Vanilla Cream Wednesday

February 13, 2013
Ash Wednesday

Today represents a confluence of three important events in my life: it’s the fourteenth anniversary of the start of my online journal (you can read the first post here); it’s the 102nd anniversary of my mother’s birth (you can read the eulogy I gave for her here); and it’s Ash Wednesday, which comes around every year, although not always on the same date (people are saying it’s so early this year, but it can be earlier).

I’m going out tonight, so I attended the noon service at my Lutheran church. It’s a quiet hour, with unaccompanied piano music, the imposition of the ashes, a short sermon, and Holy Communion. Pastor Cathy preached about renewal, about decluttering, both physically and spiritually. She plans to declutter her whole house in these next six weeks. I’ve decided to devote some of my energies to corralling, sorting, cataloging, and shelving (or giving away) every single book in my house. I suspect this will be a project not unlike draining a swamp, and we know what happens when you start draining the swamp.

After the service I went in search of something to eat. Because I was thinking about my mother today, I found myself headed uptown, to the Polyclinic Hospital.

My mother left the workforce when I was born, despite the fact that her mother lived with us, because that is what women did in those days. For the next eleven years they spent their days together, doing household chores in a relationship that I remember as fairly conflicted. When my grandmother died in 1958, my mother found herself at loose ends and sinking farther into the depression that always dogged her, and she sought to return to work. Or at least that’s how I see it now.

She went to work in the admissions office of the Polyclinic, a facility only a few blocks from where we lived. As I recall, she wore a white uniform and white shoes, and the only thing that distinguished her and the others in the admissions office from nurses was the absence of a cap. She also wore white nylon stockings because, according to the head of the admissions office (a friend of my mother’s who had helped her get the job), “otherwise you look like a waitress.”

My mother’s return to the workforce demanded some changes in our lives. My sister and I had always come home for lunch, but now we ate at school. Evening meal preparation became a challenge. My father began taking us up to the hospital around 4:30 or so. We’d meet my mother, and the four of us would eat in the hospital cafeteria. I loved this aspect of our lives. It was a change from the endliess cycle of meat pies (made with roast beef left over from Sunday), baked chicken, chicken pot pie, and fish sticks or macaroni and cheese on Fridays. At the cafeteria, each of us could have just what we wanted, and everything came in an individual dish.

Eventually, there came the day my mother arrived home alone, an hour or so before she would have normally been home. As I recall, I was sitting in front of the television, watching Bandstand rather than practicing my violin or doing my homework. My mother had walked the four blocks home, and she looked distracted and disheveled.

I would piece the story together over time, and here’s what I think happened: It was Ash Wednesday, and my mother had attended Mass in the morning, received the ashes, and then gone to work. The hospital administrator, known to be something of a martinet, and probably the source of the idea that flesh-toned nylons made you look like a waitress, had observed my mother’s ashes and perhaps said something sharp to her about it, something that conveyed a disdain for the religious culture that stood behind the practice. Maybe she said something in reply, something that undoubtedly (knowing my mother) fell far short of insubordination but that was nevertheless perceived by him to be untoward. And he fired her.

That was more than fifty years ago. The building where all of this took place, where the admissions office was and where we ate dinner in the basement cafeteria, still stands but is now a complex of state offices and a job training center operated by the local community college. The hospital uses more modern buildings across an alley to the south. I know the area well. I walk in the neighborhood often, and I can see the buildings from my studio across the water. I can see the windows of the solarium on the floor where my mother died.

So I walked into the present facility, ashes still visible on my forehead. Outside the cafeteria was a sign announcing the Ash Wednesday service which had just concluded in the meditation room down the hall, and times and locations where those who were unable to attend the service could receive ashes. I went into the cafeteria, nearly empty, and had a prepackaged chef salad and a bottle of water. (I don’t abstain from meat as an intentional practice, but I have decided to refrain from consuming flavored water, such as the wonderful Sobe Lifewater in Fuji Apple Pear that has replaced Diet Dr. Brown Cream Soda as my refreshment of choice.)

Afterward I went to yet another spot that holds memories of my mother and food — Zimmerman’s in Penbrook. It’s across the street from the building that was the junior high my father taught in from about 1949 until 1952. We lived a few blocks away then, and I remember walking there beside my mother as she pushed my sister in the stroller.

Zimmerman’s sells peanut butter that they make on the premises from peanuts that they roast themselves, coffee, and hand-made chocolates, as well as many “retro” candies and candymaking supplies in bulk. I had a half-pound box made up for me — half vanilla butter creams and half cordial cherries with liquid centers. Those were my mother’s favorites.

I ate two butter creams and two cordial cherries, in something of a ceremony, at my kitchen table, and then I washed the ashes off my forehead, and then prepared to go out.

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