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Mom, Dad and Toothpicks

A slice of life about life with my parents of blessed memory, Helen and Morton Eisenberg, and some toothpicks. Written in 2003.

I’m awake and I’m laying in bed in my parents’ house on Saturday morning.  I can feel the humidity seeping through the windows of the spare bedroom in their little Florida house even though the air conditioning is on.  Of course, the air is not on very high because my parents are old and they get cold easily but in reality, that’s okay with me because I love being hot.

I get up and put my bathing suit on and my parents are sitting at the kitchen table eating their raisin bran, drinking their decaf coffee and starting to take their pills from those little plastic columns of boxes with lids, each lid labeled M, T, W, R, and so on—one for each day.

The Sun Sentinel is strewn on the table and my dad is wearing a seersucker robe with “Mort” embroidered over his heart.  His robe is blue and mom’s is pink and says “Helen.”  We kid them that that’s a good robe to wear if they have to be in the hospital and they’ve forgotten their name and we hope that joke never comes true.

My dad says, “Debbie!”  My mother starts to stand and says “Is there anything I can get you?”

I know how much she wants to wait on me and how much I hate that but I’m changing the dance today.  I say, “Oh, Mom, how about a million dollars?  What cupboard is that in?”  And I start looking in her cupboards, pretending to look for the money but also pretending and not pretending to be interested in all the goofy things she has placed there tighter than those squeeze snakes that get packed in the screw-off tins and that jump out at you when you open the lid.

Nothing actually jumps out at me when I flip open the beige laminated doors of her cupboards, but there is so much stuff and in particular, I’m amazed at her collections—toothpicks—thousands of them—plastic, wooden, and those fancy little two-tongued forks with carved handles in different colors that seem so sad to throw out—and I guess Mom hasn’t—she’s washed them—and here are all those toothpicks and I can’t remember if I’ve ever seen Mom use one toothpick or put toothpicks on the table in 20 years of visiting Florida.

But hey, they make her feel ready.  I’m going to use one.

“A toothpick!” I exclaim.  “I was wondering where you keep these,” and I take one out and lay it on my beige napkin next to my empty beige cereal bowl—Dad has set the table for breakfast like he does every day.

“Mom—do you want a toothpick?”

She laughs—and looks for just a second like that was thoughtful and she seems really grateful that I thought ahead to her needs and she says, “I’ve never thought of using them for other than testing a cake.”

I say, “Hey, it’s a tooth pick!  You can pick your teeth with them!  It’d kind of fun and I think it’s good for your gums,” and she looks down at her napkin for second like—can I do this?

But she doesn’t say anything—maybe she’s not thinking “Can I do this?” but she’s thinking “I have to go to the bathroom but this is kind of fun, talking at breakfast, so I’ll just hold it in a bit longer.”  She looks up and says, “Okay, honey, I’ll take one,” and I hand her one and she holds it between her thumb and finger like a baton major holding a tiny miniature baton in such a delicate way that I can see a lesson is in order.

“I’ll take one too,” my dad pipes up, realizing that we’re going to have some family moment and he doesn’t want to miss it.  I hand him one and he seems like he’s a little more ready—he has it in all of his fingers, next to his palm, with just his index finger up near the point.

“See, Mom, hold it like Dad, like you would hold chalk up to the chalkboard” and she smiles.  She was a teacher.  Mention chalk to her and she’s suddenly 55 years younger and in a second or two, if I don’t keep her engaged in the toothpick thing, I can see how she might tell the story about when they had a surprise assembly at her elementary school to tell the kids she was engaged and one teacher pretended to be Mom walking down the aisle.

“Look how Dad’s doing it, Mom.  That’s good.”  And look—I demonstrate here—“You can kind of hold the toothpick in your palm so people don’t see exactly what’s going on—kind of public and kind of private all at once—like breastfeeding under a shawl.

And there we are, me and my parents in their 80’s in their Florida kitchen with the bright fluorescent lights and the gentle flowered wallpaper, picking raisin bran out of our teeth like we are playing some new tune and we’re a little chamber orchestra.

Published Sept 21, 2020, the three year anniversary of my mother’s passing. A mother’s never-ending love is a beautiful memory. May her memory be for a blessing.


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