Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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My parents wanted to redo our kitchen, which had already undergone several makeovers in the ten years we’d lived in that house. The walls had gone from mustard to white, to cream (the white was too white), to a dark brown, and now to a “mocha” color. This time my mother and father had also ordered a new fridge, which would be delivered in three days.
Since everyone was home, we agreed it was a good time to clean out the old fridge. As we removed past-date pickles, forgotten Tupperware containers, and some yogurt that had gotten lost in the rear, my parents bickered about what to keep and what to throw in the trash. The squabbling didn’t let up after we were finished. My mom wanted to remove the fridge that very minute, while my dad wanted to wait until the new fridge arrived. He wound up giving in. Together they wiggled the refrigerator from its nook, arguing about who should pull when and from where. Finally the fridge slid free, and we saw on the wall behind it a message written in the mustard-colored paint my parents had applied when we’d first moved into the house. “Jimmy loves Lisa,” it said, inside a giant heart.
As my father pulled my mother into a long embrace, it was clear the fighting was over for the night.
Clinton Corners, New York
When I was a girl and my mother brought home the groceries, it was my responsibility to put them away and begin cooking dinner. I also made breakfasts, packed lunches, and baked. I knew the contents of the refrigerator well.
I had always been skinny as a child. When the first curves of adolescence appeared, they came as a shock. An adult teased that I was “putting on weight.” Worried about getting fat, I began looking at calorie charts and analyzing my food intake. I gave myself minuscule portions and skipped breakfast and lunch. Standing before the open refrigerator, I saw numbers appear on every item: Orange juice, 110 calories per cup. Apples, anywhere from 75 to 130, depending on size. Ice cream, at least 300 calories. I loved sweets but would allow myself to have them only on weekends and then only in very small amounts. The refrigerator was no longer a source of ingredients for meals. It was the enemy.
It took many years of counseling for me to stop being anorexic and understand why I had traveled down that road. (There were deeper reasons than a comment on my weight when I was fifteen.) Fortunately I am once again able to open the refrigerator and enjoy the foods I find there.
Beside my cell door sits a cheap styrofoam cooler, the kind you might buy at the gas station before a trip to the beach, then discard afterward without a thought. Every morning I take this cooler downstairs to the utility room, where I stand in line for up to ten minutes to fill it with ice. For fifteen years this cheap cooler — or another one like it — has been my refrigerator. I use it to keep my drinks cold, to prevent my food from spoiling, and even as a makeshift air conditioner during the summer months.
Standing in line for ice this morning, I look down into the cooler. The contents are bobbing in water: two cans of soda, a plastic bag full of steamed vegetables, and another bag containing a piece of chicken— leftovers from last night’s dinner. I worry about the chicken: has it stayed fresh? Eating spoiled chicken is never a good idea, but neither is wasting food in a place where every morsel is a valuable commodity. I put my hand in the water: still frigid. Maybe the chicken is OK.
Another inmate tells me to hurry up; we have to line up for work in five minutes. I quickly dump the water in the sink and scoop ice into the cooler, making sure to bury the sodas and bags. Then I return the cooler to my cell and grab my coat as the work buzzer sounds. Heading back down the steps, I see the guy who was in line behind me coming up. He’s late for work, and he gives me a dirty look, as if I have held him up. I spend the rest of the day wondering if I am going to have a problem with him.
Never in my carefree teenage years would I have thought that one day I might get into a fight over my refrigerator.
In 1969, in the Moroccan seaside town of Safi, Sidi Ahmed operated a tiny storefront shop. Much of the time its wooden shutters were closed, and there was not even a sign to indicate what was sold there. But each morning around 9:30 a collection of hippies and foreign travelers would start to gather outside the shop in anticipation.
Ahmed had the only flavored yogurt in town, maybe the only flavored yogurt in all of Morocco. Around 10 AM he would appear in a clean white cap and a pressed djellaba of light-green cloth. He’d open his shutters with a flourish, revealing a bare space furnished with only an old refrigerator. As the first customers stepped forward, he’d place on the counter a sign announcing the flavor of the day.
For the next half-hour Ahmed would walk back and forth to his fridge to fetch cool glasses of fresh yogurt as one customer after another eagerly purchased a serving and stepped aside to enjoy it. I never learned where he made the yogurt, but sometimes Ahmed would regale us with the story of his clever son who worked in faraway Switzerland and sent him the special flavorings. And as the emptied glasses were placed back on the counter, he would lean over with a conspiratorial air and say, “Tomorrow: peach!” or “mint!” or “caramel!”
After he had quickly sold out, Ahmed would shutter his store for the day. Did he think to buy another fridge? Make more yogurt, so he could sell more? Apparently not. He was content to stay open less than an hour. The following morning he’d be back with a new flavor.
Port Townsend, Washington
Late last summer, cancer succeeded in wringing the last few ounces of life from my wife’s body. After forty years there was no more Kathy and Jim, only Jim. I’d known that huge changes would occur when I lost her, and I’d prepared for them as best I could: survivor’s guilt, a silent home, an empty bed. But it was the small things that shook me, like the fading of her fragrance from the clothes I couldn’t yet give away, or the death of her beloved indoor plants after I forgot to water them.
The contents of our refrigerator were one of the cruelest reminders of Kathy’s absence. As use-by dates came and went, I had to toss much of it. First went the half-and-half Kathy used in her morning coffee, then the cottage cheese and yogurt — the only two foods that the chemo drugs allowed her to eat — then the blue-cheese-stuffed olives for the dirty martini she prepared each night when she returned home from work. (Kathy worked a full forty-hour week right up to the day she entered hospice, and she found vodka much more effective than medical marijuana for dealing with the side effects of the chemotherapy.)
My wife kept our crisper stocked with fresh broccoli, asparagus, spinach, and the Brussels sprouts that she loved and I hated. Now it was empty except for the occasional bag of ready-made salad that I put in there. I also thinned out the items in the door. Italian-mix giardiniera? Capers? Red-wine vinegar? Whatever these were, I didn’t need them to prepare my dinners for one.
After my wife had died, I’d vowed that I would not allow our house to become my house. I would keep things of hers to supplement the memories I was so desperately trying to hold on to. When I realized that I had turned our refrigerator into my refrigerator, I felt as if I had lost another part of Kathy.
So I have begun to restock the shelves with items she used. I still don’t know what to do with Italian-mix giardiniera, but I am learning new recipes, and I even fill the crisper with green vegetables and actually eat them. No Brussels sprouts, though. I think it was Meat Loaf who sang, “I would do anything for love, but I won’t do that.”
Laguna Beach, California
My mother grew up on a barren farm in Ireland where meals were cooked in a cauldron hanging above the fire and dished out whenever her busy parents found time to feed their seven kids. Food was fuel, pure and simple.
Mom didn’t know a thing about cooking when she immigrated to New York City at the age of eighteen. After she married my fireman father and had children, she simply boiled everything — chicken, prime rib, fish — until it was uniformly gray and soft. We either ate it or went hungry.
My father, on the other hand, had learned to cook from his Portuguese mother, who had an enormous garden with fresh vegetables and fruits that she canned and preserved. Her soups and stews were legendary, and her Sunday dinners were sublime. My father’s mother baked pies and cakes almost daily, and there was always a loaf of bread fresh from her oven. When it was my father’s turn to cook at whatever firehouse he was assigned to, the other firemen lined up eagerly — along with drop-in guests from the neighborhood.
On his days off Dad tried his best to interest my mother in cooking. He supplied her with sharp knives, a gas range, appliances to make preparation easier, and the best ingredients, but to no avail. Then one day my sisters and I came home from school to find a beautiful, brand-new refrigerator in our tiny kitchen. Its expansive white interior lit up each time the door was opened. (We were used to the dark, ominous recesses of a small icebox.) We now had a compartment for butter; drawers for fruits, vegetables, cold cuts, and cheeses; and even a freezer that could fit gallons of ice cream.
“What am I to do with all this?” my mother asked.
“Keep it filled?” my father said.
And thus began the dreadful era of my mother’s leftovers. Now she cooked in great quantities that lasted for days and appeared on our plates over and over. Just before mold grew on something, my mother put it in a soup.
Another major change occurred shortly after that: our father began to come home only to stock our refrigerator with delicious food he had cooked at the station, after which he would leave. At first we were happy to have these treats. We thought our father was just working longer hours than usual — until one day he mentioned that he had to go “home.”
My siblings and I were stunned. Our parents hadn’t said a word to us.
Over the years other major purchases filled our apartment, all supplied by our mostly absent father. We had one of the first televisions on our block, a stereo, and new furniture. Our friends envied us. They just didn’t understand.
Santa Rosa, California
I was raised Catholic and received Communion every Sunday. Unfortunately that little round wafer did not give me the spiritual sustenance I needed as a young black child growing up in the fifties with an alcoholic mother and an abusive but sometimes loving father.
When I was ten years old, I made food my other communion in an attempt to fill the empty place inside me.
On evenings and weekends my father worked as a waiter at private dinner parties in New Orleans’s wealthy Garden District. (His day job was as a groundskeeper at a hospital.) Dad kept my sister and me well-fed and sent us to college by working bar mitzvahs, debutante balls, and even ordinary dinners for six. I grew up thinking white folks didn’t know how to cook or take care of themselves. Why would anyone need a waiter to serve dinner for a half dozen people?
Most nights Dad came home late with boxes of goodies: sandwiches cut in triangles and squares, caviar with egg or shrimp canapés, mini oyster patties. Best of all were the desserts: individual chocolate and lemon doberge cakes, tiny cheesecakes, petits fours, and little sticky buns called “schnecken.” I was in heaven. The refrigerator was the altar at which I truly worshiped, a sacred space that held holy pink boxes of leftover delicacies to numb my fear, sadness, and shame.
Los Angeles, California
In the late nineties I married a handsome man from Morocco after knowing him for all of three months. He had immigrated to the U.S. less than a year before we met. To me, a woman fresh out of a blue-collar town in Michigan, his manners were exotically charming. I even found his limited English endearing.
After a difficult first year full of culture clashes and misunderstandings, we had just settled into a manageable relationship when his sister Zafia arrived. I asked why she had bought a one-way ticket, and my husband said Zafia had come to stay. He’d assumed I knew. We would be responsible for her until she was married.
I was suddenly a big sister and protector to a Moroccan teenager. I accepted this arrangement with as much grace as possible, and when my husband’s cousin Fatma also received a visa, I insisted she live with us, too, hoping her presence would make Zafia less homesick.
My husband rarely spoke to the girls without shouting or giving orders. I did what I could to maintain peace in our strange family. One thing I knew how to do was feed everyone, and I kept the kitchen well stocked with food. After I’d gone grocery shopping and put everything away, the girls would borrow my camera to take pictures of themselves in front of the open refrigerator. This puzzled me until I visited my husband’s family in Morocco and finally understood the reason for it. Their refrigerator was often empty and sometimes unplugged. Food was that scarce. The pictures of Zafia and Fatma were proof that the girls were well taken care of in this country.
By 2005 the marriage was over. The girls had been all that was holding my husband and me together, and after they’d left, we divorced. I was saddened to discover that neither Zafia nor Fatma wanted any further communication with me. I hope that one day they will run across the photos of themselves posing in front of our refrigerator and realize that I did my best for them.
Durham, North Carolina
As Hurricane Sandy approached the Jersey Shore, all anyone could talk about was the weather: winds, tides, storm surge. At the bakery we tried our best to prepare for a long power outage. Desserts-in-progress were finished and sold, and the rest were frozen solid and placed in special chest-freezer boxes that, if you didn’t open them, would keep food cold for a ridiculously long time. But nothing could be done about the contents of the walk-in refrigerator, which was packed with butter, eggs, milk, and cream.
Sandy hit our area hard. The bakery is on high ground, so we had no flooding, but our downhill neighbors were not so lucky. Homes and businesses were destroyed and even completely washed away. The power was out everywhere, and there was no chance of its coming back on anytime soon. My husband lost his business. My brother lost his home, and his family moved in with us. School was canceled indefinitely for our three kids. It was chaos.
In the midst of all this I decided it would be a shame to waste all that food in the walk-in fridge. So a few of us went to the bakery during the day, opened the back door for light, and fired up the gas stove. We made huge batches of macaroni and cheese and brought them to the temporary shelter for storm victims. The next day we made more, and some soup, too. We’d cleaned out our refrigerator within a few days, but when people saw what was going on, they dropped by with supplies, money, and helping hands. Volunteers cooked, washed dishes, and went door to door with coffee, hot cocoa, and encouragement. It was a time of neighbors helping neighbors, without fretting over unimportant details.
It’s been two years since Sandy. Many residents are just now returning to their homes. I will always look back on that period as both a disaster and a gift, because we were all busy and working together.
Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey
It’ll be ten years this summer. I still see it every now and then in the back of the fridge when I reach for a jar of pickles. There it is behind the six-pack of beer: the navy-blue fabric case with the word Follistim on it in bright-yellow letters; the case that held the fertility drugs my husband and I used for our last round of IVF — in vitro fertilization. It represents my greatest desire: to become a mother.
Over the years I slowly cleaned out all the other medications: There were the bottles of the hormone Gonal-f and the distilled water with which we mixed it. I remember thinking each time I prepared an injection that if I got the mix just right, I’d get pregnant for sure. Then there were Repronex and Menopur, which probably didn’t even need to be refrigerated. These drugs made me superovulate in preparation for the “trigger shot” of Ovidrel that would release the eggs from my ovaries: such a small yet important vial of medicine; it fit perfectly in the cold-cuts drawer. The butter compartment was the ideal place to hold the dreadful progesterone suppositories, which needed to be kept cold, I’d discovered, or they would melt.
Years later, after thirteen failed inseminations, two failed IVFs, and several miscarriages, the rest of the drugs are gone, but that blue case is still there. I keep telling myself I’ll throw it away when I’m ready. I think I’m just afraid that if I get rid of this last medication, I’ll forget how heartbreaking it all was. But do I really need another reminder of that?
Rochester, New York
Soon after arriving at the orphanage at the age of six, I was assigned the task of deadheading all the geraniums that lined the whitewashed facade of the main building. There were fifty or so plants, and Sister Germanus taught me how to snap the stems at the base for a clean break. My reward for completing this task was a tall glass of eggnog.
I became a helper in the busy institutional kitchen, which Sister Germanus ran. We served three hundred meals a day. One of my duties was to fetch ingredients from the large walk-in refrigerator. I never quite got used to the clank of the door shutting behind me, and I always worried that I would be trapped inside. On hot days, though, I overcame my fear and would linger inside the cool expanse, lifting the lids of containers to see what was inside. Boxes filled with stale cakes donated by local bakeries were stacked high. Occasionally I’d see a gigantic fish lying on its side, destined to become our Friday dinner. It was always tough, foul tasting, and full of bones.
Once a month two station wagons arrived from an orphanage in Tijuana, Mexico, and we would load the vehicles with all the leftovers from our walk-in. I was sorry for the kids who had to eat the old bread, the fruits and vegetables long past their prime, and the doughnuts, pies, and cakes on the verge of becoming inedible. But the sweet Mexican nuns always smiled and said, “Muchas gracias,” over and over, grateful for the bounty. As they pulled away with the dregs of our refrigerator, I would return to the walk-in to rearrange what was left, feeling guilty for ever complaining about the food.
Francis Collin Brown
Port Townsend, Washington
While my three children were all in their teens, I took them to Kenya for two months. I had lived there for the first year of my marriage, working alongside my husband in a village hospital, and we’d learned to love the slow pace of African life. Now my offspring were almost grown and had never been exposed to the deep-green hills of Kenya, where children grow up without Facebook and cellphones and two-hundred-dollar boots and drugs. I decided my kids should experience what that was like, at least for a short time.
When we arrived, we were given volunteer jobs at the village hospital. The children chopped carrots and peeled potatoes and served tea to the patients, and I followed the doctors around the pediatric ward, where I had once been in charge. But it was clear that our real job would be to keep ourselves fed. The house they let us stay in was long abandoned and contained only two chairs, two bed frames, one lumpy mattress that did not fit either frame, and one light bulb that exploded on the first night. There were several giant wasps’ nests and no running water. But in the middle of the house, miraculously, was a small but functioning refrigerator.
At first we kept the fridge full of familiar foods from the grocery store in town: cheese, boxed milk, orange juice, and even a packaged chicken that we roasted in a toaster oven, almost burning the house down in the process. But we soon made friends with generous locals who brought us fresh milk from their cow, more avocados than we could possibly eat, and paper bags full of long beans that they taught us to shell and prepare. They also showed us how to make sweet, milky Kenyan tea, which became a daily comfort.
The kids found the local bar, a shack that served warm beer to men sitting on handmade stools, and they persuaded the owner to sell them a few bottles at a time if they swore on their lives to return the empties. They carried the beers back to the house in a woven basket and lined the bottom shelf of our fridge with them.
On the way home from work I always stopped by Joseph’s rickety vegetable stand to see his brilliant, one-toothed smile and to pick out a pile of carrots and bright-red tomatoes and bunches of greens. He would count my change in giant shilling coins, heavy and dark with age. Then I’d walk through the lush hills, past old women with piles of firewood on their backs and children carrying jugs of water and cooking oil. Their spirited laughter would follow me up the path to our house, where my kids would be shelling beans as bright as candies and drinking cold beer and singing along and dancing to Bob Marley playing from a set of earbuds hanging from a nail on the wall.
Before we returned to the U.S., I cleaned spilled milk and black, half-eaten avocados from that refrigerator, thinking about how I would most likely never again see the dear neighbors who’d brought them almost daily. It was hard to leave.
My parents bought our Cambridge, Massachusetts, house in the 1940s, and when my mother died in 1966, it still had all the original appliances. My mother’s alcoholic years had done the place no favors, and although she’d achieved sobriety toward the end of her life, she’d never become much of a homemaker. She had insisted on making the evening meal each night, though, and she’d jealously guarded her kitchen territory. I’d never even been tempted to learn how to cook.
The refrigerator was a mess. There were no longer doors on the interior freezer compartment, and any ice cream we put in there soon went bad. Wrinkled black carrots, green-coated lemons, and blue meat were the norm.
My mother died of pancreatitis at the age of fifty-five during my freshman year in college, and when I returned home for the summer, my father and I decided to fix up the house. (My older siblings had all left by then.) Our first purchase was a pop-up toaster. (Toast, not charcoal!) The second was a new refrigerator. We spent hours viewing models at a discount appliance store. Not only did all the fridges have doors on their freezer compartments, but some even had a separate freezer entirely. Our old fridge had been such a clunker that the middle-of-the-road appliance we picked felt like a limousine by comparison. I was a bit sad to see the old round-cornered model make its exit, but the shiny new replacement more than made up for it.
The first thing we did was make ice cubes. Then we went shopping. Two whole aisles in the supermarket were now opened up to us: TV dinners, frozen vegetables, ice cream!
A year later Dad remarried, and I even considered learning to cook.
My grandfather wasn’t supposed to have sweets anymore after his doctor told him to lose weight, but he couldn’t stop eating the Italian pastries that had been part of his life since he was a little boy. As his ten-year-old granddaughter, I could not blame him. Those pastries were beautiful and perfect lined up in the bakery’s glass cases. Just the smell of the Fleetwood Pastry Shop was enough to break one’s will. And I loved Grandpa Joe so much that I felt he should have whatever he wanted.
We would go to the shop together in his brown Buick to buy bread and desserts. His favorite was the clam-shaped sfogliatelle: crisp ribbons of fine, flaky dough filled with soft cream and candied fruits. Two of those went in the box. My favorite was the napoleon: a rectangular pastry whose sweet filling came out the sides as you bit down. Two of those went in the box. My grandfather paid the pretty young woman behind the counter and thanked her in Italian.
Somehow we managed not to eat the confections on the interminable seven-minute drive home.
Once he’d parked in the safety of the garage, my grandfather would open the white box, and we’d each eat one pastry, not talking, hands cupped under our chins to catch any crumbs or oozing cream. Nothing tasted better. Then I’d sneek the much-lighter box inside to hide it behind the bottles of seltzer in the refrigerator.
Later, after we’d had dinner and the others were relaxing on the porch, my grandfather would lean over and ask me in Italian if I wanted a pastry. Oh, yes. Feeling like an undercover agent, I would steal into the fridge to grab the box that contained our illicit booty. Inevitably I would rattle a bottle and give myself away. I didn’t realize that I hadn’t been fooling anybody.
The second pastry was as good as the first, but the last bite always came with a hint of sadness, and then the empty box went into the trash.
My mother and her sister often told their father he shouldn’t eat a second bowl of pasta or have a second glass of beer — and no pastries! If I’d had a say, I wouldn’t have denied him any of those foods, which reminded him of the country he’d left behind so he could give his wife and daughters and granddaughter a better life.
Monroe, New York
It has been two weeks since I have seen or heard from my firstborn son. This is his freshman year at college.
On my refrigerator is a photo of my boy when he was about a year old. Originally it was a picture of the two of us, but in my vanity I cut myself out because I looked less than perfect. What is left is an image of my son squeezing a stuffed animal. His light-colored hair is curled, his smile reveals two small teeth, and the look on his face is one of pure glee.
At the time the photo was taken, he was still an only child, and I was a medical resident undergoing training to become a doctor. I was often away from my family for more than thirty-six hours at a stretch. In an attempt to stay connected, I carried this picture in the inside sleeve of a pocket calendar. I would pull it out during long nights on call when I needed some encouragement to get through the horrors of caring for acutely sick patients. My baby boy’s smile would always sustain me.
When I’d completed my residency, I stuck the picture on the refrigerator, and there it has stayed through three moves. The babe in the photo barely resembles the full-grown man my son is today, off at college and clearly not pining for his home, his family, or his mother.
These past two weeks without contact have been almost physically painful. The photo on the refrigerator no longer sustains me until I can see him again. It just isn’t enough.
My boyfriend stood in front of my open fridge with a bottle of expired salad dressing in his hand and an intent expression on his face. “Let’s clean out your refrigerator,” he said.
I knew then I had found my true love.
I would open that refrigerator door many times a day and notice the crumbs on the shelves, the expired miso, the jar with one lone olive floating in brine, and I’d always make a mental note to clean the fridge. But, as a single mother of two, I never found the time. My children were no help; they couldn’t have cared less about messes. My ex-husband had viewed all cleaning as “women’s work,” and getting him to do any chore had been exhausting.
I’d finally found a man who prized tidiness. He was childless and prosperous, and he listened sympathetically when I talked about the difficulties of raising two kids alone.
He and I stood shoulder to shoulder that day, working as a team to wipe down shelves and wash the crisper drawers in the sink. We talked and laughed and decided where to place items when we returned them to the fridge. I was filled with gratitude and contentment.
A few months later he broke up with me. When I pressed him for a reason, he admitted that he couldn’t reconcile his need for order with the harried, disorganized life of a single mother. It didn’t matter that I craved the same order he did and strove to maintain it. He didn’t see me, only my circumstances.
If I wanted something from the refrigerator as a child, I had to reach past a near-impenetrable wall of long-necked brown beer bottles to get it. My arms were often too short for the task. “Just ask me, and I’ll get it for you,” my mother would say whenever she saw me standing at the door, frustrated.
Like people who live near an airport and get used to the sound of planes taking off and landing, in our house we were used to the sound of the refrigerator door opening, the clink of bottles, and the quiet pop of the cap being removed. It was normal to us. Open, clink, pop, and my mother could begin another day. Open, clink, pop, and the ironing got done or the laundry got put away. Open, clink, pop, and a meal was put on the table. Every afternoon at four, open, clink, pop signaled the start of “teatime,” my mother’s respite from the pressures of being a housewife in the 1950s.
I had a good childhood. I was provided for in every way and encouraged to appreciate the arts and to think for myself. My family laughed a lot and expressed feelings freely. I eventually became aware, however, that the sound of normal in our house was not the sound of normal in the homes of my friends. As time went on, open, clink, pop sometimes brought chaos, questions, and embarrassment.
My mother died years ago. You will not find any beer bottles in my refrigerator. I have chosen different methods of getting through life. At sixty-eight I can reach into the fridge and get whatever I want with ease. Odd, then, that what I often want is a long-necked brown bottle of beer and to be able to enjoy teatime with my mother.
© Patricia O’Brien
Before my parents would let me spend the weekend with my aunts Maude and Rowena, I had to promise not to get into mischief. It was a hard promise to keep for an eight-year-old girl who loved rummaging in her maiden aunts’ nineteenth-century farmhouse. My father’s sisters were pack rats, and some rooms in their house were so full you had to follow narrow passageways through the clutter.
The first night I was there, I woke thirsty and tiptoed down the creaky stairs to the kitchen for a cold drink. When I opened the refrigerator, I found it half filled with foil-wrapped packages, each about the size of a brick. Curious, I pulled one out and carefully unwrapped the foil. Mothballs and bundles of cash fell to the floor.
My father later explained the family secret to me: having lived through the stock-market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression, Maude and Rowena didn’t trust banks to keep their money safe, so they stashed it in their house. “God forbid the place should burn down,” my father said. “They probably have twenty grand under a mattress.”
Looking back, I’m not sure how much of a secret it was. You don’t pay at the diner or donate at church using old, uncirculated bills that smell of mothballs without people starting to talk.
Sure enough, after I was an adult, Maude called me one night sounding shaken. “Annie, we were robbed,” she cried. Two young men had broken into their house and tied them up at gunpoint.
Rowena, who was on the upstairs line, interjected, “But they didn’t get it all!”
The robbers had tied and duct-taped them to the refrigerator.
North Ferrisburg, Vermont
My father was a difficult man to live with. My siblings and I never knew whether he would be angry or happy or distant. He could take us bowling one day and be physically violent the next. Sometimes he spent entire weekends lying in bed, coming out only to eat.
One of many things that triggered my father’s bad moods was anxiety about money. Though he earned a decent living as a cash-register repairman, we lived like paupers. When my shoes wore out, he fashioned replacement soles out of tire treads. Our clothes came from the donation bags at church. He once made his own shoelaces out of the elastic from an old fitted sheet. I was twelve when my mom finally left him. I remember being elated.
My father never remarried, and I rarely spent time with him as a young adult. I still blamed him for how unhappy I was. But after he retired, he mellowed a great deal, and we eventually developed a relationship. I would stay with him at his mobile home when I was between jobs, apartments, or boyfriends.
On one visit I tried to convince him that he needed a new refrigerator. His was more than twenty years old and noisy, and it frequently needed to be defrosted. The door gasket had gotten so brittle that it wasn’t making a tight seal. Dad didn’t want to hear my explanation of how a newer model would save him money; he just wanted to fix his fridge. The situation reminded me too much of my years growing up with him and his irrational need to save money at all costs. I got frustrated and left.
My next visit was after I had quit my job due to a deep depression. He still had the old refrigerator but had engineered a replacement gasket out of a garden hose. The door wouldn’t stay shut, so he’d buckled two belts together and wrapped them around the fridge. Opening and closing it was time-consuming. Also the refrigerator was overworking, and there was a constant water leak.
I told Dad that he was still wasting money on electric bills. When he opened his mouth to argue the point, I yelled, “Why can’t you just be normal for once?”
He looked at me with a sad expression. I realized then that he was trying to be normal. He had always done the best he could. I sometimes conveniently forgot that this was a man who’d become a homeless orphan at the age of sixteen during the Great Depression. Of course he would use a garden hose to fix a refrigerator.
He eventually bought a newer used refrigerator, but he couldn’t let go of the old one, which stood unplugged between his kitchen and dining area and served as a bulky bulletin board. He taped pictures of animals and greeting cards to the door and sides. It blocked the light from a window and got in the way of cabinets, but there it stayed.
Eventually both my father and I were diagnosed with bipolar disorder and started treatment. It was wonderful to see him experience some peace and emotional stability, and to learn who he really was without the influence of an untreated mental illness.
A year later my dad died, and I moved into his mobile home. I thought the arrangement would be temporary; I was in transition from yet another failed relationship. That was sixteen years ago, and I’m still here. Though my father could not provide a happy childhood for me, his house has become my sanctuary. I try not to let the bad memories block the light, like that old, useless refrigerator.
In 1992 two friends and I traveled to Northern Cyprus, a nation on a politically divided island in the Mediterranean fifty miles south of Turkey. One of my friends had parents who were originally from the Turkish side of the island, and they had asked her to deliver a wedding gift to a distant cousin.
My friend’s cousin lived in a poor, rural area without many trees. The tiny houses were separated by dry and barren fields. Cone-shaped clay ovens stood in the front yards.
The cousin and her parents greeted us with tears and laughter. We followed them into their small home and found the common room tidy but bare except for a single ladder-backed wooden chair. The only decorations were the homeowners’ framed wedding photo and a picture of Turkey’s national hero, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Before my friends and I could say a word, we were ushered into the kitchen and seated at a battered formica table. The aunt and cousin engaged my Turkish-speaking friend in a mild argument. Puzzled, I waited to hear what it was all about. Finally my friend explained that they insisted on feeding us, even though we had just eaten a big meal. It was customary in Cyprus to offer food to any visitor to your home, and it would be an insult to refuse.
The cousin went out back and returned with three fresh eggs from their chickens. Then the aunt opened the large refrigerator, and I saw inside only two potatoes. That was it. She proceeded to fry the potatoes and eggs, fretting over the limited offerings.
It was one of the hardest meals I’ve ever eaten — not because I wasn’t hungry, but because I was eating this family’s dinner. There was nothing else to eat in the house; if there had been, I’m sure they would have fed us that, too.
As I ate my egg and bit of potato, I thought about what I would have done if I’d had only two potatoes and three eggs to give guests. Would I have given up my dinner? At best I think I would have shared it. But these people had fierce pride and generous hearts to go with their empty fridge.
Kim P. Fusch