Miniature tartar sauce containers tumble to the floor when the refrigerator door opens, like an ice maker overshooting its glass, and I scramble to catch them before they reach the grimy linoleum. She shoves them Jenga style into the door compartments and there they sit: souvenirs from the Blue Bell, the only restaurant in her tiny upstate town, Red Creek. Why such colorful names for such a depressed, desperate town fighting for life I do not know.
My grandma doesn’t like the tartar sauce that comes with Friday night suppers delivered to her door-to-door, long before Instacart and Amazon, when only the waitress from the Blue Bell, or maybe she’s the chef or the owner and quite possibly all of the above, drives the short distance just out of town to make sure my grandmother doesn’t starve to death.
A town too small for meals-on-wheels, and an ego too large, my own mother struck a deal with the Blue Bell Diner, to deliver meals to her mother, my grams, several days a week, and on Fridays, it was always fish, for some unbeknownst biblical reason, and while she didn’t like tartar sauce, she liked throwing the little plastic coffins away even less.
Same with the Sunday coupons. Bread ties. Shoelaces still in their drugstore packaging. Margarine containers, washed, stacked, and lining the back of the miniature kitchen counter like plastic bricks, tiny tubs perched on the throne of their lids, little trophies of existence. For leftovers, she insists, but leftovers of what I can’t imagine.
I hope I don’t inherit this legacy, the affinity to keep what should be tossed—yardsticks leaning against every corner of the narrow mobile home, like kindling waiting to be lit. The powder room, as she called it, wedged between the living room where she lived and the bedroom where she did not, was filled with just that: round, faded violet, and sky blue and soft pink cylinders of loose powder, different canisters of varying heights and widths, dotting the back of the toilet like dusty warts—all with frosted tops revealing beneath the dusty layers of life, an actual powder puff, which I can smell right now. And the smell is not bad, but somehow fresh and clean, even when living out the last of your days, forgotten, in a powder room so tight your knees hit the vanity when you sit upon the throne. Empty Oil of Olay bottles line the sink, almost empty blue tubs Ponds Cold Creme, asthma inhalers tossed like shotgun shells. And a squat topaz ashtray with a sandbag bottom, which cannot be a good idea. Vintage Readers Digests fill the nooks and crannies, block the heat vent, more kindling, but they do insulate the sound of peeing and pooping, so despite the close quarters, no one can hear you go.
I hope this is not my legacy, to be an angry old woman in a trailer slightly askew, in a forgotten town surrounded by things I do not want but cannot leave.
My other grandmother had money. Lots. Bergdorf, Saks, and Lord & Taylor type money. Country clubs and bridge parties, with crystal bowls of salted nuts and sugar cubes in a Limoges tea set and martinis with little onions on littler swords. Hermes scarves wrapped around empty paper towel tubes to keep the creases out. No trailer for her, but a big ol’ house on hundreds of acres of rolling fields where streams dip and dive into valleys in the back 20, until that acreage was going, going, gone—and replaced with money. Lots of it, but “lots” is relative when your own mom is in a trailer in rural upstate not eating tartar sauce.
So, my mom, hitting the genetic jackpot of outliving her husband whose own legacy was not so fortunate (money doesn’t buy a boring health history), his pancreas was invaded by uninvited cells, as was his father’s, and his sister’s, and eventually, not mine, not yet. But sadly, his other daughter’s legacy just as dire.
My mother, she avoided the trailer, got some of that Mayer money and uses to buy everything but home health care—rugs pile up on top of each other, layers of color thick like speed bumps her walker can’t maneuver. Textiles and fabric fill one room, then two, then line all the walls, from floor to ceiling. She’s a quilter—an artist really—buying yards of colorful cloth she folds over and under, under and over sliding each cloth cloud carefully into cubbies organized like the Dewey Decimal system in the world according to her. Designer. Color. Vintage. Pattern. Yard by yard, an avalanche of color darkens the room and muffles the sound of Judge Judy shouting always shouting.
Her fridge is filled with grocery store favorites, individual packages of rice and tapioca – her own grandmother called it fish-eye pudding. My mom maneuvers the walker, the open door of the fridge, then props open a container and sticks a finger in, licking it off, then shares a hand spotted with age and fish-eye juice with her cats, Willy and Georgie. When the luxury of a spoon is enjoyed, the pudding eaten from the safety her perch in the sewing room, where Judge Judy pontificates and my mom lets the cats lick the containers when she’s done, a few relics rolling under the coffee table and kicked under the couch. Some make it to the sink and are rinsed ever so quickly under the faucet for the briefest of seconds, then stacked on her incredibly shrinking kitchen counter. One inside the other. Trophies or saved for another purpose I do not know.
I can’t help but think of my own fridge: soy sauce packets, little inky envelopes of varying age and decomposition, dozens of them, sliding around the empty produce drawer. How long, until they slide through the cracks and spill onto the floor, when my own grown son or daughter, or maybe a grandchild visiting, opens my fridge and stares in disbelief, wondering with all their heart, how and why this happened and why did I let it.
Kathryn Mayer is a potty-mouth, aspiring writer with the rejections to prove it, writing out loud at www.kathrynmayer.com, and occasionally funny on Instagram & Twitter, with rare appearances on Facebook. Her award-winning essays appear on-line, in-print, but most often, on fridges sticky with smiles and swears.