Every morning, escort her to the kitchen. While she prepares your kibble, sit like an emeritus professor of German literature with a specialization in Hermann Hesse. Buddha dog.Read More
Go down to the laundry room in the basement and start a load of wash. Go back upstairs.
Dump out your cold coffee and pour a third cup. Your kitchen is already clean—you clean it three times a day, after every meal. On Saturday you scrub the floor. Fill a bucket with hot water and Lysol, start at the sink and work your way backwards, scrubbing the floor on your hands and knees. Curse the old linoleum that has no finish left on it. Yell at the first kid brave enough to come downstairs, “Don’t you dare come in here, the floor is wet!”
Leave the bucket at the doorway and go down to the basement. Put the clean wash in the dryer. Start another load in the washer. Go back upstairs.
All the kids are in the living room now watching cartoons, shivering under afghans you’ve knitted and eating dry cereal out of the box. Tell them if they make one speck of dirt you’ll paddle their behinds—but good! Find your cold coffee, dump it out, pour a fourth cup and sit at the kitchen table to drink it.
Get up, splash some liquid wax on the floor and spread it around with a sponge mop. Finish your coffee while the wax dries. Then, give each of the kids a pair of their father’s wool socks to put on their feet and tell them to skate around on the kitchen floor to polish the wax. It’s not necessary, but it’s fun for them and their laughing makes you smile.
Close all the windows and doors and turn the heat back on.
Judith Liebaert is a freelance writer living in rural Wisconsin, where she is restoring an 11-foot vintage Decamp travel trailer to use for her escape with Gypsy Cat. Aside from her regular gigs writing for regional B2B mags, her short stories and essays have appeared in Aqueous Magazine, Maximum Middle Age, and Ravishly along with numerous now defunct lit-mags pre the interwebs. Her debut novel, Sins Of The Fathers, was released by Tellectual Press on June 18, 2016, a story inspired by the still unsolved homicide of a young boy in her small Midwestern town, in the summer of 1966.
Continued from yesterday.
Throw open every door and window of the main floor, even in winter when it’s 30 degrees below zero. Turn the heat off so your husband doesn’t blow a gasket overheating the all-out-doors.
Find your cup of cold coffee and dump it out. Pour a second cup from the pot. Take a few sips and set it down.
Go through the house relocating clutter to appropriate places. Pile upstairs things at the bottom of the staircase. Gripe about everybody else in the family having two broken arms. Make sure they hear you. If the toilet flushes, yell up the stairs, “You’d better not make a mess in that bathroom I just cleaned!”
Pick up all the scatter-rugs and toss them out the door onto the front porch. Strong-arm the sofa and chairs around while you vacuum, to get at the dust bunnies underneath. Remove all the cushions. Retrieve anything of value—pencils, small toys, loose change—then vacuum up the Sugar Smacks, popcorn, bread crumbs, and other crud while griping about how many times you’ve told the kids not to eat in the living room. Put the vacuum away. Do the dusting.
Go outside to shake the rugs, making them crack in the wind. Wait until you are back inside to curse the damnable dust, so the neighbors won’t think you’re crazy. Be sure the kid’s here you.
Lay all the rugs back in place then go look for your cup of coffee.
Judith Liebaert is a freelance writer living in rural Wisconsin, where she is restoring an 11-foot vintage Decamp travel trailer to use for her escape with Gypsy Cat. Aside from her regular gigs writing for regional B2B mags, her short stories and essays have appeared in Aqueous Magazine, Maximum Middle Age, and Ravishly along with numerous now defunct lit-mags pre the interwebs. Her debut novel, Sins Of The Fathers, was released by Tellectual Press on June 18, 2016, a story inspired by the still-unsolved homicide of a young boy in her small Midwestern town, in the summer of 1966.
It’s Saturday. Wake up at the crack of dawn. Start the coffee. Run your fingers over a bar of Ivory, caking the soap under each nail. The soap will soften your nails and keep them from breaking while you work your fingers to the bone.
Pour a cup of coffee, take a few sips, then set your cup down and forget where it is.
Start upstairs with your bedroom, the hallway, and the bathroom. The kids can clean their own pig pens later; let them pretend to sleep for now. You know they are pretending because you’ve already made enough noise, wrestling the behemoth Electrolux up the stairs, to wake their dead grandmothers.
Vacuum first, then dust, because vacuuming raises more dust. Bang the vacuum against the kids’ bedroom doors whenever you think about the futility of that.
In the bathroom, rinse the tub and sink then sprinkle heavily with Comet cleanser. Wearing rubber gloves, scrub surfaces lightly with damp sponge and leave the pasty bleach to work on the stains of the worn porcelain while you clean the toilet. Cuss at the hard water stains in the bowl. Flush. Return to the tub and scrub harder, cussing more, then rinse. Repeat for the sink. Windex the mirror, then use the same paper towel to polish the faucets.
Fill a bucket with hot water and Lysol. Scrub the floor on your hands and knees, working your way backwards out the door, cussing at the mildew-stained grout between the ugly, tiny, hexagon tiles.
Carry the bucket downstairs and look for your cup of coffee.
Tomorrow and Thursday: Parts 2 and 3.
Judith Liebaert is a freelance writer living in rural Wisconsin, where she is restoring an 11-foot vintage Decamp travel trailer to use for her escape with Gypsy Cat. Aside from her regular gigs writing for regional B2B mags, her short stories and essays have appeared in Aqueous Magazine, Maximum Middle Age, and Ravishly, along with numerous now defunct lit-mags pre the interwebs. Her debut novel, Sins Of The Fathers, was released by Tellectual Press on June 18, 2016, a story inspired by the still unsolved homicide of a young boy in her small Midwestern town, in the summer of 1966.
Hugh Brown. Short-order cook, carpenter, mechanic, soldier, postman and racehorse trainer. Clown, Lutheran, baseball lover, habitual repairer and master builder. He built his family a three-story house in the early ‘50s. He built me a rockinghorse when I was a baby. He built damn good pies too ... Pumpkin and pecan at Thanksgiving (with pies it’s never EITHER always BOTH). Apple, hot with vanilla ice cream or cold with a slice of sharp cheddar. Cherry for my little brother’s birthday. Blueberry. Strawberry rhubarb. Peach when he visited us down south. Vidalia onion, once (or my memory’s wishful & hungry). Hugh knew: Damn good pies are built to be shared. A pie must travel or it’s just plain gloating.
To ensure your pie arrives alive, you will need a pie carrier. You will build it like one of your pies: with your own hands, and alongside someone you can still teach to crack eggs or hammer straight. You’ll use simple tools, scrap wood, nails & screws, a whittled wooden handle. Your pie carrier will have a sliding door and a removable shelf. It will hold one tall cake or two classic pies.
You’ll tape a label to the handle. Times New Roman, tiny American flag. Your name and the address of the assisted-living apartment you’ll move to when the tall house trounces your hip replacements. You’ll build pies there through your mid- 80s.
Eventually, you will forget to put your constructions into the oven. You roll crusts, mix fillings, and end up elsewhere, derailed. The sturdy portable two-story pie carrier will wait on the kitchen table, its sliding mouth full of invisible passengers.
-Emily DeDakis is the daughter of a musician and a journalist. She grew up in the Southeast U.S. and emigrated to Belfast, N. Ireland, in 2005. As dramaturg & producer for Accidental Theatre, Emily has developed scripts with dozens of playwrights. Dramaturgy credits include: Gordon Osràm’s Funeral (2016); The Lost Martini (2015); The Kitchen, the Bedroom & the Grave – winner of a Stewart Parker Trust award (2014); & The Dutiful Wife (2013). She founded the Belfast version of Fast & Loose, a 24-hour theatre project now in its 10th year. Emily’s prose has appeared in The Vacuum, The Yellow Nib, Ulster Tatler, Poetry Proper, and on 2SER (Sydney). She is currently working on Shipwrecks & Lighthouses (a stage play), Stowaway City (a soundwalk) and F R E A K FLOODS (a text-sound collaboration with harpist Úna Monaghan).
(psst: See the companion story to "Traveling Pies" on our Noteworthy blog.)
When Dad jumped behind the wheel of a car, all the goodwill he had for mankind came along for the ride. Which explains his penchant for thank-you waving.
If he encountered a fellow driver who slowed down to let him merge or pull out onto a busy street, he appreciated the courtesy and thank-you waved with gusto. You could tell by his rapid, crisp delivery that Dad believed these salutes communicated great power and righteousness.
When Owen “Truck” Roberts served up a thank-you wave, you knew it came from the heart. His version was no weary, weak-wristed raise of the palm.
If our car met another at an intersection, and the opposing driver motioned Dad to go first, Truck looked through the windshield, locked eyes with his fellow road warrior and snapped his hand forward, face-high with fingers tight and upright , like tiny soldiers.
“Hey, thanks buddy,” he’d say as his hand flew off the steering wheel. Sometimes he extended his right arm across the inside windshield, so if you had the shotgun seat you had to be prepared for a hand in front of your face. If you were on the receiving end, you couldn’t miss it. Dad’s salutes could cut through the thickest morning fog or the heaviest afternoon traffic.
Those thank-you waves were a lot like him, really: quick, clear and full of life.
- Linda Miller is a freelance writer living in Berks County, PA, who devotes much of her time to writing essays and stories about a happy childhood spent with her Mom, nicknamed Mick, and her Dad, Truck, and her brother John. Truck was well known around their small town, Slatington, PA, as a gregarious teacher addicted to great jokes, Laurel & Hardy movies, fishing, working with Veteran's groups, and watching cartoons with his children and granddaughter
Perfect sun-warmed peaches fill baskets slung on my arm in August. A recipe from my mother reads “Pfirsiche,” but I hardly need it. That day, my granddaughter fetches the folded paper. She is a struwwelpeter, a messy child, whose hair catches on the fly paper hanging in the barn. She needs taming, and I start with teaching her to preserve peaches.
I tie an apron behind my neck, as we begin putting time in a bottle. We wash a dozen quart-size jars with Ivory liquid in the porcelain sink. Rainbow bubbles escape into the sunlight streaming through the wavy glass of the farmhouse windows. Her smooth young hands—a contrast to my wrinkled ones—reach out to catch them.
Dropping the clean glass into pots of boiling water with tongs, I set the timer to twenty. I show her how to schnibble with a paring knife, and she fills a red enamel bowl to the brim, my clever Schnookzie.
Add the zucker and the salz, I say, teaching her German as we cook—two-cups per two- cups per bowlful. Easy. I want her to remember. She rolls lemons under her palm, halves them, squeezes out the juice. Mixing everything together with my hands, I tell her, these will be the best tools in your kitchen. I sprinkle in ein kleines of vanilla, which we both pronounce a klex into the filled jars. Sealing the lids, I say, wait for the magic. Peng! go the tops, and she laughs.
- Ryder Ziebarth is a writer, a gardener and a mother, who lives on a hay farm in Central New Jersey where her daughter is fifth generation. Ryder received her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2016 and has been published in Brevity, The New York Times, N Magazine and is currently working on a memoir about her life on Cedar Ridge Farm.
You are not my Grandmother. You are kind. My Uncle's mom.
We are in South Texas. You and your amiable husband snow bird here, in this mobile home retirement park, just above the border.
My only Grandmother is thorny, cruel; pitting her daughters against each other, stepping back as victim. I'm a child. I can see this.
I don't know how to do the things my mom and Grandmother do well--sew, cook, create. When I want to learn, I'm told no. It would be too messy. You're in the way. Just go. These are some of the familial secrets kept for the few, to hold over the rest. 'Look at all of this I did. Look at all this I made. By myself.'
On this trip, you ask me to help you pick flowers--fragrant tea roses. We go outside after dinner. You let me cut them--vivid magenta and orange blooms. You let me hold and carry them, guiding me. When we go inside, you show me how to:
run warm water
fill a sink or a bowl
trim at an angle under water, above a node
small slit the stem to force water up the bloom
transfer to vase, arrange
drop a penny in
They'll last longer.
You are patient, teaching, content to be with me.
Each trailer plot has a citrus tree growing on it. Each tree is in bloom. I fall asleep breathing in grapefruit, tangerine. It's Easter.
We never meet again.
- Jill McKenna Reed stewards bees, helps beekeepers, and writes poems in Portland, Oregon. Her poems have appeared in Vinyl Poetry & Prose, thethepoetry, Gobshite Quarterly and others. She's native to Chicagoland.
It’s early and you’ve barely put in your teeth and combed your strawberry blonde hair with a plastic comb made at the factory where you work, but your velour robe and house slippers are perfectly matched.
Gifts are opened in order by age. There is a big, black trash bag into which all the spent wrappings are collected, and you repeatedly call out over the bustle to save the bows. You will use them again next year and the year after. Sometimes you will save the boxes and flatten them to use again. You don’t call this recycling, you just have seven children.
After gifts are opened, you will leave the boys to put on football, the children will play with their toys, and the food will come out - shrimp dip, sweet mix pickles with cheddar and pepperoni, meatballs, and ham. People will yell at the television and yell at each other because that’s how you get heard in a big family. Your house is warm and full.
Two days before Christmas you will be taken off of life support. Your children will be gathered around you. You will be cremated over Christmas, and share your mass with Saint Stephen. Your children, their children, and their grandchildren will all gather in your house every year to carry on your traditions. There will be shrimp dip, sweet mix pickles with cheddar and pepperoni, meatballs, and ham, every year. They will save the bows.
- Tamara Oliver is great at banana bread but pretty awful at Twitter. Find her there and admire her socks @sensoryoverlord
Roll-out cookies are the wild child of Christmas goodies. The dough can be temperamental and sticky, but Ginny Snyder, who was practically a second mother to me, used her gentle ways---and a neat little baking trick--to tame the flour, butter and sugar. Beneath her large, capable hands, cookie dough relaxed and became a docile, calm collaborator.
Ginny concocted a sweet, silky dust from an equal mix of flour and confectioner’s sugar to keep the dough in line. She’d pinch a tablespoon or so between her long fingers and thumb and sprinkle it over the work surface to prevent unruly stickiness. And with each creaky, back-and-forth of the rolling pin, she coaxed the dough into a thinner and thinner canvas.
I marveled at her firm, tender technique. With a grainy swipe, she slid a metal spatula underneath the freshly-cut shapes, lifted them off the board and onto the cookie sheet, not a tear, wrinkle or deformed Santa in sight. Even the leaping reindeer’s antlers stayed intact.
With her long torso bent over the cookie sheets, Ginny’s fingertips moved with care and lightness, and each piece of raw dough got a smidgeon of affection.
When the timer pinged and they emerged from the oven, those cookies loved her back. They required only a slight nudge to break free of the pan. No breaks or crumbles either.
- Linda Miller is a freelance writer and memoirist who has worked in newspapers, higher education public relations and magazine publishing. She's a Baby Boomer from Slatington, a small town in southeastern Pennsylvania, and grew up with the quickest, funniest Dad ever, a former RN Mom who created a loving and beautiful home, and a younger brother who never missed an episode of Combat! on Tuesday nights.
Grandma raised seven children during the Great Depression, baking bread every morning but the Sabbath. Even a generation later, with the house filled only on weekends, there was never a loaf of store-bought bread.
Grandma couldn’t read, so I had to watch her prepare what we all called “grandma’s bread,” writing down the recipe and guessing at amounts. “Feel the water on your wrist,” she showed me, as she mushed a cake of Red Star yeast into a glass of warm water, “and add a bissel sugar.” We waited for it to bubble and foam. Five times she scooped from the 50-pound sack of flour that lived in the corner cupboard, dumping each scoop into a large ceramic bowl. “Make a well,” she said. Into it she tossed two small piles of salt, measured in the palm of her hand, the yeasty water, a blob of Crisco, and another glass of water. “Here’s the secret,” she whispered, cracking two eggs, saving out a little yolk for the crust, and pouring in the rest.
Grandma’s large, rough hands – hands that also embroidered, and cleaned, and hovered over the Shabbos candles, but rarely had hugged her own children – kneaded the smooth white dough. I knew I gave her naches: joy from children. “Just for you,” she’d say, forming a baby loaf, back when I was a little girl who tiptoed downstairs at sunrise. It smelled and tasted of love when I ate it, hot from the oven, slathered with good Wisconsin butter.
- Enid Kassner is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University writing program. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Elephant Journal, 3QR: The Three Quarter Review, Rat’s Ass Review, Inscape, Switchgrass Review, Watershed Review, and other publications. She was awarded first place in creative nonfiction by the Coastal Bend Wellness Foundation. Enid writes and teaches yoga in Arlington, Virginia.
Spread lentils on a rattan tray, surveying every single grain. Scan for tiny pebbles masquerading as lentils. Close your eyes. Feel with fingertips for hard pebbles amidst the suede of lentils.
Rinse once. Drain.
Rinse again, watching bits of dirt surrender—the flotsam you wish you could cull in your life. Drain.
Rinse again. Wonder if it’s ever completely cleansed? Be reminded of scars. Drain.
Repeat till it feels redundant or clear, whichever comes first.
Cook low and slow in a silver-clad handi —stir in all the spices you can muster. Simmer till the tiny beans forgot they were tiny and turn into fiery silk. Lace with garlic slices fried in ghee. Entice everyone within one kilometer of the house.
Ladle two big spoonfuls of steaming daal onto an island of gleaming white rice. Your plate: cheery and hopeful. A ruse.
Suck in your breath. Brace yourself for the unabashed heat.
The first spoonful is confrontational, the second, loud. The following are demanding—your mouth feels numb and your skin lets go of beads in apology for all you can’t go back and heal.
Remember—it’s punishing and delicious. Remember your childhood zeal for it annoyed your mother who made perfectly delicious daal herself, though hers didn’t try to pick a fight with the world; being so brash, like your grandmother’s.
Your mother’s daal: a well-constructed, post-colonial argument, checking off all the vagaries of politeness and repression. Her daal took the path of perfectly balanced civility in spices, tried to smile its way out of anger, tried to look to the ground to mask moments of rage.
You are definitely full. Ladle another big spoonful.
Because this reverie will end the moment you lick your fingers. You’d be back yearning for a home that never was.
- Saadia Muzaffar is a marvellous, brown, work-in- progress - trying to feel her way through life, friendship and love while fighting to stay angry.
Savoury Modakams were everyone’s favourite. Soaked uraddhal and chillies, coarsely ground then steamed. Seasoned with mustard seeds, curry leaves, a pinch of asafetida and a generous amount of grated coconut.
“Never leave the coconut for more than thirty seconds in the hot oil,” was Patti’s thumb rule.
“The determinant of a good ‘Modakam’ is its wafer-thin skin and not the sweet or savoury puran whose taste lingers on after the consumption.”
Pinching off a ball of wet rice dough, cooked in boiling water with a pinch of salt and a teaspoon of oil, she would use her fingers to flatten the edges and work the middle to get a cup shape. Then she would spoon the filling, nimbly bring the edges closer to taper it at the top and break off the extra dough. the finished Modakam would join the army in the steaming plate.
“It is an endurance test, a testimony to becoming a good wife.” I would look at the broken dough in my hand, panic shuddering through me. Secretly smashing it, I would start again.
As the making peaked, Patti would multi-task. She would knead fresh batches of the dough with water and oil, splash water on the cooked Modakams, coax them apart and transfer them to big steel bowls after they cooled.
The process would go on throughout the day. By night, not a single Modakam would be left. Patti would be stretched on the heirloom wooden swing, expecting no praise.
- Vijayalakshmi Sridhar has been surrounded by stories since young - both telling and listening to. Her day job as a freelance feature writer for the mainstream dailies and monthlies is the platform through which she meets people, many of whom have found their way to her stories’ characters- either as they are or in disguised forms. She believes that human relationships and their dynamics are the most interesting things to write about. She is keen to explore her journey as a story writer in non- specific genres. A mother of two girls, Vijayalakshmi is also interested and involved in many other creative pursuits.
Editor's note: We Housekeepers haven't put up any new material in November save for our group reaction to the U.S. presidential election. We have more to share soon, though, and invite you in the meantime to revisit one of the most loved, and most heartbreaking, pieces we've ever run. It's "Sleeping Bags for Two or One" by contributing editor Ashley Nicole Black, with an illustration by Ilana Shabnam. We are proud that it was featured on Elan Morgan's Five Star Mixtape when it first ran.
Sleeping Bags for Two or One
Few people know the proper technique for using sleeping bags. I learned how at an early age. Once you learn, you don’t forget.
You’ll need two sleeping bags, and a best friend. If you don’t have a best friend, I feel sorry for you because best friends are magic. Find one who is kind, likes the same things you do, and has asthma so they’ll stay behind with you to play pretend and tell stories, when the other kids run off to play sports. Go everywhere and do everything together. So that if your best friend died, and someone made a collage for her funeral, they wouldn’t find a single photo of her that didn’t have you in it.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Open both sleeping bags all the way. Place one on the ground. Place yourself and your best friend on top. Cover yourselves with the second. Cuddle and whisper all night. Bite each other’s shoulders as a joke. Giggle, but quietly, because your babysitter is mean when she’s sleepy. Hold on to your best friend very tight. Because she’s magic, and has great ideas about sleeping bags. And because she’s Black, and lives in a poor neighborhood. So if her asthma ever gets too bad, and the ambulance won’t come to her “dangerous” neighborhood, and she’s brain dead by the time her mother drives her to the hospital, and nobody has the courage to tell you what brain dead means, and you write letters and poems and drawings that nobody will tell you she can’t read, and when they finally tell, you climb into your sleeping bag and pretend to be dead as hard as you can, but no matter how hard you try, you can’t cry yourself to death and join her. That, they’ll tell you. So hold on tight.
Maybe if you hold on tighter. Maybe if you zip the sleeping bags together. Maybe if you spend the rest of your life shouting about injustice, ambulances will show up at little girls’ houses when they’re called.
I recommend two Little Mermaid sleeping bags. Available wherever Disney products are sold.
The text has not been altered, but you can find the original here.
This essay was written collaboratively by the editors of Dead Housekeeping. We honor how caretakers come together across race, religion, and nationality to mourn, to commiserate, and to plan after cataclysmic events. We owe the idea to our founding editor Lisa Schamess, for calling us in as a group to write this about the letter-writing, stamp-licking coffee klatsches of the 1960s and 1970s. It was healing for us to write after the U.S. election results last week. We hope it’s healing to read as well.
How to Make the Coffee
First, go to the store. In addition to things for the coffee, make sure and buy tissues. Some people will need a place to cry tonight.
The house may sparkle or it may be filthy. Maybe you clean when you are upset, maybe your nervous energy propels you to scrub the baseboards, or maybe the house has gone all to hell. If a mountain of junk has grown on the table, clear it off. You can put everything neatly in its place, or throw it in a hamper for later. You'll need a clear workspace, a place for everyone's cups.
Bring up the folding chairs. Alter the furniture for company and tasks. Vignettes for conversation, for work, for sitting next to.
Look for the folding table you last used at Thanksgiving. It isn't in the basement. Did you lend it to Sybil and forget to get it back? Or did the leg break? No matter. Someone has one you can borrow. Start with Sybil.
Consider making coffee cake: That recipe that everyone raves over. A little sweetness at a time like this is always welcome.
At least one person you invited doesn't drink coffee. Check your tea supply.
Not everyone will want what's in that cup. Offer anything. Everything. Until you get it right.
The coffee is bitter and the product of so many hands.
The milk is farmed from beings who made it for their children, not ours.
The sugar is bitterest of all, bitterest of all.
How do we raise our bitter cups together?
Let the children play under the table. What do they know yet. What will they know.
Drink the bitterness, leave lipstick on the cup.
You have a close friend who comes early to help set up. She's telling you what she cannot say later. She thoughtfully sets a napkin under the percolator spout.
This is just your "little coffee klatsch" you tell the men. You'll be home by 11 or so.
Light a candle in the bathroom. Not everyone wants to cry in public, but those who need privacy deserve warmth, too.
There's the smell of coffee, perfumes, and store-bought pastries. Cocktail napkins, condiments, cups stacked on a tray.
It will feel good to see everyone together. Your heavy hearts will fill the whole room. Everyone brings what they can. For example: There's nothing wrong with a friend liberating a pack of legal pads and two boxes of envelopes from the office where she works. We all find our way to stock the communal tote bag of supplies.
An envelope on an end table is displayed quietly for group costs. One friend leaves a generous ten every meeting. It's what she has to offer.
The dryer will buzz. Leave it.
Draw water. Fill the urn to the line. Put the basket into the urn and turn the stem. You will know it is set right when you feel the click in the notch.
Measure out the grounds, spoon by spoon. Add one for the pot.
Put the lid on and turn it to lock. Plug in the cord. The brew will begin to bubble.
Let your children watch all this.
Someday they too will mix and brew and stir the pot.
Call them from under the table to put the pastry on the plate, the good one with gold leaf that your grandmother gave your mother. Let them lick their fingers and put them back into the pastry box. Pretend not to see. A little spit never killed a soul.
One day when you re old, write the instructions for the percolator on an index card, and tape it to the inside of the box the percolator came in. Your children will need this when you're gone, when percolators have fallen out of common use and yet await their time for gatherings.
- The Housekeepers
Fetch the newspaper from the tube, reading the headlines as you cross the road. Open up to the obituaries to see who needs a sympathy card or when you'll be going to Calling Hours.
Back in your recliner, continue reading. Don't worry if you nod off. You don't sleep well anymore. Notice the photo of a girl and her horse winning a trophy at the county fair. Realize this is the granddaughter of a woman you worked with at the Eagle Rubber Company during the war. Take the scissors from your sewing basket and clip the photo and its caption. With a ballpoint pen, scrawl today's date in the margin. Add this to your collection of clippings, including the 40th wedding anniversary photo of your former neighbors (make sure you've marked it on the wall calendar) and the birth announcement of your favorite waitress's grandson.
Drive into town to the local office supply store. The girl behind the counter recognizes you. Give her the clippings and your coins. She'll return with the finished products.
Stop at the diner for your usual (black coffee, one scrambled egg, crisp home fries, wheat toast) to deliver the laminated birth announcement to Donna in person. Slip the rest of the laminated clippings into greeting cards with a handwritten note before dropping them in the mail.
You could have just called to say, "I saw this in the paper," but remember: moments worth celebrating are best honored with lamination.
- Cyn K, a thoroughly Midwestern mom, spends her days as an administrative assistant at a private college and her nights wrangling her autistic son, antisocial husband, and anxious dog. She reads the same local paper as her grandma did, though she doesn't clip articles and get them laminated. Maybe she should! She blogs at that cynking feeling and tweets as @cynkingfeeling.
Buy your only great-grandbaby a tricycle for Christmas, one with streamers on the handles. Take it to your daughter's house on Christmas Eve after the girl is asleep to put it together.
Lay out all of the pieces in the living room. There are a lot of parts. Scan the instructions. Get a drink, something with bourbon.
Refuse your grandchildren’s offers of assistance. They are going out to a party and you don't want to interfere with that. Besides, you are perfectly capable of putting a tricycle together.
As you start to work, you realize that the instructions are poorly written. There are too many parts. Take it apart so you can start over. Get another drink.
There must be a page missing from these directions. How is anyone supposed to put this thing together? Step back, take a deep breath. This is for the baby. She goes with you to the market and you let her sit in your lap when you drive. You didn't even think you would live long enough to have a great-grandchild. You must get this done.
Cuss. Get another drink. Glare at the pieces strewn across the living room. No progress is being made. None. This is becoming a crisis.
Your grandchildren return from the party and survey the scene. Accept their offer of help. That little girl won't care who put it together, she'll just know it's from her Papa. And that's enough.
Do your best. Encourage others. When young men ask you for money, offer them odd jobs. Some of them will grow up to look in on you and your wife when you are old.
Open a clinic with your brother and treat everyone, regardless of their ability to pay. When your patients need to be hospitalized, refuse to treat them in the hospital’s basement. Black patients deserve to be treated like everyone else.
Tell your granddaughter she can be anything she wants. This is not the prevailing thinking in 1970, but you don't care about that. Equality is equality.
Accept the nomination to be the first Black member of the Parks Commission. Insist that the sign identifying a deep red rose as “Niggerboy” be removed before your family walks past it when you are sworn in. Casual racism is still racism.
Vote. Volunteer. Take your children with you. Teach them that not voting is never an option. Your daughter will remember this when George Wallace is on the ballot in 1980. Your granddaughter will remember when she votes with her 8-week-old son in 1996. Your great-grandson will rail against not voting in 2016.
The politicians need you. They will realize, on the morning of the Chamber of Commerce breakfast for President Kennedy, that there are no Black people in the audience. When they call to invite you and your wife, tell them that two tickets are not enough. Ask for 50. They need you. They will give you 50 tickets.
They need you. Ask for your 50 tickets.
Wear a lungi wrapped artfully around your waist, and an undershirt with frayed sleeves to make phone calls to all the men in the community. If this doesn’t take at least one whole day, you’ve left someone off the list.
Round up fathers, single men, and children over the age of 15. Even if they’re not husbands or fathers, they can still contribute; they have all had mothers.
They will come to your house the Saturday evening prior to Mother’s Day to prepare and cook the food. Time your preparations so they coincide with the FA Cup final. Cooking is always improved by soccer.
Plan the menu in advance. It doesn’t much matter which curries you cook, but chilli must be used liberally. This is how you maintain your golden rule of cooking; the hotter the curries, the sweeter the dessert. You will organise the dishes efficiently but without much passion; it’s hard to get excited about vegetarian food.
Your passion is reserved for dessert. You will make sharkara payasam. This sickly sweet umber ambrosia is your speciality, and you’re famed throughout the community for the way you combine the ghee, rice, jaggery, and coconut in perfect proportions.
Your helpers will be an unruly bunch, heckling soccer teams into wins or losses, but you know they will follow your instructions. Revel in their rambunctiousness.
There will be time to remind them, once more, that all the mothers and mother-substitutes are not to lift a finger on their special day.
When she teaches you how to be beautiful, it is a lesson in resilience. When she tells you to buy a dress, she means, “prepare.”
Together you curate wardrobes, with method and purpose in mentally categorized racks:
Obviously Made for You,
Novelty (buy on sale),
Potentially Amazing On (but questionable on the hanger),
Unflattering Even on the Mannequin, Slightly Outside the Comfort Zone/Worth a Try (rarely not horrifying), and
Investment pieces are special, she says, simultaneously classic and unique, and almost always accidentally found. Their quality and timeless tailoring feel made just for you, and last decades.
Her style blends effortlessly with yours: her wide cuffed black trousers, your navy blue pencil skirt, cashmere crewnecks, iconic printed accessories. Your favorite is a gray suiting dress. It has a drop waist and a single inverted pleat. You wear it to an interview, New York, London, to her funeral and then your father’s and then another, to your best friend’s second wedding, the Union League, to family court. You build a wardrobe around a life that disappears. Who were you when you bought that wool crepe dress with her?
In a dressing room alone somewhere, you remind yourself of her lessons: Choose carefully and invest in clothing that lasts. You’ll need a dress for starting over, and more than once. You slip on a long silk cardigan that should have been hers and is yours now, by default, and you pray: If I am pain, may I also be grace.
Nichole Cordin is a Chicago writer and contributing editor of Dead Housekeeping. When not actively mourning, she enjoys taking photos of her geriatric Boston Terrier and can be found at @NicholeCordin.