Thursday, April 12, 2012
Renovations and Parents: Paring back even more
I talked to my oldest friend, Liz, who has known me since I was twenty, on Sunday night. It was my much-belated birthday phone call. Her father, with whom she is very close, has had a stroke that has left him with little ability to create new short-term memories (like the fact that he shouldn't get out of bed without his walker) and some worrying holes in his long-term memory: he still believes that his parents are alive, although he recognizes the assisted-living facility where he lives. Liz understandably feels unmoored, given the suddenness of the stroke and the way she'd depended on her father's presence. I tried to explain how our parents stay with us even when they die, but that didn't resonate with her, given her circumstances.
Right after my mother's death, I found myself left with her expressions, many of which were Janus-faced--optimistic and funny as well as dark and angry. But after several months, I found that both my parents had become presences in my life that exceeded in many ways their place over the last ten years or so. Veronica suggested that I'm not thinking of them through the glass of concern or worry or loss that dominated the ends of their lives. While the insight is Veronica's, the metaphor is mine: it's as if there was a dirty window or a mud-and-bug-strewn windshield between us. Once the worry was gone--once I stopped thinking about how we were going to get Mother calmed down to go to the doctor for one of the endless UTIs, or figure out how we were going to get Dad to eat, I could see them more clearly. Now there's a new metaphor: it's as if I look through a glass-bottomed boat almost daily, seeing memories through clear water as they float up into my experience and my consciousness.
Earlier this week, we finished clearing out the kitchen for the renovation; the destruction is supposed to start this morning. I had cleaned out the buffet and the china cabinet in February to move them when the floors were done, and had purposefully not put anything back in them. Now they are my very minimal kitchen cupboards. I've taken my library of cookbooks off the shelf underneath the microsave so it can hold the ingredients I use daily--the olive oil, the rice wine vinegar, the cinnamon and baking powder. I've cleaned out drawers I hadn't looked at for twenty years. The paring back feels good.
But mostly I've been thinking about my mother. Unlike her Janus-faced expressions that echoed her view of the world--she was often depressed, but could also be enraptured by joy, curiousity, and wonder--her ability to improvise struck a single note. The need to improvise brought out her creativity and her pride in inventiveness combined with practicality.
My father was a TV repairman who was always the last person in Grand Rapids Michigan to raise his service call rates, so we lived on the edge of respectable poverty punctuated by what my mother saw as the necessities of life: trips to the library and symphony tickets. Travel was one of those necessities, part of our education. We went on vacations every year, the range of our travel determined by the family economy. But we never ate out. We had a Coleman stove, a water cooler, a large cooler and a picnic basket. Somehow my mother made three meals a day, often including a cooked breakfast (though we also loved the little boxes of cereal that were their own bowl) out of whole cloth. I don't remember grocery shopping: it was as if a whole week's necessities grew in the picnic basket and the cooler every night over night. Small toys to amuse a bored daughter magically appeared out from under the front seat of the car. Sometimes, in desperation, she paid me twenty-five cents an hour not to talk, though I could write notes. But except for her amused desperation at being locked in a car with Chatty Kathy, I don't remember her ever losing her cool. Making it up as she went along seemed to suit her during those times.
My mother's unlikely gift to me at this moment is a sense of playfulness, of improvisation. I probably made my last bread for a while on Easter weekend, but I don't see any reason I can't make fruit crisp or almond bars while we're under construction. Last night be had pork tenderloin with balsemic cranberry sauce; on Friday I'm making Morocan chicken pie. I'll make it up as I go along, which, when you think about it, is a joyful, optimistic approach to life.
at 9:01 AM