Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Growing Stronger

"Please don't load them too heavy," I said to the Trader Joe cashier as he unfolded and stretched out a few brown grocery bags. "I have to carry them into the house myself."

Kevin turned to me, first with a questioning look and then one of recognition. He had learned through the store's grapevine that my husband died in November.

"No problem," he said, then pulled out several more bags to spread my purchases among the collection building on the counter.

Like all of the other members of the TJ staff, Kevin had witnessed the ritual that Tommy and I performed every Sunday morning at 8 a.m. until my husband's hospitalization. It started like this: After we parked our car in the lot that was still not filled at that early hour, Tommy would head for the shopping cart corral and extract two. He'd hand me mine first, and then we'd meet up inside at the floral display,

"Your assignment if you wish to accept it," I'd joke, "is soy milk, bananas, strawberries, and orange juice."

With that directive, Tommy would push his cart towards the bakery goods.

Sticky pecan buns were not on the list of needs I had recorded on the reporter's notebook I keep on a kitchen counter. Neither was apple pie. But my husband regularly added one or the other pastry to his cart. These were his freebies and I think he enjoyed this bit of independence from his wife's rigid list.

Tommy would then depart, picking up the items I had requested. After a few minutes, he’d return to find me and get his next assignment.

"Good," I'd say as I scanned his cart and checked off milk, ban, straw, O.J. from my list. Then I’d instruct him, "pickles, marinated mushrooms, stuffed green olives, apple sauce."

Tommy and I would repeat this back-and-forth until we finished my list. With his mission completed, he’d head off, leaving me with his cart and bounty. Solo, I'd push mine and drag his behind me, like a mother with one cooperative and one unruly child.

I’d head to a checkout counter manned by a familiar face. If it was a regular like Kevin, I wouldn't have to give this spiel: "Consider these two carts as one. Pretend there is no bar between them. One order. One bill."

I'd feel it helpful to add a back story: "We used to shop with one cart," I'd say. "But, then I'd find myself with my arms overloaded as I'd catch up with my husband. This is easier."

"Got it," the neophyte would claim, but then total up the first cart, slap his forehead, and say, “Oh, sorry, force of habit." So you can see why Kevin and his like were so appreciated.

As purchases from the twin carts were being bagged, I'd start to seek a visual. Tommy had a habit, once he relinquished his cart, to wander the aisles. Another bit of independence, I'm sure.

If I was in a bratty mood, I'd wheel out the condensed and paid-for cart to the Honda -- my version of revenge for his disappearance. "Send him out when he shows up," I'd tell Kevin. "Will do," he'd say. I never knew if Kevin had picked up on Tommy's condition, or if he figured he was just another impatient spouse who had better things to do than wait for grocery bags to be filled.

I wouldn't pull that shtick very often as I didn't want to cause Tommy one bit of anxiety. As for him, he never seemed perturbed by my leave taking. He'd soon catch up with me at the opened trunk and watch a bit as I'd struggle with the first shopping bag. Then he'd grin and nudge me aside to complete the loading.

On the day I was doing my solitary shopping - not a Sunday because it was still too painful to visit the store on our day - Kevin hoisted one of the filled bags in the air, then handed it to me. "What do you think?" he asked.

I lifted it up, testing its weight to decide if I'd be able to first transfer from cart to trunk, then trunk up the back stairs to the kitchen,

"I think I can manage," I said.

At home, the extra bags and the absence of a muscled helper, required several trips from car to kitchen. "Cardio," I told myself. "Building biceps. Growing stronger."

Then, I imagined Tommy in his celestial abode, grinning. Not from my struggle, though, but from pride. "Knew you could do it," he’d say, as he raised his hands to give me two thumbs up.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Odd Number

There were five of us seated around the table -- circular, so much better than rectangle where an empty chair would’ve been haunting. Four dear friends, who didn't want me alone on my aborted 15-year wedding anniversary, treated me to dinner at a favorite neighborhood restaurant. It was the same spot Tommy and I, and this very same group, celebrated at each year.

 "So sweet," my daughters had said when they heard of our friends’ kind gesture. "Should we pick up the check like we've done before?"

“No,” I said. “Not this time.”

I remembered our grateful surprise at anniversary dinners the previous years. "Your meals are covered," the waiter said as he cleared the table. "Your daughters paid for it."

"Another round of drinks!" my friends joked. My husband and I, a stepfather to my generous girls, grasped hands and smiled. Misty eyes for both of us.

What was Tommy thinking? I wondered back then. Did he consider how much our lives had changed since our marriage all those years ago? I know that's where my thoughts flew. He had a bit of a vocabulary at dinner 2011, but occasionally, one of our friends turned to me with a blank look, hoping I could interpret my husband’s patchwork language.

By the time the six of us celebrated January 13, 2012, Tommy’s greedy aphasia had stolen all speech. My heart sank as he sat quietly while the rest of us debated our usual topics.

This year, 2013, I was the odd number at the table. I’ve only been a widow for just over two months, so the feeling of "third wheel" hasn't yet entered my brain. But, I remember how it nagged after my divorce from my first husband.

Initially, when he left our 30-year marriage that was often unhappy, I felt like a kid let out of school. I ate pizza on the couch, filled the house with overnight guests who often stayed for months, and hosted dinners that squeezed our dining room.

But after four years of this freedom, loneliness crept in. I missed being married. I wanted to be part of a couple again. I hated being the gal left at the wedding or bar mitzvah guarding the purses while couples danced.

I put an ad in the Chicago Reader (the pre-online matchmaking option), attended a few singles events, told my friends I wanted to be fixed up, and went on a series of dates that either ended the same evening or continued for several months.

And while none of these swains turned out to be “the one,” I did enjoy primping for an evening out and feeling like half a pair.

In the end, Tommy and I met through neither of the methods listed above, instead as the song suggests, “on the street where we lived.”  After our first date -- I had asked him out -- we became a couple. We each found what we wanted in a partner, and within two years married.

Although his friends say he fell head over heels when he met me, I think Tommy was a more content single than I was. His first marriage wasn’t nearly as long as mine and there were no children, so there appeared to be nothing he longed for or missed.

Unless it was someone to cherish, because that’s what my husband did from first date to last breath. As I’ve been rifling through dresser drawers in preparation for an eventual sale of our home, I’ve found stacks of yellow-lined notes bundled in rubber bands. Each bearing a sentiment from a love-struck middle-aged man who paused every day to let me know he felt as if he had won the lottery.

As for me, I reveled in being cherished by someone I loved. But just as much, I was thrilled to be part of a couple again, to be a married woman. When Tommy introduced me to his long-time friends, and when we double-dated with mine, all feelings of “third wheel” dissolved.

This time around, I’m not sure how long it will take for that sense of being the odd number will hit. Truthfully, I’m hoping it stays away for quite awhile. I’d rather savor the specialness I felt in my second marriage, where two was the perfect number.


Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Like Mother, Like Daughter. Or Not.

I’m cooking the ground beef, pressing it flat, turning it over, and stirring until it darkens. The meat is an ingredient in a recipe for Italian-style Sloppy Joes that I clipped from the newspaper. 

As I watch the meat brown, I think of my mother, who with her famous Chili Mac, performed a similar coloration during my childhood. As she enters my brain, I imagine her smiling at the sight of her daughter cooking. This is an unfamiliar activity for me. Simple table-top grilling, microwaving, ordering- or carrying-out was my usual pattern.

But something changed after my husband died. Without the care and worry that absorbed me, I now have extra hours in the day. And since my menu is no longer focused on vegetarian dishes he preferred, I have a taste for home-cooked meals with meat or chicken. 

I’m not a creative cook who tosses in a pinch of this or handful of that, but instead a recipe follower who uses sauce-stained finger tips to trace each ingredient and step. I haven’t opted for fancy cookware, save for the cast iron pot a daughter insisted I add. But for tonight’s dish, I’m using my weathered frying pan. 

My mother, back in her kitchen in the three-room apartment we lived in above our store, used an electric frying pan for her cuisine -- as aged and well-worn as my current cordless. I can still see her, attired in a Swirl apron, wearing the wedge slippers she changed into from her preferred high heels.

As I thought about Mom and the commonality of our cooking, another notion plopped in my head: we both bear the title, Widow. In her case, she was very young, just 45 years old when she got the label, while I am nearly three decades older.

My father died in 1958, at 48 years old. A three-pack-a-day unfiltered Camel smoker, overweight, and with diabetes, his demise from a heart attack was not a shock; instead a fear that darkened my childhood.

My husband died November 2, 2012, at age 77 from throat cancer. “Was he a smoker?” doctors asked. I knew Tommy was a heavy smoker before we met, perhaps similar to Dad’s overindulgence. But I understood he had quit cold turkey at about 50. 

As I continued the recipe, stirring the browned meat into the already softened onions, then adding red wine, canned tomatoes, tomato paste, oregano, red pepper flakes, and salt, I remembered Mom’s words after she became a widow: “I never want to be a burden to my kids.” 

This pledge pushed her to try and learn how to drive. She enlisted her brother, my Uncle Hy, to pick her up on Saturdays for lessons on quiet streets. But after just a few outings, she returned to the apartment she and I shared, tears in her blue eyes. “I give up,” I remember her saying as she sunk into the couch.

Poor mom believed it was too late for her to take the wheel, so she accepted the proposal of a man 20 years her senior who could put her in the passenger seat. (This turned out to be a lousy marriage, requiring her to clip coupons. Her husband declined with Alzheimer’s, but outlived my mom -- who died at 67 -- for many years.) 

This is where Mother and I part ways. I was fortunate to enjoy a happy second marriage, free of contention or serious belt tightening. Tommy was only three years my senior, and I was the one who insisted he learn how to drive. While he also suffered from a deteriorating brain disease, he left this earth with me still strolling on it.

Secondly, unlike my mother, I’d never consider myself a burden to my kids. A sometimes embarrassment, a frequent meddler, an expert at passive-aggressive behavior, but a burden? Never.

Not only can I operate a vehicle (even manual if need be), but I manage my own business, can program a DVR, set up Apple devices, and build a blog like the one you’re viewing. 

While Mom would likely be proud of these accomplishments, in my heart of hearts I know it’s the recent cooking that brings a smile to her ethereal face. In our years together, I never asked her to teach me how to cook, or do the handicrafts she was skilled at, like knitting, needlepoint, and crocheting. I wonder now, was that hurtful to her?

Odd that cooking has become a new hobby, drawing my mother back into my consciousness. Perhaps her spirit sees a window of opportunity? She’s successfully led me to the stove, could a ball of yarn be next?

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Handyman

“We’ll have to scrape off the old paint,” the handyman says. “Won’t look good if we just put another layer on top of the old.”

He looks up at me, likely wishing there was a man of the house who would better understand his diagnosis. Doubt if he appreciates this woman who seems to be counting dollars as he talks.

Yes, I'm counting costs, but my faraway look is also linked to memories on this porch. I see me sitting on the top stair, my golden retriever, Buddy, tucked tight next to me. I see Tommy rounding the corner on his Schwinn. The dog barks in joy; I smile with relief that my impaired husband has made it home safely.

Once the handyman has finished inspecting the front porch, I'll lead him to the back deck, which will need new staining. Nothing to strip here, just another layer to bring the wood back to a healthy shine. Again, images will interfere with his chatter. The glass-topped table is now stored in the basement along with the wrapped umbrella. Four chairs with rattan arms peeling off and rain-stained seat cushions are the table's companions.

When Tommy was healthy, we'd host pre-Labor day parties year after year. Some 60 friends and neighbors would claim spots at the outdoor table, or at the green bench in the yard, or scatter themselves in the kitchen. "No, no more parties," I told guests who were wondering at the absence of e-mail invitations this year. They didn't ask for explanations, already privy to Tommy's aphasia that made him unable to join in on conversations and enjoy social situations.

The basement floor is the last area that needs the handyman's review and estimate. The space still holds a treadmill, but the workman's bench my husband used in the early days of our 12 years here, is cleared of all tools. Two golf bags have already been donated to Goodwill, and I will gift the scores of balls Tommy couldn't resist buying.

Against all advice typically doled out to recent widows-- such as don’t make a major move for a year following a husband’s death – I have already decided to sell our house. There are
rational reasons: a three-bedroom home is too large for just me. There is no longer a dog, so the fenced-in backyard and proximity to the park, are not necessities. There is no gardener husband, so the vegetable plots that were only tended by him will lie fallow. The upkeep is more than my limited budget can handle.

While some may think my reasoning is limp, and I am rushing into things, in truth, this decision has been simmering for several years. “When Tommy can’t take care of the house any longer,” I’d tell loved ones who worried over the burden. “Then, we’ll consider a move to an apartment.”

At times, I’d pose the idea to my husband: “Wouldn’t it be lovely to be in a high rise overlooking the lake with someone else handling upkeep?”

“Feet first,” Tommy would reply, confirming his desire to never move from this house.

So, without his vote, I’m eyeing one-bedroom rentals in downtown Chicago, with maintenance included in the rent. My new home should have a doorman, a balcony, a washer and drier in the unit, be near public transportation so I can turn in my costly leased car, and be walking distance to attractions. A health club in the building and an outdoor pool would be lovely, too.

While the handyman does his part in prepping the house for a Spring sale. I will go through closets, shelves and files and decide what must be transported to a very downsized apartment. I will continue donating Tommy’s clothing and sporting equipment to Goodwill. On Wednesday mornings, before the trash trucks arrive, I’ll dump clutter and old files into the bins at the curb.

When the realtor brings prospective buyers to my house, I will leave the premises. While I'd be happy to see a young family as the new owners, with children occupying the bedrooms, with a dog who frolics in the yard, with a handyman husband who'll fill the workbench with new tools, I'd rather not be in earshot.

Moving forward, independent, that's where my thoughts must travel now: New year, new chapter, with Tommy’s spirit as my dear roommate. I’m sure he’ll adjust.