I spent last weekend 4 miles from the Kansas border in Superior, Nebraska. My dad and I were visiting my Grandmother and her husband, Arlo (Isn't that like THE best name for a retired Nebraskan farmer: "Arlo"). The peculiar part about the visit is that this is my maternal grandmother, but my mom didn't go. My grandmother moved from Michigan to Nebraska when she married Arlo in 2002. My mother has been to see her in Nebraska once, and apparently that was enough. My sister and brother-in-law have also been to see them in Superior. My sister's advice? "Try to shower right before you leave and pick up some groceries between the airport and their house."
This did not bode well.
My dad flew into Lincoln Municipal Airport from Detroit and I from Minneapolis Friday night. Municipal airport. I can't think of a time I've flown into an airport that wasn't "International." Even the airport in Kalamazoo, MI where I went to college was "international," even if it's only because they have two flights to Canada. Detroit and Minneapolis are both Northwest Airlines hubs. I'm used to multiple concourses devoted solely to NWA flights. My dad and I were on the only 2 NWA flights coming into Lincoln that night. Lincoln airport has four gates. When departing from there, everyone waits in the cafe. When you see your airplane taxi to your gate, it is only then that you go to security.
If this wasn't already feeling spooky and isolated enough, it was still a two hour drive to Superior. The minute we left I-80, we lost all cell phone reception for the remainder of the weekend.
First let's discuss the food. The reason behind my sister's recommendation to get our own groceries became clear at breakfast Saturday. There was a cereal box held together with tape. I'm not sure if Grams and Arlo are eating stale/spoiled food because they can't see well enough to notice or because they are such penny-pinching geezers that they'd rather have Fear Factor-type meals rather than let something go to waste. In order to wash down the stale bran flakes, I reached for my glass of orange juice. I had registered the glass out of the corner of my eye and reached for without really looking. I took a swig...and then used all the strength I could muster to swallow it. Ever had some O.J. that is a couple days past the expiration and it has a kinda tangy taste to it? This was beyond tangy. This was an attempt to ferment O.J. into the world's first citrus wine. I set down the glass to see a half inch of clear liquid rise to the top. Like moonshine. I hid the juice glass behind the box of cereal and then, under the guise of being a dutiful granddaughter, offered to clear the table so I could dump it out without hurting anyone's feelings.
There is the salad that the rest of the world eats, and then there is salad in the Midwest. OK, I've lived in 3 cities that are considered part of the Midwest. But the key word there is "city" as opposed to "town" or "village." Ann Arbor, Kalamazoo and Minneapolis all have food co-ops and a variety of restaurants to choose from. The menu of the only restaurant I went to in Nebraska offered baskets of deep-fried chicken gizzards.
My first of three weekend salad experiences was at the house. Grams asked me to cut up an apple. When I took an apple out of the fridge, it was so rotten my thumb sunk into it. I salvaged what I could of the apple and we enjoyed a "salad" of iceberg lettuce, apple chunks and sliced banana mixed with Miracle Whip mayonnaise. Jigga What?
That night at 80 Acres, the chicken gizzard joint, I picked the "salad bar only" option, sight unseen. I piled my plate high with, you guessed it, iceberg lettuce. God forbid we eat some actual greens with nutritional value and flavor. I turned to the rest of the salad bar to discover that the only other raw veggie available were whole baby carrots. The rest of the salad fixins were bacon bits, cheese, croutons and thick creamy dressings. The second half of the salad bar had things like pudding, pasta salad, potato salad and that fluff you usually only see at family reunions that is a combination of marshmallows, cool whip and Jell-O. There wasn't even canned pineapple in the fluff. There wasn't even cottage cheese. And there certainly wasn't any tomato, mushroom, cucumber, olives, broccoli or cauliflower. The only other veggies available were a mix of green beans, corn, peas and vinegar. And I don't mean balsamic vinaigrette. I mean vinegar. And those veggies were clearly from a can because the peas were the color of the shag carpet in Elvis' jungle room.
My third salad was at the Sunday brunch buffet at the Elk's Lodge. Every Sunday Arlo has a 12 seater table reserved for the Methodists. I was informed on the way to the Elk's club that the men would be sitting at one end of the table and women on the other. Arlo is currently boycotting church; something to do with "that lady minister." It was never clear if the boycott was solely because the minister is female or if there is some other reason. Because of the boycott, we ended up at the Elk's Lodge 20 minutes before everyone else. Church must've ran over. So we spent 20 minutes with my dad and Arlo sitting 6 seats away from myself and Grams. I've never felt so ridiculous. My feminist sensibilities were so violated by these seating arrangements that I told Arlo that the reason God created Woman after Man was because He didn't get it right the first time. Man was a rough draft, if you will. I couldn't help myself. And the salad bar there? Virtually identical to the one at 80 Acres. And the coffee? As bad as back at Grams' house.
We drank coffee from sun up to sun down. Coffee with breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert. Having chili on Saturday afternoon while watching the Nebraska football game? What beverage could possibly go better with chili than a hot cuppa joe? And this coffee was rancid. If we were lucky, it was so weak that it was basically (to steal an Ani Difranco lyric) "water dressed in brown." If the coffee had any flavor, it was from the grounds that had slipped past the filter into our mugs. Grounds that came from a big plastic vat. I took to telling Grandma I couldn't drink so much coffee or I wouldn't be able to sleep, even though it was so weak it wouldn't rouse an infant.
And sleep was not a problem. Their circulation not being was it used to, Grams and Arlo kept the thermostat up around 80. My dad and I both slept with our bedroom windows open. They also kept the curtains drawn the entire weekend, the combination of heat and lack of light creating some sort of eerie cocoon. The fact that the conversation was often as flat and boring as the landscape didn't help any either. I spent the whole weekend nodding off, waking up to find the conversation still hadn't strayed from talking about the weather that we couldn't see through the curtains, but was permanently displayed on the Weather Channel. I had many a mini-nap in that armchair that had a cloth placemat attached to the top with upholstery tacks. Are people's heads really so greasy that we must take such drastic measures to preserve the fabric? Judging from the tan stain on my pillowcase in the guest bedroom, the answer appears to be, "yes." Perhaps my Grandma has some secret friends with a fondness for Jheri Curl. Which I doubt, because I didn't see one person of color the entire time I was in Nebraska.
Perhaps people's heads are greasy due to the guest bathroom accommodations. My sister's shower-before-departure recommendation was due to the bathtub. Just a bathtub. No shower curtain, no shower head, just the tub. When I was on exchange in France, my host family had a similar set-up. I took to calling it the Sit N Splash. But at least they had a shower head on a hose you could use to rinse. Grandma just has a faucet 6 inches from the bottom of the tub. What the fuck am I supposed to do with this? They are living like pioneers in Nebraska. I assume that Grandma and Arlo had a shower in the Master bath. There is no way that Arlo is taking baths at his age and an artificial knee. But we were never offered use of this bathroom.
Neither Dad or I bathed on Saturday. As we went to bed Saturday night, I took him aside and said, "I must bathe tomorrow." Kinda like my proclamation earlier in the day that we must find Diet Coke, something cold and caffeinated after a day of lukewarm nastiness.
When I entered the bathroom Sunday morning, I found a wet tub with what looked like rust flakes on the bottom and a plastic kegger cup on the side. My dad helped me piece together the sequence of events later. He found the plastic kegger cup in the kitchen when helping with breakfast, with the intention of filling it with the tub faucet to rinse. A makeshift Sit N Splash if you will. But when he turned on the faucet, it took several minutes before the water ran clear because of lack of use and hard water mineral deposits. Hence the rust-like flakes. So Dad decided to forgo any full-body cleansing and settled for kneeling on the floor over the edge of the tub and washing his hair with the kegger cup and a sample of hotel shampoo from his travel kit. Because neither of us had any intention of using the shampoo Grandma had provided: a bottle of Suave shampoo-and-conditioner-in-one that, from the looks of it, hasn't been on store shelves since circa 1984. I guessing the date based not only on the label design, but the overall crustyness of the cap.
Unfortunately, just washing the hair was not an option for me. You see, I hadn't showered for two days in a row at this point. I usually shower every morning, but hadn't on Friday because I'd showered Thursday night after a vigorous round of apartment cleaning. Funny how cleaning can make one feel so dirty. So by Sunday morning, I was starting to feel oily and itchy. At this point, taking a bath is out. I'm not sitting in the tub with the flakes. Besides, I've never been one to view baths as a real way of getting clean. I've taken the occasional bath for relaxation purposes, but usually end up rinsing off in the shower afterwards. Because really, a bath is just you stewing in your own juices. So, if France had the Sit N Splash, Nebraska has the Squat N Dump. This consisted of stripping down, squatting in the tub, knees braced against the sides for balance, wetting a washcloth, washing the soap (it was all gunky from the soapdish), giving myself a sponge bath, and dumping kegger cupfuls of water on myself to rinse. Then repeating similar steps for my hair.
And then properly showering immediately upon arrival in Minneapolis apartment.
UPDATE! Photographic evidence of the iceberg lettuce, apple and banana salad in progress. I think the Miracle Whip is still in the fridge at this point. But please note the coffee is brewing. Goes great with chili.