You find yourself in Phoenix in your mother’s dark kitchen amid piles of dirty dishes, glasses, pots, and baking pans.
The cabinets are empty because everything has been used—except for the plastic spoon that came free with the canned dog food years ago.
Mom never liked the dishwasher. Inside it’s pristine, except for some cobwebs. The door seals have rotted away so that it would leak if you tried to use it.
You have no space to work. Greasy and mold stained dishes are stacked on the countertops and piled on the newspaper-covered floor. Foods in the refrigerator and within pots on the stove have been reduced to weeping smears of color. Greenish sludge may have been lettuce. Brown lumpy goo could have been baked beans. Pink? Black? You don’t know.
As you submerge the dishes, you know each sinkful needs to soak for half an hour before anything will come off. As the food softens, the smells come back to life. Even though you try not to, you recognize Norwegian rice pudding, a Christmas staple. Compared to all the foul odors, this sweet smell makes you sadder, if that’s possible. Amid this chaos and neglect is a reminder of a comforting recipe you’ve never been able to make as well as your mom does.
Some plastics in the refrigerator are beyond saving. Storage containers peeling with age and re-use will retain odors, such as that of the pink sludge that turned out to be Grandma’s shrimp dip. Knowing that Mom will protest, you hide these containers deep in the garbage bags. You’re just grateful Mom had the garbage bags and a half-filled bottle of dish soap.
Her kitchen towels and baking sheets are things you remember from elementary school. The dish towels, now stained and torn, were embroidered. The three-sided baking pan made sliding off hot cookies easier. During a big baking run, you remember Mom swinging that baking sheet beside her knees, back and forth, to cool it before the next batch of cookies.
But that was a different kitchen and a different version of Mom.
Today, she’s holed up in her room after being checked out at the hospital’s emergency department. She chose to go to the hospital where she works. A Trauma 1 Center. You had thought she wouldn’t want them to know.
The diagnosis: sky-high blood pressure and osteoporosis in her back. She was given medication at the hospital, a referral to a bone specialist, and a prescription to fill. But there isn’t a neat prescription for excessive and sustained alcohol consumption. Anxiety, depression, and work-related PTSD were never mentioned.
While you’re handwashing her dishes, Mom makes a surprise appearance in the kitchen. She’s brittle as she pours Diet Pepsi into the smudged glass she had in her bedroom. Then, she’s gone.
The sad part (another sad part) is that you’ve been here with her before in other crises. This time you’re doing stacks and stacks of dishes amid rotting food, a scene worthy of a squalor documentary.
As with past troubles, she never apologizes.
She doesn’t offer excuses.
She doesn’t say thanks.
She doesn’t say much of anything.
She doesn’t offer to help you pay for your last-minute airplane tickets.
If anything, she seems annoyed, like some people are when a mistake they’re making is pointed out. She’s angry at you for pointing it out. She’s not angry at herself or her mistakes. It’s you.
In another climate or another house, this mess would have attracted roaches and rodents. But in dry Phoenix the liquids in most of the foods evaporated and cracked. Desiccated.
Once you have space to work, you tackle the George Foreman grill and the greasy newspapers under it that drip down to the floor. Fire had been only a stove click away.
So what story was Mom telling herself when all this was accumulating? What is she telling herself now that you and your aunt have flown in from Wisconsin only to end up cleaning her house? You’ve tackled the kitchen (the worst of it) while your aunt vacuums and vacuums. Meanwhile, Mom smokes cigarettes and drinks Diet Pepsi (probably spiked) behind the closed door of her bedroom.
You and your aunt sidebar on how Mom hasn’t bothered to change a lightbulb. Almost all of them are burned out throughout the house. That had to take some time, especially since the long-lasting fluorescents in the kitchen can only muster a dim glow for you to work by.
In the movies, this story would involve rehab or social services. None of that is here. Maybe that’s why Mom went to her hospital and her colleagues. Even the cop who called you from fourteen hundred miles away hasn’t checked in or called back. It’s just you and your aunt looking forward to flying home and going back to work tomorrow. The work week will be a respite.
Mom in her cleaner house will probably be thankful when you’ve finally left. She can drink her Jack Daniels and smoke her cigarettes and watch television without having to feel you watching her. She may go back to pretending she doesn’t hear the phone when you call.
You hug her gently when you leave, careful with her spine. On the flight home you wonder about this year’s holidays. There’ll be rice pudding to make for Christmas morning and shrimp dip for New Year’s, but the old family recipes won’t be the same. You’ll remember Mom’s kitchen and know she’s drinking and making the same comforting recipes, her own prescription for dealing with other people’s trauma.
MELISSA OLSON-PETRIE’s work has