Saturday, November 25, 2006

the four-letter word

“Mama,” said the plaintive boy-voice, “my head is itchy.”

“Where, can you show me? Let’s see if it’s a bug bite or something.”

“The whole back of my head itches.”

Oh shit, I’ve already muttered to myself. It’s Monday night and I’ve been running hard for four days, late nights and barely a moment to myself.

“Bring me your new headlamp, the one you got for your birthday, and a magnifying glass. Madeleine, could you bring me my glasses from my purse, and my comb? Let’s see what we see.” I type the four-letter word into the Google search box and hit return, to look for a picture of what I fear. I read it silently.“The first sign of an infestation is usually itching around the lower part of the back of the head, and behind the ears.” I wince, hide the photos, and go back to the kitchen table.

“You look funny in my headlamp!” Brendan giggles, switching on the light for me.

“I used to wear one of these every day,” I say, reminding him of my former work as a cave tour guide, with boys his age. But this is my life, now. I diagnose. I treat ailments. And I’m hoping beyond hope not to turn zoologist or entomologist today. “Brendan, when did you get so much hair?”

“I needed a haircut for a long time, mama. It’s in my eyes, see? I want a short, stick-up haircut like my friend Will.”

“B, I don’t see any rash or bites. I do see this little scab-thing, though.” I scratch at it and the whole hair pulls out. Brendan’s face registers betrayal and he yells at me for pulling out his hair.

It looks like a tiny droplet of blood dried to his hair. I put it in the one-inch square plastic box with the magnifying lid, made for viewing pond life. I find a second one, too. They are too small to view with my tired eyes at this time of day, even with glasses. Madeleine remembers the very powerful magnifying glass on my keychain, which has lived there so long I’ve forgotten it. I slip it out of its protective case. These things look like a droplets with a clear coating.

Scott walks through briefly, on his way to a tutoring appointment. “I give up! What on earth are you doing?” I gaze steadily at him for a silent moment, from under my headlamp. “Oooooh, wait a minute,” says Scott the Squeamish. “I don’t really want the answer to this question, do I?” I nod slightly to the computer screen. He reads quickly and whistles an aha. “Call me if you need me to pick up anything, once you know anything for sure. Are you ready to shift your schedule tomorrow, if need be?”

I nod, and trap the two miniscule droplets into the magnifying box again, and put the lid on tight. Madeleine picks up her violin to play and I’m singing along, looking through B’s hair when he pouts, “You’re saying there’s something wrong with my head!” and his tears begin just as I say, “Well it looks like these might be eggs for a bug that likes hair,” I see movement under my comb and I’m just fast enough to catch it between my nails.

“Open the box quick!” I say, and he does. I drop IT in. “We got a kicker!”

The tears cease immediately as he watches the offending critter in the magnifying box. I look for more, but his hair is thick and lush.

“LOOK AT THAT COOL THING! THAT WAS LIVING ON MY HEAD?!” he shouts. Madeleine runs over with her violin still in hand, and pronounces it “as-sgusting.”

“B, how would you like mama to give you a haircut tonight?” His eyes light up. Madeleine would make a good surgical assistant—immediately she runs for my good scissors and a towel.

“I never knowed that you cut hair, mama!” he lifts his face beatifically, with eyes shut in expectation. I think of my own mother, all of the emergency room visits, watching the stitches and tetanus shots, being strong, then collapsing in the corner to cry when the need to be strong had passed. She was squeamish like Scott.

“I cut Daddy’s hair twice,” I say as I cut a guiding line across his forehead, and brush the trimmings downward. “The first time, it looked good, and the second time only half of it looked good, and I haven’t tried again.” I remember ears are the tickliest part and I don’t want to leave those until last, like real barbers do. I trim another guiding line around the curve of one ear, then the other.

“Brendan, I think we need a home day tomorrow, you and me.”

“Can we bake?” he asks.

“Hmm. We’ll see about that. Mama has to learn what to do about these little hair bugs.” He looks in the little viewing box at the bugs, and nods okay. I remember the basics of hair-cutting, smoothing sections of hair up from the nape of the neck, cutting a curved line parallel to the shape of his head. I cut it from three inches to perhaps ¾ of one inch. As I cut, worst case scenarios brew, and I think of Madeleine’s delicate scalp, how she howls at the hair brush. I interrupt her violin practice again.

“M? Does your head itch?”

“No,” she answers. “But as soon as anyone says the word itch, my nose itches, and then my whole face itches!” I laugh with her. Then I think of my own worst, worst case scenario. I’m handling wildlife pretty carelessly. Madeleine runs to get me a length of yarn, and ties up my hair until I can deal with it. I do what mothers do in all crises: I boil water in the teakettle, between snips. When the cutting is done, I comb and find a few more critters and a few more eggs. Brendan runs to see his new “do” in the mirror, while I drop the comb and scissors into a bowl of boiling water.

“I LOVE my new stick-up haircut!” he exclaims, and I am glad to see his eyebrows. I sweep the floor obsessively, putting what appears to be an entire head of hair in a Ziploc bag, putting the Ziploc into the trash, hauling the trash to the porch.

“Now,” I say, bidding my emergency assistants one more time, “bring me all of your bedding, all of your pillows, all of your pajamas and your teddy bear.” Brendan starts to tear up again, and I read the suggestions to run everything through a hot dryer for thirty minutes if it cannot be washed. I explain that we will dry Pinky for thirty minutes tonight, then wash her tomorrow. Brendan sets the timer for thirty minutes. I whisper a prayer that thirty minutes does the trick.

They walk through the house, systematically gathering every hat and scarf, every sweater worn in the last week, every item in the clothes hamper, every towel, while I phone Scott and say, buy whatever the pharmacist recommends. Thanksgiving is in three days, and I don’t want us to miss it.

I send Brendan to the bath so I can go over Madeleine’s hair, and she gives her best to look over the back edges of mine. Neither of us find anything. I prepare her to deflect the following day’s questions from classmates, to protect Brendan. He’s been particularly irritating to his classmates, and this it the worst possible time for him to have a contagious disease. I phone his teacher to set the notification process in motion. Vanya agrees it’s sad timing, just when repairs are needed.

Children tuck into bed only a little late, remarkable for the amount of activity and the loads of laundry gathered. I read a little more about various treatments, and I obsess. I am not prone to obsession, but this seems a worthy occasion.

“Proper combing with the special lice comb can require 1-2 hours for coarse or long hair,” reads the website. My hair is both coarse and long. I can’t rely on anyone to comb it twice daily, as recommended. I’d be lucky to find someone patient enough to do it once.

Were I not so weary, I wouldn’t sleep at all after those closeup pictures of lice. Were I not so tired, I’d worry into the night.

Brendan wakes me in the morning, and I continue the laundry, and comb with “The TerminNit-er” comb, gathering another tribe of eggs and a few more “kickers.” I throw away the tissues I wipe the comb on, wash my hands and massage a quarter of a cup of olive oil into my hair, as one website recommends. I use a little less for Brendan and cover his head with a shower cap, to keep him from touching the oil or his hair. He sets the timer for two hours and pulls out his bin of little cars and trucks. I feed Madeleine and get her ready for school. I try to put out of my mind the image of my squeamish husband submitting to the lice comb, or combing my hair with it.

After I switch laundry again, I look over to see the oil has migrated down his forehead, and his eyelids and lashes glisten. A bead of oil threads its way down his nose, but he is concentrating on his traffic. I think of olive oil and the Old Testament, how riches and gratitude were expressed by “oil running down the beard of Aaron” in a dry land where olives truly were life. Twenty-five years it takes for a tree to bear olives. Seventy-five years, the olive trees life expectancy. I wipe the little drop from the bridge of his nose.

“I like having a home day with you, mama,” he says, as I bring him a small plate of Clementine slices.

“You are good company, too, Brendan.”

The timer rings and we agree that I should wash my hair first, which takes three washings to remove most of the oil. I run a bath for Brendan while I comb through one more time. Many more eggs come out with the olive oil, and a few bugs that are no longer moving. We wash his hair three times with the lavender shampoo.

We head out for a bagel and to pick up Madeleine, and Brendan says, “I feel special today, you know, in my special haircut from my special mama.” Tomorrow might be hard at school—who knows how long it might be hard for Brendan. He is working through more than just a case of head lice.

I remind him that he has been patient with everything I’ve asked him to do, today. I agree that it’s been a special day to be together. And I pray that we have better excuses to be together for special days, and never another stretch of days like this for my boy who is delicious to bugs. I pray the rest of us avoid the plague. And I pray a prayer of thanks. It’s not so hard to do what is necessary, step by step until it is done.

And like my own mother, I am looking for the right moment, when no one needs me, to collapse for a few minutes until I am needed again.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

an un-quiet existence

I was a quiet kid in a quiet town, and all I wanted was a quiet existence, really. Would I have wanted something different if my parents hadn’t been who they were, then? Perhaps. I am not known as quiet, now, though I do need a sizable quantity of solitude. I am fearless and capable, bold and creative. It’s hard to believe how much I wanted to be unremarkable and to blend in, but that just wasn’t meant to be.

My hometown of Farmland, Indiana is a no-stoplight town, one mile long from end-to-end, and perhaps half a mile wide. Downtown consists of four beautiful blocks of Victorian storefronts, old-fashioned three-story brick confections with turrets and towers, and a few similarly old and fancy buildings on each side. Current census data indicates that the entire township weighs in at 1,212 occupants, 1,208 listed as “white non-Hispanic.” When I lived there, we all knew everyone else, and not only did we know them, but we knew who was related to whom, who had ever dated whom, and we knew long lists of successes and failures. It was not a good place to make a mistake, if you’d like to ever forget that mistake.

That’s the downside, though— I also felt the goodness of community support and care, even if it had to be borne alongside the weight of scrutiny and overinterest. It seemed then as it seems now, that people might be willing to take me in, given half an excuse, and I loved the feeling of safety in my small village.

My parents: how to describe them? Omer and Pat. My father’s contagious humor and laugh loosened people up and made them feel at home. He was tall and handsome and his younger pictures look so much like Lyle Lovett that I wonder if Lyle is my lost older brother, is dark shock of curls aiming up in the air and his angular face resembling my dad much more than I do. My father accepted the role of emcee of every town function, from the time that a microphone could be employed. He announced the floats at local parades, called the numbers for the cakewalks, read the winning raffle ticket numbers, and offered the sportscast at every Little League game, including mine. “That’s Denise Frame at the plate, folks, and this batter has requested that I allow her to bat in silence, and I will try, folks, I will try.” On quiet summer evenings I could hear my father’s voice booming across town from the baseball diamond’s loud speakers—I could hear his voice in the downstairs bathroom of the house on Plum Street. There was no escape. Not that I wanted to escape him, personally: my dad was impossible not to like.

And my mother was the perfect counterpart. Like Lucy and Desi, my parents were like an ongoing comedy team. He announced, and he teased people, including my mother. She did not hesitate to heckle, in response, to upstage him if she felt like it, which she often did. She was louder, bigger, funnier, and she was also more visibly capable of fury over injustice. My father served in the Lion’s Club, the American Legion, and the volunteer fire department. My mother ran ice cream socials, chili suppers, women’s auxiliary clubs of the same local organizations. She coached softball. They sold raffle tickets, served on committees, and they were simply everywhere and knew everyone. They were unpretentious and homey and looking for opportunities to be generous. They were loud, and just a bit bawdy, barely constraining their natural tendency to swear colorfully in every sentence. They hosted late night card games with shouting and laughing loud enough to wake us children: we would enter the bright kitchen light, rubbing our eyes to the cloud of cigarette smoke, the smell of strong drink and tears streaming from the corners of their eyes from laughter. My parents were local celebrities.

I grew up in a dream world, then, perhaps because my life seemed so un-dream-like. I lived the life of an escapist, hiding in my own skin. I tried to disappear, quietly, before people’s eyes.

And it might have worked, if it hadn’t been for my ornery parents and their general obnoxiousness. (I say this with deep affection and no small amount of admiration.) And if it hadn’t been for my head of very unruly hair, and my peculiar taste in clothing. And my excellent grades. And my constant reading. And my inability to soften the blunt truth about things. And my tendencies toward spiritual growth. I was an odd kid, made all the more odd by the parents I lived with. My parents lived entire lives as “black sheep,” even while doing good. In some ways, as the very opposite of a black sheep, I outwitted them, quietly and firmly. On the other hand, as a very serious child, I made a good “straight man” to their comedy, but I wanted out of the show, entirely.

In many ways, I became more “myself” the first time I left home for any length of time. There were no voices talking over me, no television in the background, no noise of expectation or reputation, not the same set of shouted swearing and back-slappings. I attended summer church camp, and I felt weightless, lighthearted, free. I knew I’d live the rest of my life that way, as soon as I could make my way “out.” People found me delightful, when unencumbered by memories of my childhood exploits and my parentage. I felt delightful, too, when I could stop reacting and adjusting to what people knew (or believed they knew) about me.

Last year I enrolled in a memoir course at a local school. After a few readings, one class member said she thought my stories “would make better fiction.” I blinked a few times and restated carefully, “Wait, it seems like you are saying it’s hard to believe these stories are my real experiences!” Yes, yes, she said, that’s it. The truth hit me later, that most people’s lives are populated with rather normal folk, most lives suffer a fair amount of boredom. But not mine, never. I grew up with characters right out of a John Irving novel, people uncowed by rules and expectations. My life would make good fiction. I wanted to argue that she should meet my parents if she wanted to know some candidates for larger-than-life tales. In many ways, I pale in comparison, or at least it seems so. I don’t give away my time and energy nearly so much. I feed myself, first, with writing and solitude, and sometimes there is little leftover for community involvement.

Reflecting from a distance of twenty years, I have new questions: when I made my way out, how much did I become like Omer and Pat? I share their social fearlessness, their confidence, their love to laugh with people. How much do I carry Farmland, Indiana with me? I long for community and I work to build it, to make connections between folks and to feel the goodness of being stuck together. How much am I a working class kid from the Midwest, wrangling with words until I think a factory worker could understand my big ideas? How much do I still buck against the norm of what people expect of me?

Lately I’m concerned for my children, remembering that parents can be so overwhelming. When my son was a toddler, he was the kind of guy who shut down when people looked directly at him, so I learned interpersonal stealth and cunning, to watch from the corner of my eye like a hunter working not to startle, or a photographer trying not to disturb her subject. It’s not easy to fade into the background, and it’s harder all the time: I still have unruly hair, peculiar taste in clothing, and I still have a hard time softening the blunt truth of things. I’m a know-it-all, and now I’m all these things with a strong dose of fearlessness. I’m glad for the training in stealth and cunning, but I know I’m prone to forget, and I hope somehow that these children find their own place to “be,” alongside me. I will make mistakes at this facet of parenting, perhaps every day. I hope I learn to apologize, to quiet myself and get out of their way, enough. Just enough.

My children don’t like it when they feel I am applauding too loudly, or when I heckle someone gently. They don’t like it when I am not a sweet mama, bending to their wills. And I balk against the weight of their expectations that I will try to “fit” better. It won’t be a quiet existence for them, either. “She’s not a tame mama,” my husband says to my children from time to time, claiming the words about Aslan’s still-wildness from C.S.Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. Wildness and strength are good traits, even for non-fictional parents, and my hope is to be tame enough—just barely tame enough to give them plenty of room to grow alongside me, to find some Spirit-blown wildness and strength of their own.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

reaping in the sunny field by the sea

This boy loves to clean—he does not love to tidy up or to do basic maintenance cleaning, but he loves a big messy project. He’s looking for the kind of project that allows him to eradicate massive quantities of yuck. I understand. I was the same as a child. And I have seen the future, for all of us: there are not enough cleaners and menders and fixers and repairers in the world, not enough for all the breakage and entropy crumbling all things around the edges. His heart is true. Though it would be significantly less work if I did the cleaning myself, I find him a project.

“Sweep floor,” reads the list of chores for Saturday, written in red magic marker on a sheet of paper at the table. Brendan has Madeleine read him the items, and his eyes light up. “Can I mop the floor, Mama?” What’s a mom to say? The floor is disgusting. It needs to be mopped.

“We have to start from the top and go down to the floor, if you want to do that. Otherwise we make more work for ourselves, later. Will you help me with the other parts, first?” As I make sure he is serious, he has already begun to move the dining chairs to the living room, to haul out the broom and dustpan, to clean the sticky spots on the dining table.

“Bring me the cleaning cloths from the bathroom, my putty knife, too.” I instruct. I do the first sweep. I am thinking, the floor is extra dusty because the dryer is located next to the refrigerator, and the tubing to the dryer vent disconnected itself weeks ago, so bits of dusty lint adhered themselves to the wall behind the frig, the items above the laundry area. I can’t start this project, I think, recalling the last time I replaced the dryer vent tubing, how it fell off immediately three times in a row before I got it right. I don’t mind the warmth and damp air blowing in, but it drives Scott crazy. I take a few of those cleaning wipes from the container and lay them over the unidentifiable stains to soften them.

And Brendan moves more of the furniture out of the kitchen, while I dust the walls and the refrigerator free of the lint. I will fix it. It needs to be done. When the dusting is progressed as far as I can go, I wiggle the dryer free from the wall, an inch on the left, an inch on the right, until it is free from its space entirely.

“Cool!” he shouts, immediately placing himself in the dusty square of floor space. “This is like a house, except small,” he exclaims. “Unless you are a mouse, of course, and then it is big.”

“Hmmm. Proportion—yes, that’s a good way to look at things.” I know what is coming. It’s okay to set myself up, sometimes.

“What’s pro-por-shun?” he says, my good straight man.

“Proportion means that what is small to you is what’s big to a mouse, just like you said.”

“Oh,” he says brightly, fishing behind the refrigerator with the whisk broom for more yucky stuff. He picks up the silvery tube and looks inside. “Cool! What does this do?”

“See if you can tell me where it attaches to the dryer.” This is so much better than a thousand “educational” plastic Legos. “Can you find me the duct tape?”

“What’s this silver thing called, Mama?”

“It’s a duct. And the stuff we use to seal it to the dryer is called duct tape.” I set myself up again, of course.

“You mean it’s not Duck Tape?”

“I don’t think it’s used for ducks at all, do you?”

Peals of laughter follow. We sweep and sweep, then begin repairing with the tape. I explain that we do the dryer project before mopping so we don’t ruin our mopping later with lots of dust. We broke our mop handle a few years back, so the mop shares a handle with the broom, which requires unscrewing the broom “head” and replacing it with the “mop” head. Since the broom and mop are never used at the same time, the process works—but Brendan the Over Eager keeps getting ahead of himself, and I find the mop head on my broom again. I give him a mock scolding look.

“Oh, yeah! We still need the broom to be the broom!”

Madeleine begins singing from her bedroom, where she has begun to vacuum. While not so eager as Brendan, she is just back from a field trip to a farm, and she has grown accustomed to work and chores in a new way. She is singing a farm song over the vacuum, so her words are loud and clear.

“I will go with my father a-plowing, to the green field by the sea,
And the rooks and the crows and seagulls will come flocking after me.
I will sing to the patient horses, with the lark in the light of the air,
And my father will sing the plow song that blesses the cleaving share.

Brendan knows the words too, from his first grade circle, and he sings along, now using my putty knife in rhythm, to remove sticky spots from the floor. The duct repaired, I inch the dryer back into place and do a final sweep to remove the last bits of lint. I quickly brush the counters and the stove top to remove the last crumbs before the broom becomes a mop. Both children finish their tasks and beg for who will have what turn with the mop. I fill the sink with hot water and mild soap, and the cloth covers for the flat mop.

“First we must move the dining table. Then Madeleine will clean the cracks between the table leaves with the putty knife,” she grins and nods, “while Brendan takes the first turn mopping. Mop it all, then Madeleine can mop it all with the second mop cloth, while Brendan cleans the bathroom floor.” Each begins a task, singing.

“I will go with my father a-sowing to the red field by the sea,
And the rooks and the gulls and starlings will come flocking after me.
I will sing to the striving sowers with the finch on the flowering sloe,
And my father will sing the seed song that only the wise men know.

I go back and forth, keeping the mop-cloths hot enough to clean, supervising the furniture and floors in the cleaning process, asking for the lyrics of that beautiful song to an old Irish tune.

I will go with my father a-reaping to the brown field by the sea,
And the geese and the crows and children will come flocking after me
I will sing to the weary reapers with the wren in the heat of the sun
And my father will sing the scythe song that joys for the harvest done.”

Neither the father nor the mother at this house knew this song as children, neither the plow song nor the seed song nor the scythe song. Neither the father nor the mother plow, at least not enough to brag about. The father is not sowing or reaping anything this weekend, but he is vacationing a bit, after sowing and reaping young readers at his school. We barely know the wren from the geese. The only weary reaper is the little farmer girl, herself, who slept twelve hours straight last night, so happy to be in her own bed.

Our father in heaven sings the scythe song to the weary reapers, though, on this sunny morning in the house, as we reap a clean floor and a repaired dryer and a trio of uplifted spirits. We barely have time to replace the dining table and chairs when neighbor kids’ voices ring out. The children run outside, calling an impromptu meeting of their seed-saving club. It is payday, they tell me. They run back with $2.10 each for their little banks.

He is such a hard worker. She is such good company to have back home. Scott will come home with energy like a Mexican Jumping Bean, after his visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame’s special educator day. I am gathering myself for the next leg of my journey to becoming published—I pursue magazine publication, beginning this week, and as far as I can see there is nothing to stop me from learning the ins and outs of the writing business. And now there are two nagging tasks done, as well.

Joys for the harvest, done. Time for lunch.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

organic fuji

She loves apples. Though other foods come and go from favor, this has not changed over the last year. Organic Fuji apples, Haagen Daz ice cream, and red meat, served as rare as possible. Sometimes she loves whole milk yogurt, drizzled with maple syrup. Last week I enticed her with carrots, sautéed and sauced with ginger plum jam and a squeeze of citrus. But today her stomach is bothering her, and she wants only apples. Fuji. Organic.

I brace myself and phone Karen from the supermarket aisle, to report that there are no Fuji apples today. I hear a long silence and a bit of a whimper like a disappointed child. “I see beautiful Braeburns, Granny Smiths, and translucent yellow ones, let’s see… yes, Golden Delicious.”

“No Fuji. No Ginger Gold? Did you ask?”

“I asked. Braeburns, Grannies, Goldens.”

“Okay,” she says, followed by a long pause. “Four Goldens.”

“The Grannies look good.”

“And two Granny Smiths.”

“Be there soon, Karen. Bye.”

I pull up to Karen’s door to find the bottled water delivery has been abandoned at the base of the stairs. I take the apples to the sink, then make five return trips up the stairs with loads of spring water.

She has just woken, she tells me. The smell of cigarette smoke permeates the bedroom, and she is embarrassed. In warmer months she restricts her smoking to her patio, but today is damp. She keeps the windows open and fans running, so the smoke smell never grows stale.

I rearrange the water supply, then empty first the small dish rack and then the dishwasher. I check the cat’s dishes and the trash cans and the laundry. I carefully wash my hands and wash the apples, start the coffee pot then check the refrigerator. She needs apples, now, and there is only one blue porcelain dish of thin-sliced apples, with a half of a juiced lime stored in the bowl. I pour her a cup of fresh coffee, add a drop of maple syrup, and carry the chilled dish of apples to Karen’s bedroom. “Sustenance!” I announce.

“Such sustenance! I’ll be a few minutes.” She apologizes, a woman recovering from so many things, she still feels responsible to be a good hostess in her own home.

I return and calculate what Karen will need for lunch and dinner. I carefully wash the apples, and set a bin for compost beside the cutting board. I roll the lime on the counter with a bit of pressure to release the juices, cut it in half and squeeze it into the next porcelain dish. Quarter the apples, peel and core the quarters, and slice each quarter into three or four thin slices. I cut them as if I were feeding the apples to toddlers I don’t want to choke. And I roll the slices in lime, just the way she likes them. The Granny Smith apple is pale green on the inside, just as the Golden is a pale yellow. As I peel the Golden Delicious slices, I see one peel go into the compost and then I ask myself what I am thinking! I peel the other slices and stack all the peels on the side of the cutting board. When I’ve rolled the last of the slices in lime and placed the dish in the refrigerator, I toss the lime into my water glass and snack on the delicate peels.

That’s enough apples for overnight.

Karen walks carefully into the kitchen with her empty bowl. I can see that walking is painful for her, and she seems unsteady. Still she is thanking me graciously, and I try to convince her to let me make her breakfast. Nothing tastes good, she says. She wants a shower. As she goes, she turns to say, on second thought, could I make her a hamburger? I am such a mom about these things, so excited to find something Karen will eat.

“How would you like it?”

“If it’s not too much trouble, could you sauté some finely chopped red onion and garlic and mix it with the organic burger? Lots of onions and garlic.”

“Salt? Pepper?”

“Lots of those, too. And rare—bloody rare. Just introduce the burger to the pan and embarrass him a little in front of his friends.”

I love all these little instructions that remind me she used to be a chef. She can coach me through a dish, and the food seems to come out exactly as she wants it. I heat extra virgin olive oil in the cast iron skillet while I slice a red onion paper thin and rough it up a little, then mash the garlic under the flat side of the knife, with the bang of a fist.

“Karen, it’s cooked barely enough to hold the burger together. Is that the way you like it?”

“That sounds perfect. Can we heat up the sweet potato fries?”


I set the table for two and pour myself a cup of coffee. I grab salad fixings for myself, and leave room for a few of the fries on the side of the plate. Floral plates, napkins from India, a little vase of flowers from Karen’s regular assistant.

And we sit, and we talk, and she is so pleased with her hamburger and fries. Her eyes close and she hums a little with contentment.

“Exactly as I wanted it, dear.” And she is just as hungry for my company, for conversation. We linger over our plates.

After lunch she heads for the shower, after all. I begin to tidy up dishes and pans and I glance at the list of chores I saw earlier on the kitchen table, written in very large hand so Karen can check it over. Number 1 read, Slice apples, and she has scrawled something above it with a bold permanent pen. So now it reads “Slice FUJI apples.” I smile and shake my head. Next time, I say to myself, next time I will go to as many stores as it takes, if I have to go to every grocery in town. Organic Fuji apples, peeled and tossed in lime, next time.