It seemed to me as child that my grandma's sisters were born old. They were nervous women by nature, and as both were childless, the presence of kids seemed to put them on edge during family gatherings. They constantly clucked about the possibility of bad weather, freak accidents, and the threat of pneumonia. In a world of so much dread, they did take comfort in the attention that my mother and her sister, both nurses, would dote on them. After a holiday meal, like clockwork, the blood pressure cuff and stethoscope would suddenly appear, and those ladies would finally find a moment of joy that otherwise eluded them. Other families might have holiday ritual rooted in friendly competition card-playing or charades, but not mine; we children had to be quiet so that the nurses could listen to imaginary palpitations and consumptive wheezes. Worse yet for us, was seeing their aged bodies, stripped down to half-slips and other obsolete undergarments. Ew, let's get out of here. They're naked!
But worst of all, was the after-dinner conversation. While these
strait-laced Swedish ladies would never dream of telling an off-color joke, they had no problem discussing every aspect of their "loose stools", "snaky-shaped bowel movements", and all else related to their excrement. My mother and her sister, Jennifer, would listen patiently, attempting to lessen all their intestinal anxiety. While I grew to appreciate the nurses in my family and their patience, even as a young adult, I preferred to leave the room for the bowel debriefings. As it turned out, even my mom had her limits.
As my grandmother aged, my mom took over the responsibility of the holiday dinners that had once been Grandma's domain. One Easter Sunday, my mother had served a beautiful dinner of roast beef, asparagus tips, rolls, and mashed potatoes and gravy. We were just cleaning up in the kitchen when my husband Richard emerged from the den where the male members of the family were watching a basketball game on television.
"Aunty Ingrid is in the bathroom and she's calling for assistance. She's been in there quite awhile."
"MOM! Aunty Ingrid needs you in the bathroom."
My mother looked at me pleadingly, but she knew it was a lost cause. She was the nurse, and she knew that there was nothing in the world she could say or do to get me in that bathroom.
She was in and then out again, and there was a mad dash for rags and cleaning supplies. There was a lot of hissing and profanity. It seemed that Aunty Ingrid had had an adverse and explosive reaction to something she had eaten. She had tried to make it, but those frail legs and those ridiculous undergarments had been too much of a hindrance. What ensued was a force that didn't seem consistent with gravity or frailty. My mother's clean-up job included the windowsill, the vanity, the medicine cabinet, the shower stall, and the curtains. I still don't comprehend the magnitude of it. No matter how much I want to reject the image, I can't resist some effort to conceptualize the physics of it. The only thing that comes to mind is the vision of a sprinkler gone terribly awry.
My grandmother and Aunty Eva remained in the living room throughout the ordeal, speculating on the cause of their sister's distress. My grandmother frowned and said, "Well, the same thing happened to her when she was last at our house for dinner. But don't say anything to her when she comes out of the bathroom."
I assured both of them that talking to Aunty Ingrid about her mishap was the last thing on my mind. As I said this, my great-aunt emerged slowly on bony white legs, clad in my mom's fuzzy pink bathrobe. I don't think I had ever seen her without her thick support stockings before.
"Ingrid," My grandmother spoke admonishingly. "You know you can't eat gravy."
This would have been the end of it once we had properly aired out the house and finished the load of washing, but like all family traditions, there is a timeless element involving my great-aunts' innards that evoke a perpetual sense of déjà vu.
It was only two months later. The same people were seated around my mother's beautiful table, passing dishes that looked remarkably similar to those served on Easter Sunday. It was Mother's Day. There was roast beef, buttered corn, dinner rolls and butter, potatoes and...gravy. I did everything I could to impede its progress around the table. As I watched Aunty Ingrid spoon a modest heap of mashed potatoes on her plate, I sent the butter to her instead, and then pretended I didn't hear her persistent requests, "Will someone please pass me the gravy?" Eventually, someone did.
My mother and I had cleared the table and were preparing coffee and dessert. My husband was in the den with the rest of my male relatives taking in a baseball game. I started to laugh when he came out to the kitchen.
"Your Aunty Ingrid is in the bathroom. She's been in there a long time and she's...she's calling out for your mom."
"Yeah, right. That's a cruel joke. Go watch your game or pour some coffee."
"I'm not kidding. I am really not kidding. I think there's a problem."
My mom looked at me helplessly and said, "I'll pay you a hundred
dollars. I will write you a check and hand it to you right now, if you will please go in there and see what she wants."
"I can't Mom. I will gag. I will gag and then throw up and we will have an even bigger mess on our hands. I want to help you, but I just can't. I'm not medically qualified."
My mom flashed me a look of pure disgust, and went off to witness another miracle of physics.
My grandmother and her sisters didn't get out much in the years that followed that Easter Sunday. It wasn't long before all three were confined to nursing homes and getting out became too difficult, but I do remember that we did gather together that fall for Thanksgiving and then again at Christmas. Those holiday dinners stand out in my mind in sharp contrast to all the others. For the first and only time, next to the golden brown turkey and dressing, salad, rolls, corn, yam, and cranberry sauce, was...a big bowl of white rice.
Rebecca Bauer was born in Swedish Hospital in Minneapolis, only a few miles from where she currently lives. This may explain her tendency toward long, nasal vowels and hot dish on cold, dark winter nights. She is the mother of two growing boys, Nicholas and Noah, who proudly can consume a gallon of ice cream in less than three days. She has been married to her dashing Panamanian-German husband, Richard, for over two decades. During the day she can be found in her classroom where she tries to teach English to a very large number of teenagers who alternately love and loathe her depending on the barometer, wind chill, and availability of a bathroom pass. She has always had a passion for writing, but uses it most often these days as a way to look too busy for folding laundry or correcting papers.