Sugar-Free is for Sissies

by Linda McHenry
She asks me to stay for two-o’clock bingo, but I decline the invitation as I have so many times before, with an outward smile and an inward cringe that says, “Oh, I’d love to but…”

At ninety-two my mother-in-law has reached a point in life where birthdays do more subtracting than adding. Her ample bosom folds onto an ample belly that rests heavily on legs that end in size five petite feet barely touching the floor. She was born an only child who gave birth to an only child whom I was destined to marry and bring forth four rambunctious grandchildren – God’s way, I suppose, of making up a deficit.  In her youth she had been doted on by a doting mother and swept off her feet by a doting husband – who died too young, extended family and friends, clergy and neighbors, most of whom have since been replaced by doting nurses and activity directors.  She possesses one of those unique, charming, child-like qualities with a Victorian genteelness that elicits the aid and protection of all who come within reasonable proximity. She even bears an angelic name, Madonna.

There are three sugar-free Snickers on her nightstand, left over from last week’s Bingo game, a pitcher of ice water, a crumpled hairnet, a mismatched pair of earrings and three bottles of nail polish.  Not wanting to add disappointment to the delicacy of her day I offer a manicure – Revlon Sirene Red – instead. Her smile sparkles kindness in my direction and that’s how I know I’ve added a perfect color to her day.

She has beautiful hands and delicate fingers that extend long and slenderly in my direction. I wonder at them. Is it possible that these hands never played the piano, scraped burnt crust off an oven door, wore a thimble or pulled weeds from a garden?  Had they never kneaded bread on a floured surface, dug reluctant worms from the good earth?  I think not. This lovely Lady, this extreme exemplar of pristine Goodness and surface Beauty has never basked in the glory of dirt nesting beneath the fingernails.

I am compelled – by her supreme goodness – to apply lotion and add a gentle massage.

***

I was born and raised with a German-Catholic upbringing.  Grandmother Marie was the Grand Matriarch. She ruled her roost with a set of rosary beads in one fist and a wrought-iron skillet in the other.  Add four strapping sons, three daughters, four daughter-in-laws, three son-in-laws, sixty plus grand and great-grandchildren to her Court of admirers and there was Doting! (“Borderline idolatry” my mother once called it.)

In no room was Grandmother Marie a more formidable figure than in the kitchen, anyone’s kitchen, everyone’s kitchen.  She lifted every lid, sniffed every pot with the nose of a bloodhound – Gendarme Marie – for she preached two very important culinary axioms, insisting that both be adhered to without exception:

1.  Always use lard.
2.   Never use store-bought that which can be home-grown, butchered, plucked, churned or  preserved at home and with your own two hands.

Had a family crest existed, it would have been constructed of solid granite and engraved,  “Made From Scratch With Lard.”

In my grandmother’s day, and if used correctly, lard cured every culinary ailment, including tough pie crusts like my mother’s, the one that was famous for the breaking of a tooth. The more Grandmother Marie remonstrated, “Use lard! My son likes his pies made from lard!” the more my mother avoided the substance as the Black Plague.

In time, and early into the married-with-children saga in my own life, I began to bring my own creations to family reunions.  One year, one pie in particular, attracted special attention. The women, all of them, gathered like excited hens.

“Excellent,” they said.

“Perfect texture,” they agreed.

“Wonderful flavor,” they clucked in unison.

Then Grandmother Marie stepped in.  She examined it with her fork.  Poked at it with her finger.  Sampled it with her spoon.

The verdict was confirmed.  “Good for you,” she said.  “You use lard, don’t you?”

I stood tall, sucking in my gut, taking a deep, cleansing breath, and lied through my teeth.

“Yes, of course.  I always use lard.”

It was only a venial sin, I rationalized, not the mortal variety that blackens the soul for all eternity. Besides, I further conjectured, I had my fingers crossed the whole time.

Years later, long after Grandmother Marie had gone to that Great Stainless Steel Kitchen in the sky and Mom was living out her final days under the care of doctors and nurses, tubes and tanks, medicines and piped-in music, I felt the need to bare my soul, for I knew that she of all the women in my life would understand the burden I had carried all these long years – that I had duped my grandmother and her cronies with a half cup Crisco and a store-bought can of raisin pie filling.

My mother, God bless her, clapped her arthritic hands together, pounded the footrest of the wheelchair with her one good leg.  I was lauded with hugs and kisses, baptized in alligator tears, and awarded the coveted Daughter-of-the-Year Award for Devious Behavior – first rate in her book, a blue-ribbon trophy in mine.  We kept my dirty little secret all to ourselves, mom and me, indulging in it often, shamefully, clear to the last days and weeks we got to share together.

***

My mother-in-law – the beautiful Madonna – pours love over me like thick molasses. How could she possibly understand my aversion to a game that has no stakes? No dirty dealings? No coveted, honest rewards?

I picture Grandmother Marie in a Betty Crocker apron on a black-and-white tiled cloud, spoon-feeding angels lemon meringue pie while my mother sits at table behind her playing poker with the devil.

With a kiss on the cheek and a smile against her smile I begin my departure.

The first number is called.

“B-14.”

She says good-bye with fingernails poetically waving in the air, long and slender, sharp as the tines on a stainless-steel meat fork.

“N-42”

I wave back with calloused hands.

“G-57.”

My coat is buttoned.

“I-23.”

The door closes behind me.

“Bingo,” go the strings of my heart.
Linda McHenry is a wife, mother, grandmother and outdoor enthusiast. Her work has appeared in “Glimmer Train;” “Read This,” the “Montana State University’s Literature and Arts Publication”, “Raphael Village,” “Forge Journal” and “Halfway Down the Stairs.”

© 2013, Linda McHenry