Sunday, March 3, 2013

My Mother's Freezers

      Freud was right, whether he put it in these terms or not:  you can't escape your mother.  Good or bad, happy or sad, present or absent, alive or dead, your mother--or, more accurately, who you think your mother is, and was--determines you who you are.
     Therefore, it's a worthwhile expenditure of time to sort out, however meagerly, some of your mother's quirks, especially the ones that really stand out. 
      For example, my 86-year-old mother, who has only herself to feed, owns two family-sized refrigerators and three freezers, all stuffed so full that when she opens the doors things tumble onto the floor.   She could break a toe, except that she knows to step out of the way at just the right moment.
     One of her friends jokes about her "need" to have three dozen eggs on hand at all times--but I remember when it used to be five dozen, so she's getting better.  Her friend knows this is as far as the joking can go.  My mother requires back-up food even when, strictly speaking, it isn't edible any more.  She can't be persuaded to retire her freezers on the basis of thriftiness.  A single freezer costs about $35 a month in electric bills--which is a lot, she'd agree, but she won't talk about it.  Too disturbing.
     She used to have five freezers, including two mammoth deep-freeze models which held so much she couldn't have reached items at the bottom, not even by torquing her entire, now-arthritic frame into one of the frosty, dark vaults.  She might guess what's in her freezers, but she doesn't really know.  What matters is that they're loaded with what used to be food.
     Some of the items in the freezers are twenty-five years old.  Mostly it's meat:  pork shoulders encased in thick ice, chuck roasts sliding under brittle, broken plastic, Omaha steaks with such bad freezer-burn they're shriveled to half-size.  There are veal patties and chickens, lobsters and shrimp, the necks, chops, ribs, sides and butts of various mammals, and lots of ground meat.  Meat is valuable, which is why my mother keeps it.  It makes her feel secure.
     My mother doesn't eat $35 of meat per month, let alone three times that, so it's not a matter of economics--which is otherwise of paramount importance, for instance when it comes to getting a good deal on yard work, or paying someone less than $20 to clean her roof gutters, or arguing with the plumber about the price of a repair.  If she really wanted to save money, she'd get rid of her freezers.  But that would cost too much, and I'm not talking about dollars and cents. 
     Change happens slowly, but at least it happens.  Ten years ago, I'll vouch, my mother owned five freezers, and forty years ago, when we were a family of eight, we had six.  It might have made sense to bank on so much storage, had we lived in the wilderness, but growing up, our house was only minutes from Acme, A & P, and Shop Rite, where the supplies of food seemed limitless.  And we had more than freezers:  our cellar shelves were stocked like a bomb shelter, with rows and rows of institutional-size cans of food.
     One of my first childhood memories is of cleaning up cans of chicken fricassee and Bing cherries, which had exploded onto the shelves and floors of the cellar.
     Do most people know that if you keep cans of food long enough, they blow up?
     The giant cans must have been ten or twenty years old, having been bought for very cheap at The Bargain Center, where my father had an "in" with the owner, George.  Whenever Joe had surplus food, especially if it was past the expiration date, my father (who didn't believe in expiration dates) bought it.  "I got this for pennies on the dollar," he'd brag.  George understood, because he, too, had grown up on the "south side" of town.  He made a living by buying up bent and damaged cans and packages that had fallen from trains, or been retrieved from trucking accidents, and selling them at steep discounts.  His bargain store was nothing more than an excuse for stocking up on large quantities of food, which he required, like my parents, to keep internalized terror internal.
     The stockpiles of canned goods--and the overstuffed freezers--were a bulwark for us against another Great Depression.  It didn't seem to matter that the economy was booming.  It didn't matter, either, that the tops of the cans we hoarded were convex, bloating up, or that the seams wouldn't hold a can opener any more.  "They're still good," my father declared, and no one challenged him--he wasn't the kind of man you challenged.  When we chose a can for dinner--it had to be a bloated one--there'd be a hiss as the V-opener popped a triangular hole.  We needed to "use those cans up."
     Then, in a single month, a whole series of cans exploded, one after another, splattering all over the walls and ceilings.  My brothers and I would be on the living room floor, reading or playing penny poker, and we'd hear a sound like bottle rockets going off down below. "Who's cleaning it up this time?" one of us would ask, with dread.  That's where my memories begin.
     "God damn it!" my father bellowed each day, calculating the losses.  He thought we should have eaten the food so the cans wouldn't have "gone to waste."  He sniffed around, and decided some of the exploded ones were still edible.  The rest had to be cleaned up.
     That's why parents had kids, in those days:  to do stuff like this.
     Until the day he died, twenty years ago, my father continued to buy canned goods by the case, for cheap because the "Use Before" dates had expired.  He stored the cans in the cellar, against an uncertain future.  Many of them are still there, like a strange form of gold, like the roasts in the freezers, and the chops, and butts, and loins.
     As a child, it seemed normal that the tops of canned goods should be distended by gases brewing inside--until I visited some friends' houses, and saw that none of the neat, individual cans in their pantries were bloated--and they had so few cans in storage.  How were they surviving?  The labels on my friends' mothers' canned goods were shiny and new, too, and the lids weren't rusty or black.  Theirs were Betty Crocker households.  I suppose my friends' parents had other kinds of problems, which had nothing to do with food. 
     That's when I began to understand my family's signature pathology, as compared with the pathology of others.  That's when I started to wonder about my mother.  We ate the food in those gassy cans, and sometimes it smelled like rotten eggs, or a three-days-dead possum that our overweight collie might have deposited on the doormat.  Why would my mother allow this?  How did it happen that her usual discernment failed, when it came to the cases of food my father brought home, and to those awful freezers? 
     I guess kids see things like this about their families, sooner or later.  Sometimes the problems are buried pretty deeply, but in my case, the exploding cans couldn't be hidden, though they were  rationalized.  We're all neurotic, and therefore, we're all the same.  But our neuroses have different personalities, like a musical theme with endless variations. My parents' craziness had to do with food, and hunger, and fear.  We thought it was funny, until we had to clean up the messes.  Then we started becoming adults.  Our parents' messes become our messes. 
     We kids were required to clean up the cherry and chicken explosions, and sometimes creamed corn, or Hormel ham, or pork-n-beans.  We used metal buckets, rags and cold water, because plastic containers and paper towels weren't household mainstays.  When I happen to see cans of these foods in the grocery store these days I turn away, nauseated.  I avoid the inner aisles when I shop, for this reason.
     Every day after school, those months, there were several new explosions, each with its characteristic odor.  Our first order of business, before homework, before other chores, was to clean up the messes, throwing what my father considered truly inedible into the woods.  Then, we poured bleach-water on the cement floor and watched it trickle down the drain-holes.
     We offered to pay one another to do our share of the work, trading impossible favors, "I'll clean your shoes, for life," or, "I'll scratch your back, for life," or, "I'll play Monopoly with you, even though you cheat, whenever you want, for life."  We petitioned our mother, "Please don't make me do that job," but she bowed out, saying, "That's your father's project."
     The memory of rank chicken fricassee comes back to me, sometimes, and so do the images of curdled yellow gravy oozing onto my pink flip-flops, and fizzy, soured cherries sticking to the shelf-tops in that musty cellar.  There is terror, too, because my brothers convinced me the cellar was the denizen of monsters and ghosts who lurked in the back crawl-spaces and had probably caused the cans to explode in the first place.  And, don't forget, there was my parents' terror of going hungry, which I was taking in.
     Two years ago, one of my mother's freezers broke.  She hadn't noticed because she doesn't visit the back corner of the garage where her "extra" freezers have been sitting for decades.  My mother never actually goes into the freezers--although she "might," she says, "one day" when she "needs" something. 
     The freezer must have been broken for months.  It's my brother who caught the stench emanating from the garage when he came for a visit.  He informed my mother, who became anxious but allowed him to "handle" it.  He and a friend (whom he had to pay) donned masks and double-gloves to transfer the slimy contents of the freezer, hunk by hunk, into construction clean-up bags and take it all to the dump.  They hauled the empty freezer to a scrap-metal yard.  My brother said it reminded him of the exploding-can years of childhood.  This is why we have siblings:  to remember, and affirm, and say, "Yeah, that was sick."   We have one another to keep ourselves from feeling alone in that neurotic inner-space bequeathed to us, generation after generation.
     My mother didn't replace that freezer, which means she's cleaning up some inner-space of her own.  And we're helping her to work on her other freezers:  "Mom, do you want me to get rid of some of that old food?"  No, I'm not ready.  "Mom, how about throwing out some of those rusty cans in the cellar?"  Don't you touch a thing!  I know what I'm doing.
     Does she?  How would I know?  I have my own things to clean up, and some of them look a lot like hers.

3 comments:

  1. this could be a chapter in the "BEST SELLER" all to itself....you really are a gifted writer...I would consult a publisher

    hang in there my lady

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  2. I am glad to have met you Ona, and now to know about your blog. I enjoy your writing. Thank you.

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