Essay: Leftovers

Nov 27, 2019

A big meal like Thanksgiving can leave us with a refrigerator full of leftovers. And for some folks, the leftovers are the best part - as long as you don’t let them sit too long. Lake Effect essayist Joanne Nelson has been thinking about what the contents of our refrigerators say about us - to others:

Mayonnaise, cream cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, Thai peanut sauce. My visiting, hungry daughter checks expiration dates and exhales patience. One hand holds the refrigerator door open and she bends at the waist to reach for each jar, long hair falling over her shoulder. From my seat at the kitchen counter, I analyze each item ahead of her hand, calculating length of time since purchase.

This is how it begins. Soon the phrase, “And you should see what I found in her refrigerator…” will pepper her conversation with friends.

My mother’s refrigerator, at the end of her independence, contained, among other things: a saucepan of chicken noodle soup—small moons of chicken fat floating in the thin broth; plastic containers of gray-brown fuzziness; and several half-cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. I tossed and tossed into white Hefty bags which I stacked next to the over-full garbage bin at the end of her driveway. No one witnessed the hunched muscles of my shoulders or the building tension in my face as I worked. But if my mother could escape her nursing home, could escape her failing self, I think she’d recognize this look. Even be able to imitate it; I wore it so often in her presence.

The handle of my grandmother’s Philco was a hard pull before the loud, sticky door seal released to reveal half-eaten apple pie, gravy-soaked roast beef on a chipped flower rimmed plate, and drying, unwrapped cheese on yet another chipped plate. Every Sunday her small home filled with luscious smells and flavors, savory pies and meats. I ate and overate but avoided any leftovers if I visited during the week, all those exposed leftovers growing more harmful with each passing day. Perhaps I was too cautious though — Grandma cooked for herself well into her nineties. She lived until my daughter grew in me, until I could reach into the refrigerator of my own home and bring out apples extra flavorful for having been kept cold and unsliced.

I remember the comforting edge of those broken plates, can see the dividing line where the border of the aging yellow/orange cheese faded to softness — where a thin paring knife could cut away anything unpleasant and save the rest for another time. I hear her say, whatever I do to my mother I’ll get back three-fold.

I hear her say it again as I watch my girl, now so grown, so beautiful, turn from the refrigerator, jar in hand, like a punctuation mark of continuance or ending.

Lake Effect contributor Joanne Nelson lives in Hartland, Wisconsin and is the author of the forthcoming memoir, This is How We Leave.