By Miller Murray Susen
It’s the Morning Hustle. Five things are happening at once. The microwave beeps with the oatmeal. Lily reminds me she needs a note to go home with a friend after school. Max yodels a nonsense song and knocks over his milk with his elbow. The bus will be out front in ten minutes. In the midst of it all, I’m packing the kids’ lunches. Not for the first time, I wonder why I never do it the night before. Or make them do it themselves, for heaven’s sake. I plunk two oatmeals on the table, toss Max a dish towel, and go back to frantically sectioning apples. Lily pauses at my elbow.
“Be sure to get all the core out.”
“You never get it all out. It’s so gross. The texture.”
“Gotcha, now sit down and eat.”
I secure the apple slice between forefinger and thumb and dig with the blade of the paring knife, trying for that perfect angle where the core will pop out in an intact semicircle, leaving only smooth flesh behind. I’m rushing, though, and instead I hack the section in half. I chop out the middle, do the same to the other sections, and quickly pile the bits into a container and cram it into her lunch bag. Well, they are core-less.
“Eat up! Let’s go! Five minutes until the bus!”
My dad doesn’t like to cook. This does not prevent him from turning out stacks of tender buttermilk pancakes, hearty dishes of spaghetti bolognese, gooey grilled cheese sandwiches with a buttery, crisp exterior that shatters delightfully when you take a bite. He feeds me and the kids lunch about once a week, and as I linger over my chicken salad sandwich, made with sweet pickles and celery the way I like it, he effortlessly cores apple slices for us. He uses the battered pocket knife he carries in a leather case on his belt, his rough, square fingers strong and sure. Pop! goes the core, and he slides a few slices my way along the table.
“Thanks for lunch, Dad.”
“It was my pleasure.”
His eyes glint warmly at me from his weathered, smiling face.
“Now take those kids home. I need a nap.”
Lily’s fourth grade teacher is trying to bring a little hands-on fun to the last quarter of the year, a respite from the rampant standardized testing and flurry of final projects. She asks the parents to come in and help kids learn about fractions in the real world via making (and consuming) an apple pie. Which is how I find myself seated at the center of a group of four nine-year-old girls, passing out vegetable peelers and Granny Smith apples.
“Y’all get started with these, and I’ll use this sharp knife to peel some, too.”
“Mrs. Susen, this is hard. I can’t get mine to go.”
“It is kind of hard with a peeler. You just have to press down with authority. Like this.”
I demonstrate to get the peel started, then hand the apple back so the girl can continue to slowly scrape off tiny, unsatisfying flaps of skin. I hope no one peels a forefinger.
“Why can’t I use the knife like you do?”
“I don’t think your teacher would like that.”
“How’d you learn to peel so good?”
“Oh, I’m actually only okay at peeling apples. See? I’m getting a lot of the flesh. But you know what made me want to learn?”
The girls stop their inefficient scraping to listen, glad for an excuse to take a break.
“There’s this movie called Sleepless in Seattle. Have any of you seen it?” They shake their heads. “Well, it’s a little old for you guys. Anyway, in the movie, the main characters are a boy about your age and his dad. And they’re living on their own because the mother died.”
Lily’s eyes widen. “She died? How?”
I smile reassuringly, a little sorry I started on this topic. “She had cancer, I think? I don’t remember. Anyway, there’s a scene where the boy is having trouble remembering things about his mom. He doesn’t want to forget her, so he says to the dad, ‘Tell me about Mom.’ And the dad starts off, ‘Your mom could peel an apple in one long, curly strip.’ And ever since that movie, I’ve been practicing my apple peeling so I could learn to peel an apple in one long, curly strip.”
Lily says with rising pitch, “So that we’ll say that about you after you die, Mom?”
“Uh, well, just because I thought it sounded cool. Anyway! Who wants to unroll the pie crust?”
Every Wednesday I make lunch for my ninety-three-year-old grandfather. He’s rattling around on his own now in the house that he and my grandmother designed, built, and lived in together before her death a few years ago. At first he was looking after himself pretty well, but the dementia he was already exhibiting at the time of her final illness has accelerated since she died. It’s seemed to me that his life without her is so diminished that he’s choosing to let go and drift, to slip away into memories. My uncles hired a live-in caretaker, but our in-town family still takes turns to provide him with some lunches and dinners each week. It gives the helper a break, and him a little company.
I never spent time with Popi on my own before my grandmother died. They had eight sons together, and I’m one of twenty-three grandchildren, so I didn’t spend much individual time with either of them, actually. Occasionally, though, in her later years, when she tired more easily and was home more often, I would run by to help my grandmother with a project, and she’d make lunch for the three of us. Her meals were ladylike and quaint, and delicious. First she’d offer a pitted avocado half with a pool of vinaigrette in the middle, to scoop up together with a silver spoon. Next a dainty glass sandwich plate cupping a cream cheese and chopped black olive sandwich on whole wheat with the crusts cut off. Finally she’d rummage around for a bag of Pepperidge Farm Milanos and offer two on a china dish along with a cup of weak coffee thinned with skim milk.
When I started bringing Popi lunch, I felt weirdly self-conscious. I didn’t know if he’d like my cooking or my idea of a tasty sandwich. So I’d punt and pick up sandwiches, cookies, and bags of potato chips from the bakery. Popi was the original smug health-food fanatic, culturing yogurt and spreading mashed yeast on toast back in the fifties. But since his dementia has taken hold I’ve noticed that he loves junk food. He’d eat every crumb of the bag of chips, and sometimes eat his cookie before he finished his sandwich. Max scolded him for it when I brought him along to lunch. But then Popi’s edema got worse, and the word went out from my uncle that we should all cut back on offering him salty snacks. One week my ungrateful children had picked listlessly at a nice pot of French lentil soup I made for dinner, so I decided to take the leftovers out to Popi to see if they’d suit. His eyes lit up when I offered the hot bowl of soup, along with a buttered roll and a peeled clementine, and he thanked me extra warmly for the “lovely, lovely lunch.” Since then that’s my lunch formula: soup, buttered bread, fruit, and sometimes a little sweet.
Initially during our lunches Popi would reminisce in vivid detail about his childhood in New York City and Long Island or about his time serving in the Air Force during World War II, but in recent months he gets caught in conversational eddies, pausing a moment before circling through a familiar exchange again from the beginning.
I carefully core and thinly slice apples as we cycle through one of his most frequent conversational gambits.
“It’s a very still day.”
“Yes, the weather’s been nice lately.”
“I had a friend who was very well traveled. He used to say that here in Central Virginia we have ‘the finest climate in the world, outside of the Austrian Tyrol.’”
“So, Popi, what’s the weather like in the Austrian Tyrol?”
“Couldn’t say, I’ve never been.”
We both chuckle, like it’s the first time and not the fiftieth, then pause as I deliver the apples and a shortbread cookie.
“Well, doesn’t this look nice? Thank you.”
A moment as we both take a bite of apple.
“It’s a very still day.”
Morning Hustle. Max’s milk is in a pool on the floor, again. Lily has soccer after school, and I remind her to pack up her shin-guards and a water bottle.
“What’s the sandwich today, Mom?”
“You know I don’t like to talk about lunch. You only complain about what I’m packing. Go brush your teeth.”
“Fine, but I was wondering, can you just put a whole apple in my lunch bag?”
Max perks up. “Yeah! I want one, too!”
“A whole apple? Will you guys eat the whole thing? I don’t want to waste these apples, they’re organic and expensive.”
“Yes, I will!”
“I will, too. Everyone else just brings a whole apple. Apple slices are for little kids.”
“Well. Okay, then.”
I drop two apples into the lunch bags. Easy enough.
“Guys, go get your shoes on. You’re going to miss the bus.”
I always thought one day I’d feel like I’d really come into my own. I’d feel a sense of mastery, of justified confidence, as I strode through my life. I wouldn’t just look like a grown-up on the outside; I’d feel the way that I assumed grown-ups felt on the inside. My father, in his calm competence, personified the adult I expected to become. But he still seems like a grown-up relative to me, even though I now signify adulthood to my own children. And caring for my grandfather, as his edges soften and calm competence fades, just messes with my head. How can it be that I’ve grown powerful in relation to this proud patriarch? That I am woman enough to cut his food into bite-sized bits? Middle age. I’m in the middle of the process of discovery. Won’t I always be here? Even when I grow old, if I should be so lucky, I’ll still be in the middle of understanding who I am.
MILLER MURRAY SUSEN is the most extroverted introvert you know. She acts and tells stories, then holes up at home and sweats about having done those things. She writes essays and plays, then gets bored in a quiet room by herself. She adores her husband and two children but wishes they wouldn’t insist on talking to her so much. This fall, she’s going to try directing her own adaptation of Little Women, plus take on a part time job as Associate Director of Education at Live Arts. She is super thrilled and super stressed!