Excerpt from Kooser, Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps

Today I put on a cowboy shirt my mother made for me when I was fourteen. It still fi ts, though the style is quaint. It’s red with a white yoke and white cuffs, and the yoke and cuffs are embroidered with plump green cacti. It’s the kind of shirt Roy Rogers wore for the Saturday matinees when I was a boy. Long ago I lost my long-barreled pearl-handled cap pistols and wore out the boots with the stars.

Mother made most of our clothes when my sister and I were small, and nearly all of her own. One of the most diffi cult moments we faced after she died was carrying armloads of her handmade suits and jackets and skirts into a charity thrift shop. And then turning our backs on them. I kept her black Singer with its strap of green felt around the neck, with pins and needles waiting and ready. And the sewing basket my Grandfather Kooser bought for her at an auction when I was a baby.

Mother was working as a salesgirl when she met my father, but when they were married, she became a full-time homemaker and never went back to salaried work. My father was never a highly paid man, and in dime store spiral notebooks, she kept track of every cent they spent from 1936 till the day she died. The hospital bill, ten days for Mother and me when I was born, was $47.38. For almost twenty years after my father was gone, she lived alone in their house. With the taste for frugality she’d learned in the Great Depression, she saved what she could from Dad’s modest pension and her own small social security checks. She invested in CDs, watching the newspaper to catch the best rates, and slowly amassed nearly a half million dollars, far more than the sum of my father’s income for all the years he’d worked.

I asked her one day if she ever went out to eat, and she said, “Yes, when Colonel Sanders has that two-piece chicken special, I’ll pick one up. Then I eat one piece that day and the other piece the next.” Even with all that money in the bank, she liked to see if she could talk her doctors out of free samples of prescription drugs.

Perhaps fi fteen years ago I was visiting with her long distance, and she told me she’d just fi nished another crazy quilt. She made about ten of these, handsome, featherstitched along the patches but not quilted, tied instead, like comforters. She made them from garage sale fabric scraps. She told me that because she’d already given a quilt to each member of our family, she didn’t know what to do with this one. I asked her how much she had in it, and without a pause she said, “Twelve dollars and forty-three cents.”

I said, “Why don’t you fi gure out how much you’d like to have for it, maybe seventy-fi ve or a hundred dollars, and I’ll buy it from you.”

“Why would you do that?” she asked.

I told her I had an old girlfriend who had recently been married and I hadn’t yet given her a wedding gift. Mother paused for no more than a breath and then said, “Ted, that’s too much to give to an old girlfriend.” And she wouldn’t let me buy the quilt. I didn’t argue. The Bohemians say, “Never blow in a bear’s ear.”

She sold her house a few months before she died and moved into an apartment. On swollen feet neatly tucked in businesslike shoes, with bad lungs wheezing her up and down care center steps, she shopped for her last best deal. Once she found the place she liked, she was happy there, in part because she had enough CD earnings to pay her rent without touching the capital. That had been set aside for my sister and me and our sons.

It was like her to die the day before the rent was due. Just a week before, she’d said to my sister, “The minute I’m gone, you and Ted get my things out of here. We don’t want to pay them any extra.” You can’t discount her choice of that “we.” She knew she’d be guiding us even in death. She walks beside me through every store I enter, saying, “Do you really need that?”

Her apartment was in an assisted living complex, with three levels of care. The tenants on the lower fl oor, where Mother lived, had the least expensive quarters and services. The second fl oor was for more attentive care, equivalent to that of a nursing home. The third fl oor was for Alzheimer’s patients, some of whom stood at the windows looking down into the parking lot.

Despite the fact that Mother was eighty-nine and unable to walk from her chair to the bathroom without sitting down to rest, she persuaded the management to admit her at the least expensive level. It was an example of her extraordinary bargaining skills that they bought into this when they knew from her papers that her heart was enlarged and failing, her lungs were down to 10 percent capacity, and she was tethered full time to an oxygen machine.

At the minimum level of care, renters were encouraged to get engaged in social activities--card games, crafts, and group entertainments--but Mother let them know she had no interest in that. You were also to take your meals in a common dining room, but within a few hours she’d convinced them to bring her a tray. From her fi rst day there, the only times she stepped into the hall were the three or four times she had to be taken to doctors’ offices.

I’d seen her drive hard bargains all my life, but try as I might, I never got the hang of it. When she was younger and still able to drive, I’d walked beside her as she entered a Ford dealership, wearing her powder blue Mamie Eisenhower pillbox hat and holding her matching purse in both hands. Without ever raising her voice, she talked the dealer into selling her a new Ford for about three-fourths of the sticker price. And she paid for it out of her purse. Several years after that, in the wood-paneled offi ce of a funeral director, with my father’s body under a sheet in an adjacent room, she cut a good deal on the price of his cremation. To every amenity the man proposed, she said, “We won’t be needing that.” When she signed the paper, her lips trembled a little, but she took a deep breath, set her jaw, and got ready for the rest of her life.

A shirt she made has lasted forty-fi ve years.

On hot June days like this, in the days before air conditioning, it must have felt good to sit in a cellar. A while back, I was down in one on an abandoned farm near here and found the parts of a kitchen chair that over the years had come unglued and fallen apart. In the half-light it looked like a pile of animal bones. Somebody had taken it down there to sit on maybe fi fty years ago.

I was down in my own cellar just now and noticed our stack of cookie tins is getting rusty. They circulated in our family for years but are temporarily at rest. It’s damp down there, too damp to keep potatoes and onions from sprouting, and the rust is coming on around the edges.

Somewhere in every house there’s a cookie tin, maybe one with green holly stamped in the tin all around the outside, or one with Santa and his sleigh and reindeer whisking along over the snow, or one with a picture of a quaint little village with candles fl ickering in the windows of the houses. Inside, they’re all the same. You can see your face in the bottom, and there may be a few tiny candy balls and old crumbs you can pick up with the tip of your fi nger.

You fi nd them on a shelf under the basement stairs, or up in a kitchen cupboard, or stuffed in under the sink. One’s sitting in the darkness at the back of a closet with somebody’s empty galoshes standing on it, or out in the garage, full of rusty nails or oily sparkplugs. Sometimes they’re full of spools of thread or buttons and parked under a sewing machine. They spend their entire careers moving from house to house, from town to town. Yours may be ten years old, or twenty, or even thirty.

Let us praise the good ghosts of cookies! Sugar cookies, of course, cut in the shapes of camels and stars and Santas with packs on their backs, some with colored frosting sprinkled with sweet little balls. Molasses cookies too, big and soft or baked hard and thin and burnt around the edges. Kringla like sweet white pretzels, Rice Krispies bars that gum up your teeth, date pinwheels, pfeffernuesse like tiny sofa pillows. Some not so good, but some perfection.

Of all the things left waiting around the house, cookie tins will wait the hardest. Their purpose is freight and travel, and their next stop is never their last. Even mine, with their rust, will move on someday. An old chair in a cellar can collapse from a lack of expectation, but a cookie tin--even embarrassed, covered with mouse turds--is ready to cheerfully pack up and go.

Theirs is no life for a fretter like me. Sitting on a shelf, empty, next to a roasting pan, a man could get too metaphysical: What if this waiting here is all there is? But a cookie tin doesn’t have a care in the world. You have to give them plenty of credit.

From Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps by Ted Kooser.
Published by the University of Nebraska Press, 2002.