As a young woman in the 80’s, I had no intention of becoming a proper wife and mother. Even though home ec was still offered at my high school, I would never dream of taking time away from chemistry or debate to learn the skills of domestic servitude.
As a mom in 2014, I wish I had gotten some better training in how to make a home. Jobs like dishes, meals, groceries and, worst of all, keeping track of a family’s calendar, are more confusing to me than calculus. If you want to talk about a mathematical study of change, limits, and infinite sequences, try developing a system for handling family laundry.
Living in 2014 it feels like the world is changing so fast, there’s no way to slow down or even plan for a consistent routine. Earlier this year I found myself wanting to talk with my late grandmother, my father’s mother. Her home was a sanctuary for me my entire life, even as she was dying. I wanted to know how she managed to cultivate serenity.
One thing that stood out to me about her – and many women of previous generations – was her ability to send cards at exactly the right time. I always received a birthday card from her on my birthday. How did she know to send it in the mail at the exact right time? I suspect calendar-keeping was a core training for housewives – the kind of skill I rejected for fear it would detour my career aspirations.
We had some intense wind storms move through Tacoma last winter, all howling and driving and threatening to rip up everything in their path. Then, a news story in February about cataclysmic climate change upset me so badly I tried to imagine myself back in my grandmother’s home, where her calm energy created a bubble of safety. I wondered how she managed to keep her calendar, and those cards, rolling even when the news was dire. That’s how this story came to mind.
“Dimensional Disturbances” is my title for the kind of stories I’ve always loved. “Twilight Zone”, “Outer Limits”, Stephen Spielberg’s “Amazing Stories”, Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson. Creepy, tense, a couple degrees off normal life, exploring human nature – that’s how I like them. They remind me that life always holds the element of surprise.
I wanted to be a writer for a long time, but it always came after school, work, kids, chores. This past year I swallowed down my fear of failure and finally tried to push out some of the stories that have been begging to be told. With the calendar telling me another year is around the corner, I thought I’d count down the most popular posts from 2014.
Coming in at #10, “Time for Cake”.
p.s. You can find the recipe for Mildred’s cake here.
originally published February 16, 2014
a “Dimensional Disturbances” storyBritton Sukys
Mildred woke before the alarm every morning, but she kept setting it anyway because she hated breaking her routine. So much of her day depended on doing everything at the right time, or else it wouldn’t get done at all.
She put on her housecoat and slippers, made the bed, and stood in front of her dresser mirror to brush out her pin curls. Downstairs, she started the coffee percolator and pulled out a box of wheat biscuit cereal. There was only enough for her one bowl, so she walked over to her to-do list and wrote down ‘Buy More Cereal’.
The older Mildred got, the more she had trouble remembering the little things. She’d tell friends that if she didn’t keep a list, “I might forget where I left my head.”
She surveyed the items already on her list and frowned. More than five items and she might not get to any of them. She walked over to the wall phone to tackle the third item down, ‘Schedule Yard Man’. But, when she got there, she noticed something written on the calendar.
The note was in her own perfect Palmer Method handwriting.
It took up the entire square for the day.
It said, “Wait for Weather Rpt.”
Normally, Mildred wouldn’t abbreviate. It didn’t seem ladylike. She knew, then, that she must have really wanted to remember that message. She set down the to-do list, accepting that she might even need to start a second sheet of note paper by the end of the day.
Once the morning dishes were washed and put away, Mildred loved to sit down to the newspaper. That part of her routine disappeared several years earlier when the newspaper in her town closed. Most everyone she knew used the computer to keep up on events, but looking at a screen made Mildred’s eyes hurt. Instead, she picked up her oversized book of crosswords and worked on a half-finished puzzle from the day before.
After a few minutes, she looked out the picture window over her breakfast table to consider the clue, “Slanted column. (9 letters)” So far she had the letters, _ _ I _ O _ _ _ L.
Watching the clouds often helped Mildred come up with the right answer. As she looked up, though, she noticed the clouds moving faster than she could ever remember seeing. Then she looked into her back yard. The wind had knocked her potted geraniums into the azalea bushes. She remembered that was the reason she wanted to get the Yard Man out.
Mildred didn’t like having to ask others to take her of her business. She used to be able to handle everything around the house, and still have time and energy to take a covered dish to a sick friend or drive out to see family in the country. That was before her husband and son died, before her heart attack, before her memory got so bad. But, even back then she knew she wouldn’t be able to do everything forever. “All in the Lord’s time, all in the Lord’s time, ” she said quietly to herself.
Still, she felt stronger than usual that morning, the wind died down a bit, and Mildred decided to cut a few of the last gardenia blossoms. One or two fresh blooms in a juice glass made her whole kitchen smell just like her mother’s perfume.
On her way to put on her gardening dress, Mildred looked out her front windows, through the pine trees in her large front yard. She saw groups of young people stumbling down the street, laughing loudly and singing rude songs. It pained Mildred to see the youth hurt themselves like that. For all the fun they looked like they were having, they’d probably suffer later.
Mildred stepped onto her back patio in the same double breasted chambray smock she’d worn gardening for forty years. She knew it was quality when she bought it. She tried to always choose things that would last. Her clippers weren’t holding up as well, but they were probably sixty years old. Mildred found a can of Rust-B-Gone inside the back door and carefully oiled the joint of the clippers.
She was so focused on her task, she nearly jumped out of her skin when her young neighbor called her name. It was only then that Mildred realized she had forgotten her hearing aid on the night table. However, it didn’t matter that Mildred couldn’t hear the pretty redhead, the woman was already deep into saying something.
Mildred only caught words and phrases, “worried about you”, “we’re trying to make this a celebration”, “don’t be alone”, “no time”. She said “no time” over and over, but Mildred was used to the hurried pace of people half her age.
Mildred remembered when time went slower. She liked the slower life. Radio, television, phones, computers, they all made things go too fast. The faster people went, she noticed, the faster they wanted to go. She only kept clocks in the house to remember her routine, and know when to expect visitors.
Mildred also remembered a time when visitors announced their arrival and didn’t sneak up on people to chatter away without checking to see if the older woman could actually hear.
Before Mildred could say anything back, her neighbor pointed at the sky and ran back to her house. Overhead, a thick black line of clouds moved in from the East. Late summer often brought dramatic thunder storms.
Mildred spent many summer evenings as a child relishing the alternately cool and hot breezes that came before the lightning. While everyone else in her family would rush to tie down the loose items and shut the barn doors, she would smell the ozone and listen to the fevered cricket song, waiting for the bugs to fall silent moments before the drops fell. She couldn’t hear the crickets now, even if they were singing. So, she went back inside to find her hearing aid.
The hearing aid was more trouble than it was worth. By the time Mildred got it loud enough to make out the sounds around her, the little bud squeaked. She couldn’t hear the pitch, so her company often spent most of the visit working with her to get the level just right so they could have a conversation. People never said much new after all that trouble, that’s why she often left it by the bed and just nodded and smiled as people talked. That’s all anyone wanted, anyway, someone to nod and smile while they spilled out all their thoughts.
If she was going to hear the Weather Report, though, Mildred would need her hearing aid. The closed captioning in her area was so bad, it was a puzzle trying to figure out what the people on the television really did say when the words on the screen read, “MY CATS GOT WEEDED DOWN AGAIN.”
After putting on a newly pressed cotton dress, Mildred pulled out a freezer bag of field peas and some rice for lunch. With her aid in, she could hear the sounds of fat rain drops against the sliding glass doors. Dark clouds marched higher in the sky, there was a distinct division between bright blue and roiling black.
Mildred thought of hurricanes, and she hoped the Weather Report wasn’t going to be about another big storm. There had been so many recently, it seemed like more than when she was young. Even the weather got more turbulent over the years.
Mildred decided a piece of cake would be a welcome indulgence if the weather was bad. There were usually a couple frozen pound cakes in her upright, but she let her niece take the last one a few weeks before. Mildred would have to make a new one if she wanted a slice. She walked over to her to-do list and wrote down, “Make Cake”.
Then, she put two sticks of butter, five eggs and a cup of milk on the counter to come to room temperature. Really, that was the hardest part of good baking, the part most of her grandchildren were too impatient to get right. If you want smooth batter, which gives you an even crumb, you need room temperature ingredients, and there is no way to rush it.
Mildred was glad she wrote, “Make Cake” on the list, though. Many times she absentmindedly put all her ingredients back in the ice-box, not remembering why she set them out.
The afternoon passed in the same way it almost always did. Mildred practiced her favorite tunes on the piano, a ragtime song and then hymns. She could hear commotion outside from time to time, but she didn’t hear a single plane. Living so close to the military base, she could usually hear the cargo planes at all hours. She guessed the storm was too dangerous for flying.
She played a few rounds of solitaire, read her Bible, closed her eyes for a short nap and then sat at her desk to write her letters. She pulled out her calendar of important events, every one marked in blue pen with the day she had to mail a card for it to arrive exactly in time. It meant something to get a card on your birthday, that’s why she did it. She liked making others feel remembered.
As Mildred looked at her desk calendar, though, she saw another note to herself, all in capital letters, “WAIT FOR WEATHER RPT.” It seemed odd that she would want to hold off on tending to her calendar just because of the weather. But, she trusted her own instructions. She was always level-headed, if forgetful.
It was almost time for the Weather Report when Mildred looked out at the pines again. They swayed widely, arcing all together as the hard wind blew in from the East. Hurricanes usually brought swirling winds. Something was different, very different. Mildred felt her stomach knot a little with fear.
Luckily, she had a routine for when things veered from her proper routine. She pulled a small, crystal sherry glass from the cabinet that once belonged to her grandmother. She filled the glass halfway from a bottle at the very back of her pantry. It was sweet and hot and absolutely the right tonic for her nerves.
On her way to the den, Mildred picked up her to-do list. She hoped the Weather Report would help her decide which items were the most urgent to get done. She wanted a smaller list, and she wanted to call the Yard Man as soon as the weather cleared.
Mildred was careful as she took the three steps down into the den where her television lived. The room used to be a garage, but her husband had it converted. It was a big room and relaxing, and she decided to sit in her husband’s old leather recliner for a change, since the day was turning out to be different than most.
Mildred’s husband had been dead for twenty years, but she could still smell his cigars and often thought she caught him walking through hallway, just out of the corner of her eye. He loved watching the news, and she mostly still watched it to think of him.
For all the serenity that Mildred cultivated with her simple daily rituals, the television was always chaotic – and that day more than ever. She turned on her local station and saw images of people running and screaming, the newscasters weren’t wearing proper makeup so their faces looked ghastly pale. People talked too fast to understand and the closed captioning was simply a jumble of letters, as though the typist fell asleep at the keyboard.
Finally, the pandemonium switched over to a still shot of the president’s office. The announcers spoke in hushed, anxious tones. The president stepped in front of the camera, looking rumpled and tired.
Mildred was shocked that she lived long enough to see a woman become president. It didn’t really matter to her either way, it just wasn’t anything she expected. If a woman was going to president, though, Mildred wondered why she didn’t look a little more put together.
Then the president began talking, clearly, slowly, in a tone that didn’t hurt Mildred’s ears.
“The storms are definitely coming.
Already the methane rain has started falling in Europe.
We still have had no communication out of China and, based on the chemical makeup of the clouds over Africa, it looks like no life will survive this.
If you are watching this, hold your loved ones.
As humans, we had a good run, but this is how it ends.”
Then the screen went black.
Mildred heard the winds howl and rage. She looked at the bookshelves that held photos of her family. The phone started ringing in the kitchen.
Mildred looked down at her hand where she still held her to-do list. The phone kept ringing, but Mildred took the time to carefully cross through, ‘Schedule Yard Man’, ‘Buy More Cereal’, ‘Call Mabel’, and ‘Birthday Cards’. The last item on the list was ‘Make Cake’.
Mildred held her pen over the ‘M’. She came close to touching the tip to the paper. But, she noticed the electricity was still running, the wind hadn’t broken any windows yet, the clock in the hall still ticked away.
All the ingredients would be at the perfect temperature by now.
She put the list down and headed for the kitchen. There was time for cake.