November 25, 2010
Warmest wishes to all of you on this holiday weekend. The following story is not autobiographical. It's an excerpt from my novel I recently finished thanks to my fabulous instructor at MediaBistro.com and my wonderful classmates.
hugs, Chris Olson
Thanksgiving dinner and the white plates
“Did you remember to call Mom yesterday?” my brother Tony asks over heaping portions of comfort food at the Atwood Cafe. “It was her sixty-fifth birthday.”
I stir my golden corn niblets into a pair of mashed potato domes.
“You can’t just pick up the phone and call her,” I say.
“Why not? Mom only had a stroke, not a lobotomy.”
“But she can’t talk. Why call her?”
“Because Mom still likes to hear your voice.”
My brother leans back, tipping his chair so far I grab him and blurt out, “You're going to crack your head open.”
As soon as I say it, we both know it. That’s exactly what Mom would tell Tony too.
“You sound just like Mom,” he laughs still leaning back.
“Well, if it is, then this curse of yours is definitely a good thing.”
• • •
When I step outside the Atwood Cafe, I start to cry. I never used to cry in public. Before my daughter Betsy was born five years ago and I went on estrogen overload, I was in control of my emotions.
I dip my chin deep into my scratchy wool scarf to hide my tears as I walk down Michigan Avenue. I feel like my sister. She’s the emotional wreck in my family with overflowing laundry baskets, a chronically broken washing machine, a pot roast burning in the oven, and three kids holding her hostage in her own home.
To visit my mom, I borrow my brother’s ancient Volvo station wagon. The wagon smells like Chinese takeout mixed with the sweat of hockey gear. I pick up Betsy early from kindergarten. Except for the rattle of the unreliable car heater and the Little Mermaid Disney movie playing on her mini DVD player, our drive to the burbs outside Chicago is quiet.
I'm getting used to silence. My mom--the only mom in the old neighborhood who argued like a lawyer because she really was one--hasn’t won a single argument since her strokes. Now she lives in an assisted living facility where the nurses do all the talking for her. The building doesn’t bother me. What makes me shiver are the details of her new life. The fact that now mom has the number 405—her apartment number--neatly hand written with a Sharpie pen on labels inside the white Herrera blouse, royal blue Jil Sanders wool sweater, and navy J. Crew skirt she wears today.
When we enter my mom’s tiny apartment, she looks up but it is impossible to tell if she even recognizes us. She is smiling, a funny half smile that looks like she is smiling and frowning at the same time. She sits in her cypress green armchair by a window—the same chair she had in her living room next to the fireplace in her old house. The same embroidered pillow with the gold pineapple is on her left side. The same oval cherry coffee table polished to a high gleam is on her right.
Mom’s entire world, neatly labeled with number 405, now fits in just three rooms: a living room, bedroom, and bathroom. All three rooms together are smaller than the garage of her old house--the green shuttered colonial on Birch Street. Her old place was one of the larger houses on the block and the only one with champion yellow rose bushes flanking the steps to the front porch.
In the old colonial, my mom has a brand new kitchen she started renovating only months ago. When she had the first stroke, the water was still turned off in the kitchen. She was using the wetbar in the family room as a mini kitchen while the construction workers set up camp in the kitchen. Mom never even had a chance to fill the dishwasher or sort the newspapers and bottles in her pantry’s new recycling center.
It’s November, a chilly, damp month made bearable only because all month long I look forward to family and friends gathering on Thanksgiving Day in the old colonial. Nothing will be the same this year. The hall closet will never be crammed with coats, caps, mittens and boots of all sizes waiting for an impromptu touch football game in the snow. I will never again breath in the heavenly aroma of a 20-pound turkey, gallons of stuffing, green beans with French-fried onions, and loaves of cranberry bread prepared in not just one, but two brand new ovens.
I boiled a cup of tea on her new royal blue Viking stove last week while I waited for the realtor's appointment. There is a big white For Sale sign in the front yard now. The colonial has a price tag. And a stainless steel tea kettle used exactly once. I left her kettle on the stove, but My mom will never fix tea here again. Her sub-zero refrigerator--big enough to hold six large appetizer trays from De Luca’s catering--sits empty. Empty except for the ice cube drawer in the freezer that I insisted we keep running because turning off the water seemed akin to turning off the life support when someone is dying.
Mom’s new cupboards hold sixteen place settings she purchased just two months ago at Crate & Barrel. I can remember shopping with her for the new dishes and thinking: I must be a real grown-up now because finally we agree on something: White plates.
I hate white plates now.
Betsy doesn’t seem to mind her Grandma’s new cramped quarters. On this visit, like all visits, Betsy brings along some of her artwork to share. She carefully rolls four pieces of Scotch tape and sticks them on the back of a picture she drew today of a skinny pink unicorn with long legs, a white mane, and a gold spiral horn. And lots of glitter.
“Unicorns bring good luck,” she tells her Nanna and tapes her masterpiece on the wall beside the window.
Luck is something my mom ran out of recently. Whenever anything bad happened to me growing up, my mom used to tell me she was certain that at least one more drop of good fortune could be squeezed even from the worst situation. I believed her then, but I'm not sure there are any more drops of good fortune left.
Now my always-eloquent mom is unable to even thank her granddaughter for the picture, but Betsy doesn’t seem to care. Betsy smiles as she snuggles on her Nanna’s lap, resting her cheek on her sweater. A dusting of unicorn glitter falls on Nanna’s shoulder.
When Betsy and I tell mom goodbye, I realize I barely said anything during our hour-long visit. I’m sure Betsy didn’t miss that. How many words did I utter? Twenty? Ten? Five?
I am still fretting over the numbers when Betsy runs up and grabs my hand. She pulls me down the sidewalk to the old Volvo as if we are running in a race. The cold night air fills my lungs and burns. This is when I finally tell myself it’s okay to cry because for the first time in a long time, crying seems like the right thing to do.
• • •
This is my story and I’m sticking to it...
Hi. Welcome to MomathonBlog.com. I am a freelance writer and illustrator. I am also substitute teacher in the local school district. Before I had kids and switched to freelance work, I was an advertising copywriter and a book editor. Before I settled down to a “real” job, I was a ski instructor, lifeguard, and even a French pastry chef.
(or things you might want to ask me)
• What is a momathon? If I could write the definition for Webster’s, then I think it would say:
mom•a•thon \mäm -ə-thän\ (noun) : the 24/7 mommy marathon--on two feet or four wheels.
• If you were a French pastry chef, why don’t you have a cookbook? I'll be honest, I got the job because I was willing to work in a hot kitchen, not for my baking skills. But I do have a fun pastry cookbook--one I wrote just for me. I have a packet of recipes I wrote down while slaving away in the bakery at the Minneapolis Sofitel Hotel. Unfortunately all the recipes are for feeding a gazillion people so I hardly ever use them.
•Do you have a favorite recipe? Chocolate Profiteroles--a miniature cream puff with chocolate sauce drizzled over the top-is my favorite. I also love chocolate mousse. Shortly after I “retired,” a local paper asked the restaurant for the mousse recipe and the chef gave them the most complicated recipe with dozens of ingredients and even more steps. Seemed odd to me because the recipe I was told to use was very short and quite easy. Maybe that’s why it was one of my favorites.
• Where do you live? Too far from my family and friends in Minnesota. Close enough to fabulous skiing to keep me happy.
• Your kids sound sweet. Why don’t you share any photos? Because they are just old enough to think appearing in a mommy blog is lame.
• Have you ever illustrated a children’s book? Not yet. So far my projects include logos, spot illustrations, and note cards. I’m working on developing clothing with my artwork. I’ll keep you posted.
• Do you have any favorite sayings? “ Cherish your kids and be good to yourself.”
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