Monday, February 23, 2009

The Other Shoe Has Dropped, and the Dangers of Whipped Cream


LOOK at these! They've got CUPCAKES
on them, for heaven's sake!

And I had finally scored an office with a window. . . .

For some time now, it has been hard for me to sit down and write. I am distracted. I didn't know if this is a symptom of lingering stress from the previous year, or insecurity about the future. I never wrote my usual Christmas letter in 2007, and planned to write double one for 2007-2008, but even that has hit a snag.
While 2008 actually ended on a high point, with a great job for me, I still felt very insecure. The current financial situation has had an effect on everybody, including insurance companies that insure hospitals and landlords. They are fighting paying anything, and it has been very hard for my boss because settlements have been held up. He has been paying our salaries out of his personal savings and investments, and those have also taken a huge hit. I was afraid he wouldn't be able to continue to pay me. That has come to pass. I am laid off. I am bummed. My last day was in February, Friday the 13th.

I am eligible for unemployment and that will make it a little easier. Also, I have some legal connections in the area where I had none originally and some different experience to put on my resume, but no law firms are hiring and people are being laid off right and left. I keep thinking how this reminds me of what it is like to suffer through a blizzard. The blizzard hits, and afterward you are stuck in your house, you have tons of snow to shovel, it's hard to get to the store and when you struggle through hell to get there, you can't assume there will be any milk. It is frustrating and maybe even scary, but nobody lashes out, because they know that everybody around is suffering the same frustrations, or worse.
Anyway, now that the dread other shoe has dropped--I have actually been doing a lot of writing! Mostly short stories. After Mom published her book of dog stories she wanted to write another one, featuring funny stories about Hogg kids' cars. I had made an audio tape for her that I found when I went through the contents of her office. I have been writing one or two a week, and the stories are getting good reviews at my writing group. Of course, the bad economy makes it harder to get things published, too! Oh well. It feels good to write again. I'll try to get the 2007-2008 Christmas letter written eventually, but as it costs several hundred dollars to print it out and mail it, you may not get it until I get a new job--hopefully, before Christmas 2009!

Anyway, I will try to to be a better writer here on the blog...
and I'll try to write more shorter pieces, like this one.


I decided, since money will be tight while I'm unemployed I should use up some of the groceries in my pantry. Often I buy foodstuffs on sale, pack them away in the pantry and forget about them until well after the expiration dates. I rarely use cake mixes but I found I had several, so I made a cake out of a spice cake mix and a can of pumpkin and took it to my office. It was a big hit. Then I wondered if I could make a Caribbean cake out of a white cake mix and tropical fruit cocktail. I tried it but wasn't very good--the flavors weren't strong enough. I considered making the cake into a trifle by layering it with whipped cream and more canned fruit, but I didn't have any whipping cream.
I remembered that for the kitty auction in November I had put together a "baker's basket," filled with things like cookie cutters, a spatula, colored sprinkles and little tubes of icing. I thought it would be a good gift idea for a little kid, or for a parent or grandparent to bake holiday stuff with a favorite child. I collected stuff for the basket but I still needed a few more things to make it complete. I found the cutest thing at the dollar store-- little aerosol cans of flavored whipped topping that came with candy sprinkles in a shaker lid. The flavors were awful, like "bubblegum" and "cotton candy," but I thought it was just the thing for a kid to get excited about. The can featured an iced cupcake on the front, so I got some brightly colored muffin paper cups to go with the several cans I bought. In the end, we didn't use the baking basket idea, so I put the stuff away in my pantry for next year.
I remembered that one of the cans was banana-flavored. I thought that might taste OK in a tropical dessert. I cut a little piece of cake and squirted the stuff on it. It was lovely--fluffy and bright yellow. I took a bite and was immediately overpowered by the strongest banana flavor you could imagine. The aftertaste was even worse! I looked at the label on the can and was surprised to see the words NOT A FOOD on it. Also, the words "so delicious-- it's kissably sinful!"
I am so glad I did not actually sell aerosol foam sex lubricant to children!


She is walking toward me on the sidewalk. Her round face is a bit puffy and her eyes droop at the outside corners, but I know her face. She sees me, says, "Hi!"

I assume a pleasant smile while I frantically search for her name in the library of my mind. She was in my Algebra class. She lives down the street from Mom now. "Hi!" I say.

She gives me a hug, steps back. "Chris told me about your mother. I’m so sorry."

Chris is my younger brother. "Thanks," I say.

"How long are you in town?" she asks.

"Until Saturday. I’m trying to empty the house." My brain churns. Sheila? No. Lois! Lois Bannerman.

"That’s the toughest job in the world," Lois says.

I nod.

"I’m really going to miss your mom. I loved visiting her."

"Why don’t you drop by later?" I say. "There’s so much stuff I have to get rid of–you might find some things you can use. Mom would like that."

"Really?" says Lois. We say good bye and go off in our different directions.

Lois is right. Emptying your childhood home is the toughest job in the world.

"I want people to have the things that are important to them," Mom had said. I have spent months now trying to keep my promise to her. I have dug through closets and chests and suitcases and folders and file drawers and envelopes, sorting thousands of newspaper clippings and letters, photographs and souvenirs. I have prepared and mailed off boxes of trinkets and memories to relatives and friends. My two younger brothers have hauled away carloads of stuff.

I don’t know what to do with Andy’s things. I collected them in a cardboard box-–his Boy Scout sash, his science fair ribbons, his well-loved books, including this one. He loved "The Rescuers," a story about brave mice. My younger brothers took their boxes away but Andy’s two daughters only want to take a few photographs. I understand. They knew the Andy who was their father. They never met the sweet and serious ten-year-old who first read this book to me.

I hold his high-school graduation picture in my hands. The frame is nice and might sell at a yard sale. I suppose I should discard the photo. Mom had so many copies made of this, as well as of his Navy portrait and the one of him with his bagpipes and kilt. Everybody in the family already has this photograph. But I can’t bear to throw his image away. This is my big brother Andy, my childhood protector and great friend, who died twelve years ago. I swaddle the portrait in bubble wrap and put it on the floor.

I have completely forgotten about Lois, but here she is walking up to the porch. I provide her a cardboard box and invite her to poke through the cabinets and bookcases. Now she is sitting on the floor in front of the big china hutch, wrapping wine glasses in newspaper.

"Your mom is the one who taught me how to cook!" she says.


"My mother died when I was ten."

I don’t remember knowing that, but now I have a recollection of Lois' earnest face beaming from beneath her Scout beret at troupe meetings at our house. I’m embarrassed to realize how very nearly invisible she was to me then–so mouse-like and quiet. But Lois Bannerman is not quiet now. She is animated, smiling, telling me stories about my family.

"I loved to watch Andy practice his bagpipes in your back yard," she says, then she whispers, "I was crazy about him!"

"Really?" Lois could only have been a freshman the year Andy was a senior.

She drops her hands into her lap and looks up at the ceiling. "Do you remember the dances at Lake Ocquiac?"

I shake my head. All the Boy and Girl Scout camping trips are a blur to me.

"Girls got to ask the boys. I was so shy, but I promised myself I would ask Andy Hogg to dance with me if it killed me! But other girls kept getting to him first. Finally, it was the last dance, on the last night. I ran to up him and opened my mouth. I was standing right in front of him and he was looking at me and then Marilyn Dedyne -- do you remember her? -- she literally pushed me over, grabbed him, and off they went!"

"Oh, no!"

"I felt like such a failure! I was devastated!" Lois says these words, but she is smiling now, almost grinning. "The coolest thing happened!" She closes her eyes. "The music ended, the lights came back on and everybody started groaning. Marilyn walked away. Andy looked at me, and just then – like magic! like an answered prayer! -- the scoutmaster said, ‘Oh, all right! Just one more!’"

"They played another song?"

A tear traces its way down Lois Bannerman’s cheek. "Cherish," she says. "That song by the Association. A slow dance. My whole life, whenever – "

She doesn’t finish. She doesn’t have to. I realize she isn’t even here. At this moment Lois Bannerman is at Scout camp in Northern Michigan. She is twelve years old. She is slow-dancing under the stars with Andy Hogg.

Her eyes are still closed. She doesn’t see me place the bubble wrapped package in her box of wine glasses, trinkets and memories.