A curse settled upon the ladies associated with the Jello brand gelatin dynasty of the early 1950’s. This is what Mary believed until it dawned on her much later that the true curse was patriarchy or male chauvenism—a world that enveloped her and millions of American homemakers thanks to a growing merchandising and advertising campaign. These campaigns spread images of the perfect American family eating Jello brand salads and desserts made by Mom that could be whipped up in no time, for any occasion. (Jello Girls)
The book, Jello Girls, by Allie Rowbottom, reminded me of a neighbor from a few years back whose pantry was stocked with the most incredible wall of Jello boxes I’d ever seen! Every flavor and ten or fifteen boxes of each. Every year she tossed the outdated ones, but couldn’t help but buy new boxes every time she went to the store.
“Do you even serve Jello to your family?” I ventured, helping her organize the pantry one lazy summer afternoon.
“Not much, but every once in awhile there will be a reason to make Jello for a picnic or barbeque or something. I just like to keep it on hand.”
Funny, but I didn’t remember that much Jello in my past. But then, we didn’t order magazines or watch much television to let us know that we SHOULD be eating Jello like the all American family.
I thought of her mother, a child of the Depression, and one of the sweetest women I’ve ever met. I imagined that, in spite of the incredibly tight times she endured bringing up her own family, Jello was probably affordable and versatile enough to always keep stock of. Maybe this wall of Jello was a comfortable reminder for Carla of her mother and family: times gone by. My friend Carla’s mother, Catherine, spent her life raising children while her husband worked outside the home. She sewed their clothes, cooked for them, decorated simply, yet provided all the charms of a Southern home. I met her when Carla, her husband, and three boys moved across the street from us. Watching the decline of Catherine’s husband, we knew it would be hard for her when he succumbed to whatever was snatching his bones, doubling him over, and making it hard to walk. Soon, Catherine became a widow, truly on her own. Her house went on the market and she moved into a small apartment where she could continue to be somewhat independent and drive short distances for groceries or to get her hair done. She wasn’t too far from Carla and family either, being especially close to Michael, Donny, and Albert, her precious grandchildren, all in their teens and twenties.
A day came when Catherine received a phone call from someone with the local police department. Donny had gotten caught with some drugs in the car and was now being held in the county jail. Donny got on the phone and asked his grandmother if she could please help and bail him out. He didn’t want his parents to know what happened. Catherine felt panicked, but agreed to do what she could. The sergeant took the phone and explained that they would need her to go purchase one thousand dollars worth of I Tunes cards, but not all at the same place; he told her where to go. Catherine had no idea what I Tunes cards were, but agreed to ask the clerks at the designated Walgreens to help her with this. She felt embarrassed, oddly determined to help out, but wouldn’t reveal why she needed them to anyone. The I Tunes cards had unique numbers on them and in order to be used, these numbers would be shared with the sergeant who agreed to call her back in two hours so he could transcribe them.
Carla meanwhile couldn’t understand why her mother wasn’t answering her phone. She sent her brother Bryan over to her mother’s apartment and when he reported that her car was gone, everyone began to worry. She had never disappeared like this before.
Upon Catherine’s return, Sergeant Nichols called back and took down all the numbers of the I Tunes cards that Catherine had purchased and then gave her some unfortunate news. Based on the pending charges, they would need more money to get Donny out. Catherine felt crushed. Her savings account after holiday shopping was very low on funds, and here she was, at eighty two, exhausted, and having to go back out and buy more I Tunes cards. Slowly, she headed back out to her car. It’s for Donny, she reminded herself. Suddenly she saw Carla’s number come up on her cell phone; she answered.
“Mom, where are you?”
“Carla, I’m at the apartment, but I’m about to run a few more errands, why?”
“We’ve been trying to call you all morning and you haven’t picked up! Bryan went to your apartment and saw that your car was gone. We’ve been worried sick about you!”
“Well, don’t worry, everything is alright. I’m very tired, but I’ll be back home in a couple of hours. We can talk then.”
Sensing something was awry, Carla asked her brother to camp out at the apartment to catch Catherine upon her return.
“Mom, what is going on? Where have you been?” Bryan burst out at her in the parking lot.
“Well, have you seen Donny lately?” Catherine asked, bustling onto the walk and unlocking her apartment.
“He’s at work, Mom,” Bryan replied, following her every step.
“Call him then.” Catherine said, almost accusingly, as she plopped her purse down, loaded with I Tunes cards and slumped into her small recliner.
Bryan dialed up Donny on his cell phone. Donny, in fact, was at work, would be off at nine p.m.
Catherine sat, looking confused. She wondered herself what was going on. The sergeant should be calling any minute now. Bryan pressed further until Catherine, sputtering, told him about the phone calls. She didn’t want Donny’s parents to know about the arrest, anyone really, and she had practically drained her account to get his bail money.
“You’ve been schnookered, Mom,” Bryan sighed, before calling the police and fielding the phony sergeant’s call, which, it turned out, would be difficult, but not impossible to trace.
About a week after that, Catherine was admitted to the hospital for respiratory distress. She never came home again. Carla felt that her mom became totally depressed about being taken with the scam. She could hardly look at any of her kids while lying in the hospital bed. Surely they must think she was an idiot. She had no way to know that many, many people are taken with scams like this every year, as unfortunate as it is. This scammer, I thought to myself, is a killer.
I want to remember Catherine’s sweet disposition. I can see her smiling and so very happy when she visited her grandchildren when they lived near me. She wouldn’t want to be remembered for falling victim to some scumbag’s scheme. I have a picture of her and Carla at Michael’s wedding. I sent it to Carla shortly after her call telling me the news. She thanked me. Since then, we’ve talked about how the boys are doing these days. I know she still reels with the loss of her mother, but we don’t dwell on that. Instead we mostly talk about familiar neighbors, and the good old days when they lived near my family. I think this is the best and only remedy I know of for now. Next time I might ask her if she still has a Jello wall in her pantry. If we can both laugh about that, I’ll know she’s going to be ok.