My mom had a stroke on Sunday and has gone quickly downhill. She’s in a lovely hospice as I write, doing it her way right up to the end. As a few of my posts attest, she was quite a character, working hard to mortify me, I was convinced, and striding out ahead of her time on issues of women in sports (she gave a biography of Babe Didrikson when I was 10), the environment (we spent a lot of time in the woods and sled rides to pick milkweed pods for centerpieces), and food and nutrition. The latter was the most mortifying.
I spent my formative years in 1970s, an era when Twinkies and Ding-Dongs were hitting big and Henry’s Hamburger’s in Austin, MN, was overtaken by McDonalds. Alas, there would be no Twinkies in our house. While my friends were cracking open their fabulous Davey Jones or Partridge Family lunch boxes (replete with a thermos (!) ) to the bliss of a bologna sandwich on Wonder Bread, a mini-pag of Lay’s potato chips, and (be still my heart) a golden little log of heaven, a Twinkie, I was facing a brown sack. And not the lunch-sized brown paper bag, but a full-on grocery bag, its excess hastily rolled down in a crumple, with my name in black magic marker scrawled on the side.
Inside was a lunch to behold. My mother, as readers well know, was not spending her free time watching Julia Child. Cooking to her was just one huge interruption. She would much rather be out in the pool, or moving the furniture around, wallpapering a bathroom (again), or sewing. I’d come home after school to the dull thump of the sewing machine upstairs and the dining room table littered with fabric scraps of another ghastly jumper that I’d be forced to wear over to Halverson’s on Sunday night. She was in love with that hideous 1970s concoction that was a nod to my tom-boy world: the shorts jumper. Half dress/ half shorts, in a loud flower print or zingy stripes.
If there wasn’t a pattern on the table, there was wallpaper. Wallpapering to her was a timed sport. She’d slap some paste on the sheet with a stiff, malformed paintbrush that had been sitting in the Folger’s can of paint thinner since her last “project” and make a run for the wall. My dad–a very meticulous person who made a cabinet with tiny drawers just for screws–would pick up the can of paint brushes stuck to the bottom of now dried paint thinner and just shake his head. Mom would maneuver the strip of paper up on the wall, shift it around a little bit to it was at least butting up against the ceiling, rub it down to remove the biggest bubbles at least and move on to the next one. She wallpapered a room in about 10 minutes flat. Let’s just say the seams were like those on a cheap suit.
But back to that lunch bag. Like I said, while my friends were unwrapping their baloney in the neat sandwich bag just perfect for the size of a sandwich, I was unfurling about a yard of tinfoil to find my roast beef sandwich with butter and mustard. Chunks of butter. Chunks so big they tore the bread. Hunks of roast beef would be poking out in odd lumps and bumps. If she was on a roll, there’d also be a hunk of iceberg lettuce to further entice. For dessert–alas dessert. I would plead, plead with her to buy some Twinkies. Everyone has Twinkies, I’d cry. “You don’t want that crap,” she’d say. Oh but I did, how I did. I’d unroll my grocery sack thinking, maybe, just maybe this time she came to her senses… only to find the tinfoil and an apple, often with a big soft bruise.
To say I was mortified by the lunch experience is probably an exaggeration. No, she was waiting for Halloween to do me in on that one. I sometimes think that mom should have been a stage designer. She had the creative eye but the attention to detail was a tad wanting. But on stage, those little details don’t matter. Scene design, costume design, you can have a mismatched seam and no one will know. In fact, mom often outdid herself on Halloween. I had a witch costume that rocked. She made a black cape and dress that I must have worn for five Halloweens straight. The pointy, crooked hat was piece de resistance. Slap on a fake nose and I was off.
On the other side of the Halloween equation, however, her anti-Twinkie stance prevailed. Yes, I was that house. Out we’d go, trick or treating (sans parents) to homemade carmel apples, Snickers bars, candy corn, — the bounty of sugar and chocolate was heavenly. The porch lights were on and the kids were streaming up and down the stairs, holding out their special plastic pumpkin buckets for more loot. I had the sack again, but it didn’t matter. It was filling with candy!!!
Back at my own front porch, however, the kids were coming back down the stairs with that look I knew would hang with me for weeks at school. My mom gave out pencils. At least I thought I’m not the dentist’s kids, whose dad gives out a toothbrush. That’s guilt and no fun. But I was just rationalizing at that point.
Alas, my mother would turn out to be, dare I say it, right. Twinkies are indeed dreadful. Roast beef is better for you than bologna. An apple by far better than a ding-dong. Pencils… well, maybe she could have gone with apples instead, but she was into making a point.
Her death was managed in the same spirit. She was going to do it her way–and she’ll probably turn out to have a lot of foresight in that, too. The doctors were standing by to intervene but she would have none of it. When she awoke after her stroke and the doctor told her what had happened, she said, “oh I don’t like that word “stroke.”” By Friday, when it was clear she’d never walk again, she closed her eyes and rarely opened them again. For a woman who swam laps–real laps–until she was 88 and had broken vertebrae from lifting a cinder block in her garden, living in a wheelchair was incomprehensible. She opted for hospice and refused the feeding tube. As I write, her breath comes in longer intervals, but she has an air of comfort to her. As her favorite musician once sang, I did it my way.