Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Autumn Place

I awoke early to walk the dog. I was sad because it was a crisp Autumn day, the first break of heat we'd had, and I hated leaving her indoors. I knew she'd rather be outside, playing. But I also knew that it was time to make the journey to see my dad.

A few hours later I turned down the winding lane to Autumn Place: a placid, small town retirement community with neat little duplexes and towering oaks, along with meal deliveries, medicine deliveries, a handy man, lawn care, intercoms in every room (just in case you've fallen and 'can't get up') and      towering man whom I'd once idolized then admonished for irresponsible drinking, now seemed pale and wobbly as he greeted me at the opened garage door, eagerly awaiting my arrival, leaning on his prized antique 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. A store bought Pepperidge Farm German Chocolate cake was pulled from the freezer and set out to thaw for dessert. Simple and quiet, we enjoyed our lunch. I, however, did not care for the beefy chili and nibbled on a salad which I had brought along, just in case they weren't serving 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 this independent-living center called Autumn Place, which faced old highway Route 66, upon which dad had grown up, worked, and now, more than likely, would die within yards, maybe feet, of this dusty road. I thought about how many miles he had traveled along this highway ... rarely venturing off this particular, one mile, narrow stretch. I thought, if he had made the trip down that road just once a day, each day of his life (which indeed he had) then multiply that by seventy-six, perhaps that explained his drinking. Like a hamster in a wheel, this man had traveled 27,740 miles without ever going a damn place. Geographically and emotionally, he had reached a state of inertia and all the beer in the world wasn't going to change his desultory path. There was a time when I had found this disturbing but, on this quaint, quiet, Autumn day, I somehow found comfort in knowing that, sometimes, some things did stay the same.

Enjoying my walk in the empty lot next door, I 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 was thoroughly enjoying 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 lightbulb. Then, when my dad's wife was outside, chatting with a neighbor, I sat down in a chair beside my dad's and watched a MASH rerun, Dad's favorite, since I was a child. We chuckled at Klinger in his woman's dress and Alan Alda's one-liners. 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 beautiful 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 his candy. At first I wanted to refuse. I didn't care for his cheap Dollar Store candy bars. But I knew, instinctively, that just like asking questions, this would have ruined the moment. So, I said, "Sure, Dad. I'd love some." He reached out a hand as large and expansive as any painted by Michelangelo and handed me a 'fun-sized' Butterfinger. We both grinned as we crumpled our yellow wrappers and enjoyed our treat.

Soon it was time for me to go home and dad gave me a big hug. A part of me wanted to stay and ask him the deep questions. But it was too late. Autumn had set in. The days were short. Too much water had passed under the bridge and there was no use rehashing the 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 combination 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 invited her co-worker, and her co-worker's husband, over 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 globs of peanut butter straight from the jar as after school snacks.

As a homemaker and decorator, mother 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 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 perfect. Which 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, un-chipped dinner plates.

By the end of the day we were 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 into a sink full of dirty dishes. 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 shadowy tendrils of the 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, she had had the forethought to bring (dum-ta-dum!) a cake knife.

Now, a cake knife is a benign thing. A trivial little piece of kitchen arsenal with no inherent value. But in my mother's post-nineteen-fifties "Enjoli" 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.