Keeper of the Refrigerator

Audrey Thompson


Barb with Maggie in 1989
Barb with Maggie in 1989

On a visit from Germany some years ago, Aunt Maggie complained to Mom, “I can’t understand why my children have the politics they do. I am a socialist, yet all my children are conservatives.”

“I understand exactly how you feel,” Mom told her. “I am a conservative and yet all my children are Marxists.” Mom and Aunt Maggie have been best friends since the 1960s, and they agree on everything except politics, religion, literature, sex, art, and health.

Bärbel with Mom and Maggie in the 1960s
Bärbel with Mom and Maggie in the 1960s





Mom with Maggie, Jutta, Ute, and Lutz in the 1970s
Mom with Maggie, Jutta, Ute, and Lutz in the 1970s

I have no idea what Lutz’s, Ute’s, or Jutta’s politics might be, but I do know something about Chuck’s, Barb’s, and mine. “We’re not Marxists,” I told Mom. I didn’t bother to explain to her our various liberal and leftist political commitments. I knew that Mom would not be interested in any sweep of political perspectives that, however complex, could comfortably be filed under “wrong-headed offspring.”

“I thought you were Marxists,” Mom said thoughtfully. “Who do I know that’s a Marxist?”

“Frank is the only Marxist you know,” I said.

She was shocked. “Frank! Frank is a Marxist? I’m going to have to have a talk with that boy.”

Assorted socialists and conservatives


Assorted socialists and conservatives
Assorted socialists and conservatives

Parents and offspring often believe that none of the important ideas and values carry across the generations. If your mother really knew how to dress, you yourself probably will wear a leisure suit.

Naomi in the kitchen
Naomi in the kitchen
Ivan dressed for a friend’s wedding
Ivan dressed for a friend’s wedding
Marian, Chuck, and Audrey in Worms am Rhein
Marian, Chuck, and Audrey in Worms am Rhein
Marian with Barbie, Audrey, and Chuck in Amsterdam
Marian with Barbie, Audrey, and Chuck in Amsterdam
Audrey trying to get the hang of stylish dressing
Audrey trying to get the hang of stylish dressing

Georgia would disagree with this. Georgia’s mother is a snappy dresser and Georgia is a snappy dresser. Hannah and Katharine also know clothes; Georgia taught them everything she knows. She was perhaps a little too thorough. When Katharine was in the second grade, she got in trouble at school for being sarcastic to another child. When Georgia scolded her, Katharine was philosophical. “Well, Mom,” she pointed out, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

Which family values get passed on, though, can be hard to predict. Cheerleading flair, conspiracy theories, and cooking skills do not carry over to the next generation equally. Sometimes only one family member’s values are passed on intact. On Ivan’s family’s car in 1960, there was a bumper sticker for Kennedy on one side of the car, and a bumper sticker for Nixon on the other side. In my family, there were arguments about who was interfering with whom in preparing pasta or gravy, but there was still fundamental agreement about the correct way to cook pasta and gravy. My parents agreed about eating everything on your plate and learning new languages and staying in the cheapest motels, but only my father believed that you should keep the furnace at 68° during the day all winter long and switch off any electricity you weren’t using.

Turning things off was one of the values that took. My siblings and I all turn off anything not in use. Ivan did not have this training. Even if he is not going to be watching television for another hour, he keeps the set humming in the other room. He switches on every light in the kitchen just to peel an egg. Even when he is merely passing by, he complains if a room is not bathed in klieg lights. “How can you see in there?” he demands if he walks by the kitchen and I am getting a glass of water without the benefit of lighting suitable for a cast of thousands. “Turn on some lights. You’ll ruin your eyes!”

“It’s a good thing you didn’t live in the Dark Ages,” I assure him. “It was a lot darker then.”

When Barb and Chuck and I were growing up, Dad’s values were explicit. “Turn off the lights” and “Never have less than a quarter tank of gas in the car” were his values. Mom’s values were obvious in terms of what we were supposed to do, but obscure in terms of our presumed motivation. When Mom wanted us to do something dubious, like eat burnt toast, she would assure us, “It’ll put hair on your chest.” None of the three of us wanted hair on our chests, nor, in the end, did we get hair on our chests, but the promise of hair on our chests was always treated as a clincher.

The most powerful values are the ones you learn without ever realizing you’ve been taught. When Barb was a teenager, Dad took her along while he shopped for Mom for an oversized plastic planter. They found one at the first place they checked, and it only cost seven dollars, but Dad thought it was possible that another store might have a better or cheaper planter. After the first hour of comparison shopping, Barb begged Dad just to buy the next planter they found, even if it cost 50¢ more. He refused, and as she had no way to get home on her own, she reluctantly accompanied him all over Peoria while he continued to check prices and quality. By the time they’d been driving around for two and a half hours, she had begun to enjoy the chase aspect of the expedition. By the time they got home, five hours after they’d started, carrying a plastic, oversized planter costing exactly seven dollars, Barb and Dad were triumphant. There was zero chance that any store, anywhere within a twenty-mile radius, had a better planter at a better price. Now Barb always shops this way. To most people, it would be exhausting, but to Annika it’s fun. Which just goes to show.

Ivan and I were brought up as opposites, but insofar as we were allowed to raise ourselves we seem to have veered in similar directions. There are photos at the dinner table, for example, that tell similar stories.

Ivan drinking from two cups at once
Ivan drinking from two cups at once
Audrey sipping a Coke
Audrey sipping a Coke

What is odd is how Ivan and my family have imbibed so many of one another’s values. Mom and Dad now keep televisions on in every room. Ivan shops with the same thoroughness that Barb and Dad do. Mom reads many of the same books Ivan does. Chuck gave Ivan his Zippy the Pinhead button that says, “Life is a blur of Republicans and meat.” Ivan even pretends to play chess with Joe.

Ivan pretending to play chess with Joe

Joe is not very picky and has been known to play with Harley.

Joe is not very picky and has been known to play with Harley

The touchstone for family values, though, is the refrigerator.

Audrey with new fridge in Geneva
Audrey with new fridge in Geneva

Like my parents, we stock our refrigerator almost exclusively with condiments. Ivan has a separate, mini fridge for Pepsi and fake beer (Mom and Dad have a separate, full size refrigerator for milk, water, and wine), but our kitchen refrigerator is reserved for giant jars of mustard and mayonnaise, smaller jars of fancy mustards, jellies, and preserves, and various sizes and types of horseradish, olives, and pickles. We have jars of ginger, boxes of butters, and bottles of red curry paste. We have pickled onions, capers, mango pickles, anchovies, antipasto, bean sauce, muffuletta dressing, coriander chutney, fermented chili bean curd, annatto powder, sofrito, hoisin sauce, kim chee, walnut oil, mushroom oyster sauce, hot peppers in vinegar, satay sauce, and chopped garlic. This is not the complete list of the refrigerator’s contents, understand; this is just what you can see without moving any of the jars or bottles.

The mystery is why Ivan, who is the keeper of the refrigerator, had to borrow my parents’ model of refrigeration. Why doesn’t he copy his own parents’ system? They kept an almost bare refrigerator that found its raison d’être in a bottle of ketchup, yellow mustard, ice cubes, and an occasional box of Velveeta. The overwhelming fact in Ivan’s family’s refrigerator was space. Our refrigerator, by contrast, is crammed with jars and packages in every cranny, stacked with jars and tubs, and bursting with bottles and condiment bric a brac. If Ivan finds kiwis or grapefruit in the crisper, he urges me to eat them immediately, as they are taking up space required for his condiments. Lemons, he allows. Lemons are a condiment, to be stored next to the tartar sauce.

Condiment bric-a-brac

I asked Ivan how his family could have kept such a spacious fridge. “Weren’t there any leftovers when you were growing up? Like from canned soup?” They ate out of cans a lot, because cans are no trouble and almost impossible to mess up, although Ivan’s mother still managed to scorch the stewed tomatoes. Originally, Naomi had used fresh tomatoes and scorched them, but that seemed like a lot of work for scorched tomatoes, so she used cans of stewed tomatoes after that, and scorched them instead. It saved a lot of time. My mother always burned the fresh brussels sprouts. It was never clear to me how you burn brussels sprouts, which have to be boiled, but mine were always black on one side. Maybe I was given the worst of the brussels sprouts, as I didn’t like them anyway. Normally, I had to eat everything on my plate, but not the brussels sprouts. The whole family would eye the brussels sprouts on my plate, and then I would dole them out so that everyone got their fair share. I only had to eat the remaining fraction that wouldn’t divide into four.

A meal without brussels sprouts
A meal without brussels sprouts

Ivan explained that in his house there were never leftovers from canned anything. Anything that came in a can, he and his brother ate at once. His mother would only buy one can of Chef Boyardee ravioli at a time, so Ivan and Kelly would divvy up the raviolis one by one, to make sure no one cheated and got more than the other, and then they would dole out the tomato sauce, spoonful by spoonful. Then, because one of them always did try to cheat, they would hit each other.

A lull in the proceedings
A lull in the proceedings

I asked Ivan why Naomi didn’t try to stop the hitting. “She didn’t know about it,” said Ivan.

“How could she not know about it? Wasn’t she right there?” I asked.

“We got our own lunch. The only time my mother ever made lunch for us was when I was in second grade. She made me creamed eggs on toast because I was sick.”

“I’m sick,” I pointed out, coughing slightly.

“You are not sick and I’m not making you creamed eggs on toast.”

There are no pictures of Barb or Chuck or me sick in bed, which is odd, because Chuck and Barb were quite often picturesquely ill, falling off bikes and out of tree forts and having to be taken to the hospital sometimes twice a week. Ivan has a picture of himself in the hospital. He does not look all that sick and it is a mystery to me why his mother even made him creamed eggs on toast.

Temperatures rising
Temperatures rising

Then again, photos can be misleading. Julie and Naomi are busily creating an enviable photographic legacy for Will that he can pore over nostalgically when he is forty, not realizing that he never actually went on any family motorcycle trips as a child.

Photo © 2006 Julie and Naomi Doyle-Madrid
Julie, Will, and Naomi on a borrowed Honda
Julie, Will, and Naomi on a borrowed Honda

The true story of Will’s childhood driving adventures is a little tamer.

Photo ©2006 Julie and Naomi Doyle-Madrid
The true story of Will’s childhood driving

In my family’s archives, there are no photos with misleading theatrical props, but there are significant omissions of documentation. For example, there are no photos of anyone except Grandpa playing golf. It is almost as if the golf story were being suppressed, although my family is not much of one for suppressing anything, especially if it is embarrassing. But it is possible that my not golfing weighs on them. Some things you can be taught, some things you have to learn for yourself, some things you learn in spite of everything, and some things are hard-wired. When Grandpa tried to teach me how to golf, he quickly realized that I was a natural-born non-golf player. I was the only one in the whole family born to not golf. There was nothing to be done about it, thank heavens. Golf fashions are bad enough without my inventing my own version.

Golf fashions are bad enough

Grandparents get to teach you how to garden or golf. Although Mom and Dad taught us to dance and ski, and Mom taught us to sing, “Detour — there’s a muddy road ahead — detour,” a talent I myself passed on to Tom and Annika, there was a suspicious amount of practical stuff, too. I say suspicious because some of the things we learned from our parents, we learned specifically (or as Judith Butler likes to say, precisely, though this does not really make it more precise) because our parents had no intention of doing them themselves. When Ivan was in the sixth grade, his father told him he would now be “in charge of the lawn,” meaning that he was going to be the one mowing it. Grandma, having taught Mom how to cook, would happily wait till 9:30 at night to eat, just so she didn’t have to do the cooking herself. When I was in third grade, my mother put me in charge of baking birthday cakes. She liked to cook but not to bake and was in a hurry never to bake again. My sister is the same way but she failed to plan ahead. She should have taught Tom to bake in the third grade. Now that he is in the twelfth grade, it is too late. When Tom made brownies the other day, he added lemon extract, cinnamon, and strawberry Crystal Light powder to the brownie recipe. You can’t deny that it was inventive.

Notably, innovation was also one of the hallmarks of Chuck’s and my youthful efforts to be stylish.

Chuck and Audrey dress themselves
Chuck and Audrey dress themselves Chuck and Audrey dress themselves

Barb, by contrast, had our mother’s sense of style. No doubt Mom would have taken comfort in this if Barb hadn’t changed clothes five times a day, throwing each newly abandoned outfit down the clothes chute.

Barb at Christmas
Barb

Since Barb no longer keeps up to the minute with fashion, Mom is trying to pass her fashion sense on to Annika from a distance. Barb is concentrating on cooking and craft values; Joe is concentrating on beer-making and chess. So far Joe has been on his own; some family values dead-end with one family member.

Grandpa passed on his love for golf to most of the family, but not his delight in all the small things that life has to offer. Grandpa was an appreciative man; he loved everything anyone made for him. When Grandma sewed satin blanket binding around the old blanket he kept on the couch in the den, Grandpa showed the new, improved blanket to everyone who came to the house for the next month. When Mom served him Stouffer’s chicken pot pies, he told her, “This is the most delicious meal I’ve ever had in my life.” One day he took a bowl of leftover meat from the fridge and made himself a sandwich for lunch. “This is wonderful meatloaf, Marian,” he told Mom. “I didn’t know you’d even made it. You sure keep busy.”

“I didn’t make any meatloaf, Daddy,” she told him.

“Then what am I eating?” he wanted to know.

“Alpo,” said Grandma.

“Oh. It’s surprisingly good, you should try it.”

Although Grandpa gave the rest of his dog food to Baron, he wasn’t sorry that he’d tried it. It wasn’t clear that he wouldn’t be willing to try it again. This isn’t a trait he passed on to the rest of the family. No one else has Grandpa’s zest for whatever happened to happen, although Chuck sometimes comes close. For most of the rest of us, this was a cautionary tale. We don’t want to find ourselves in a situation where we are eating Alpo for lunch.

There are good reasons that some people stock their refrigerators with nothing but condiments.

Grandpa with Baron, Grandma with Tintola
Grandpa with Baron, Grandma with Tintola

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