There was a time in my life when I thought I’d never have to buy sugar again. But there I was in the grocery store last night pulling a name brand box of sugar packets off the shelf and placing it in the basket with a rueful smile on my face.
My mother was obsessed with sugar for two reasons: she loved stealing sugar packets from the nursing home to give me and unfortunately over time developed a crack-like addiction to using the artificial sweetener Equal in her coffee. (I’ll save the Equal story for another time.)
While living in the nursing home, she’d get the standard (2) white packets of sugar with every meal and since she never used real sugar in her coffee, she strangely started saving the sugar for me because she knew that I used it in my morning coffee. She proudly told me on more than one occasion, “You’ll never have to buy sugar again.”
I can’t recall how it all started, but it became our routine every Tuesday and Thursday that she’d secretly hand me a little plastic trash bag filled with sugar along with an occasional package of cheese crackers. The contents of the bag grew overtime to include various flavors of jelly for my breakfast toast along with peanut butter, miniature packs of Oreo cookies (a special commodity indeed) and eventually the little plastic dosage cups that held her daily medicine.
She continued to gather. I think in her mind she felt this was her way of giving back to me because she couldn’t offer me anything tangible other than her love and the condiments she stole from the nursing home. The funny thing with my mom’s obsession with sugar is she didn’t see any harm in taking something that the nursing home wasn’t going to miss. “Those bastards just throw it away if no one uses it. What a waste! Why can’t I just give it to you?”
Yet she would rant and rave if one of the poor afflicted elderly folk cursed with Alzheimer’s took more than their fair share of snacks to store in their nightstand. She’d vigilantly keep watch for known offenders and promptly report them to the nursing staff if she saw them coming out of the kitchen area with bulging pockets and boxes of Mott’s apple juice in each hand. She’d complain, “That’s meant for everyone!” while at the same time taking four sleeves of chocolate chip cookies to give to me later when no one was looking.
Eventually she started seizing other resident’s leftover condiments and what was once a small trash bag grew to a CVS-sized plastic bag filled with wonders. In time her friends would give her theirs and my sweet bounty grew. I absolutely detested receiving the bag of goodies every time I visited the nursing home because it meant that I’d have to take the bag home and sort through everything to find a place for it. In time my kitchen cupboards became engorged with sugar and jelly packets. I had so much of the stuff that I swore I’d never have to buy sugar again. (I secretly feared that someone would think me a hoarder were they ever to open a cabinet and see just how many sugar packets I had.) It got so bad that I found myself storing the sugar packets in the most unusual of places such as my blessedly deep unused lobster pot in the basement.
You might wonder why I never just threw the bags of sugar and jelly away? If you knew my mother, the thought would never cross your mind. Somehow had that motherly knack of catching me in a lie. She had the keen ability to inquire after a gift she’d given me some five years ago and there would be hell to pay if I couldn’t reproduce said gift immediately. She dealt out guilt as easily as she gave me sugar packets and it was never a line I wanted to cross with her.
The worse bag sorting were the times when my mother grew lazy and I’d become complacent. She’s place empty soda cans inside the bag without having first washed them so that the liquid spilled out and collected in the bottom of the bag. She’d sometimes put slightly opened packs of jelly in the bag which would attach itself to the white sugar packets to become a sticky mess. There were more times than I care to admit that sticky hands got the best of me because I forgot to look inside the bag before I reached in to begin sorting.
Because I took on the responsibility of doing her laundry, she’d sometimes forget and throw a dirty bra of hers in the bag alongside the sugar and jelly packets. At times sorting through the bag was so overwhelmingly irritating that I’d just leave it in a basement corner to deal with later. It was only when my mother complained that someone was stealing her bras that I’d think to look in one of those discarded bags to find the missing bra soaked with grape jelly and remnants of Coca-Cola.
I tried to explain to my mom without hurting her feelings that I didn’t need anymore sugar. She’d stop for a few weeks in sullen protest and I’d have a reprieve, but eventually she’d start collecting again because she must have reasoned my sugar supply was getting dangerously low.
By sheer coincidence I found an outlet for the ever-accumulating dosage cups in the most unlikely of places-my mother’s hair stylist. During one visit, I was teasing my mother about my black trash bag filled with cups when her hairdresser offered to take them for her daughter’s classroom because they were the ideal size to hold paint for art class projects. I was delighted.
But the glow of usefulness quickly turned to irritation because I would catch hell from my mother on the rare occasion that I would forget to bring the accumulated bag of dosage cups to her hair appointment. And I must admit that sometimes I forgot on purpose because I could clearly see that my mother’s growing collection of pill cups was slowly overwhelming the Leicester school system. Our kindly stylist just couldn’t bring herself to say, “Gloria, enough is enough.”
My mother-in-law also helped by bringing the sugar packets and jelly to a local women’s shelter. She raved about how useful these things would be for the battered women, but I was doubtful that a little raspberry jelly would ease their distress. It did, however, free up a few containers in my kitchen and to my mind was the most important gift of all.
After my mother died and I began the painful process of sorting through her possessions, I began to get a leg up on my inventory of sugar packets. I ended deciding to just let go and found myself heaving shopping bags filled with sugar packets, jelly and cups into the trash feeling guilty for throwing away something perfectly useful, but knowing perfectly well that I still had more than enough to last me for quite a long while—or so I thought.
It wasn’t until two months ago when I went searching for another stash of sugar packets that I realized I had finally run out. It was inevitable that I dealt with the expected sadness and grief in knowing that once again my mother was right: “You Can Never Have Too Much Sugar.”