What’s Your Label? Valerie MacEwan


I choose my label. “Writer” It’s rectangular. And temporary. I remove the large blue HELLO, I AM ____________ paper tag from my sweater and stick it to the mirror.

Twenty years ago, my father put another label above my left breast. This one, “Caregiver”, won’t come off in the washing machine and it can’t be scraped off the mirror. It doesn’t shrink or fade. If anything, the ink brightens. It’s as colorfast as time. When Daddy died, I stepped up and asked Mom to come out from Arkansas to North Caroline to live with me. She’s lived here with us for over 15 years now. I adore her.

I hear the clump, drag, clump of my mother’s three-pronged cane as she stutters her way across the kitchen toward the front of the house. Her destination is the front porch. She hesitates at each threshold. Dining room. Living room. Front door. Each room is unfamiliar and she must place herself, physically and mentally, in her location before moving on to the next one.

Lately we’ve been making soup. She lurches myopically through the Soup Bible, seeking recipes and searching for ingredient lists. The idea of a pantry is completely foreign to her. The pots are too heavy to lift. The new gas stove is too complex to operate. We listen for the click-click-click of the pilot light. Click-click-click-click-click-click.

What are the ingredients on hand? Should there be a trip to the store? How do we choose our recipe on this day?

The idea of soup gives our day a continuity, a purpose. We began with vichyssoise.

Potatoes from this bin, waxed cartons of broth from this shelf, carrots from the refrigerator bottom right drawer.

Each day begins a new search.

Last night I bought beets. “Mom. Look what I have.” I hold up the grocery store bag, the green and dark red leaves of the beets hang out over the top. “Beets.”

She looks up. She’s holding a cell phone in her hand. It’s turned off. “I can’t turn this on. What is that? What?”

“Beets, Mom. Remember? We’re going to make borscht.”

“Borssshhhh? Borssshhhh? Why won’t this phone work?”

I smile and say, “Just a sec. Let’s plug it in, recharge it.” Then I hand her the cookbook. “Borscht. Beet soup. Russian Borscht. Let’s make some.”

Leaving her with the book open on the illustrated guide to creating borscht, I walk into the study and wait for her to read the recipe.

But she picks up the cell phone. I hear the beep-beep-beep as she presses numbers. At least fourteen beeps later, she says, “Hellooooo. This is Ruthie. It’s Ruthie. Jane? Roy? Roy, why won’t you let me talk to Jane? He won’t let me talk to her, why won’t he? Why won’t anyone answer?” I wait a few minutes, walk back to her room. She has the cookbook in her lap, the phone on the table.

“I’m going to take Ollie to the new Disney movie this afternoon. When I get back, we’ll make borscht. Okay? I’ll only be gone for a little while. Sit here with the cat and when I get home, we’ll make borscht.”