While my mom was sick, we were operating in crisis mode. Day to day, worry to worry. It’s hard work, dying. And not just for the sick person. It’s hard work. Lots of hours. Hours on the road, hours in the hospital. In hospital rooms, in hospital halls, waiting rooms, elevators and parking ramps. Hours at her house instead of mine. Much of it is just stupid. But we had a mission, and we were on it.
The stupidest thing I think we had to do was plug the parking meter while we were visiting my mom. Visiting isn’t even a good word. We were being with her. Hours and hours every day. But the meter doesn’t care how important my presence is. I suppose it was a good break, a reason to go outside. But sometimes looking for a goddamned quarter is the last straw on a very heavy and precarious load.

But I digress. The caring time was drudgery. It was work and it kept us all busy. But after my mom died. After all the trying, and thinking and working was over; there was something else waiting. And it wasn’t something better than work and exhaustion and sadness. It was fear. I can’t remember exactly when it was in the saga of this part of my life that I started to be afraid.

But I remember what it felt like. I remember waking up gasping and terrified. Abject horror and doom prickled my skin and made me sweat. I just woke up scared. The kind of scared I haven’t been since I was a kid. But when I was a kid, there was usually a bad dream preceding the scary feeling. And if I yelled loud enough, my mom came down and I felt safe.

This scared was new. There was nothing solid to hang it on, no dream to talk myself out of. Not to mention no mom to holler for. Sometimes when I was in bed and feeling really scared, I’d just reach out a hand or a foot and touch Andy. Just touch him. And it made me a little less terrified. Until I fell asleep and woke up scared again.

Maybe a month after my mom died, I got sick. I had had a nagging sort of pain in my side for months. My doctor said it was not a big deal. But it worried me. I do lean towards hypochondria. But all of a sudden I was really sick, projectile vomiting so hard I wet myself. I couldn’t keep a couple sips of water down without being sick. I think I went a night and half the next day without eating or drinking.

I was dehydrated and miserable. Dehydration is one of the worst feelings in the world. Everything feels bad and wrong. My head hurt, my joints hurt, I couldn’t stand up without feeling nauseated and dizzy.

I was terrified. Looking back, I had the flu. But I was certain I was dying. I was sure that what I had was related to the pain in my side. And the fact that my mom was dead. Funny leap there, isn’t it? But I made it. In my defense, all my mom’s sickness started with a pain in her side that woke her up in the night. She went into the hospital and 7 monthes later she died.

I insisted that Andy call my doctor’s office and get me in. They told him I probably had the flu and to keep trying fluids. I laid on the floor and cried. I told him to keep calling, call another clinic. We found somewhere that would see me. I imagine I looked like a sad, sad puppy. I couldn’t keep my head up. I shuffled and I carried a barf bag.

When the nurse brought us into a room, she was very nice to me. She asked if I wanted the lights off. I did. I wanted them so off. And she turned them off and wrote by a little nursey-light. But when she asked meif I’d like the lights off, I almost wept. And as she asked me about my symptoms, I answered her questions, but the thing I wanted to tell her was, “My mom just died. She seemed fine. But something inside her was killing her and we didn’t know. She didn’t know. It’s killing me now. Please understand me, I’m not crazy. I’m not whining. I’m scared and sick and I need you to help me.”

The thought had ricocheted around in my head that what I was afraid of for the last weeks was death. But everyone (except Kwai Chang Caine) is afraid of death. I wasn’t prepared for how toothy, ugly, lurking and real death becomes when it takes a real person from you. I imagine it’s different when someone dies young like my mom. When they seem OK, and then they just aren’t. It made me scared for myself.

If someone dies after a lingering illness or a few close calls, I imagine you get fear, maybe even abject terror in the night. But I also imagine it takes a different iteration; less sneaky and toothy and more deteriorating and haunting. But I don’t know. I only know how it was for me.

Like I said, I had the flu. I (with the blessing of my doctor) took one of the leftover cancer anti-nausea pills and started to be able to hold liquids down. I recovered.

But I had the side pain checked out again and found out I had a cyst on one of my ovaries. It’s funny, but although it worried me (only a couple months after my my mom died from “metastatic adenocarcinoma of the ovary”), it wasn’t as scary as when I just had the flu.

I should say, I still have some lingering fear that I’ll die young. But that “doom feeling” has faded. The night terror has abated. I’m getting to a new normal and it’s OK. It didn’t last forever.


I think I wrote something very similar before ( Maybe you can tell me what the best parts of each one are and I can combine them.

What kind of person was my mom? My mom was the kind of person who people relied on. Anyone falling on hard times ended up at our house. If hard times came to you, Susie might show up, watch the kids, clean the house from stem to stern and bring dinner made from scratch.

My gramma used to say, “Susie can clean a room in the time it takes other people to think about cleaning it.” Don’t get me wrong; she was no Susie Homemaker at home, but she knew how to help in a crisis.

She was the kind of person who inspired loyalty. A peculiar and fierce kind of loyalty that, as far as I can tell, comes from having an unpredictable depth of or breadth of emotional responses. People loved her best not because she was so good, but because they knew she could be so good. If only she weren’t hounded by so many demons.

If only she weren’t so emotionally volatile. The kind of love and loyalty that always comes with a fear both of a person and for them. I guess for a while the way to describe the kind of relationships people had with my mom was to say they were co-dependent. I found that to be too limiting, too simplistic and judgmental to describe anything so real and complex.

Most of the time she was the kind of person who scared little kids for the first ten minutes and then won them over with her sheer uninhibited goofiness. She was like an alternative, anti-Mary Poppins. Sure she read your kids a story, but she’d also cut up her own clothes without hesitation to make a Zorro costume. Then she’d drill them on the different parts of a sword, or types of knives. My preschool kids came home and sprinkled daily conversation with words like scimitar and scabbard.

She’d take them on treasure hunts and send them home with a wicked grin and a bag of the most bizarre and worthless crap. The kind of stuff kids loved, but most adults would have thrown away. Broken watches, animal teeth and bones, ribbons, buttons, plastic swords and drink umbrellas.

My mom could usually out-gross any kid. She was the kind of gramma who would chide a kid for picking his nose by telling him, “Don’t wipe that on your pants. If you’re not going to eat it, give it to me!” This won over both my boys, but she couldn’t always turn the crass off, and sometimes it got embarrassing.

On a good day my mom would call up and without any introduction say, “The hairy patch on the rear leg of a horse!” to which the proper response was, “fetlock!” She’d say, “Thanks, Bye” And you might not hear from her again that day. Calling your kids was not cheating on the crossword.

On a bad day she might call and say, again without niceties, “I sure don’t know why you’re punishing me, but I think we’d better talk about it.” Sometimes I knew what she was talking about, sometimes I didn’t. It didn’t matter. The only way to avoid a long angry spell would be first, admit that you were punishing her. Pleading ignorance would only get you in deeper.

Secondly, you needed to tell her why you were doing it. That admission, to be fully valid, needed to entail why either a deep character flaw in you, or deep relationship problem (husbands preferred) caused you to mistakenly take it out on her. If you cried, which wouldn’t be hard, because she had a gift for making people cry- If you cried and followed all the above guidelines, you might get a call the next day like nothing happened. If you didn’t, her anger could last for months.

And that’s the thing. Life with my mom was messy. Sometimes it was fun, sometimes it was icky, but it was intense and imperfect. When she got sick, it didn’t fit in with the rest of her life. It didn’t seem to have anything to do with her at all except that while she was sitting at a green light waiting to make some weird or wonderful left turn; while she was daydreaming about the crossword or how mad she was at somebody; while she was being herself, cancer blew through a red and none of that stuff mattered.

More Food

If you plan to have any of us over as my mom used to say, “You pays your money and you takes your chances”. The truth is if we love and respect you, you’re home free. We’ll eat what you serve and smack our lips. But remember this, “Anything you serve, can, and will be used against you when you’re not around.”

And here’s the worst part: We secretly like some of these foods. We just would never try to pass them off as real food at a social gathering. I am including a list of the food products we consider fake and therefore unacceptable.

First and foremost is Margarine. Margarine is an abomination before man and God. Butter is a little bit of God. Margarine is a graven image. Cooking with it is unthinkable. Eating it is a sin and can leave your reputation sullied for years. I know that 15 years ago my grandpa ate margarine on a plane. I wasn’t on the plane, but certain people were, and word got out. It won’t be forgotten.

Next is Cool Whip. Such a common item as to be almost a matter of punctuation in the prose of a truly bad meal. Any permutation of whipped topping is bad. Adding the prefix “lite” will only make things worse.

Dehydrated food is almost always verboten. I can’t think of any exceptions except maybe beef jerky. This means the following shall not cross our lips:

Potato Buds, aka potato butts. Unacceptable in almost all situations, although there are those of us who really don’t care about the starch course in a meal. Whatever the white stuff is, it’s merely a vehicle for the sauce. Good gravy or butter can redeem almost anything.

Onion or garlic powder or salt: my mom could smell it blowing in from the neighbor’s kitchen. If it’s cooked, I hardly notice, but I still wouldn’t dream of serving it to guests. Especially my family.

Any food that was once in an envelope. Unless it is lipton onion soup and you are putting it in sour cream to make dip. This exception exists because my mom said so.

Lemonade: Don’t even bother if you don’t have lemons. And lemons are not plastic.

Jell-o or anything made with it. Don’t get me wrong here. Secretly I like jell-o. I just have enough pride to not bring it out in public. If my mom or siblings were to look in my cupboard, I’d tell them it was for in case someone gets sick. Jell-o is only officially sanctioned in the context of a clear liquid diet.

Once recently when I asked my dad (whose ideas of decent food are much more flexible, and probably honest) if I could bring anything to a family gathering. When he told me I should bring something made with Lime Jell-o, I had to wonder if he was just trying to torture me. He wasn’t. But after my siblings smacked their lips at my jell-o and cream cheese concoction, they told my mom on me. Rat finks.

In this instance I violated a number of food taboos. The jello one was just the most obvious, but the worse sin was mixing real food with fake food. Cream cheese is one of the staffs of life. Mixing it with anything fake is disrespectful to the cream cheese and makes people think you don’t know any better.

With a few exceptions, almost anything that started out in a box or a can will be ferreted out and take you down. This includes, but is not limited to BisQuick, StoveTop, Betty Crocker potatoes of any kind, Rice-a-Roni, instant pudding and boxed cake mixes (Much to my dismay, because I just don’t like cake enough to make it from scratch. Cake is all about the frosting,which should be made from scratch).

The punchline here is that my mom (the matriarch, creator and enforcer of this strange system of beliefs) loved Raspberry Zingers. If things ever got ugly about what someone bought, made or served, those two words could put her back in her place.

Turkey Soup, continued

It was a welcome home gift from my mom one year. A year when I spent Thanksgiving in Mason City with my husband’s family. A big pot of Turkey soup on my back steps.

I love my family, but Thanksgiving is, was and always will be (really) about the food. Maybe food and family are inseparable. Food is serious business. If you do it right, that is. And it can put a permanent black mark on your reputation if you don’t. If you are a generous and strong spirit, you could think of any food screw-up as a donation to the well of teasing and torment that keeps our family together.

Eating at any other family’s table is at once an endless ordeal and a fabulous opportunity to trash-talk at a later date. I realize now (on some level but not all) that there are really no objective criteria that made how we ate the “right way’. But we believed it to be true and so it was. The way other people ate gave our family great pleasure, if not in a culinary sense. (And please, those of you who have invited me to your table in the past, don’t stop. I cannot stress enough how secretly, I love to eat trashy food. Just don’t tell my sisters)

A truly worthy and good meal the likes of which I have only had away from home about a dozen times; this kind of meal, while it gives me enjoyment at the time, left us feeling disappointed that the only story we’d have was of sufficient quantity and decent quality. I suppose we fed our self-esteem with our perceived culinary superiority. Other people having good food left us wondering what we were good at.

The meal I had in Iowa was nice; the Morgan family was gregarious. The house was a cozy eighty degrees. It was one of my first away from home. Gramma made her signature stuffing, which was a delight, dark brown and crumbly, caramelized and turkey flavored. With the occasional raisin thrown in to confuse me. She won’t share the recipe, but I think I made it by accident once. I wish I could remember how.

The immense turkey was not at all dry. In fact, the turkey was quite moist, because it had been coated in orange marmalade and steamed in a covered pan for hours and hours. The skin was slipped off and the naked bird was ready to go.

If you’re not retching over the slippery skin, maybe you won’t appreciate this story. Move on. Turkey is all about the skin and the gravy. Skin should be crispy and brown and gravy should be made in the kitchen. If you screw those up, you might as well have canned chicken and gravy from a jar. And if you eat gravy from a jar, I feel sorry for you. Gravy is so easy and delicious. MMMmmmm, it’s the best part of meat.

The vegetables were the highest quality green beans and carrot medallions available from the frozen food section. They were served with a sprinkling of dill, no butter or salt to muck them up. They made a nice squeaky noise as I bit into them and freezer flavored water squirted out of them.

The table conversation didn’t linger on unpleasant topics like the politics of drug enforcement or gun-owners’ rights for more than half the meal. The word “tits” only came up a couple timesl (at least at my table with Gramma, but who’s to say what happened over in the living room). And only once was anyone actually talking about MY tits. Whew, It could have been worse.

After we drove back from Mason City I found on my back steps a pot of Turkey soup and a batch of home made rolls. That was my mom’s MO. I can’t count the number of times she dropped off entire meals in a covered cake carrier. Meat or soup, gravy, a veggie and hot rolls were the staples. They arrived after babies, when I was sick, when we had been traveling or whenever she knew we needed help. God I miss that.

If you plan to have any of us over as my mom used to say, “You pays your money and you takes your chances”. The truth is if we love and respect you, you’re home free. We’ll eat what you serve and smack our lips. But remember this, “Anything you serve, can, and will be used against you when you’re not around.”

Turkey Soup

Basic Turkey Soup

  • Turkey bones or pieces
  • Water
  • Celery (a couple stalks or the tops from a bunch)
  • Onions (one the size of your fist or so, cut into quarters)
  • Carrots (one or two)
  • Salt, peppercorns and fresh parsley

Put your bones and vegetables into a nice big stock pot and cover them with water. The more bones you have the stronger your flavor will be. Chicken is as good as turkey, just a little different. The wings, especially the tips, the necks and incidentally, the feet, have lots of gelatin and are especially great for making soup. The meat can be leftover from a cooked bird or plopped right in raw. The flavor will be different, but both are good.

Bring the pot to a boil and simmer for an hour or more, I have boiled soup for as long as 3 hours, it’s fine. It makes your house smell good and you feel like you’re multitasking as long as it’s bubbling away.

Add your salt, pepper and parsley after it starts to boil.

Strain all those icky, mushy veggies out of the broth and pitch them, pick the meat off your bones if there is any.

Now you have broth. Throw in your leftover gravy if you want, and whatever vegetables you like or have on hand. You can make it into Cream of Turkey Wild Rice Soup (recipe to follow), Asian soup, Chicken and dumplings or some variety of Noodle Soup. Fresh Parsley is a wonderful topper.

Here’s your recipe for pinch noodles to go with your soup.

Pinch Noodles

  • A cup of flour
  • A large egg
  • Water
  • A pinch of salt
  • A little oil

Sift together your salt and flour, make a well in your flour mixture. Add the egg and a couple teaspoons of water. Mix it all together until if forms a ball. If it needs more water, add it. You want a nice ball of dough that holds together without being too sticky or too crumbly. Once the dough is good, coat your hands with olive oil and rub it into the ball of dough. Let it rest while your stock comes back up to a boil (like 5 minutes). Coat your fingers with flour.

Pinch off chunks about the size of a quarter, something that will fit on a spoon is a good size. If it sticks to your fingers too much, coat your hands with flour. Drop the noodles into the boiling soup.

They should be thinner in the middle than on the edges, but at the thickest part they shouldn’t be any more than 1/8th of an inch thick. They’ll sink and then float to the top as they get done. Just keep dropping them in until the dough is gone.

Add your meat if you want it, some chopped celery and carrots and some parsley and pepper. Pinch noodles make people happy.

Turkey soup is great for lots of occasions. It works with a batch of rolls, to warm up your family on a cold night. It’s a meaningful and practical get-well message, an expression of sympathy and a really nice welcome home.

Cicatrízes part 2

The realization that death comes… The pervasive seeping in of darkness through the shattered windows of my soul? That’s the kind of scar that I don’t think there is a fair trade for. I’ve heard that some people are able to get close to God, or are able to live every day like they were dying, or tell people around them that they love them or find a new peace… Resolved longstanding problems. I don’t know. I can’t imagine such a thing. It feels like all I’ve got are scars.

As an aside, there’s a song about someone diagnosed with some terminal condition that they eventually overcame, how they changed by being terminal,“ I went sky diving. I went Rocky-Mountain Climbing. I went 2.7 seconds on a bull named Fu Manchu. Someday I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying”. Personally, I like any song that can work the word Fu Manchu into the lyrics. But it was playing one day while I was driving my mom back from somewhere (and if I was driving, ‘somewhere’ was usually a medical somewhere). But that song was playing and my mom said, “They don’t know. It isn’t like that. Of course you’d do that stuff, but when you’re really dying, you just can’t. You don’t feel good.” Oh my mom, that’s the thing, it wasn’t meaningful. It wasn’t a profound last shot to live with joy and grace. She just died. But I digress.

Anyway, here are my scars, in case anyone cares. Or in case you’ve been there and you want to compare scars, or maybe you haven’t, but you might someday. It’s not altogether bad to have some idea of what you’re in for. On second thought, if you haven’t watched someone die, live without knowing about it. Stop here. It doesn’t add anything good to your life as far as I can see.

I have a scar, a hole shaped like my mom. In my days and all my dreams from now on. Like a cookie cutter shaped like my own mom went beserk through all the calendar days and years, and moments.

Here’s one, In shape of knowing my turn will come, and I won’t be ready. There is no terror like it. A hulking, sweaty suffocating sense of doom.

Then there’s the scar of fearing something is wrong inside me, something killing me. Something I won’t know about until it’s too late.

I have a scar of realizing many people I love will die, and I will be powerless to help them. That, or I’ll die first. No other options.

My soul has been stretched out of shape by watching my mom suffer. It hangs damaged around me. I can gather it up and stuff it into the clothing of my daily life. But naked, it was more beautiful before and I forgot to appreciate it.

Some day that’ll be a poem. What an inadequate consolation prize.

I suppose I will know I am back to my new normal when I can go a day, or a quiet moment without thinking, “My mom died, I lost my mother, Mom’s gone, Susie, She’s gone, that thing happened.” My psyche is working every day, every hour, defining the new normal. Retelling my story. Because I have to keep marching through my days, writing my story. Knowing more and more about what I can survive.

But I tell you what. I sure miss my 17 year old body and my 35 year old soul.

Cicatrízes part 1

Having my first child left scars on my body. I would never be the same. For God’s sake, for the first couple days, I thought I’d never feel human again. I felt like walking, talking, lactating, bee-stung, meat. Like one big ouch. Then I’d look around me and see women who were walking normally, wearing jeans, and sitting in chairs without cushions. There were masses of women on the street and I’d think, “She had a child, and she’s fine. No scars or anything I can see. She’s even beautiful.”

It gave me hope. It let me know I would be human again. By the second child, I could tell myself, “remember, you felt like swollen hamburger last time, but you recovered. You Will Recover.” I still had trouble believing it days afterwards, as I lowered myself, shaky and weak, breasts swollen to the size of my head and hard as rocks, genitals split and re-stitched, tummy stretched out and now empty, into the tub. I had survived it the first time, so the odds were good that I would be back to normal eventually.

My ‘normal’ changed. With both boys I got new scars and stretches that will never go away. But I got these great little consolation prizes. I’d like to be able to go comfortably without a bra or run a sprint without wetting myself, but would I trade these things for my kids? Most days, no.

My mom’s sickness and death has left me with different scars, they’ll never go away either. They’re scars on my psyche, on my soul. Realizations that I will never be able to un-realize. I guess I’ll get used to them and make them part of the new me. I’ll start to feel normal again. I don’t have that terrible stinging pain, like when I had my kids. It’s more of a general achiness, a void.

I did have a bit of a breakdown a couple months after she died, where it all came crashing down on me. The enormity of someone I felt such a connection to being no more. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t good, it wasn’t right and it didn’t even make sense for a person who was so completely human, three dimensional and alive, to simply not be. It cracks open your mind, destroys it for a while. Then you start to rebuild, but it’ll never be the same.

It’s Just a House Part 3

This door right in front of you as you enter the front door, it goes upstairs. This stairway has a peculiar kind of sound to it, like no other place I’ve ever been. You can hear it when you switch the light on. This switch is louder than most of the light switches in the house, and when it echoes you’ll hear what I’m talking about. Instead of “tick” it goes “tangk”. Every sound in this hall has that rubbery, electric echo.

At the top of these stairs is my favorite place in this house, and by extension, I have a soft spot for it in any house. This is the linen closet. It’s not all that big, fits just between the two bedrooms alongside the second (half) bath. I can’t say what it was that made me decide to climb into the bottom shelf when I was a kid. I wasn’t that young, must’ve been 10 years old, maybe 11.

But climb in I did. And it was the most wonderful place I had ever been. There’s a heat duct running inside the wall, I can’t say to where, but the closet is always warm. Plus it’s a small space, so it gets heated up when a person curls up inside it. There were clean fresh sheets and pillow cases folded up above me, and usually around me. And all the sounds of the house got muffled. Usually I’d slide my finger under the door and pull it most of the way closed.

Sometimes I fell asleep. Sometimes I just snuggled and hung out there waiting for people to start looking for me. Sometimes they did. And when they started to ask, “where’s Lisa?” sometimes I answered and sometimes I didn’t. Sometimes I thought about answering so long that I fell asleep and people got tired of looking. I could just disappear for an afternoon, and I loved it. So if you’re ever missing a kid…

The door on the right side of the landing was always my parents’ room. Well it was my grandparents’ room for a time, I suppose. They had the long white shag carpet. It had its own rake! The walls were a shade of orange or peach and there were rust colored toile drapes. But the most important thing you need to know about this room is that the closet on the left is the one Christmas presents were always hidden in.

It didn’t take any of the magic out of Christmas for me to discover this. If anything, it made it more exciting. I could see the presents, but I couldn’t always tell who would get what. Some things came in groups of 4, so I knew we’d each be getting one. Other things, and I can’t remember what anymore, other things made for a special kind of angst known only to children who have peeked at their presents. Is that for me, or is some other rotten kid going to get it?

The other closet was my dad’s or step dad’s as the case may have been, depending on the year. Not quite as mysterious, it smelled like wing-tips. Around the corner from those two closets, is one last closet. The cedar closet. It accumulated a collection of strange things, from military funeral flags to baby books and my sister’s wedding dress.

When I was sick, I sometimes ended up sleeping in my mom’s bed, maybe with a bowl next to me just in case. Upstairs can seem really far away from the rest of the house, you’ll discover. It’s quiet and darker than the rest of the house, but in a nice way.

One of my last memories of my mom actually sleeping up here was during chemotherapy. She just couldn’t stop throwing up. She always made it to the bathroom. You can see it’s not far. But after laying in the room next door and listening to her throw up and trying to do it quietly for half the night, I went in to go try to do something.

When I walked in, she had a little lamp on. She was sitting in bed , one leg on the bed, bent, and one foot on the floor, ready to get up. The lamp was behind her, so she was almost silhouetted. She looked like a bird, or like an old man, with her bald head bent forward, her collar bone prominent. I had gone on a civil disobedience kick after the cancer doctors and nurses agreed that marijuana was frequently the best cure for Chemotherapy induced nausea. My mom’s was much worse than most, they all agreed on that. Off the record they told me it was worth the try. It might keep her out of the hospital.

So I obtained pot. Beat the bushes, and ended up finding someone who could supply us (it was not the aforementioned VanHalen). But mom was very uncomfortable with the idea. I had tried to just convince her to start smoking on the way home from the hospital and stay high for the next 5 days. I never could. I made brownies, apple crisp. I tried all sorts of tricks to get some THC into her system. I don’t know if it was the illegality of it, but she just wouldn’t do it.
That night, I pulled rank.

“Mom, you’re smoking some pot.” She didn’t have the energy or will to say no. The problem was that neither one of us knew how to roll a joint. Not even to save my mom’s life. I was clueless and clumsy, she was sick, exhausted and clueless. It was the saddest thing you ever saw, her and I sitting up in bed trying to figure out how to roll a joint. Her, deathly ill; and me irretrievably useless.

I’m not going to incriminate anyone other than myself, but we eventually got a workable joint going. She smoked a couple drags and went to sleep for a few hours.

I also remember my sister Jenny and I coming to be with my mom during Chemo once evening. She was up in bed when Jenny got here, so Jenny climbed under the covers with her. I showed up with Jamba Juices for everyone and I climbed in too. The three of us all in the bed here. We sat and giggled and worried and kept each other company while we rode out her treatment.

Across the hall is the room that is currently referred to as ‘the hole’. It’s actually a nice room, bigger than the downstairs bedrooms, with gabled ceilings and hardwood floors, now. Oh my god, the carpet was bad when I was kid. A short-loop pile that was blue and green. As long as I lived here that carpet was in various stages of unraveling. Kids notice carpeting more than other people, I guess. This one was ugly and itchy. Actually, here, there’s a square of it here in the closet.

This room got to be ‘the hole’ when my niece was here. My mom wasn’t all that great at being a gramma and a mom, which was what was needed at the time. She spoiled that child rotten but resorted to threatening solitary confinement up in ‘the hole’ if she wouldn’t behave. There were dark curtains and almost no furniture. The child eventually learned how to climb out of her crib and open the door, hence the lock on the outside of the room.

This is the room in which that baby’s mother’s eardrum burst some twenty years earlier . I remember brown fluid dripping out of her ear. She had more trouble with her ears, that child. And once, that same baby sister of mine, overdosed on her grape flavored medicine, and we had to give her syrup of ipecac. It must have seemed like a big deal at the time, it’s funny what kids remember.

When I spent the night here as an adult, I was always surprised how well I slept. It’s a good place to sleep, quiet and cool and dark.

One last thing about these stairs, they’re kind of steep, but if your kids have footie pajamas, tell them I highly recommend going down on your tummy, feet first. Remember to put pillows on the tile in the entryway at the bottom, couch cushions work, too. Enjoy.

It’s Just a House Part 2

Anyway, this is the dining room. That table and chairs has been there as long as I can remember. I don’t know how we’re getting them out of here. When I was little, I’d sneak out of my room at night. Walking creaked too many boards. So I’d crawl all the way down the hall, through the living room and into the dining room, in among the chair legs and get just the right angle. From inside that forest of chair legs, I could look into the family room and watch Hawaii 5-0 or the Rockford Files when I was supposed to be in bed.

This is the room where I sat on the table, legs hanging over the edge with my arms around my mom and my cheek on her chest. She stood with her arms around my neck and her chin on my head. I told her I wished she and my dad wouldn’t be getting divorced, that I wished they’d tell me it was just a joke, and for Christmas we’d all get back together. We both cried here in this dining room, with the kid pictures on the wall behind us.

But this dining room was also host to some of the best home cooking and festivity you can imagine, sprinkled with the kind of witty repartee that made one ex-in-law curl up in the fetal position. The potatoes and gravy, wild rice and hot rolls made their way around the table along with the crown roast of pork or the turkey or ham. My family all seemed to talk at once. It was no illusion. We were indeed, all talking at once. We could follow it, and the strong newcomers grew to appreciate it even if some never got the hang of it. It’s the perfect set-up, with the kitchen right next to the dining room, but when you cook all day, remember the thermostat is on a shared wall, backed up against the double oven in the kitchen.

The back pantry closet. It’s a great place for canned goods, although we had very few in there when I was growing up. Canned tomatoes maybe and some olives. And for a while my mom and gramma did pickles and stacked them in here. Most of the time the shelves were filled with cookbooks. Through my childhood and my mom’s life, it always had a 25lb bag of flour going, with the sifter in the bag and the bag in a bucket. That and potatoes and onions. There still might be a dusting of flour on the shelves.

This here; it’s a bread drawer. It probably won’t get the kind of use it used to get. We were so embarrassed as kids to bring our uneven slices of homemade bread for lunches. But my whole childhood, we ate homemade bread. The lunch ladies would ooh and ahh, but we were totally ungrateful. The thing is, sometimes the bread got weird. Every once in a while our leftover cereal and milk made it into a loaf of bread. Which is one thing when you had Raisin Bran and quite another when you had Froot loops.

Notice how you can see right into the family room from the kitchen, even while you’re at the stove? More than once I stirred gravy at this stove while my mom and sisters used spoons and brushes as microphones in the family room, singing along with Elvis, the Righteous Brothers, Donna Summer or the Bee Gees.

This family room, my grandpa added it to the house later, it’s not original. That’s why that baseboard heater is there. A couple of us had grid-shaped burn marks from trying to get dressed nest to that beast. Eventually it stopped working, and the forced air was added. Then we got dressed by the floor vents on either side of the room. With our blankets or flannel shirts tented up over us to catch the warm air, we fought over whose turn it was. There were four of us and only the two vents.

And fires in the Franklin Stove. You have to have fires once in a while. To come home to the smoke from the chimney, and walk in the back door to a crackly fire. It’s the homiest feeling. The times that I came home to my mom sitting in here with a fire going, her dinner on her lap and a crossword in her hand, I knew things were right with the world on those days. The rest of the house was dark, but a lamp and a fire, that’s all you need.

Back through the kitchen. It doesn’t matter anymore, that the only phone jack was in the kitchen for a long time. But we used to stretch that cord around this corner, down the hall and into the bathroom or to the basement stairs for privacy.

It’s a full bath, nothing fancy, but it served its functions. It wasn’t just a bathroom, remember, it was a phone booth, and sometimes, it was the only room with a lock. When I would cause my brother would lose his mind he sometimes chased me with a knife or a bat. If I couldn’t get him out of the house, I’d lock myself in the bathroom. A butter knife would open the door, but it was easy enough with the tile floor, to hold it shut with a bare foot.

Later, when I was a teenager, sometimes I’d be terrified to open the door after a shower. I might sit in the bathroom in a towel for a half an hour trying to convince myself there wasn’t someone out there waiting for me. And I never ever thought of my brother. Just about “the guy with the knife”. Only if the house was empty, which wasn’t all that often. And eventually, I’d brandish a hairbrush or curling iron and open the door and make the mad dash to my room. This is more than you needed to know, I guess.

The two main floor bedrooms are just 6 feet down this hall, here. It wasn’t much of a dash, really. The room on the right was my room when I was teenager. Once, I had to move in with my sister, upstairs, and my mom re-decorated my room. It was a birthday present. She had gotten the satin stuffed balloons with ribbon strings and mounted them on the wall. She decorated all the lamp and window shades with butterfly stickers and put a big cork-board on the back of the door. It was like a real teenager room, and it was awesome. Before we moved in, it had been my uncle’s bedroom I think, decorated in blue denim and red kerchief paisley.

We used to say this room was haunted. I don’t know why, except that it’s above the old well and the water meter. Sometimes something below the room causes the walls to hum for 10 minutes at a time. No real sightings or anything scary, don’t worry. The scariest thing that ever happened here was the time I walked in my sleep and woke up in that closet. Couldn’t figure out where I was and why there were walls on every side of me…

I used to sneak out that window right there at night and run around with my best friend Mary, or neck on the cement well block on the side of the house with my boyfriend. Once, after Mary and I snuck out, we came back to find the window locked. My mom was waiting inside the back door. Boy were we in trouble. I take back what I said about walking in my sleep. Finding that window closed, THAT was the scariest thing that happened here.

This was my bedroom, where I sat on my bed when I was 18 and told my mom I was pregnant, sure she’d lose her mind. She took a deep breath and said, “what do you want to do? I’ll help you.” Later in the week, I talked to my dad, in this room, on the phone we eventually had installed in here. He said the same kinds of things, and they both meant it. I stayed here until August, Zachy was born in September.

One more thing about this room. If you sit just inside the door and look out at the basement door in the hallway, you can see the form of the Virgin Mary. If the ghost starts to bother you, open the basement door so she’s looking in here, I can’t promise anything, but it should set things right.

When I was littler, the room on the left was mine. At some point my grandmother insisted on buying carpet for that room. It was bright grass-green. The walls were painted two shades of green. Lighter on top and darker on the bottom, and the trim was white. The floor length drapes had green tree silhouettes going from the floor to the tops of the windows. It was something else. I used to sit in this room and do experiments that involved melting lip gloss on top of a light bulb.

This is also the room I was in when I got my first radio. I used to fall asleep with that radio under my pillow and listen to Casey Casem’s top 40 count down. It was like falling into another world. I’d have that radio under my pillow, my light was off, but most nights the bathroom light was left on. On nights when your kids feel scared, you can leave the hall light on, but a little warning to you, the hall light is definitely bright enough to read by, into the wee hours.

Just outside this room is the laundry chute. A laundry chute that has seen more than its share of duty, both official business and some acts of malfeasance. I’m not naming names, but a few times, cats were dropped down, through this little door into the basket in the basement. Their claws sczzzzing down the sides before they plumped into the clothes pile. They make less noise in a pillow case or sleeping bag, but what fun is that?

Save These Notes!

The following are notes, mostly written by my mom. She was articulate and funny. Sometimes she made up words, sometimes I do too. You have to read closely because even the most mundane sentences end with zingers that make me laugh out loud. I hope you enjoy them.
(I’m not sure the bolds and underlines will appear on the screen. If it looks bad, check back later. Andy, the computer god, will fix it.)

In 1995 or so, my sister was living with her cat, Eddie at my mom’s house. There was an ongoing power struggle about this animal and who would feed and care for him. Erin didn’t always remember to get food before she ran out, and so my mom would nag. Then Erin would get mad at the nagging. What happened in real life wasn’t always funny, but the notes they exchanged still make me laugh:
From Erin:
Do not feed Eddie. He jumped on the counter, got his treats from the cupboard- ate them, knocked over and ripped open his cat food bag. Do not feed him tomorrow either.
From Mom:
If you choose to punish Eddie, then you need to choose to stay home and follow through. I tried to ‘splain to Eddie why I wouldn’t feed him. He went for the paint stripper in the basement—Sos I had to feed him—but I only gave him a miniscule portion (I’m the gramma and I don’t want him to hate me)
From Mom:
From Erin:
Eddie ate—Engorged himself, rather. If he bitches kick him. No don’t do that. Give him a treat and don’t let him out. I bring him his food tomorrow morning before I work.
Erin, The cat needs food. Please don’t lets get into a fight over this—just get the f’ing food. Love Mom
Don’t nag and we won’t fight
Erin, Were you here when PaT sHowEd up? I’m just Curious if you tAlked wiTh him. They took some stuff. Not that I carE. ThEy can take all their stuff anD I’ll be ecStatic—I mean it. I’m not Fooling. Oh Oh, I’m not kiDding!
(For the secret message string all the underlined letters)
love mom

At a certain point in the 90s, there were 3 adult kids or kids-in-law living at my mom’s house. It didn’t last all that long, but it sparked some great notes:

Suzers went into a fragmented state (formerly known as “vapor lock”), A fugue state, so to speak. She went to bed. Her only hope of recovery is that she will be Alone tomorrow. 1)do not sit on the newspapers. 2) do not leave dishes from a meal that she did not participate in. 3) do not leave recycling. 4) do not pass go.
If cleanliness is next to godliness, we are all going to perish in the flames of hell.
Love, Suzers

PS save this note because I’m so goddamned funny when I’m mad. Lisa’s writing a book about my notes!!

To Whom It May Concern::
My green brush is imperative to my good mental health (or at least the maintenance of my current ambiguous mental health) please return it forthwith to the area of the bathroom.

New Years 95 on small blue stationery, my mom asked everyone to write down their wishes for the new year. She kept all the wishes, too.

This is New Year and if your wish for the new Year was that Suzers wouldn’t be a goon—You lose. If your wish was more laudable, we’d like to hear it. If it isn’t laudable it’s probably a facsimile of what we all wish so go ahead and make us feel good (that in itself is laudable). The whole point here is to say what you hope not what you will actually do.
If we all did what we hoped we’d do, there would be no sadness outside of what nature and/ or God ordained.
So go for it and be brutal- we like tears (we also like to laugh, so Patrick you don’t have to be poignant, you either Andy).

I have no idea when this was written it was just stuck in a notebook somewhere:
Lisa is a gritty writer. Nothing lyrical or soft in her prose. Terse and to the point. Poignant without the need for pathos or bathos. Even when trying to be complacent the edge is there. Even when trying to be kind there is an (aura is too soft a word) a hard little nub. Sometimes supposedly all fuzzy of meaning but the (even essence is too soft) inner core is very cohesive.
The following note was probably directed to my brother while he was living at home:

28 down – Used a check improperly- this is a “past tense” it should end in a “D”- Forge isn’t right “kited” is the word
35 down Knight’s weapon- remember “sir Lancelot= not “sir swordalot”.
56 across – exchange tennis shots-“volley” is correct.
10 across “lapp” (easy); famed Australian Horse- correct.
So- out of the four you did (we don’t know how many you tried to do) you got two correct. You also created mayhem for me (which may have been your goal) I’d give you an “A”if mayhem was your goal, a “D” if reality was it.
I actually think you get an “A” because you know it Pisses me off that someone would touch my crossword.
~Your mom

This one was one of a series of naggy notes my mom addressed towards my sister and brother, both adults living at home:
I have a great biblical quote:
“As you find the kitchen, so shall ye leave the kitchen” Gen1:2
I figure this means if the kitchen is clean when I go to bed, it will be clean upon my arisal.
Chicken and BBQ sauce
Spud salad
Home grown raspberries
I’ve checked, there are no quotes about “As the mother cleanest, so shall she reap the rewards of heaven”.

Love mom

This was an email in the early phase of my mom’s relationship with her computer:

April 2001
I cannot type fast enough to tell you how much I hate this fucking piece of shit
computer. It kicked off my whimsical prose and raped me of my lyrical thoughts. Goddamn bastard stupid diabolical thoughtless egotistical piranha. (“My mother was a lady” will not be a layer of the your lore when you speak about me after the Rapture). I asked after Jasper, I waxed philosophical about sickness and children. Potty and children. I segued into something else quite brilliantly. (I believe in transitional phrases and I think I do them with aplomb). I touched upon all manner of living and this stupid conveyer of messages fucked me.
I am now spent and must regroup. Love mom

My mom kept a log of every Christmas and new years get-together. They are notes to herself with a guest list and menu.
Christmas 2002 36 people

Ham from Kocian’s was plenty enough and easy. Slice ahead 2-3 days ahead and warm up in a roasting pan.
Shredded Beef Get a grip on this one—do not panic at last minute. 20 pounds of meat is way too much. 10 pounds is really quite enough—REALLY! There was too much left over. Made one week before Christmas and Froze. Perfect.
Rolls—Three 3 cup batch of white is plenty—don’t PANIC! 2 Three cup of rye and wheat- plenty!!!Please listen to yourself. We (Jenny Brace) made small buns and that was perfect. Make the Day of.
Cole Slaw Oh boy. One head is enough. Maybe 1 ½ heads. Don’t Panic! Too much left over! Make night or two before.
Veggie Platter Too much. Ramon did all the work on this—could make (at least peel and chop) two –three days before. Part of the problem is storage. With people in the basement using the extra fridge there was very limited storage. The van was OK for frozen stuff. It was even OK as a fridge the day of. Because it was so darn nice out. 30degrees or so. (Christmas Eve was beautiful—nice and cloudy with big fluffy flakes falling).
Punch 2 cans of each, 2 bottles of pop perfect. Try to make punch rings ahead of time (Try just to make them, period).
Pies 2 pecan good 1 chocolate 1 banana cream (forget that. It looked like pus for some reason) Made up leftover pie dough which everyone seemed to enjoy.
I have many more, but not enough. This is the woman I miss. The one who was reduced to a skeleton, unable to do anything but feel pain and breath. She was really, really alive, and funny and I miss her.