Saturday, December 31, 2011

This Morning I Set Fire to my Oatmeal

It wasn't actually this bad.
My normal morning breakfast, cardiologist-approved, consists of half a cup of oatmeal flakes, a handful of raisins, and a pinch of sea salt, in a microwave-safe bowl, with the microwave set to run for three minutes. We're having a party tonight, happy new year to you, by the way, and I'm a little behind in my preparations. I was supposed to have made the pecan pies yesterday. So today I feel a little stressed, a little rattled. Harold needed the microwave for his bacon. He has to go to work on Saturdays. Hastily I popped my breakfast into the cooker, as my dad used to call it, punched the minute-button thrice and retired to the dining room to read the Times.

It was not very long before smoke and expressions of alarm came rolling out of the kitchen.

Flames were issuing from the microwave. The raisins were all on fire. What had I done? I'll tell you what. In my mad haste to get breakfast I forgot to add the water.

Harold blew the fire out, God love him. Eventually I summoned the nerve to pour a little water on the smoldering raisins. The dish did not crack. The bacon was able to be cooked. I fixed myself a bowl of dry cereal and retired to the dining room to eat it in shame. "What's wrong?" Harold said. "I set fire to my oatmeal," I said. "It's the beginning of the end. Dementia is upon me."

"No it isn't," he said. "You do that all the time."

"I do?"

"I seem to recall you burned a hole in a pot five years ago."

"Oh. Right."

"And what about the time we went out and left something on the stove that caught fire and Karen had to break into the back of the house and put it out."

"I don't remember that at all." Karen hasn't lived next door in something like twenty years.

"And what about that aluminum pot?" Yes, I melted the bottom right off an aluminum-clad pot. That I remember well. The melted aluminum took on a viscous quality like chewing gum. It was interesting, but I couldn't get it to go back on the pot.

"Relax," he said. "You're not getting any wiftier. Just stay in the kitchen with the pies. Take your computer in there."

So here I am. They'll be done in another half hour.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas Memories #4

I promised to tell you what happened when we went to Granny Hill's house after we finished having Christmas with Ma Gallison. I don't remember what that ride was like, though I know we had chains on the back wheels going klish-klish-klish all thirty miles of the way, and as a result had no problems with skidding or getting stuck. When we arrived we found a spray of evergreens with a big red bow hanging on Granny's front door instead of a wreath. The reason for this was that Aunt Billie, my grandmother's sister, was visiting from Kingston, Ontario. Her husband, a famous and beloved Canadian general, had died that year. She was still deeply grieving. To hang a wreath on the door would have reminded her of that constantly, she said, and she couldn't stand it.

In the modern day we have no tradition of funeral wreaths on the doors of the dead. To us, Billie's horror of Christmas wreaths seems eccentric. You're probably thinking that Billie was one of those cranky, willful old Edwardian aunts who appear in the English costume dramas. In fact Billie was nothing like that. To us children she seemed merry all the time, always joking, the best possible company for Christmas next to Granny herself. The women of my mother's family cultivated a light-hearted spirit that made them a joy to be around.

I was horrified to see that Granny had received presents in the mail and had opened them as soon as she got them, sooner than wait for Christmas morning. When I scolded her for this – well, I never would have scolded my grandmother, but I did say, "tut, tut" – she told me she didn't save her presents for later any more. I saved the lesson for later: old people don't wait for things. At least the smart ones don't.

Next morning we again opened stockings. I remember two presents from that Christmas, a bag of barley sugar animals and a game of Mister Ree, which was sort of like Clue. I love candy. I love board games. We all played Mister Ree after a sumptuous Christmas dinner of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, followed by with plum pudding, soaked in brandy and set on fire. What a spectacle! How we all laughed! We should have plum pudding this year. We should play a board game. Cross and Blackwell's plum pudding is pretty good. I think I'll go out and get some.

Have a very merry holiday season.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Christmas Memories #3

The year we moved back to New Jersey from the midwest I was twelve years old, my sister nine. For the first time in recorded history it seemed that we lived close enough to my grandparents to go and spend Christmas with them. When I say grandparents I mean my grandmother Gallison in Vanceboro, Maine, and my grandmother Hill in Saint Stephen, New Brunswick, Canada, for by the time I was twelve both of our grandfathers had died.

Granny's House
But which grandmother should we spend the actual Christmas day with? They lived only thirty miles apart, but it was thirty miles of snow-covered dirt road. What we did ultimately was to follow the route we always followed on our summer visits, north from Bangor through the woods to Vanceboro, where we would stay with Ma, and then across the river and off to Saint Stephen to stay with Granny.

Thing was, it wasn't summer. My father knew perfectly well what he was getting into; he grew up in Vanceboro. So as we set out on the last leg of our journey he had the tire chains with him. In the trunk of the car. Night fell, and so did the snow, thick and fast, as we headed into the dread Tomah Woods. All my life I had heard of the horrors of the Tomah Woods, for the Gallisons were not enthusiastic outdoorsmen, though they lived at the farthest outposts of civilization and had been known to work as camp cooks. The Tomah Woods were menacing, it was said, full of kill-crazed moose, runaway logging trucks, mountain lions. And yet there we were, driving through it.
Actually it was darker
than this, and also
nearly vertical

Visibility grew worse, the snow deeper. My father drove more and more slowly. No one else was on the road. It got to be two in the morning; my mother and sister were asleep in the back seat. I was supposed to talk to my father and keep him awake, as I remember. Finally we stopped halfway up a steep hill, the wheels spinning. We could go no further without the chains.

My father had to back down the hill to the nearest flat place.

There was a garage at the foot of the hill, possibly the only building for fifty miles in any direction, but the people who worked there were nowhere to be seen and they had turned out the lights before they left. Still, in front of it was a flat place. While my mother and sister continued to sleep my father laid out the chains, just so, backed over them the way you're supposed to and fastened them on. No creatures came out of the shadowy darkness to get us, but that's not to say they weren't watching.

How I admired my father. What a hero. What a competent person. Of course his mother, waiting by her wood stove in Vanceboro, expected no less. He had told her he would get us there that night, and he did.

In every little town in Washington County there is a woman called Ma by everyone, as a term of respect. In Vanceboro that woman was my grandmother. She was still up when my father pulled the car into the barn, which was attached to the house in the manner of Maine barns. It smelled of cordwood, piled to the ceiling against the coming winter, and of kerosene and machine oil. We stumbled the length of the barn, over the worn linoleum in the shed, and into the warm kitchen where Ma welcomed us, fed us a snack and sent us to bed. She had put up a tree in the parlor and decorated it with amazing fiberglass angel hair. The next day we had Christmas. We found our stockings hung on the clothesline in front of the kitchen wood stove, for there was no mantel.

And that was our Christmas at Ma's house, playing happily with our new toys, stuffing ourselves with treats. Tomorrow I'll tell you about Christmas at Granny's house. But I won't tell you which Christmas fell on the twenty-fifth of December, because I don't think I ever knew.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Save the Local Drugstore

My phone rang a few minutes ago. The caller was a young man from the pharmaceutical insurance and supply company that services retired New Jersey state employees. He wanted us to save ourselves some money by arranging for generic medications to be delivered by mail instead of picking them up at our local pharmacy. (Cue video of smiling elderly actress hobbling to her door on her walker and welcoming the mailman, who grins and hands her a life-saving package of drugs.)

I said, no, thank you. He said, but the first shipment is free. I said, we buy our drugs from the pharmacist around the corner because we want to keep him in business. That is your reason, then? he said. I expect he was entering something on his computer. Yes, I said. Even if it would save you money? Yes, I said. We parted cordially.

He seemed like a nice young man, and what the hell, he had a job, not like a lot of young fellows of my acquaintance. After I hung up the phone I said to Harold, I should have talked to him longer. Maybe I could have got him on our side. Yes, Harold said. The two of you could go and camp out at Occupy Trenton.

But the thing about keeping the local druggist in business is more important than money. It's a quality of life issue. I would have to be really up against it, I would have to be down to eating cat food, before I would consent to have generic drugs sent to me in the mail. (The mail? Really? You do know that the Post Office is cutting services, right?) I could die three times before the medications got here, to begin with. I am not, and I do not propose to become, one of those old ladies who takes so many drugs that even her doctor has forgotten what she's on, what the side effects might be, whether they're even effective. That handful of pills I swallow every morning are nutritional supplements. Nutritional supplements. Not offered by the monstrous pharmaceutical insurance and supply company. And the occasional over-the-counter allergy pill.

When I do need a prescription drug, it's for some passing ailment, and I need it right away to encourage the ailment to pass. I take a short stroll downtown, I hand the prescription to Morty Barnett at Bear Pharmacy, he gives me my pills or whatever. Him I smile at. I do not smile at faceless bureaucrats packing pills in a mailroom somewhere.

Actually it's just as well that I didn't unload this rant on that fellow on the telephone. It might have spoiled his day.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Christmas Memories #2

I used to work in one of the great software houses of central Jersey, all during the eighties. Actually I worked in two of the great software houses. The first one, in a fit of wild prosperity, built a palatial corporate headquarters where everyone had an office with a door and all the best computer equipment. In the middle of the software palace was a huge atrium with gardens and trees, tended by a gardening service. Young women in gardening service uniforms used to come in to feed and water the trees, murmuring to them lovingly. I played opera tapes in my office with the door closed while I worked. No one could hear them but me.

I sold a couple of novels. At home I had an adorable young child with whom I wanted to spend more time. And so I left the software house for a year or so to try to make a living writing mysteries. When the money ran out I went back.

In my absence, the prosperous software house had fallen on hard times – overextended, perhaps – and another software house had bought it. New people were in charge, ruthless people, creatures from Mordor almost. The trees were gone. Three-quarters of the old employees were gone. A new crowd had joined the remnants of the old crowd, the survivors of another brutal corporate takeover. Walking the halls, wandering in the atrium, I saw shock and despair on the faces of everyone I met. If I ran into one of my old colleagues, we would greet each other like survivors of a disaster. You! You're alive!

People continued to be fired. Supervisors were forced to rank their staff and let the lowest go. Two thugs from security together with the Human Resources director in his funeral suit would appear at the door to your brand-new cubicle (the offices with doors had been torn out) and escort you to the parking lot. That was so you wouldn't trigger the virus you were presumed to have installed to bring down the company. Because of course you hated the company. Everybody hated the company.

And now Christmas was coming.

We still had an hour for lunch, and we had a large space on the ground floor off the atrium where the fitness equipment used to be before the new management got rid of it as a frivolous waste of time, a space where we could meet and sing together. A bunch of us decided to give a Christmas, or should I say holiday, concert. We rehearsed, among other things, the Hallelujah Chorus. Every lunch hour we would get together, Jews, Muslims, Christians, and sing the Hallelujah Chorus, one of the noblest expressions of human hope and joy in Western culture. We delighted in the beauty of one another's voices. It was sublime.

The day of the so-called Christmas party, or holiday party, arrived. Possibly there were company-supplied refreshments, I can't recall. Our choir assembled on the floor of the atrium, among the stumps of dead trees and ruined gardens, and sang a few secular numbers, Jingle Bells, Frosty the Snowman, Winter Wonderland. Peering down at us, impatient for everyone to get back to work, was the boss. He was not the uber-boss, for Sauron himself was squatting in his lair in the main corporate headquarters in another state. But he was the boss of that particular facility. And he was looking down on us in disapproval, because we were not at work serving the software house.

We sang the Hallelujah Chorus, as loud as we could. The sound penetrated to the farthest reaches of the building, maybe even to the Human Resources office. People came out of their cubicles and looked over the railing. You can't sit down during the Hallelujah Chorus.

I think about that event sometimes, when the state of the country looks dark. You may think you have us under your heel now, but the kingdom of our God is at hand. Everybody sing.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Christmas Memories #1

When I was a small girl I lived in Woodbury, New Jersey. Lots of interesting stuff went on there, back in the day. A passenger train ran through the town, because there was a war on and public transportation was a necessity, what with gasoline and tires being rationed. My best friend, Deborah, and I used to hang out at the station and watch the trains go by, loaded with soldiers. Roxby's, where you could get candy, ice cream, and comic books, was right across the tracks on Cooper Street. I can still recall the smell, a rich mixture of chocolate, licorice and newsprint.

Perhaps in an effort to keep me off the street my mother signed me up for Bluebirds. Deb was in it too. Bluebirds was to Campfire Girls what Brownies is to Girl Scouts. We met once a week, paying four cents dues. The meetings opened with one of the girls lighting a candle. I could not do this, since my mother had forbidden me ever to touch matches. Neither did I know by heart half the Christmas carols we all went out one night and sang. Ever the green monkey. Sometime I'll tell you what my life was like at the Catholic grade school, as the only protestant. But enough about Sister Heinrich Himmler. I was telling you about Bluebirds.

We were assigned a project. How long did we have? I can't recall; perhaps a month. Each Bluebird was to make and furnish a doll's house to give to one of the sick children in Cooper Hospital, which in those days was in Woodbury. Awards were to be given. Deb and I fell to and madly designed furniture, mostly chests of drawers made out of match boxes, which we had in plenty since our parents smoked to excess to accompany their drinking. Then we made things to put in the drawers, cutting out make-believe doll clothes with scissors. Our houses were cardboard boxes, but we couldn't figure out how to make them look anything like dwelling places for dolls. Just the same, we were keeping busy.

Then the deadline came rushing at us. In three days we were to produce furnished doll houses, and all we had were cardboard cartons and matchboxes full of ratty scraps. My mother was appalled. Deb's mother was appalled. Naturally they took over the work and produced credible doll's houses, painted, papered, windowed, doored. We brought them to the next meeting, along with our mothers. Penny something, I think her name was, won first prize. Her doll's house was beautifully constructed of masonite with glassine windows and practical, hinged doors. It was painted cream-color. Penny, blushing with pride, stood up and collected her blue ribbon.

Then the troop leader read off all the names receiving honorable mention, which was to say, us losers. We were supposed to stand up. My mother almost stood up, she said, since she had done all the work. Well, Penny's father had clearly done all the work on her house. But, so what? It was nothing to Deb and me. And then we all picked up our doll's houses and paraded down the street to the hospital.

"What? Why?" said Penny.

"We're supposed to give them away," I said. It was the whole point. She had not understood this.

I still remember the look of delight on the face of the little sick girl who got Penny's dollhouse. Even more clearly I remember Penny's howls of despair. Yes, she wept, and loudly, standing in the doorway of the little sick girl's hospital room, so that her handy and clever-fingered father (Why was he not at war? I now ask myself. Must have had one of those essential jobs) had to pick her up and carry her away. My mother clucked disapprovingly. Deb and I felt somehow vindicated.

There's a moral in there somewhere about how to have a Merry Christmas, but I can't quite put my finger on it.