1987: Retirement Home

The bus stop drops us off a short walk from the retirement home.

While Dad surveys the parking lot, December’s wind punctures through my pink ballerina flats. I wriggle my Popsicle toes, hoping they won’t snap off. Ouch. Why can’t we just go inside? I turn toward the door and consider making a run for it, but I know Dad will backhand me.

He eyes my shivering legs. “Jenny. Poppa knows it’s cold out here. But I wanted to take a look around this parking lot. These old ladies have all these beautiful cars.” He stops to peer in the driver’s side window of a light blue sedan. Buick. “And your Father bets ninety percent of these old hags don’t drive them anymore. Why couldn’t I be lucky enough to find me a rich old wife?”

I picture my new mother—a hunched woman with curly silvery hair. I shake my head left to right—right to left. I already have a mom. Except that she lives really far away. And Dad says that she might try to kidnap me someday.

The elevator ride up to the fifth floor partially thaws my limbs. In the long hallway, I notice a woman wheeling a metal cart filled with round silver discs. Flying saucers? Why do old people need those?

After the woman passes, Dad leans over and whispers in my ear, “Meals on Wheels. That’s a good service because a lot of these people can’t cook for themselves, but your Father is sure the food is horrible.” Dad knows because he’s a chef.

Dad uses his secret knock—Dun da dun dun…Dun dun—when we reach 5B.

“Rose. Hello! Just Tom and my daughter, Jenny, again. Madeline’s friends.”

Rose ushers us in. I immediately notice the same musty odor from our first visit. Dad called it, old people smell. Said he’d never live in a place like this. He’d go off into the woods like a real man when it was time for him to go.

As I return from my blank stare, Dad stands in Rose’s kitchen, feverishly chopping ingredients. He calls over his shoulder, “Jenny, why don’t you ask Rose what you can do to help?”

She instructs me to set the table pointing to the silverware drawer with her bony finger. I arrange the forks, knives and spoons on three napkins and set the scalloped plates in the center. The small painted flowers run alongside the golden rim. I trace the pattern over and over in my mind.

Dad requests, “Rose, I’m wondering if you have anything that might help me chop these nuts faster?” She looks at him quizzically. He offers, “If you don’t mind, I could just take a look through your cupboards and see what you might have.”

She nods, “That will be okay, Tom.”

Dad opens all the cabinets on top first. Nothing. He kneels, leaning forward, to reach all the way back into the lower corner cupboard. His eyes grow wide like a leprechaun who struck a pot of gold.

“Rose, this is a first class food processor. Did you know that you had this back in this cupboard?”

I watch as Dad pulls out all the bits. He takes a careful look at the shiny blades and grins.

She narrows her eyes slightly to focus on the bulky contraption. “Yes, Tom. You may use that. I’m afraid of it, actually. My son and daughter-in-law bought that for me one Christmas, but it’s too powerful.”

Dad grins again. “Oh, that’s really too bad, Rose. I mean this is a professional machine. I bet they paid a couple hundred for it. If you’d like, I can show you how to use it.”

Rose takes three steps back from the counter. “No thank you. It’s not something I really need. I don’t know why they bought that for me, come to think of it.”

She pauses, watching while Dad pushes stalks of celery through the plastic chimney. “You know what, Tom… you should take that food processor as a gift from me.”

He looks up at Rose through the top of his eyes. “Oh, I couldn’t take this from you.”

“No. Go ahead. Really. It’s almost Christmas, and besides, I really appreciate you coming over here to help me out. I’m glad Madeline introduced us. Oh, and why don’t you take that electric juicer I saw you use last week, too?”

Dad goes silent for a moment. We wait for his utterance.

“Thank you, Rose. God bless you! I’ll take great care of them both. They won’t go to waste.”

Is he supposed to take gifts? Godmother Madeline told Dad last week you’re not supposed to get thanks for community service…

I stand at the sink, drying what he washes with a strawberry embossed hand towel when I hear Rose shriek from behind.

“No! No! No! This is not how you set a table. The spoons go on the outside like this! Who taught this child how to set a table?”

Dad and I spin around to a tight-lipped Rose, stooped over each place setting, rearranging silverware. She shakes her head. Dad’s face becomes red while speaking out in defense, “Actually, Rose, she’s never—

He stops mid-thought. And gives me a certain look. The one I know means that it’s right to obey Rose—no matter how silly her request—because this is her house. And the food processor. Rules. Order.

“I apologize, Rose. I guess Jenny should know better as the daughter of a chef, but she’s not even seven years old yet, so I guess we should giver her a break.” She doesn’t seem moved. Instead she points at all the silverware while moving her hands back and forth. I wonder why he doesn’t give you a break? Like last week when he lost his keys and he blamed you?

I wait for Rose to deliver each stern gesture. I try to record the specific order in my mind. But it doesn’t make sense. Who cares where they go? Instead I count the petals on each of the tiny hand-painted pink flowers. Seven. Plus seven. Equals fourteen. Pay attention to the knife, stupid. Rose was very upset about the knife. What did she say again? I quiver in fear. Don’t talk back to elders. Except bad people.

When we finish dinner, Rose offers some us some chamomile tea.

Dad says we’d best be off to catch the bus back home. Rose protests, “Oh, I was hoping that you and Jenny could stay and watch my favorite show with me.”

He agrees, reluctantly, observing the bag of kitchen thingamajigs near the door.

Rose sits in a small pink reclining chair while Dad and I sit on the couch. He picks at his thumbs, impatiently, while we wait for the show to begin. Thank you for being a friend. Traveled down the road and back again. Your heart is true…

The Golden Girls. The eldest looks like Rose. I can see why she likes this show so much.

Bored at first, I begin to bite my thumbnail. Stop. You don’t want him to try and get the poison again.

By the end, I secretly grow to like the show. I glance at Dad’s profile in the flickering screen light after the group hug. He winces.

Before the end credits finish, Dad rises from the sofa. “That was—uh—real nice, Rose.”

“Oh isn’t it just the most wonderful show?”

“Well, actually, it’s a little mushy for me. I like more action movies—myself—but I guess it was okay. Everything except that stupid group hug.”

Rose laughs.

She made him do something he didn’t want to. And got away with it. Like Madeline and her rainbows.

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1997: Good Samaritans

“Jenny, I’m going to rest for a few minutes.”

Finally. Now you can get some homework done.

I call back, “Okay, Dad. I’m just going to work on my math assignment.”

I settle down at the kitchen table and open my notebook. Honestly, Course III started off as my least favorite class this year. I like math, but my teacher is really stern.

She’s stricter than the nuns at Catholic school. And you’re such a pussy. You were afraid she wouldn’t give you an A and he would kill you.

 But so far, I got it wrong. This is my best math course since 6th grade.

Just as I start setting up the word problem, I hear “knock, knock.” I jump at the sound and my heart is pounding. Jenny, you don’t ever answer the fucking door unless you know who it is. Do you understand Daddy? Ask your brother and sisters what happened to them when I tricked them and they answered the door when they shouldn’t have! You just can’t trust anybody. Too many psychos out there. You see the news everyday just like Daddy.

 I wince at the memory of Dad’s “secret knock.”

Just go to the door and look through the peephole.

 But I don’t see anyone. Wait! A little girl is standing there. I forget about Dad and open the door softly.

She gazes down, her blonde hair falling softly across her cheeks. I see myself in her at that age. Maybe 9 or 10. Shy. Who is she?

 “Can I help you honey?”

She stammers reluctantly, “Ummm, I heard there is a man who lives here who helps people.” She corrects herself, “That the people who live here help people.”

My eyes widen. My mouth drops open. Of course we’ll help.

 I assure her, “Okay, come in and wait here. Let me get my dad.” You’re so overwhelmed you forgot to ask her name.

I bolt up the stairs so Dad doesn’t startle when I call out. I try not to let him see my eyes well up as I tell him, “A little girl is downstairs. She told me that she heard from someone that ‘the people who live here help people.’”

“You have to come right a–” He hinges automatically upright before I can finish.

I observe Dad in his element. He has a purpose again. A mission. He introduces himself and quizzes the girl. “Hi, I’m Tom. Everyone calls me Uncle Tom, though.” He points to me, “And this is my daughter, Jenny. Tell me what happened honey, and I’ll see if I can help.”

She looks relieved. “My daddy lost his job last month and we don’t have any food.”

Dad doesn’t question her further, except to find out where she lives. She points out the window, “The apartments across the street. Unit 12F.” Excitedly, he responds, “Be careful walking back home and tell your parents that we will be there within the hour.”

As soon as she leaves, Dad says, “Jenny get me that huge box out of the water heater closet.” I work my way past the enormous roll of herbed contact paper, and fetch the corrugated container. I stand at attention waiting to receive further instructions.

But Dad has already crawled onto the counter so he can reach the highest cabinets above the stove and fridge. In a flash he hands me the paltry contents of our cupboards to load into the box. Two cans of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup, four packs of dehydrated Ramen noodles, a box of Bisquick, a jar of peanut butter, and a package Little Debbie choc-o-rounds. Our food for the next two weeks until Dad gets his disability check.

“Aghh, Jenny. We don’t need this food. You and Daddy, we’ll be fine. Did you see the look on that little girl’s face?”

Now we have no food. I crumble inside as I see him hand me the last item. But I’m not surprised. I want to help her too. But I’m scared for us. Well at least you can mope in peace for five minutes while he delivers this box across the road.

 Instead he orders, “Come on! Get your shoes on,” while hoisting the large box up on one shoulder. “We have to go fill this baby to the top.”

Dad makes his way over to our neighbors units. One by one, we knock on doors. He tells people that a neighborhood family is in trouble. They are starving. I’m amazed. Can by can, package by package, the box overflows with generosity.