Tuesday, May 12, 2009


My sister, Sophia went to visit my parents recently. She said that on the way home from the airport, my mom stopped at Wal-Mart. As they pulled into the parking lot, my mom said, “Everyone look around for that cheese.”

“What cheese?” Sophia asked.

‘Oh, I got a block of cheese at Wal-Mart a couple weeks ago and it smelled funny. I was going to return it, but it got lost before I got back there again. I’m pretty sure it’s somewhere in this van. Everybody look around – that was expensive cheese!”

This story did not surprise me. See I believe the universe is governed by laws; both physical and spiritual- the law of gravity, the law of the harvest, the law that decrees that some member of my family must be in a Wal-Mart at all times- day and night. Who made this law; I do not know. Maybe it’s not a law, but a curse. Did my father meet Sam Walton down at the cross roads at midnight and strike some awful bargain whereby my parents would receive their huge progeny, born healthy with all their fingers and toes, but at a terrible price?

My parents cannot pass a Wal-Mart. They are compelled to stop in and check for sales, compare the prices on black beans, butter, ground beef… whether they are in a funeral procession, bringing a baby home from the hospital, or on vacation. And even if they are on vacation, miles from home- if the prices are better- they will buy 10 cases of black beans and make the kids sit on them on the trip home.

It’s not just my parents though- my siblings and I must all spend hours walking the aisles, our legs aching, our minds numbing, as we put random objects in our carts and wait for the feeling – the feeling of release that means we can leave. The feeling that means somewhere, someone that shares our genes and our curse has just entered a Wal-Mart.

Sometimes I ignore the need, the nervous- can’t focus – can’t think of anything else need to go to Wal-Mart. I push it down, turn the music up loud, check my email, but it is persistent. I find myself heading for the door; keys in hand, but I stop- shut the door and call my sister. “What are you doing?”

“Nothing. What are you doing?”

“Nothing…I need to go to Wal-Mart.”

“Yeah, me too.”

‘I need to go to Wal-Mart.” I can’t talk to anyone in my family for long without hearing that phrase. Sometimes, when we both feel it, my sister and I will go together. This makes the universe happy. I can feel it. The more of us that are in a Wal-Mart at once – the happier the universe gets. The universe does not like it when I resist, when I stay home or worse when I pretend I’m headed to Wal-Mart but then go to Safeway instead or, worst of all, if I go the Natural Food Store instead. The universe will greatly punish my need for organic tofu and miso by making them cost as much as a Volkswagen bus.

Sometimes I can hold out…squash down the compulsion I feel until it passes suddenly, and I know that someone else in my family has succumbed and I feel bad for making them take my turn.

My mom goes to Wal-Mart more than any of us- several times a day. And when I’m at home I go with her. “Mom don’t forget to return that milk.” my sister Mary says as my mom and I head out the door for our third trip to Wal-Mart that day.

“Oh yeah, that’s right, I keep forgetting.” My mom says. I follow her out to the garage. On the deep freeze is a carton of milk- a swollen bloated, dangerous-looking carton of milk. The indented sides are popped out. It looks ready to burst. “ I think I’d better put it in a garbage bag just to be safe.” She says.

“You’re taking that to the store?” I ask.

“Yeah, I’m getting my money back. I’m sick and tired of getting spoiled milk from that store.”

“You couldn’t tell it was spoiled? I mean- did it look like that when you bought it?” I ask.

“No!” she says, “It looked fine. It’s just been out here for a while. I called two weeks ago and told them it was bad and they said to bring it in and they’d replace it.”

“It was three weeks.” My sister Mary interjects.

“Alright Ms. Memory- hand me that trash bag.” My mom says. Mary hands her the trash bag and I start to back as far away from the milk as I can. “Here…” my mom says to me, “Hold this bag open so I can put the milk in it.”

“I’m just going to watch.” I say moving behind a stack of boxes.

“Just hold the bag!” she insists, “Nothing is going to happen.”

“I think something is going to happen.” I say, “Just put the bag on the freezer and then put the milk in it.”

“That won’t work,” she says, “I need you to hold it for me. Just hold the bag!”

We’ve played this game a million times before. Three weeks ago when the milk was discovered to be sour (by my mother, of course) I know exactly what happened. She took a big sip and then gagged. She stared at the milk. “Are you ok mom?” someone asks. Starring hard at the milk she doesn’t answer, but takes another sip. “Ahhrg!” she says- almost retching. She braces herself against the doorway then sniffs the milk and quickly covers her nose and mouth- her eyes watering. “Oh man…” she says, “This is bad.” She holds it out to the kid nearest her. “Taste this.”

The kid backs away in horror. “Just taste it.” She says. She brings it to her nose again and almost throws up.

“But mom…” the kid whines.

“”Just taste it!” she says threateningly.

“Mom, I don’t want to.”

“Jesse!” my mom yells to my dad my who is hiding behind the newspaper.

“Taste the milk.” My dad says, knowing that if she can’t get a kid to taste it she’ll come for him next.

That kid didn’t have a choice. I used to be that kid, but not anymore. I’m an adult. I did my time tasting the rotten milk. I can say no. I’m not holding the bag. “Oh all right chicken,” my mom says, “Mary- hold this bag.” Mary glares at me, but doesn’t put up a fight and my mom, slowly and with the care you’d use to diffuse a bomb, wraps up the milk. The woman in Wal-Mart’s return department will be so happy to see her coming.

After visiting my family for a week, my sister Sophia rode back to the airport with my mom. While saying their goodbyes, my mom reached into her purse for something then let out a triumphant cry- “The cheese!” she exclaimed, holding the plastic wrapped, green mass high. She was still holding it as she hugged Sophia goodbye. “Girls,” she said to my sisters who’d come with her, “Get in the van. We’re going to Wal-Mart.”

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Calling Home

“What’s wrong?” she says as soon as she recognizes my voice.
“Nothing, every thing’s fine. I’m calling to check on you guys.”
If something had been wrong she’d tell me how she and my Dad had been feeling that something was wrong- somewhere- they thought it might be me.
“So how’s everyone there?”, I ask.
“Exhausted!”,she says, “We had a long night-“ There is a huge crashing sound from her end of the line and the phone goes dead. I hang up and wait. She calls back. “Sorry, the phone just fell into the mop bucket, but it’s okay now.”
“So why were you up all night? Is somebody sick?”, I ask.
“What? I can hardly hear you.” The phone goes dead again. I hang up and wait. She calls back, “I’m going to have to call the phone company again, there is something the matter with this phone. They’ve been out here three times and they keep telling me there is nothing wrong with the line- listen to this, can you hear this?”
I hear a terrible scratching noise from her end and then she’s back. “Did you hear that?”
“Yeah, that’s terrible. What is it?”
“It was me scratching the phone. You do it- just scratch the mouth piece on your phone.”
There is no point in arguing. I scratch the mouth piece on my phone, scratch, scratch, scratch, and put the phone back to my ear. “Did you do it?” my mom asks.
“See”, she says, “I could hardly hear that. I’m gonna have to call the phone company again.”
One of my biggest fears has always been that some day I will be sitting in a court room, on the stand, sworn in, and some representative from the phone company will be asking me, “Have you ever seen your mother abuse a phone?” I will have to perjure myself. Or it might be a representative from the company that made my parents vacuum. My mom claims it has never worked properly though I’ve seen it suck up bedsheets, small pets and pasta- things it was never designed for. Or maybe it will be a representative from the company that made my parents van. My Mom is always threatening to sue them even though the most common phrase I hear her say while driving is, “How long has that emergency brake been on?”
“So, why were you up all night?” I ask again.
“We were wrapping chickens…just a second Tammy… Lydia!” she yells at the top of here lungs, “Come and get this goat!”
“What chickens?” I ask, moving the phone to the ear I can still hear with.
“You know the Smiths down the road from us?”
“No.” as soon as I say it I start kicking myself.
“Yes you do, remember you met them when you went with me to visit Buella in the hospital?”
“Mom, that must have been one of the other girls. I don’t know Buella.”
“No, it was you because I specifically remember…”
“Oh yeah, I think I know who your talking about” I lie.
“I thought you did, her husband is the state trooper. Well, he called late last night and said a truck full of frozen chickens tipped over on the Interstate and if we went right then we could get all we wanted. We got there as fast as we could. Traffic was backed up forever and there were chickens all over the highway. We picked up about 350 pounds of chicken. We didn’t think to bring gloves, of course. So our hands were freezing, but next time we’ll know. We had to put them all in new freezer bags since their wrapping got ripped open when they went skidding across the highway. Good thing we had room in the deep freeze”
“Are you lying? I ask.
“No!” she shouts, “Ask Liz.”
She’s not offended by my asking as they’re all known as practical jokers always making up stories and planning elaborate tricks to play on each other, like putting a mannequin in my bed after I’d been out late. Or our favorite, the rock that my dad found in the garden that looked exactly like a large Idaho baking potato. They love to have people over and serve potatoes wrapped in tin foil. They'd heat the rock up a little with the rest of the potatoes and watch as their guests put butter on it and try to cut it open.
But my sister Liz confirms the story, chickens all over the highway, hands freezing… Then Liz has to get off the phone because she’s reheating Chinese food and doesn’t want it to burn. “Left over Chinese food for breakfast? Yum!”
“We’re pretty much eating Chinese every meal now.” my mom says, “Last week we took the kids out to eat Chinese at the new buffet place and the waiter commented about how many kids we had, so of course we told him that this was only a third of the kids we have and he got so excited and went and got the manager. The manager just thought it was the greatest thing he had ever heard and said - It must be hard to feed that many kids, so then when we were leaving they brought us all these boxes of food to take home and said that during the week they always have left over food they have to throw out, and they’d just start bring it by if we wanted. So now, the fridge is full of Chinese food.”

“So, what else is going on?” I ask.
“Well your sisters set off the fire alarm the other night- scared your dad and I half to death. They decided to start up the cotton candy machine at ten o’clock at night while they were watching a movie…”
“You guys have a cotton candy machine?” I ask.
“Yeah, didn’t I tell you I found one for sale?”
“A real cotton candy machine?”
“Yeah, we have it down stairs, next to the washer and dryer, but you have to be careful because it throws that extra fine sugar into the air and that sets off the fire alarm- but we had been practicing our fire drills, and everyone made it out to the designated tree. Of course, Tasha was hysterical because her hedgehog is lost somewhere in the house and she was afraid he’d burn up.”
“I didn’t know she had a hedgehog.”
“Well, she only had it a day before it escaped. We thought it would be easy to spot since it’s an albino, but it got into the laundry room and we think it must be lost in the whites.”
“I hope you find it.”
“I'm sure it'll turn up sooner or later- but I'd better let you go- Mary got bit by a goat so she needs that looked at and I have to run Sophia by the police station.”
“Why?” I ask.
“Oh, one of the kids found an old pair of handcuffs your brother had in his car from when he worked at the prison. They snapped them on Sophia thinking it would be funny, but the key is lost so we called and the police say they can get them off. I’m sure it happens all the time. So I better go, but I’ll let you know if anything exciting happens.”
A Day With My Mom

We've spent a long day going to doctor's appointments with my mom. Nobody’s seriously ill, it’s the weekly trip. My mom suspects a couple of ear infections in little kids, the baby needs her shots updated, Everett has some warts to be removed, Brian has an infected toenail, and my mom has to see her obstetrician, of course.
It’s been all day waiting in stuffy offices, reading to the little kids, trying to keep them quiet while my mom chats with receptionists; with nurses, thinks of hundreds of questions for the doctor- and then the long sit in the beast - our big, brown van that my sisters and I will have to push to get started if my mom ever comes out of the pharmacy. We can see her through the window talking with the pharmacist, laughing, waving her arms wildly, telling stories with her hands. We can tell by the body language she’s telling them the one about her fall off the roof and she’s winding down to the punch line. “Mommy’s coming right now” I reassure the little kids who are close to killing each other or climbing out the van windows if they have to sit for 3 seconds more.
I see the punch line and -Yes!- the pharmacist is laughing his head off. The girl at the cash register is doubled over and several customers who’ve given up pretending to mind their own business are grinning wildly. My mom waves and turns to the door- she has to leave them laughing. “OK, here she comes” I say. Everybody in your seat belts”. Finally. My mom has the door open she’s looking at us smiling. But then -No!- her eyes glaze, her smile freezes, she turns back- an encore. This audience is too good to leave so soon- she’s thought of one more story -a short one, it’ll just take a minute. Everyone in the van lets out a moan and the kids wail and claw at the door. I feel I have no choice- I pretend not to notice when one of them manages to pull up the lock and then leaps to the door handle- only when the door is open and the first kid is out, running to the pharmacy door do I feign shock, surprise, and betrayal as I lunge for the next kid in line and keep them from escaping. If more than one escapes my mom won’t believe it was an accident. She won’t be happy as it is- a sweaty kid bursting on stage in the middle of her closing act - she has to cover quickly with some small joke, wrap it up and make her exit.
“What is going on out here?” She demands once she’s in the car. “I told you it wouldn’t take 3 minutes and then we’d go to Kentucky Fried Chicken. If you guys can’t be good for three minutes while I fill a prescription I’m going to drive straight home.” She still has a dreamy smile on her face though. She loves this pharmacy. My sisters and I jump out to push the van then we’re off to the KFC drive-thru and the drive-thru intercom system which my mom can never resist.
“Welcome to Kentucky Fried Chicken can I get you a 10 piece meal today?”
In response my mom sings a few lines in Italian from Pagliacci in her best opera trained voice. There is silence for almost a minute when she finishes- finally a weak “Can I take your order”.
“Oh yes,” my mom says laughing “Sorry I couldn’t resist. Let’s see how many I've got with me today.” She starts counting us out loud even though she knows very well how many children she has. Then she starts in with the questions- how many pieces in the ten piece bucket- 10 of course, but how many breasts, thighs, etc? How many sides, can she trade a coleslaw for another potato- or gravy for extra biscuits- if she gets the five piece and the ten piece how many legs will she have in all? Can she swap the wings for legs? And can they give her plenty of moist towelettes? After several minutes the teenager at the other end is completely lost. “I tell you what”, my mom says reassuringly, “I’ll just drive around. I hate talking on these things.” She drives around to the window where a nervous looking 17 year old is waiting. We can see other gawky young kids in uniforms eyeing my mom as they come near the window to fill sodas and get kid meal toys.
Face to face my mom is able to work out her order, though the teenager still looks unsure. Then my mom asks if she could do her just one little favor- she motions for me to pass her the diaper bag with her insulated cold pack and pulls out a baby bottle of what we in the car all know is breast milk.
Could the teenager just pop this in the microwave for 15 seconds. The girl stares at the bottle like it’s a bomb looks around her little work area for back-up. She doesn’t know the KFC policy on this one. “Oh, it’s ok’, my mom says soothingly, “They do this for me all the time. It’s for the baby.”
“Umm okay…” the girl says as if she just needed to be sure my mom wasn’t going to drink it.
She heads off toward the microwave and my sisters and I ,who have been staring stoically into space with half smiles stuck on our faces, all moan in unison “Mom, she’s probably going to get fired.”
“Oh you guys! You get embarrassed over the littlest things.” Then the girl is back with the bottle and our chicken and we all smile again. My mom thanks her profusely and she looks pleased to have been of help and relieved that this transaction is over. My mom says goodbye and starts to pull away when she and the girl remember no money has changed hands. My mom slams the brakes throwing the 5 piece chicken into the dash then backs up laughing- “I almost got away with that one.” She quips. Then she starts feeling around her lap, her hips, the pockets of her shirt and her cheeks lose all color.
“Where’s my money” she says staring at me. I shrug, still smiling, but feeling a little panicky myself. “Your bra”? I mumble trying not to move my lips. My mom lets out an enormous sigh “My bra!” she exclaims so that the girl in the window, whose face has been growing redder by the second, jumps. My mom then pulls the front of her shirt away from her chest and peers down into her bosom then reaches in up to her elbow and pulls out an enormous wad of money. “Almost gave myself a heart attack!” she says to the stunned girl as she hands her the money. “You sure are a cutie. Have a fine day!”.
Of course in the excitement of her near heart attack she took her foot off the gas and the beast has died in the completely flat drive-thru lane. My sisters and I -still smiling but now concentrating very hard on being someplace far away, some future place, – no kids – sipping hot chocolate on a soft couch in a quiet beautiful room- get out of the beast and start to push.