I will make it. Whatever you want. I want to serve you for a change.

She wants to please me. She tolerates my efforts the same way she managed those 8 a.m. Mother’s Day breakfasts in bed. Soon she is up from the table and bustling. She can’t help herself. Her love is palpable. But more than love is involved in these appetites. My mother must feed me so that I can feed her.

She consumes me hesitantly at first, without appearing to do so. Her hunger is gentle and timid, and I can bear it.

Mom was gifted but under-educated, insightful but unaffirmed. She has become opinionated but difficult to confront. She lacks the confidence to mount overt challenges, preferring sidelong jabs instead. She remains independent but lonely. My mother is so proud of me, so pleased to see me, that she has to check herself. Over the next two days, we walk and talk. We eat and talk. She talks and talks and talks, my listening presence both validation and repast.

I listen raptly and study her intently, filling my larder with rations I hope will not have to last for the rest of my life.

I see her crazy eyebrow hairs, her still-beautiful face. I pore over her fingers, which are bent into unnatural shapes by the slow progress of arthritis. I know her secret and take her right hand, needing to touch her palm. The graft from her stomach is brown and baby soft where she reached up and grabbed her mother’s scalding coffee. It comforts me.

I spread my spiritual arms to luxuriate in presence and in memory. Cookies baked, stories told, brows smoothed, books read. Gwen and Mom and I squeezed into a wing chair, one girl nestled on either side, as she reads The Wind in the Willows. I see us at the dining table with our friends as she supervises the annual gingerbread house and cookie decorating event. I can think of no other mother who allowed such prodigious, glorious, mess making! I recall her guided adventures through the wilderness of the forbidden creek. I feel pride in the fact that she was always chosen second—after Mr. Plotnick–for neighborhood baseball. You should haves seen her at bat! I hear her outrageous howl as she watches British television. My father never failed to become apoplectic over her “raucous laughter,” and that was part of the fun. Our walks around the sprawling suburban block with our terrier, Bonnie, were not chores, but events.

I have the best Mom ever! In my softened state, I am a honey-filled sponge.

I stockpile as fast as I can. I jump at every crumb.

My mother is filling as well, although she lags behind me. I wonder if age is responsible. She has regained some of her energy and form and is in touch with her hunger. In fact, she is becoming plucky.

By Monday morning I note signs of my impending saturation.

My mother doesn’t listen. Not really. She loves me beyond measure. This I know. But she has difficulty listening. Viewpoints and choices outside her range of comfort do not register–or they do not register as valid, which is almost the same thing and likely worse.

Mom asks me about myself. I open my mouth, and my responses become convenient segues into her stories. Another time, I feel tender enough to risk the slow wade into grief over the sudden death of our beloved Demont, a friend and brother since college despite infrequent contact in recent years.

My mother makes the attempt to hear me. She does. She tunes in closely when I speak of his daughter. I lament: How will she pay for college now? Aha. The fact that Shereen was born out of wedlock signals to my mother that her suspicions about Demont, whom she had warmly welcomed into her home on several occasions, have been warranted all along.

Oh, look! Mom notices something interesting as we drive the rolling hills. Demont is forgotten. Mom points out the window and begins to narrate passing scenes. She repeats stories I already know. I don’t think she knows how I feel or what has taken place. And I don’t tell her.

In the past, I have gently confronted my mother about her religious and political tirades. I have told her how anxious and trapped I feel when she goes on and on, assuming I am on the same bandwagon or that I need to be instructed about The Ways of the World. My mother is often able to curb her diatribes, at least in the short term, though leakage inevitably occurs.

Last year, she asked me point blank: Do you think I am racially prejudiced? I gave a point-blank answer: Yes. A long walk-and-talk was required. She was Very Hurt and Misunderstood. I used all my counseling skills and let her pick my bones clean. I velveted my paws out of love but I did not recant. What I did do, and this is not necessarily admirable, was spin her around with words which left her unsure of my meaning so that she, none the wiser, took from our talk the apology she needed in order to reassure herself that she is a Good Person.

Arguing back doesn’t hold much promise for change. I am not one to bang my head against the wall repeatedly just to see if the wall is still hard. My mother is doing the best she knows how, and she does work at expanding her views. She has come much farther than her parents and brother. I’ll give her credit for her efforts. And some sighs as well: Has she not noticed that our children have begun to stay away?

By the time I pack my bag, I am close to fed up. Mom’s logic is emotional, squishy. She is sentimental. With dewy eyes, she must touch, squeeze, hug, pat, and rub to better draw out my juices. I have reverted to childhood defenses: I am hard and smooth and logical. I cannot not tolerate this slop.

I feel guilty accepting the half-peck of peaches, the tub of gummi worms, the two bars of Belgian chocolate, the three bags of dog treats, the four jars of jam, and the partridge in the pear tree. I know I am starting to have unkind thoughts. Damn her, anyway. I do not want to see her I’m-trying-to-be-brave smile and martyred gaze as I step into my car. I do not want to know that I am leaving her unsatisfied, the visit an hors d’oeuvre, a down payment. Love has become an intellectual phenomenon, and I need to get the hell out of here.

It’s been just over a week since my return. My stomach is starting to rumble.

America’s Breadbasket

Mom's bread drawer May, 2015

If you want to solve world hunger, look no farther than my mother’s bread drawer. This is what it looked like after she and my stepfather hosted four of us for the weekend. I don’t think this photo could possibly do it justice. We must have looked underfed because Mom sent my stepfather out Saturday afternoon to buy dinner rolls.

In preparation for our brief visit, my mother had done a little shopping. In other words, there was enough food to feed every creature on Noah’s ark.

I haven’t decided if I’m joking. My mother has the best-fed critters around. She lives in the country, and I bet her neighbors love her. Especially the ones who hunt. The birds and squirrels are fed year ‘round, and the deer get corn in the winter. Her “pet” chipmunk eats Cheerios on the front porch. Have you ever seen a fat Greyhound? Me neither. We try to get to her before she gets to our dog. This is a hereditary condition, apparently, and I will have to manage my risk factors. My grandfather used to hand feed racoons from his back yard. His neighbors loved him too.

I try to tell my mother to take it easy. Another part of me loves that I still get to wake up to the smell of coffee and a Mom bustling around the kitchen.

I can offer to plan the food, shop and cook, and she will say yes, but somehow we always end up doing things her way. I don’t think she entirely trusts me. She still hovers over me while I cook.

There was a time when I experienced a certain Shadenfreude but I have good-naturedly surrendered it. I no longer try to coax–or corner–her into eating curries and Korean pancakes. The last really naughty thing I did was about two years ago during one of her visits to us. With a straight face, I asked her and my stepfather to join us for dinner at the Pakistani restaurant down the street. I just wanted to see what would happen. My mother once sent back a plate of pasta at Ruby Tuesday because it was too spicy.

On this weekend visit, I did bring a bag of quinoa thinking it might help me stay on my [insert expletives] low fat diet when everyone else was eating lasagna and hamburgers and the four containers of ice cream in her freezer. She wasn’t sure about that “quinola.” Mom concluded she needed to round out our dinner with rice. She stood over the stove concentrating on those Uncle Ben’s boiling bags, skimming the froth from the pot with a very serious expression. The rice would not have cooked if she had not done this.

I snapped this photo as we were cleaning up and heading out. Oh, we were cleaning up, all right. We scored two giant Ziploc bags of her famous chocolate chip cookies.

My mother knew I was having a laugh at her expense, and she was a good sport: she obligingly offered to rearrange the drawer to give me a better picture. I wonder what she would say if she knew I was going to talk about her on my blog. Oops, wait. She doesn’t know I have a blog. And don’t you tell her!

I’ll be taking a break from posting for a while. My children are coming into town, and I’ve got to go stock up on bread.

For other posts on Mom, click here and here.

Mommy

Photo credit here.

Photo credit here.

Last month, I was more than usually harried as I worked to close up my therapy practice for a few days of fun and rest. I had upped my caseload a few weeks earlier when I realized I was going to come very close to qualifying for an end-of-year-bonus. I knew I would be very upset to miss it by a few client-hours.

Some of my best gals and I were going to the shore for a long weekend. We had planned it many months in advance. I wanted to return rested to a clean desk so I was busy catching up. Plus, being the mom at my house, I felt that instinctual tug to clean up a bit and stock the kitchen. It is the fear of mothers everywhere that a few days away will cause the family to starve or the earth to stop rotating on its axis. I used to cook their meals in advance. My family felt cared for and I felt less guilty at abandoning them so callously.  This also made it less likely they would spend two weeks of my grocery budget on one weekend of eating out. Oh look! I am both grandiose and controlling.

Ha! But this time they had to fend for themselves. This particular week so hectic that I bought two cases of Udon and some fresh produce at the Korean grocery and left them to their own devices. Perhaps a future post should be devoted to Mom Guilt but it won’t be this one.

My dear Mom reached me in the car on my way to the office. Hearing the urgency and fatigue in my voice, she wished me a good trip and said she wouldn’t keep me. She sounded concerned.

I checked my phone as I left the office to run errands at lunch. I felt worried when I saw two missed calls from my mother. She is not one to blow up my phone. I went through my messages and found one from her. She had decided that if she couldn’t lighten my load, she could at least make me Princess For A Day.

My mother starts every message the same way. If I I saved them all and played the tracks simultaneously, we’d have a well-tuned choir: “Hi, Jane! It’s Mom!” She asked for my account number at the credit union we share. She had thought and prayed it through and wanted to give me some money to go out and by myself “something pretty” while I was at the beach.

I don’t do “pretty” very well. In fact, I struggle to maintain an appropriate selection of clothing for work. After my husband and I tied the knot, he groaned when he realized his bride’s wardrobe did actually consist of jeans and a collection of fraying road-race tees. Then he threatened to make them disappear. He didn’t follow through; and here we are, three kids and 27 years later.

I called back and got her voice mail.

“My Mommy!” I blurted without even thinking. Where had that come from? I am 51 years old. I haven’t called her Mommy since I was very young.

My mother is slowing down. I fear she is turning into a little old lady. She carries a cell phone but doesn’t turn it on. She is afraid of it but won’t admit it. She regularly forwards me emails which would make Snopes cry. She is starting to become cute, and we all know what that means: I’ve started to feel tender and sentimental. And protective. Do not ever mess with her. Ever.

No way was I going to let my mother spend her money on me! If anything, it should be the other way around. I was moved by her offer but this was not happening.

“Mommy, I love you so much! You are so, so sweet to me. But I am not taking your money!” I hung up and chuckled, a little dewy eyed. That was that.

When I finished work that day and went through my messages, there was a second message.

“Hi, Jane! It’s Mom. Take the money. I’m not taking no for an answer. Give me that account number or else. And I mean it, buster!”

She got the account number, and I got a succulent scallop dinner at the shore. They were very pretty scallops.

The Mender (May, 1987)

Make do and mend copy

It’s funny how something as simple as a small boy’s open face can tumble even the firmest defenses.

Sitting at my desk at school, surrounded by half-filled mugs of coffee, dog-eared laboratory manuals, and fermenting laundry; pressed from all sides by assignments outstanding; due dates looming like dark clouds, I decided I had had enough. With a single gesture, I cleared my desk, sending self-important documents sprawling across the floor. Picking a pen and a few sheets of paper out of the wreckage, I began to write:

Zooming down the highway at seventy-five miles an hour, the young woman reviewed her time-table for the day. Before setting out on her errands, she had dutifully visited the tiny apartment her mother and grandmother had shared since her mother had abruptly left her father in mid-January. After thirty minutes of polite conversation, thirty minutes during which her mother had self-consciously picked at her ragged cuticles with large-knuckled fingers, thirty minutes during which her grandmother had rocked, quenched and quiet, in her oversized rocker, the young woman had excused herself.

She had gone on to the bank and then to the post office. Sometime before she headed back to campus, she would stop by the grocery store to pick up stockings for her grandmother and some cereal for herself. If she were lucky, she would have time to pick up her father’s suit at the dry cleaners.

But first things first….She was now on her way to visit her father, who had been admitted to the hospital with a bleeding ulcer. A week ago, he had almost died; but a second surgery and three transfusions had pulled him through. On her way to the hospital, she would stop at the house to look for his checkbook and gather his mail—today was the day she was to help him pay the bills. The daughter visualized her father’s fleshy and stubborn face atop his flaccid white body.

As she pulled up to the house, she noticed that the garbage cans were overflowing. They looked as though they had been sitting in the driveway for a week. The grass had grown tall since she had last been home, and someone’s lark had left tire marks, deep black scars, in the damp spring soil. Cigarette butts and bottle caps, a sure sign of her brother’s habitation, littered a path worn from the drive to the front door. In all the windows, the curtains had been drawn, adding to the property’s forlorn appearance.

Cautiously, she turned her key in the lock and stepped inside. Ugh! A cloud of stale marijuana smoke burned her eyes. She squinted in the darkness. As she made her way to the window to open the drapes and let in fresh air, she stumbled over a disarray of pillows and blankets mounded in the center of the living room.

When she had opened the drapes and thrown open the windows, she stood back in surprise. The house’s emptiness shocked her. At least her brother had had the courtesy to move most of the furniture and breakables out of the way before having a party. She shuddered to think of all that would have been ruined or missing had he not taken these precautions. Still, without the pictures and knick-knacks, the upstairs seemed gray and lifeless. Perhaps it was right that they should have been moved. The objects her mother had lovingly arranged throughout the house had perpetrated a cheerful lie. At least now the deceit had ended. Her mother had walked out three months ago, weary of her father’s bickering and her brother’s wildness. She would not soon return. Why shouldn’t the rooms of the house bear witness to the facts?

Now, in the afternoon shadows, the remaining cabinets gaped like empty mouths; white spots replaced the floral prints and showed the walls to be badly in need of paint. Butts and stains had rooted themselves in the brown carpet like persistent weeds. No scents of cooking or cut flowers warmed the house now. Instead, the air was ripe with the odors of stale beer and smoke–and vegetables rotting in the refrigerator.

She studied the huge black speaker strategically placed in a corner of the living room and facing her now with utmost contempt. Her brother had taped its wire to the carpet with strips of electrical tape, forming a snake-like suture leading back into his room and the mother system. Following this trail, his sister tiptoed back to his room. She expected to find him asleep, as usual, resting after a long night of partying, but he was not in his bed. Thank God he was not there! Had he threatened her today, nobody would have been around to help her.

Sleeping, he resembled a good-natured giant, his oversized hands and feet protruding from his wiry frame and dangling off the bed, which had become too short to contain him. And his face…he had prided himself on the scruffy beginnings of a mustache. Seeing him asleep, one could almost forget his temper, the drugs, the late-night police visits….

She let out a deep sigh and closed her eyes in momentary relief.

In an instant, relief gave way to anger. Didn’t her brother EVER think of anyone but himself? Of course not! He had a way of worming his way out of every predicament, disclaiming all of the responsibilities and escaping most of the consequences of his doings. He simply did whatever her wished, knowing that eventually, someone else would be forced to pick up his tab. What would happen now? Her father was to be released from the hospital in a few days. Was he to come home to this? Was it any wonder he had developed an ulcer?

Ignoring the knot in her stomach, she tried to focus her energies on the problem at hand. She willed the larger issues to the back of her mind in order to treat their symptom. She would just have to squeeze out a few hours to do some straightening and cleaning.

Where should she begin? She could not move the heavy furniture herself, and yet she knew she could elicit no cooperation from her brother. Her sister would be of no assistance. She had moved out a week ago, her green eyes shot with red, and was still too uneasy to return to the house. Her mother…? She would not ask this woman to abandon her new-found adolescence for motherhood in all of its responsibilities. Enough! She would concentrate on the positive—how she could serve her father and how she should be glad to be able to serve him in this way. With her hands on her hips, lips pursed, she surveyed her situation and determined what she could accomplish alone.

Gathering up the soiled bedding, she sang to herself. She sang as she emptied hampers and retrieved underclothes and towels from bathroom floors. By the time she had hauled all the bundles down to the laundry room, she was weary of Joni Mitchell and her melancholy lyrics and searched her mind for lighter tunes.

Time flew as she straightened and scrubbed, dusted and vacuumed. Her mood began to lift. A gentle breeze had cleansed the air; and, like a tender rain, the pine-scented cleaner had bathed the house in freshness. The sinking sun warmed the rooms, repossessing them one by one.

Brave in her triumph, the young woman dared to touch the large speaker which still defaced the living room. She pulled up the black tape and managed to push the beast back into her brother’s room and shut the door. She felt the satisfaction of one who has vanquished a trespasser. Flicking back her damp bangs with the palm of her hand, she felt ready to face her own room.

She thrust open the door and met with the sound of breaking china. Now she knew where her brother had stored the articles he had removed from the other rooms. Appliances, boxes of breakables, and a stray bong prevented her from opening the door very far and forced her to squeeze her way through for a closer look. After a quick examination, she retreated, not desiring to compromise her good cheer. She would reclaim her own room another day. Today she had neither the time nor the energy to wonder who had slept in her bed, or what had become of her jewelry box, or what that was floating in her toilet. She closed the door and returned to the living room for one last inspection.

She was genuinely pleased with what she had been able to accomplish. Small victories such as these made the larger battles seem less formidable. With every struggle, she acknowledged, comes a bounty of good. Silently she thanked God for the beautiful weather. She thanked Him for the fact that her father would be leaving the hospital shortly… and that she had entered the house before he had.

She put behind her the times she had attempted, herself, to mend and patch and pick up the loose ends in her household. She put behind her the times she had believed in herself, her mother, her father, her brother, her sister, and been disappointed. She felt strong. She had hope. Soon things would change—she had prayed that they would. God had heard her. Soon there would be an end to this vicious spiral, the seemingly endless chain of bitterness and rebellion. Yes, she had hope: vibrant hope, realistic hope—realistic because she knew that whatever its form, God’s answer was at hand. Her mother might never return; her brother might never change from his abusive lifestyle. Still, she knew relief would come.

Looking out the picture window at the blooming dogwood, she observed Mark, the little boy from across the street, approaching her house. With large, clumsy steps, he bounced up the driveway, holding his cupped hands importantly before him. The girl smiled to herself. She wondered what he could be bringing this time… an injured bird, a dandelion, a fistful of cookies…?

He stopped before he reached the house and planted his feet steadily and deliberately, as if to brace himself. For a moment he paused. Then he rubbed his hands together, spreading a handful of refuse across the lawn. With a look of innocent satisfaction, he turned and started for home.

Violently, the girl flung open the door. In a second she had spun the child around.

“Just what do you think you are doing?” she screamed, her flushed face inches from his.

Wide-eyed and without comprehension, he looked first into one pupil and then the other. He hesitated.

“My father was mad because your brother partied all night.”

Without realizing it, she had been holding her breath. Now, pierced to the marrow, she allowed it to escape, slowly deflating her rigid shoulders. Wearily, she reprimanded him.

“Why didn’t you at least throw them in the garbage can?” She pointed at what she now recognized as several hundred of her father’s address labels. How had they ended up on the neighbor’s lawn? Mark must have had quite a job to retrieve them all.

The boy’s eyes turned to liquid, and his chin trembled. Finally he replied.

“I didn’t know,” he wimpered, squirming.

Taking a step back, she scrutinized the offender. He was just a little boy, a child of six—not unlike her own brother at that age.

“Oh,” she answered, no longer aware of the child, who, frightened, turned and sprinted for home.

She remained for a moment in silent contemplation. A moment later, she returned to the house and began to cry.

I returned to the house and began to cry. Later, in the safety of my dormitory room, I picked up a pen and a few sheets of paper and began to write….

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Rule # 6: Food is Love

Rule # 6: Food is Love

We called my mom “Farm Wife.” She really knew how to cook. Still does. Mom so enjoys our enjoyment of her excellent dishes. She got her name because no matter how much we requested, the portion we received was inevitably trucker sized. Whenever my sister and I eat with her and it comes to serving a cake or pie, we act this out:

“How big a slice would you like?”

“Just a sliver.”

“How’s this?” (Holding the knife in just the right place to deliver the dainty smidgeon.)

“Yes.”

“Ok, dear. Here you go.” (Turning the knife at the last minute to loudly whack off ¼ of the dessert.)

An addendum to this rule should be Butter. Mom is a believer! Butter on beans; butter on carrots; butter on broccoli; butter on corn; butter on potatoes; butter on bread, butter on sandwiches, toast, muffins, bagels, and biscuits. Mom would have loved my college friend Petter Jorstad, who taught me about banana and butter sandwiches. Is this a Norwegian thing or was the guy a genius?

This post is part of Family Rules. For the prior post, click here. For the next post, click here.

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