A tub of prunes

By Billie Johnson

Yep. It’s January. Gray, grumpy and grumbling am I. I’ve read up on seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and I am a prime candidate. My winter blues, however, could also be connected to my mom almost dying one January and then dying this month a year after that. I remember it all this time of year. While I may be remembered for my love of turtles, Wonder Woman or cow suits, my mom is remembered among a few for her prunes.
With debilitating heart and lung disease, my mother wasn’t able to return to the office during the last year of her life. Management let her work from home, and many accommodations were made. She called her La-Z-Boy in the center of the house “mission control,” and with a card table on wheels in front of her and a plastic set of mini cabinets beside her, she had everything she needed within her reach.
She had work papers, pens, notebooks, files, White-Out and batteries. Her medications, the telephone, popcorn salt, the TV remote and medical tape for her oxygen tubes were right there. She also kept a supply of prunes in the bottom drawer of her cabinet because she ate a few when she took her medicine.
Her work arrangement only worked for a few months, and she was told she’d either need to return to the office or retire. She wasn’t ready to go, and she cried, but it was time. She retired from Health and Welfare late that summer, but she kept her mission control set up and would write letters and watch CNN from the cockpit. Many of her colleagues continued to visit for weekly lunches.
She decided that the prunes in the cabinet were too far away, but she didn’t want the Sun Sweet tubs visible to guests. In a fit of crafty genius, she used leftover wrapping paper from Christmas and my birthday to wrap her tubs of prunes so guests would think they were simply a decoration.
She had three friends who visited regularly, and when they came for lunch the week before she died, she let them in on her prunes secret. The ladies laughed. After so many years working together, they were at the point of discussing the importance of prunes and the measures taken to ensure their consumption.
On a Saturday, Mom sent me to the store for groceries and the list included prunes. She wanted to wrap them and give them to her pals as both a gag and a gift. I didn’t care for buying five canisters of prunes at a time, but it was better than when she sent me to the adult entertainment store to buy Chippendales birthday cards for her friends. I’ll choose prunes over dudes in Speedos, thank you.
Mom died just hours after I unloaded those groceries. One of the hardest things I’ve done was go back to my childhood home the next day knowing she was gone from this world. I had to get a nightgown for the funeral home because Mom viewed death as an eternal nap, and she wanted to be buried in her best flannel gown. While wandering the house and looking at my pictures on the walls, mission control, and all of the signs of a former life, I saw the prunes on the counter.
On auto-pilot, I pulled up to the kitchen table to wrap them. This was the table where we played Trivial Pursuit for hours; where she wielded her red pen over my essays and scholarship applications and condemned “too much flowery language”; where we shared Thanksgiving dinners with wayward ISU volleyball players who couldn’t go home for the holidays. I’m suddenly panicking that I don’t remember what happened to that table.
I sniffled and cried in the otherwise silence while I made those canisters the most beautiful tubs of prunes ever to be. I placed a bow on them and when I got to the To/From tags, I lost it. The sniffles succumbed to sobs and I clutched all three canisters like they were all that I had left of my mother, and I was going to give them away. I wanted to keep them, but they were meant to be given.
That January was a ceremonious passing of the torch in a handoff of the prunes. When Mom was no longer there to wrap them, I had to. I have no idea how I managed, but I delivered those gift-wrapped prunes to her pals at her old office just days after she died. I imagine if Mom was here today and I brought up feeling grumpy and heavy, she’d smile, wink and say, “there, there, Honey. I’m sorry.” And then she’d hand me a tub of prunes.

Billie Johnson of Pocatello holds a bachelor’s degree in engineering and a master’s degree from Idaho State University. She works as an engineer, is an avid community volunteer, and maintains a blog about her adventures in a cow suit at www.CowSuitSaturday.com.