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Joe's Neighborhood

The Christmas salad

8/4/2021

It’s time for a visit between two women with 192 years lived between them. 

“When I was in Indianapolis during World War II, I lived in a large house that only boarded girls. I was 17 years old.” 

My 94-year-old mom sits low in the front passenger seat as we drive across Iowa.

Clutched in her left hand is a bag full of crackers, cookies and apples. Clutched in her right hand is a white cotton sweater. The bank says the temperature is 91 degrees outside. 

“One of the girls had a fiancé in the war. One day they came and told her he had been killed. Her fiancé was actually the brother of another girl in the house. It was very hard.”

Very hard? I feel sick at the idea.

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“But, you know, that Christmas salad you love so much? That recipe came from the mother who ran that boarding house,” says my mom smiling. 

I rub my neck from the whiplash. 

We speed past Webster City and continue east toward Dubuque.  

A road trip. It’s time for my 94-year-old mom to visit her 98-year-old sister and put this pandemic in the rearview mirror. Everyone has their shots, and the convent where my aunt the Catholic nun is staying is cautiously opening its doors. It’s time for a visit between these two women with 192 years lived between them. 

A questionnaire, a temperature check and the strong gaze from the statue of the mother of Jesus allows our admittance to the wing that houses my aunt.

A white haired woman in a wheelchair is roaming the halls on the second floor waiting for us.

Yahoo! My 98-year-old aunt.

Laughter, joy, embrace, embrace, embrace and more laughter.

My aunt’s namesake, my sister, Marla, joins us and gives a gift of a box of chocolates to my aunt. A holy moment as we all rifle through the chocolates like we were youngsters.  

And the next morning, my aunt remembers those chocolates.

“Someone came to visit me yesterday and brought me a lovely gift. I’m not sure who it was, but you have to try these chocolates.” 

My aunt gives my sister a sly smile to let us know she isn’t a bit confused, and then laughs uproariously at her own joke as she once more passes the box of chocolates.

High humor at the convent.

Although, I did need a little levity after a tense early morning.

My mother was on the first floor of a motel, while my room was on the second. About 8 a.m., I start worrying about this 94-year-old alone in a motel room. So, I call her cell phone.

No answer.

I knock on her door for about five minutes.

No answer.

Admittedly, she is hard of hearing, even with hearing aids.

I knock harder and louder.

No answer.

I go to the manager’s office about a half block away and have another key made and ask them to call her room on a landline.

The key doesn’t work. She doesn’t pick up the phone.

Back at the manager’s office, they agree to contact the mechanic to take her door off. 

I walk back to her room wondering who I contact to transport her body back home.

I knock on the door again, hopelessly. 

Suddenly she opens the door.

“What is all this fuss about? I’m trying to sleep.”

So, you see, I needed a little humor at the convent. And the two of them are silly happy. 

As they talk about the last year, it is hard to ignore the vitality of these two women. I eavesdrop on their conversations.

“I’m so sorry your friend died a week ago,” my mom says.

“Why?” says my aunt, eyes wide, surprised. “She is in a good place.” 

They both nod and look into the distance. 

Listening to them, I know my heretical soul is in trouble. Even when I was a believer, I couldn’t get all my body parts out of purgatory. I am so clearly one of the damned. 

I eat another chocolate. 

Finally, it is time to go. A sad glance back at my waving aunt.

As we drive away, my mom hands me an apple from her bag and pushes her sweater in my direction.

I take a bite.  

“So, did I tell you where I got the recipe for the Christmas salad?” she says. ♦

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog: 

www. joesneighborhood.com.

One Comment

  1. Suz says:

    GREAT piece. Very curious about the Christmas salad!!!?? Follow up piece, perhaps?

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