31 January 2010

"The milk wars..."

Materially, I had it easier than my older siblings. I know this. By the time I got to be in high school there were simply fewer mouths to feed and more income coming in - of course things were going to be easier. Some of my older siblings who still lived at home helped contribute to household expenses - the phone bill stopped being something that was fought about every single month, for one thing - but the most transformative for my life was when we went off powdered milk.

Store bought milk was too expensive for us growing up; powdered milk was much cheaper and with ten kids in the house that's what we could afford. It was someone's job to "make the milk" - you always used the same dented two gallon aluminum sauce pan, and got water out of the tap as cold as you could, and mixed in the powder. I remember so clearly the clanking and scraping sounds the metal spoon made on the side of that sauce pan, and how you had to mix real well so there weren't clumps of powder on the bottom. Not that the taste really improved but it was better to at least drink it in a liquid and not a choke down a solid. There were some discussions about whether putting the powder or the water in first was the way to go, or that it tasted better one way or the other. It didn't. It was always, consistently awful. It was chalk water, with an aftertaste that would linger no matter what you did. Ice cubes, or (on the sly) sugar, nothing made any difference - that aftertaste stayed on your tongue. Think: a gallon pitcher of powdered coffee creamer and water. That's basically what it was.

We had to have one glass of milk at every meal, so one approach was to slam it down, as quickly as you could, right at the start of the meal, and then pace yourself through high moisture content foods the rest of the way so you didn't get thirsty and need another glass. If you waited until the milk had warmed up, even just a little, you were a goner. It got almost chewy, or denser, or something. It could be that there was little real difference, but since we'd talked ad nauseum about strategies to make it "better", and the one area of consensus seemed to have formed around "drink it cold", that I just felt it got worse the longer it sat there. Or it could have been the building fear.

On your cereal powdered milk was okay - you only put enough on to wet the flakes and then you were good. Drinking the milk out of the bottom of the bowl was not done; you were to make an honest attempt at getting it all with your spoon, without too much clattering, but a little layer of milk at the bottom of your bowl was acceptable. But that glass of milk, looming at about 2 o'clock above your dinner plate, a little above your knife and spoon was just... well, daunting, really.

You had to strategize. Was this a night when you were going to resist, or was this a night for drinking the whole glass right off the bat and getting it over with? What was the meal - was there lettuce or carrots or bell peppers? How much bread was there? If there was stew - and my ma made awesome stew - then you were saved and the "chug first" strategy would work. If it were during Lent and there were only tuna briquettes, well, you were screwed. My mom's tuna briquettes were so dry you had to have liquid, and they didn't taste that good to start with. (Sorry, but they didn't - like bloated Toblerone in shape, tuna briquettes were basically little mini meatloaves except they were triangular, and tuna, and covered in crumbled generic saltines, and fried in Crisco. And often one side was pretty well done. The woman was busy with 112 things while she was trying to get dinner on, so sometimes things burned.) What to do? Lent was a season of sacrifice and preparation, and we took that literally in our house growing up. That Lenten meal might be a night for resistance.

This implies forethought but I don't think there was much. There were just times when I couldn't or wouldn't choke down a full glass of powdered milk, and I had to sit at the table, stubbornly, fuming, while everyone else cleaned up and went in the living room and got to watch Hee Haw. (Yes, when I was a kid watching Hee Haw was an incentive to good behavior. I remember mentioning that in a conversation my first year at Marquette, and a floormate from California looking at me, agape, like he'd never really seen me before.)

My parents were tough when I was a little kid, and that changed over time, too - they mellowed by the time I was in high school. Some of this was because I had learned things over the years from my ring side seat, watching my older brothers go rounds with dad and mom. Most fights could be avoided if I returned their car with even a little gas; if I called in advance if I was going to miss supper; if I let them know where I was periodically. But I realize with an adult's perspective that of course they mellowed - their stress level must have dropped significantly by the time I got to be in 7th grade, when they had only (!) three or four kids at home to feed on a daily basis, or in high school when sometimes it was just me, and things weren't so tight financially. I have first-hand experience with periods of paucity, and of not knowing how I was going to make a rent payment; times when I'd walk home from work because I was out of CTA tokens and couldn't afford the $1.25 fare, or when I'd get $5 from an ATM because I didn't have $10 to my name. I remember the stress that caused me, and that was just me. No one was counting on me, I didn't have to support anyone, and I came home to an empty, quiet apartment where I'd do the crossword or go for a bike ride. But I was stressed about money, and that stress was always with me - every meal, every commute, every trip past my mailbox, left unopened for fear of what overdraft notices might be in it - coiling around in my head, over and over. And that was just me.

How much financial stress must my parents have been under? How were they going to get heating oil for the furnace for the winter, or the eye glasses that were needed, or school supplies, or groceries for the week? They didn't talk about it, not to us, but it must have suffused everything. So if my dad went a little over the top about me not drinking my milk, well, I get it. A lot of dads in that situation would have beat the crap out of me for my lack of respect and my disobedience. I never got the: "I work my tail off to provide and what I provide isn't good enough? What kind of over-coddled insolent little brat are you?" speech. On some level I suspect my dad was frustrated in not being able to give us all what we wanted though again that was never spoken. They almost never hit me, and they definitely never hit me over milk. Even when I would sit at the table for hours, alone, in front of my orange metal glass of room temperature powdered milk, not drinking it. I'd sit there, in the dark kitchen, with Hee Haw audible from the next room. I was stubborn, and would dig in my heels. No one else defied our parents, not in so obvious and brazen a manner, as I did. It was my line in the sand. "It wasn't fair," I thought - though the specifics on why it wasn't fair, exactly, haven't survived - and even then my world view was fairness-centered. "Why should I have to?" And the standard response of "Because I said so" wasn't good enough for me, nope, not on this score.

In most ways I was a good kid - not overly hard working, perhaps, but deferential, sensitive and obedient. Except on this point. I hated that powdered milk, and I deeply resented that one glass requirement. So there I'd sit, some nights until way past my bedtime, sometimes falling asleep in a kitchen chair. I'd get carried up the stairs, angry and defiant and tearful, and put into bed. And at breakfast, sitting at two o'clock above my cereal bowl, just above my spoon, was the metal orange glass of powdered milk that had been put in the fridge overnight. And I wasn't allowed to use that milk for my cereal - I had to drink it. And it would start again.

My oldest sister loves to tell of how I mailed her a letter, while she was living in Texas, that in its entirety read: "Dear ___, The milk wars are on again. Love, Steve."

When some of my older siblings got jobs, they started buying "store bought milk". I don't know if they told mom and dad ahead of time, or if they did it because they were tired of the spectacle that I provided. It didn't matter. I didn't know the words at the time, but it was clearly profligate, and decidedly decadent. And I was instantly, completely hooked. Oh my god, it tasted so good! And the first glass and the last glass tasted the same! And within reason, it was still palatable when it warmed up a little - at the end of the meal, if there was a gulp or two at the bottom of your glass, you could still drink it and not gag! We never went back.

Shortly thereafter, my parents' buying patterns changed and they started buying some name brand stuff, and for some things there is definitely a difference. Generic catsup isn't all that great, for example; the ice milk suddenly and without comment was replaced with ice cream, which was simply not comparable. We went from generic powdered drinks or Wyler's brand to Kool-Aid; a noticeable improvement. And my parents stopped buying potato chips in the huge box - it was at least two foot square - that we'd get at the start of every summer. We were expected to eat the ones in the bottom just like we ate the ones when the box was fresh, two months before. Potato chips that have been through a humid Indiana summer in a box that was kept in the laundry room were simply not very tasty. Or crunchy. They were soggy and stale, and they were put on our plates, and we ate them, maybe even after a big gulp of powdered milk if there was three bean salad on offer as well.

And of course with no powdered milk in the cupboard, or in the metal aluminum pan, or in the blue porcelain pitcher with the small chip on the lip, we stopped fighting about me drinking a glass of milk with every meal. Like many wars, I don't know that there was a lot gained by either side. I think I got a reputation among some siblings for being spoiled and impudent, and for having a "smart mouth"; my parents never mentioned these things. I remember wishing that I could be like the others and just suck it up, literally, but I couldn't - or wouldn't, or didn't. Maybe both sides were a bit wounded from the encounter, and equally baffled by it.

One thing I know: everyone was glad when it was over.

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09 January 2010

A life well lived

When my mother was my age I was five. Can you imagine me with a five year old? She worked the 7-to-3 shift at the Green Hill Manor, Fowler's nursing home, and then she'd come home to a five year old. And a 9, 10, 14, 15, 16, 17, 19, 20 and 21 year old. At my age, she had a full time job out of the house and a full time job in it. She must have been exhausted all the time, but I don't remember ma ever once saying that she was tired. There's no way I can imagine doing what she did - in one generation it went from normal (or at least doable) to unthinkable. I have no contemporaries who have the same life that she had; it's just not one that you can picture in 2010 the way maybe you could in 1973.

How did she do it? How did she cook our meals and clean our clothes and make sure we all knew how to behave in public? How did she have the energy to care for the families in the Migrant Camp? How did she have time to be involved at church, or to go to Parish Council meetings? No wonder she was sharp with us at times. No wonder she was hospitalized for a heart attack at 45, though it was a misdiagnosis and it turned out to be an allergic reaction. I wouldn't have been able to get out of bed every day and face us, get our breakfasts, get us out the door, go to work for eight hours at a small town nursing home, come home, get dinner, pray the rosary, make sure homework was done, get us into bed and get up and do it all over again. And on Wednesday nights get everyone who needed it to CCD, and on Sundays get us all to church. It's exhausting to think about. She must have been on her feet for over twelve hours a day, every day.

And for what? Because it was what was done? Because it was her duty? Because it didn't occur to her to ask about her lot in life, or enquire about other options? I never asked her what she thought about her life. It didn't occur to me as a kid, and at the time of her diagnosis and death I was in my last semester of college and barely aware of my own consciousness, and not thinking about such things.

There were some times when I was a kid when mom wasn't working outside the home, but not many of them. When we moved into Lafayette she got a job right away at the Comfort Nursing Home, across the street from St. Boniface where I went to junior high. She worked the 3 - 11 shift, which was all she could get at first, so I'd troop over to see her after school to say hi. At every nursing home where she worked she'd introduce me to some of the residents, and I'd visit with them, every day I went. There was nothing ever said about how my grandma was in a nursing home a state away and we couldn't see her all the time, so maybe if I was visiting with a lonely elderly woman here then some kid in Springfield, Illinois, was visiting my grandma - no talk of "karma" or of "what comes around goes around," like somehow the universe was keeping score. It was done because it was clearly the right, decent, humane thing to do. And no fuss was made of it, it was simply done, like so much in my mom's life.

She was inherently decent, and I don't know from what wellspring she found the surplus time and energy, but she took in stray people who needed help. All the time. In Fowler there were the Mexican migrant workers, and after we moved into town there was Lena, an old German woman who had no living family here and who Mom often had over to dinner, and to whose house we'd often traipse to clean and cook, and tend her yard. All for free, of course. I don't know how mom first met her - at church, maybe? - but I can picture her clearly, sitting at our table in her housecoat, thick accent and even thicker glasses, telling stories about her time right after she "moofed to dis country." Dad wasn't a fan. We were always polite because she was company, and I actually liked Lena - she was foreign and therefore exotic, and she had a cache of great stories with which to entertain me when she found out how much I loved history. The woman lived under the Kaiser, and while her stories didn't deal much with the realpolitik of the interwar period just that knowledge kept me rapt as she'd talk about her life as a little girl, and their farm, and the cadence of her life.

Then there was Patty, another woman who I have no idea how Mom met. Patty moved in with us, along with her two huge malamutes, for a year. They were beautiful dogs, and the white one had one blue eye and one grey eye. They tore the hell out of our yard, though, and Patty had a pronounced limp and an irascible temperament, and spent a lot of time in her room. Mom was helping her get some physical therapy, or something, though I also remember trips to Springfield with her to see my Aunt the Dominican nun, so possibly she was thinking about a vocation in the convent. Even as a 14 year old kid I could tell that Patty was someone to whom life hadn't been kind, far beyond her physical challenges. Dad wasn't a fan.

Another summer we had a woman staying with us from Peoria, Illinois, for some reason. I want to say it was health related, but I could be wrong - I don't remember any particular physical presentations of a health issue. There was Andrew, a Nigerian seminary student who was with us one year for Christmas, who was unfailingly polite and unfailingly skilled at chess. There was always someone extra for dinner, or for a holiday, who had nowhere to be. There was always some task with which I was charged to help someone out - to rake someone's leaves or to ride my bike over to Mrs. S's and ask her if she needed anything or to volunteer to serve at 7:00 a.m. mass when no one else did, even though that meant that she'd have to get up and drive me. My mom baked cookies and fruitcakes for everyone at Christmas - most of the people on our paper route, the priests and nuns, the St. Vincent de Paul Society, and when we moved to town, the neighbors, my teachers at school, my piano teacher, the mail carrier and the garbage men. Her community was basically everyone she met, and she felt a responsibility to help those in her community who needed it.

There are no bridges or buildings with her name on them, or endowed chairs, or financial legacy for her kids to live on. There isn't even a nursing home wing or hospital floor named after her. Her health was never reliable (which makes her energy even more remarkable), and her allergies got worse and worse as she crossed fifty. When she was 58 she was diagnosed with cancer; when she was 59, she died from it. I was 22.

I have been thinking about what makes our lives meaningful lately, thinking about Stevie, who died at 39 (and requested that donations be made to the humane society), and my friend Gerald White, a fellow English major at Marquette who died at 35 (and after whom a Memorial Fund was named at the University of North Texas, in honor of his research on visual representations of gay minority men), and other people I've known. Does only 35 years mean that a life isn't well lived? Hardly. But what does a "well lived life" mean, after all, and to what ought I aspire?

I got to visit my mom the weekend before she died - I was going to wait a week but on an impulse I rented a car with an overdrawn credit card and drove down from Milwaukee to see her. She was in a lot of pain, and on a lot of drugs. When I got to her room she was asleep, so I hung around, waiting for her to wake up, talking with my dad and my other siblings who were in and out. At one point late at night she stirred, looked at me through barely opened eyes and asked me, "Stephen? When'd you get here? Where'd you come from?"

Knowing she was possibly on morphine and probably incoherent, I answered, "Milwaukee, ma. I rented a car and drove down tonight."

"Who came with you?"

"Just me, ma."

"That's too bad." I had no idea what she meant by this, so I paused, wondering, and then she finished her thought: "With the bags under your eyes you could have packed for a family of four!"

"Hey, you're not looking too good yourself, there!" I told her, and she smiled. She kept herself awake for another hour or so and we had a great talk, and we got to say our goodbyes.

She had lived a good life, and she knew it; and what's more she was still being generous and looking out for those who needed looking out for - at that moment in that hospital room, me.

I think of all the people who were less lonely because of my mom, or less hungry, or less dirty, or less healthy, or less ignorant; of all the people who had a little more dignity in their lives and who were comforted materially and emotionally by her countless acts of kindness and generosity. It's profoundly humbling.

My mom lived a remarkable life of toil and dignity and charity and grace in relative anonymity. No question, her life was a life well lived.
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