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For my dad.
My parents are both alive and well, busier now than they were before my father retired. Much of their time is still spent guiding their children back to safe territory. They’ve driven cross-country at a moment’s notice to help one daughter climb out of the abyss of alcoholism, and then zoomed back across the country when a grandchild went missing. If it weren’t for my parents, my siblings would be rudderless, and I might still be in jail.
The remainder of my parents’ time is spent assisting, entertaining, and eventually burying the elderly population of their small Minnesota town. My mom serves as a bridge substitute at the retirement home when regular members of the bridge club expire, and—during their church’s monthly senior citizen excursion to the Indian gaming casino—my parents’ heads are the only brown ones bobbing along with the gray hairs on the bus.
I don’t know exactly how they came to this role in their tight-knit community. I’m sure it was my mother’s doing. She was born to help.
Elderly people by definition do not last very long in this world, so not a week goes by that I don’t hear those matter-of-fact words from my mother, “We have a funeral tomorrow.” Most of the time my parents simply attend the funeral, but if the deceased was Catholic and attended Sunday mass regularly, my mom will volunteer both herself and my dad to “work it.”
Toiling alongside other women in the hot church basement, my mom will help to make and serve the post-funeral meal. My father’s job is to breeze through the crowd of mourners, refilling coffee cups and being sunny. He is the only husband in the parish whose wife asks him to help in this way. Working funerals does not come easily to my father, who is neither breezy or sunny by nature.
He does it because my mother wants him to.
It’s a simple equation.
With similar gusto, my dad volunteers to help my mother deliver Meals on Wheels to elderly invalids in and around their town. Their three-day shift comes up once a month and takes precedence over any funerals scheduled during meal delivery time, as feeding the needy outranks praying over the dead on my mother’s to-do list.
After stopping by the hospital cafeteria to fill up their station wagon with aluminum-foil covered meals, they drive from house to house, bringing hot food to hungry old people. Even in the midst of heavy snowstorms that erase any discernable difference between road, ditch, or sky, my parents are still out there, marshalling their meals. In the summertime, when the deer flies and mosquitoes are so thick that small children must be weighted down lest they get carried away, my parents will don their beekeepers' netted caps and forge ahead. Come hell or high water, sleet or flies, my parents cannot be deterred from delivering those meals.
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Meal recipients know when a warm meal and a warm body are due to arrive on their doorstep, which is often their only social interaction of the day. Not surprisingly, many of them take advantage of this opportunity to interact with another human being, which often leads to “visiting”—another of my mother’s many fortes, and my father’s greatest pet peeve.
While my father fumes in the car, my mother will grab a meal, enter a house, and emerge twenty minutes later bubbling over with old person news, still waving at the old person from the car as my father drives off to make their next home delivery. This is enough to make my father ban my mother from ever again taking meals to the door, marching them up there himself until he eventually gets sucked into a visit, after which the ban on my mother is lifted.
My parents have also learned that delivering meals often entails non-food-oriented tasks, such as helping to find lost glasses, opening pill bottles, and jimmying locked doors.
One time my dad returned to the car grumpier than usual. “I had to wipe Frank’s ass,” he said. “I didn’t have a choice.”
He doesn’t have a lot of choices anymore, and probably wouldn’t eat Sunday brunch at the Senior Center every week either if my mother didn’t go. The Senior Center is their town’s nursing home, where my mom volunteers to call Bingo and waltz. She likes to eat Sunday brunch there because, at $2.50 a plate, it’s a nice way to support the facility, and conducive to more visiting.
I’ve joined my parents for Sunday brunch at the Senior Center occasionally throughout the years. The least surprising aspect of this adventure is that the food is served cafeteria-style, with everyone walking, limping, or rolling through the serving line and back to the long tables with their food. The most surprising aspect is that the food is actually quite good, as if Emeril Lagasse is in the kitchen whipping up steak and potatoes, sausage and sauerkraut, platter after platter of fried fish.
Bam! I bet Emeril would like my dad. I bet my dad would like Emeril.
My father, at his sunniest and breeziest, eats heartily and rivals my mother’s visiting abilities, chatting up toothless old men about railroads and fishing lakes. Old women drink their drool right back out of their orange juice and occasionally somebody shits his pants, but none of this fazes my parents, who are usually the last to leave.
For a long time, Sundays also entailed the transportation of one Mrs. Josephine Sears from her apartment to church, from church to the Senior Center, and then from the Senior Center back to her apartment. Dad would climb the stairs to her second story home and carry her down to the car, her frail body lost in the depths of winter wraps. At the church he would escort her up the steps and into the vestibule, both arms around her for safety. Almost a year went by in this manner: my parents taking Josephine to church with them, to the Senior Center with them, and then back to her apartment after brunch, always with Josephine tucked firmly under my father’s arm.
Only the word of God and the fear of a lawsuit could have changed this routine, and both came to pass one day when Father Joe ran into my father in the hardware store.
"You can't take her out anymore, man. If she ever slips on church property, she could sue you, the church, and in fact the entire diocese for neglect. Don't take her to Sunday brunch anymore either. You don't want an injury on the Senior Center’s property."
Josephine would be taking communion in her apartment from now on, Father Joe said, which was best for all parties concerned.
Usually it's my mother who calls me with news of change or trouble, but this time my father called, upset and angry. He railed against lawsuits and liability, executive decisions that hindered the quality of a 92-year-old woman’s final days. While my mother took the situation in stride—invalidism a sad but unavoidable matter of course for old folks—my father saw only injustice. I think what upset him just as much was that he, too, was losing rights: to help who he wanted, to socialize with others as he saw fit.
My dad was internalizing what my mother externalized every day: duty mixed with empathy, mixed with the certainty of one’s own demise.
I think he wanted me to know that he expected better out of all parties concerned if he made it to 92.
In most parts of the country, a dish made up of noodles or rice, any combination of meat and whatever else you have in the fridge is called a casserole. In the Midwest, this is called hotdish. Its purpose is the same: to use what you have on hand to feed however many people you need to. It is utilitarian in nature, hard to ruin, and can be extended indefinitely with the addition of more rice or noodles.
My mom makes a special one that she calls Funeral Hotdish, which she says is “easily double or tripled, easily digested, and pleasing to mixed crowds.” Here is her recipe:
FUNERAL HOT DISH:
1 1/2 lbs. hamburger
diced celery and onions
1 cup Uncle Ben's Converted Rice (be sure and use only Uncle Ben's)
1 large can chicken noodle soup (family size)
2 small cans cream of chicken soup
1/2 to 1 small soup can water
Brown meat, onions, celery. Put all ingredients in small roaster. Mixture should be somewhat juicy. Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour and 15 minutes, checking after 45 minutes to besure there is enough liquid. Add more liquid as needed.
She makes Funeral Hotdish every time somebody dies, taking pots of it with her to church basements and funeral halls, to grieving families at their homes. She leaves extra plastic containers of it in her own refrigerator too, for her husband and children, if she gets the death call and has to run out.
Funerals, for my mother, lead to the best: Godliness and a good example for her children, who need to know what to do when their own friends and neighbors start dying. She taught us to make Funeral Hotdish, a teenage rite of passage that confirmed our ability to help others cope.
Funerals have had the opposite effect on my father. With each one that he attends—an old high school friend who died early of a heart attack, another widow he helped down the church steps—his jaw sets more firmly as he compares their turn against his own, their fate against his.
By the same token, he would gladly die tomorrow if it meant not having to bear my mother’s death first.
He has taken each of us children aside and explained his wishes: “If we get old and your mother dies before I do, tell me we’re going for a walk in the woods and shoot me in the head.”
Despite my father’s occasional foolish decisions over the years and his repeated request for a mercy killing, if push came to bullet, he would have to take his own life before any of his children would agree to his murder.
The fears and regrets that live in every one of us are all directly descended from our father's good heart; it is from him that we inherited our penchant for being human.
From our mother come the ability to love unconditionally, and to forgive—even ourselves.