Frozen Dinners Guest Author Elaine Ambrose

Frozen Dinners Guest Author Elaine Ambrose Stacey GustafsonI’m honored to introduce Elaine Ambrose, an award-winning, bestselling author of ten books and a popular humorist, public speaker, viral blogger, and workshop facilitator. We met over chocolate cake at the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop and the rest was history. Her edgy humor and cheerful attitude made me want to be her friend. I know you’ll fall in love with her latest novel, Frozen Dinners.

Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop:

Frozen Dinners is the story of Elaine Ambrose, who spends half a century searching for love and warmth beyond the contaminated legacy of her fractured family.

Take a sneak peek inside Frozen Dinners.

Bestselling author Elaine Ambrose describes her life in Frozen Dinners – A Memoir of a Fractured Family and shares the story of her intense, strict, and entrepreneurial father who rises from poverty to build a multi-million-dollar trucking empire hauling frozen food throughout the Northwest. After his untimely death, his survivors implode in a maelstrom of brutal courtroom drama, illness, and dementia. The family and the fortune are destroyed. “The Quilt” is the first chapter.

Frozen Dinners, The Quilt

Irritated clouds of old gray dust swirl behind my car and settle back onto the patches of scruffy sagebrush as I drive a back road into the village of Wendell, Idaho. I turn down 4th Avenue and stop in front of an insignificant old house where my family lived before my father became rich. Decades of decay and neglect are exposed as cheap vinyl siding sags on the outside walls and dead vines hang on crooked trellises over weathered boards thirsty for paint. I stare at the window of my former bedroom and wonder if it’s still nailed shut.

I drive two blocks to the Wendell Manor and Nursing Home. Before I get out of the car to visit my mother, I follow a familiar routine: I pull the jar of mentholated cream from my purse, unscrew the cap, and dab the pungent ointment into both nostrils to mask the odors inside the nursing home. Despite the best efforts of the janitors who continually clean the facility and open the old windows on frigid winter days to exchange stale air for fresh, regular visitors anticipate the pervasive smells of bleach and urine and take necessary precautions. The analgesic rub originally was designed for temporary relief of aches and pains, but the ritual of using it in my nose enables me to enter and greet my mother with compassion. Sometimes she doesn’t recognize me, and that leaves an ache that no balm or medication can soothe.

The Nursing Home

The building is a hundred years old and so are many of the residents. My father was born there in 1928 when the building was a hospital. After it became a nursing home, my grandmother died there, curled into a fetal position after several strokes. My eighty-seven-year-old mother occupies a tiny room down the hall. On good days when she can concentrate, she turns on her CD player and listens to her favorite artists: Lawrence Welk’s orchestra, Tennessee Ernie Ford, several religious selections, and her collection of big band music from the 1940s. She can’t remember how to use the remote control for the television, so the music is her daily companion.

Her room is simple. Furniture consists of a single medical bed, two antique nightstands from a home my parents once owned in Butte, Montana, her music table, and a wardrobe closet. Beside the unused TV sits a life-sized, wood carving of praying hands, a gift from my father after she “lost that one baby” seven years after I was born. Family pictures line the walls, and after she forgot our names I added colorful name tags to each photograph. There is a pendulum wall clock, perpetually tilted and five minutes slow. Two bookcases support scrapbooks, large-print novels, assorted knickknacks, and her Bible. A stained-glass dove hangs in the one window, and a smiling cloth doll in a frilly dress perches on the bed. A calendar on a small table notes that she is scheduled for a shower twice a week and her hair is curled on Wednesdays. My mother once lived in a mansion on a hill. Now she has one room with a private bathroom.

Visiting Mother

The room is tidy except for the scars on the corners of the wall where her wheelchair has rubbed as she maneuvers to get into the bathroom. She is completely incontinent, even after several failed surgeries to correct the problem, but she still attempts to get to the bathroom, often with disastrous results. If she falls, she pushes the call button hanging from her neck and the staff comes running to help and then lifts her back into her chair. They tried attaching an alarm to her chair so they would know when she moved out of it, but she stubbornly continues to attempt to stand. It’s that feisty spirit that keeps her alive. Though her body and mind are weak, her heart and motivation remain strong.

The rules at the nursing home are strict but understandable. No hot plate, no candles, no refrigerator. Her scissors were taken after she accidentally stabbed herself and needed stitches. Her three moments of daily adventure come when she wheels herself to the dining room for meals. She usually declines the games of checkers or Bingo after lunch and returns to her solitary room after finishing a typical meal of meatloaf, warm vegetables, and soft potatoes with creamy gravy. She has been a widow for twenty-five years and is well-accustomed to living alone. I visit at least twice a month, and she has a regular group of friends from her church and from her women’s association who stop by with cards and small gifts.

Hello, Mom

I enter her room with a cheery “Hello, Mom” and place a vase of flowers and a new air freshener on her table. She sits in her wheelchair, too weak to walk after breaking her back and her hip in separate falls. She looks sweet. Today’s outfit is a comfortable sweatshirt covered with appliquéd flowers, black knit pants, and sturdy black shoes. And imitation pearls. Always the pearls. She has a strand of real ones but hides them in a drawer because she says they are “too nice to use.” She glances up, focuses on my face, cocks her head, and then her eyes widen with a look of anticipation.

“You’re finally here,” she said. “I keep watching for you.”

“Yes, Mom,” I say as I kiss her cheek. “I’m here.”

“Did you bring soup?” she asks, her face hopeful.

“No soup today. It’s too hot outside. I promise to bring you some potato soup in the fall.”

Mom Loves My Potato Soup

She loves my potato soup, made with new spuds, fresh cream, browned sausage, celery, onions, spices, and mustard seeds. One of her favorite Bible verses describes how virtuous people can move mountains if they just have faith as small as a mustard seed. Her mountains haven’t budged despite a lifetime of adding countless seeds into every recipe.

I smile into the weathered face, take her eyeglasses and clean off the smudges, gently reshape the bent frames, and ease them over her ears again. She often falls asleep in bed wearing her glasses so they become contorted in various angles on her face. Today, her mood is agitated, and my filial offering of fresh flowers and clean, straightened glasses does not soothe her. She leans forward and whispers, “They took my quilt!”

“Your grandmother’s quilt?” I ask, looking quickly around the room. At almost every visit she rues the loss of one thing or another and every time the item is never really gone, just moved from its usual place.

“Yes! It was on my bed. And they took it.”

Where’s the Quilt?

I know this expertly crafted quilt, hand-stitched by my great-grandmother in the 1930s. She used one-inch scraps of my mother’s baby dresses to patiently sew each section and bind and pad the cover onto white cotton material. The quilt remained in my mother’s cedar chest for decades until I took it out and placed it on her bed in the nursing home. I thought it would make her feel more at home but she had been alarmed about using it.

“No, Elaine, put it back in the chest. I don’t want it out because it’s too good to use.”

“But it was made for you,” I said. “Why not enjoy it?”

“Because,” she said with an unexpected tone of firmness, “someone will take it.”

The quilt looked at home on the bed, a colorful and familiar splash in a drab environment. I didn’t fold and store it as she requested. I wrapped her bed with the quilt, smoothed the center and tucked in the edges. But now it was gone, just as she predicted.

Rather than acknowledge the possible theft of an old, hand-stitched heirloom, I comfort my mother and suggest that maybe the staff lost it. More than fifty residents live in the nursing home and the beleaguered workers do their best to feed and care for them as well as wash their laundry. I can only hope this was the case here, and that my great-grandmother’s handiwork remains somewhere inside this old building.

Gently rubbing her stooped shoulders, I try to sound reassuring. “I’ll go look. Be right back.” As a precaution, I slip the jar of mentholated cream into my sweater pocket.

I find the head attendant pushing a portable shower chair on her way to the shower room. For bathing purposes, the invalid residents are undressed, lifted onto the chair, and sprayed with warm water before being dried, dressed, and returned to their rooms. The staff attempts to treat each person with kindness, but the orderly system doesn’t provide attention to the resident’s dignity or personal needs. My mother hates shower day.

“Excuse me,” I interrupt the attendant. “Can I talk to you about my mother’s missing quilt?”

“Gotta go, hon,” she replies. “You should talk to the director.”

The attendant disappears into a room and I hear her cajoling a woman named Mildred to get ready. Mildred doesn’t want to go. The attendant closes the door and I assume the shower will soon take place. I turn to find the director’s office. We’ve never met because she’s new at the job, and my first impression is that she’s in her late twenties. My mother was the town’s matriarch before this woman was born.

“Hello, I’m Elaine, Leona’s daughter,” I say, stretching out my hand.

Miss Evans looks up from behind the piles of paperwork on her desk and sighs as if to acknowledge another family member with yet another complaint. She nods but doesn’t shake my hand or ask me to sit.

Search Continues for the Missing Quilt

“My mom’s quilt is missing, and I need to find it. Do you know where I can look?”

The director is young and has no idea why this quilt is so important. She also has no clue that my mother, the feeble old woman in Room 17, was once the matriarch of the town, or that a gentle pioneer woman patiently weaved tiny stitches through bits of cloth by light of a kerosene lantern.

“A quilt? Well, is her name on it?”

“No,” I reply. I’d thought about that when I placed it on her bed but hated the idea of marking the delicate fabric. “I didn’t want to write on the quilt.”

Miss Evans shakes her head and sighs again. “I can take you down to the laundry room,” she says. “You can go through all the nameless stuff.”

Nameless stuff. I wince.

Heels clicking on worn linoleum, I follow her through several hallways, down two steep staircases, and then down a ramp into the basement. Carved into the ground a century ago, the dark and dank room would never pass any official inspection today. Electrical wires hang exposed overhead, an old boiler sits useless in the corner, too big to extract, and several industrial washing and drying machines hum and rattle in another corner amid waiting lines of burdened baskets. Several bare bulbs hang overhead, casting low shadows in the corners of the windowless room.

“There,” she says, pointing to six long tables burdened with mounds of limp clothing and blankets. “This is where the nameless things go. It might be in there. Let me know if you have any trouble.”

And with that she leaves me alone in the basement surrounded by rejected artifacts. I don’t know if these items belong to someone still living or not. Most of the residents are incontinent, and despite regular changing and showers, many sit around in soaked adult diapers. The smell remains in the rooms, the hallways, and in the walls. I pat the cream into my nostrils and go to work. As I sort the garments, I practice Kegel exercises to strengthen my pelvic floor muscles and vow to visit the gym after I return. One pair of sweatpants equals five Kegels, a camp t-shirt requires ten. I regret not asking for gloves as I rummage through the dark pants with elastic waistbands and well-worn sweatshirts. I know these outfits; my mother wears this uniform, too. A few brightly colored, lacy blouses interrupt the mundane garments, and I imagine they were worn by spirited women who refused to wear more sensible clothes.

As I move from table to table, I consider the sights and sounds as well as the smells that had permeated the building through its various incarnations. From the hospital, I hear cries from newborn babies, and from the nursing home, sighs from the dying as they take their last breaths. The industrial kitchen somewhere overhead echoes through the vents with the clattering of pans, dishes, and non-threatening silverware. Every Christmas local church groups visit and choirs sing to residents huddled in wheelchairs and leaning on walkers. People bring little sacks of donated socks and hand lotion, the most requested gifts. Many of the decorations remain up all year.

I grew up in Wendell and attended the same schools as my parents before me. We even had some of the same teachers, and several of them ended their days at the Manor. At age eleven, I had a newspaper route and rode my bicycle every day to deliver papers to seventy customers. The Manor was on my route. I remember dashing in with the paper and seeing the elderly people sleeping in their chairs. The ones who were awake begged me to stay and talk.

“Hey, Missy,” said a man everyone called Shorty. “Why don’t you stop and chat. Did I tell you about the farm I had?”

“I can’t stop today, Shorty. I need to finish my route. Some day you can tell me about it.”

“Are you coming tomorrow?” asked a toothless woman with wispy patches of hair on her head. “Can you bring me some milk?”

I stopped and placed the newspaper in her lap. “Sorry, June, I can’t carry milk on my bike.”

I always hurried out the door and continued my route.

Now I’ve returned, forty years later, and my mother lives here, and the sights, sounds, and smells remain the same.

By the fourth table, I have the uneasy feeling that someone is watching me. I turn to study the room. Perhaps it’s just the century of spirits that return to see the place of their birth and death. Mysterious shadows caused by the hanging lights move over the walls in the far corner, cold and damp beneath a canopy of cobwebs. A faded, illegible chart is nailed onto a dusty bulletin board, and a stiff mop tilts from an empty bucket. One of the dryers stops and the loud buzzer makes me gasp. No one comes to empty it, and I don’t need another task. I move to the fifth table, laden with blankets and towels.

This one? No. This one? No. I find a few quilts, but not the right one. As I search, I consider taking one of the quilts just to convince her I had found it. But she would know. She can’t remember what day it is, but she knows that quilt. No, it’s not on this table either. One more table, it has to be here. With the determination of an explorer seeking lost treasure, I plunge my hands into the stack and begin to sort.

Why am I so driven to find the quilt? This fragile, patchwork fabric is a symbol of my family’s tattered, traditional history. After so much time and neglect, I can’t afford to allow any more reminders to be lost.

I find it.

Beneath the last lump of discarded remnants of strangers, I see the rumpled edge surrounding the cherished quilt made from dresses my mother wore as a toddler. I see patches of green and blue, red and yellow, black and red, and orange and white secured by a checked binding. The colors of the past are faded but familiar. I pull out the quilt and wrap it around my shoulders like a religious shroud. Cocooned in that dark, dank basement, I am a good daughter. My mother will be happy. I say goodbye to the room and to whatever spirits surround me and find my way back up to the light.

“Mom.” She is asleep in her wheelchair. I lean in closer. “I found it, Mom. I found the quilt.”

I pile it into her lap and guide her hands to the fabric. She arouses, smiles, and presses her face into the old quilt and mumbles something about my great-grandmother.

Then she notices me. “Oh, it’s you. Could you go get Elaine?” she says. “It’s time for school to be out.”

I leave the Manor and emerge into the sunshine. During the two-hour drive home, my mind is a patchwork of memories: lost wealth, calamity, a family fractured, with no chance of redemption. Once at home, I go to my storage closet and pull out several old photograph albums and my mother’s hand-written journals. I want to piece together all the unorganized scraps from my past and create something meaningful. I pour a glass of red wine, sit at the large table in my fresh-smelling kitchen, and open the oldest book, dated 1950, the year before I was born.

Reviews for Frozen Dinners

“Full of luscious details, clear-eyed compassion, and enduring joy, Ambrose’s memoir gives us an insider’s view of one family’s rocky pursuit of the American Dream. Even when she is relating personal stories of conflict, loss, and grief, Ambrose does so with a survivor’s voice made strong by experience, stubbornness, humor, and love.”

— Kim Barnes, Author of the Pulitzer Prize Finalist Memoir: In the Wilderness: Coming of Age in Unknown Country

“Elaine Ambrose and I share the need to write as a tangible expression of life’s milestones. This tell-all memoir, Frozen Dinners, will resonate with anyone who has endured family dysfunction and will defrost the hearts of readers everywhere.”

— Joely Fisher, actress, singer, and author of Growing Up Fisher

About Elaine Ambrose

Elaine Ambrose is an award-winning, bestselling author of ten books and a popular humorist, public speaker, viral blogger, and workshop facilitator. Her books have won six national writing awards in the past four years. Publishers Weekly reviewed Midlife Cabernet as “laugh-out-loud funny!” and Foreword Reviews wrote that the book was “an argument for joy” like Erma Bombeck. Her book, Midlife Happy Hour, was a finalist for Foreword INDIES Book of the Year for Humor. Her memoir, Frozen Dinners, was released in November of 2018. Elaine lives with her patient husband in Meridian, Idaho.

Elaine Ambrose’s ContactsFrozen Dinners Guest Author Elaine Ambrose


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