Two clean but tattered oven mitts follow my mother wherever she goes. She was using them to keep her hands warm in her apartment and took them along to the hospital and then into the nursing home. Fortunately, the nursing staff graciously accepts Mom’s worn oven mitts as part of the package. They take the time to explain the mitts to their shift replacements, and use them whenever possible as pillows and props. They laugh and say, “Whatever keeps her happy,” and “We’ve seen worse!”
Ice cream is my mother’s other obsession. When she was at home, my brother John ground up her vitamins so she could stir them into a bowl of ice cream at the end of the day. I’d call her in the evening, and ask what she was doing. “I’m eating my ice cream,” she would say.
Thursday, February 22nd was a tumultuous day. My mother’s doctor sent the order for her to go to the hospital. My brother, John, scrambled to arrange transport and finesse Mom out of her apartment. Calls, texts, and emails flew between the brothers, and sisters-in-laws, and Mom’s sixth son, Bob. We were all relieved she was finally getting professional care after seeing a drastic decline in her condition over the winter. We worried it might be too late until John’s wife, Darla, let us know Mom was asking for ice cream.
I think we all have something we need in our life, something that gives us comfort. For me, it’s lip balm and a pocket knife that I can open with one hand. I never leave the house without a tube of lip balm in my left pocket and my tiny Spyderco lock-back in the right. I don’t use lip balm when I’m in the tropics but this far above the equator it is a necessity. I tell Bob I carry the knife because I might have to cut a horse loose, but I mostly use it to open boxes and clean my nails.
For my 91-year-old father, it’s cookies and tissues. I was in Mom’s apartment a couple of weeks ago when my brother, John, told Dad he was going shopping. “I need tissues,” Dad said from his perch on the sofa. John stepped back and reached down beside an arm chair. “We’ve got plenty of tissues,” he said, bringing a dozen shrink-wrapped boxes into Dad’s field of vision. John pulled out a box and set it carefully on the table next to a bag of cookies.
Tate’s Chocolate Chip Cookies, my mother tells me one night on the phone, are nearly as good as Nana’s legendary chocolate chips. My father’s mother only baked one cookie, a crispy, buttery, disk. I go out the next day, scouting the area stores for Tate’s and I find them. She’s right! They are as close to Nana’s as anything I’ve ever tasted. I order six bags online and have them sent to Shippensburg.
Like Dad, I’ve got the tissue thing going on, too. His mother, my Nana, nearly always had a tissue in her hand. She’d stow them up her sleeve and fish them out of her pockets. It was finally warm enough for shorts today, and after I pulled them on, I found a half-used tissue in the left pocket from when it was warm last month. Here’s the thing: my nose runs a little a lot of the time. I’ve got a dog’s nose, Bob likes to say. A wet nose like a dog. It runs in cold weather or when I eat something hot, or just in general. But not enough to blow, just enough to wipe at it and put the tissue in a pocket for another wipe on down the line. It looks like Dad inherited Nana’s dog nose, too.
I think Dad’s fixation on tissues and cookies are more than a sweet tooth and a wet nose. I think tissues and cookies are how he keeps his mother’s memory alive. I think my lip balm and pocket knife represent my preoccupation with horses and the tropics. And I think my mother’s ice cream cravings have more to do with growing up without milk than simply liking ice cream. This realization comes to me when I’m in the final editing phase of her memoir, Honey Sandwiches. Ice Cream figures so prominently that it earned its own section heading. While there is nothing about oven mitts in the book, my mother does talk about how cold her hands got when walking to school with her friend, Ann:
“The Howes were a little better off than we were financially. They didn’t have much to spare, but they were able to get Ann a pair of sheepskin mittens. Ann [Howe] would swap mittens with me until her hands got cold and she would say, “My hands are getting cold now.” “Oh, just a minute longer,” I would plead before trading mittens.”
We cling to things from childhood that we hold dear or didn’t get enough of. The Great Depression deprived my mother of warm winter clothes, milk, and ice cream. She suffered from early childhood malnutrition and struggled with health issues all her life. Unlike my mother, I was lucky to receive enough good nutrition to form strong, healthy bones. And if my luck holds out, no one will need to explain my pocket knife to the nursing home staff.