Sunday, December 27, 2009

Cream – who’s got it?

“You bought a what!”
“Not ‘bought,’ ‘adopted,’ – remember, we’re Americans now.”
“But why. Why now?”
“It’s been on my mind for a while, but this morning – that was the final straw.”
“What happened?”
“Rascal brought another mouse into the house.”
“Yes – but I caught it - so hopefully no babies this time.”
“Well that’s alright then. So why did you buy another cat?”
“Because I didn’t kill the mouse, I let it go in the garden.”
“In the garden?”
“Actually that’s a lie – I threw it over the fence into the empty lot.”
“Like a rickety old wooden fence is a cast iron barrier.”
“Why didn’t you kill it?”
“You never kill them.”
“And anyway, I wasn’t going to kill it in cold blood in front of an audience.”
“Which particular audience?”
“All the children and Nonna.”
“Ah – I can see why you’d want to avoid being type cast as violent annihilator of innocents.”
“That still doesn’t explain why you bought another cat.”
“Well Rascal caught it again and brought it back into the house. This time it escaped - upstairs. Took us all morning to track it down and trap it – mayhem, absolute mayhem. I haven’t managed to get one thing done today.”
“And buying another cat is somehow going to increase your efficiency? Did it ever occur to you that now you’ll be chasing double the amount of vermin?”
“Hmm. But this new cat is going to eat them.”
“You know that for a fact?”
“Indubitably. She is a ferocious mouser. It's genetic.”
“Rascal will leave - he’ll be jealous.”
“It’s a female cat.”
“Yup. Smaller than Rascal, company not competition.”
“I don’t know how you can have such confidence in such inanity.”
“I’m merely quoting your mother.”
“Ah. So…….?”
“She’s absolutely thrilled – Christmas has come early.”

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Presented on a salver

“So Maddy?”
“Wot you do wiz doz tings den?”
“Which things?”
“Doz tings dere – dat you made.”
“Ah the sugar-paste. They’re not finished yet. I’m painting them silver.”
“You start a new career?”
“I don’t think I could earn my keep making cakes somehow.”
“No. De other.”
“The other what?”
“You know…….” I watch her as her arm flourish as she makes a little twirl, I am none the wiser, “er…..Turkish dancing?”
“No. Dah ladies of dah night.”
“Wot you call dem?”
“Good. I think I’m a bit old for that.”
“Wot they called when they take their clothes off, dancing around?”
“Yes dats right.”
“So dey’re not props then?”
“I thought they were breast coverings, like coconut shells.”
“The handles are a bit cheeky though.”
“At least dey’re dah right size.”

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A bid for freedom – sheath your weapons

I take the advice of my brother, in advance of any possible New Year’s resolutions. I request a copy well ahead of the December meeting of the Mystery Book Club. Once a month, early evening, more than doable.

People differ so much in their doings but I know my own preferences. By page 247 I know who did what, when and why, but I leave the last chapter, the solution, untouched, so that I’ll be able to relish the moment. It shouldn’t be gobbled in snatched seconds, stolen from my other responsibilities during the day, but savored, like the last chocolate in the box.

I have that time slot ear-marked, late morning, where I plan to sit in the front room by the window and wait for the boys to return on the school bus. 20 minutes of uninterrupted silence. Indulgence, once duty is fulfilled, so that the all will be clean and fresh and bright in my mind for the evening meeting. Who needs a lunch break when you can have a book break and brain food?

Or at least that’s the plan.

I drive home – with a bit of luck Nonna will be up so that we can have the third breakfast sitting. The combined expedition: school drop off, supermarket, post office and library pick-up, was swift. I pause at traffic lights, knee deep in bags of stuff. I review my latest campaign, the one I think I can manage, rather than the one that I know that I can’t.

The ‘can’t’ issue is delegated to her son. I’m aware that elderly people often worry about money. I’ve experienced it first hand. My dad has one version, the version where you hand it out to every Tom, Dick and Harry, smile without a care. His signature began to falter on the cheques, so my mum intervened. It was a joint account, no choice. Now he’s limited to cash, small denominations only. But I do exaggerate.

Nonna has another version, the kind where everyone is a thief, no-one can be trusted, least of all light fingered daughter’s in law. I claim ignorance – ‘ask your son, not my department.’ I agreed at the time – so clever – so non-confrontational - no travelers cheques. No Greenbacks. He’s in charge of the finances. So what if I’m not a woman of independent means. What would I do with a stash of pounds sterling? Did I mention the exaggeration?

I stick to doable things, manageable campaigns, as I know my limits, or at least some of them. I cannot rationally explain why this issue is quite so irritating. All I know is that I’ve had enough. I've devised a counter measure to stop one of the repeats, just one, the second new repeat. This one repeats at approximately 20 minute intervals, just after the money repeat, just before the other repeats.

Nonna arrives in the kitchen, cross, clutching her carrier bag to her chest; Christmas presents which she has forgotten about. It is a very heated exchange – necessarily louder than I would wish. Often the children are well within ear-shot. They have known for over a week that Nonna has chocolate for them for Christmas. Whilst we have this conversation, each boy echoes the exchange, word for word, which is presumably why it has become ever more excruciating, not for them, but for me.

“Wot about deez tings den Maddy?”
“They’re for the children, for Christmas, remember?”
“They are for me?”
From you. We bought them for you, because you were worried about the presents, remember?”
“But I don’t ave any money?”
“I know, we paid at the time. It’s fine. Don’t worry.”

But she does worry.

She continues to worry.

My answers were inadequate the first time around and have continued to fall short of the mark thereafter. I am aware of my failing but unable to climb back out of the mire. Hence, like most cowards, I’ve decided to simply remove the object of obsession. As soon as I get home I shall take the bag elsewhere, for safe keeping, for the next 21 days, because I am selfish and do not want to flail incompetently for the next three weeks. Not a time out or a confiscation, merely moved to a pending file, out of sight and hopefully out of mine. Far from perfect, but ‘good enough’ is all we can manage these days.

Mercifully we usually shift gears seamlessly into other, older, more familiar repeats:-
“Wot about dis one den?” she’ll ask, every time a knife is in sight.
“I’ll put the cover on in a minute, don’t worry.”
“Ferocious dey are, fiendish weapons!” So animated and expressive with her powerful Italian accent and flourishing hand gestures, each time, every time, because each time is the first time.

The boys love it. They think it’s hilarious. All cutlery has been renamed in accordance; not 'pass me the knife please,' but ‘hand me the ferocious,’ the infection is contagious and permeates every mealtime.

As I pull into the driveway I notice that the front door is open. I run in to check but nobody is home. Her coat is gone, as is her bag, which is good. There is no note, not that I expected one. I nip over to my neighbor to see if anyone saw her leave:- “sure, while after you left in the car. Did you know you’ve left the door open?” We have a brief exchange, eyes on the look-out for wandering elderly people or would be burglars and I’m off, trolling the streets. I am aware that I am a danger on the road as my attention is directed to pedestrians rather than cars. I have my phone but no-one to call:- ‘dear husband of mine, sorry I mislaid your mother today whilst I wasn’t paying attention, I’m sure she’ll be fine with her deafness, diabetes, heart condition, high blood pressure, one leg an inch shorter than the other, intermittent attention, left over jet lag, in unfamiliar territory, on the wrong side of the road and a penchant for jay walking.’ I have a whole two hours to find her, two hours before my loyalties will be divided by the impending arrival of the school bus.

She’s cross and defensive when I find her, just by the main road, heading in the wrong direction.

I’m cross and worried, but less worried than I was as I lock her into her seat belt.

I press a cup of coffee into her chilly hands as she sits hunched in the family room, diminished.

I wait until I am calm and then ask if she can recall our address. She’s almost right but the difference between 10,000 and 1,000 is about 10 blocks – it’s a very long road. I also know that like everyone else, if she were flustered and lost, her recall would also be challenged, assuming she could hear them, assuming they could understand her. It’s assuming too much by a long chalk.

She is adamant that there were people, other people, in the house when she left. She is not responsible for leaving anything unlocked - “but I can’t be a prisoner in dah house!” Luckily she’s only half teasing. I can see how elder abuse comes about, no matter how unwittingly; it doesn’t have to be physical restraints, merely the denial of freedom of movement. For her well being? For my well being? Where does one start and the other end?

I ask if she has her map or the card or the ‘locator’ in her bag, which is mean because I already know the answer. I step out to answer the phone as she rummages in search of what is not there.

I assure her son that all is safe and well, if a bit shaky. We decide to talk, later. Something must be done, but what? My last chapter beckons but the book club will have to wait til next month, as there are some things you can’t sweep under the carpet.

I replace the receiver to the cradle as I think. It’s tough to be reliant on other people for transport, especially when you’re used to your independence. Although she’s a voracious reader, she can’t be expected to be stuck in the house, morning, noon and night with a book. I step over to the computer, flip to the library page and reserve two copies. In a month’s time we can go together, to the Mystery book club meeting, leave the hungry hoards to fend for themselves. I return to the family room where Nonna sips coffee and nibbles from a Holiday print candy wrapper from her bag, “nice chocolate dis! Such a nice present. I love Christmas. Thank you.”

One down, 2 to go.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Choking on the Chalk

One of the great things about elderly relatives and old people in general, is that eventually they just stop trying. Instead of giving inadequate, age inappropriate, naff presents, they admit defeat and hand over the cash instead. It’s a fabulous eventuality for the youth of the era. The kid doesn’t have to try and thank the elderly relative in a fake manner, tinged with resentment for the dinosaur puzzle or a doe eyed baby doll. Instead, the youngster can demonstrate genuine glee, even if the amount is more suitable for a child in the 1920’s.

Cash is cash, no matter how meager. Young people can forgive the miserliness, because old people don’t grasp inflation or the exchange rate or the current value of either. I know, or rather, I remember when that transition crept into my own life, several decades ago. You love them in their decrepitude but really, how hard can it be? Something’s triggered in the expanding brain of the nearly teen; ‘ah well, what can you do, chalk it up to experience.’

It’s easy to remember amid the noise of the television, washer, drier, dish-washer and radio, simultaneous with my all too good fortune, white goods, wealth and an easy life style; as I pick out the candy wrappers from all the plant pots on the ground floor, because diabetics can cheat and none of my children are that devious, yet. I turn off running water and light switches as I travel in the new daylight. I gather detritus as I roam, lost glasses, dropped hankies, notes, clothes, dust bunnies and pills. How can any of us reasonably keep up? So much has changed in nearly a century.

I hear my daughter scream with delight as she comes rushing out of Nonna’s room at this unearthly hour of the morning. Wide eyed she fans out the green backs, a fortune. I watch her father flair with a mixture of irritation and despair, but Nonna’s not bothered, she’s perfectly happy, as anyone would be on Christmas Day. We sit everyone down in front of the pile of birthday presents, wrapped in blue for a girl. Her excitement is uncontainable as she begins - cards first; it’s a rule.

Pacing is everything.

The third card is from Nonna. As she rips it open; more greenbacks appear, a King’s ransom. I put my body between my daughter and my husband, before his hands can snatch it back, a gesture that no-one would understand, as instincts ignite reaction. He turns away to gouge his eye sockets, but that won’t erase the picture. All his careful plans dashed. All his precautions evaded. There is little hope of avoiding a repeat performance at Christmas, in ten days time.

Not now.

Don’t make a scene.

Deal with it later.

They’ll understand, given time, or at least one of them will.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Dossier for deviants

I rush around the kitchen on maximum efficiency as it’s time to ramp up production. Next to me on the counter is the menu plan for the entire quarter, three whole months, to encompass the holiday season, when there will be 8 bodies skulling around the place all in need of three meals a day and two snacks.

Nonna is jet lagged but vertical.

Special needs, special diets – not my specialty.

I pause between cake icing and caramelized onions to deal with dog barf.

“So Maddy……….wot do we ave ere den? Divorce papers?”
Her fingers pat the stapled papers and ruffle the corners because she is the source of the twiddle gene whilst I scrub the carpet nearby. She pats down her body in search for the all elusive, reading glasses. The document is formatted to size 14 font, perfect for me but still too small for her. “Here, borrow mine.” She takes my reading glasses with doubt, “I don’t think deez will elp.”
“1.25 will still make a difference.”
“Not when dey are so mucky.”
I nab them back as I wash both hands and glasses in the sink - “try them now.”
“Ooo dats better. So what do we ave ere den?” Her fingertip helps her navigate the plan amid many sighs. She nods with approval every time she finds any item that includes pasta. Little squeaks of satisfied joy every time she comes across pizza. In my children’s ideal world, they’d eat eat pasta or pizza daily, quite possibly both. I’m the only deviant: whilst I loathe both of them, pasta is quick and pizza is purchased. On the one hand it keeps them all optimistic; on the other hand it’s an easy night off for me. It would be so easy to have easy nights every night. She turns page after page, week after week, month after month. “Lot of chicken you ave ere. You like chicken?”
“It’s cheap.”
“Ah!” She pats the paper, a sign of finality if not fatality, as she makes her little raspberry noise, the sound equivalent of ‘rats to that!
“Something wrong?”
“No…’s just I see dat we’re not going out to a restaurant at all…… the next three months.”
“Hmm……I see what you mean.”
“Does he keep you on a budget? Housekeeping?”
“Sort of……he earns it, I spend it.”
“Oooo you are a lucky woman den!”
“I suppose I am.”
“Dah budget doesn’t stretch to dinner out sometimes?” It’s my turn to sigh but she cottons on without another word, “I spose it is a lot isn’t it……all 8?”
“Hmm…..” I pause, spoon mid air as her son appears in the kitchen brandishing his brand new phone, great for games apparently, “ooo dere you are! Where you bin hiding with your silly phone.”
“It’s not silly, it’s a Droid.”
“Don’t tell me about google goggles again! You and your toys and your gizmos! We ave more important tings to talk about.”
“So wot you tink den?”
“Think about what mum?”
“Shall we go out to dinner?”
“Sure if you like. Where would you like to go?”
“Not fussy. Anywhere, just make it sometime soon.”
“Soon? Why soon?”
“I want to go whilst I’m still alive.”
“Why you are always so fat?” she asks him as she pats his tummy affectionately before leaving, as she calls over her shoulder, impish grin in place, “maybe it help keep your bag of bones wife alive too!”

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Annual Solicitations – sackcloth and ashes

I chatted with my neighbor the night before because he’s older than me and has far more life experience to share - his parents are in their nineties. He knows a lot about Alzheimer’s. He had lots of siblings and ten children. I only have two, one brother, one sister, piggy in the middle. I wore my new cardi, a voluminous grey affair that the shop assistant described as ‘fashionable.’ I was advised that it wasn’t a cardi but a duster, as I still have a lot to learn. She asked me a great number of questions, unusual at the check out, until the penny dropped, as it often does, occasionally, eventually. I was happy to advise her that my accent was British, happier still to tell her that British people speak English too, delighted to explain that England is a tiny little island and is jolly close to Europe. It could be sarcastic but it’s not, just a wee private joke. It made me smile. It always makes me smile. It’s a smile I recognize from my Dad, the most polite, courteous and considerate man I’ve ever met, although my emulation falls short of the mark. I suspect you need to be a Victorian or an Edwardian to match; bygone eras are the yardstick and don’t allow for millimeters.

She was a lovely young thing, fresh faced, apple cheeked, huge dark eyes, and silky haired, ripping off security tags with a vengeance, although it doesn’t do to type cast, even though we all do it. I do it today because my smallest baby is nine, which means it is my mother’s birthday too, eight hours ahead, back in England. I could have phoned at midnight, but octogenarian’s don’t appreciate early morning calls, so I waited. I waited until after all the presents here at home, the excitement of his last single digit birthday: Lego, cats and gold-yellow-orange, he’s so easy to please; the positive reinforcement of the first window on the Advent Calendar.

So much hopefulness amongst the festivities.

I wonder if the shop assistant was the eldest in her family? So forthright. Or the youngest – so girlish. Or the middle child – so pleasing. I wonder if birth order really has an impact? If you’re typecast as the baby of the family, does it stay with you forever? My brother was the baby; he was the brainy one. My sister was the eldest; she was the beautiful one. I was the middle child; the amiable fool. We knew our place, content with the pecking order.

My parents talked in code, made reference to a different cultural age: my brother was the heir, because he was the only boy, fee simple, absolute but not yet in possession, my sister was the eldest unmarried daughter, spinster of this parish, at 12, because it was amusing. I remember the staff at the bank being very amused when I turned up at the window with a hand written missive from my father, my authorization to collect his money, in his own unique style. There could be no mistake. I might as well have had it tattooed on my forehead – my gene pool. It might have been humiliating but it wasn’t – just plain funny. No other customer was likely to describe their emissary in such terms, as marital status is a thing of the past.

It was difficult for him, my dad. I was the first person to ever be divorced in our family. It was a shameful disappointment; the mark of parental failure; it was a heavy blow. It was a long time ago. Divorce did not exist within my parent’s circle, unheard of, unprecedented, unbelievable. The bank tellers were indulgent as they wiped away the tears of mirth – ‘your driver’s license would have been fine!’ they beamed as they passed the note around, colleague to colleague, so that each could read it, glance in my direction to check, see if we were a match – we were – the offspring of an eccentric. There were many ways he could have described me – I was glad it wasn’t age, height and weight, another chattel. He was old school. Whilst I was unmarried, I was his responsibility. Children can be so unwittingly cruel.
When I was divorced I returned to the family fold, soiled goods.

‘This is my daughter – see we have the same eyes.’

‘This is my daughter – she’s skinny like me.’

‘Don’t know where she got her height from – must have been the postman when I was away at sea.’

‘This is my daughter, the dud, divorced.’

‘She has the same wicked sense of humor and an eye for detail.’

All such a long time ago as I listen to the telephone - one ring and he picks up. I can see him sitting in his winged backed chair as we exchange the formal pleasantries that are customary, a script. We practice the script every Sunday before he finishes with the same line, “would you care for a word with your Mother dear?” because that’s all he can manage these days. Today is my mother’s birthday, not Sunday but Monday. The drugs keep him docile, manageable. If my mother is home my father and I exchange two sentences first, before the hand over. He sounds exactly the same. If my mother is not home we exchange three sentences. No-one would ever know. Always the same exchange, two lines or three - so I can tell if she’s home or not. He used to be ten feet tall, magnificent. Now he’s nearer 5. Three sentences means phone again later, as he doesn’t function as a message center. He can legitimately claim deafness when required but I’m still startled when he asks, just one extra question that changes everything and I wish I hadn’t heard –

“who are you?”

I remember, just in time, because I’m good at time travel, back to the 70’s when everything was so much more simple, “it’s me dad, your youngest unmarried daughter.”