Monday, October 8, 2007

Cleaning the Fridge - December 2005

One Thursday morning in November 1992 I was cleaning out my refrigerator when ordinarily I would have been at work. The night before my friend Denise had called to ask what I was going to do until she picked me up at noon to take me to the hospital.

“I’m going to clean out my refrigerator because it really needs it,” I said. “It’s gross and I find that I can deal with the smell now.”

The previous day, during an ultrasound, Scott and I had discovered that the baby I was carrying had experienced something called fetal demise. No heartbeat. It had stopped growing a few weeks before but no one knew. I thought I was phasing out of morning sickness when I was really phasing out of pregnancy. Suddenly, after weeks of holding my breath every time I opened the refrigerator and closing it as quickly as possible, it didn’t smell so bad anymore. A small consolation.

Denise said, “Hmmphh.” I knew that meant she thought that cleaning the refrigerator didn’t seem a momentous enough activity for such a sad day but she could think of no reasonable argument to be made for not doing it. She’s a physician, after all, and reasonable arguments appeal to her.

“I already got up and wrote a poem in the middle of the night,” I said, “What more do you want?”

The following morning my countertops were covered in jars and containers and mummified leftovers in Tupperware when Denise called again. Earlier, while doing rounds at the hospital, she had spoken with the ob/gyn who would be doing the little clean up operation on me later that afternoon. She told the other doc, Nancy, that I was cleaning out my refrigerator. “Nancy says you must be a very strong person to be doing something so ordinary on a day like this.”

“Bullshit,” I said. “I’m just someone with a nasty refrigerator and some time on my hands, but don’t say anything. Please let her think I’m a together person.”

But in that moment began the slow dawning that there aren’t many saints among us. The people we revere most are simply human beings choosing from among the options laid out before them and then doing the work they’ve been given to do. Most of them would avoid the hard and unpleasant stuff given the chance. Most, like Melville’s Bartleby, “would prefer not to.” But the difference between saints and the rest of us is they do the hard things anyway.

Since that morning 13 years ago I’ve done a lot of things that I would have preferred not to do: Our baby fortune changed the following year so with twins I changed a lot of diapers from 1994 to 1997. I have stayed up many nights at my computer finishing up a newspaper. On a handful of occasions I’ve told the difficult truth to someone who needed to hear it. I’ve squirmed while apologizing for my bad behavior any number of times, and I’ve confronted people on their bad behavior when it would have been easier to just let it slide. I’ve sat through a lot of meetings, trying to resist tearing at the skin around my fingernails. I’ve volunteered for things I didn’t really want to do for people who’ve needed me to do them.

I’ve attributed doing all of these hard things to the cost of becoming a human being, the cost of becoming someone whose faith informs her choices and for whom making good choices means the difference between sleeping at night or lying awake. Oh that our president would suffer some nighttime angst, but I’ve read he sleeps like a baby.

On Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, I clean out my refrigerator. Different decade, different house, different refrigerator, practically same contents, except now you can buy those tasty little mozzarella balls in your deli section. I plan to do a really thorough cleaning with all the racks and drawers out and the inside washed down. When it’s empty, Marty and I break a universal taboo by taking turns stepping inside and closing the door. It’s cold in there and I forgot it would be dark. I always think of my food as being brightly illuminated. “Don’t ever do this again, son,” I say when he opens the door for me. “Scores of children die every year in closed refrigerators.”

I decide to clean out the refrigerator not only because 1) refrigerators should be cleaned out every six months whether they need it or not and 2) I need to make room for the holiday food but also because 3) I don’t want our Thanksgiving guests to see its appalling interior. Our friend Tracy is coming on the evening bus from Boston. You can hide the state of your refrigerator for an afternoon but not for an entire holiday weekend and I want Tracy to think I’m a together person though I suspect she knows the truth.

I also want my husband to think that I do things around the house. It somehow retains its cluttered look even after Patsy comes to clean. A gleaming fridge interior is an undeniable example of industry. It says, “Damn! I did some hard work on my day off. I didn’t just sit around and work Sudoku puzzles.”

There is also a part of me that wants to lead a simpler life and a simpler life means consolidating the four open jars of Mt. Olive “Petite Snack Crunchers” into two jars. And who ever heard of Mt. Olive pickles anyway? Who buys all these jars of pickles?

As I scan the vast contents of the fridge arrayed across the countertop, I see I have a lot of consolidating to do besides the petite snack crunchers: two jars of raspberry jam, two jars of capers, two bottles of Lea & Perrin’s steak sauce, two jars of kalamata olives (pitted), and, inexplicably, three open jars of Marie’s Italian garlic dressing. I dispatch to the recycling bin an empty jar of Guiltless Gourmet Spicy Black Bean Dip that Colin, our own sweet Bartleby, has absentmindedly put away and then chuck a woefully expired Yoplait hunkered down undetected way in the back.

When I finish and have put everything away in an organized fashion, I take pleasure in opening the door and viewing its clean, well-lighted contents. I have done one small hard thing, a month or so belatedly perhaps and for some spurious reasons, but one right thing nonetheless.

As I stand with the door open, Scott walks into the kitchen with some last minute purchases for the coming feast. As he wheels around me with his bags, I see the shock of a gleaming refrigerator register on his face.

“Looky there,” he says, sliding into his native West Virginian, “ain’t you just the teacher’s pet!”
Heidi Shott
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