May 8, 2013
Recently, Alice told me the meat grinder story again. She doesn’t tell it often, for reasons you’ll understand after reading it. It’s a story about her and her mother, Martha, and, although Alice thinks it is a story about a daughter’s guilt, it is also a story about a mother’s love. Because this is the week before Mother’s Day, I thought I’d pass it on to you.
August 15, 2012
Yesterday, Alice received a message from her 80-something second cousin. We’ll call this woman Lucille. It caused Alice such concern that she forwarded the message to me. Read the rest of this entry »
May 28, 2012
On November 20 (1942) our regiment took up defensive positions at Point Cruz west of the Matanikau (river)…A slow advance toward objective further west is begun. The enemy is laying down heavy mortar and machine gun fire. They are well dug in and concealed. Due to the terrain of jungle and ridges and the terrific heat, it is very difficult to get supplies, ammunition and water to our troops. They are taxed to exhaustion. Coordinated artillery, air and mortar fire does not dislodge the enemy. They have dug-in in the coral and in draws and are quite secure. Any exposure of our troops draws accurate enemy fire. Casualties are fairly heavy.
-From the diary of Lt. Col. Samuel Baglien, Executive Officer, North Dakota’s 164th National Guard Unit
Alice’s only brother died in this battle the next day. He was twenty-one years old.
May 6, 2012
Alice was feeling pretty good. We’d just left the doctor’s office where the doctor told her that once again (the fourth visit in a row) she did not need an injection for her eye problem, macular degeneration. We’d picked up our usual supply of cocoa and sandwiches and were headed back toward her apartment. She had left only two hours before with the sense of dread she feels when going to these appointments. But now, riding toward home in high spirits, she asked cheerily, “Did I ever tell you about the first time I saw a dead person?”
Read the rest of this entry »
April 22, 2012
January 10, 2012
December 15, 2011
In 1923, when Alice was eight years old, her best friend Hazel asked her if she wanted a job. Hazel needed help loading up bottles of beer that her father had made and taking them to the cave where he hid his brew. She promised they’d each get a quarter for about an hour’s worth of work.
December 7, 2011
When I celebrated my birthday last week, Alice mentioned that it had snowed that night long ago in Bismarck. She described the weather as “bitterly cold.”
Bitterness must have seeped in through the hospital walls because it also played a role in the birthing. Read the rest of this entry »
August 28, 2011
On Alice’s 96th birthday she received a ring from a stranger. Read the rest of this entry »
August 19, 2011
When I heard about Yvonne, the runaway Austrian cow, I was reminded of Mattie’s notes about the family cow in her memoir on childhood. Nebba, a black and white Holstein, was named after a mountain in Norway. Such a grand name, according to Mattie, gave the cow an inflated sense of herself.
June 4, 2011
Sometimes Alice was bad. Very bad. She likes to remember those times. Read the rest of this entry »
May 30, 2011
“Our romance,” Alice said recently of Mr. Fickle, “is a thing of the past.”
The man who once took her hand and squeezed it on an irregular basis rarely notices her any more. His gait has slowed and his flirtations with all the many widows who surround him have markedly decreased.
He still sometimes glances (maddeningly) away from Alice and into the post office across from her table when he walks down the hallway, and she still stares straight ahead, pretending not to notice, wanting to call out to him, “I’m over here!”
Back when things were more lively between them–even when it included hanky-panky with other women, such as kissing their cheeks or hugging them–these things only added juice to the story Alice was writing in her head so that she’d have something to tell me during our nightly phone calls.
One time she saw him pushing a woman in a wheelchair toward the elevator that leads to the upstairs apartments. When he went up the elevator, the bill on his cap was pointed in one direction, but when he came down the elevator and entered the dining room a while later, it pointed in the other direction. (See As the Cap Turns for details.)
But now the thrill is gone.
Last night I called her for advice on removing a blob of something dark, gummy and stubborn burned on to my black ceramic stove top (the single appliance in my houseboat’s galley that I am continually at war with).
I thought this would give us something, a least, to discuss, but she ignored my plea for one of her famous home-made mixtures. Instead, with some excitement, she launched into a new Mr. Fickle mystery. I got out my “magic” (not) Cooktop Stove Cleaner, which I knew would be all but useless, yanked on my rubber gloves, and started in on a session of pointless scrubbing while I listened.
Alice told me that Mr. Fickle rose from his table in the middle of both lunch and dinner to go to the bathroom that day. He has to pass her table to enter the hall where the bathroom is located.
Time goes by. She’s on the lookout. No sign of him. He does not emerge from the hallway and return to his table.
And yet! When she gets up from her table to return to her apartment after eating, she turns around (her back is to his table) and sees that voila! There he sits, calmly finishing his meal.
This had happened twice that day, and neither time did she spot him in the act of returning to his table. How did he get there?
Mr. Fickle’s logistical options are so limited for going to the bathroom and getting back to his table that Alice can’t help but be puzzled.
“I can’t figure it out,” she said. “How does the old codger do it?”
I was obsessed with my stove top. “I’d like to get my hands on the person who invented these damn things.”
She knew immediately what I meant and sighed heavily because I was interrupting her Miss Marple investigation with such a mundane issue.
“Have you tried toothpaste?” she asked in a tone that implied any fool would surely have tried toothpaste by this point. “You know you can use toothpaste to get things off that are stuck to your iron.”
“I’m not even sure where my iron is.”
“You know where your toothpaste is, don’t you?”
I rinsed off the no-good-not-so-magic cleaner, then carried the phone with me while I went to get the Crest and rummaged in a junk drawer for an old toothbrush, all the while taking in Alice’s description of the layout of dining room, hallway, and bathroom, reminding me of things I’d seen many times but hadn’t ever considered to be what she was now calling “escape routes.”
By the time I had returned to the kitchen stove and started brushing on the toothpaste, I had a clear picture of the mystery (click image to enlarge):
Mr. Fickle exits the bathroom (A) and then…what? He does not go past Alice’s table (B) to return to his table (C), so how does the old codger, as she calls him, get back there?
I suggested that maybe he goes up the stairs beyond the restroom (D) and then crosses the second floor to get to the other stairs (F), descends, and returns to his table (C).
“He’s not Superman,” she said. “He’s Mr. Fickle. He’s old. No way does he have the energy to do all that.”
“Maybe he goes outside,” I said (E), “and walks around the building and then comes in the back door by the garden (G) and goes to his table.”
She was incredulous. “Outside? In the rain?”
She had a point.
“Let’s get back to this in a minute,” she said. “How’s the toothpaste working?”
I looked down at the gooey mess on my stove top and wiped away a corner of it. The blob was still there. “Not working.”
“Put baking soda on top of the toothpaste and then mix it in.”
I obeyed. The baking soda combined with toothpaste turned into little clumps. I scrubbed the mess back and forth with my toothbrush. The blob remained stuck.
“Pour on some ammonia. Don’t breathe it!” Alice commanded.
I pictured my mother in her Lazy Boy rocker/recliner, rocking faster and faster as more and more household cleaning products came rushing in to her mind.
“Don’t breathe it, did you say, or do breathe it?” I asked.
“What? Don’t! What are you thinking?”
“I was thinking,” I said as I dribbled on some ammonia, “that maybe I should lean down and take a big sniff and then turn the burner on and see what happens.”
“Now you’re just being silly.”
The drops of ammonia did not so much as make the baking soda/toothpaste concoction fizz.
“All right,” I said. “I’ll play around with this. Let’s get back to what really matters.”
I remembered the elevator (H). “Maybe he goes up the back stairs,” I said, “and comes down the elevator.”
“I can see the elevator,” she said. “Why would he do such a thing if he’s trying to avoid me?”
“Who says he’s trying to avoid you?”
“He is,” she said, confidently. “Yes, he is.”
“I just cannot figure it out,” she said. “I watch him go to the restroom. I don’t see him come back. I get up when I’m done eating dinner, and there he is, sitting at his table. Imagine! I swear I do not know how he does it.”
My stove top now looked and smelled like a pigeon had been flying around the kitchen.
“Leave it overnight,” Alice advised. “You never know.”
I felt relieved she’d run out of ideas. One more product, natural or otherwise, and my house would blow up.
Time to say good night. We were no help to each other.
Then in a quiet voice she said, “Earlier tonight I remembered how passionately he grabbed me and kissed me on the cheek that first time. And then that other time too…and always smiling at me. And now it has dwindled down to nothing but wondering how he gets back to his table from the bathroom.”
“But at least he’s still there,” I offered, “for you to wonder about.”
“I’m afraid poor old Mr. Fickle is failing,” she said. Failing is a word, she explained, that her mother, Martha, used about elderly people who were not in any obvious way ill but were running out of steam.
“In any case, you’re failing to figure him out,” I said, trying to cheer her a little.
“See what you’ve got tomorrow morning,” she said, skipping back to the stove top. “If that doesn’t work, try vinegar.” Vinegar is her cure-all for nearly everything. She was amazed she didn’t think of it first.
The next morning the blob was weakened enough by the assault of Alice’s concoction that all it took was some careful scraping with an Exacto knife to get rid of it.
I told Alice this news and she was happy for me. Still, the intrigue regarding Mr. Fickle’s comings and goings remains unsolved.
if you have any ideas about how Mr. Fickle gets back to his table, please share them.
May 8, 2011
A friend sent an e-mail to Alice asking her to describe her mother. Read the rest of this entry »
March 13, 2011
March 10, 2011
As a small child, Mattie followed the moon, amazed that every night brought a change. She would follow it still as an old woman, standing out on her back steps in North Dakota—never mind sub-zero weather. She wanted to see it without the filter of window glass. Her devotion was absolute.
March 7, 2011
Mattie was ten years old the summer of 1921 when her cousin Siri moved to town and got a job at the post office. All day Siri stood behind a narrow window on one side of a high-ceilinged room with a wooden floor, and Mr. Peaks, the druggist, stood at his own counter on the pharmacy side. Farmers, merchants, and housewives drifted in and out for pills, powders, syrups, letters, packages, and stamps. Mattie, a child in love with books and the moon, soon fell in love with Siri too.
Siri stayed in a second-floor room at a boarding house at the end of Main Street. Her window overlooked the railroad tracks and was partly shaded by a spindly cottonwood. She was nineteen, and this move from the family farm into town was meant to be a new beginning. Instead it was the last summer of her life.
The circumstances around her death were secret and shameful. To counteract them, the editor of the local paper wrote a flowery obituary for his four hundred readers that made it sound as if she simply floated off one day into heaven. I found out what happened to her because Mattie, when she reached her eighties, told me what she knew. Read the rest of this entry »
February 12, 2011
During our evening phone call the other night, Alice announced proudly (and out of the blue) that she is the survivor of a runaway buggy.
January 6, 2011
Alice wanted to eat lunch at the Red Lobster, the older Midwesterner’s idea of a great fish and seafood place. I mentioned the nearby ocean and rivers filled with fish that were not available to her in Iowa. “Fish places are everywhere out here.”
But no, she wanted the Red Lobster. The closest one was tucked away in a suburb, nearly an hour from The Place.
We sat in a booth and ate some fish who should not have died in order to be cooked in such a ho-hum manner. I told Alice that in the afterlife we’d have to face these fish and apologize. She reminded me that when she was eighty she had passed away while traveling to a family reunion and been CPR’d back to life (long story; later post), and she’s pretty sure we can expect no afterlife. She said she experienced “nothing, just absolutely nothing.”
“But,” she added wryly, “maybe something different will happen the next time I die.” Read the rest of this entry »
December 5, 2010
Sometimes when we’re together or talking on the phone, Alice and I zip around in time at our whim, untroubled by either sequiturs or non sequiturs. (How did they get to be so important anyway?) Last night our phone conversation started with her telling me that Mrs. Obama wore a pretty pale blue sweater with a beaded collar to lunch. She was not talking about Michele Obama at a White House luncheon, but about a woman named Susie who had often worn an Obama sweatshirt to the dining room throughout the last Presidential campaign, as had her husband.
In 2008 Alice was new to The Place. She didn’t know their names, so she called them the Obama People, as in: “The Obama People came down the elevator separately tonight. First Mr. Obama came down and then a few minutes later Mrs. Obama came down and she was mad at him because he hadn’t waited for her. Mrs. Obama stopped at my table and said, ‘I’ve never thought about divorcing him but plenty of times I’ve thought about killing him.’” Read the rest of this entry »
November 27, 2010
Alice and her family were often visited by Mr. and Mrs. Pletcher, well-off farmers who came into town regularly for supplies. The moment Mr. Pletcher headed off to make his purchases, Mrs. Pletcher removed her large pink corset, draped it over the back of my grandmother’s sofa, lay on her back with her knees raised up underneath her long skirt and, each time, asked the same question: “Can you see anything, Martha?”
November 14, 2010
One winter day when my grandmother, Martha, was twenty-six years old she needed to go outside and get some water from the well. The well wasn’t far from the house, but fetching water on a Dakota farm on such a cold day meant she either had to bundle up her two children–Marie, age four, and LaRue, a baby–and take them with her, or leave them inside. My grandfather was away.
The fireplace warmed only one room of the two-room sod house, so she spread a quilt on the floor, put the children on the quilt, gave them some bread, and placed two dolls she’d made of wooden spools on the edge of the quilt for them to find when they’d finished the bread. She grabbed a woolen shawl and a pail and set out. In a few minutes she’d be back. They’d hardly notice her absence.
She started down the frozen path to the well. Blades of sunlight gleaming off a mower struck her eyes. She raised her right arm to block the glare and hurried on, worried that the children might crawl in the opposite direction from the dolls, toward the fireplace. In her rush she didn’t see the thick wedge of ice around the well’s wooden skirt. When the toe of her boot hit the wedge, she slipped and tumbled headlong into the icy water.
Read the rest of this entry »