Save the Bows

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.

The author's grandmother at 18 years-old

The author's grandmother at 18 years-old

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.

The author's grandmother and mother on Christmas Eve

The author's grandmother and mother on Christmas Eve

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

How to Make the Coffee

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

Yarn

White yarn turned into lacy covers for toilet paper rolls. Skeins of homely grey wool became 17 Christmas mice. Grandma’s knitting needles kicked together on long silver legs through balls of yarn that darted around the living room. Hot afternoons high above Minneapolis, her stout thighs stuck to my skinny ones on the sofa, her needles clacked like a second old lady while we watched Days of Our Lives, with its slamming doors, kisses, and crying. “He’s no good,” Grandma would tell me, or “She deserves better,” or “I was afraid of that.”

The author's grandma, making something pretty.

The author's grandma, making something pretty.

Over TV trays of Wonder Bread covered in oleo and sugar, with the last of her preserved rhubarb, we’d watch General Hospital, then As the World Turns. Summer vacation passed, as each day Grandma wore a different homemade purple dress, ranging from palest lilac to deep violet, and a rotation of aunts, uncles, and cousins visited while she knit them baby blankets and ski caps, and once, with a tiny, hooked needle, she crocheted a red bikini for my Barbie. Sometimes someone would mention The Farm, a place they all loved but could never return to because Grandpa still lived there. In the city, Grandma had fashioned herself a new life, with lots of accessories and a pink car, just like Barbie. She’d cushioned herself with family and ball upon ball of colorful yarn, made a soft place, a woolen fortress blocking out the one person who could make a big woman feel small.

- Lynn Mundell's flash fiction has appeared most recently in Drunk Monkeys, Tin House "Flash Fidelity," and Pure Slush. More is forthcoming this year in Split Lip Magazine, A3 Review, KYSO Flash, and Five Points. Lynn lives in Northern California, where she co-edits 100 Word Story.

 

How to Put Your Mind at Rest Each Night

Lift the seat cushion from the green brocade couch where your family's been lounging, hold them vertically, shake 3 times and replace. Repeat with the back cushions. Smooth the matching throw pillows and place each at a slight angle toward each other. There’s a place for everything. Eyeball the identical end tables and lamps on either side of the sofa. Make sure each lamp is centered. Empty and wipe the etched bronze ashtray and place it at the corner of the table on the left side of the couch close enough for your wife to reach. Center the piano bench beneath the keys. Chaos lurks in disorder. Unravelling can be measured in millimeters. Arrange your children’s’ pictures on the stereo console so that the high school graduation photos of your daughter and son are minutely angled and flanking the portrait of your three year old daughter. Pause for a moment wondering at the incongruity of it. Move on to the television console in front of the window. Slide the felt bottomed marble reproduction of the Pieta you brought back from Italy toward the back left corner. Move it again, a fraction of an inch closer to you. She is disconcerting, this sorrowful virgin. How can she be appeased? Position the statue so that she has full view of the room. Everything in its place. Click the switch of the lamp on the TV twice toward you so that it turns from the highest to lowest setting. A soft glow in the darkness, a guard against the void. Walk soundlessly across the carpet until you reach the familiar squeak of the bottom step of the stairway. Extend your right hand forward and grip the bannister so that you can pull yourself forward. Stop and turn back to the living room. You’ve conquered another night.

- Teresa Giordano writes non-fiction television programs on topics ranging from earwigs to forensic anthropology, to the southwest border, to bad-ass presidents. She’s also crafted dialogue for some of those reality TV stars you think are being spontaneous. She’s published fiction in Devilfish Review, Pyschopomp, and in an echapbook titled Strange Encounters. She’s published non-fiction in The Weeklings. 

How to Show the Fight at Your House

Mike Tyson bit off a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear while my cousin Tony, the host of that night’s pay-per-view event in his apartment overflowing with friends and family, placed coasters beneath stray tumblers and handed napkins to those eating pizza on his carpet. I don’t know if he witnessed the bite firsthand, he was so busy keeping his place perfectly in place with 20 people taking advantage of his free premium cable. He wiped his kitchen table. Guests would drop, he would pick up. He checked and rechecked his spotless bathroom. I’d been in there moments before just looking around as I tinkled, in complete awe of how it could be so...so clean. Were those baby wipes in place of toilet paper? Is that a cherrywood wipes holder? The wipes were to me the single reminder of Tony’s severe diabetic condition that would eventually kill him at 29: tall, thin, graceful, his mother’s best friend. To anyone else that night, they were simply a sign of a man who took great care in his toilet time.

I missed the ear bite myself. It took about 20 seconds and it stopped the fight. I was in Tony’s bedroom checking on my baby sleeping in his bed, and I lingered at his bookshelf filled with framed photos of family, my daughter included. You notice dust when things are dusty, but with Tony, you noticed how nothing was ever dusty, nothing was ever without care. By the time I could pull myself in complete admiration from this curiosity, the fight was over.

illustration by Maia Butler

illustration by Maia Butler

- Erica Hoskins Mullenix is a freelance writer and editor, and a contributing editor here at Dead Housekeeping. Besides personal essays detailing her life as an introverted middle kid, bewildered but kickass mother and special needs parent, she also writes short fiction. Proudly an alum of Howard University in Washington, D.C., Erica created the online writer’s community known as yeah write in April 2011. She has had essays published in Salon, The Houston Chronicle, PANK, and other print and online publications. Her fiction and other writing can be found on her personal blog at freefringes.yeahwrite.me. Follow Erica on Twitter @freefringes

Pennies and Velvet

She was a widow longer than a wife, raised two children, but liked them better grown up. When we visited, we found textures, no toys. Not even pens and paper for drawing her pictures. Her Depression-era practicality found purpose, however, as she made what she had into something she needed. 

One room became two in her arrangement of the high-ceilinged great room: two Oriental rugs—whose borders we walked—and upholstered chairs arranged back-to-back where the rugs touched. Casual rubbed shoulders with Fancy, but did not speak. Each had a role.

The casual side held a wooden lady with carved and painted skirts, whose torso, with resistance, lifted to reveal candy corn in the hollow. A bumpy floral-patterned sofa. A dark-stained mantel clock that ticked and chimed. On the teak table sat a teak turtle, and when I turned over its smooth surface she chided me, "Put that back. It covers a spot." Each decorative object had a function. She grabbed a dishtowel to cover her face if she sensed a camera coming. 

Grandma, photographed at the author's wedding

Grandma, photographed at the author's wedding

Across the divide stood a green velvet sofa we desired but were forbidden to climb since it was "for company." Nearby was a layer of overlapping pennies, fused to create a dish. She bit into onions like apples, but her breath was never bad. A desk had a cold glass top, family pictures trapped underneath. Often, for the grown-ups’ entertainment only, she set up a card table with metal legs and a 1000-piece puzzle on it: Andrew Wyeth's Christina's World.

Still, she did not completely ignore the grandchildren; she gave us baked goods to take home. Rice Krispies cookies, sometimes with walnuts, cut into perfect squares, repackaged in their blue box, lined with crumpled wax paper. She may have thought this practical, but it was like the Pop Art of the era. I loved how she transformed the packaging from cereal to treat. Although she had not let my aunt become an artist, and never acknowledged my impractical desire to be one, she unwittingly made art herself. She knew how to give new meaning to the ordinary things.

 

- Alisa Golden writes, makes art, and teaches bookmaking at California College of the Arts. Her work has been published in several magazines including 100 Word Story, Diagram, and NANO, among others. She is the author of Making Handmade Books and edits Star 82 Review in the one-square mile city of Albany, CA. 

My Mother Knew How to Eat a Cupcake

My mother was an organized woman. Gabby wrote lists of what she was going to do every day with her special Papermate pen no one else was to use. If it went missing, she yelled out across the house, “Who took my pen?”

            She placed her furniture just so, at specific angles. Her living room was arranged with comfort and organization in mind. When you stood from the couch, you were to plump the down pillows your body had sunk into. No indentions allowed. When she left the room, my three siblings and I liked to test her. We might move a chair a quarter of an inch. She’d return, sigh and push the chair back to its proper position.

            The only mess Gabby tolerated was anything to do with chocolate, and the gooier, the better. She disdained candies, but inhaled chocolate mousse, chocolate sin, soft chocolate chip cookies, brownies and cake frosting. She had her own method for eating cupcakes, especially Humphrey’s cupcakes we picked up on the way to the beach on the Vineyard. We always hoped there were enough black on whites for all of us. Sometimes we had to make do with chocolate bottoms, horrors.

photo of Gabby provided by the author

photo of Gabby provided by the author

            At the beach, my mother picked first. She swiftly and surgically separated the bottom half (or three quarters) from the top and threw it into the wind for the seagulls to fight over and devour. She then popped the remaining mini version of the same cupcake into her mouth in one bite.

            I rarely eat a whole cupcake anymore. Bottoms are just excuses for frosting.

photo by Asha Rajan

photo by Asha Rajan

 

- When Morgan Baker isn't figuring out what parts of her are like her mother and what parts aren't, she teaches at Emerson College. Her essays have appeared in Talking Writing, Brain Child, The New York Times Magazine, The Boston Globe, The Martha's Vineyard Times, and others. She lives in Cambridge with her husband and two dogs and is the mother of two grown daughters.

Abuelo: How to Houseguest

To his credit, he didn’t do it often, but when he did houseguest Abuelo did it his way. As he did all things.

You knew he was there by the pile of newspapers tossed on the couch. Or by the TV blaring Univision or wrestling. How he ever found these stations with my dad’s inability to rig our cable without the use of less than three remotes was a minor miracle and a testament a general competence that sprung into action only when he was alone and unable to demand service.

Photo by Sade Murphy

Photo by Sade Murphy

He would sometimes spend a good hour in the bathroom. And while the fan inside blared and the rustle of even more newspapers came from under the door, he would always know if you’d change the channel or turn off the TV. God forbid. The yelling.

Abuelo came from a place of IDGAF and it’s only a place I can now find charming. When you are 14 and there is an old man spread on your couch, wearing black knee socks and sandals, a crisp white tank top and shorts (even in winter) it only gives you further cause to hide in your bedroom you’ve designed to look like the studio apartment you wish you lived in.

The world was his. And so was everyone’s house.

- Diana Saez