Sweetheart is sick. So, this afternoon, after a quick stop to say hi to Mom, I made a grocery run for chicken soup ingredients (or, as some people refer to it, “Jewish penicillin). I’ve been making this particular recipe ever since my friend Sarah K shared it with me some (gulp) 30 years ago. It’s called “Golden Chicken Soup,” and I don’t remember the cookbook it was in. It is magical chicken soup with mystical powers, full of Jewish mother healing mojo because I carry centuries of mitochondrial DNA from all the mothers before me who have been healing the people they love with chicken soup. I always have some frozen in small packages to take to sick friends, and to have on hand if one of us gets sick.
I was sick last week, so it was time to restock.
At the store, I had a great chat with the young man behind the meat counter, who weighed up four pounds of backs and necks (99¢/lb.). I left Steve with a list of food-related movies to watch after I told him the other secret of truly fabulous chicken soup, which is parsley root. (If you’re wondering about the list, I was in a hurry and am sure I missed some, but I wrote down “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” “Tampopo,” “Babette’s Feast,” “Big Night” and, even though it’s not a food movie and just because I love it, “Diva.”)
Then, I picked up celery and parsley root (I had the rest of the ingredients at home) and went through the checkout line. The total came to $11.05. I rifled my purse for my RFID case, and couldn’t find it. I wasn’t sure I had enough cash on me, and was in the process of pulling out my wallet when a voice behind me said, “I’ll get it,”
As I turned to see who was speaking, I caught a flash of arm movement as he swiped a card through the reader. The speaker was a slight, sweet-looking young man, probably about 21.
I looked him over.
“Are you independently wealthy?”
“No,” he said, “but I have enough.” He entered his PIN, signed the pad and the deed was done.
By then, I had my wallet and change purse in hand, and peeled off a $10 and a $1, which he waved aside.
“No, it’s okay,” he said. “I want to.”
Inside my head, I was cheering. I was cheering for this kid and for the world, overflowing with white light and gratitude, both for the gift I was getting and the gift I had been given by being able to accept his gift in the spirit in which he’d offered it.
“Really?” I said “Then, thank you!”
We were both grinning.
“You know, pay it forward,” he said.
“Yes!” I said. “Exactly! If you want to – if you wouldn’t mind giving me your name and address, I’ll bring you some of the soup I’m going home to make.”
I handed him my pink note pad with the sparkly hearts on the cover, a gift from my friend Jody. He wrote down his name and address.
“Best shopping day EVER!” I said to the cashier as he was writing his name. She agreed, smiling as she checked out the customers in line behind us.
The young man handed back my pad.
“There’s a quart of chicken soup in your future,” I told him. Then I looked at his name and address.
He lives on the same street as Mom’s nursing home. We walked out together, he with a small bag of food and a yellow Kalanchoe plant, me with my ingredients.
He’s a filmmaking student at UWM. So if any of my big shot Hollywood pals are in the market for an intern, I have a great candidate for you. His name is Sean.
Note: This started as a short post and then grew. And grew. And grew. Believe it or not, what you are reading is a very abbreviated version. Feel free to skip it.
I really wanted Sweetheart to come with me to the reunion. For two reasons.
One was the reunion.
“I would never make you come to a plain old class reunion,” I told him back when John, Jeannie and I were first meeting. “But these are arts people. You’ll have fun!”
The other was the trip.
“We can take the bike!”
Last summer, we took a 5,800 mile, three-week motorcycle trip to Alberta. It was a great adventure.
My sister had a different idea.
“Let’s do a sisters road trip!”
Debby and I were a year apart in school. In elementary school and junior high, we hadn’t done a lot of in-school co-socializing. But in high school we were both in orchestra. The arts kids hung together. So our social lives began intertwining in ways they hadn’t previously.
Also, we were hardly unique. Tribe “Arts-Related Siblings” included Rosenthals, Rays, Houghtalings, Sears, Gladwins, Taylors, Frenches, the Carchedi twins and others.
A sisters road trip meant no motorcycle and no Sweetheart. But I was getting laid off. Sweetheart was worried about finances. He also saw an opportunity.
“I think it would be good for you two to go together,” he said.
Because of some family history, the details of which I will spare you, the idea of spending hours and hours of concentrated time alone in a car with Debby was a little unsettling. Also, we have very different styles when it comes to conflict. One of us (not me) inherited our mother’s short fuse, sharp tongue and long memory. One of us (not her) is more like Dad – a long fuse which, when it blows, makes for quite the fireworks display.
If things went south, it wouldn’t take a lot to send them plunging into the Deep South, and quickly.
International Negotiations Commence: The Two-Party Talks
In a series of phone calls in the month or so leading up to the trip, we began circling each other like a pair of big cats forced to share the same cage.
It started with the drive itself. I wanted to take the high-speed ferry across Lake Michigan. It would be an adventure. Plus, we could cut a few hours off our drive time and avoid Chicago traffic. Once across, we’d rent a car. Win-win, right?
“Too many moving parts,” Debby said.
And on it went.
One of us would express an opinion about the shape of the trip, and the other one would shoot it down in no uncertain terms (not me) or blanch quietly before saying “I’m not sure that’s a good idea” or “Um. Okay” (not her).
There was the matter of how much time we were going to spend with Aunt Adele, who lives 17 miles outside of Utica on the farm where our mother grew up. AA is 90 (and would probably murder me for even mentioning her name on the Internet, so just pretend this part with her name in it never happened). She is the house’s sole owner and current resident and she graciously agreed to let us stay at the Family Homestead.
I had envisioned arriving on Thursday, doing reunion setup Friday, Reunion on Saturday, spending Sunday with Aunt Adele and then getting up fresh and sassy Monday to hit the road and get home early Tuesday afternoon.
“NO NO NO!!!!” said Debby. “We have to leave early Sunday, because I fly out Tuesday morning and I want to spend time with Mom on Monday.”
“You call Aunt Adele and work it out,” I said. “I’m peaceful with whatever you want to do.”
A few days later, the phone rang.
“Hey!” Debby said, “Would you like to stop in Columbus on the way home? It’s only two hours out of the way.”
“Not really,” I said. “What’s there?”
“My friend Antoinette,” Debby said. They’d met through a mutual friend who knew Antoinette was moving to Edmonton and knew that Debby lived there. Their friend had thought they’d hit it off, and she’d been right.
“I haven’t seen her in a couple of years and we thought she and her husband were going to move back to Edmonton but now it looks like they aren’t…”
I did not ask her to walk me through the thought process of someone who could authoritatively declare the idea of a relaxing morning where we were already waking up a bad idea because we had to get back as quickly as possible and then advocate effectively for a four-hour detour. Way more to be lost than gained going down that road.
We talked about a few other things before hanging up.
A couple of days later, the phone rang.
“What if we spend the night in Sandusky,” Debby said. “It’s right off of I-90, and Antoinette said she can drive up and meet us.”
Sandusky was just past the halfway point between Utica and Milwaukee. Problem solved.
Next, a reunion attendee suggested an after-party at the bar and pizza joint his brother owned (“They’ll have a band that night”). We announced it on the Reunion web site.
“I’ll want to get back early,” she said. “You’re not going to want to stay out until 1 in the morning, are you?”
“Yes,” I said. “I probably am.”
We hung up shortly after, yet another exchange hovering unresolved somewhere in the shimmering neverwhere between Wisconsin and Alberta.
A couple of days later, Debby called.
“I was thinking,” she said, “we should stay in Utica Saturday. If we get a hotel, you can stay out late if you want to, and I can go to bed early if I want to and there won’t be a problem. Plus, we can get on the road right away because the Thruway is closer than it would be from the Farm.”
And on it went. We were engaged in international diplomatic negotiations, but instead of treaties and trade agreements, we were hammering out road trip logistics.
Heading East, with a Brief Trip to the Past
I went to the airport to meet her and pick up the rental car. The rental agent did a visual inspection – walking around the car before we took it out so she’d be able to see whether it was returned in the same condition. I thought about asking her to walk around the two of us, but reconsidered. It felt too much like setting us up to fail.
We left at 7 the next night, the better to avoid rush hour in Chicago.
Debby was driving, and all went well until we hit the Chicago Skyway and the first Indiana Toll Road toll. The EZ Pass didn’t raise the gate.
“IT’S NOT WORKING!!”
“Let me try,” I said. She handed me the transponder. I aimed into the darkness at a point where I thought the reader would be. Nothing happened.
Cars were lining up behind us. Debby shifted into panic mode, recounting a toll booth debacle in Italy that involved a lot of Euros and many hours of driving to straighten out.
Scrabbling through my purse until I felt my wallet, I opened it up and pulled out a credit card.
“Here,” I said.
She reached up, slid the card into the slot and handed it back to me.
The gate went up. We drove through. My heart rate began to drop.
“That was awful!” she said.
“I’m sorry, but I was just sure it was going to be Italy all over again.”
By 1 a.m., we were settled for the night at a Holiday Inn Express in Angola, Indiana. Debby had refused to let me use the EZ pass when we got off the road, insisting we pay cash for the toll.
The next morning, I checked my EZ Pass account, which had all kinds of money in it.
Over Debby’s objections, I insisted on using it at the next toll stop.
It worked fine for the rest of the trip.
We were about an hour into Ohio. The gas tank and my coffee cup were both full. The day was young and we had the road practically to ourselves.
“Let’s read the letters!”
Debby reached into her bag and pulled out a file folder I’d found while breaking up Mom’s apartment during the move to the nursing home. I’d opened and closed it again at the sight of my handwriting on the aerogram mailers, my return address in Israel facing outward. Debby’s letters from England were in gray envelopes with black-accented red and white trim.
She’d wanted to take them back to Canada, but I’d asked her to leave them together. Debby had proposed bringing them with us to read aloud.
“Read one of yours first.”
Debby’s letter was funny and chatty. She was volunteering at a stable in London in exchange for riding time, and the man in charge – clearly an alcoholic – had tried and failed to get her drunk. At the stable, she’d met a nice woman who turned out to be Jon Anderson’s (as in the lead singer of “Yes”) wife, who introduced her to Jon and their children. She described her roommates, her classes, her job at a pizza parlor and inquired about the possibility of borrowing money to travel through Europe in the summer.
I asked her to fill in some of the details, whether she’d kept up with any of the people she’d described and told her how much fun it had been to relive a bit of her history together.
“Okay,” she said, “Now one of yours.”
She started reading. My letter was a commentary on what had clearly been a difficult phone conversation regarding the ex-boyfriend I’d recently thrown over for the guy who became my first ex-husband 12 years hence, and outside of that, a few short sentences about what else was going on.
She stopped, considered, and then spoke.
“I knew your relationship with Mom was different than mine, but ….” She paused.
I watched Debby process what it was like to have been me.
I kept my eyes on the road as we talked through it some.
One of these days, I will read those letters and forgive myself for stupid stuff I did because I was fragile and lonely. I don’t want to do it with anyone else around.
“It’s really painful,” I said. “If it’s okay, I’d rather not read any more.”
Debby put the file away, and, like the scenery outside, we moved on. We spent that night with our favorite cousins, Chuck & Barb. The next morning we got to Aunt Adele’s. We spent some time with her, then headed into Utica for Reunion setup and dinner.
Screams, Snores and Bathroom Floors
On Saturday, I did, in fact, stay out, but only until 11:30. When I got back to the hotel, the organizing group and some of our other friends – Debby included – were hanging out in the bar. We headed off to bed shortly after midnight and were in our respective beds not long after. I was pretty wired, but did my best to get to sleep. We had a lot of driving ahead.
It felt as if I’d just fallen asleep when the first group of happy screamers jarred me awake. Our room was just across from the elevator, and we’d seen a couple of wedding parties in the lobby. When the third loud group trooped off the elevator, Debby stomped out of bed, flung the door open and started screaming.
“SHUT UP!!! DO YOU REALIZE HOW RUDE YOU ARE BEING??? PEOPLE ARE TRYING TO SLEEP!!!”
She closed the door, got back into bed and rolled over. Within 10 minutes, she was snoring.
I was the most wide-awake exhausted person ever.
Yelling freaks me out. Even though she wasn’t yelling at me, my inner child was cowering in the corner. My outer adult was too tired to coax her out and also knew that someone had to to get us to Sandusky alive the next day, someone who wasn’t going to be me.
I dragged the comforter from my bed and a pillow into the bathroom and closed the door. I doubled the comforter over, crawled inside and was all but asleep the moment my head hit the pillow.
Something leaning gently into my back woke me.
Debby was on the other side of the bathroom door, confusion giving way to horror when she realized where I’d spent the sleeping portion of the previous night.
She said she was terrified I’d spend the drive home punishing her.
“No,” I said. “One of us had to be awake to drive. Besides, this isn’t the first hotel bathroom floor I’ve slept on, and that comforter made it by far the most comfortable.”
Debby looked confused. So I told her about the Worcester Marriott in 2009, when Mom’s friend Beverly had the other bed and snored like a freight train and I was lying next to Mom, who jolted me awake by twitching every time I fell asleep. And I told her about the Casey-Pomeroy House in Toledo in 2011, when Mom and I shared the only bed in the room and she twitched and yelled.
Then, we headed down to breakfast, where we found a bunch of other reunion-ites. Debby wangled a $40 reduction in our room rate for the unwelcome 2 a.m. wake-up calls, and we packed the car and hit the road.
We had Buffalo wings at an outpost of the Anchor Bar with her college buddy Jerry, who is working on the most amazing series of stories for the Buffalo News and told us all about his research. Then, we drove and drove until we got to Sandusky, where we had our only fight.
“Please don’t tell people you slept on the floor because I snored,” she’d said that morning.
I did my best to honor her request. But I was tired, and I wanted a decent night’s sleep to try and make up for the previous one. When we got to Wagner’s Inn Bed & Breakfast in Sandusky, I shared the events of the night before with the proprietress.
“One of you can sleep on the living room sofa if that happens,” she said, “It’s very comfortable.”
The living room sofa was just outside our room. So when I got back from the kitchen, where we’d been chatting, I said to Debby, “If you snore tonight, you can sleep on the sofa.”
I couldn’t understand why she thought it was all right for me to have two terrible sleepless nights and be sleep deprived and less than myself (a big part of the reason I was screaming at that point). It seemed cruel and selfish.
She was not giving ground. In the end, I took a shower and tried to cool down – and wake up enough to go to dinner with Debby and her friend Antoinette, who turned out to be lovely.
The next morning, before we headed for lunch in Chicago with my friend Michele and dinner in Milwaukee with Mom, I told her about my conversation with the innkeeper. She said had she known that, she wouldn’t have gotten upset.
“I thought you were just saying ‘You – go sleep on the street if you snore!’ ”
So, here was me – not telling her what I’d told the innkeeper because I didn’t want her to rip me a new one.
And there was her – so convinced I’m the sort of person who would put my own needs over someone else’s safety that it didn’t occur to her to inquire further.
Clearly, we have some work to do. Which we will, between now and our next road trips, which we have decided to make a biennial event.
George Lakoff has retired as Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society (cnms.berkeley.edu).