I am on the beloved porch this morning. It’s cool. Old Daddy Sun tries and tries to break through the clouds over behind Tusculum Elementary School. Birds are singing—in round. I don’t know bird calls, and I wish I knew who keeps calling “Tee-shirt”. Or maybe it’s “M’knee hurts”. Could it be “Sweet-tarts”? And who is it that keeps hollering for Budweiser? “Beer! Beer!” he says.
The cardinals usually wait for sun, but not today. They are already dipping through the vines down in the ravine. There are not nearly as many vines assaulting the tall trees as there were when we came here two and a half years ago. My eighty-two year old dad found a way to lower himself down the almost vertical side of the great ditch. He keeps the tallest ladder propped against some large tree. When the mood strikes, he shinnies down the rungs and cuts the vines at the base of the tree. When they turn brown, he announces a “pulling day”, gripping the aluminum ladder with his left hand and yanking muscadine and climbing euonymous with his right. I have to admit things are looking pretty good down in the ravine, slightly less dark and threatening, and there is still sufficient cover for the wildlife. So far, Dad has returned from the ravine without assistance.
I have to check the calendar for the week to find out where I am going most days. Today, I know what I’m bound to do without looking. I’m going to iron. And sew. And write. The things that need to be done inside are piled up and I am going to practice a bit of my own brand of hilltop removal. Since I’m going to be inside, I’ll also color Mom’s hair and wax her face. That reminds me to make an appointment with my own hairstylist. I like to check and plan the week on Sunday evening but I was too tired after the Mother’s Day Marathon-at-the-Compound.
Last week, pressure-washing the concrete consumed us. It’s entirely possible that we have more square footage of driveway, patio, and parking space than we do house and it was time to clean it all.
Somebody at the compound power-sprayed every day for nine days. Most days, both of us wielded a wand. We ran two pressure-washers: one small electric model that Dad brought from the farm and another gas-powered hoss borrowed from a friend. Maggie, our friend, took a break from home-sale readying to drive to Iowa and back. When she came home on Monday, we returned the washer and then stopped at Lowe’s on the way home, bought one just like hers, and continued on.
I took a break from the concrete cleaning on Thursday to take Mom to the gastroenterologist. Mom has seen eight doctors since she and Dad have lived at the Compound. I know this because she listed them for me on the way to Dr. Parker’s office.
Dr. Parker thinks Mom’s two occurrences of diverticulitis were actually one; he said he would bet the antibiotics just didn’t rid it all on the first try. I loved it when he said that little seeds and nuts do not cause diverticulitis and that she should just eat whatever she wants—including her beloved strawberries.
She loves to go to lunch when she has a doctor’s appointment, but the timing of Thursday’s appointment didn’t fit right. “We can’t go to lunch,” I said.
“I know,” she said in her sad voice.
“Would you like to go out for frozen yogurt?” I asked. “We could go to Sweet Cece’s.”
“Oh, yeah. Where is Sweet Cece’s?” she asked.
“There’s a new one over at Nipper’s,” I said.
“Isn’t that out of your way?”
“Not much. We need to go somewhere before we go home, don’t we?”
. She took my arm as she scooted from the van. (We leave Dolly, Mom’s Rollator, in the van when we’re only walking a short way.) I steadied her as she lifted herself onto the sidewalk curb. We toddled in and chose a table. I looked at the toppings under the glass and reported back to her.
“Look, Ma, there are different flavors. And fresh fruits. Look, you could have strawberries,” I said. “Want some strawberries?”
A beautiful dark young woman came from behind the counter. I thought she must have at least a yard of silky black hair wound up in a net. “Have you ever been to a Sweet Cece’s? Let me give you samples of the different flavors.”
While she reached for tiny paper cups, I told Mom, “Vanilla, Original, Cupcake Batter, Strawberry…”
“I want strawberry,” Mom said.
“Cupcake Batter is our most popular,” the lady said.
“Okay, I’ll try Cupcake Batter, Vanilla, and Original,” I said.
It seemed difficult for Mom to hold the tiny paper cup to her lips and squeeze. For the first time, I thought I noticed a tremor. But there she sat, all dressed up in a dark red and black animal print blouse with matching jewelry, and red lipstick, only slightly fancier than she appears every day. She looked normal enough.
When I lifted the thimbleful of vanilla to my mouth, it ran and tumbled and slithered all the way down my new red tee-shirt. And that is when we got the giggles.
“Well,” Mom said, wiping her eyes, “at least it’s not chocolate Coke.” (There was this time forty-plus years ago at the Fergus Café in Lewistown, Montana, when Mom’s chocolate-syrup-laced Coca Cola got loose and sailed across the table, drenching my new black and white hounds-tooth dress. Some red-suede ghillies also wound up stained and sticky.)
She got her strawberry—“just plain and no toppings”. (I don’t think she was quite sure of Dr. Parker’s encouragement to “eat those strawberries”.) It was too beautiful a day to sit inside and the sweet Sweet Cece’s girl helped us move outside. She carried the frozen desserts; I carried Mom—on my arm.
“Are you coming over at 5:00?” Mom asked as I was pulling into the driveway.
“I don’t think so, Mom. I think I’m going to pressure-wash for a while.”
“Boy, is that a job,” she said. “But I can sure tell the difference.”
I lifted Dolly from the back of the van and rolled her backwards to Mom. She made a nice catch with one hand and plopped her purse into the wire basket on the front of the walker.
“And tomorrow night we’re going to Fontanel,” she said, easing into the garage.
“Yes, your Mother’s Day weekend has begun. Saturday to Aunt Elois’s, Sunday to John and Vicky’s. We are busy mamas.”
“What time do we need to leave tomorrow?”
“Oh, I think 3 o’clock will get us there by 4,” I said.
Fontanel is the log-home estate built by Barbara Mandrell over on the north side of Nashville. It is now operated as a tourist destination. My elder son Jade and his wife Anjie were treating us to dinner at the new Italian restaurant and wine bar on the mansion’s grounds.
Dave and I raced to get cleaned up (from pressure-washing) in order to leave at 3. We were a few minutes late but had discovered that Fontanel was closer to us than we had thought. Still, we were going completely across Nashville from south to north and the traffic was treacherous. A glance in the rear-view mirror showed Mom clutching both arm rests. Dad, on the other hand, was oblivious to the peril. He was singing a Merle Haggard song.
Dave navigated and I drove. I missed the exit and we wound up entering the back way, guided by signs. We got there ahead of Jade and Anjie. They had been shoveling red rock to mulch newly landscaped beds. Dave accompanied Mom and Dad to a table while I trotted down to the gift shop/ticket office to inquire about ease of access to the tours for Mom and Dad. It turns out the place is well-equipped for those with canes or walkers; however, the last tour left the shop at 3 p.m.
The food was good; the service, impeccable and warm. Our waiter overheard our vows to return and take that tour. He told us no one would stop us if we took the one-vehicle service road up to the mansion. We were game, we said. On the way to the car, Anjie produced pots of flowers that feel like tissue paper. Mom chose the yellow; I got white.
“We better not go up there,” Mom said, pointing to a car coming down the hill from the mansion.
“You’re tired, aren’t you?” I asked her. Yes, they were both tired.
When I headed downstairs at 10:15 Saturday morning, Dave asked what time we might be home.
“I don’t know. I’m sure it won’t be before 2:30.”
“If even by then?” Dave said.
“Right,” I answered. I gathered up my Kindle, a bottle of water, and my purse. The phone rang before I made it to the garage. It was Mom.
“I’m worried about your father. He went downstairs and was supposed to come right back up and I don’t know where he is. I don’t hear him downstairs and he’s not out in the garden…”
“I’ll run over there and take a look,” I said.
“Oh, here he comes. I hear the lift,” she said, and then added, under her breath,
“I am going to take his head off.”
At 85, Aunt Elois is Dad’s oldest surviving sibling. At the last Blair gathering, she invited her remaining sister and three brothers for hamburgers and hotdogs on May 12. She reported that, by that time, she planned to have her patio renovation complete. Mom let me know that same day that I would need to take them to Mt. Juliet for the event. I put it on my calendar and thought I might go shopping at the Providence Mall just up the road while they all visited. I learned on Friday that I was expected to be at the gathering.
“Elois asked me if you were coming and I said yes. I’m sure she’s planning a hamburger for you, too,” Mom said.
“Okay. I guess I don’t need to go shopping anyway. I’d just spend money,” I answered.
One brother and one sister were already there when we pulled into the drive. Uncle Frank and Aunt Bessie sat on the patio at a freshly painted picnic table; Aunt Elois occupied a lawn chair on the far corner of the patio so that her cigarette smoke wouldn’t drift on her guests. After the initial hellos, she hauled her skinny self up the steps to the kitchen and brought out chili-cheese dip and two bags of chips.
As the guests dipped and oohed and smacked lips, she stood staring at the grill on the edge of the patio. Maybe she heard the question in my mind, “What are you looking at?” because she turned around and called across the patio, “This thing is brand new. I don’t know how to work it.”
I sat my iced tea on the picnic table. “I’ll figure it out,” I said. “Dave always grills at home but I can do it if I have to. Let’s see, is the gas on?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe.”
I turned the gas on and switched the left burner control to High. “Stand back,” I warned as I hit the red igniter button. Whoosh it was on.
“Okay, now we know it works,” I said.
“I don’t want to cook yet,” she said. “I need to bring everything out.” She wrapped the right side of her body around the wrought iron bannister and began the long journey up the five steps to the back door. Steep steps.
“Here, let me help you,” I said, following her. Not one of the five present—Mom, Dad, Elois, Frank, and Bessie—climbs stairs with ease.
I stacked the buns on top of the tray of hamburger accompaniments—lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles—and took them down to the patio table. I called to Aunt Elois, “Hey, you just hand me things out the door and I’ll come up the stairs to get them.”
When she was sure we had all the sides and condiments on the table, she handed me a cookie sheet of hand-pressed burgers and half a package of jumbo wieners. “I guess we better start cooking,” she said.
“I left the grill on,” I said. “It’s ready.”
“Should I oil it?” she asked.
“Well, we do. Actually, we use non-stick cooking spray, but you can’t do that when the grill is already hot. Just put some on a paper towel.”
She came back with three paper towels greased with olive oil. I gave each a swipe across the rack and placed the meat.
“Just make sure it’s real done,” Aunt Elois said. “I like mine almost burnt.”
I can probably do that, I thought.
Dad and Uncle Frank, both retired ministers, argued over who would ask the blessing. “No, you do it,” Dad said.
“I think I did it last time,” Uncle Frank answered.
“Well, do it again,” Dad answered.
“Our gracious Heavenly Father,” Frank began.
The hamburgers were good. The old folks ate, told stories I’ve heard at least fifty times, and talked about their vegetable gardens, Aunt Elois’s update of the patio (hence, the new grill), the neighbors’ dog that ate Aunt Bessie’s daylilies, and Mom’s ordeal with her clogged carotids. None of them had heard about the hit-and-run wreck I had after the last Blair gathering, an event that proved to be much more amusing to me than to any of them.
Aunt Bessie had to tell the best tale-of-the-day twice since Dad and Uncle Frank didn’t hear the first time.
Bessie works for Jackson Hewitt, the income tax preparation people. At the end of every tax season, the local office throws a big party. Bessie said she knew better than to go this year but she went anyway. The last time she went to a Jackson Hewitt party, the town flooded and all the tax people had to be evacuated from the public square through several feet of water, Aunt Bessie proving the most difficult evacuee. She doesn’t swim.
This time, on the way to a fancy dinner in Nashville, the Humvee limousine driver hit his brakes to avoid hitting a car that suddenly pulled into his path and the brakes locked up. That wasn’t all that happened, but who knew at the time. The driver told the jam-packed employees that he did not feel the brakes were safe so he was going to take them back to the office and he would send another limo for them.
Just about four blocks before the square, two young guys in a pickup waved and yelled enough to convince the driver to pull over. When he stopped, one of the boys ran over and started yanking doors open. “Get out!” he said. “It’s on fire.”
“Fire?” Aunt Bessie said. “I don’t see any fire.” And she didn’t until she allowed him to take her hand to ease her down to the ground and escort her to the front of the Humvee. She was the last to leave the vehicle. Not only was it lit up like a giant chimnea, but a most curious positioning of the left front wheel confirmed a broken axel.
The rest of the story had this posse of Jackson Hewitt people encountering police, walking from one site to the other, and being treated to a very cramped bus ride instead of another limo, Humvee or otherwise. Bessie said at least it gave them some interesting dinner conversation but nobody much wanted to talk given that dinner was two hours later than the reservation.
Dad’s question, “What is so funny over there?” prompted Frank to echo, “Yeah. What’s so funny? Tell us, too.” Version 2 began.
I served the desserts we left in the kitchen; Aunt Bessie’s chocolate pie, a purchased pecan pie, and strawberry shortcake. I loaded the plates onto a cookie sheet and brought Mom and Bessie some pie, both kinds of pie with ice cream for Dad and Frank, and some of all three for Aunt Elois.
She came to the kitchen as I was making the last trip in with the dessert dishes and food.
“Now, don’t you touch a one of those dishes. I have all afternoon to do nothing but fool with this.”
I complied and we got home before five, that hour of the day that we call cocktail hour whether cocktails are involved or not.
“Coming over?” Mom asked.
“I’m not sure. I need to make dessert for our Mother’s Day dinner.”
“What are you making?” she asked.
“Lemon bars. And maybe one other thing.”
“I like lemon bars,” she said.
I missed cocktail hour but, instead of baking, I opted for pressure-washing. There was a short window of cooking time on Sunday—no porch-sitting on Sunday morning.
Our Mother’s Day was a quiet affair; just us and our hosts, John, Vicky, Jameson and Carly. Vicky kept her promise not to cook much and served salads and fresh-baked croissants from Whole Foods. Just right. It was just right.
Mom and I got to take Vicky’s lavender and white rose arrangements home with us, and we each now have our own heifer somewhere, cared for by someone who needs it. The heifers join our pigs and goats and chickens from Heifer International. Vicky said she resisted any urge to write on the card, “Heifers for the heifers.”
When Dad started snoring, it was time to leave.
In the van, Mom announced, “I feel rich. I got my Kindle and flowers and a heifer. Rich. I’m just rich.”
She turned to me as she and Dad made their way through their garage to the lift. “I’m worn out, but we had one more Mother’s Day, didn’t we?”
Yep, we did. And that is why I’m still sitting on the porch, listening to bird calls. The pressure-washing is finished. The ironing and sewing will wait.