Other Plans by Margaret South
One Friday evening of my senior year, Mom came through the front door with a swoosh of February air and a brown bag of groceries in each arm. She had a job now, typing multiple listings at a real estate company, because Dad had urged her to go back to work.
“What about their homework?” Mom said.
“The kids are old enough,” he said.
“What about their lessons?”
“They can fend for themselves after school.”
At first, we did fend for ourselves. All five of us came home after school and fought over the three channels on the TV set until Mom came home to make dinner. Over time, however, this grew tiresome, and the boys stopped coming home. Instead, Harold and Bobby went to their friends’ houses after school, staying for dinner, and often sleeping overnight. At fifteen, Bobby stopped going to school altogether. When Harold’s doctor wouldn’t prescribe any more Ritalin for him, leaving him at the mercy of his dyslexia and hyperactivity, my sweet little brother set a workman’s shed on fire. Mom had to pick him up from the police station.
“He won’t do it again,” she promised.
This February night, Mom took off her coat and took the plastic off the bloody London Broil, one of her recent discoveries, a simple-to-make roast that didn’t cost an arm and a leg. She stuck it in a pan and turned her attention to Lizzie and Maureen and me, eating butter-and-sugar sandwiches on Wonderbread and watching the opening credits for That Girl, where Marlo Thomas flies a kite in Central Park wearing a slinky white pants outfit and matching white boots.
“Get the rest of the groceries from the car!”
"Practice your piano!”
"Do your homework!”
You don’t have to yell. I don’t belong here, I told myself, dreaming instead of a single-girl life in New York. Cool apartment. Great job. Cute boyfriends. Although, if I did decide to have kids, I knew I could do a better job than my mother. I would never yell at them. I would have everybody help out, and make it into a game, and sing songs while we all worked together. If Maria von Trapp could do it, I could too.
I brought the groceries in, but reminded myself it was Friday night, and after dinner, I’d go over to Kathleen’s house and eat chips, and drink soda, and listen to the new Beatles album.
Dad had stayed longer in New Orleans this time, almost six weeks; he told Mom he had trouble with the unions in New Orleans. Dad hated unions. But we expected Dad home this night, so Mom decided to make avocados as a side dish. He’d raved about avocados, having tasted them for the first time on one of his trips to the Southwest, so Mom bought six bright green avocados.
While I put the rest of the groceries away, she tried to cut one open, but the knife would not go through it.
“Dammit,” she said. “Hard as a rock.”
I opened the cabinet and grabbed three old strawberry-jelly jars. Then, four others; pink-and-orange polka dotted jars that had been sour cream containers. After all the work Dad and I did picking out furnishings for this house, Mom just let it go. She didn’t care about matching china or elegant furniture or any of the finer things in life. What was wrong with her?
As I set the table, Mom tried to stab one of the hard green orbs, but her dull kitchen knife slipped, and the thing rolled off the table and under the toe kick.
As I squatted on the floor to pick it up, Mom said, “What do you think, Margaret? Maybe you have to cook them?”
My mother knew I loved to cook and to learn about cooking. Ever since The Galloping Gourmet came on, I yearned to cook fancy meals like Lobster Thermidor, or Baked Alaska. Once, when Dad was home, I made green peppers stuffed with hamburger meat and rice, a multiple step recipe from the Daily Record that was “guaranteed to please.” Dad took one bite and looked at me in disbelief.
“It’s out of this world!” he said.
Still, I had no idea what was wrong with the avocados. Someday, I’d get out of New Jersey and cook for my own family. I would make exciting meals every night for them, like Lasagna and Tuna Casserole and Chicken a la King. Guaranteed to please.
Mom filled a Revere Ware pot with water from the tap and dropped the six avocados into it. She put it on the stove over a high flame. My mother did not see cooking as an art the way I did. With five of us kids to keep alive, she could barely maintain the supply chain. Every night our marauding horde careened from various locations in the yard and in front of the TV set to the dinner table hungry and tired and cranky, devouring what Mom was able to sling; pans of chicken legs, canned soup with loaves of Wonderbread-and-butter, or cookie sheets paved with white-bread-and-Velveeta shingles. Always, gallon jugs of milk to fill us up. Whenever we said we were hungry, Mom said the same thing.
“Have a glass of milk.”
“Please, Mommy? I’m starving.”
“You’ll spoil your appetite.”
Mom did not believe in eating between meals. Especially for herself. She boasted of abstaining from food as much as possible, telling me the other girls used to taunt her with her slim physique. “Ooh, you cut me! You cut me with your Razor Hips!”
Often, whether at home or in the supermarket, she’d complain to me of feeling dizzy.
“I’m going to faint,” she’d say, swaying back and forth until the moment passed.
Mom grew up with seven brothers and sisters. My Irish Nana focused on traditional roasts and chops with plenty of potatoes. Neither she nor my mother made labor-intensive casseroles or pasta dishes at all; they were strictly meat-and-potatoes cooks. When Mom made beef stew, for example, she didn’t use wine, or roux, or a flavorful sauce reduction. She simply threw a bunch of meat cubes, onions, and potatoes into a pot and boiled them until they were “done.”
Which explains why, when confronted with the round green hard things, she could only think they needed to be boiled. Perhaps sensing failure, she pulled out a five-pound bag of russets and set me to peeling.
“To be on the safe side,” she said.
I counted the potatoes as well as the minutes, because after Dad got home, and after we all had dinner, I planned to take our new Buick Le Sabre up to my best friend’s house. Friday night at Kathleen’s meant giant cans of Charles’ Chips and as much Coke as we could drink. Her mother cooked elaborate meals in the fancy blue kitchen, lined with cabinets she’d antiqued herself. Dad served cocktails in gold-rimmed glasses. Their two poodles ran around and yipped while music played on the stereo. Her parents slow-danced with each other. Down in the basement, we listened to The White Album a hundred times and watched her cute older brother shoot pool with his friends.
Later, Kathleen and I would go up to her room, which her mom had furnished with an antiqued white-gold bedroom set complete with a desk and a fancy armoire, complemented by a pale yellow floral wallpaper. While Kathleen trimmed her split ends and smoked cigarettes, we talked about boys. Her boyfriend Randy didn’t know about her boyfriend Steve, and vice versa.
“I like them both,” she said. “What can I do?”
While Mom poked at the avocados, still boiling and still hard, our wall-phone rang. I picked up the receiver and stretched the cord all the way around the corner, through the dining room and into the living room, hoping it was Kathleen, letting me know whom she picked, Randy or Steve.
“Margaret,” Dad said, “Put your mother on the phone.”
I went back into the kitchen and handed Mom the phone. “Hi, Bob,” she said. She listened for a bit.
I guessed he wasn’t coming home, maybe until tomorrow. Maybe he had more union problems.
“No, I’ll tell them,” Mom said. She turned and hung up the phone. She sat down, facing me at the table and folding her hands.
“What?” I said. “He’s not coming home?”
She held up her hands in a helpless gesture. She smiled a confused, stupid smile. She shook her head.
“He’s not coming back. Ever.”
Her words hung there. It occurred to me I’d seen them argue in the car once. They’d pulled into the driveway and stayed there for a long time. I thought about Mom sleeping on the couch the nights Dad was home. I remembered Dad snapping at me when I asked him if he would take us to Disneyland.
I put down the potato peeler. My mother and I looked around the messy kitchen, with the roast in the oven and the avocados boiling and the potatoes in a mound, just in case. We shook our heads. We burst out laughing. It was all so absurd. Then, we started laughing the way crazy people laugh. Together at the table, all we could do was laugh. Then my mother started to cry. She pushed her chair back and left the kitchen. She went to her room and shut the door.
I put That Girl back on for Maureen and Lizzie. They didn’t pick up on what was going down, and I didn’t tell them. I dumped the hot, hard avocados into the sink.