Archive for the 'Tales From The Coal Patch' category

The Story of Bread

Apr 29 2016 Published by under Tales From The Coal Patch

My mother was the short-order cook of the Home Breakfast Diner. She made sure we children had a good breakfast before school each day – even if that meant a fried egg for this one, scrambled for that one, soft-boiled on toast for another, oatmeal or cereal for one more. For herself, though, breakfast was always a slice of toast and cup of coffee. On weekends, the diner became more of a self-serve counter, and my sisters and I would often emulate mom’s breakfast in lazy high style. Lounging about in our pajamas, we would toast slice after slice of Stroehmann’s white bread, slather it with Parkay margarine, and sprinkle it heavily with a cinnamon-sugar mix from a glass jar capped with a metal screwcap perforated lid. We sipped Salada tea with our toast, rather than coffee, and read the Tag Lines dangling from our cups to each other.

Our weekday breakfasts nourished our bodies, but those weekend toast-fests with tea and talk were for something else. We described our dreams to each other, talked about tv shows, movies, and books, gossiped and traded complaints about friends, enemies, school, marching band, our church group, and life in general. Verbal agility and wordplay were both practiced and admired in our house; Saturday toast and tea was often a fun time in that regard. “All sorrows are less with bread,” said Cervantes, and as well all conviviality was more with cinnamon toast.

I thought of that breakfast toast the other day, as I popped a slice of Whole Foods artisanal cranberry-walnut bread into my long-slice-accommodating toaster with defrost and bagel settings. My toaster resides in a corner of the countertop, not on the table as did my family’s. (It does, however, have the same propensity to burn on one side and not toast on the other. Little improvement in toaster technology over the ages, in my opinion.) I eat my toast alone, or at least in silence, as the cats are not much for conversational banter.

The bread I toast is upscale, not to say aspirational, and certainly much more expensive than those slices of Stroehmann’s. I buy it because I have learned to think disparagingly of the pre-sliced white loaves of my childhood, and because I have developed a taste for crusty artisanal loaves. Though I note that one can buy “artisanal” white bread loaves at Whole Foods. They will slice them for you, too.

People still say of some new thing “that’s the greatest thing since sliced bread!” Don’t they? They should. When sliced “store-bought” bread appeared on the scene, my mother told us, she and her siblings longed to have it. To them its taste was deliciously novel and desirable. Their mother baked bread three times a week. Rarely did they get to partake of the heavenly delight that was store-bought, sliced white bread. Only at times when the coal miner’s wife and mother of seven ran out of time for one of the thrice-weekly bakings would she send a child down to the company store to purchase the savory goodness. Julia Child’s bread-that-tastes-like-Kleenex was the desiderata for my mother and her siblings.

When our mother described this to us, her longing as a child for store-bought bread, and sadness at “having” to eat her mother’s homemade bread, we hooted and hollered and cried out in disbelief. You should know, dear reader, that this story was told to us many, many times, and each time we would react with the same level of dismay. We were a family that repeated stories as if no written record could exist. The only way to preserve family lore was to repeat the stories. The telling of stories to each other was to say “this is who you are, you belong to this and it belongs to you.”  I belong to the story of bread, and it belongs to me.

We were the eaters of Stroehman’s, who longed for the few times a year when our mother would make homemade bread. At Easter time she made a special kind of bread called paska, which we ate with the other “blessed foods” that went into the Easter basket. This basket of delights was taken to the church on Easter Saturday for the priest’s blessing – kielbasa, Easter eggs, pickled eggs, horseradish & beets, ham, and an egg cheese that my mother called “cedetz” or sirecz. We loved paska, and while a sandwich of ham and egg cheese on paska was divine, just a plain slice of paska with butter was itself an eagerly anticipated treat.

I have baked bread maybe five times in my whole life. I buy flour in a one-pound sack, store it in a small Tupperware canister, use it mostly to make desserts for Mr. Z, and struggle to use it up before it goes bad.  I skip the bread aisle in my regular grocery store and buy bread at Whole Foods, or at the farmer’s market, or at the little bakery in the next town over, because I have learned to be a bread snob, and because I can afford it.

My mother baked bread a few times a year in an electric oven, along with cakes and cookies for our family. She bought flower in five or ten pound sacks and stored it first in a metal canister, later in a large Tupperware canister. Still later she had a bread machine, rarely used. Late in life, she began to favor “Tuscany bread” from her local grocery store, as the artisanal bread craze washed up on her shores.

Her mother, the grandmother I never knew, baked bread three times a week on a coal stove. She bought flower in twenty-five pound sacks and stored it in a compartment of a Hoosier-type cabinet designed especially for that purpose.

My great-grandmother baked bread in an outdoor communal brick oven in the small coal town of Beatty, PA.  I am fairly certain she bought her flour, though I don’t know in what quantities or how it was stored.

Zuska's great-grandma, near Beatty, PA

Zuska's great-grandma, near Beatty, PA

My great-great-grandmother, back in Slovakia, most likely ground her own grain or went to the local mill to get her flour.

I never learned from my mother the skill of baking the breads she knew how to make, the skill she learned from her mother and her aunts who lived next door. I would gladly pay to have the bread my grandmother baked because she could not afford the store-bought sliced stuff.  Even in the ethnic enclaves that survive in urban Philadelphia, I have not found a bakery that makes paska.

Last year at Easter time I assayed an attempt at paska. The results were mixed. It looked alright, had the wonderful aroma I remembered, and the taste was not all that bad. But it was way too dense, not the light, delicate, somewhere-between-bread-and-cake bread of my childhood.

Paska made by Zuska - loaves and burnt rolls

Paska made by Zuska - loaves and burnt rolls

This year I had an opportunity to learn to make paska at my in-laws’ Hungarian church “kitchen club”, but I had a month-long lung plague instead. They sent me the recipe and directions with pictures, so maybe I will give it another try.

Breadmaking is a science and an art – the right mix of dry and wet ingredients, the right amount of kneading, the right rise time, the quality of your yeast and the way you handle it, the evenness of your oven’s heat. My mother swore that her bread, as much as we loved it, never baked as well in her electric stove as it had in her old coal stove. She used to let the bread rise on the back of the coal stove, which always had some residual heat. Not so with an electric stove. She also used cake yeast, which is nearly impossible to find today. The dry yeast packets, to my mind, have a different rise effect and lend a different flavor to the bread. I have one of my mother's old bread pans, and the bread bakes differently in it that dark battered pan that it does in my shiny new one, i.e., better.

I don’t have a large family to bake for. I have my Whole Foods cranberry-walnut bread, and the cats and Mr. Z.  I could probably learn to bake bread, but I tell myself it’s not the best use of my time when it’s so easy to buy good bread (not paska, but good bread nonetheless).  I suspect if my grandmother were here with me today, she would not be sorry to leave off the chore of needing to bake bread three times a week in a coal stove. If she could afford it, she would no doubt be pleased to purchase tasty bread at a nearby store. I don’t have false nostalgia for a past where women’s work was constant and hard, and women’s opportunities were circumscribed by law as well as prejudice. My great-grandmother left Slovakia in part so her descendants could experience a life with cranberry walnut bread they didn’t have to bake for themselves. So all-in-all my story of bread has worked out okay.

It’s much harder today to be in the situation my grandmother had to negotiate, a family to feed and not able to afford the fancy store-bought sliced bread. My grandfather was able to support the family financially, more or less, on his coal miner’s wages even in the days of struggling to establish the union, while my grandmother ran the household, raised the kids, preserved food from the garden, and baked bread. Today’s poor families are unlikely to have someone at home full time, with the energy and time to bake bread. They are unlikely to have the capital to invest in bread-baking supplies and tools, or perhaps even to have a stable home address where said supplies can be stored. (As can happen, for example, when people are subjected to shameful evictions following on the heels of predatory lending practices.)

My good-fortune story of bread gives me an opportunity to lend a hand in other peoples’ stories. I am always happy to support food pantries. One of my favorite programs is Philabundance, and I recently discovered that my county’s community college has a food pantry program for its students, developed by faculty and staff. Maybe there’s something similar at a community college near you, or maybe you could help establish something like it. There is also a program at Community College of Philadelphia, helping students keep their grades up and graduate.

If you’re lucky enough to enjoy artisanal toast in the morning, think about sharing some of your good fortune with people in your area who are not so fortunate. The story of bread should belong to all of us.

4 responses so far

Makeshift Memorial

Feb 18 2015 Published by under (if) Elder (why) Care, Tales From The Coal Patch

When my siblings and I were young, my parents frequently took us to the cemetery to visit the grave of my mother's mother. I never knew her, but I knew how much my mother and Pappap had loved her. I could see how sad it made my mother each time we went. As a small child, I felt bad for my mother, but it had nothing to do with me. I did not imagine myself one day standing there as she did, at the place where we had cast her underground, lost and weeping.

One may visit a cemetery at any time, but certain proper times impel one's presence graveside: the days of a loved one's birth and death; Christmas and Easter; Memorial Day. Unhappily for me, my mother's birth and death dates are in December and February. The six-hour drive to the cemetery at these times is a dicey proposition.

This past Sunday, February 15th, was the second anniversary of my mother's death. We are in the middle of an arctic freeze, with frequent bouts of snow, freezing rain, 40 mph winds, and sub-zero wind chills. With the anniversary occurring on a Sunday, it seemed attendance at Mass would be a good form of remembrance. I would recite the familiar prayers, and at the end of the service, I would light a candle for mom - near a statue of Mary, if possible.

My mother, a devout Catholic, was very devoted to the rosary and the Virgin Mary. She was always "bending Mary's ear" about a cause in need of Mary's succor, whether it be restoration of the health of a sick grandchild or a conversion of non-recyclers to less earth-ruinous ways of living. It grieved my mother deeply that I had fallen away from church-going. For my part I found it simultaneously amusing, annoying, and touching to learn she had taken to lighting three candles whenever she went to a church. Whether at weekly Mass at her home church, or in other churches while traveling or visiting, the votive candles were regularly lit for my father, my brother, and me. My father was dead, so his candle was to help him get out of purgatory and into heaven. My brother was confined to a nursing home ever since a botched surgery at age 17, so his candle was for his health (and a miracle, if God would so please). My candle was to bring me back to the faith.

When I was very young, I believed that the lighting of votive candles had a magic power. The very candle itself sent up a mystic message via flame and smoke straight to God, who would see the burning candle and think favorably upon its associated prayer. You didn't burn a candle for trivial things, like winning a ballgame, or evil things, like causing harm to one's enemy. You burned them to ask for intercession in someone's misery. Heal the sick and suffering. Lift the souls in Purgatory into Heaven. Guide the lost sheep back into the fold. That sort of thing.

I don't know if my mother believed literally in the power of the candles but she did believe that in some way lighting one focused and amplified her prayer. She always, if possible, chose to light her candles on the side of the church where the statue of Mary was. Mary had been a mother. Mary understood the sufferings and special sorrows of a mother's heart. Mary was the right one to chat with, when you wanted something important relayed to God, to make sure He would get it. You know, really get it.

People without religious faith can still benefit from ritual. Since I have not yet managed to create my own set of deeply meaningful memorial rituals, and couldn't make it to the cemetery, I thought it was worth giving the Mass and the votive candle a chance.

I found a local Catholic church that seemed perfect. Catholic churches usually bear a saint's name. My hometown church was St. Ignatius of Antioch. St. Peter, St. Michael the Archangel, St Patrick's are all common; there are a lot of Sacred Hearts and Holy Family parishes, too. But the one I found was called Queen of Peace. It was a church dedicated to Mary! It was a good sign! I planned to go.

Then the butt-chappingly cold weather got even more butt-chapping, and it snowed again, and the dire newscasters warned against going out lest ye be frostbitten and die, and the winds blew a steeple off a church in a town nearby.

I stayed home.

But I didn't feel good about it.

My dear friend and neighbor then suggested, why not burn a Yahrzeit candle at home? Better than trundling off to church to light a candle I wouldn't see again after I left the building anyway! Great idea!

Scrounging around the house, I could not find any nice pillar candles, and for sure nothing that would burn 24 hours. What I did have, though, were "purification candles". These I had found and brought home with me during one of the marathon sessions of cleaning out mom's house. Purification candles are blessed (and sometimes lit) on Candlemas, the 40th day after Christmas. On that day Mary took Jesus to be presented at the temple (and to be purified for her birth-giving uncleanliness, bla bla, patriarchal religion, bla bla). All good Catholics keep some blessed purification candles on hand at home for when the priest comes by to bless and anoint a dying person. Blessed candles can be lit when someone is sick, in a sort of bedside vigil  and prayer for returned health. Or, as in olden days, they can be lit as protection against the (literal) wolves in the forest. They are quite versatile.

I had a candle, noow I needed a holder. DIYers on the internet suggested using a small jar filled with sand. No appropriate-sized jar was to be found, but I did have the perfect mug - a plain white mug my father used to drink his coffee. (My younger sister remembers once as she watched him drink it black, before going out on midnight shift at the coal mine, asking him if he didn't want milk. "The first cup's purely medicinal" came the reply from a man who could not truly be called "awake" at that point.)

Candle, mug - but I had no sand.  Searching my cupboard I ran across some years-out-of-date Minute Tapioca. Kinda sandy-like texture. I lit the candle, dripped some wax in the bottom of the mug, and held the candle in the wax till it was steady. Then I filled the cup halfway with Minute Tapioca around the candle, to catch the dripping wax. For some decoration, I taped the remains of a refrigerator magnet (sans magnet) on the side of the mug. It was a miniature straw hat with pink roses I had bought for my mother when we went to a ramp festival in western Pennsylvania. She had liked the little hat, and pink roses were her favorite. It was perfect.

Makeshift Yahrzeit Candle

Makeshift Yahrzeit Candle

It was early afternoon when I lit the candle (not sundown, as one more properly does). The ersatz Yahrzeit burned quite a long time. I carried it around the house with me wherever I went. I felt very happy about it. At one point while walking up the stairs and shielding the flame, I though of my mother very intensely. It felt to my non-spiritual self like her spirit was with me in some sense.

Later on I noticed that the flame was now level with the rim of the cup. What was of course obvious from the beginning of this candle venture now hit me with all the force of a grief born anew: the flame would burn out. Stricken, I turned to Mr. Z with this obvious and tragic observation, and I wept.

We talked for a little while about my mother and her life, how much we loved her, how much we miss her, and the examples of her life we wish to embrace. It was good to have those moments to feel and share the sadness, and to speak affectionately of mom.

The candle lasted awhile longer. I kept it near me. Eventually the little hat fell off the side of the cup, and though I tried once or twice to press it back on its sticky tape, it just wouldn't stay. Soon the flame was down to a mere wisp which licked at the wax that had earlier dripped onto the Minute Tapioca. As this wax burned and flared, some of the tapioca burned, too, giving off a scent of burnt marshmallow, and leaving a burnt-marshmallow-type ring around the guttering flame.

 

candle1

Little flame, with burnt tapioca

 

 

The aroma reminded me of family camping trips when we were all young, roasting marshmallows around the campfire, mom at the wooden picnic table laying out the graham crackers and Hershey's squares in readiness for our burnt sugar fluff sagging off our campfire forks.

Even in those last few moments when the little flame was almost nothing to be seen, it gave me something.

And then it just...went out.

I looked at the clock and by pure accident, the flame had gone out at just about the time in early evening when mom drew her last breath.

8 responses so far

Repost: Research Shows Private Schools Are Awesome

Everything "vintage" and "repurposed" is popular these days, so why not some vintage repurposed TSZ? Originally published 8/2/2006 and titled "More From the Journal of Exceedingly Obvious Results", this classic TSZ is, sadly, just as relevant today as it was eight years ago.

 

This just in from JEOR, as reported in the Chronicle's news blog:

Researchers at Harvard University say private high schools give their students an advantage over those who attend public schools.

I am shocked, shocked! to find that an advantage is going on at private schools! 

Who would have thought that our excellent system for adequately funding our public schools through the lottery of property taxes, and the generally large student-to-teacher ratios in public schools, would not be competitive with private institutions and their smaller student-to-teacher ratios?  Wouldn't you think that property values in southwestern PA would buy you just as good a public education as you could get at, say Phillips Exeter?  Or that a class size of 30 offers just as much opportunity for your child to get excellent individual attention from the teacher as, say, a class size of 10 at the local Roman Catholic high school? I would have too.  That's why we need JEOR to keep us informed. 

So what I say is, stop wasting your breath lobbying your senators and representatives to do a better job of funding a topnotch public education for every child.  Just grab your kid and scurry on over to the nearest private school as fast as you can.  And if you can't afford it or there aren't any in your county, well, that's just too bad, isn't it?  That will teach you to be born into the not-adequately-privileged class. 

There are some who say money isn't the answer.  I remember one Republican who once told me that he thought textbooks weren't necessary to truly teach a child well, that he could teach a child math without a textbook.  I asked him if he would prefer for his child to go to a school with teachers like him but absolutely no textbooks.  He got a sour look and refused to answer me.  Yeah, I thought so, is what I said.  Why is it that money is not the answer only for the poor kids?  

One response so far

Competitive Farm Marketing

You cannot sleep in on Saturday and expect the black raspberries to sit around waiting for you to show up at the farmer's market. You just can't. They will have up and left you forlorn and bereft, as they jump quickly, even frantically, into the first reusable cloth bag or colorful wicker basket that strolls by.

The natural habitat of berries at a farmer's market is close to the pay station. It's no good standing around waiting politely for the line to shuffle along the table to the berries. Say "excuse me" if you must, but slip in between and grab some of those jumpy berries NOW, and return to the end of the line, holding on tightly. You will be ever so glad you did once you reach the pay station and survey the scorched landscape that was once a lush berry patch. Remain vigilant until you have paid for the berries and secured them in your reusable cloth bag/colorful wicker basket. Because when you set them down on the table to retrieve your wallet, so as to make an offering to the berry gods, 99% of the time the hand of the person behind you will instantly hover over your berries while they ask, in foolish hope and lust combined: "Are these yours?" Whatever you are in engaged in at the moment, stop and lay a hand possessively somewhere on the berries with a firm "Yes!" that brooks no sharing.

Secure the berries carefully in your vehicle, in a cooler if you can't park in the shade. Then, and only then, return to the market to shop for the more abundant comestibles, the zucchinis and cucumbers, the cabbages and carrots, the peppers and potatoes. These will make the bulk of your meals in the coming week but the berries will make your bliss.

In your childhood you watched cartoons on Saturday morning and then tramped the woods with your friends, collecting the berries in a bucket, eating as you went, returning home with stained hands and a pailful that your mother turned into something delicious. You only had to compete with the birds, and there was enough for everyone anyway. But you washed your hands, and grew up, and went away to college, and then to grad school, and then all over the place, and now you live a cosmopolitan life in a city that offers so much more than you ever could have dreamed of in your little home town. You can have anything you want, really. You can even have your berries and eat them, too.

6 responses so far

Things That Keep Me From Blogging

Disorganization. Procrastination. Endless estate paperwork and ensuing depression.

Trips back to western PA to empty out the house, and ensuing depression. Knowing the house is finally empty, putting it on the market, selling it two days later, and ensuing depression.

Sunday evening making a cake while dreaming about renovating my ugly kitchen when suddenly the power goes out because the electric panel died, 24 hours before a planned trip so hello emergency electrician, goodbye 10% reno budget...and cue ensuing depression. While a supposed-to-be vacation week is suddenly and terrifyingly made a visit-to-the-hospital week, returning home with worry worry worry on the mind, and ensuing depression.

A garden that was the source of pleasure and rejuvenation now overrun with weeds, baked dry as a bone, plants dying or suffering powdery mildew - in just one week! - looking like an eyesore and a hopeless chore, and ensuing depression.

Some hours on the phone for a $$$ doctor's bill the insurance won't pay, for the same test they paid for a month prior, submitted with an incorrect procedure code, impossible! for the aggressive billing office to deal with in any way, and ensuing depression.

No thing is unbearable, but everything is. No thing is impossible to deal with, but everything is difficult and draining and filled with despair.

No thing keeps me from blogging, but everything does.

7 responses so far

Theon Greyjoy: Catastrophic Transformation Into Living Death

Game of Thrones fans, book and show alike: this post DOES contain spoilers. If you are not up to date with your reading and show watching (Season 4, Episode 6), then read no further.

Also, this is very sad. You are warned.

Continue Reading »

8 responses so far

I Held You In My Arms As You Once Held Me In Yours

This is something I wrote three years ago but never posted. I decided to share it because mom is on my mind, and because I want to encourage those of you involved in elder care to consider keeping a journal. I did write some during my years caring for mom, but not regularly, and not nearly enough. I wish I could have all my time with her back in writing. Here is one bit I did capture.

 

You'd been mentioning the arboretum during our phone calls, and on my last few visits.  What could you be talking about, where might it be?  An arboretum, right there in the city?  You said we went to it years ago, as Girl Scouts, when you were a troop leader. The woman from our town who took us there pointed out the spring wild flowers.  Trilliums.  I didn't even know you knew what they were.  I had recently discovered them, through a garden excursion with my own local arboretum. And thought I was fancy for learning what you had long known.

But the arboretum.  Through the genius of google, I found it, right where you said it would be.  And I asked you if you wanted to go see it.  Yes.

We stopped by the woods on a sunny autumn afternoon.  The parking lot was empty.  I got your wheelchair out of the trunk and should have known right away I was attempting something that wasn't sensible, something too difficult, something downright dangerous.  The handicapped parking spot was the only thing about the arboretum that was accessible.  Between the parking lot and the arboretum path there was a step - a small step, to be sure, but still a step.  I didn't notice then how the pavement sloped a little downwards there, too.  Nevertheless, you wanted, and I wanted for you.

I placed the wheelchair on the path, and helped you manage the few paces from the car to the chair - including that small step down.  Not bad.  The path itself was gravel - not great, but I managed.  We rolled back and forth only a short distance, as the path quickly sloped downwards at either end. As stupid as I was that day, I wasn't stupid enough to push you in a wheelchair downhill on a gravel path.

We admired what trees we could see, read what signs and markers there were to be read, and then returned to the path entrance.  And the little step, and that - oh, now I see it - sloping pavement.  How in the world am I going to get you back into the safety of the car?

I brought the chair close to the step and locked the wheels, and helped you stand up.  But that easy step up for me, from the level surface to the mildly sloping pavement, was for you a step onto a looming incline - you, with your weak legs, poor balance, and no handrails in sight.  "I'm going to fall, I'm going to fall!" you cried out.

"No, no, you aren't!"  I wrapped you in my arms and by sheer will alone I held you up.  By all the laws of physics you should have been lying on the rough asphalt with a broken hip, autumn leaves plastered to a bloodied skull.  Those are the images that flashed through my terrified brain as I steadied you, calmed you, helped you move slowly to the safety of the car just those few paces away. "How did she die?" someone murmurs at the funeral home.  "Oh, it was the daughter's fault.  Knocked her down on some godforsaken parking lot pavement and bashed her skull in." But you did not die, and we both live to drive off for dinner with your sister.

While I held you and did not drop you, and vivid images of your death flashed in my mind, this also came to me.  There is a story of my infancy you have told me over and over and over again.  How, as a baby, I was colicky, and you walked the floors with me every night, trying to soothe and calm me.  How one night, holding me so long and so late, rocking back and forth from one foot to the other, so tired from all your labors of the day, you fell asleep standing up.  You woke up just in time to catch yourself from dropping me on the floor and falling on top of me.  I am certain, from the sheer number of retellings of this tale throughout my lifetime and the way you tell it, that images of my bashed and bloodied baby skull on the kitchen floor must have flashed through your terrified brain.

I want to give you all that will make you happy, just as you did for me, but my first job is to keep you safe, just as yours was for me.  I am not an overworked, sleep-deprived mother.  I should have known better than to try something crazy like an arboretum outing, and all on my own, too.  No one gave me a manual for this.

My arboretum's paths are paved. I could wheel you around the whole of it.  But you are not here. And it is not the one you remember, with the trilliums, when you were a Girl Scout leader, when your legs were strong, when I was a girl, when life stretched long before you, when a step was just something you stepped lightly over on your way to something else.

5 responses so far

The Cabbage is Sad

I've been eating a soup of struggle, pain, and loss for the past two years. Still I have not found my way back to the center, and I begin to suspect there is no one who will or can say "stop, little pot".

Mr. Z and I throw in a dash of bluegrass festival or getaway vacation or just an evening's Jeopardy-watching marathon to season, as we can. In this way it is possible to continue eating the soup; our eyes meet over the rim of our bowls, and we remember the world-without-soup.

In the past few months, we have been eating the soup of sorting, packing, giving away, and leave-taking. My siblings and I are clearing out the house my mother lived in for over eighty years, the house she was, literally, born in, so that it can be sold. Mr. Z and I are helping his parents winnow down their already-once-winnowed possessions for the move from two-bedroom condo to daughter's house. Three lifetime's worth of belongings form a river past our selves; some diverted to siblings, some to charity, some to us, until the river will dry up. As our tributary washes in the front door I begin to dig a channel out the back, pouring in unworn clothing, unused bedding, dishes-replaced-with-dishes, furniture-with-furniture. My channel is no match for the tributary, itself a tiny offshoot of the river; the house floods with worldly goods, memories, and regrets. The river itself would drown me if I am not careful.

Yesterday evening Mr. Z came home with three pottery bowls and a cookbook. You've seen the type; a church or community or extended family gathers favorite and treasured recipes; they are typed up, printed, often spiral bound with a cover evoking embroidery or tatted lace. This morning I began reading the tales of food, love, friends and family. Appetizers and Pickles proved disappointing. How many Taco Dip recipes does one need? The next section was Soup, and there it was, first recipe on the first page: Cabbage and Potato Soup. Hungarians, cabbage and potato soup - surely this will be good. The ingredients list included Kalbasz and sour cream; very promising. And then the first instruction:

Place cabbage in large bowl; sprinkle with salt. Allow it to get sad.

If only this cookbook came with a bubba! Perhaps a DVD bubba, if a real-life one cannot be assigned. A bubba to say "this is how cabbage looks and feels when it is sad; this is what I mean by 'stir occasionally'; lard will not kill you, eat, eat!; done but not mushy is like this; season to taste just so; and here is where you can get real Kalbasz, or how to make it if the old ones are all gone."

Alas, it does not. My mother is gone. My mother-in-law is moving away. I shall have to content myself with My Grandmother's Ravioli. And imagine I am a bubba myself, and try the Cabbage and Potato soup recipe. I will allow the cabbage to get sad; I will stir occasionally; I will cook until tender; I will cook until done but not mushy. I will mix and return to pot. I will season to taste, and I will always remove scum from top of water when cooking with small strainer.

I will do all this, as A.W. asked, in memory of E.R., and in honor of all the bubbas who so willingly cooked and served up food and love against the struggle, pain, and loss, all throughout my life.

6 responses so far

I Wasn't Hearing That So Nicely For So Long

Last night I found a note I’d written to myself at least two and maybe three years ago, at the end of a beach vacation.

The ocean’s so vast – we can’t imagine it fished out.  Mom has been with me so long – I can’t imagine I will lose her. We don’t want to imagine these things. We tell ourselves all is okay even in the face of blatant evidence to the contrary.

Z contemplates life, the universe, and everything

Z contemplates life, the universe, and everything

I knew, from the moment we first got the diagnosis of congestive heart failure for mom, that we were at the beginning of the end. I knew that CHF could be managed, but not cured. And even if it could be cured, there is no cure for life. I knew but as my father-in-law says when we offer information he is not thrilled to receive: “I don’t hear that.”

This was maybe in 2004.  As one does, I resolved to treat time as precious. Resolutions waver, especially in the face of one’s own chronic illness. I often think about the four relatively good years of mom’s life that I let slip by.

In the summer of 2007 she expressed a desire to go to Cape Hatteras once again. It was a family vacation spot with many happy memories.  My younger sister and I managed to take her there for a week in September. We did everything. She didn't even want to wheel by a little yellow flower without a closer look.

The flower she couldn't pass by.

The flower she couldn't pass by.

One night she had food poisoning from some bad shrimp. We feared that she would be out for the rest of the week; I knew how long a similar bout would knock me down. The next morning she up was up, ready, and determined to go. Perhaps she knew this would be her last vacation trip ever. I thought it would be her last. But I didn't hear that.

Happy feet at Hatteras

Happy feet at Hatteras

 

It was January of 2008 when she moved into assisted living.

I became her power of attorney and as time went on, became ever more intimately involved with her affairs and her life. She called me often, sometimes several times a day, and left little voice messages if she didn’t catch me. Suzanne, it’s me, I just called to talk a little bit. Okay, I’ll talk to you later. Bye-bye. Suzanne, it’s me. I just called to see if you’re watching the Steelers. Okay, talk to you later. Her Reader’s Digest subscription needed renewal; send a check to the KDKA Turkey Fund at Thanksgiving; donate to the Red Cross for the Haiti earthquake or the tsunami in Japan.  She would remind me to pay the hairdresser at the assisted living home, tell me to buy a lottery ticket when the jackpot got high (“and one for yourself!”), and ask me to “bring some extra cash” the next time I visited, to pay for some handmade cards purchased from a friend.

Her health status oscillated, each time the peaks scaling a little less height, the troughs diving a little deeper.  The cane left at home when she moved to AL; first a walker, then sometimes a transport chair or wheelchair, then almost always the chairs, while we were out and about. She said she dreamed of being at a home town wedding in the firehall, walking around and saying hi to everyone seated in the chairs around the edge of the dance floor, and I just walked and walked and walked! It was such a good dream! But it's never gonna be. I listened and I sympathized and I felt sad. Still, I didn't hear that, not really.

Last October she was in rehab; at the end of my visit, she tried to coax me to stay an extra day. In my mind I had to get back home for some damn thing. I'm not going to live forever, Suzanne she said. I really did not hear that.

Even as late as last Thanksgiving I was still not hearing so nicely. She'd gotten as strong as I'd seen her in years after a round of PT at the rehab facility and was so happy to be back at her assisted living home. She surely had at least another year yet. We had a glorious feast in her home with many family members present, and she tasted the pleasure of every moment. We made silly art sculptures from vegetable pieces and she laughed.

 

Thanksgiving spread at mom's house

Thanksgiving spread at mom's house

Veggie art

Veggie art

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next day she fell and broke her arm. In the ER she said to me "This ruins everything" and my heart broke.

I knew broken bones are often the death knell of the elderly; but I didn’t hear that. “It’s only her arm, not her hip” I soothed. “She will recover! It will just take time!” In the nursing home she experienced excruciating pain at the slightest jostling, and by Christmas she was a shadow of the vibrant woman she had been one holiday earlier. By the first week of January, when Dr. Bones pronounced her healed and said the sling could go, she didn’t give much of a good goddamn about anything.  Or perhaps more accurately: she would have given it, but she was clean out of goddamns, good or bad.

I knew for sure then that the end was very close, and yet, I was not having any hearing of that.  Maybe she needed her meds adjusted, or she wasn’t getting enough attention at the nursing home, or the right attention, or she needed to be encouraged more in rehab. Or a pony, or a unicorn.

One afternoon of the week I was to leave for Science Online 2013, waiting at a red light, I saw an unusual number of cars go through the intersection before me. I saw, but I didn’t see that. The light turned green and the line of traffic just kept on going through the intersection. One, two , three cars…what the hell…red light runners are so fucking annoying…I honked my horn. And then I saw that. I saw the last two cars with little flags attached to their hoods. Flags that said “funeral”.  Oh! Sorry, sorry, I mouthed, hands waving wildly as if that would both communicate my apology and magically ward off some kind of bad karma I had just created.

A few days later, during a meal at SciO13, my cell rang, and it was my younger sister. She told me mom had had what looked like a stroke, and she was having trouble talking, and they had taken her to the hospital for observation. I knew what that meant. And this time, I heard that. I heard everything my sister said, and some things she didn't.

I was on a plane the next morning and at mom's bedside by the afternoon. A few days later she had a grand mal seizure, and by the end of the week we had moved her back home with the help of hospice. Just one week more came the moment when I traded my role as power of attorney for that of executor. Tomorrow will be the half-year anniversary of the transition.

 

She lived a long life. I know how fortunate I am to have had that much time with her, to have been with her at the end, and for her end to have been in her own home as she had wished, as peaceful as we could make it. My grief is not exactly that she should have had more time in her life - not more years of increasing disability and sickness, for sure - but that she should have had more time in her life when I was more present, more respectful, more attentive to her as a person and not just my mom (but also my mom).

Some of you may know I wrote some things in her memory on Twitter; they are collected here in a Storify.

Thank you, dear Zuskateers, for reading this.

Z and Z-mom January 2007

Z-mom and Z, January 2007

 

16 responses so far

How Sentiment and Respect Can Leave Your Parents Vulnerable

Jan 29 2013 Published by under (if) Elder (why) Care, Tales From The Coal Patch

A woman's purse is a part of her person. Even hairy-legged feminazis know that. A purse is an intimate thing; it carries so much of a woman's life inside. If the woman is a mother, it also magically produces all sorts of things for her children: tissues, pieces of candy, bobby pins, loose change, ketchup packets, hand sanitizer, baby wipes, and much more.

Of course a woman may have more than one purse, and will transfer contents from one to the other as the social occasion warrants, but the concept of a woman's purse more than any one purse is what I am talking about. The purse is a symbol of her autonomy and responsibility: she takes care for herself, and she takes care for others.

My mother's purse was ever-present, bountiful and authoritative. Z-mom was the family banker; her purse held the wallet that paid for groceries, clothing, or shoes. When at last she had to move to assisted living, her purse went with her. We knew she could not keep large amounts of cash with her but she wanted some money in her purse "just in case". We allowed $20. And her debit card. The debit card she wanted so that when we took her to doctor appointments, she could be the one to pay for lunch or dinner out. We bought a safe for her room but the purse never ended up in it; it was too awkward to get at and too difficult to open, and mom wanted her purse more accessible.

Inevitably, of course, some one of the low-paid staff stole her wallet out of her purse. The bank immediately recognized suspicious transactions and called me; we cancelled the card. Mom grieved the loss of the photos in her wallet more so than the few hundred dollars card theft (which, in any case, the bank reimbursed, as she was covered against fraud). Luckily, the wallet was found and returned to her, minus the $20 and the debit card. The thief and her boyfriend were caught on surveillance video and sentenced to some jail time. Mom's trust in the staff who cared for her took a hit. And we decided, no more debit card in the purse. My sisters would hold her card to use when they took mom out.

This was the right decision to protect mom against identify theft and fraud. We should have done it from the start. But it felt like cutting a hole in the bottom of her purse. Hacking out the purse was something we just couldn't bring ourselves to do at the time we were uprooting her from her life-long home for the potting soil of assisted living. So we left her exposed to theft.

Mom continued to take her purse with her when she went out, but sometimes we just took the handicap parking pass. Once or twice she remarked that there wasn't any point in her taking the purse since it wasn't needed for anything. This broke my heart. Your heart breaks at least three or four times a month when you are caring for your parents, if you are doing it right.

This past year has been full of grief and illness for Z-mom. From June to December, she underwent eleven transitions between her assisted living home, the hospital, rehab hospitals, and a skilled nursing home. The last straw was when she was finally back to her old self, but just for a few weeks; she fell and broke an arm. Back to skilled nursing. Recovery has been difficult. When I last saw her in early January she seemed distant. It was difficult to engage her. The thought occurred to me, we should take her rings home. She's so not herself, what if someone takes them off her hand? Or what if someone takes them off her for some reason for bathing and they are lost? And then I thought, what am I taking them home and saving them for? For when she is "better"? She's so depressed, won't this just make things worse? How can I go to her and tell her, you can't wear your wedding rings anymore, you can't wear your mother's ring with the six gemstones anymore? How can I take them away from her? Getting old is a process of gradually losing pieces of your life and autonomy. How can I say, even this, your wedding rings, you must lose, so that you can keep them? Keep them safe, so we can put them back on you in the casket?

So I said nothing. It turns out, my sister had much the same thoughts and doubts as I did. And, it turns out, we should have listened to ourselves. Z-mom's wedding rings are gone.

She says I took them off my hands to put lotion on and I put them on my tray table and then I forgot to put them back on and then they were gone. This doesn't make sense to me. How did she get the lotion? She can't reach it from her bed or wheelchair; someone had to give it to her. But also: she never takes her rings off, not for anything. Not for wringing out a mop while scrubbing floors, not while doing dishes, not while changing diapers, and definitely not while putting lotion on her hands. Why would she have taken them off, unless someone told her to?  I can't prove it, but in my heart I think someone stole her wedding rings, probably to sell for the gold.

A friend said to me, this is tragic, but in the scope of tragedies, keep in mind that she is safe, she isn't being abused, she doesn't have bedsores, her health is being well looked after. This is all true. But in the scope of all that Z-mom has been dealt in life and over the past six months, I say, really life? This too? Enough already.

What I would advise someone in a similar situation: if your elder loved one is in a senior living arrangement and is showing signs of confusion and/or dementia, take their rings home. When you come to visit them, bring the rings and let them wear and enjoy them while you are there with them. Then take them home again. It's not a perfect solution; you still have to rob them of another piece of their autonomy. But they won't be robbed of their rings, and you won''t have to try to console them over the loss of something that can never be replaced.

It's so very hard to make these choices. Everything you read about elderly people going into assisted living or nursing homes says, don't let them have anything valuable with them. But I haven't seen anything that gives advice on getting past the emotional roadblock involved in doing just that. "Don't let them have anything valuable" sounds sensible in the abstract. No thousand dollar bills or original Monet paintings in the room! That's easy! Taking someone's wallet and rings, however, feels a lot like saying "you're getting more feeble and closer to the grave each day, so just let me have hold of these things dear to your heart and sense of yourself!" Out of respect and love, we desire to let our elders hold on to as much autonomy as they can, as long as possible. In doing so, we risk leaving them vulnerable to thieves and accidents. It's enough to break your heart, one more time.

UPDATE: Apparently I learn nothing, even from my own experience and writing. "Do not give in to sentimentality" is advice easier to give than take. Sigh.

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