Photo by Gary Chan on Unsplash
“We’re out of trashbags” shouldn’t be a call to battle stations.
In most homes, it’s merely a reminder to update a list of some description. But in our home, my body tenses at those words.
“Shit,” my mom says. “Did Daddy hear?”
I look at my little sister whose job it is to take out the trash this week. In her defense, it’s not her fault. She’s done nothing but inform us that we need to place an order–we don’t “go” to the grocery store–but I’m annoyed at her because she shouted.
The floorboards creak overhead.
I look at mom and nod.
“It’s ok,” she says. “I’ll deal with it.”
My sister rolls her eyes and groans. “Why do we go through this!”
Mom kisses her head. “You did nothing wrong.”
“You know this is the very definition of dysfunctional, right!” she says.
“We’re out of trashbags?” my Dad asks as he enters the kitchen.
Now, my Dad is not a bad guy; in fact, I love the hell out of my Dad and I know with absolute certainty that he loves the hell out of all of us. But, my Dad, well, he’s a bit “gifted”.
“Yeah, don’t worry I’ll handle it,” my mom says nonchalantly, trying to diffuse the situation.
“You’re gonna look at the spreadsheet?” my Dad asks her.
There was a brief moment of tense silence.
“Does no one think it weird that we have a spreadsheet for trashbags!” My sister has a bravery I wish I had sometimes. She calls our Dad on his “weird” ways, but a small part of me fears she’s just like him–just on the other side.
She should’ve been born in the sixties.
In our house, we don’t make “lists”; we make spreadsheets. Matrices. We have a workbook named “Home shopping” and in it we have a tab for garbage bags, which we buy in bulk. We also have a tab for laundry detergent, skin cream, allergy medicine, butter/margarine, batteries (this tab is surprisingly simple. It reads: “No Rechargeables!”), and vitamins.
Ours is a complicated household.
I look at my mom’s face, and in this moment, for the first time in my semi-adult life, I realize just how wise she is. She weighs up odds like an options broker. Her mental algorithms are much faster and more accurate than any of the ones my Dad writes. She knows that all we want to do is order some damn trashbags without it turning into a family meeting, but she also knows my Dad. He struggles with the simple things.
“Which ones do we get again?” My Dad’s question is a test. He’s not trying to be an ass, and I know that if he understood just how hard his “gift” can make it for us sometimes, it’d cripple him, literally. Ok, maybe not “literally”, but definitely metaphorically.
My mom says this is just the way his brain works. He’s bought the wrong trashbags once before and so now he’s created a system that relieves him (and any of us) from making that mistake ever again.
“I don’t know, babe. Let me check the spreadsheet,” my mom replies smoothly. She’s used to this.
The workbook is password protected with 13 alphanumeric characters and symbols. We don’t know it by heart, not even my Dad knows it. An app remembers for us.
“You’ll need my laptop,” my Dad says.
“It’s saved on the cloud, remember?” Boom! Mom knocks that one Out. Of. The. Park. I would cheer for her, but it’s far too soon to celebrate.
Mom is trying to get us through this as quickly and as quietly as possible. Each time Dad makes a mistake, he catalogs it and we have to hear about it. He’s not hard on us. He’s like any other Dad in that regard, but he’s brutal on himself. So Mom knows if she has to go get his laptop, then he’ll simply launch into the story that was the catalyst for the “Trashbag” tab, or worse, the entire workbook.
I sometimes wonder why she’s stayed with him for this long.
Mom walks into the office and we all follow her. My sister looks at me and throws up her hands in frustration. She hates these moments, but knows if she leaves now, there’s a chance she might get pulled back in to hear about the lack of credibility in expiration dates or something.
I pull her in for a hug and kiss her head. She doesn’t reciprocate, but she doesn’t push me away either.
It takes a moment for mom’s laptop to launch.
“Is it always this slow?” my Dad asks.
This is not a trick question, and mom knows this so she answers honestly.
Dad tells Ahab (the AI box he’s built for our home) to remind him to buy mom a new laptop. She starts to say she doesn’t need one, but that’s going to launch a conversation that might result in the creation of a new tab on the spreadsheet.
She stops while she’s ahead.
We wait while she types in the password to her laptop, then launches Numbers, then launches the app where all our important home passwords and notes are kept.
Mom enters another password into the app, answers a security question, then waits for her phone to buzz with a one-time pin. She enters the pin into the password app. An image of a vault door unlocking and swinging open animates across her screen.
She scrolls down the password app to “Home shopping”, copies the password to the clipboard and then pastes it into the Numbers workbook.
It opens immediately.
“Scroll over”, my Dad instructs her, but she’s already passed “Laundry detergent” and clicked on “Trashbag”.
There are a total of five different brands that they have purchased at various points in their lives together, and my Dad employs six different considerations for choosing one: Price, Durability, Drawstring, Capacity, Shape, and Feedback/Rating.
I study the spreadsheet over mom’s shoulder. “There!” I exclaim triumphantly.
“Order 5,” he suggests and then leans over to kiss mom’s neck before he leaves.
“Thank you,” he shouts back to her as he starts up the steps.
I like to think his gratitude isn’t for the simple transaction of actually purchasing the trashbags, but for the ritual we’re forced to go through each time we run out.
Mom opens the grocery store app in her web browser. She goes to our favorites list. She and I both knew the trashbags we order was there this entire time, but Dad doesn’t trust those lists. Once he got (and paid for) a carton of orange juice he swore he never added to his cart.
Mom inhales sharply.
I peer at the screen.
“What now?” my sister gripes.
Out of stock, the screen reads.
“Tampon run?” mom says.
I nod vigorously.
“Tampon run” is a euphemism for let’s get the hell out of the house as quickly as possible before something as innocuous as out-of-stock turns into a 2-hour documentary on the leading producers of methane gas.
Mom looks at my sister to see if she wants to come. Tampon runs aren’t obligatory, but they are a godsend to anyone who’s had to sit through one of my Dad’s tangents.
She rolls her eyes, but says “Let’s go.”
Mom grabs her purse and tells Ahab to deliver a message to Dad: “We’re off to the store. Need tampons.”
She has us in the car and the engine on when her phone rings. It’s Dad.
“Babe?” she says holding her breath.
“Why don’t you pick up some trashbags while you’re out.”
A smile spreads across her face.
“You got it!” she says.
We pull out of the driveway in silence, each in our own separate thoughts.
“You know this isn’t normal, right?” my sister says from the backseat.
I look over at my mom and catch the glimpse of worry that flits across her face.
“It is for us,” I say.
My mom puts her hand on mine as she pulls out into traffic.
“Thank you,” she mouths.