Monday, May 28, 2007

Remembering my mother-in-law

My mother-in-law, Verna, passed away on December 23, 2006. She had a massive stroke that took away her ability to talk, which was kind of a big thing for her. Everything else -- the breathing, the swallowing, the steady heart rate -- was fine; the communicating, not so much.

We were called to the hospital in the middle of the night on December 21 and it was one of those phone calls you pray God never to get. "Mom is bad. You have to come," my sister-in-law said in a voice heavy with tears. And so we came, feeling optimistically that this was one of those things that the doctors and nurses would be able to sort out. She was only fifty-nine, after all.

When we got to the hospital, which was an hour away, it was obvious that this was something that was going to brazenly deny being sorted out. We stood around the gurney in the curtained cubical in emergency, shocked beyond words. Could she...die?

It was awful seeing her like that and in the five months since she passed away, the memory has not faded. The best way to exorcise those sad thoughts, I believe, would be to think about a happier time, in this case about five years ago.

Once upon a time, back when our homeschooling duties took much less time, the girls and I used to drive over to the city where my in-laws lived and Verna, a hair stylist, would do our hair at her beautiful shop and then we'd take her out to lunch.

Verna always chose the place, and most often wanted to go to one of those buffet restaurants that offer a bewildering choice of things to eat. For such a glutton as I, you'd think that this would be a transcendent experience. But it wasn't, mostly because everything at this particular restaurant tasted like ham. The ham tasted like ham. The corn tasted like ham. The green beans tasted like ham. The mashed potatoes tasted like ham. The only thing that didn't taste like ham were the iced tea and the salad greens, but I always thought that was due to the laziness of the cooks who just couldn't be bothered to do their jobs thoroughly.

We used to joke about this, Verna and I, and get big plates of salad. Plus hot rolls. The only thing we disagreed about at that restaurant was the done-ness of the homemade rolls. She liked them so that they were as white as salt; if they had the faintest golden flush on their yeasty, rounded tops she'd declare they were "burned" and send them back, the nonplussed waitress shooting us strange glances over her shoulder. I, who have an aversion to eating raw dough, would occasionally become aggravated with this and sulk over the whipped honey butter.

Meelyn and Aisling have always loved salad since the days when my husband and I used to sit at the table eating large bowls of mixed greens and saying, "Mmm! This salad is so good! Ooh, carrots! And radishes! Wow, do I ever love these tomatoes!" under their limpid gazes as they sat in their high chairs with a handful of dry Cheerios and some little chunks of chicken breast in front of them. So this restaurant, with its salad bar stretching a quarter of a mile into the distance, was like heaven to them. They'd sit, placidly eating things most children would never touch, such as hard boiled eggs and green pepper strips, adorable in their new haircuts, listening to Verna and I good-naturedly quibbling about the rolls.

One thing I haven't mentioned about Verna is that she had a strong personality. You might have guessed that from the fact that she would send back a basket of perfectly gorgeous dinner rolls, contemptuously declaring them burned, with the appearance of Kingsford charcoal briquettes. But just in case you didn't, I'll tell you that Verna didn't take much crap from people. If you tried to push her around, she'd be all up in your personal space with a "You might think that you're going to...." or a "Don't think I don't know what you're trying to..." and it could be fairly intimidating. This will figure largely in the rest of this story.

I should also describe Verna's appearance. Verna was a big woman, but not huge. More kind of....gently rounded. She had pure white hair, always styled into a spun-sugar pouf. Her eyes were blue and her complexion was of peaches and cream. At that time, she wore glasses of the Dorothy Hamill-type, fashionable in the 1980s. Verna favored pastel colors and she wore "outfits," not something just thrown together, interchangeable with other pants or tops in her wardrobe, but pieces that were specifically chosen to go together. She was, I think, about 5'4. She actually looked quite a bit like Mrs. Santa Claus would look if she were vacationing at Boca.

One day at the restaurant, we finished eating and went to the restroom before embarking on the long drive home, sloshing with all the un-ham-flavored tea in our stomachs. (And if you're wondering why so many of my posts have to do with bathroom activity, so am I.) We each chose a stall and went in and got down to business.

As it happened, I chose the stall that had a toilet paper dispenser that was about to come off the wall. And when I say "toilet paper dispenser," I mean one of those huge things about the size of a Volkswagen that holds the two jumbo rolls of tissue. It was a sneaky thing that gave me no advance warning of its readiness to fall, like swinging back and forth from one rusty bolt.

So there I was, sitting down, and pretty much a captive audience (victim?) for whatever the toilet paper dispenser decided to dish out. My business nearly complete, I pulled on the little end of tissue that was demurely peeking out from the bottom of the dispenser and that's when catastrophe struck.

You know in cartoons, how someone who gets hit on the head sometimes sees stars and sometimes sees little birdies? Well, did you know that actually happens? Because when the toilet paper dispenser fell off the wall onto my head, I saw both.

It also seemed to happen in slow motion. One moment, I was sitting there idly weeing and reading that Debbie loves Eugene and then next minute, I was hearing the grinding sound as the dispenser ripped itself from the wall and launched itself at me; I turned my head - slowly, slowly - and I might have said, "No-o-o-o-o-o-o" in a deep 20 r.p.m. voice. I may or may not have had the time to stand up, but since that would have involved weeing on my own shoes, I chose to remain seated, assaulted but untainted with urine. You don't really have as much time to think about these things as action movies would lead you to believe.

Those toilet paper dispensers are heavier than you might imagine, probably because the two rolls of tissue they hold are roughly the size of the tires on an 18-wheeler. This one was full and the impact of it slamming onto my head nearly knocked me off the toilet, which probably would have involved my weeing on my own shirt instead of my shoes. I think I may have said something like "Ow!" at the point of impact, but then I was slightly concussed (in my opinion) so my memory is hazy on this.

Verna heard the noise and said uncertainly, "Shelley? Are you all right in there?" Meelyn and Aisling, who were already washing their hands, said, "Mommy?"

"The toilet paper dispenser just fell off the wall onto my head," I answered.

"It fell...?" she inquired.

"Off the wall," I said.


"My head," I replied.

It took her only about three more seconds to whip herself into a storm of righteous indignation. "What kind of place is this?" she demanded. "First of all, the food all tastes like ham. Second of all, every dinner roll that comes out of that kitchen is burned to a crisp. And now this! Toilet paper dispensers coming off the very walls! You could have a damaged vertebrae! We are not leaving this place until we see some justice!" Verna concluded as I exited the stall.

She couldn't have sounded more ominous if she had declared, "Thou shalt see me at Philippi."

"I think I'm okay," I said doubtfully, looking at myself in the mirror. "Is one of my pupils larger than the other?"

She peered into my face anxiously, "I don't think so. Well, maybe...No, no. I think you're all right. Come on."

She grabbed me by the arm and hustled me out of the ladies', Meelyn and Aisling following along like baby ducks. She frog-marched me across the entire dining room, muttering, until we got to the cashier's desk. The gum-chewing cashier looked like she was about twenty years old and she was no match for Verna.

"I'd like to speak to a manager immediately," Verna said crisply, keeping hold of my arm as if she expected me to make a run for the car before justice was served.

"He zonniz break," said the cashier, slouching against the wall.

"Then can I use your telephone?" Verna asked politely. "Because I want to call my lawyer."

"I'll get him," the cashier said hastily.

The manager came out front a couple of moments later, wiping his moustache with a crumpled paper napkin. ("Of course it would have to be a man," I thought.) "Ladies?" he asked us. "Is there a problem?" He had the air of a man who wanted to get back to his plate of ham-flavored food and burned rolls and not waste his time on the likes of us.

"Yes, there is a problem," said Verna loudly, indicating me. I contemplated allowing my eyes to roll back in my head to illustrate her story, but decided it would scare Meelyn and Aisling. "My daughter-in-law here was using the bathroom and when she tore off a piece of toilet paper, that entire heavy dispenser fell and hit her on the head. That is....negligence!" she bellowed. "A person should be able to come to this restaurant and go to the restroom without risking injury!"

("Or eat fifteen different foods that all taste like ham," I thought woozily.)

"Are you bleeding?" the manager asked, his concern ratcheted up a notch or two by Verna's use of the word "negligence."

I touched my head experimentally. "No."

"Do you have a bump?" he asked, looking at my recently colored and styled hair.

I touched my head again. "No," I confirmed. "And my pupils are the same size."

"Then how 'bout I give you....two free meals?" he said, a born negotiator.

"Four," Verna shot back. "The whole family should eat free because this was not a pleasant dining experience."

"Four, then," the manager agreed, sick of the sight of us. He got in the cash drawer and rummaged around, pulling out a stack of gift cards. He made one out and rang it up and handed it to me. "There you go," he said. "You enjoy a nice meal on me. And we'll....errrm...get that tissue dispener taken care of."

"Thank you," I said, accepting the card.

"Thank you," said Verna, haughtily.

"Can I have one of those mints?" Meelyn asked.

"Mommy, I have to potty," said Aisling.

My husband and the girls and I went back to the restaurant for our free meals a few weeks later and I checked on the toilet paper dispenser again when the girls and I went to the restroom to wash the whipped honey butter off their hands. It had been hung back up on the same bolt and it was grimly waiting for the chance to administer a bludgeoning to some other unwary soul.

I thought about going in there and jiggling it with my elbow to see if I could get us a few more free meals, but this time, even the cherry pie had tasted like ham, so we went ahead and left.

I tattled to Verna and she about blew a gasket. The girls and I continued going to her shop for the next two years to get our hair done, but we never went back to that restaurant, opting for a Chinese buffet down the road instead

"That'll show 'em," said Verna as we drove by on our way to the China Sun. "They can burn those rolls all they want to. We won't be going back there."

She seemed satisfied that it was a job well done. I coudn't agree more.

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