Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Autumn Place

I awoke early this morning to walk the dog. I was perturbed because it was the first break we'd had from the heat in months. I hated leaving Gypsy, a slightly lazy, overweight rescue dog, indoors. We could both use a quiet day, soaking up some crisp Autumn air. But, I also knew that it was time to make the journey to see my dad.

A few hours later I was turning down a winding lane to a retirement community with tidy duplexes and towering oaks -- along with the convenience of meal deliveries, prescription deliveries, a handy man, lawn care, intercoms in every room (just in case you've fallen and can't get up), bingo, pottery classes and a full service beauty and hair salon. The place seemed pretty inviting to me.

I pulled into the driveway and there stood a tall, stooped man, whom once, decades ago, I had idolized, then later admonished for irresponsible drinking. He was pale, wobbly, as he greeted me eagerly awaiting my arrival, leaning on his prized wooden cane.

We hugged and chatted, then sat down for lunch which his wife had prepared: chili made with Williams Chili seasoning, topped with Frito's and Kraft shredded cheddar cheese and chopped onion, along with a store bought Pepperidge Farm German Chocolate Cake which was pulled from the freezer to thaw for dessert. Simple and quiet, we enjoyed our lunch. I did not care for the beefy chili and nibbled on a salad which I had brought along, just in case they weren't serving anything  vegetarian.

After lunch, dad dozed in his recliner while I took a short walk. He and his wife of 26 years had only recently moved into Autumn Place. His patio faced old highway Route 66, the road where he had grown up, worked, and now, more than likely, would die. I thought about how many miles he had traveled up and down this lonely stretch of road, rarely venturing off his beaten path. I wondered, if he had made this trip, up and down that dusty road, just once a day, every day of his life (and, most likely, he did) then multiply that number by seventy-six. Well, perhaps that explained dad's drinking. Like a hamster in a wheel, he had traveled 27,740 miles without ever going a damn place. Geographically and emotionally Gary had reached a state of inertia and all the beer in the world wasn't going to change this desultory path. There was a time when I had found this disturbing. But, on this quiet Autumn day, I somehow found comfort in knowing that, sometimes, some stupid things just stayed the same.

I enjoyed a walk in the empty lot next door and noticed a tall, drooping tree, succumbing to the weight of it's fruit. The ruddy, golden pears on the ground were wormy and rotted, but the ones just out of reach were firm and pristine. I found a giant stick and reached high and shook the branches vigorously, trying to avoid being struck on the head by the falling fruit. It rained pears. Exactly what I was going to do with such a haul, I did not know. But I thoroughly enjoyed this act of gathering on such a crisp Autumn day, the sky as blue as my dad's eyes, the birds chirping as if it were their last hurrah.

Later I did a few chores, moved some tools, hung a shelf, changed a light bulb. Then, while dad's wife was outside chatting with a neighbor, I sat down in her chair beside dad's and watched MASH, his favorite of all time. We chuckled at Klinger's dress and Alan Alda's one-liners and I marveled at how, this man, now eighty years old, was able to watch the same show, over and over, for forty years, and still not be bored by it.

Dad looked tired, ashen, like he had given up. I wanted to ask him about the past, if there were any regrets, thoughts or important things he wanted to tell. But that would have ruined the moment. So we just sat, quietly, enjoying MASH and the brisk autumn day beaming in the windows. Then Dad reached into a decorative tin that sat on a table beside his chair and offered me a piece of candy. Dad loved candy. And at first I wanted to refuse. I didn't care for cheap Dollar Store candy bars. But, instinctively, I knew this would have ruined the moment. So I said, "Sure, Dad. I'd love some." He reached out a hand as expansive as any painted by Michelangelo and handed me a 'fun-sized' Snickers. We both grinned as we crumpled our familiar brown wrappers and enjoyed our treat.

Soon it was time for me to head home and dad gave me a big hug. A part of me wanted to stay and ask the big questions. But it was getting late. Autumn had set in. The days were getting shorter and too much water had passed under the bridge and there was no use rehashing bad times now. There had been some good times, too. And this was one of them.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Happy belated Mother's Day.

My children have begun to leave the proverbial nest and I was feeling a bit sentimental this year, which is unusual for me.

I have been thinking a lot about my own mother whom I haven't seen in a very long time.

She was a kooky gal and they never made Mother's Day cards to fit her.

I could go on telling you about my mother ... but there's no use doing that because you already know my mother. My mother is the amalgamation of practically every single character that the actress Shirley Maclaine has ever played.


Terms Of Endearment
That opening scene where Aurora climbs into the crib, pinches the baby to make certain she's breathing, then reassured, walks away. My mother. In fact, every single scene including that final screaming at the nurses, totally my mother.

Postcards From The Edge
My mother was not an alcoholic, but I am certain that Shirley must have been channeling her during the filming of this movie. The resemblance is uncanny. And that pivotal scene where she "twirls" her skirt. So my mother.

Steel Magnolias
Dear cranky, crabby, dog-loving Weezer. The embodiment of my mother. The author who wrote, I'm not crazy, I've just been in a very bad mood for forty years! most certainly must have known my mother.

Now take all these characters and add in some real life Shirley along with a few UFOs and some ghosts, and you've pretty much got my mother to a tee. With her there was never a dull moment. And the thing that makes me most sad is how hard she tried at being normal. But normalcy, somehow, eluded her.

I'll never forget the dinner party mother threw back in the seventies.

On a whim, mother decided to invite her co-worker and her co-worker's husband for dinner one evening.

Now, to most people, dinner with a couple of friends on a pleasant summer evening is no big deal. Tidy up the house. Throw some burgers on. It isn't rocket science. But for my mother, rocket science would have been easier. Small talk and domestic chores annoyed her. She was a registered nurse working ICU and ER most of her life and somehow this profession had instilled in her zero tolerance and very little patience for mundane day-to-day activities. Our house was an eternal mess and most weeks grocery shopping and cooking were afterthoughts. Thus leaving my younger brother and sister and I scrounging on raw macaroni and giant gobs of peanut butter straight from the jar as after school snacks.

As a homemaker and decorator, mother had always felt woefully inadequate. Yet with this looming dinner party, she became eager to clean up the place and try to impress her new so-called friends. So, after much fussing and fretting, we all began the arduous task of readying the house for honored guests. This meant that, by the time the guests arrived, mother had made our lives and virtually anyone else's who dared cross her path, completely and utterly miserable.

Now most people on the actual day of a dinner party tend to last minute details like cooking, setting the table and tidying up. Not my mother. She had delusions of grandeur and tried to throw an entire years worth of housekeeping and interior decorating into a single day. We shampooed carpets, moved pictures, rearranged furniture, washed windows, ironed curtains, dusted, cleaned, and otherwise hid the junk. We unfortunately had become so caught up in the cleaning process that the cooking and dinner itself had become an afterthought. No matter, mother was intent on having this dinner party, she was going to cook, entertain and be her version of a traditional nineteen-fifties housewife and no amount of stress, turmoil or torture was going to deter her goddammit.

Next came the staging.

For reasons I will never fully understand, mother sorely wanted to impress these people, so the house had to be just right. This meant, in her eyes, conveying the illusion of a casual mess, of intelligent, domestic artists living in a nineteen-seventies farmhouse with a garden and jars of jam cheerfully awaiting in the cupboard. This was so unlike our house. So after a manic cleaning spree, mother ordered me to drag my plastic portable Singer sewing machine down from the closet and place it conspicuously on the table in the den, along with an art book and her Merck Manual. (What that had to do with anything, I'll never know.) Then mother strategically placed potted plants and more books around the house while I scoured the kitchen for a set of matching, unchipped dinner plates.

By the end of the day we were all exhausted. But for a moment, all seemed well. The house was shaping up and dinner was coming together. This party just may be a success after all, I thought to myself. But mother was an irascible woman and the longer she prepared for said dinner party and honored guests, the more she began to resent them: "How dare they come to my house and make me do all this work!" she muttered while peeling potatoes. It was going to be a bumpy night.

Dinner consisted of pot roast, carrots and potatoes, haphazardly cooked in a dented metal cake pan, along with an iceberg lettuce salad with Ott's French dressing, canned vegetables, store bought rolls, and the guest was bringing dessert.

Beyond this, I recall little about the evening. I left soon after the guests arrived. I could not bear to stay and watch my mother, a person more inclined to conversations on matters of life and death, make small talk. It exhausted her. My role this evening had been strictly service. I had cooked, cleaned, thrown her a lifeboat and now it was up to her to row herself in.

There was one particular thing about the evening I do recall, however. A minute thing, but enormous in scope.

Just as the sun slipped behind the tendrils of the shadowy elms, a perfectly coiffed, unwearied guest teetered out of a white Ford sedan and presented my mother with a towering vanilla cake and along with it (dum-ta-dum!) she had the forethought to bring a cake knife.

Now a cake knife is a benign thing. A trivial little piece of kitchen arsenal with no inherent value. But inside my mother's post-nineteen-fifties world, this had become heavy artillery. This was big time. The lady owned a cake knife. This meant organized. Responsible. An outfitted kitchen. We, on the other hand, were just a bunch of hacks. I remember it well: serrated, fake ivory handle, elegant but efficient. Even at the tender age of seventeen, I coveted this knife.

My mother's kitchen had been filled with odds and ends, mismatched utensils, melted Tupperware lids, rusty cheese graters and dented dime store pans. It had never occurred to her to purchase something so extravagant as a cake knife. So when this wide-eyed, gullible, cake knife wielding guest stepped upon her porch one fateful summer's eve, I looked into my mother's eyes and saw defeat. This blatant, ordinary kitchen utensil had become a source of reflection upon all which was missing and all that had gone wrong in her sad domestic life, and I knew then that the party was over, and there was nothing left to do but carry on with the show. Mother never threw another dinner party after that evening, and it was a long time before we had cake in our house again.