My trainer, Andrew Johnston of Triumph Training, is a smart man. I don’t like to admit to laziness, but I will admit that when Andrew tells me I should or should not be eating something, I don’t bother to check the research. This is because if Andrew says it, he has already read the research and understood it. So call it laziness if you will, but I see listening to Andrew as simply a huge timesaver.
Yesterday, he posted this little gem on his Facebook page: “Food sensitivities? Adding gelatin will help heal the gut and often eliminate or improve reactions when the offending food is eaten.”
I immediately thought about my grandmother, who died nearly thirteen years ago after an excruciating bout with pancreatic cancer. One of her favorite sayings was, “I like (insert food item here), but it doesn’t like me.” The list of foods that she inserted into that blank space was rather lengthy. Grandmom had a funky stomach for all the years I knew her. Jell-O was one food Grandmom loved that unfailingly loved her in return. It never dawned on me back then that she knew something we didn’t know about J-E-L-L-O.
I always thought her love for that wiggly, jiggly dessert had something to do with growing up during the Great Depression. For some reason, I’d assumed that it had been invented around that time. Actually, powdered gelatin was patented in 1845 by a guy named Peter Cooper, who also built the first steam-powered locomotive. In 1897, a cough syrup manufacturer named Pearle Bixby Wait trademarked a gelatin dessert named Jell-O. He sold the brand to Orator Woodward, who began advertising it in magazines as “America’s Most Famous Dessert.” In a stroke of marketing brilliance, Woodward printed Jell-O cookbooks and sent salesmen out with free copies. By 1930, the congealed salad was in vogue, a trend that would last well into the 1950s.
A couple of years ago, a friend of mine ran across an old copy of a Jell-O cookbook. We laughed at some of the elaborate congealed salads in the book, and I actually gagged at a few. One had green olives in it. Another had celery and tomato juice. Neither of those had vodka, which might have made them okay.
I’ve lived long enough to see some things that were in style when I was a kid coming back. Apparently, congealed salads and those elaborate Tupperware molds are one of those things. Southern Living magazine’s March 2014 issue devoted eight pages to those wriggling wonders. I can’t help but think that once the mainstream media begins touting the health benefits of gelatin, a new Jell-O cookbook and some fancy molds will pop up in the grocery stores.
Before you run out to the Picadilly for some red Jell-O thinking you’re eating healthy, please understand that Andrew would cringe at the idea of ingesting red dye #40. In fact, he would probably be able to spout off six good reasons you shouldn’t use cherry Jell-O to dye your hair (yes, it’s a thing; my twin nieces have done it). He’s talking about making your own by cooking bones. Or if you can’t stomach the thought of that, Great Lakes Gelatin will sell it to you in powdered form.
Grandmom died twelve days after being diagnosed with that mean cancer. During the awful days and weeks just before her diagnosis, we begged and pleaded with her to eat. One day, she said that she thought she could eat some red Jell-O. Someone in my family rushed to the grocery store and bought several packages of cherry-flavored Jell-O cups.
She wouldn’t touch them. Shaking her head, she said no, not cherry. She could only eat strawberry.
I went to the Publix by my house looking for strawberry-flavored Jell-O cups. They didn’t have any, but they did have the powdered stuff in strawberry, so I bought a few boxes and went home to make strawberry Jell-O, thinking she would never know the difference.
My Grandmom, it turns out, was a sort of Jell-O sommelier. She did know the difference. She ate the strawberry Jell-O, and I like to think it made her feel better for a few brief moments.
After she died, my grandfather asked my sister and me to come help him clean out his attic. We went through several of Grandmom’s old cookbooks that day. They were hilarious. Next to a recipe she’d tried and liked, she would write: “Good.” Just as often, the note next to a recipe would say, “Not good.” Or, as she was often quoted as saying aloud, “Not fit to eat.”
During the late 1970s, the ladies in our church published a cookbook titled Our Daily Bread to raise funds for a missionary. Sadly, Grandmom is only one of several contributors who has since passed away. I have a copy of that cookbook, and I still use it on occasion. I flipped to the salad section today just to see how many recipes for congealed salad are printed in its pages (there are 21), and I came across Grandmom’s favorite recipe. Because it would make her giggle, I raise a Jell-O shot (lime with tequila, of course) in her memory as I pass along her recipe, even though Concord grape is a discontinued flavor, and despite the fact that regular grape Jell-O contains both red dye #40 and Blue #1.
The recipe, as submitted by Glennis Adams:
2-3 oz. Concord grape Jell-O
2 cups boiling water
1 large can pineapple, drained
1 can blueberry pie filling
Dissolve Jell-O in boiling water and add pie filling and pineapple. Let congeal in refrigerator.
8 oz. cream cheese
½ pint sour cream
½ cup sugar
½ cup chopped pecans
1 tsp. vanilla
Mix and put on top of congealed salad.
Cats lost their ambassador to dog people this week, and I lost a good friend. Degas was a Siamese who lived across the street. I’d never much liked cats until Degas came along, and now that old cat has broken my heart.
He introduced himself years ago. Long before I moved to Florida, I came for a weekend visit and was walking off the beach with my mom one morning when this skinny Siamese walked up and started making pitiful noises. “Oh, you poor thing!” I said. “You’re hungry.”
Mom started laughing. “That’s Degas. He makes rounds in the neighborhood begging for food.”
As it turned out, Degas lived directly across the street from the house I eventually bought. I must have made a good impression when we first met because when I bought my house, he began coming over every morning around nine, scooting under my front gate and standing at my door meowing until I let him in. He never stayed more than an hour, and his visits were always the same: Degas following me around the house, sitting on my desk as I worked, and talking the entire time.
He didn’t meow. Degas had a guttural, growl-like “rowr,” its pitch, tone, and volume varying with his mood. He didn’t just make noise. Degas told stories.
I kept treats for him, but in the last few years, he seemed to lose interest in begging for food. Maybe it was because he didn’t have many teeth left. As often as not, he politely refused the treats. He was just stopping by to chat like old friends do.
I moved here permanently in 2010, and Degas was dismayed by the fact that I brought my dogs. I was afraid he would no longer be my friend, but he mostly forgave me. He occasionally came to my door when the dogs weren’t in the yard, but he started spending his days in the alley behind my house. He made friends with the neighbor across the alley, Earl, and liked to stand in the driveway and tell Earl how to wash his car or prune his oleanders. When I walked down the alley – on my way to the beach or mailbox or simply taking the trash can to the street – Degas found me, and we’d tell one another about our day. Sometimes he bitched at me for having dogs, but mostly, I scratched his head while we exchanged pleasantries.
I was friendly with his owners, Katy and Margaret, two middle-aged women who are cousins. They often voiced their concerns about Degas roaming the neighborhood during the day, but Katy said to me more than once, “He’s miserable when we try to keep him in the house. He loves visiting everyone, and people love him. We worry about him, but what can we do?” I told Degas he reminded me of the old Cole Porter song: Give me land, lots of land, and the starry skies above, don’t fence me in.
In late February, I was standing in my kitchen, and I heard Degas. I went to the door, but he wasn’t on my front porch. He was standing at the door to his house begging to go inside, and his begging was loud enough that I could hear him all the way across the street. The day was cold and windy, and it was beginning to rain. He sounded pitiful. It was so out of character that it scared me. I called Margaret and Katy. They didn’t answer, so I walked across the street, planning to take the poor guy home with me and get him warm. I rang the doorbell. When no one answered, I reached down to pick him up, and I spotted something in the flower pot by the front door — half of a key sticking out from under a rock. I grabbed the key and tried the deadbolt. The door opened, and Degas sprinted inside.
I’m sure Katy and Margaret were surprised to find Degas inside when they came home from work. I fully intended to tell the ladies what happened, but I didn’t see them for several days, and then I forgot about it.
There was an accident this week, and we lost Degas. Despite the fact that we all watched carefully for him when driving down the alley, no one realized that he couldn’t hear our neighbors’ new electric car coming. He walked in front of that car at a bend in the alley where they couldn’t have seen him.
Later that afternoon, Katy and I talked about how much Degas was loved and how she and Margaret had decided that loving him meant letting him be outside. Yet that choice made it impossible to protect him. “He never wanted to be inside,” she said, crying, and it occurred to me that I should tell her how, just a few weeks ago, he had begged to be inside. But it would have made her sadder, I decided, so I said nothing.
I think they’d prefer the legend. And being the great storyteller he was, I think Degas would prefer it, too.
Send me off forever, but I ask you please, don’t fence me in.
This week, Oscar winner Gwyneth Paltrow and her rockstar husband, Chris Martin, announced that they are divorcing. Excuse me – that’s incorrect. They called their decision to dissolve their marriage “conscious uncoupling.”
These are the same people who named a kid “Apple,” so it’s not shocking. But call it what you will, Gwynnie, it’s still a dee-vorce.
Have you noticed how many euphemisms we throw around on a daily basis? What was the plain old dog pound when I was growing up became “animal control.” Now it’s “animal care and protective services.” Getting fired is now a “workforce imbalance correction.” And being “intensely convivial” is an upgrade from “three sheets to the wind,” which really means being so drunk you couldn’t pronounce any of those words correctly.
Several years ago, I got off of the Rockin’ Rollercoaster at Disneyworld and almost stepped in a protein spill. That’s what the Disney princesses call vomit.
Euphemisms are a way of softening words so they don’t sound as bad as they really are. We do it all the time – people “pass away” rather than die. We “put down” a beloved pet. The toilet is called a “restroom.”
When I was a kid, the waste treatment plant (there’s another one!) in the county where I lived began taking human waste (okay, poop) and turning it into small pellets that could be used as fertilizer. It was called sludge, and it was free to anyone willing to go get it. My dad did, and it’s a long story, but it might or might not have led to my own conscious non-coupling many years later. You can read about that here.
These days, that sludge has been renamed. Now called “bisolids,” those pellets are no longer free. A bag of GroCo, a mixture of sawdust and Washington State biosolids called “Loop,” costs around $5. A dump truck load large enough to spread that product one inch deep over an acre would cost over $4,000. Do you see what they did there? They renamed it, and people were willing to pay for it. That human excrement began flying off the shelves.
I’m not sure people are buying what Gwyneth Paltrow is selling, though. It feels like her renaming of divorce makes her just a little bit better than the rest of us dee-vor-cees, doesn’t it? It’s as if divorcing is for the unaware and unenlightened. When you have your shit together, as she so obviously does, it becomes “conscious uncoupling.”
And she wonders why she couldn’t get elected if she ran for animal containment official.
The people who owned my house before I bought it had the ridiculous notion that if one of something is a good thing, ten of that thing is even better. While that logic might be true with, say, jelly beans or dollars, it does not extrapolate to things like children, time in a tanning bed, or smoke detectors.
My house, when I purchased it, had eight – eight! – smoke detectors on the upper level alone. Before I moved to St. Augustine full time, it seemed that every time I came to stay, a smoke detector would decide in the middle of the night that its battery was running low. Do you know how frustrating it is trying to figure out which alarm has the dead battery when there are four smoke detectors in one hallway and the shrieks are two minutes apart? For years, I despised the previous owners. I couldn’t understand that level of paranoia. Were they worried about their three-year-old son smoking in bed? But this week, I think I know what happened.
My son is home for Spring Break, and yesterday, I spent the day in Cocoa Beach signing books. He called me around lunchtime to say that Pancho, our three-legged Australian shepherd, was acting strange. One of the smoke detectors in the upstairs hallway (there are only three in that hallway now because I successfully disabled one of them) was shrieking because its battery was low, and Pancho apparently thought those noises meant the world was ending.
I told my son to look in the kitchen drawer for a 9-volt battery, but when I got home four hours later, he wasn’t home, Pancho was outside, and the smoke detector was still making noise. I changed the battery and then tried to bring Pancho inside, but he refused. It took a bag of Lay’s Kettle Chips to lure him back into the house. (Incidentally, the dachshunds, who bark at the pool when the pump turns on and the water begins to move, were unbothered by the severe shrieks coming from the smoke detector).
I told the story to my parents at breakfast, and my dad said that the same thing happened at their house last week. My mom was at a neighbor’s, and her dog, Bambi, the corpulent Chihuahua, began to tremble and started cowering behind the sofa in fear. “I couldn’t hear the noise,” he said, “So I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with her.”
Did you catch that? My dad COULDN’T HEAR the equivalent of thirty-three middle school girls catching a glimpse of Justin Bieber.
Two years ago, we went to see the Beach Boys’ 50th anniversary concert. The only two people in the whole amphitheater not standing and singing along were my dad and a guy tethered to a wheel chair by an oxygen tank. Dad was sitting with his hands behind his ears trying to make out the words.
After hearing Dad’s story, I decided to be kinder to my home’s previous owners. Obviously, they went overboard installing smoke detectors because someone in the house was nearly deaf.
My daughter is graduating from New York University at the end of May. The ceremony will be held in Yankee Stadium, and Martin Scorsese is to be the commencement speaker. We’ve all told my dad he’s not allowed to go on the trip unless he gets a hearing aid, but his response is much like the lines to a Jimmy Buffett song – “losing his hearing, but he don’t care what most people say.”* He just shrugs and says he doesn’t miss much by not being able to hear.
But this is different. Doesn’t he want to hear Martin Scorsese’s words of wisdom to the graduating class? Or the conversation during our family’s celebration dinner? If not that, surely he wants to be able to follow along when we all go to a Broadway show. Hell, at this point, I’d just be glad for him to hear the fireworks at the NYU graduation.
The problem is that he is as likely to get a hearing aid as a teenage boy is to change the battery in a smoke detector. So please do me a favor. If you think my dad should get a hearing aid before our trip to New York, would you leave a comment below encouraging him to do that?
If he won’t, we’ll have to spend the hearing aid money installing nine new smoke detectors in their house.
*From “He Went to Paris”
I walked into my parents’ house the other night, and, like every other time I walk through the door, my mom’s Chihuahua began simultaneously growling and trembling.
Bambi weighs 11 ½ pounds. She’s an obese Chihuahua with a stripper name, and she’s also highly conflicted. Bambi loves me because I am, after all, the one who plucked her from a shelter and set her into the loving arms of my mother, whom she adores. But she also despises me because I often have Pancho, my three-legged Australian shepherd, with me, and she hates Pancho.
On this particular night, Pancho wasn’t with me. And when Bambi started to growl, my mother got in her face and yelled, “BAH!”
The dog immediately stopped growling. Then she retreated to her blanket. And any time she stood up, my mom looked over, repeated the word “Bah,” and the dog instantly lay back down. It was a miracle.
I went home and Googled “BAH!” Apparently, it’s part of the BarkBuster dog training program, a way to establish yourself as the Alpha dog and command obedience from your dog.
I looked for a YouTube video, but when my dachshunds, Laverne and Shirley, heard other dogs, they began barking.
I decided to go for it. “BAH!” Shocked, they stopped barking. Then they started again.
This time, they were not impressed. Also, I’d disturbed their rest, so Shirley jumped off her perch atop the back of my sofa. She began to wander around looking for a spot to pee, even though she’d been outside just ten minutes earlier.
“BAH!” I yelled as she squatted on my rug. She looked me in the eye and proceeded to pee.
“BAH! BAH! BAH!” I continued yelling as I scooped her up and put her outside. Then she watched through the glass on the door as I blotted the mess with a paper towel and then poured salt on it to soak up what remained.
I’ve never been able to housetrain a dachshund. It’s not because they’re dumb. It’s because they don’t care to go to the potty outside. In the house is easier. The house is warmer and drier, and there’s no grass to tickle their ass.
Call me lazy, but I decided it’s just easier to replace a rug once a year than try to train a dachshund. And I defy anyone to convince me otherwise. In my lifetime, I’ve had about fifteen dachshunds as pets, and to date, I’m 0-15 when it comes to training a dachshund not to pee in the house.
To “Bah” I say “Humbug.” It’s aversion therapy, and it just doesn’t work on dachshunds.
On the other hand, I can bribe dachshunds to do just about anything short of standing on their heads by offering them fried eggs. I just don’t have the time to fry an egg every time they need to pee.
Today is Sunday, and in honor of the Lord’s Day, I offer my version of the Doxology, written for Laverne and Shirley:
Praise eggs, from which all blessings flow
Praise omelets, all creatures here below
Praise cheese scrambles, ye heavenly host
And serve them with a side of toast.
In the late 1980s, before I had kids, I stopped at a little convenience store in Morrow, Georgia, every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday on my way to work to buy a copy of the Atlanta Constitution (it was the morning paper, and the Journal was the evening paper until the two combined in 2001). I bought the Constitution those three days of the week because those were the days Lewis Grizzard’s column appeared in the paper.
The man behind the cash register in that convenience store was an older guy who often had a friend or two standing around drinking coffee and chatting with him when I walked in. One morning, I was driving my father-in-law’s new Mercedes convertible, a tremendous upgrade from my Honda Accord. He nodded out to the car and said, “You upped your game,” and I could tell he was trying to put the story together.
“My father-in-law loaned it to me for the day,” I explained.
He nodded and said, “That car probably cost more than my house.”
“Mine, too,” I said, mostly because I didn’t know what else to say.
I still think about that guy when I read old Lewis Grizzard columns. I think about how, back when I was paying fifty cents to read those columns, I was a newlywed. How I laughed lines like these, never once thinking I’d someday feel the same way:
“One reason I like weddings so much is that they remind me of baseball teams in spring training. Everybody is a threat to hit .400 or win twenty games. Happiness is within reach. Nobody is thinking about dropped fly balls or bad bounces.
“Eight months later, however, somebody is inevitable in last place, and the idyllic vision of spring looks like a cigarette butt floating in a day-old cup of coffee. I know. I’ve been there.”*
My marriage took a bad bounce, and I know deep down that Grizzard was funny because he hit on the truth.
I haven’t dated much since my divorce was final nearly seven years ago. I can say it was because I still had kids at home or because I’ve been too busy with school. But maybe the honest answer is that I’ve had too vivid a memory of marriage as something like that cigarette butt.
I went out with friends a few weeks ago. The woman is a friend from school, and she’s in a fairly new relationship with an older man who she says she is going to marry. He’s Irish and has lived an adventurous life. He spent the evening trying to figure out why I’m not seeing anyone. Finally, he looked at me over what was his third or fourth beer and said, “You need to get in the game.”
I was in Atlanta last week. On my way to visit my grandfather, I stopped at that same little convenience store where I’d picked up the paper nearly thirty years ago. My old friend, of course, has been gone a long time, and in his place stood a kindly older Indian gentleman. I slipped him a twenty for a copy of the paper and some lottery tickets. As he handed me the tickets, he smiled and said, “Now you’re in the game.”
Spring is approaching. And maybe, just maybe, I’m feeling that happiness is within reach.
*From Lewis Grizzard’s Advice to the Newlywed/Nearly Divorced, Atlanta: Longstreet, 1989, p. 7
Once upon a time, for about ten minutes, there was a beautiful princess. She lived with her family in a house under the Atlanta airport flight path. Her father pastored a church and kept bees on the side, which put him in perpetual danger of being stung for disturbing a hive.
As stated before, this princess felt pretty once. She was sixteen and prone to gazing into the mirror lovingly until her little brother or sister pounded on the bathroom door and demanded access. But one morning, she awoke to find her face covered in flesh-covered flat dots. They were the size of confetti quins used for decorating cupcakes.
“Flat warts,” Dr. Peng, the dermatologist, announced. “You kiss flat frog.” It was a statement and not a question.
He left the room, returning after a few minutes with a solution that he said would burn the warts off of her face. They should have been alarmed, the princess and her mother, by the word “burn.” But it was a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, a time when the princess still believed that doctors were infallible.
The medicine did burn away the flat warts. But it did so by causing huge blisters to appear on the princess’s beautiful face. The blisters oozed and itched, and the girl understood for the first time in her young life what was meant by the phrase “the treatment is worse than the cure.” When she looked into the mirror, what she saw was hideous, and she knew in her heart that God was punishing her for being so prideful in her appearance.
The warts that had been burned fell off, and the blisters gradually healed. But new warts grew in their place until her face was completely covered. Since there was no Internet to Google “remedy for flat warts,” all she had to consult was old wives and their tales. She sorted through stories of banana peels, raw potatoes, apple cider vinegar, and even duct tape being used to treat warts. Since couldn’t go to school with duct tape on her face, she opted for large doses of Vitamin A, a sensible-sounding folk cure for warts. Her mother, the queen, settled upon large doses of prayer.
One morning about three months after the first warts appeared, the princess woke and proceeded to the bathroom for her morning ablutions. She looked into the mirror and saw that the warts had completely disappeared from her face overnight. Just as quickly as they had appeared, they were gone. It was a miracle!
And for many years, the princess, believing her pride to be the source of the flat warts, was afraid to even wonder if she was pretty. It changed, however, when she had two daughters of her own. Seeing each for the first time, she understood that they were beautiful simply because they existed and that there was no shame in savoring their beauty.
That, and she finally Googled “flat warts” to find that one can catch them by kissing another person but not by looking in the mirror.
In the early morning hours of December 19, six days before Christmas, a makeshift raft washed up on the beach near my home. More specifically, the remnants of a homemade raft — large fiberglass cylinders, boards, and rope — made it to shore. My parents were walking the beach early that morning, and they saw the wreckage.
The fiberglass cylinders had the words “flotation device” printed on them. The boards had apparently been nailed across the top of the cylinders, and the whole thing was secured with rope. Given the size of the cylinders, my mom says, the raft was obviously built to carry several people.
The next day, the St. Augustine Police Department sent an email asking residents to look for, I guess, anyone resembling Tom Sawyer or Tom Hanks. Their description of the wreckage was sad: “There were a few pieces still partially lashed with a 100-yard debris trail.” The police lieutenant concluded, “. . . I can’t imagine there was anyone on the raft that safely made it to shore.”
The email didn’t give much more information. In fact, it raised more questions than it answered. One small article about the raft appeared in the local paper, and that, to me, is also sad. Surely those who built the raft and pushed away from shore left behind loved ones waiting to hear that they safely made landfall in Florida.
The police speculated that the raft hadn’t been in the water very long and had most likely floated up the Gulf Stream from the Bahamas. I wonder, though. Lashing together several “flotation devices” and trusting them to land you safely in a new life is essentially an act of desperation. It means that they were betting that the unknown was better than the unbearable. I’m not sure what’s so unbearable about Bimini. Then again, there are different definitions of desperation.
I can’t help wondering about the people who built this raft, then hopped aboard and pushed away from shore. What were they leaving behind? Where were they hoping to land?
Most likely, we’ll never know the answers. But I’ve come up with a few possibilities.
In his 2004 Skinny Dip, Florida novelist Carl Hiaasen has his protagonist, Joey Perrone, thrown over the side of a cruise ship by her cheating husband. She survives the fall and eventually washes up near Key Biscayne on a bale of marijuana. She keeps her survival a secret and spends the rest of the book haunting her husband.
Several packages of cocaine washed up on our beach a couple of months ago. The two cases are obviously not related, but I suppose there’s a possibility that the December rafters pushed off from the Bahamas with the intention of smuggling drugs into the States.
Speaking of smuggling, Huck Finn, Mark Twain’s youthful adventurer, spends a good portion of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on a raft trying to help an escaped slave, Jim, reach a free state. Huck Finn says, “It’s lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky, up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made, or only just happened. . . We used to watch the stars that fell, too, and see them streak down. Jim allowed they’d got spoiled and was hove out of the nest” (19.5).
Perhaps these recent rafters weren’t so much desperate to leave their home as they were fallen stars who had been thrown out of their nest.
Then there’s the explanation that resonates the most with me, that the rafters survived some sort of wreckage, and they floated along on something that would hopefully hold until help arrived. Remember the movie Titanic, and how passengers and crew are depicted floating on wreckage from the ship? I don’t mean there was a literal shipwreck in December. But perhaps the people who made the raft were using the ruins of their former lives to transport them to a new one.
In a way, that’s how I arrived in St. Augustine. I was fleeing the heartbreak of a broken marriage and ruined dreams, and there were days when I didn’t know if I would survive. For a couple of years, every time I drove down here from Atlanta, I brought something — dishes, pictures, small pieces of furniture – with me in my car. Then I sold the house in Atlanta, keeping only the things that had the most meaning for me. I used my family and friends as flotation devices, found a way to lash together the remnants of my former life, and held on tight. Thankfully, I landed in a new life that makes me very happy.
In one way or another, I suppose, we all eventually wash up on some new shore. We’re all refugees in the sense that life often involves leaving something behind in search of what’s better. The difference between sinking or floating often depends upon the quality of our flotation devices. It’s about how well we build something out of our wreckage that can keep our heads above water until we land on solid ground.
Last week, my kids were discussing a friend’s new romance and the couple’s substantial age difference. The girl is in her twenties, and the man is over forty. My son said, “He even looks older than you, Mom.”
He hastened to explain by saying, “I mean, I know how old you are, and he looks older than that.”
The conversation reminded me of how old forty seemed when I was in my twenties. I thought about how quickly I’d arrived at an age that not long ago seemed so old.
A few days later, I drove to Atlanta to spend some time with my Granddad, who’s nearly ninety-one. During my drive, I contemplated how old ninety seems and how, if I get there, I’ll most likely be shocked at how fast that happened. I even wondered how I’ll feel about my age when I’m closing in on the century mark.
I know how my granddad feels about his age. “I never thought I’d live this long after Glennis died,” he said to me on the first evening I spent with him. “I really don’t know why the Lord’s keeping me here.” He was sitting in his favorite chair, an orange corduroy lounger that he bought about the time I graduated from high school. His feet were propped up on a TV tray table to keep fluid from collecting in his legs, and he had a space heater on either side of him. We were watching reruns of The Waltons, the classic show set during the years my grandfather was a child and young adolescent.
My kids, by contrast, are in a hurry to get just a little bit older. They don’t want to be as old as I am, of course, but they all express an eagerness to get out of college and get on with their lives. I remember having those feelings, of thinking that my life would really begin when I got out of high school. Then it was when I graduated from college, which changed to when I got married. Looking back, I’m pretty sure life started for me when all of my kids were potty trained.
The next morning, I woke at seven and walked into a smoky kitchen. I was alarmed at first, but then I remembered The Great Gravy Debate. I remember my grandparents arguing the merits of Smith gravy versus Adams gravy. As long as Grandmom was alive, her family’s recipe for gravy won out. But now that she’s gone, the darker, slightly charred-tasting Adams gravy reigns supreme in Granddad Adams’s house. Adams gravy requires frying sausage patties on high heat. Once again, Granddad had everything under control.
But I was also concerned that he was even frying sausage because ten days’ earlier, I had ordered a VIP Gift Package from the Dillard House in North Georgia for him. Why wasn’t he frying the bacon or country ham I’d sent. My mom’s mom had called me to say she’d received hers, so I asked Granddad if he’d gotten a package.
“No,” he said, cracking a couple of eggs into the skillet.
“Then I’m going to light them up.” I pulled out my iPhone and sent a quick email to Dillard House customer service asking them to check on my order.
We sat down to eat, and he said the blessing. Then he looked at me kind of funny and said, “I wonder if it got delivered to the front porch.”
Granddad’s front porch is hidden from the street by a hedge of boxwoods that stand about four feet high. He enters and exits the house from the side door, so unless he’s looking for a package, he would never know if one had been delivered.
He stood up from the breakfast table, grabbed his walker, and made his way to the front door. I opened the blind covering the kitchen window and, looking to my left, saw two packages.
He was still struggling with the front door, so I stepped in to help. I pushed and pulled on the door, trying to turn the key stuck in the deadbolt lock, but I couldn’t budge it. Granddad took over again and finally managed to get the door open. I dragged the packages inside. He pulled out his pocketknife and opened a Styrofoam container with four Omaha steaks. The dry ice in the container was melted, and the steaks had thawed after a couple of sixty-degree December afternoons in Georgia. But Granddad laughed when I suggested they should be thrown out. “Naw, they’re still good,” he said.
I sent a second email to the Dillard House apologizing for my mistake while he unpacked the VIP Gift basket. The package was bigger than I’d expected it would be, and after breakfast, as we stood in his kitchen slicing that 16-pound country ham, Granddad asked me why I would send a person who lived alone a ham that size.
When we were finished, he held up the bone and said, “If my mama were here, she’d save this to cook with.” I asked him if he wanted me to put it in the freezer for him to use for soup. He chuckled and said, “No.”
It reminded me of all the times over the years when he would hear someone reminiscing about the past. Granddad would always stop the conversation by saying, “I remember ‘The Good Ole’ Days,’ and they weren’t so good. Now is better.”
Most likely, he didn’t want that hambone because it reminded him of the way people ate during the Great Depression. He’s not much interested in the past, I guess. Plus, he had four fine Omaha steaks in his freezer.
I thought about how we spend our lives looking back or looking ahead while, the whole time, we’re completely unaware of the treasure that’s already been delivered. All we have to do is open the door.
And I think we open the door when we remember that now is always better.
My three kids are spread out across the country. My older daughter is in Manhattan preparing to graduate from New York University. My second daughter studies neuroscience at the University of Colorado, and my son recently left for college in Tallahassee, Florida. This Thanksgiving Day, for the first time in several years, we will all be together, and for that, I am humbly thankful.
My kids called last Thursday to put in their orders for the feast. Their main concern is that there be no oysters in the dressing. Speaking of stuffing, they asked, will I even be able to make it, given that our family is gluten free? And this was the final mandate: Lauren, the neuroscientist, proposes activating some new neurons in my brain via the challenge of deep frying the turkey.
I promised oyster-free cornbread dressing, which is gluten free if one uses cornbread made without flour, which I believe is God’s original recipe for manna. And I roundly rejected the idea of frying the turkey because I don’t want to burn down my house.
Then they said something that made my ears sizzle. They said, “We’ve been talking about how we’re all so stressed at school that we can’t wait to come home and let Mom cook for us and just take care of us.”
My response to them was, “I’ve been working so hard lately that I was thinking you guys could come home and take care of me.”
The conversation took place while I was driving to Atlanta. My grandfather was in the hospital, and I was on my way to see what I could do to care for him. He’s nearly 91, and his doctors are predicting the imminent failure of a heart that’s endured the Great Depression, the horrors of liberating concentration camps at the end of World War Two, and the death of the woman he loved with every beat of that heart.
He was admitted to the hospital on Wednesday, and by noon on Thursday, when I walked into his room, the diuretics administered to flush out the fluid surrounding his heart had done miracles. He was already grumbling about getting out and going home. On Friday morning, I walked into his room at 7:15, and he was fully dressed and sitting in a chair that he had moved so he could face the door. He had pulled all the monitors off of his chest, and his packed bag was waiting on his bed.
I’d brought him breakfast, but he said, “I’m not hungry. I’m just ready to go home.” When I suggested that he might as well eat while he was waiting, he pulled the bed tray around to the chair and ate. Then, when his hospital breakfast arrived, he looked at the scrambled eggs, blueberry muffin, and fresh strawberries and said, “I’d better mess this up a little so they’ll think I ate.” He ate every bite of that second breakfast, and that’s when I knew for sure Granddad was back.
His cardiologist released him at nine that morning, but we still had to wait for his primary care physician to see him. By three, after repeated calls to the doctor that received no response, we decided the chances of a doctor showing up on a Friday afternoon or evening were not good.
When you’re on the backside of ninety years old, you don’t have time to waste watching afternoon television in a tiny hospital room with bad lighting. So my brother went to the nurses’ station and found a wheelchair. Granddad pulled the IV port out of his wrist, then settled into that chair, and we set the captive free. My brother noted that it was a break worthy of The Shawshank Redemption.
As I drove the getaway car north on Interstate 75, Granddad laughed about busting out of that hospital. Then he said, “I wish I wasn’t causing everyone so much trouble.”
The man fought in Germany and in the Pacific to protect us. He has fixed numerous washers, dryers, dishwashers and lawn mowers for the members of my family over the years. He bought me a piano when I was seven. He let my family live rent-free in his house when my husband was starting a business. And he took me to Shoney’s for hot fudge cakes when I was a kid just because he knew how much I loved them.
I told him it was no trouble, that I wanted to be there. He said, “I need to just go ahead and die. That would be better for everybody.”
“Not for me, it wouldn’t.” I could hardly get the words out because I was crying.
He let me collect myself, and then he said, “Well, I’m going to try to hold out until the Rapture, and then we can all go together.”
We got back to his house, and I made him a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of canned soup for dinner. He wouldn’t let me clean up the kitchen. After he had done the dishes and settled into his favorite chair, I told him I was going to eat dinner with a friend and that I would be back by nine.
When I walked into his house at nine, he was still sitting in that chair. He looked at his watch to confirm that I had made curfew and grinned. He told me he’d been watching a television evangelist who was predicting that the fourth blood moon, foretelling the return of Christ and end of the world, would take place in 2015. “I think I can hold on ‘til then,” Granddad said. And then he told me he was going to bed.
My kids are coming home for Thanksgiving hoping for good food and TLC. I can’t wait to dish both out because I know how good it feels to have someone take care of me.
But I draw the line at deep frying a turkey.