Friday, November 16, 2018

Sneak Peek: Elaine Ambrose's New Memoir, Frozen Dinners

     I'm very excited to share with you today an excerpt from Elaine Ambrose's new memoir, Frozen Dinners: A Memoir Of A Fractured Family. I've been waiting a long time for this book to come out, and now it has! Like me, Elaine is a humor writer, and I have throughly enjoyed reading her humor books, but the memoir intrigued me because it is unlike anything she has written before. There's so much good writing here, and I can relate to many of Elaine's experiences as well as her family dynamics. I loved the book, and I think you will, too. But don't just take my word for it---check out the excerpt below and order your copy today!

                                     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 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 ve 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.

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.

I enter her room with a cheery “Hello, Mom” and place a vase of owers 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.”

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.”

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.

“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...... 


Elaine Ambrose is an award-winning, bestselling author of ten books and a popular humorist, public speaker, 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” similar to Erma Bombeck. Her book, Midlife Happy Hour, was a finalist for 2016 Foreword INDIES Book of the Year and won two writing awards. Her bilingual children’s book, The Magic Potato – La Papa Mágica, was selected by the Idaho State Board of Education for the statewide curriculum and won the 2018 Moonbeam Children’s Book Award. Her memoir, Frozen Dinners, was released in November, 2018. One of her syndicated blog posts became one of the most-read posts in the history of The Huffington Post. Elaine lives and laughs in Meridian, Idaho. Find her books and blogs at


  1. Wow - this is powerful. I am winding right along with Elaine at the Director's response. Breaking my heart. My daughter has a real heart for the elderly, and she has opened my eyes to so much. Leona sounds like a wonderful lady, who has lived a life of faith and kindness. Thanks for sharing this, and thanks to Elaine for sharing her story.

    1. So many heartbreaking stories out there about homes for the elderly and the lack of proper care.

  2. This is the ignominious end we all hope to avoid. Some of us (me) are sure not to skip this stage.

  3. Ooooh, I hope she finds her mother's quilt!! I've read Elaine's books (not all) and have one in the cue. thanks for sharing this new one, Marcia. I used to work in a nursing home as a recreation attendant so understand some of the ins and outs of these places. And the smell, indeed. This is a heart touching story excerpt and I was visualizing my own mother's future while reading it.

  4. So much beautiful detail from a life lived in those few words. Masterful!

    1. Right? Happy to share Elaine's words here on the blog.

  5. Thank you, Marcia, for sharing my story. Mom passed away four years ago, and this chapter makes me cry. After the quilt experience, I moved her back to Boise to be closer to us. I still feel guilty about not moving her in with me, but she was in a wheelchair and I couldn’t lift her. She deserved so much more during her later years. Thanks, again.

    1. Our mother sounds like such a special woman--strong and brave. You were blessed to have her. Thank you for sharing your amazing story with me and my readers <3

  6. I love Elaine’s books! I started reading Frozen Dinners and found myself in an aura of mystery! Excited to continue reading to unravel this story! Great read and number one success at her first non humorous wrying, though you will still see her humor!❤️



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