Saturday, December 29, 2007

Going to Graceland

I just came back from a trip to Memphis. It was my second visit to the flat city on the Mississippi River. The city has wonderful barbecue, which I ate, and a dreary airport, at which my flight from Minneapolis landed. Brad’s mom picked us up and drove us to the family home in Germantown, a pleasant suburb of shopping malls and gated communities built around a charming small town.

It was Christmas Eve. Houses were decked in bulbs and wreaths. But the streets were quiet with anticipation.

A Christmas Day surprise. Christmas is so predictable for many people. Awake, they wander downstairs to the living room, pour a big glass of eggnog, and start to open the wonderful gifts that Santa brought. The Christmas tree aglow, tiny bulbs cast a soothing light on the boxes taped in red and gold. For the Jew in me, it’s always been just another dreary day when everything is closed so you have to go see a movie. But this was my second year of enjoying the Christmas spirit, filled with coffee cake treats and gifts to be revealed.

After a few hours of unwrapping and warm thank yous, we retreated to a Christmas dinner with corn pudding and turkey and stuffing and cranberry Jell-O mold. It felt like a second Thanksgiving. It was wonderful. Then I wandered upstairs for a short tryptophan nap. Later in the afternoon, we went to see the film Juno, and then returned home for a lazy evening.

Asleep for an hour, I was told to wake up! We were headed to Graceland. Just after Midnight, I pulled on my jeans and the same shirt I wore all day, wrapped myself in my red vest and got into the truck. After an hour on the road, driving by shuttered shopping centers and dozing Starbucks, passing sleepy houses along the quiet road, we arrived. I sent a couple of emails along the way from the back seat of the Toyota pickup.

We arrived about 1:30 in the morning: Graceland Nursing Home, Oxford, Mississippi. It was quiet, but the lights were on. We rang the bell and peered down the hallway behind the glass door, watching from outside in the frosty Mississippi air as a blonde woman in a brown nursing uniform — a small speck in the distance — slowly lumbered toward us. From the other end of the long, dim hallway to her arrival at the front door easily took two minutes. We followed her back and into the room where Brad’s grandmother had been alive only an hour earlier.

I see dead people. A dead woman lay there. Later, I told Brad that she didn’t look so good. That she looked very, very dead.

I had met her a year ago. Although she had been very feeble at the time, and barely knew who her own grandson was, she was polite and offered me a warm hello. This time, her face was as white as her hair, her mouth was frozen in the shape of an egg, and her thin body was draped with a red nursing home-issued acrylic blanket.

I remember seeing my own grandmother when she died many years ago. She, too, looked like a sack. But she had been a robust, loving, funny person. She had managed the Thriftique, the store operated by the Cleveland Council of Jewish Women. She walked to work everyday, made amazing stuffed cabbage, told stories about the people she knew and the experiences she had, bargain shopped at Bernie Schulman’s, and lavished her grandchildren with gifts and food and unconditional love. She also snuck cigarettes, had heart attacks, ate fatty foods, and died of kidney failure. Being in the hospital waiting for her to die had been a horrible experience. And once she died, her body in the hospital bed, if I hadn’t known who she once had been, to me she would have been only a waxy encasement, mouth open, eyes closed. I knew, looking at Brad’s grandmother under the red blanket, she had been much more than a body.

The funeral director drove in from Tupelo and spent some time chatting with Brad’s mother and telling her about making funeral arrangements. And then we asked the late-night nursing staff for some trash bags. They returned with a handful of heavy duty Hefty’s, dark orange, like cinnamony pumpkin pie. We pulled clothes — housecoats, old pantsuits, dresses, undergarments — off the hangers and stuffed them into the bags, along with shoes, teddy bears and random holiday decorative items that we found in the closet.
I pulled down the photos of relatives, mostly people I’d never met, and set them in a box. The snapshots were taken at various stages of her life and their lives. In some of them, she was with grandchildren and nieces and friends. All reminders of a life that was filled with meaningful interactions. And now she was lying in a hospital bed, dead, with her family around her pulling down her last possessions and putting them into trash bags at 2:30 in the morning.

The funeral director asked us if we might step out of the room so he could get her ready. While we stood in the hall, he moved her to a gurney and covered her body in a furry red dead-person body cover with the name of the funeral home embroidered on the side. Then he wheeled her away. We walked back to the parking lot and returned to Memphis, and I hopped back into bed again before 4:30 AM.

I’m glad I had the chance to meet Mary Wells in 2006. I won’t remember her like this. And I know Brad and his family won’t remember her like this either. On Christmas night, she vacated her body and moved on. Hopefully, far from the dreariness of the nursing home with its hallways and smoking lounge and attendants who looked like they’d rather be sweeping the aisles of Wal-Mart than the bathrooms of Graceland where residents pee and miss the toilet.

Already, I think she’s closer to being the woman she once was. The family came into town two days later to relish memories they had of much better times and of a grandmother who was a special person to all of them.

I don’t think of my own grandmother as the cold body in the hospital bed. I still think of her as a warm spirit who added so much to my life and, in many ways, made me the person I am today.

Friday, December 21, 2007

All about food

Food. I feel like thinking about food at the moment. Not that I’m particularly hungry, but that I need to reflect on what I’ve been shoveling into my body. I suppose it’s the first step toward developing a resolution or two for the New Year. And I just returned from the airplane lavatory, so I’m going to think back on the foods I’ve eaten lately, in reverse order, to imagine how I’d be feeling if they were not inside of my body. This is where things get momentarily crude and if you prefer a dainty read, then I suggest you skip a couple of paragraphs. Not that there’s anything wrong with natural human body functions, of course.

It feels so great to go to the bathroom on an airplane. Not just one of the ten pee breaks to be taken during a five-hour flight, but having your once-a-day special seating way up in the air somewhere over Nebraska.

You know how it is. The plane takes off and the air pressure changes. You get that horrible bloaty feeling all over: the kind that doesn’t just remain in your stomach but oozes into your extremities. Your calves feel like they’ve expanded; your head feels packed with Charmin. It’s always worse if you eat prunes for breakfast. Although very few options exist to remedy the change in altitude, expulsion is an option. Nose blowing and ear popping only go so far. Sometimes, you just need to just need to take a crap (And then, please unhook the air freshening gel from the little holster above the toilet and hold it directly in front of the air vent for 15 seconds. I recognize it will smell like an old lady’s powder room, but it provides a sense of Febreze-like freshness for the incoming passenger).

I, personally, don’t know what happens when one poos in space. I mean, perhaps it stays in a bucket under that forceful blue flush, but I’ve heard stories about big chunks of bluish ice (and the attached chunklets) dropping into chimneys, crashing into McDonald’s, and damaging elementary school gyms.

I digress. Working backwards with food here….. Before slipping into the lavatory, I indulged in an in-flight delicacy. Brad is sitting next to me and we ate our delicious United Airlines snack boxes. He got the smartpack and I opted for the minimeal. That means I ate potato chips, cheese spread, applesauce, crackers, pretzels, Milano cookies, and pepperoni. If you think about it all being squished into a big ball, it’s completely gross. He nibbled at granola, pears, bagel chips, sour apple sugarless mints and Cashew Roca. Okay? Who the hell is packing these things? And why have United’s snack boxes been proclaimed the best and healthiest food in the domestic sky? Anyway, it’s too soon for any of that to have made it into the deposit I just left 37,000 feet above Omaha.

Let’s just imagine I’d avoided the snack box. Then I’d still have raisin bran sliding around in my gut from breakfast this morning. That was on top of the midnight snack of a reuben sandwich that made its way into my belly. I still feel a little Thousand Island dressing sticking to my esophagus.* The late night snack was courtesy of United Airlines. They offered seven dollars in food and a room at the Comfort Inn due to an aircraft mechanical problem and flight staff that essentially timed out. During the time spent waiting through the updates from staff and the gate changes, I snarfed down about one-third of a garlicky Caesar salad (or what passes for one) from the Corner Bakery “To Go” at O’Hare’s Concourse C.

After a day off in Chicago, I’d like to think it was only travel-oriented food that was gross. But it wasn’t. I will say, if we could remove all of the food I just described, that would be great. If that were the case, then the last thing in my stomach would have been the chocolate pecan pie from Frontera Grill. Can you believe I hesitated ordering it, deciding I only really wanted the flan-topped chocolate cake with cajeta? Well now I will go buy Rick Bayless’ cookbook and make that pie happen in my own home. Perhaps every week. The sweet completed a bright culinary experience in an otherwise bleak food week.

The previous night, dinner had been at Tomboy, an Andersonville Lesbian-ish restaurant. I ordered a server-recommended tilapia in pumpkin sauce. Hmmm. Next time I crave that dish, I’m headed to the Canned Foods Grocery Outlet store for a bucket of 79-cent pumpkin pie filling and a $1.99 piece of past-dated fish. I’ll just lay the fish on some mashed potatoes and spinach and dump the pumpkiny goop all over. Lesbians! I’m hoping that my recent lavatory visit was the completion of my body’s experience with that fish. Would I call it the worst dish I’ve had in a year? Easily.

Here’s the deal: If I had avoided this trip to the Midwest, the last thing in my body would have been a bit of arugula, gnocchi and chocolate-coconut ice cream made with coconut milk. Good San Francisco food. I would have sadly missed Frontera Grill’s crunchy ceviche, smoked mahi mahi tacos and mole-doused enchiladas (and the tamarind margarita with chipotle peppers and sugar on the rim, which our gracious server shook precisely 50 times). But I also would have missed a bleak salad at Culver’s “Home of the ButterBurger” and horrid chicken blobs from O’Hare’s Man-Chu Wok.

A clean colon. I’m on my way home and looking forward to a fresh food start in 2008. I will try to eat better food this New Year. I will think about what the inside of my stomach looks like as the cheese and chocolate mix with turkey burgers, Flamin’ Hot Doritos, pudding, Flax cereal, cranberry juice, dried apricots, and Meyer lemon ginger cookies. A big mound of pinkish gelatinous opaque meat-like goo with assorted chunks and stomach acid. But first, I will head to Memphis for a few days for lots of barbecue, caramel cake, and fried catfish.

*That reminds me that when my friend Viet turned 21, he felt so grown up he went to the bar and ordered a thousand island iced tea.
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