A practical inheritance: A bowl, a strainer, a brush, some tweezers, and sex

By Sandra Hutchison

While helping my mother clean out my 96-year-old grandmother’s house before and after she died at the beginning of this year, I was of course tempted by a number of items, mostly old tools. They became my grandmother’s legacy to me. But my favorite items are not what I would have expected.

My great grandmother’s bread bowl

Thelma’s mother set her bread to rise in this bowl. It’s not in perfect condition at this point but is clearly beautifully made (and easy enough to restore, when I get around to it). I used to make bread before I did the math and realized the increase in my electricity bill more than offset any savings in the bread budget. My current stove is gas, though, so one of these days I may actually use this bowl for its original purpose again. (Of course I have a solar roof now, so electric would save me even more money.) In the meantime, it holds just about anything that isn’t wet. In the picture above, it’s the temporary home for a stalk of flowering balsam my neighbor gave me for next year’s seeds.

This really ugly food mill

I actually bought one of these in shiny stainless steel some years back to help me process tomatoes. Maybe I didn’t know to adjust it or something, but it ended up trashing 90% of my tomatoes, so I happily ditched it in a garage sale when we moved (and warned the person who bought it that it might only be good for applesauce). But I figured I’d try again when I saw this in my grandmother’s kitchen and could see that it had clearly been used a lot. This one works like a dream, so homemade tomato sauce and tomato soup are finally in my repertoire.

A clothes brush

I only recognized this because of Downton Abbey. This is a cheaper version of the brush John Bates would use to clean Lord Crawley’s beautiful wool suits. All I can say is that I’ve finally found something to clean wool and fleece of cat hair that actually works! Yes, lint tape works, too, but it takes a lot and that stuff isn’t cheap. (And in case you haven’t already figured it out, those little red velvet lint “brushes” you may see for sale are just a good way to fill up the landfill with useless plastic.) Of course, the challenge for me is finding a cat-hair-free spot on which to brush clothes down.

Tweezers and scissors

I found a whole set of different kinds for personal grooming. No one ever warned me getting older would mean growing hair in places I never had before (and losing hair in places I had it, not that I mind that when it comes to my legs). I’ve reached the age when I occasionally just take a razor out and shave my face and neck, but plucking is way more satisfying — if I can just get a grip on the little buggers. Over the years I’ve accumulated innumerable cheap tweezers that have proven useless for anything but cleaning dirt from under my fingernails. Most of these hand-me-down instruments from Grandma’s house, on the other hand, actually do what they are supposed to. (Yes, of course, I gave them a good cleaning.)


Just kidding. Except not really. In the back room we found a stash of relatively wholesome old girlie watercolors that probably belonged to my grandfather. And in the bedroom, near the bed, we found a pretty heavy-duty electric vibrator. My mother was appalled and threw that thing away faster than I could say, “Hey, let me see that!” Still, I thought it was pretty cool that my grandmother’s libido had clearly persisted well into old age.

Of course, I’d had clues earlier, like when she gave me a bunch of really kinky science fiction novels by John Norman back in my teens. And just a couple of years ago she passed along a big bag of old perspiration-stained lingerie, as if she thought it was all too precious not to find new use. Then there was the time she insisted my mother take her recently-deceased last husband’s penis pump back to the urologist so someone else could use it. (Poor Mom!)

The young Thelma Mae Quick

In truth, Grandma Thelma was always a bit more hot mama than doting grandmother. She could be self-centered and manipulative (especially of my mother), and some of her lies stretched far beyond the social lies of the traditional Southern female. Yes, she could cook up great fried catfish or lima bean soup, but she didn’t do much other grandmotherly stuff. I never got the feeling she was aching for a conversation with me. It honestly surprised me to discover she’d carefully saved every card or letter or school photo or homemade gift she’d gotten from us over the years.

So we were never all that close, but she was still my grandma. In the end, she showed me what ninety-six years of fairly cheerful persistence looks like. I think I’ll take that as the most valuable gift of all.

Thelma and Sandra


Some time ago I promised a look at the first two chapters and then … nothing happened. I realized I wasn’t ready to share.

I’m still not, really. These two chapters are so rough I haven’t even opened the feedback from my beta readers on them yet. (For which I deeply apologize, beta readers.) I’ve had a weird reluctance to work on this novel since the semester began, and I’ve been indulging it. Sometimes you just know you need some distance from a project. (Sometimes you are also too busy teaching and figuring out things to do with way more garden produce than you ever expected.)

But I’m already a day late with a blog post this month, and I don’t have time to work up what I wanted to work up, so here you go, in all its glory. Consider it a peek at a writer’s work in progress and know that there may be wholesale changes before the actual book appears, including losing one or both chapters from the final version.

At this point this lovely cover by Damon Za is also subject to change.

What’s it about? Here’s the blurb, also subject to change: Hoping to recreate the serene and beautiful life she remembers before her mom left, Kathy gamely takes on her deceased aunt’s organizing business, not-so-organized house, and favorite employee, the handsome and hardworking Diego. But when their budding relationship triggers a cascade of disasters – including the discovery that he’s not the U.S. citizen he thought he was – Kathy will be forced to decide what she’s willing to let go, and what she’ll fight to save.

And here’s (the current!) Chapter One and Chapter Two:

Chapter 1 KATHY

Katherine White felt that everything in the world had a proper place, and that true happiness would follow naturally – she would attract the right man, have the right children, and live the right life – if she could just get everything put where it belonged.

She wasn’t sure why she believed this so passionately, but in her mind she always visualized the perfect life as a specific moment one Saturday afternoon when she was fourteen. Almost everything in the house had been cleaned that day, even the floors and the windows, and she and her mother were putting freshly laundered drapes back up in the dining room. Through the window her father waved at her and pointed at his pile of autumn leaves, flexing his muscles to show off his manly yard skills. Kathy had smirked at him and gotten down from the stepladder, only to stop, transfixed by the golden square of afternoon sun that lay across the old honey oak table, illuminating a basket of yellow chrysanthemums her mother had arranged earlier that day.

Her mother saw her stop. “Isn’t that beautiful?” she said. “Look at how those petals glow in the light! Doesn’t it just say come in, sit down, stay awhile?

And even though Kathy resented giving up her Saturday for all those annoying chores, she thought: YES. Yes, it was beautiful. Maybe there was even something heroic in cleaning a house and setting a table like that against all the disorder of the world.

Of course, not that long after that, Kathy’s mother had moved out.

Now twenty-four, Kathy was trying to make a living by creating beautiful moments of order and serenity for her clients, even if she hadn’t quite yet managed it for herself. She helped them get rid of what they didn’t need or want and put everything they did need or want in a place where it belonged.

Her phone erupted into the catchy beat of “I Need to Know” by Marc Anthony. Diego. She considered it an appropriate tune for him not only because he was Puerto Rican but because he always needed to know if she had any work for him.

Organize Your Life LLC had been her aunt’s before it was Kathy’s, and Diego had long been her aunt’s go-to for extra help. He was a young man who’d moved up from the city a few years back and, despite being hardworking and personable, had somehow never landed a full-time job. He’d never gone to college, so maybe it was that. Unfortunately, Kathy didn’t have enough work these days to keep herself fully employed, let alone Diego.

So that was awkward.

“Hey, there,” she said. Did he always call instead of text because his old flip phone made typing a pain? Or was it because he knew it would make it harder for her to say no?

“Hey! Just checking to see if you need me for any jobs in the next couple of weeks.”

“Well, I’ve got a couple of estimates today. I’ll know better after that.”

“Oh, good. I’ll hope to hear, then. Everything all right?”

“Yes, everything’s fine. I’ll let you know as soon as I can, okay?” she said, and added “Bye.” She didn’t ask how he was doing because he was probably hurting for money or he wouldn’t have called.

Also, she wasn’t sure how friendly she should be now that she was the boss.

Which was also awkward because they were the same age. Also, technically he’d been doing this work longer than her. After bringing Kathy into the business, her aunt had continued to give Diego parts of any project where it made any sense at all, even when it would reduce their profit on the job. When Kathy questioned this, Lucy said, “Honey, you’re going to need him when I’m not up to this anymore.”

Truth was, if Aunt Lucy hadn’t made Kathy promise to watch out for Diego, she might have taken the lawyer’s advice by now and farmed out all her extra labor to a firm that would manage its own payroll, its own insurance, its own bonding. Of course, those firms were also way more expensive, which could mean losing a contract or making less money. So it probably wasn’t just affection for Diego that had driven Lucy to stick with him.

And she’d been right in one very important way: Diego had been a great help with her aunt in her final illness. And he had refused to take any pay for any of it.

So, really, Kathy owed him.

Obligations were a kind of clutter, too, really.

Chapter 2 DIEGO

She’d sounded a little impatient, hadn’t she?

She was probably going to cut him loose soon. Maybe she already had and he was just refusing to accept it.

Diego wasn’t an idiot. He could tell Kathy was having some trouble getting enough new business. Everyone was struggling in this rotten economy. Supposedly 2010 had brought with it some improvement from the depths of the Great Recession, and supposedly the Capital Region with all its state employees had never suffered the worst, but it was still pretty damned grim. Even more so for someone like him.

He looked at his insurance bill one more time. Maybe he’d misread it.

Nope. It still said he needed to pay over almost a hundred more than last time. And this even though he hadn’t yet done what Lucy had told him to do – let the insurance company know he used the truck she’d given him for business. He’d held off on that. Thank God.

There’d been no tickets, no accidents, no claims, nothing. He’d already had it for over six months, after Lucy had decided it was too hard for her to get into anymore, let alone drive. It was old enough that he’d foregone comprehensive coverage, too.

So why the increase? Was it the address change? He’d only recently moved into his third-floor walk-up in downtown Troy because he couldn’t stand sharing that disgusting garden apartment in suburban East Greenbush for one more month. Both his roommates apparently thought it would be a pussy move to ever wash a dish or clean a toilet. They were always helping themselves to his food, too. And God forbid a man might favor the Mets over the Yankees.

So there hadn’t really been any choice. And this new space was bigger, even if it was mostly empty. Like a lot of the third floor walk-ups in Troy, his apartment had high ceilings, beautiful old woodwork, and noisy plumbing. It was not any cheaper than his old share of the rent, so he was hoping the heat would rise from the lower floors in the winter and save on the gas bill.

But at least it was all his. The landlord hadn’t asked a lot of questions. Even better, he let him park his truck in the driveway off the back alley and let him store scrap there, too, though he wouldn’t guarantee its safety. Diego stood up and looked down through the old rippled glass. Yep, still there. A full load didn’t bring much – maybe $70 bucks on a good day – but that was better than nothing.

In recent months his business, such as it was, had mostly consisted of occasional gigs with Kathy at Organize Your Life LLC, supplemented by driving around on trash days looking for scrap metal, and doing favors with the truck for guys he knew who might buy him lunch or a six-pack and occasionally even give him some cash. The organizing work and scrap metal paid some, and his part-time on-the-books job at a local convenience store paid a little more. Those friend favors were mostly a sucker’s game.

Now the scrap yards were warning him of new record-keeping rules, probably thanks to too many jerks ripping the copper and brass out of houses and parks and cemeteries and whatever they could get into. Once a friend had even asked to use his truck for one of those jobs. It blew his mind: This guy wanted to get paid good money to build a house during the day, and then get paid again by stripping it down at night.

Not a friend anymore, that one.

The thing was, if the yards started reporting his scrap sales to somebody, he was going to have to start declaring it in his taxes. There just weren’t that many different yards to spread the wealth around to. And would it still be worth doing, then? Probably not.

Lucy had been trying to get him to go on the books with all his income and expenses for years. “You need to pay social security taxes on it,” she told him. “If you don’t, you won’t have anything to live on when you retire. I know it’s painful in the short run, but in the long run….”

Poor, sweet, naïve Lucy. She’d always tried to play by the rules. It wasn’t like she ever got back any of the money she’d contributed to her social security. Not even a dime of disability before she died.

Fortunately, Kathy had been around to keep the business from shutting down completely and keep her aunt cared for.

He leaned back in his scavenged chair at his scavenged desk and let a prettier picture replace his memories of a skeletal Lucy. Kathy was a sweet girl. Attractive, in her own way. Not too skinny, not too boyish, with a nice round ass and beautiful long hair, though she usually kept it back in a ponytail. At first he’d thought her nose was a tragedy, but he’d gotten used to it. It had character. Sometimes he even thought it was cute.

Also, it was not like he was so swarmed with adoring women that he was going to get picky.

He knew he had decent looks. He caught women admiring him often enough. But it took money to really get any action. Seemed like they all wanted him to dress to impress. They all wanted to be taken out for food and drink and movies and shit. They all wanted to be given presents all the time. Having a girlfriend was like having to properly impress his mother on Mother’s Day and her saint’s day and her birthday practically every day of the week. Even his last girlfriend, the one he’d thought wasn’t all that demanding, he overheard telling a friend, “Hey, he’s a ride. You know?” He wasn’t sure whether she meant sex or transportation, hadn’t even been certain she was talking about him, but he hadn’t been able to muster any real enthusiasm for her from that moment on.

But, of course, to Kathy he wasn’t even a ride. He was just a convenient laborer her beloved aunt had inexplicably attached herself to. Kathy was always polite to him, always respectful, but she showed zero interest in him as a man.

She had begun to rely on him with Lucy, though. When he’d been there to sit with her aunt, she could get out, run errands, get some business done, tidy the house, or just take a break. She almost never called him up and asked him, no matter how much he told her she could, but she looked grateful whenever he showed up on his own.

And she’d made sure he felt welcome at Lucy’s funeral. He’d even been a pallbearer.

And there was still occasional work coming from her. Just not as much as he needed.

So he hoped those estimates panned out, and that they were big jobs that required some brute strength.

But they might not be. He looked at the city map he’d pinned to his wall. The next day was trash day on the East Side. Some people would already have theirs out. Might as well go see if he could find some scrap.

And I’m putting this out there just to let you know that yes, there really is another book coming someday. I promise. I just can’t promise when, exactly, yet.

If you want any tomatoes, however, come see me right now.