Flushed with Success

Accept, gentle reader, that I took leave of my senses. It happens to all of us at some point, especially when dealing with the needs of elderly, fiercely independent parents.

My mom and dad live three hours away in an ailing house. After a nasty fall that left her concussed, my mom got an emergency pacemaker, this after a previous fall that left her with a torn cuff and limited use of her right arm.

In a few words, because we all understand human dignity and body functions, people who are without the use of their full range of motion might want to invest in a bidet. Nuff said, right?

Running errands and trying to set the house up as best it could be for their continued independence there, what do I find in the clearance aisle during a supply run to Walmart?

Bidets. For $10. Snatching two, I raced home with my prizes—

–and realized that my 86-year-old father, a lifelong handyman unwilling to admit to cognitive dysfunction, was going to take the family toilet apart. At my urging, because I had made the mistake of saying we shouldn’t install the second one in Mom’s separate bathroom until we were sure she liked the bidet model.

5 pm, just as I’m starting to make dinner, my dad turns the water off. Only the handle on the toilet is frozen, so it isn’t off when he unhooks the pipe from the wall. Water sprays everywhere. Dad gets a massive pipe wrench from the shed out back and with the help of his trusty quad cane navigates the uneven hill down to the basement. Where he turns off the house water. Meanwhile, I have every towel in the house on the bathroom floor and am starting to eye the blankets.

My dad returns a few minutes after the water stops spurting. He wants me to hold the lid while he gets the plastic bolts secured. I ask if the nuts holding the bolts are on backwards, and that’s why the lid continues to slide all over the place. He gives me a classic male to female sneer. The problem is tightening, he says; what we need is a Phillips screwdriver. Off he goes to fetch one from the shop.

This is good for five minutes, I figure, and reverse the bolts, hand tightening them until they won’t turn. The lid is snug and no longer sliding when he returns. He places the Philips in the center of the bolt’s large X and turns it, ripping a hole in the cheap plastic.

The light in the bathroom is low enough that he can’t tell this has happened.

“Perfect,” I say. “Doesn’t slide at all now.” He beams. So far, so good.

He studies the t-junction for the water pipes, cannot make head nor tails of it, and declares the rest will have to wait until tomorrow.

“Where will we pee tonight?” Mom shouts from her chair in the living room. Dad frowns, and opens his mouth to shout—I am sure of it— “In the bushes.”

I cut him off, knowing what would happen if he did.

“Look! I found the diagram showing how to assemble the pipes at the three points!”

Dad is having none of it. So, I attach the first one, pretend they came pre-assembled, and then ask if the other two go together “like this?”

“See?” he says. “You just have to be patient. I have this figured out now. You can go.”

I retreat to the living room, where Mom asks if the house is going to flood a second time, because there are blankets in the linen closet I can use.

Dad heads down the hill again. I race to the bathroom and tighten all three joins so they won’t spray. As I finish the last one, the water comes on, but I am close enough to finish with minimal dripping.

Dad comes upstairs, puts his hand on the first join, and smiles. “Dry as a bone. I did a great job. No leaks.”

“Yes! High five!” I tell him. We exchange one, he goes to his chair, and I go to the kitchen to make myself a gin and tonic.

The Sorcerer’s Black Beans

We are most of us familiar with the story of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, a 1700s poem by Goethe used in the film Fantasia. For those unaware, the apprentice is set to fill a cistern with water, and he enchants a broom to carry the water so he doesn’t have to do the heavy lifting.

But he isn’t adept enough to stop the broom once the tank is full. Hacking the broom in half to make it stop makes it turn instead into two brooms and double the rate of water flooding the house. You can see where this goes: by the time the master arrives home and sends the brooms and the water back to their proper places, the apprentice is near drowned, terrified, and much more humble about his magic abilities and the need for manual labor.

As part of ongoing work with commodity food nutrition and medical education–think doctors telling their patients to eat better and patients laughing because they can’t afford or access fresh produce–my non-profit has access to gleaned leftovers from area farms. We take the veggies and fruits to an apartment complex where occupants pay 1/3 of their income, whatever that is, for their apartments.

This week, as part of a medical education exercise, we sent two such boxes home with medical students who help staff the project and I took one. The idea is to see how long the box lasts (literally in terms of freshness and using up the stuff) and how expensive it is to pair the veggies with cheap meats or other proteins and starches, balancing meal costs and calories so you’re not hungry later with nutritional content.

All good, right? So smart professor here decides she is going to use only the foods that we have given away at the project in the past, and can the veggies as part of meals in a jar, and reckon up the costs per jar.

One of the foods we cannot pay people to take at the project is black beans. They are everywhere, in one pound bags. People are so sick of these, given them so often, that we literally use the beans as counters on bingo games, beads to glue on art projects, and other silly non-eating activities.

So I took six pounds of rejected beans, all the peppers and squash and tomatoes from the box, and started canning. I figured I had two canner loads.

That was true for the first day. Day two, I was still using soaked beans–which double in size when you overnight them in water–and had run out of tomatoes. I opened a commodity can and kept going. The huge bowl of black beans in the sink grew as I bottled them up and put them in the canner. Four loads later, the bowl looked fuller. Out of commodity vegetables, I started canning the beans in onion gravy, still a cheap way to use up food but make it tasty for later adding to chilis, tacos, and other staples.

The beans kept coming. Day three I had canned six full loads (think seven quart or 12 pint jars per) and there were still beans in my sink.

I gave up and threw the remainder to our chickens. They didn’t like them any more than the people in the housing project do. Next spring, where I threw the last handful in a desperate attempt to regain control of my kitchen, I expect a large beanstalk to spring up and head for the sky.