When it doesn’t snow in December you are left with what Midwesterners call a “Black Christmas” — something that sounds more like a Depeche Mode song than a weather condition.
The ground was dry. The weather, temperate. A balmy below freezing if you asked the locals. Everywhere we went people exclaimed, “Can you believe this weather we’re having!” I zipped up my down coat, ignorant of the delight that is pumping gas in 14 degrees. With the lack of snow, the only novelty afforded to us Californians during our yearly 10-day nesting in Minnesota had melted.
Our glasses, however, were quite wet. We kept them filled with rum and ginger ale as the stress over being my Grandfather’s new power of attorney sunk in. There were stacks and stacks of envelopes with bills, explanation of benefits, correspondence from the lawyer, a new will, lost security deposit keys that needed finding, papers to sign, names to be added to bank accounts. We created a filing system, knowing he would never keep it up. Visited five nursing homes that were rejected, with the exception of one that had a waiting list he readily signed up for (“I think we’re getting played,” I told my sister). We cooked and cleaned and got yelled at. “Hand me the whatchamacallit.” “What, Grandpa?” “The thing! Right there!” “Where?” “Sonofabitch.”
Many words have escaped Grandpa Bud. Most of which are replaced with the name of that tasty Rice Krispie-filled candy bar. But when his frustrations peak, nothing quite does the trick like “sonofabitch.”
We tried our best to dance around him. To be bitch daughters, not sons. To mould ourselves into his lifestyle and not impose too much of ours. This tactic required some tap dancing, particularly around food.
One morning, I woke to find my Grandfather making my sister instant oatmeal. Instead of nuking it with the water (or boiling the water and pouring it over the top, my preferred method), he added the milk with the water. A steaming bowl of curdled milk was excavated from the microwave and handed to her. She eyed it with severe concern and shot a glance my way. I lifted the gallon of milk to my nose and shook my head. She lowered her empty spoon.
My Grandfather had recently started freezing milk. It’s difficult for him to get to the store, and this method, he informed us, had no affect on the substance. What he didn’t realize, perhaps because his nose isn’t what it used to be, is that a day or two after defrosting a gallon of milk it goes bad immediately. But being of German stock with a cast iron stomach, he failed to notice he was eating rancid milk.
My sister eyed him nervously as he sat down, then stared into this bowl of ungoodness, unclear how to get out of consuming it. I noticed her cell phone sitting on the table. I slipped into the back bedroom and texted her: “Tell Grandpa you want to eat on the porch. Then stash the bowl behind a chair or sneak into the garage and dump it in the garbage when he’s not looking.”
I returned and my sister asked, “Can I go eat this in the porch?” Grandpa: “Go ahead.” She slinked away with a hidden smile. I tried not to laugh as I saw her move into the garage a few moments later when the coast was clear.
The Christmas turkey made the curled milk look like cotton candy. Grandpa set the bird out to thaw in the garage for five days. I expressed some concern over the duration. He treated me like a surfer idiot who didn’t know how cold garages were in Minnesota. The thing was, his garage was about 40 degrees, far too warm to keep a turkey from going bad. On day two or three I poked the thing and it had thawed. I told him we should move it inside. “Sonofabitchin’ no.” I let it go.
Later that day, he burst into the kitchen filled with anxiety, “We gotta get that turkey in here or it’s gonna go bad.” So I carried it into the fridge where it sat for a few more days before we cooked it.
Two days later we ate the turkey. Well, Grandpa and I did. My sister pretended to. None of us got sick. Maybe old farmers who used to preserve food in lard know a thing or two about how far you can push the limits of poultry or whether you can eat mayonnaise that went bad six months ago. Or maybe we just got lucky. Maybe Christmas was miserable enough without my mother or father. Adding food poisoning on top of tasks like taking the tree down on Christmas night — because without both of us, there would be no one to drag the dried up thing to the woods to die — would have been too much.
Two days after we flew home, my Grandfather fell and hit his head. After a week in the hospital, he’s in the nursing home again, rehabbing from intracranial bleeding. We weren’t there for that. Heck, we might have been the reason it happened: “Take an Ambien at 3 a.m. if you can’t get back to sleep. Take two if you need.” It just seemed like the inner turmoil of being older — the loneliness, the “no one stops by” of it all — were worse than any physical ailment.
But then again, we didn’t eat the oatmeal.