Copyright is held by the author.
“HELLO! ABOUT time I caught you at home!” said my mother, breathless. It was this way every time she called lately. She refused to speak into “that darn machine,” so she would get herself into a tizzy dialing my number over and over, hour after hour until I arrived home. It didn’t seem to matter to her that I was out on my job as a traveling nurse. I wasn’t home, and that was where all women were supposed to be. After all, my three sisters were always home when she called.
“Hi Ma. How ya feeling today? Blood sugar okay? You sound out of breath.” I knew her answer already. I am fine. I don’t know why I have to do . . .
“I am fine. I don’t know why I have to do all this stupid blood testing stuff every morning, and take all these damn pills. That’s you and that fancy-pants doctor of mine cooking up these things. I wish I was back home. I wouldn’t need any of this crap.”
“Mom, you live in town because you wanted to be closer to the hospital. Don’t try and tell me you weren’t scared when you had your heart attack. So enough “going back home” garbage. It can’t happen. Number one, you sold the farm, and number two, your health isn’t good enough to go back. Do you have your oxygen on?” I knew she didn’t. I could hear her panting and puffing. But I also knew she would try to con me.
“No, no. I only use it at night. I don’t need it in the day time. Gets in my way, hose laying all over. Nah, night is good enough. I’m calling about Christmas. Been thinking about it, and I got a different idea this year. I think it’ll be easier.”
Aha. She wasn’t feeling well after all. Damn her Swedish stubbornness. “Christmas is still a month away, Ma. Do you want me to do some shopping for you or something?”
Mom always liked to do her own Christmas shopping. She could make her Christmas money stretch farther than anyone I knew. She seemed to enjoy the novelty of the huge malls where I lived, and loved the “buck” store. In years past, her Christmas shopping had been through mail order catalogues and the Co-op General Store.
“Nope. For yourself. Stop over, I’ll give you money for some towels for Christmas. That’s what I’m giving everybody this year. Can always use towels. Even the boys. You can’t ever have too many towels, you know.”
If she handed out the bucks, she controlled what you did with it, which didn’t seem a bad idea. “Okay, Ma. I’ll be over later today. Bye for now. And get the oxygen on — I can hear you puffing,” I warned.
“Quit yer bellyaching about the oxygen. I know when I need it, and it ain’t now. Just because you’re a nurse you think you know it all.”
Her answer reminded me of sibling remarks like “you’re not the boss of me!” I hung up and thought about all the years I had gotten towels from her for Christmas. I am sure it was because we never had enough of them growing up. One lonesome threadbare towel at a time hung from a nail behind the stove, where it could dry between uses. It served an entire family for many a day before it was thrown onto the dirty clothes pile. One towel. If my kids ever had to use someone else’s towel, I would be reported to the child abuse centre or suffer some similar fate.
One spring, Mom had received a flyer in the mailbox from a company that offered all types of linens free if a sewing machine was purchased on a payment plan. She must have looked at an almost-bare towel shelf, her very few sheets and pillow cases, two dishtowels, cut-up old towels for facecloths, and decided to sign up. Her dishrags were exactly that — rags. Ditto for floorcloths and dusting rags.
The sewing machine was an absolute need for Mother. She sewed much of our clothing, did baskets of mending, and her sewing machine constantly broke down. She would haul out her tools, curse and swear at the offending machine while she isolated the problem, put it back together and sew another few hundred feet of seaming.
This one was a snazzy green Kenmore, and she kept the ad out, poring over it for days. The linen offer meant we could have our beds changed at least every two weeks and still have folded clean sheets on the shelf. The offer also consisted of six bath towels, six hand towels, and six of every other cloth one would need in a busy household.
Our few everyday towels (we had no other kind) came in little white boxes at the bottom of economy-sized Blue Cheer laundry soap. That was how Mom built up her kitchen needs. Mugs and cereal bowls came in Quaker rolled oats packages, and cotton flour bags were sewn into dish towels. I do not remember any other kind of towel in my childhood, until that bonus pack came in.
I can still see the joy on my mother’s face as she opened every item in the crate. She lifted the shiny new Kenmore reverently onto the dining room table, plugged it in and sewed the hem on a ‘new’ facecloth. Her tired face glowed as she sewed and hummed.
After she refolded each towel, dishtowel, facecloth and bedsheet, and lovingly placed them on shelves and in drawers, she returned to the sewing machine and mended for hours. It was a rare day, one when my mother seemed content and truly happy until bedtime.
I believe that is why, once we started homes of our own, we were given towels as wedding presents, towels as birthday presents, and towels for Christmas. She always prefaced her gifts with, “You can’t ever have too many towels, you know.”
I arrived at her apartment to find her elbow-deep in bread dough, busy as she ever was on the farm. It was an obsession now, to make sure we all had homemade bread every week. I can’t remember her being so charitable when we were growing up, more like, “Get the hell out of that breadbox. I got lunches to make, and supper’s done.” Maybe she also remembered those times she told us to “get the hell out of the breadbox.”
“Hey, Ma. I see you’re really taking it easy like the doc said.”
“Screw the doctor. He doesn’t live with me,” she spat.
Yep, that was my ma. Never ready to give in. “So what’s your idea about Christmas? Going to Florida this year?”
For that foolishness I gained a withering glance and an exasperated sigh. She rinsed the flour and dough off her hands and headed for her veskin, the shabby old black purse she had carried since before the wheel was invented. We had tried to buy her new ones, but she gave them away to “the Sally Ann” so someone who needed them could use them.
“Here. Take this 20 and buy towels for yourself for Christmas. I want you to wrap them up though and open them here. Get lots. If you get the cheaper ones, you’ll get twice as many.”
Yeah, Ma. And buy them twice as often. “Okay — Zeller’s has a good sale on them right now. I’ll be back in a flash.”
I got my towels again that year, three fuzzy new yellow ones, and they went nicely with my blue ones from the year before and the green ones from my birthday. I wrapped them in a huge carton from a furniture market; she laughed heartily as I opened them at her place Christmas Eve.
I am not certain where my brother was planning on putting his towels, since he lived right there with her, and still had a dozen others in their packages from Christmases past. But, as she put it to him for the umpteenth time in his life, “You can’t ever have too many towels, you know.”
I am glad I made a production of opening her towels that Christmas. It was the last time I would ever get towels from Mother, or anything else, for that matter. She won’t be with us in future Christmases, but I am certain my daughter will appreciate the towels I buy her, because you can’t ever have too many towels, you know.
Sleep peacefully, Mom. I have enough towels to last until we meet again.