Making Up for Lost Soup

On the topic of soup.

I’m making chicken soup for my daughter who is sick with a cold. She is napping. While she has been napping, I have eaten a bowl of cheese puffs, a slice of actual cheese, a slice of turkey, three stalks of celery, and two chocolate chip cookies. Other people’s stuff is always tastier, in my opinion, although I worry that her six-year sons will notice the erosion of their cheese puff stash. They’re at school, happily, so I didn’t have to share nor silence their protests.

I like making chicken soup. I usually use the leftover bones and whatnot from a roast chicken but this soup has original chicken in it, five big plump thighs. I first made non-leftover chicken chicken soup a year or so ago for street outreach. It was insanely below zero and so I thought chicken soup would be perfect for homeless people not thinking very long about how it would instantly go cold even in a styrofoam cup wrapped in tin foil. When the outreach team leader later told me that a woman thought my soup was “divine,” it was life changing. So much so that I am now permanently on this course of full body chicken soup.

My goal when I was a young woman was to be an earth mother with a long flowing skirt and flowers behind my ear. I thought I should mix potions from rose hips and grow my own sprouts. I did grow my own sprouts but failed on the flowing skirt front because that look didn’t work with high-heeled boots and the boots were essential to walking on the wild side, as they used to say. So as much as I wish I had, I never made homemade chicken soup when my daughter was a child. I opened a can of Campbell’s.

There’s no taking that fact back. And, although I’d like to, there’s no chance of creating a new narrative of my daughter’s childhood by pretending that I always made chicken soup from scratch. I could put a new slant on a lot of things that happened with her when she was little, give the facts a new interpretation, do a bit of parental gaslighting, “remember when I used to make this for you when you were a kid?” But it wouldn’t work. She remembers the can.

On Mother’s Day

I became a mother at the age of 24.

Sometimes I wish that fact gave me a pass on the first 10,000 mistakes I made. I was so young. What did I know? But there are no passes for any of us. We are held to the impossible standard of the great mothers our kids’ friends have.

As a new mom, I had two sources of guidance. My mother’s famous line: “Children are like weeds. They grow no matter what you do.” And Dr. Spock which I read so much and so hard that the pages came away from the paperback binding. I would read what Dr. Spock said and then check back 99 times to make sure what I read was what I thought I read.

I was a mess as a new mother.

My own mother was MIA at the time, probably because I wanted it that way, I don’t remember. I’m betting I wanted everyone to believe I knew exactly what I was doing. But I had no clue. And no one to ask. No friends with babies, we were new to town. And my husband, as nice and kind as he was, had never had a baby either. He was as in the dark as me but got to put on a suit in the morning and go to work.

I remember the doctor telling me to put my baby to sleep on her stomach and turn her feet outward otherwise she would be pigeon-toed. Looking back, this seems unbelievable, that this was the big problem we needed to address. My pigeon-toed baby. What about feeding her? What about her crying? What about my life? Would I still have one? Or was that over now?

I read in Dr. Spock and in Our Bodies Ourselves about breastfeeding but the instructions seemed written for better women than me, women who were at home in their own bodies, women who were confident about their role in the world, women who wore long floral skirts and shawls, had wild hair falling over their beautiful faces, women who never thought about failing as mothers. They weren’t my people. I didn’t have any people. I just had me.

I ran back to work as fast as I could.

I look back at all this now and realize that my mother was right. “Children are like weeds. They grow no matter what you do.” Babies become toddlers become children become teenagers become adults and unless there is a catastrophic intervention, the process is a study in resilience. Children can withstand an extraordinary amount of incompetence.

They see, they learn, they sort out.

They forgive.

“Oh well, my mom did the best she could.”

It’s that forgiveness that makes Mother’s Day what it is. An erasing of mistakes. An appreciation of constancy. Children love that about us, that we never quit on them. That we may have been late and ill-prepared and distracted and short-tempered but we picked them up, we held them, we carried them to the car, we made them dinner, we put them to bed, we came in the night when they cried. And we got up the next morning and yelled at them to hurry and we started over again.

Day after day, without fail.

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

My Field of Dreams

It’s a ballet of sorts.

Maybe you’ve seen a guy, the last guy to leave the ball park, maybe he put his glove down and picked up a ball and bat and then tossed the ball high in the air and as it came back to earth cracked it with the bat, a metal one or a wood one, and then stood to watch it sail against the blue sky and finally bounce on the greenest grass ever grown.

It is effortless what he does. He isn’t doing it as a test. He swings his bat at his tossed ball because he loves the ballet of it. How it feels. It feels beautiful.

I wanted to hit a baseball in that effortless, beautiful way so I picked up my five-year old grandsons’ small metal bat and one of their t-ball baseballs, softer than a hardball but a baseball all the same, and I tossed the ball in the air and I hit it, smack, with the bat and it sailed, not far, but against the blue sky so it was beautiful the way I imagined.

I was emboldened by this, me, a girl always chosen last for the neighborhood pick-up games, and so I decided I should try to hit a ball pitched to me. This is something I don’t recall ever doing before. So my daughter, who is considerably more athletic but not a baseball player, pitched a ball to me and I swung and hit it and it traveled, not in a loft against the blue sky, but barreled right for her head. She ducked just in time.

Then it was her turn at bat.

Both of her sons stopped what they were doing to watch. She took some practice swings and then settled in for my pitch. I threw the ball and, almost as soon as I did, it came sailing back at me, aimed at my head, my temple actually, so I ducked hard. And almost wet my pants or sort of wet my pants but saying either seems untoward even if true. It was that much of an emergency I want to say that one might lose one’s composure.

I’ll remember this – the boys watching, the crack of the bat, the balls sailing, ducking, first her, then me, the blue and green of it – I’ll remember all if it forever.

99 New: Sustenance

My mother didn’t make pancakes. She made pancake.

She would ask if I wanted her to make pancakes, but then she would produce a single pancake, a pancake the exact dimension of our cast iron frying pan. It was a thick, serious piece of work, my mother’s pancake, and it could keep a person alive for a week. It would take an hour to eat and then one would have to lie down like a cow having eaten too much hay or whatever it is that cows eat. We weren’t farmers.

I put my mother’s pancake along with her bean soup, potato soup, beef heart, and baked apples under the heading DEPRESSION COOKING, the era, not the mental health condition although my mother was plenty depressed most of her life. My mother always cooked, I will give her that, through bouts of depression so severe that cooking dinner would be the only thing she did that day, rousting herself from her dark room to rattle the pots and pans in the kitchen, giving us all hope for a warm end of the day. God, I love my mother for doing that.

She knew Depression Cooking because she lived through the Depression. Her family kept apples in the basement, canned green beans, grew corn in their backyard. Her mother had a flour bin in her kitchen where I imagine she scooped out cups to make her cast iron frying pan size pancake. My mother and her mother before her had a solid repertoire of survival cooking. Both knew how to cook to keep people alive and well.

My mother also knew how to make a pattern for a dress using newspaper which she did for me one night when I needed a Pilgrim costume for a school performance the next morning. She made one from sheets or something, I don’t remember, but it was an act of maternal valor the likes of which I’ve never seen since.

My mother held our sometimes very difficult life together with her bean soup, with her relentless devotion to making do, to using what she had to create five equal portions.  Even now, so many years since I was a child, I remember her standing in her apron in the warm light of the kitchen peeling potatoes and making hamburger patties. She took care of us. She kept us alive. She gave us hope every night with that light. I don’t think she ever knew that. I wish I could tell her.

99 New: The Elasticity of Names

When my daughter was born, it was the height of the 70’s women’s movement. I was determined that my child would be strong, brave, capable, respected. I wanted to give her a name fit for a judge. I envisioned her as a judge, her brass nameplate on the bench bearing the name I would give her. Her name needed to be regal, substantial. So I gave her a queen’s name – Elizabeth.

Elizabeth is a name with an infinite number of derivatives. Betty, Bette, Liz, Lizzie, Beth, Liza. Her name shrank for a while to Liz, which I liked an awful lot, but then expanded to her full judge name- Elizabeth – and I adjusted but not easily. She had become Liz to me. I saw her face and I saw Liz.

Unbeknownst to me, my daughter finally settled on Elizabeth as her permanent name which I shouldn’t have minded since I’d given her the name to begin with. With no warning, as if she should have to give warning about the use of her own given name, my daughter stopped being the person of derivatives and became her full self. I shouldn’t have been surprised since that was the plan all along – that she would be a woman of substance – but I was surprised and then I was glad. Satisfied, as if I had done this one thing right, given her a name fit for a judge. Or a queen.


Photo by Church of the King on Unsplash