On Tuesday, I cooked dinner—middle-of-the-day dinner—in The Cellar. The housecleaners were working upstairs, first at our place and then at Mom and Dad’s apartment. It’s best to stay out of their way.
I cooked a teensy-tiny pork roast (to be accurate, it was a third of a half loin), mashed potatoes (because my dad loves them), and cabbage (because he also loves cabbage). He’s the tricky one for meal-planning; I knew Mom would be happy with whatever.
Speaking of Mom, she came over to visit while I was finishing up. She rolled in on Dolly, her shiny red Rollator walker, and said she had run out of bubble gum. I keep a huge glass jar filled with Double Bubble. When I can see the green table-top through the bottom, I know it’s time to go to the discount club for another tub.
“Maybe we should just eat down here,” she said, “and then you wouldn’t have to carry hot dishes up the stairs to the apartment.”
“We can,” I said. “I’ve finally cleaned the place up so I don’t think any of us would catch a disease.”
She laughed, but she knows The Cellar doesn’t get the attention that the rest of the compound gets. It’s off limits, even to the housekeepers. That means I’m the only one who cleans down here and I am only an occasional custodian.
“Well, that didn’t work,” she said. The bubble gum slipped right through Dolly’s wire basket. “What can I carry this stuff in?”
“Here, let me get you a bag,” I said, and handed her a zippered sandwich bag from the pantry shelf.
“Oh, I didn’t have to have a bag. I could have just used a coffee filter,” she said.
“A coffee filter?” I asked. I’m sure I winced and made forehead furrows with my brows.
“Just needed something to wrap it in. I don’t want you to go to too much trouble.” She turned Dolly around and sat on the seat.
“I think this roast is done, maybe the cornbread, too,” I said.
“We better go get Daddy,” she said.
I opened the back door. With the weather as warm as it is, Dad could be in any spot of greenery at any given time. Peas are planted, cabbage set, tomato stakes in the ground. He’s threatening to head down into the ravine to clean out some more brush and vines.
“I’m on my way,” I heard him say from the patio, just a few steps away.
“I bet you’d like a drink,” I said. Normally, he has his one drink at 5 P.M. but he had put in a good day’s work already. I figured he needed something to soothe the sore bones.
“Oh, I would. Will you make me one, Sis?”
I needed some milk for the potatoes, too, so I sprinted up the stairs and returned with an ounce-and-a-half of bourbon in one glass, two ounces of milk in the other. Back downstairs, I poured Diet Coke and plunked ice.
“Oh, that is good,” he said. “What do you hear from Dave?”
Dave went to Seattle last Saturday to be with his dying mother. His sisters and their spouses were there. I was here. Mom and Dad said they thought they were keeping me from being there to support Dave. I assured them that we had talked about it and decided that both he and I would be better off if I stayed home to run the household.
“I miss him,” Dad said. “You know, Mom and I have been talking about what we want when we go. I’ve decided I want a funeral right down here at South-end Methodist. Lady Ann can take care of it.” (Ann Cover, the pastor.)
“Well, I’m sure she can,” I said. “Does this mean you don’t want your service at Granville?” (Granville United Methodist is the church Dad was pastoring when he retired, at age 80.)
“No. We got to talking, and there’s not a handful of people we know left up there that would be able to come to a service.”
“Just lost your attachment, huh?” I asked.
“Yeah, I guess. Or maybe I’m attached here now. They’re all older than us, anyway, so if it’s hard for us to get around…”
“Well, whatever you decide.” I placed trivets and hot bowls on the table.
“You already have our Living Will,” Mom said. “And, next week, we’re going to sit down and plan our services. No need of you kids having to do that.”
“No. That’s true,” Dad said. “We don’t want you to have to do it, you know, when we could do it right now.”
“Well,” I said. “Let me grab this cornbread. Are you ready to eat?”
“I sure am,” Mom said. “I didn’t know I was hungry until I started smelling this dinner. It smells so good.”
They eased their legs under the table and swapped pork and potatoes.
“Let me dish you up some cabbage,” Mom said to Dad. “It’s hot as fire.”
I sat and speared a piece of pork, reached for the cabbage.
“Hooooooooooo, that cabbage is wonderful,” Mom said. “I mean, really good.”
“Everything is good,” Dad said. “This is the way I like to eat. Boiled cabbage, and it’s fixed exactly like I like it. It’s soft and it’s spicey.”
“I like it a little bit crunchier,” I said as I smiled in Dad’s direction, “but I know to cook it a little longer when you’re going to eat it.”
“Uh, uh, ummmmmm. Sooooo good,” Mom said. “What did you put in it?”
“Bacon, salt, pepper, onions…oh yeah, I chopped up an apple in it, too.”
“Apple?” Dad asked. “I don’t taste any apple.”
“No, but it sure helps it,” Mom answered. “It sweetens it a little.” She laid her fork down. “You know, I believe this is the best cabbage I ever ate, bar none.”
“You’re kidding,” I said. “Oh, I forgot. I put some Tabasco in there, too.”
“Just the right amount,” Dad said.
“But I think it was the apple that really did it for this cabbage,” Mom said.
“I forgot to ask what Dave said about Mrs. Revell,” Dad said.
I told them she’s about the same, that she was slipping fast and that she could not live too much longer, especially since the advanced directive kicked in.
“I hope she doesn’t,” Dad said. “She was such a sweet little thing.” He recalled the time that she visited after Leo, my father-in-law, died.
Mom and Dad helped themselves to more cabbage, more cornbread, more potatoes. I remembered the first time I met Mary.
Dave and I went to Terry, Montana, the year before we married, to his aunt and uncle’s 50th anniversary party. Mary and Leo were staying at Terry’s hotel, a very loose term, I thought, for a short strip of flat-topped buildings on the edge of town. They looked like lawn sheds.
“I think they call these bungalows,” Dave said. He tapped on the door.
“It’s cocktail time,” Leo announced after the introductions. He produced a leather carrier with two worn spots for two bottles. Inside the top were little bands that snapped to hold a jigger, stirrer, and two glasses turned upside down over the bottle necks, a napkin for each to cushion the glass on glass.
“I’m ready,” Dave said. “Do you have another glass?”
“Get that glass in the bathroom,” Leo told Mary. She took three steps and turned around with a glass.
“We need one more,” Leo said. Mary turned again.
“No, thanks. I’m going to pass,” I said. “I’m not much for mixed drinks.”
“Are you a wino?” Mary asked. She had a big grin on her face, so I figured she was kidding.
“Yes, I guess I am,” I answered.
There was a big crowd at the celebration, a dinner at some kind of lodge. Family and friends joined in a cacophony of greetings and catching up. Uncle Floyd asked Dave to introduce his guest. Dave stood and pointed across the room, where I was practicing with a trio of cousins. We were to sing a song that one of the daughters wrote about their parents to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and we had to fit the rehearsal between guffaws and giggles.
Mary sidled up to me right after the song. “Did you hear how he introduced you?” she asked, a big grin spreading. “He called you, let’s see…” She started to chuckle.
“His ‘traveling companion and confidante.’ I heard him,” I said.
“‘Traveling companion and confidante’,” she repeated. She shook her head and laughed. “He’s always been a jokester. He reminds me so much of my brother. When Dave’s around, somebody’s always laughing. Bill was like that.”
I already knew about Bill. When Dave and family lived in Spokane, Bill would drop in to visit when he was in the area. But he always called and pretended to be someone else. Sometimes he faked an ethnic accent and pretended to be lost and in need of directions. One time he tried to confirm the address where he was to deliver ten large pizzas.
“Bill always kept something going,” Mary said. She wasn’t testing me to check my reaction to Dave’s “joke”; she was simply welcoming me to her “son of fun”.
Mary and Leo came to our April wedding and they returned to Nashville for Thanksgiving the same year. We observed cocktail hour, Leo and Dave with scotch and water, Mary with her bourbon. I intended to just have my glass of wine. But Mary said she felt like she was drinking alone and wished I would have a bourbon and water with her.
“Okay,” I finally said that first night, “but I’m mixing mine with Coke.”
I sipped. Mary sipped, daintily it seemed, but she finished ahead of me. Here she came, scooting around the kitchen island, her glass extended toward me.
“I’ll have a little refresher,” she said. I mixed another drink.
“You better have one, too,” she said.
“I’m not sure.” I wasn’t sure, but I tipped my glass and made room for another.
That midnight, I experienced the worst heartburn of my entire life which, at that time, was less than fifty years. I vowed, aloud, “No more.” But she sucked me into the same pattern the next night, and the one following the next. By the fourth evening, I made an air-cross in front of her when she started toward me.
“You’re not drinking tonight?” she asked.
“Well, Ma, I think I’m just going to have a little wine,” I said.
“Don’t you want a bourbon? With me?”
“I have enjoyed it, but you have drunk me under the table.”
“Oh, neither one of us has been drunk,” she said, shaking her head.
“No,” I answered, “but I can’t take the heartburn.”
“I’ll have a little refresher,” she said, and handed me her glass. “You just drink wine.”
Early in the week, Dave asked his mom to make an apple pie. “Not for Thanksgiving. Just for us,” he said.
I peeled and sliced Granny Smiths while Mary measured flour into a bowl for pie crust. “You know he’ll wind up eating apple pie for breakfast tomorrow,” I told her.
“Oh, yeah. I like pie for breakfast, too,” she said. “I’ve got a sweet tooth.”
“I could never make decent pie crust,” I said.
“I put an egg in mine,” she said.
I reached into the refrigerator for an egg. “An egg?” I said. “Interesting.”
I stopped and watched her ball up the yellow dough and take up the rolling pin.
“I bet you’ve had this rolling pin for a long time.”
“It was a wedding gift,” I said. “The first wedding.”
“What year was that?”
“1970,” I said.
She stopped rolling and looked at me. “I’m trying to remember what I was doing in 1970.”
“I didn’t know what I was doing in 1970—in 1970,” I said.
We both laughed and she said, “Well, one thing you did was you got two wonderful sons. Dave told me all about them. Did you know I had another son besides Dave? He died when he was a baby, from cystic fibrosis.”
“No, I didn’t know. That’s a hereditary disease, isn’t it? And none of the other kids had it?”
“Oh, there were two more that died as babies. They’re buried up at Ronan. That’s where Leo and I will be buried.”
When the pie came out of the oven, we only let it cool for about half an hour. The filling was sweet and tart—at the same time—and piecrust was good. I mean, really good.
“I believe this is the best piecrust I’ve ever tasted. It’s so flaky…and it tastes so good,” I said. This is the best I’ve ever had.”
“Put an egg in it,” she said.
Mary died peacefully last Wednesday night at home with Vicki, Dave, and Sandee at her side. She was cremated. We’ll take her ashes to Ronan in July to bury her with Leo and the babies. I like to imagine that she and Leo are doing all those things that gave them so much pleasure here: growing a couple hundred roses—mostly Old English varieties, hunting for mushrooms in the woods, or hiking up a hill to a huckleberry patch.
Maybe she’s already made a pie for Leo. I wonder if they ate pie for breakfast. I know the piecrust was good. Mary’s piecrust is the best I ever had. She always put an egg in it.