Living the Active Life in Peoria

Audrey Thompson


Not long after I arrived in East Peoria, Mom and Dad asked if chicken cordon bleu would be all right for dinner. I said yes. It was not the first time I had said yes. I had already said yes when they emailed me about it beforehand and also when they phoned long distance to check. With all this painstaking care and inquiry, I figured that there must be something either about me or about chicken cordon bleu (we’re talking frozen, here; it’s not a question of spending all day pounding the chicken and wrapping it around ham and cheese). Turns out that this was just food planning as usual. After dinner, Mom and Dad filled me in on their plans for the rest of the week. One night, they said, we were going to go out for pizza; another night, there would be pork loin roast, made according to Barb’s recipe; for lunch one day, they planned to visit a roadside gyro stand that Mom had been fantasizing about since Barb and the kids had gone there with her; plus they were going to make Picata (actually chicken) Milanese; and there was some thought of going out to a German deli. “Do we have any plans that don’t involve food?” I asked. There was a brief pause. “No,” said Dad consideringly. “All our plans involve food.”

Although I am not much of a planner, I had hoped to fit in a little antiquing, some shopping for Dr. Scholl’s wooden shoes, and a visit to the library. It’s been a long time since I visited the Peoria library, and I kind of wanted to check it out. In Salt Lake City, we have six public libraries, not counting university and college libraries, and most weeks I visit at least three of the libraries. The Friday before I left, I was showing a new colleague around town, and the first thing I did was take her to the downtown library. I thought she would want to know about it. After we had walked around City Creek Canyon Park a little, and up towards Memory Grove, looking for rental possibilities, Karen asked if we could drive by a house in the Avenues that she was thinking of renting, so we went up there. She asked me if I thought it was well situated, and I said, “Absolutely,” and drove the few short blocks to the Avenues Library, to show her how close it was. Later, we stopped at the Bakery for a lemonade, and she asked me about other places in town. “Sofia says she lives in Rose Park and she likes it there,” said Karen. “Yes, Sofia lives in a very nice neighborhood,” I agreed. “But she says there aren’t any services close by,” Karen added. “Sure there are!” I said. “The Day-Riverside Library is practically across the street from her.” There was a pause. “I think she meant grocery stores and restaurants,” said Karen.

Anyway, I wanted to fit in a little library visit in Peoria, and maybe a few other non-eating activities, so I drew up a helpful grid. I divided a lined yellow piece of paper into six parts, Saturday through Thursday and called the page, “Our Plans, by Audrey Thompson.” (This is a literary reference to a Mary Tyler Moore Show in which Rhoda prefaces the story of her day with the title, “My Day, by Rhoda Morgenstern.”) “What can I put on this page?” I asked. “Put in pizza for Monday,” said Mom. “We can have Picata Milanese on Wednesday,” added Dad. Our lunch and dinner plans rapidly slotted into place. We were very specific. With the pork loin roast, we added, “corn on the cob, mashed potatoes, and artichokes.” We did not say “salad.” In principle, we always have a salad. In practice, no one ever wants to make one, and it is very discouraging to put things down that you know perfectly well you are not going to do. And if you don’t do it, you can’t cross it off. So we don’t put down salad. If by any chance someone makes a salad, we can add it to the list and then cross it off.

“What about the library?” I asked. “When can we go to the library?” That could go on the Monday list, Mom and Dad decided. Also, it occurred to them, as long as we were out and about, we might as well go to Trefzger’s Bakery. Or maybe Apple’s. Or possibly both. Then we added shoe stores, and I folded in Fannie May chocolates. It wasn’t long before the whole grid was filled in. We had Christmas ornaments to paint, neighborhoods to drive around, antique stores and banks and libraries to go to, windows to wash, garbage to take out. “Can we put down breakfast?” Dad asked. “Yes,” I said, “we can put down breakfast for every day.” This pleased him, because we were bound to have breakfast, so it was something we definitely would be able to cross off. At the end of each day, Mom whipped the list out of her purse and crossed things off. “Crossing things off is the best part of the day,” she said.

Mom and Dad took to the list with so much enthusiasm that they wore me out. Every half hour or so, Dad would say, “Where’s the list? I need to consult the list.” Then the two of them would pore over the battle plans with marked satisfaction and expectancy, like generals who have never lost a battle. Mom carried the list everywhere with her, folded together with the painstaking maps that Dad made to accompany the list. Dad’s maps include actual trees and bushes, road signs, and driveways. You can’t buy maps like these. Although Mom does not really want the maps, and protests violently the whole time that they are underway, once a map masterpiece has been completed, she carefully folds it and puts it next to the Central Document, the List.

I had not anticipated how busy we would be, once things besides food were added to the list. I did not realize, for example, that we would have to stop and talk with so many strangers. Many years ago, when my friend Larry was getting his Ph. D. from the U of I, his mother came out from New York City to attend his graduation. It was Norma’s first visit to the Midwest. Larry and I drove her to the Howard Johnson hotel and started to carry her bags in to the reception area, but we had to wait by the doorway because she was stopping to chat with everyone she met in the parking lot. “What are you doing?” we asked. “I’m trying to fit in,” she told us. “In the Midwest, everyone talks to everyone else. In New York, if anyone talks to you, you grab your bag and run for your door.”

I always wondered where she got that idea about the Midwest; I had never seen anyone stop and talk to strangers. But I must just not have been paying attention, because my mother does it all the time. Buttonholing the gyro lady at the roadside stand, she tells her in a confiding voice that these gyros are so much better than other people’s gyros, naming no names, and when the gyro lady gives her a business card with the address for the actual restaurant, Mom clutches it like a personal autograph from Robin Williams. When salesmen call on the phone, she does not get rid of them but engages them in earnest conversation about the possible demerits of their products, which she hopes they will take into account before trying to sell her anything. She asks how they had happened to get her name, as if there might be an interesting story there; Dad also assumes this, and wants to know who called, why they called, where they got our name, and what Mom said to them. Of course, since Mom and Dad are in the phone book, it is not very hard to get their name. Still, they cannot discount the possibility that some of these calls are almost personal calls, references from friends, perhaps, or acquaintances hooking up with acquaintances of acquaintances.

Away from home, the roof constitutes an introduction. In the first shoe store we went to, Mom sat down next to another customer to tell her about the good deal she’d gotten on the actual shoes she was wearing, which she had bought three months before, when the store belonged to a different chain. Later, she also mentioned this to each of the salesmen she encountered. But first she checked with the other woman as to what her shoe plans were, how things were going, if she was finding anything she liked, and if she planned to go to more than one store. I was in the next aisle, trying on size 8½ walking shoes that felt just fine if you didn’t particularly care about arch support. When I couldn’t find any walking shoes I liked, Mom took me to a sports store. Right there in front of the store were some hiking shoes on sale for $20.00. They had size 6 and size 9. I tried on the size 9; they were nice, but they were a little big. Mom suggested I get them anyway. I pointed out that they were too big. “But they’re on sale for only $20!” said Mom. “Yes, it’s a great deal, but they’re a little too big,” I said. “Big! How can they be big?” said Mom. “They’re a size 9. You’ve always worn a size 9.” “Sometimes I wear a size 9, sometimes an 8½,” I said. “It depends on the brand.” Mom turned indignantly to the clerk behind the front counter. “My daughter has always worn a size 9,” she said. “She was practically born wearing a size 9. And now she wants me to believe that she’s an 8½. She has never worn size 8½.” She turned back to me. “All you need are some thick socks, not those puny socks you’re wearing. You can’t wear socks like that on a hike,” she said. She went off to the back of the store find me some good, thick socks.

I looked at the sales clerk. “My mother feels strongly that she knows more about my feet than I do,” I said. “I’m 44,” I added. “I hear what you’re saying,” she told me. “I’m 21, but I think I’m starting to run into the same thing.”

Following Mom to the back of the store, I found her deep in conversation with another sales clerk. “My daughter says she wears a size 8½,” she was telling her, “but she doesn’t. She has never worn a size 8½. What she wears is a size 9. She just won’t admit it. She is very stubborn.”

All in all, the plan seems to be to stop strangers and see if she can’t get them to share her opinions. Sometimes these opinions are about her daughter. Sometimes they are opinions about the price of shoes. Sometimes they are more general — about weather or the latest dumb idea from the Peoria City Council. (Mom and Dad live in East Peoria, where, luckily, the city council is not nearly as dumb.) Sometimes the opinions are more specific. One time Mom went to every house in her new neighborhood in Louisville, soliciting opinions about her latest needlework design, which Dad had criticized. “Excuse me, you look like maybe you aren’t feeling too well,” she had to say to one woman, “but this won’t take but a minute. Could you tell me what you think this design looks like? Wouldn’t you say that it looks exactly like a drum?”

No one at any of the stores commented on the fact that Mom was wearing three watches. She looked a little like one of those street peddlers who lift up a sleeve to show you ten wrist watches, all on one arm, except that Mom wore short sleeves and used both arms. The point, she said, was to see if the watches kept the same time. I am not complaining. Peoria is not normally the kind of place that likes you to march to the beat of a different drummer, and if someone can walk around wearing three watches and talking to every stranger she meets and not get odd looks, I am all for it. I am just a little surprised, that’s all.

One night while I was visiting Mom and Dad, Barb called. When she asked Mom what we had been doing, Mom reached for the list and read off all the things we’d accomplished. She pointed out the things that we’d done ahead of schedule, like going to the drugstore and the Doubet Window and Door Store. She mentioned the things we had done according to schedule and the things we still had left to do. She filled in all the food details — everything that we had eaten, planned to eat, had failed to eat, or still hoped to eat. Even mixed in there with the shoes, video, books, and windows, you could tell that the main things on the list were things we were eating.

When Mom passed the phone to me, Barb was just the smallest bit indignant. “How come I never get to go to any of those places when I visit Mom and Dad?” she asked. “When I visit, all we do is eat.” “Because,” I said, “you don’t make a list.” I felt a little sorry for her. She would love to go to any of those places, including the window and door replacement shop, the bank, and the drugstore. She has that Midwestern thing about getting out of the house and talking to strangers, so she wouldn’t like the library as much, because you’re not supposed to talk there. Also, you have to pay a parking meter. My family feels strongly about parking. Parking is supposed to be free. We disagree about many things but are more or less of one accord about parking. Republicans, Democrats, communitarians, Communists, or environmentalists, Christians, Jews, agnostics, or atheists, most of us balk at having to pay for parking. The only exceptions are the Buddhists, who don’t mind paying $3.00 to park, never mind a quarter. (The rest of us think it is just because they don’t want to walk.)

But while I felt for Barb, it seemed to me that she should have known about lists. One summer when we were at Grandma’s and Grandpa’s, Grandma had the usual long list of things for Dad to fix around the house. He diligently took care of all the things on the list, but he complained that there were no stars. “Stars?” Grandma asked. “You know, sticky stars,” said Dad. “Red stars for taking out the garbage, green stars for fixing door hinges, blue stars for spackling, silver stars for changing the oil, and gold stars for painting and rewiring. If you gave out gold stars, you could have gotten a lot more work out of me. I like a list with stars.” It seems to me that Barbara could have a very active visit to Peoria if she would just make a list. If she awarded stars, frankly, the sky’s the limit.



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