Cheap Trick

I’m about to have made four meals out of one chicken.

First there was the brined and roasted chicken, then leftovers from said chicken, then a chicken casserole, and then chicken soup. 

This makes me feel like we should be dressed in holey turtlenecks and singing “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” while we forage around in the root cellar looking for the best rutabaga. Those were heroic days and heroic people, though, and I don’t mean to mock them. 

I know thrift. It’s a place I visit pretty often but I don’t want to live there all the time. 

Still, I think the skills of thrift are valuable and I’m glad I have them. Making food last would be an obvious one, less obvious is the well-developed skill of foregoing, not buying something even though I can, because it is too expensive or I don’t really need it. What I have found is that the wanting is often so slim and transitory that I barely feel deprived.

I frequently used the response that “we can’t afford it” when one of my kids asked for something even though we almost always could. I just wanted them to have that in their heads, that question, ‘can I afford that?’ I don’t know if it worked, I try not to talk about money with my kids, they work hard, what they do with their money is their business. As mine is mine.

Years ago, I teased a friend about how his mother, who was quite well-off, would turn an old dish soap bottle upside down so it could drip its last drops into a new bottle. “Your mother’s rich, why would she do that?” “How do you think she got rich?” was the reply.

Of course, as off-hand comments often do, this made me think – about dish soap, maple syrup, ketchup, and a million other opportunities for impatience and carelessness because ultimately wasting food and things is about those two things – impatience and carelessness. And indulgence, which is something I prize but not about ketchup. I’d always rather have a new bottle of ketchup than the dregs of an old one. But I turn it upside down and let it drip. Or, more honestly, my husband does. He is the thrifty coach in our lives.

The casserole and the soup make me feel like I could get through tough times (well, I have gotten through tough times but not for a long while), that I haven’t strayed so far from my roots of potato soup and boiled beef heart, and that I could slap on the flannel shirt and soldier through catastrophe with the best of them. And I like that. Even if it is ridiculous. I will need more than a chicken to survive the Apocalypse.





For the Love of Leon

I’ve taken to wearing a hat indoors.

It’s part of my ruggedness wear. You know, how Stitch Fix sends you snazzy, coordinated tops and shoes and accessories? I don’t have that. I have two boxes in the downstairs closet with a remarkable array of souvenir hats and hats no fool would wear.

One of them is a black felt winter baseball cap with earflaps like Elmer Fudd used to wear but not plaid. Elmer’s was plaid and he would wear it when he went wabbit hunting. “Shh. Be vewy, vewy quiet. I’m hunting wabbits.”

I wore my black Elmer Fudd hat for years until I caught a serious look at myself in the mirror and was just utterly chagrined at the sight. It was hideous but it felt cozy, that hat, sweet like Elmer because even though he was armed he never really hurt anybody. But the mirror caused a reckoning that resulted in my EF hat being shifted to the bottommost layer of hats no fool would wear.

For weeks in Milwaukee, we have had snow alternating with a polar vortex and freezing rain. I have shoveled a lot, I actually like shoveling snow but as I read about younger people keeling over from shoveling I feel like I should scale back. The other day, my doctor asked me if I’d had any chest pains when I shoveled and I told her, no, I try to stop just before the chest pains start. It’s a joke, don’t come running.

A few days ago I was driving by our house when I saw a man with a shovel over his shoulder. I convinced him to shovel our driveway for a ridiculous amount of money. He shoveled in long strips, stopping every few minutes to lean with both hands on his shovel. Maybe his doctor told him to do that. But he was done in a quarter of the time it would have taken me and he lived through it. After I paid him and I was walking down the street to our truck, he yelled at me. “Leon,” he said, “My name is Leon.”

I love Leon. I prayed for him to come back today and he did, this time charging me somewhat less because the snow wasn’t as heavy or deep as before. I paid him happily and briefly considered offering him room and board if he would just stay through winter and shovel. Last night, I watched two trucks pull up to my neighbor’s across the street. One truck plowed their driveway and four other men snow-blowed their sidewalks. I just prayed for Leon.

Unbelievably, we are going to Alaska next week. But somehow the snow there seems exotic and thrilling, not endless and overwhelming like here. To prepare, we have watched several episodes of Ice Road Truckers which is weirdly gripping and somewhat skill-building. In the last episode, two semi-trucks carrying enormous loads drove across a frozen lake with the second semi-truck driver radioing the first that she saw new cracks in the ice developing as he drove his rig to the shore. She was still behind him when she said this.

I’m not a sissy, not about snow anyway, so I am prepared for Alaska although I do sort of wish that Leon was coming along. Just in case.

Prepare a Place for Me

There was only one reason why my father would be calling me. My mother must be dead.

He explained how it happened, how just last week he had given up taking care of her at home, that for the third time, she’d gone limp in the bathtub and he’d had to call the fire department to come lift her and take her to the cherry wood bed they’d bought as newlyweds 64 years before.

He apologized to me. If he hadn’t been holding their ancient wall phone, he would have been wringing his hands. She had only lived a week in the Alzheimer’s Unit and he had visited every night, he said, taking tapes of the music he thought she would remember and playing it on the old Press Play tape player they kept in the basement.

He was sure she still knew him. He told me how she had kissed his hands when they last said goodbye. She had taken both of his hands in hers and kissed his hands. I couldn’t imagine it. It was my mother whose hands would be kissed. It was my mother’s impossibly soft cheek and the smell of her face powder and English Lavender soap that drew us to her seeking the blessing of kissing her. Alzheimer’s had changed a lot about her.

The realization that I was, temporarily at least, sibling in charge, hit me hard after I got through Chicago traffic and on to the smooth raceway across western Michigan that is I-96, mile after mile of rolling countryside with no interruptions except the tiny roadside wineries giving away free shots to interstate drivers. I found every possible reason to delay. I sampled the wine, hunted for snacks at massive trucks stops, and even pulled over to check the old Michigan map to make sure I hadn’t suddenly forgotten how to drive home.

What was I thinking being the first responder on the scene of a catastrophe? That was my brother’s job. I stalled as long as I could, going the speed limit and not a mile faster, but eventually, I made it to my folks’ driveway and, within thirty seconds, my dad was standing at the screen door.

“Thanks for coming, Janice,” he said, like I was the last guest to leave a dull party. To add to the oddness of the night, my father than hugged me. I was 53. My father must have hugged me before this night but I don’t remember it ever happening. So when my father hugged me, I told him I needed to go to the drugstore right away.

“What do you need? We probably have whatever you need here,” he said.

“I need to buy make-up, Dad. I left home without my make-up. So I need to go the drugstore and buy stuff, you know, like mascara,” I answered.

Barely having put my keys down on the table, I grabbed them back up and started toward the door. “I’ll be back in 15 minutes.” As I walked out the door, I heard the familiar screech as he pulled the level to bring up the footrest on his La-Z-Boy rocker. He was sitting in his chair where he belonged, I thought. In a minute, he’ll turn the TV on and resume watching CNN with the sound muted and then he’ll pick up the book on top of the stack next to his chair and start reading where he left off when he’d heard my car in the driveway. I knew exactly what he was doing. I felt relieved that he was doing what he always did. He wasn’t crying or hugging me. He was being himself.

The drug store had that fluorescent weird feeling that all stores have when it’s eleven o’clock at night and no one is there except the girl working the check-out and the guy in back restocking the Fritos. I walked up and down the cosmetics department. L’Oreal, Maybelline, Max Factor. I got stuck at Maybelline a long minute looking at the mascara and wondering if they still made the little red plastic boxes with the tiny brush and bar of dark color that required a little squirt of spit to moisten. I remembered the little box in the right hand drawer of the cherry wood vanity, sitting atop an embroidered guest towel that my mother used as a drawer liner, and next to the mascara box was the eyebrow pencil she used on her beautiful, business-like eyebrows, and, sometimes, to give herself a beauty mark low on her right cheek.

In the evenings, she would sit at her vanity table with the small lamp casting a yellow light in the darkness of her room, a place so serene and cool and off-limits, and she would paint her nails red leaving perfectly lined half-moons. She was as ephemeral a person as ever lived on this earth and she was not going to be there when I went home. Was she?

We talked about my mother’s funeral. “Whatever you think is right, Dad,” I kept answering whenever he asked what to do. Should we have a graveside service or a full-fledged funeral? My father, once practiced at snap and sometimes life-changing decision-making, was clearly stuck. For the first time in his 88 years, he was indecisive.

“John thinks we should just go with the graveside service. Not that many people would come to a service at the funeral home. Do you think that’s right?” He had just hung up the phone after the third or fourth phone conversation about this topic with my brother, stuck in bad weather across the country.

“I think that’s fine, Dad.” I didn’t really think it was fine. My mother deserved the whole funeral shebang. Plenty of people knew her and liked her. I didn’t want anything about her funeral being quick or cheap. I held my tongue. I had been estranged from my parents for ten years until just a year ago. It wasn’t my place, I thought, to have an opinion.

We picked out a casket together and the clothes that my mother would wear. I took off my pearl earrings and asked the funeral director to put them on my mother along with the locket my dad had given her 65 years before when they were engaged. Later, I drove back to the funeral home to make sure they knew to curl my mother’s hair. In her Alzheimer’s fog, she had taken to wearing a baseball cap over her straight hair. My father may have remembered her curled hair but he couldn’t do anything about it.

Dozens of people came to her wake. My father stood in the center of the large room, my mother lying in her open casket off to the side, and he talked to everyone as if he was hosting a cocktail party. He talked about golf and bowling, two things they had done together. He greeted former employees from their Ben Franklin store and listened to their stories about how wonderful and kind my mother had been to them. He looked toward the door every few minutes to see if my brother was there. But he never showed, still stuck in bad weather in Oregon.

I prepared for my brother not being there the next day when we would follow the hearse 90 miles to her hometown and bury her next to her parents on a hill in the cemetery where, during our estrangement, I had seen their headstones already in place, waiting for them.

That night I searched the house for a Bible, looking for the verse that had the words, “Let not your heart be troubled.” My mother said this to me, so many times, but her version was “Let not your heart be troubled, Bunky.” And so I endeavored to find this passage in the Bible with the idea of reading it (without the Bunky part) at the graveside the next morning. I wanted someone who knew my mother to say something at her burial, not just the pastor at the church in her hometown who she didn’t actually know. I could do this, I thought. I can be the child who does this for her mother.

I found the Bible on the bookshelf in the TV room, the inside inscription with my brother’s name. Of course. Late that night, my brother arrived. We set out the next morning from the funeral home, driving in a tiny caravan to the cemetery where I sat on a folding chair next to my father holding the Bible with the passage marked. I said to myself, over and over, “Let not your heart be troubled. Let not your heart be troubled. Let not your heart be troubled.” And I held on to the Bible with both hands.

At the end of the service, I stood up, walked across the grassy hill and handed the Bible to my brother, “This is yours, John.”

Janice Wilberg
Prepare a Place for Me
Precipice, The Literary Anthology of Write on Edge, 2012

Deep Winter Friday Round-Up

I can’t be in a clinical trial because I have a magnet in my head. I wrote about this a few days ago – being offered the opportunity to be in a research project testing the efficacy of an Alzheimer’s prevention drug. But regular MRI’s are part of the research design and because there is a magnet in my head that attaches to the magnet on my cochlear implant receiver, my head would blow up. So that’s the end of my lab rat career.

I decided not to find out if I have the dreaded Alzheimer’s gene. It’s knowable without much effort but it seems ill-advised to me, like buying a cemetery plot and having picnics there all the time, afraid to wander too far from the plot, you know, lest I get lost and can’t find my way back to my final resting place. Too bleak, in other words.

It is a terrible thing that it’s possible to continue a conversation while the TV news is talking about another mass shooting. How is it possible that we could become so inured to violence that the murder of five people becomes background noise? I feel it a moral duty to be outraged each time and not let such horror become pedestrian but I know I am failing. It’s sickening.

Ernest Hemingway’s advice to “write one true sentence” is the best writer’s advice ever given. Just say the first absolutely true thing and go from there. Don’t equivocate, preface, or hedge. Or apologize. Don’t hide your light under a bushel basket, my mother would say, oh, no, put your sentence on a platter like a fine smoked salmon that you bought against your better judgment.

Yearnings are just that. Sometimes they aren’t meant to become reality because if they became reality they would become pedestrian, common, and without the glow of the possible. It’s what’s possible that keeps us alive.

Valentine’s Day 2019

Love isn’t a mystery.

Loyalty, resiliency, and kindness are mysteries. And humor. Humor is definitely a mystery. And a gift.

I have been in love with many people who weren’t funny. They were thrilling at first but ultimately gave me a headache.

If two people are in love they will be happy for a while. If one or both of them is funny, they will soldier through the giant snow drift of life like it is fresh popcorn waiting to be eaten.

I know this to be true from laughing with my husband in emergency rooms and other places where people are silent or crying.

We would leave the hospital’s circle drive to have a milkshake, one thinking the other would be cheered by the chocolate, and it reminds us of times in the summer leaning against the car with the big neon sign giving our faces a slight blue hue and how we joked about coming there with all the other people who had no other place they’d rather be.

Writing Therapy

They didn’t “fall in love” with it. That’s what the editors at the famous journal told me in an email about my essay “The Fall.

So I right away started making plans for submitting it to the next tier of journals. Simultaneous submission it’s called, meaning I could send it to a dozen places at the same time and wait to see which, if any, said yes.

I’ve been trying to ramp up my writing life, get out of the minor leagues, no, out of little league, and submitting is a big part of that. You know, the 100 rejections challenge – if you don’t get 100 rejections a year, you’re not trying hard enough.

It was on my way to the bathroom, though, that it hit me. “Fuck it,” I thought, I don’t have time to wait for somebody to fall in love with my essay. It’s like sitting in a metal rowboat in the hot sun watching a single bobber sitting perfectly still atop the water. If there were fish down there, the bobber would be moving. You know that and I know that but yet we sit and watch the red and white bobber just existing as if it wasn’t complete and utter folly to think a giant pike is circling below. There is no pike. That is the truth.

So, no, I’m not going to let my weird little essay with its aging angst get the side eye for months while I sit here in my metal rowboat and wait like the world’s dumbest fisherman. I’m 70. I could be dead and buried before somebody falls in love with a piece so odd, so reeking of melancholy and envy, and agedness, especially that. Or not, I don’t know. I could be completely wrong. It sometimes happens.

I decided to give “The Fall” a home right here, share it with people who would understand the point, appreciate this peculiar and rich time of life, and I wasn’t disappointed in the response. It was lovely.

My ambivalence about ‘being published’ remains. Minutes after I swore off the hunt, someone sent me a notice about an upcoming anthology. What is it, I wonder, that is so alluring about being published. I had a piece, a beloved piece that took a dozen revisions to get right, that was published last year in a book that sits on my coffee table and I haven’t opened it since the day it came in the mail. Six people have probably read it.

Writing this I realize that the same comeuppance I gave myself about another topic fits here. I need to stop being such a little flower. They didn’t fall in love with it, can you believe that? Incredible.

Thank you for hearing me out. You all are such great therapists.