You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Fireplace

Save the wrapping paper — Mom

On rare occasions, Mom removed the plastic covers from the living room furniture. Only then did we take comfort knowing we wouldn’t, by accident, slide off our seats in the cool months or stick to them in the hot. This also gave us another reason to love Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter Sunday.  

Turkey, stuffing and Mom’s apple, cherry and pumpkin pies—even with bellyaches after—made Thanksgiving a treat. Bonnets, baked ham, and searching for Mom’s lavish baskets overstuffed with candy, sweetened our Easters. But only Christmas was an all-hands-on-deck family affair. Dad braved the blistering evening snow and a shaky ladder hanging garland and multi-colored lights around our front door, while the rest of us stayed warm by the fire listening to Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole croon Christmas carols. Mom and Laurel set up the Nativity scene on the mantle, keeping Baby Jesus off to the side. David and Caryl hung stockings emblazoned with our names—pets, too—above the fireplace. Michael draped our fragrant Douglas Fir with strings of lights with at least one near impossible to find faulty bulb that threatened to disrupt our holiday cheer. Deecy and I decorated the tree with tinsel and family heirlooms beside ones soon-to-be. And we crowned our masterpiece with an angel and prayed she’d watch over us. But secretly I prayed she’d bring me a bounty of gifts, whether I was naughty or nice. 

We placed our presents under the tree, and after guzzling eggnog and stuffing ourselves silly with Mom’s homemade cookies, we hustled off to bed to attempt the unthinkable; to sleep the night before Christmas. But convinced we heard the clatter of reindeer hoofs on the roof made even a glimmer of hope impossible. 

The morning, however, confirmed what we heard was what we heard. Not only did Baby Jesus appear in the manger, but our meager offerings multiplied into a colorful mountain piled high and wide. And the stockings were stuffed so full their seams screamed for merciful relief as they hung on for dear life. Even with weary eyes, it was all a glorious sight to behold.

“Our not-so-secret-Santas” spent the wee hours packing and wrapping to make our Christmas yet another one to remember. But there was one thing that stood in the way of us climbing gift mountain; Church. Damn. We had to endure the torture of looking but no touching until after. And once unleashed, it didn’t take us long to rescue the stockings and tear into every package under the tree. Despite Mom’s plea of, “Save the wrapping paper,” we left only shreds in our wake. 

As our family grew, so did the Everest of gifts. This posed no problem for Mom, as it meant more shopping. That was our gift to her. And although the house could handle the ever-increasing numbers, the fireplace could not. The stockings spanned the entire face, two or more to a hook before spilling over onto both sides. The site inspired many comments from those who entered our festive home, but the one heard most often was, “You’re gonna need a bigger fireplace.”

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I’m from Missour-uh

Frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I’m from Missouri. You’ve got to show me. — Willard D. Vandiver

When doubting my tall tales told to escape trouble, my mom declared, “I’m from Missour-uh.” Which, as a child, I never understood. Born and raised in Garden City, Long Island, why in the world would she claim she was from anywhere else? And where did the “uh” come from? It’s spelled Missouri, with an i, that’s pronounced, ee, which also made little sense and only magnified my confusion.

          Dad’s “You’re full of soup” or “Ya bagrat” clearly captured the Brooklyn brashness we knew and loved. Did my mom secretly prefer the mighty Mississippi over the Hudson River? Showboat over Guys and Dolls? The Cardinals over the Yankees? Well, apparently, yes. Showboat, her favorite musical, featured her favorite song, “Why Do I Love You?” Her upright piano music box chimed the same tune. She even named her dog, Zuri, as in, “I’m from…” Her fascination with Missouri—a state she never visited—fascinated me. 

            It’s widely accepted that Representative Willard D. Vandiver coined the famous phrase in 1899, and Missourians latched onto it ever since. It became their unofficial State motto, and it adorns their license plates. Yet “Show Me” has caused me nothing but grief my entire life. My frothy eloquence got me out of lots of trouble over the years, but never with Mom. So, I am not and never will be a fan of the “Show Me State.” And even though Missouri can’t claim Genevieve, a born and bred “New Yawker,” as a native daughter, you’d be hard-pressed to convince her with your frothy eloquence that she wasn’t from “Missour-uh.”

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It’s Like Déjà Vu All Over Again

When I returned in September as Mom’s plus one for her grandson Josh’s wedding, I noticed little had changed at 247 Emmett Place. I shouldn’t have been surprised after someone sent me a photo of Mom asleep in her wheelchair with her head propped up by a travel pillow jammed under her chin. Who thought that would bring me comfort? Or was that the idea?

          Grain moths, now in even greater numbers, flew in battle formation, spying the lone obstacle between them and the bounty of open food on the counters and in the cupboards; an army of ants. Dust and cobwebs once again thrived on every surface and in every corner. The bedroom once again reeked of urine. Sanitary gloves were nowhere to be found. Tee ignored the training hospice provided and instead favored her own method of hoisting Mom in and out of bed; the “Inverted Patterson Backbreaker.” Mom grimaced while holding on for dear life as Tee performed her WWE wrestling-like move. It was painful to watch, and a miracle Mom escaped injury. But being a good sport, unlike the pros on TV, she never complained. At mealtime, the Tweedles continued to park Mom facing the kitchen wall while they scurried about, whispering behind her back, and paying no attention to the fact she heard most, if not all, of what they said. “Toots A Lot” reclaimed Mom’s loveseat to share her olfactory and auditory gifts with anyone who dared to enter the living room. 

           The only welcome addition was a hospital bed and alternating pressure mattress. This enhanced Mom’s circulation and helped prevent future bedsores. Other than that, to quote Yogi Berra, “It was like déjà vu all over again.” Right back where we started.  

           So, I resumed all caregiving duties and relieved TD² of many of their responsibilities. But I feared Mom might suffer a relapse once I left. We needed a permanent change, and we needed it soon. Those thoughts lingered throughout the weekend at the Jersey Shore.

          Getting Mom out of the house for the first time since February provided her a healthy break. One I’m sure TD² enjoyed as well. The trip, however, presented its fair share of challenges. How would she handle sitting in a car for two hours, sleeping in a hotel bed, or sitting on a standard toilet? We would soon find out. I made a list and packed everything we needed for the weekend’s events; clothes, medicine, makeup, lotions, bed pads, diapers, sanitary gloves, walker, wheelchair, tea, oatmeal and her bedtime collection of stuffed animals. Check, check, and check.

          I wanted to arrive early, so we had plenty of time to get Mom ready. We zipped down the Garden State Parkway and arrived at our hotel only to discover our reservations were for a weekend in December—three months away. I guess we should have taken our time and done a little sightseeing along the way—three months’ worth. But really, who vacations at the Jersey Shore in the winter? Well, apparently, us. Luckily, the season just ended, so plenty of rooms were available. 

          This wedding also marked Mom’s coming out party, so I took special care in dolling her up—drawing on my experience growing up with three sisters. It’s incredible what her favorite pink pantsuit, a French braid, a little lipstick with bright red nail polish to match can do for a lady, and to those around her. It brought back fond memories of her weekly pampering sessions at the beauty parlor. Mom beamed as her first grandchild and brother of the groom, Abe, rolled her down the garden aisle. She partook in all activities with gusto: gorging on the incredible food, mugging in the photo booth, swaying to the live music. At one point, forgetting she hadn’t walked in eight months, Mom practically sprung from her wheelchair to join the others on the dance floor. To satisfy her and for safety sake, we kept her seated and took turns partnering. Other than the bride and groom, Mom was the belle of the ball.            

Jumping in and providing the tender loving care so lacking with the current care “takers” pleased Mom to no end. After the wedding, I asked if she wanted me to move back to make sure this level of care continued. She nodded, yes.

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Better Than Food

How to capture six children’s attention, hold it and send them to bed happy.

Other than my father’s corny jokes, most of our family traditions involved food. Dad was clever. He hid his lack of culinary skills by entertaining the troops, and his show magically made everything taste better. When serving his creations, he often proclaimed them, “Better than food.” And who were we to disagree? His crazy-shaped pancakes always delighted, as did his made-from-leftovers spaghetti sauce and soup—what he called “Baseball Soup” during the season that extended into the fall if the Yankees reached the playoffs. Dad roasted chestnuts all year long, divvied up pomegranates, made an art out of day-old corn on the cob, carefully peeling off one row at a time and distributing the kernels into eager hands. He stuffed ice cream cones with cold mashed potatoes that never melted on a sweltering summer day. And in 1963, he reinvented popcorn. He named his crunchy half-popped popcorn snack, Nutranuts. His goal was to lure us kids away from candy and junk food to reduce dental bills. Mum’s the word on his success rate.

Mom didn’t need a show. While no Julia Child in the kitchen either, she excelled at her still the best ever lasagna, Christmas cookies, and holiday pies. All so good that even when I held my hand high above my head and declared, “I’m filled up to here,” I always managed to stuff in another cookie or slice of cherry, apple or pumpkin pie.

But the most fun, without a doubt, was the Coconut Toss. On those special nights, the six of us crowded around the table as Dad and his pocketknife dug into that hard, hairy brown orb’s eyes. We impatiently waited while he drained its juice into a glass. We had no interest in that. We wanted the meat and only the meat. We then scuttled to the top of the basement stairs waving hands and screaming, “My turn, my turn, my turn.” Dad handed the coconut to one of us. After the inevitable groans, the others fell silent. The lucky one moved to the edge of the landing and took aim at the painted cement floor thirteen steps below. A direct hit would end our misery and also our fun, but it was not to be. It rarely was on the first toss. The remaining five reached out and screamed, “My turn, my turn, my turn.” Dad passed the bruised and battered shell to the next child. Anticipation multiplied with each toss and ended only when we heard that magic sound followed by that mouthwatering sight of crunchy white goodness seconds away from being inhaled.

We rushed back to the kitchen table, bobbing and weaving as Dad pried that first chunk from its armor and handed it to the winner. The rest didn’t have to wait long to stuff ourselves silly.

In the summer of ‘67, my love of coconuts deepened. Uncle Gene invited us to spend two weeks at his new motel on Singer Island, Florida, our first family vacation outside the Tri-State area. All eight packed into our Dodge station wagon to begin the two-day, twelve-hundred-mile journey down the I-95. We arrived in the middle of the night—a lifetime after enjoying fresh orange juice at the welcome station—so I only caught a glimpse of what the Sunshine State had to offer. A tropical sunrise revealed all its glory. Growing up with the Jersey Shore, the sand and the sea were no big deal. Sure, the beach was whiter and the waves bluer, but what thrilled me were the palm trees. Everywhere I looked, palm trees. I had only seen them on television or on the silver screen. And these were not just any palms, but coconut palms. I no doubt landed in paradise. Yet those bowling-ball-sized green things hanging below the fan-shaped branches didn’t look like any coconuts I knew. To end my confusion, Uncle Gene climbed up and cut one down. He listened to the juice sloshing inside. His smile confirmed its ripeness. His sharp ax did the rest. Buried deep inside a two-inch-thick husk lay a pale green hairy seed, its size and shape looked a bit more familiar. With no fussing about, Gene got right to it. No draining, no stairs, no fun. One mighty swing of his ax sent juices flying. And there sat the freshest coconut I had ever seen. The freshest coconut I’d ever eat. But breaking family tradition was no way to win me over. No, no, no. Then he handed me a chunk of that sweet, chewy goodness and when I stuffed it in my mouth, all was forgiven. I knew I not only landed in paradise, I tasted paradise.

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When Ya Comin’ Home? (excerpt)

Other than Michael’s potluck Tuesdays, the occasional sushi night, or the obligatory monthly takeout from Boston Market®, I cooked all of Mom’s meals—not a simple task. This woman whose taste buds retired years ago still had a particularly picky pallet. Whether it was the color or texture, I don’t know, but her comments could be brutal. She scolded Michael. “Not your soup again!” Or when serving a breakfast dish she hadn’t enjoyed in years, I asked, “Best French Toast ever?” She forced a smile, then shook her head, no. So, to avoid any more ego-crushing, I tried to keep things fresh and exciting. When whipping up my world-famous ratatouille, emphasizing “World-Famous” catapulted this healthy meal onto her favorites list. My homemade chicken soup and my special French Toast—whether she admitted it—also made the list. She loved spareribs, so I bought a grill to barbecue them year-round. Another blast from the past treat she enjoyed was corn on the cob. But for Mom and her loose dentures—she refused to let me secure—getting the corn off the cob proved too difficult, so I stripped those kernels off with a knife as my babysitter did so many years ago. Thank you, Mrs. Becker.

But my number one favorite dish of all time? Mom’s lasagna. As a kid, I remember being seduced by the intoxicating aroma of ground sirloin, fresh garlic, seasoned salt and black pepper browning in an easily accessible pan. Though I offered to help, I couldn’t resist swiping spoonfuls of the succulent meat while she focused on the savory simmering tomato sauce. And my chalking it up to “quality control” did not pass muster with Mom, as my control was spotty at best. After promising to behave, she let me stay, and I watched, and I learned.

While the lasagna noodles boiled, she combined the meat that escaped me, the sauce and a secret ingredient that will remain a secret; an irresistible blend of herbs and spices. She then layered noodles, sauce, ricotta and sliced mozzarella cheeses and topped it with a blanket of grated parmesan. Watching it bubble and bake through the tiny oven window was yet another test in self-control. But the greater test came twenty minutes later, while waiting for it to cool.

Over the years, I experimented with vegetarian versions, but for Mom I wanted to recreate the magic of the original. I also recreated my uncontrollable quality control. To cover the losses, I cooked extra meat. When I served it to her the first time, she looked it over before plunging her fork into the near-crispy crust of melted parmesan, releasing a familiar whiff of bliss. I saw her often absent taste buds come alive, confirmed by her ear to ear grin.

Where this Irish girl learned how to make lasagna remains a mystery, but those who have been lucky enough to taste it have experienced Heaven on earth.

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Give Me a Break (excerpt)

We hadn’t been out much in the past year. I thought a breath of fresh air would do us both some good. So we, as Mom liked to say, went “gallivanting.” We Jersey-Shored it for Caryl’s royal spa treatment, which gave my Day of Beauty a royal run for its money. We drove to Long Island for lunch with Dad’s sister, Claire, the last of her generation. Closer to home, we traversed the county visiting favorite places only to find time had erased them. A strip mall now stood where Tice’s and Van Riper’s Farms once did. These were the go-to places in the Fall for fresh apple cider, red candy apples, and losing yourself in a sweet cloud of cinnamon. Fishel’s Bakery, home of melt-in-your-mouth cream donuts and our traditional ice cream birthday cakes, no longer existed. T & Ws, who made the best chocolate chip mint ice cream, gone. Mama Rosa’s pizza vanished—still the best pizza, and the one I measure all others by. Wilke’s Deli replaced Pat’s Deli and overcharges non-suspecting customers for every sandwich. You never had to count your change with Pat. We attended Easter Mass at Our Lady of Mount Carmel, where even at church, Porsches, Mercedes, and Jaguars steal the scarce “accessible parking” spaces, confirming my notion that the disabled only drive the swankiest cars. I don’t believe the lack of morals qualifies as a disability, but perhaps they do. Though Mom couldn’t remember her last Mass, I would think in the eyes of the Church, lack of mobility and near death qualified as valid excuses for any lapse. So, Heaven—for her, and not the morally disabled—should still be in the cards. We also stopped by Valleau cemetery to say hi to Dad. It had been fifteen years since we laid him to rest, and I’m sure at least a couple since Mom’s last hello. Her lack of mobility and near death qualifies here, too. She sat stern and silent for a few minutes then I heard her whisper, “I miss ya,” and thus reducing me to tears.   

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The Call (excerpt)

My mother’s first attempt at dying, the first I knew of anyway, occurred on February 5, 2011, nine days after her eighty-ninth birthday. I was working at my sister’s design firm in Grand Rapids, Michigan, making extra cash to keep my struggling Los Angeles snack food business afloat. My bachelor life made the journey back and forth between the Pacific and the Lake Michigan coasts easy, even for weeks at a time. I had no children and few responsibilities outside of work, but that all changed when the call came.

“The senior center said, ‘She just shut down. We don’t know what to do. Come get her.’” 

I held my breath. 

My brother Michael’s voice trembled as he continued. “I carried Mom’s limp body into the house and put her to bed. The doctor cut off all food, drink, and medications. Hospice is on the way.” 

My pulse spiked.

Hospice comes only when the end is inevitable. I went through this scenario fourteen years earlier with my father. Two days later, he died.            

I packed some clothes, my phone, my computer, and a dark suit, just in case. The next morning, I arrived at my childhood home in Ridgewood, New Jersey. Six of us grew up here, two grew old, one died, and now maybe another. Except for a six-month sojourn after a fire in 1969, 247 Emmett Place had been the Porro home for over sixty years. Not only did it provide a roof over our heads but also our vast array of furry pets: cats, dogs, mice, rats—yes, rats, but cute ones, mostly—and there were hamsters, guinea pigs, rabbits, and a stray squirrel or two. And on one occasion, a possum. Quite the method actor was he. But on that day, he took it too far and made his latest performance his last. As an asthmatic with all that dander floating around, it’s remarkable I, too, didn’t die. However, my fond memories in that ivy-hugging house outnumbered all those creatures combined. Even though I left thirty-six years ago, I always considered it home. And on any other day, I’d sprint up those steps and burst through the front door without hesitation, but that day was different. That day, I stopped, gathered myself, and took a deep breath before reaching for that tarnished brass handle.

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Planting the Seed (excerpt)

Well-schooled by hospice nurses, Deecy and I became proficient in tending to our mother’s daily needs including: Sponge baths, bedsore treatment, diaper, clothes, and bedding changes—not easy with the helpless patient lying in bed. During our stay, we took over most duties, taking breaks only when hospice paid their regular visits. Mom was now sitting up, alert, smiling, talking, eating umpteen bowls of sherbet, and only sherbet. Lemon, lime, watermelon or raspberry, the flavor didn’t matter, just keep it coming. Her “If you don’t already have diabetes, you will surely get it now diet” lasted for several weeks. I know what you’re thinking. I was right there with you. Sherbet may not seem like the smartest medicine, but that’s all she wanted. And who were we to question this eighty-nine-year-old Phoenix who rose from the dead with renewed youth and energy? Genevieve was back, and in the pink.  

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Be Patient (excerpt 2)

Hospice’s initial assessment: Her body is shutting down. Food is no longer necessary. Ice chips will provide some relief as she transitions. We obeyed the “No food. Ice chips only” directive, and we expected the daily stream of hospice nurses to obey it as well. However, we discovered that nurses often ignored directives and dispensed their own brand of care. To make sure they followed the rules, Deecy and I stopped them at the front door with the directive in hand. This worked well until one nurse, after noting the directive, turned to our mother and blurted out, “Are you hungry?” We practically leaped over the bed to stifle her. But when Mom’s eyes snapped open, the nurse accused us of starving her to death. She called her supervisor and repeated the accusation. Hospice told her to leave, and she did so in a huff.

          But now with that thought ringing in my head, I couldn’t overlook the possibility. Are we starving our mother to death? Could that rebel nurse be right, and the hospice assessment be wrong? Mom showed no signs of hunger or desire for food in weeks, but holy shit, maybe we were hastening her death. Overwhelmed with guilt, I rushed to her bedside and asked, “Are you hungry, Mom?” She instantly perked up, “Whaddaya got?” Shocked, I offered, “Anything you want.” After considerable thought, she said, “How about some pumpkin pie?” March is not exactly pumpkin pie season, but Michael accepted the challenge, and by some miracle, returned with not one but two pumpkin pies.

          Mom spit out the first spoonful. “That didn’t go so well.” We tried again to great success, maybe too great. Totally energized, she downed half a pie. The next day she finished the second pie. She was back.

          A few days later, when Deecy was alone with Mom, she asked, “Who was in the corner of the room?” Mom didn’t respond. “Was it God?” This question surprised her, but she remained silent. Deecy pressed. “Did He speak to you?” Mom smiled and nodded. “What did He say?” Mom whispered, “Be patient.”

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Be Patient (excerpt)

After several days of little change, we all came to terms that our mother was leaving us, comforted only by the fact that she appeared to be in no pain. We kids took turns sleeping next to her, just in case. Though Mom spoke no words, she responded to touch by squeezing our hands, shifting her body, or moaning softly when we touched foreheads. On the rare occasion she opened her eyes, she focused solely on the upper corner of the room. Was someone beckoning her? She wouldn’t say.

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