Friday, March 24, 2023

A night at the circus

One of our cats, Amber, developed a special closeness with my mom after another one of our cats, Babusz, died a while back. Babusz had laid claim to my mother for years; she alone got to sleep at her head, she would be the first to get pets, the first to race to the bathroom whenever she sensed my mom was heading there. Amber deferred to Babusz's seniority, and mostly kept to herself for over a decade. When Babusz died, Amber emerged and immediately claimed the position of "Mommy's Special Cat." She did all the things Babusz did, but more so. So when her mom went into the hospital in late December,  Amber was very distraught. When my mom came back home on February 3, she and all the other cats hid for the better part of the day - but that night, she finally emerged and let my mom know that all was forgiven. My mom left the house again on February 8, never to return. Eventually Amber came to realize this, and she has become intermittently inconsolable. I try to soothe her with pets and scritches and scratches, with extra treats (as my mom directed), and with words reminding her that I love her and her mommy loves her. Today, during one of these sessions, I suddenly thought of the unmasked ambulance crew that took my mom to the emergency room on February 8, which is the day that she most likely contracted COVID, and I began to curse out the idiots who, after I had isolated her and protected her fanatically for three years, hsd probably given my mother the COVID that caused her to start throwing blood clots that caused her stroke that led to her death. And I wept.

Keith Nelson (second from right) and the Bindlestiff Family Circus

A few days after my mom died I caught a commercial on TV about a circus troupe coming to the Kirby Center. That's neat, I thought. I wonder who it is? The commercial soon informed me that it was the Bindlestiff Family Circus, headed by Keith Nelson. I met Keith years ago at the penultimate Sideshow Gathering. The show was scheduled for a work night, but...I could take time off to do something for myself, right?

I wouldn't even have considered it while my mom was alive, not since the COVID-19 pandemic began. If there were no pandemic, I would have absolutely taken her to it; many years ago I took her to see Penn & Teller, and she loved it. (Someday I will find the photo of her standing next to Penn Jillette; she literally came up to his elbow.) But during the pandemic I would never risk exposing her at a crowded indoor event, even in a theater with fifty foot ceilings, nor would I go myself and risk bringing something home to her.

But neither of those are considerations anymore.

I was able to schedule the day off from work. I bought my ticket online - I agonized for a while over inviting someone else to go with me, but the few I had floated this past showed no interest, and I realized that even if I convinced someone to go with me, I would risk having them be bored or disappointed. So I decided it would be best to go to the show solo, as I had always gone to the Sideshow Gathering. And, of course, I would wear an N95 mask the whole while. Even with my mom gone, I have no great desire to get COVID.

I got there more than a half-hour early, before the inner doors were open. I looked around but didn't see any of the local regulars from the Gathering. The audience was full of children, which was great; I knew they were in for a treat. I could spot perhaps three other people in the whole theater wearing masks.

Keith and company put on a wonderful first half, full of juggling and acrobatics and unicycles and a Pennyfarthing. During the mid-show break, I spotted local performers Pat Ward, Harley Newman, and Michael Kattner, along with several other regulars from the Gathering. I hobnobbed briefly until the troupe took the stage again. The second half featured Keith presenting a bit of sideshow, namely sword swallowing, preceded by some light grifting of the audience. One little girl from the audience got to accompany Keith onstage and draw a bayonet from his throat. There were additional acrobatic acts and juggling to round out the night. Too soon the show was over, and Keith and the troupe greeted attendees and posed for photos in the lobby.

So. That was that. My first public outing in three years.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

On making meatballs

I used to stay awake for hours listening to my mother breathe as she slept. Sometimes she would scare me by stopping breathing for seconds at a time, seconds that seemed to last an eternity. Sometimes I would hear her breathing take on a deep, sonorous, growling tone, before I realized it was one of our cats snoring. Now it's just me and the cats. And the cats don't snore as much.

I haven't had spaghetti in months. This is because I ran out of meatballs long ago. I don't remember the last time I made them. Ten years ago my mom got on a kick of getting meatballs from Sam's Club instead of making her own. These weren't a bad alternative, but I always preferred homemade. She hadn't made meatballs or anything else in several years, so it was up to me to make them. And after our supply ran out a few months ago, I didn't have time to make more.

Yesterday afternoon, on the way back from the comic book store, the pet supply store, and the cemetery, I stopped to buy some half-and-half - a package of equal portions of ground beef and ground pork. I decided I would make meatballs this afternoon. I chopped a small onion and added it to the half-and-half, along with eggs, salt, pepper, and a generous portion of oatmeal. I mixed everything by hand, then fried it in two batches on the largest iron frying pan I have, all while watching Tom Cruise and Jeremy Renner and Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames try to outmaneuver a reedy-voiced Sean Harris in Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation.

I ate half a dozen meatballs as soon as they were cool enough, then tossed another half dozen in some Ragu sauce and simmered them to eat later with spaghetti. Later, I would package up the rest into two-serving size baggies and put them in the freezer for future meals.

They didn't taste as good as when I made them for my mother, possibly because I used a less generous hand with the salt - she did like her salt. I don't know if they were up to my mother's standards. On some level - maybe the most realistic level - I realize it doesn't matter. 

But I will keep trying.

Sausage for breakfast

With my mom gone, I am having to learn meal prep all over again.

She ate the same thing for breakfast every day: oatmeal with coffee. I tried to get her to eat other things for breakfast, but that was all she wanted. She would prepare the oatmeal by herself, mostly, though in the last few months she found the half-gallon jug of milk too heavy to handle when she would add about two tablespoons of it to her microwave-cooked oatmeal. For a while I was pouring smaller, easier-to-handle portions of milk into jelly and relish jars so she could pour it herself, but in the end I was pouring the milk for her every morning.

My goal with her for dinner was always to serve her a varied diet of things she liked. One day she might get smoked sausage with eggs, another spaghetti or lasagna, another fried sausage, another chili. Sometimes she had meatless meals, pierogies or macaroni and cheese or fried fish. She would take breakfast around 10:00 AM and dinner around 4:00 PM and - that was it. Usually just two meals a day. What she ate, I ate. I would generally have dinner prepared by noon, so sometimes I could persuade her to eat a smaller portion for lunch, but most of the time she preferred just having her two meals.

(I was put to shame by the generous and balanced meals she was served while in the rehab center, and I tried to replicate them during her brief time back at home with yogurt and Jell-o and salads and meals three times a day.)

Now she's not here anymore, and I only have myself (and the cats) to worry about feeding.

When we were kids, we had a Sunday morning tradition: go across town to 9:00 AM Mass, then go to my grandmother's with all my cousins and my uncle and aunt for a breakfast of kielbasa, Polish sausage. Sausage needs to be boiled at least an hour before it can be eaten, and we developed a taste for it being fried after it was boiled. My grandmother would walk up the hill from her house for 7:00 Mass, come home, and prepare the sausage while we were at church so it would be almost ready by the time we tumbled in around 10:00. We devoured it greedily and then retreated to another room to watch Sunday morning TV - Sesame Street, The Electric Company, later 3-2-1 Contact and Big Blue Marble, Marlo and the Magic Movie Machine, sometimes retro showings of The Lone Ranger on the local PBS channel* - while the adults sat around the kitchen table and shared news and gossip from the previous week. 

One Sunday morning we all gathered at that table for the last time and didn't realize it.

I still enjoy sausage from time to time, and so did my mom. A trip to Jerry & Son market in West Nanticoke three or four times a year was sufficient to keep us supplied. While the Sunday morning feasts featured rings and rings of sausage, a single ring for the two of us would supply four or five meals. We would have sausage every three or four weeks. I would start it boiling around 11:00 AM or so, get it on the frying pan around noon, and when it was ready I would take my pre-work shower.

Today I decided to have a Sunday morning sausage breakfast for myself. I got the sausage in a pot of boiling water a little after 9:00 AM. The water started to boil out after about 45 minutes, so I added more and let the pot boil a little longer. Around 10:15 AM I got it out of the pot and into the frying pan, set on medium with water from the pot added to the pan. Frying sausage is a delicate operation: too low and it never browns, too high and it burns. The trick is to let the water boil away and let the sausage almost burn, then add water to start the process over, turning it once it begins to visibly brown. It was ready for eating around 10:45 AM.

It was a total pain in the ass for someone used to having yogurt or eggs for breakfast.

Nostalgia is fine. But I think as long as it is just me doing the cooking and eating, I will stick to having sausage as a dinner item.

*There was also a Jewish-themed children's TV show whose name escapes me. I don't think it was "The Magic Door." It was hosted by a jolly fellow with a big mustache whose voice reminded me of Gene Shalit.

Tuesday, March 07, 2023

Roses and crocuses

I won't be going to visit my mom's grave at the cemetery today. The journey home last night, as well as dealing with some things at home today, have left me drained. It's too bad, because today would have been a chance to solve a mystery.

My sister ordered a beautiful vase full of roses for my mom to be displayed at the funeral home. After the funeral there was a question as to what to do with them. I didn't want to take them, since the cats would probably eat the roses and baby's breath and would vomit all over the place. My brother and sister also have cats. In the end we decided to take them to the cemetery, where they could be displayed until they withered, and then I would retrieve the vase. My sister placed them on the edge of our marker where my brother's stillborn twin is buried.

Since that time the vase has been knocked over every day.

OK, the vase is top-heavy. I've taken steps to secure it, including creating a depression about 3/4" deep to put it in, surrounding it with rocks, and making a fence of sticks around the rocks. Every day, I find it knocked down again. Every day I prop it back up.

Yesterday I noticed that several of the rose blooms are missing. Gone. The stems appear to have been cut clean, as you can see in the photo above. Is some animal knocking over the vase and eating the blooms? If I had gone out early enough today I might have been able to see rabbit or deer tracks. My mom would have really enjoyed seeing the animals steal a treat.

From another angle, Friday, March 3, 2023.

She also would have enjoyed seeing the crocuses make their annual appearance. She missed them last year - we went to the cemetery in late February, before they bloomed, and then again in mid-March, after they were spent. This year she's there just in time for them.

Crocuses on March 20, 2023. Several purple and white crocuses are appearing on the other side of the marker as well. A single pale purple crocus, barely visible in the top center of the image, has appeared above my father's flat marker.


Currently at my workplace we are working one day a week in the office and four days working from home. After several weeks spent mostly on FMLA and Bereavement Leave, yesterday was my first day in the office in over a month.

Snow was in the forecast. Predictions kept fluctuating, suggesting we would either dodge the worst of it or take a solid hit. During my final break at 8:00 PM nothing had started yet, and it looked like we might be spared. But the snow was coming down hard when I left around 10:40 PM. 

It kept coming down, harder and harder. Flakes the size of goose down, then the size of feather duster feathers. Thick flakes that made the windshield wipers work hard to scrub the windshield clean. My normal commute runs along the south rim of the Wyoming Valley, but I decided to drop down to a lower elevation and come in through Wilkes-Barre. It helped, a little. Still, a drive of 20 minutes wound up taking nearly an hour.

My mother would have been worried sick. I'm glad she was spared that.

Sunday, March 05, 2023

A day indoors

I had plans for yesterday. Plans! I would sleep in a bit, get up, take a shower, sort through the sympathy cards we had received, get started on writing Thank You Notes, meet with my sister before she went back to Maryland, go out to the comic book store, stop at the cemetery, then watch 4:00 Mass from the Cathedral in Scranton.

It didn't go that way.

I was up late Friday night, watching a friend live-stream "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" for her followers. She and her puppet lion ended the night with a sweet lullaby, which hit me hard. I finally rolled into bed at 4:00 in the morning. I woke up at 6:00 AM and was unable to go back to sleep.

All that time to work with. Plenty of time. My sister wouldn't be by until after 1:00. And I did...nothing. Didn't even reheat the coffee I had made the day before. I picked at a rotisserie chicken I had bought on Wednesday. I gathered together the things my sister would be looking to pick up when she came over. Sat down with an album of old photos my cousin had put together for the wake and scanned them with the scanner I bought a few days before my mom died and posted them to my blog.

My sister came as scheduled. She dropped off a few things for me, picked up the things I had for her. We spoke. I feel like I was half asleep. I didn't even get out of my chair the whole while she was here.

I got up after she left. Watched some of "Kingsman: The Golden Circle." Despite their comic book pedigree, outstanding cast, and preposterous action scenes, I don't really like the Kingsman movies that much - though this movie is highly recommended just for Elton John stealing every scene he's in. 

The movie ended as Mass began. My mom never missed Mass - I made sure it was on while she was in hospice, and the week before we had watched it in her hospital room, the day before she returned, briefly, to Allied Rehab. My mom's funeral was the second time I've been at Mass since the pandemic started - the first was for my uncle's funeral. I don't know if I'll be returning to Mass in person. Maybe sometime after COVID is over. 

Then I slept. Took a nap. When I was with my mom at the hospice, as she lay there in deathless slumber, I took a lot of naps, sleeping lightly and waking up to monitor her breathing. (If you read this story, you'll understand the significance of naps.) I woke up several hours later when the phone rang once and went silent. I picked it up to hear my sister calling for me; something had happened to make it seem that calls were being answered with a dead line. She had called earlier when she got home, received no answer, and now was getting panicky.

I napped some more. Woke up at 12:30. Realized I hadn't fed the cats all day. "If you love me, feed my cats," I tell the cats she said to me. Not exactly, but it was certainly implied. I laid out plenty of food. "Be sure to give the cats extra treats," she really did say to me. I did. 

I went to bed at about 1:15.

I haven't dreamt of her. Last night I had a long, complex dream. Some friends of mine - some real, some I didn't recognize - were trying to help me go on a road trip, which first involved locating and securing a car. Eventually we did, and then we were on our way - to a mall in New Jersey, where in a store on the second floor there was a pop-up remaindered book store. (These used to be quite common back in the 1990s and 2000s, and I have only just today realized that they were probably selling the remaining stock of independent bookstores that were put out of business when Barnes & Noble and the now-defunct Borders moved into town. Since that time, these megabookstores have been getting put out of business by Amazon, and the remaindered books have been getting sold by third parties through Amazon and eBay.) I had $170 on a credit card to spend. I bought a large coffee table book by Penn & Teller, a paperback by Joyce Carol Oates, and several other books.

I woke up, washed dishes, watched Stephan Pastis talk about Charles Schulz on CBS Sunday Morning, ate some yogurt, washed dishes including the cat bowls, set out some food for the cats, and sat down to write this. Soon I'll put in some laundry, take a shower, stop by the cemetery (my sister went there yesterday before she came here,) and get a thank-you card for the priest who conducted my mom's funeral.

Then maybe I'll take another nap.

Saturday, March 04, 2023

Old photos of my mom

My cousin located a trove of old family photos and selected the ones that featured my mom prominently. These photos are from shortly after she was born in 1933 to her marriage in 1955.

Tozia Benus (a Polish diminutive of my uncle's name Benedict) Eleanor      39

Eleanor Benus Tozia 1939

Caption on back:
(First permanent)

Unsure of who the woman on the left is. I thought that was my grandmother's sister Mamie, but the caption seems to say "Marie." 

Check out my grandmother's funky sunglasses!

Tozia Eleanor
Benus (Benedict, the youngest at the time) Pop Mom

This one says El, Cioci, Toz. The "Cioci" is likely Alice, my grandmother's sister, who lived next door to her with her brother Stephen

This is a trimmed-down photo, with much of the caption on the back cut off.

The back of the photo:
Aunt Frances
Mom (my great-grandmother, most likely)
Cut off is what might be "Tozia," which would be my mom's older sister, who I think is sitting next to her, which would make Aunt Frances the obscured figure to the left of the other figure in the background.
The date is cut off so we don't know what month this was (likely June or July) but it was the 25th of that month in 1948.

Buddy (my father), El, Joe, Mom, Melissa, Marie, Pop
Front porch of my grandparent's house, July 1957

Note the isolated bit of  color in this picture, on the flowers in the bouquet. At first I thought that it was a stain. 

Turns out this was actually a color photo. Perhaps all the other colors have faded over the last 67 years, leaving only the violet flowers.