The kitchen timer Mom gave me is working once more. It had met a clumsy yet oddly appropriate end about two years ago, when I knocked it off the counter and into the bucket of bleach water I was using to mop the floor.
I cried out in dismay, and later cried actual tears. Yes, it was just a timer. But it meant something to me. It was a gift from my mother, during a time when I couldn’t talk about what was going on in my life – but she knew what she saw, and she must have guessed that what she couldn’t see was much worse.
Later I found from another relative that Mom had fretted about how hard I scrimped and saved while my then-husband got whatever he wanted. But I come from a long line of people who don’t talk about their feelings – or even feel them, for that matter, except as a vague disquiet.
We felt enough to know that we didn’t want to feel much deeper, because then we’d have to acknowledge that things were seriously amiss.
Only trying to help
Always the multitasker, I’d call her while I was spending part of a Saturday or Sunday folding laundry or cooking things to eat during the week. Or she’d call me, and when I answered she’d zero in on the noise of me stirring up a cake or the sound of ground beef sizzling in the pan.
“Hey, girl,” she’d say. “What are you cookin’ good?”
As I stirred and sautéed we would talk about everything except what was real. Looking back, I can see that she longed to get me out of there. Her diffident questions – “Any chance you and Abby can come see us at Christmas?” or “When are you going to take some time for yourself?” – were lifelines I chose to ignore. I couldn’t admit to anyone that my life was not working.
During one phone call I almost burned a pan of cookies because I forgot to check on them. Mom said she’d send me a timer like the one she just bought, with two separate settings so you could time two different dishes. I immediately said, “That’s OK, you don’t have to.”
That was my initial reaction to anything: I don’t need it. I’m fine, thanks. Additionally, I worried about the expense: Mom had been involuntarily retired for years and at that time had no money of her own. Until her Social Security kicked in, birthdays and holidays were major stressors.
But Mom insisted, and suddenly I understood: She was trying to make my life better. Since thousands of miles separated us, the best she could do was offer this token of her care and concern. So I accepted with thanks, and when the timer arrived I realized she was right: It really was a great help, and continued to be for years.
Took a licking, once again ticking
The timer was one of the things I made sure to grab when I fled my marriage. My mother had died, and the device represented one of the ways she tried to help me when help wasn’t something I’d admit to needing.
Its tumble into the bucket hit me hard. Yes, it was just a little battery-operated doodad, easily replaceable. But the gift was symbolic and its loss was, too. It felt like losing my mom all over again. Melodramatic, maybe, but I had learned to allow myself to feel those feelings, even when they hurt. It’s easier to embrace sorrow than to fight to keep it at bay.
And I laughed through my tears when I realized that the timer’s death was symbolic, too. My mom was an absolute clean freak, due to her at-times squalid upbringing. Her favorite fragrance was Clorox. How fitting, then, that her gift drowned in a bucket of bleach water.
I couldn’t bear to throw it out, so I left it magnetized to the side of the fridge. Last week it occurred to me that people’s cell phone sometimes work after being submerged. Maybe the timer had dried out, too.
I popped in a AAA battery and cheered when the digital display started blinking. Setting it for 10 seconds, I waited and watched and cheered again when the device began to beep.
How a timer saves me money
It’s not that I cook a lot of complicated meals. But timers are useful in so many ways. Some of these might work for you, too:
1. Laundry reminder. Without the timer, I’d probably forget to move the sheets and towels to the dryer, and then back upstairs from the laundry room.
2. Bus buddy. When I want to catch the 12:29 p.m. bus, I set the timer to ring at 12:19. That gives me time to shut down the computer, grab my bag and head to the corner. If you commute, set the timer so you don’t miss the carpool or public transit; showing up late to work is never a good idea, and in these times of tenuous employment you would do walk through the door five minutes early.
4. Utility watchdog. How long should a shower last? Set the timer for that amount, and obey it. This cuts the cost of water/sewer and electricity/gas.
5. Ergonomic boost. I set the timer for an hour and start writing. When it rings I get up to shut it off – and do some stretches. Fewer painkillers are consumed by people who don’t spend 10 hours hunched over a keyboard. Bonus: The less sore and exhausted you are the more likely you’ll cook dinner instead of ordering it.
6. Food-prep partner. When you come home with groceries, set the timer for half an hour (or what you think you can spare) and speed your way through as much preparation as possible. Simple tasks like boiling eggs, mixing up a double batch of meatloaf (cook half, freeze the rest), baking or grilling chicken breasts or pork tenderloin, cooking ground beef and freezing for later use in chili or sloppy joes, washing salad greens and grating cheese will give you the elements needed for easy lunches and dinners during the week.
7. Manic maid. Assemble your cleaning supplies, set the timer for 20 to 30 minutes, and clean as though someone were paying you to do it. If you can do this two to three times per week you might be able to fire your housecleaner (if you have one).
8. Workout taskmaster. Third day in a row without any exercise? Even if you’re tired, set the timer for 20 minutes’ worth of stretching, exercise biking, Wii Fit or whatever you’ve got. You will feel better afterward, both physically and mentally
9. Extremely efficient couponing. Set the timer for 10 minutes, gather your coupon sections and clip furiously. File everything you manage to cut out.
10. Scheduled relaxation. Reduce stress levels and improve overall health by doing meditation exercises or gentle yoga stretches a few nights a week. However, you probably shouldn’t use a kitchen timer for this. I tune my clock radio to classical KING-FM and set the alarm to have it go off in 20 minutes. A session designed to lower blood pressure should not culminate with a strident BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP.
Readers: Do you use a kitchen timer or your cell-phone alarm to keep you on task?