My Scrambled Nest

An Almost-Empty Nest Journey of "Letting Go" With Laughter and Love, By Cathy Free

Remember the 25-pound bag of rice that my son insisted on buying at Costco two months ago when I took him shopping for new apartment supplies for him and his two roommates? Remember how I bet him 20 bucks and a rice-and-beans family dinner that half of that rice would still be there by New Year’s Day?

Guess what, people? I peeked in his pantry the other day when he wasn’t looking and THE BAG HAS NOT EVEN BEEN OPENED. He hasn’t boiled enough rice to feed a goldfinch! We had a little “conversation” and it went something like this:

Mom to Son (casually leaning against his kitchen counter): “Oh, I almost forgot to tell you — I picked up a great rice cookbook for you at the bookstore the other day. I’ll give it to you the next time you drop by.”

Son: “Hmmmm. OK. Thanks. But that really wasn’t necessary.”

Mom: “Au contraire. You and the guys must be getting SO tired by now of rice and beans. This cookbook has recipes for Caribbean chicken and rice, Puerto Rican rice, Cajun sausage and rice and sizzling Chinese rice soup. There’s even a recipe for Indian rice pudding. Damn. I probably should have picked one up for myself.”

Son: “Well, you could keep that one. There’s nothing wrong with rice and beans. We’re seriously doing fine.”

Mom: “Oh, no — this is a gift for you! I’ll just borrow it, sometime. You know, I’ll probably have to take you shopping for another bag of rice soon, because once you guys try these recipes, you’ll be going through rice like Greeks at a double wedding.”

Son (smiling): “I seriously doubt that.”

Mom: “Black rice cakes, wild rice soup, Indonesian sticky rice, rice salad, Italian saffron rice …”

Son: “OK, I get it! Enough with the rice. I’ll look through the cookbook. But we’ll probably end up sticking with rice and beans.”

Mom: “Rice with black beans, rice with kidney beans, rice with lima beans…”

Son: “Arrrrgh. Would you STOP!”

Mom (bursting into laughter): “You haven’t touched that rice yet, have you?”

Son: “Nope.”

Mom: “Why not? Are you holding out for the apocalypse?”

Son (laughing): “Something like that. Actually, Ben also bought a big bag of rice. We’ve been using that. Can that count towards the bet?”

Mom (lightly giving son the “Elaine Benis shove” from “Seinfeld”): “Get out! No way! Only one 25-pound bag of rice is allowed per bet! And said bag has to be one that I actually bought for you. Yup!”

Son: “Well, I still have three months. I can still win that bet.”

Mom: “Only if you invite 500 people over for jambalaya. Want the cookbook?”

Son (deeply sighing): “All right. I’ll take the cookbook. Do you have a rice cooker I can borrow?”

Mom: “Only if I’m invited for dinner.”

Son (sighing more deeply): “OK. Deal. But only on a night when I don’t have to study.”

Mom: “In other words, never?”

Son: “Well, I do study a lot. But maybe on a Sunday sometime.”

Mom (hugging son): “Perfect! Middle-eastern rice with chicken and olives?”

Son: “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Whatever.” 😊❤️


I’ve been so busy living my life lately that I haven’t taken much time during the past several weeks to sit down and write about it. Two excellent movies that I saw over the Labor Day weekend, though, finally inspired me to carve out some time for an overdue blog post.

First, I sneaked away to see “BlacKkKlansman,” Spike Lee’s extraordinary true-life film about Ron Stallworth, the first African-American detective to serve with the Colorado Springs Police Department in the 1970s. Working with a friend who was an undercover narcotics detective, Stallworth infiltrated and exposed the Ku Klux Klan, even speaking regularly over the telephone with the hate group’s leader, David Duke.

Although entertaining, Lee’s film more importantly provides a searingly honest and uncomfortable glimpse of racism in America. Halfway through it, I started to cry, realizing how little had changed in four decades. In fact, in many ways, the situation today seems much worse, with white supremacists again marching openly, hate crimes in the headlines almost daily and a Hater-in-Chief in the Oval Office, firing off every insult that enters his head with no thought or care about the outcome. I climbed into my car for the drive home feeling shell-shocked and angry, wondering what it will take to finally put the battles of racism and sexism behind us. Hasn’t this country learned anything from the past?

At that moment, there was only one person I wanted to talk to: my mom.

Until she became ill and required a care center, my mother was my most frequent movie companion, especially if the films involved history, true crime or controversy and caused those who viewed them to stop popping Milk Duds into their mouths and think about what they ultimately meant. Although my mother’s body is no longer active, her mind is still running on full steam most days. She listened intently as I told her about the movie and showed her photographs of the real-life Ron Stallworth on my iPhone. Then she reached out for my hand and squeezed it tightly.

“It’s a hard time,” she said, “but you can’t give up. One day at a time, everyone has to make a difference the best way they can. Nobody can solve all the world’s problems, but everyone can show kindness to even one person.”

Comforted by her optimism, I smiled through my tears all the way home. Then two nights later, I stopped by my mom’s room at the care center again, this time to watch “RBG” — the award-winning CNN documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, our country’s first female Supreme Court justice. My mother had wanted to see it for months.

Over plates of her favorite Florentine ravioli, we watched raptly as a young Ginsburg took on gender equality, encouraged by her husband and longtime love, Marty, who died eight years ago. We cheered as she was appointed to the high court by President Bill Clinton, laughed at her reaction to skits about her on Saturday Night Live and shook our heads in amazement at footage of her working out with weights at age 85.

“Hang in there, Ruth — we need you,” said my mother as the end credits rolled. I looked at her, propped up in her bed, enthusiastically waving her black cane in the air, and smiled.

“Hang in there, Mom — we also need YOU,” I said, kissing her forehead. That evening, I drove home with Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” pounding from the speakers and my mom’s longtime mantra echoing in my head:

“Never give up. Never give in.” ☺️❤️🦉










What an honor it is today to wish my mother, Joy, aka “Snowy Owl Woman,” a happy 78th birthday. Last November, when doctors diagnosed her with sepsis, gave her two or three days to live and whisked her into her hospice, my three siblings and I never could have imagined that we’d be buying birthday presents and cards this week for our mom.

It’s now been 261 days since I acted on a hunch and asked a mobile phlebotomist to come to my mom’s care center on the day after Thanksgiving to give her a blood test, confirming my suspicion that she wasn’t actually dying. Although she’s now back on hospice status due to a nasty bed sore, my mother is doing well — so well, in fact, that she’s asked me to bring her a bottle of good whiskey today in celebration.

Of course, I’m more than happy to oblige. I’ll also be taking her a dozen dark chocolate cupcakes, a new bottle of perfume (Dior’s J’adore Joy) and a Donald Trump Balloon Baby T-shirt, since she’s been coveting mine. : ) The best gift, though, is the one that my mom has given our family: 261 more days of stories, smiles and laughter; 261 more nights of falling asleep knowing that our beautiful Snowy Owl Woman is alert, talkative and happy, not yet ready to take flight.

Happy Birthday to you, sweet mother of mine. The past year hasn’t been an easy one, but you’ve risen above the sadness and uncertainty. You’ve shown us all how to shine.







Daughter to mom (at the mall): “Seriously? You’re buying ANOTHER pair of clogs?”

Mom: “Yes, I am. They’re comfortable. And I always buy a new pair of shoes before school starts.”

Daughter: “But you’re not going back to school. I am. We’re supposed to be shopping for ME.”

Mom: “And we are, m’dear. But I have to do SOMETHING while you’re trying on every pair of platforms and boots in the store.”

Daughter: WhatEVER. So could you possibly find those in a more garish pattern?”

Mom: “Well, I tried, but they’re fresh out of day-glo green with purple unicorns. So ‘flower child’ it is. Bother you much?”

Daughter (laughing): “Actually, yes. Can you not wear them in public?”

Mom: “Hmmmmm. Doubtful, but I’ll think about it. First, though, how about a ‘cheese-on-a-stick’ and lemonade in the food court? That way, you can run into everyone you know while you’re out with your mother.”

Daughter: “Yes! To the cheese stick, not the other stuff.”

Mom to shoe clerk: “Sir, would you mind putting my old shoes in the box?” She smiles sweetly at her daughter and slips into her new clogs. “I’ll be wearing THESE home.”


Has it really been 34 years since I pulled my favorite silky pink shirt off the hanger, took it into Earl Scheib Auto Painting in downtown Salt Lake City (at a time when a car could be transformed for $99) and handed it to a perplexed painter with flecks of blue and white in his beard?

“THIS is the color I’m hoping for,” I’d told the guy after making the decision to give my 1972 Volkswagen Beetle a much-needed facelift. “Not hot pink. Not peachy-pink. Not fuchsia or rose or flamingo pink. I want cotton-candy pink. Do you suppose you could help make that happen?”

It was 1984, and I’d recently bought my third Beetle from a friend for $600 after selling my beloved burgundy-wine ’77 Corvette. Although I adored the ‘Vette, (silver leather interior, removable T-top panels, a deep and sexy vroom) the insurance premiums were outrageous, not to mention the gas bills. And when covering police stories for The Salt Lake Tribune, it felt odd to roll up to a crime scene like one of Charlie’s Angels. A Corvette was far too flashy and conspicuous. 

What I needed was a pink Volkswagen. 

When I held the shirt out to the auto painter, he backed up a bit in horror. “Pink? You want me to paint your car PINK? Are you sure? PINK?”

“Absolutely, I’m sure,” I told him. “Look at my car now, all splattered with gray primer. THIS will be an amazing improvement.”

“Hmmmmm. Really? I kind of like the gray,” he said. “We have lots of gray shades. Or maybe blue. How about baby blue?”

“My LAST Bug was baby blue,” I replied, exasperated. “And the one before that was forest green. This time, I’m thinking pink.”

“Well, look I’ve been here eight years and I’ve never painted a car pink,” he said. “Never. But it’s your money. Honestly, I should charge you extra since I’ll have to mix it up special. Plus, I’ll be going home tonight covered in pink paint. How do I explain that one?”

“That’s up to you,” I said. “Confident men have no problem wearing pink. My boyfriend has a pink necktie.”

“Oh, all right,” he said with a sigh. “Pink it is. Come back in two days at 5 and it’ll be ready. I’ll keep your shirt for now to make sure I get the right color.”

He did not disappoint. Two days later, I let out a squeal of delight when he rolled out my curvy Beetle, adorned in its shiny new coat. The heater ran nonstop and there were still large rust holes in the floor, but on the outside, my sweet Bug was blushing like a new bride. The perfect shade of cotton candy pink.

And as an added bonus, I never again had trouble finding my car in the parking lot.




Mom to son (inspecting the Victorian apartment he is now renting with two friends near the University of Utah): “So all of the bedrooms are in the basement? Is there a fire escape? Do the windows open?”

Son: “How should I know? We just moved in.”

Mom: “OK, I’ll go check.”

Son: “What? Why? We’ll be fine!”

Mom: “But what if there’s a fire? Or an earthquake? What if you have a loud party and need to flee the cops in the middle of the night?”

Son (exasperated): “That was YOUR life. Trust me, we’ll all be too busy studying.”

Mom (walking downstairs to son’s room): “Hmmmm. OK, but I’d still like to check.”

Son (rolling his eyes): “Whatever! You’d better not break that window.”

Mom: “Well, it’s a little rusty, but it opens. That’s good. But this house was built with Victorian people in mind. They were actually quite slender without all of their bustles and fussy hats and overcoats. This is a small window. Maybe we’d better see if you can fit through it.”

Son: “No way! You’re too paranoid! It’s FINE!”

Mom (looking in another bedroom on her way upstairs): “It looks like Ben’s window is plenty big. So THIS is your escape route. Got it?”

Son: “Whatever! Would you stop? We’re not going to burn the house down!”

Mom (peering into the empty fridge upstairs): “Well, a fire certainly won’t be started by any of you cooking. I can see that. How about if I run and get you some groceries?”

Son: “We’re fine! We’ll just eat at the coffee shop across the street in the morning.”

Mom: “But what about TONIGHT?”

Roommate No. 1 (entering kitchen): “I have a case of Top Ramen.”

Roommate No. 2 (shouting from the living room): I have a couple of cans of chili.”

Mom: “All right then, I guess you’re all set. That’s too bad because I was thinking of going to Crown Burger to get burgers and milkshakes so you won’t starve on your first night.”

Son and roommates (in unison): “Really? Sweet!”

Now that I’ve just shared an early supper with my son and his two friends (they’ve known each other since kindergarten), I can say without a doubt that the old Irish proverb is true: “Laughter is brightest in the place where the food is.”

Are you looking to have a meaningful conversation with your 20-year-old son after he’s just moved into his first apartment? Food, people. Food!


It’s been exactly one year since we moved my son into his dorm at the University of Utah for his first year of chemistry studies. Now, after two months of living at home over the summer, we’ll be moving him again tomorrow into a three-bedroom Victorian apartment that he’ll be sharing with two friends. Although I’m sad that his sunny room will be empty again (most likely permanently this time), I’m excited for my kiddo to truly fly on his own. In a tight rental market, he and his pals lucked out in finding a place on a tree-lined street just blocks from the university, with a killer coffee shop across the street and a bus stop outside the front door. And as an added bonus, I know the neighborhood well.

Thirty-five years ago, I used to live here.

Two blocks down the street is a 12-unit apartment building where I lived for about four months in 1983. “Why such a short time?” you might wonder, and there are two reasons: First, I found out after moving in that I had several dozen “houseguests” — cockroaches that traveled up my kitchen sink pipes at night. Secondly, I had a landlord who was certifiably nuts.

The roaches were disgusting enough, but they gave me an excuse to avoid cooking the entire time I lived there. The rental market was even tighter than it is now, and I felt lucky to have the apartment after my previous building was bought by a new owner who upped the rent, forcing almost everyone out. Since I was rarely home and ate most of my meals out anyway, I figured that as long as the roaches didn’t venture into the bedroom, I could deal with it until my six-month lease was up.

What I didn’t anticipate was that I’d end up with a landlord who took management lessons from Norman Bates.

“Crazy Bob,” as other tenants called him, seemed nice enough when I paid my first month’s rent and signed my lease. Retired and in his late ’60s, he was a wiry man with a fringe of gray hair, who always wore high-water plaid pants with a black leather belt cinched a few notches too tight. I soon learned that he had one cinched around his brain as well. Because Bob lived down the hall, there was no avoiding him, even when I’d come home late from my job at The Salt Lake Tribune. His lights were always on and his door was often open, and I’d sometimes catch a glimpse of him sprawled in his recliner, beer in hand, watching television as I hurried to my apartment.

One night, about six weeks after I’d moved in, Crazy Bob followed me down the hall, obviously drunk. “Why didn’t you pay your rent! You owe me back rent plus a late fee!” he shouted.

“What are you talking about? I already paid you and my rent isn’t due for two more weeks!” I replied, exasperated. I quickly ducked inside my front door and locked it. He pounded on the door a few times and shouted something about taking me to court, then stumbled back to his apartment. I was more angry than frightened and decided that if he did it again, I’d call the police. Sure enough, three nights later, he was back. “Where’s my rent! Pay up or I’ll evict you!

“Go suck a lemon!” I told him, slamming my door. I called the police, who showed up in 15 minutes, but Bob told them it was a “simple misunderstanding” and that he’d confused me with another tenant, who was behind on her rent. He apologized and seemed sincere, promising that it wouldn’t happen again. I figured, “This guy is wacko, but since I called the cops, he’ll now leave me alone.” And for a while, he did. But then, two months later, he again followed me down the hall and banged on my door. It was late and I was tired, so I pushed a chair under the doorknob and went to bed, thinking that I’d deal with it the next day, when I came home from work.

Then, the next night, trudging up the stairs and down the hall, I found something attached to my doorknob: A metal “lock-out” device that prevented me from opening my door. “What the f*$#!”

Livid, I went to Crazy Bob’s apartment, which was unusually dark, and pounded on the door. When there was no answer, I borrowed a neighbor’s phone and again called the police, who finally convinced Bob to open his door and remove the lock. That did it. I decided to move. Late that night, I drained my waterbed from my second-story window, boxed up my books and records and tossed anything that I didn’t want into the kitchen. Then I crumbled up some graham crackers and poured a half-gallon of milk over everything to draw out the roaches, and drove over to a friend’s house for the night. The next morning, after phoning in sick to work, I found a new apartment in the Avenues and a boyfriend with a pickup truck helped me load everything up and move.

“Hey! Where the hell do you think you’re going?” Crazy Bob demanded on one of our trips down the stairs. “You have a lease! You’re in violation of your lease! I’ll take you to court!”

“Oh, yeah? Go for it!” I shouted back. “And while you’re at it, kiss my ass!”

He never sued me, of course, and thankfully, I never saw him again. I smiled with relief when I met my son’s landlord, a professional man with a warm demeanor who favors khaki shorts to high-water polyester pants. “He’s a good kid — take care of him,” I said, shaking his hand.

“No worries,” he replied with a wink as my son rolled his eyes. “I learned a long time ago that it’s always best not to piss off the parents.” : )


It’s been seven months since my mother, Joy, was given a “death” sentence by doctors and told that she had three to five days until sepsis would stop her heart. As most of you know, that didn’t happen. Following a hunch, I ordered an independent blood test for my mom and learned that she didn’t have sepsis, but extremely low potassium, which also would have killed her if I hadn’t called an ambulance and pulled her out of hospice.
Fast-forward to late June. Although she is once again a hospice patient due to neglect at a care center that didn’t properly treat a nasty bed sore, you’d never know that my mother had “weeks to months” to live. Snowy Owl Woman has outgamed the system and continues to defy the odds. Although her bed sore will never completely heal (thus the second “hospice” classification), she’s been enjoying outings to a nearby park and bird-watching in her wheelchair; movie marathons on the big screen in her room and plates of homemade lasagna and chocolate cake baked by moi.
Once or twice a week, I bring my mom a fresh supply of whole-grain bread with high-quality olive oil and balsamic vinegar to dip it in, so she won’t have to eat the unhealthy white bread served at her new care center. She is otherwise treated wonderfully in her new digs, so I really can’t complain. Buying a fresh loaf of bread from a bakery is a small price to pay for having my mom here to share more stories about her life, more laughs, more opinions about the current political situation in the USA. (In case you’re wondering, she’s as livid and baffled as I am.)
Three days a week, we watch Hitchcock movies and classic westerns together (another of her faves), and I read a new chapter to her from one of my French mysteries or travel books. But for the past three months, we’ve also shared another routine: Every two weeks, I give my mother a manicure, trimming her nails, oiling her cuticles and allowing her to choose from an array of polishes brought from home. (Remember the old Palmolive ads? Just call me “Madge.”)
Thus far, my mom has been pampered with Chanel’s “Vamp,” “Savage Pink” by Yves St. Laurent, Smith & Cult’s “Peaceful Paranoia,” Bobbi Brown’s “Dark Chocolate,” OPI’s “Queen of D’Nile” and Essie’s “Sand of a Beach.” I’m saving “Teal the Cows Come” for a future visit. (BTW, exactly how does one go about getting a job naming nail polish?)
When it’s time for her next sugarcoating, I plan to take her the perfect shade of alien grey and top her nails with miniature flying saucers. Apropos, no?
Of course, I’ll also need a copy of “Alien,” the movie. 😉👽

After several months of Hitchcock movies with an occasional Sherlock Holmes mystery thrown in for good measure, my mom surprised me at her care center over the weekend with a special request.

“What are the chances of seeing ‘All the President’s Men‘” again?” she asked. “I haven’t watched it since it came out in the ’70s.”

The odds were 100 percent in her favor, I happily told her, since I’d recently bought a new copy to watch as a double feature with “The Post.” So yesterday afternoon, I put on my favorite t-shirt (“Journalist — I’m Not Fake, But My President Is”), picked up a couple of smoothies and settled in with her on a hot afternoon to watch Woodward (Robert Redford) and Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) take down Nixon while my cell phone was lighting up with alerts from The Washington Post and The New York Times about Donald Trump tweeting that he has the “absolute right” to pardon himself.

When I told my mom about the alerts, she rolled her eyes. “He should do something to himself all right,” she quipped, “and maybe he should watch the movie, too. He might learn something.”

My mother can seem a little frustrated or confused sometimes, but when it comes to politics, she always snaps to attention. More than anyone, it was she who taught me to always speak my mind, question authority and fight for the underdog. I’ve mentioned before that when I was 12 and living with my father, I spent the summer of 1973 watching the Watergate hearings on an old black-and-white television in our East Midvale rental home. I was riveted. But my dad, a former Nixon supporter, was concerned. He talked to my mom and said he wondered if it was a good idea for a soon-to-be seventh-grader to spend the summer alone indoors, caught up in a political scandal aired live daily on PBS.

“Ahhh, let her watch it — there’s really no good reason why she shouldn’t,” my mother told him. “It’s not hurting anything, and besides, there are worse things she could be doing.”

When I reminded my mom about that conversation yesterday, she laughed, and then let out an exasperated sigh. “Isn’t it something,” she said, “that all these years later, here we are again? “What the hell is wrong with people? They’d better wake up.”

As I hugged her goodbye and promised to round up a DVD of “Nixon” featuring Anthony Hopkins, we both agreed that “All the President’s Men” should be required viewing for every American, now more than ever. With bonus points for those who pop some extra popcorn and also watch “The Post.” 🙂  

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Nine months after we moved my son, his artwork, books and double bass into a dorm at the University of Utah, we made the trek again last week, this time in the opposite direction. Although my boy will be taking a full load of classes this summer, plus working part-time in a chemistry research lab, he’s decided that he’d like to spend a couple of months in his old digs before renting a house near the university this fall with three pals. Dorm life, he says, has become “stifling.”

Of course, I’m thrilled, and so is the cat. She’s already set up shop in one of his dirty laundry bags to absorb his aroma, and we actually made a trip to Old Navy to get my kid some new shorts so that he wouldn’t have to wash the ones that his old “roommate” has claimed. Yes, my son is a wee bit spoiled. But the cat! Damn.

It’s been fun to have the house vibrating again with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds cranked at full throttle, and I couldn’t stop grinning the other night when I heard my kiddo laughing out loud at “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” at 2 a.m. More than anything, I have missed that laugh. My kid is going into chemistry and takes his studies seriously, but he still knows how to see the humor in just about anything. Especially moi.

When I asked him to be my date at the Utah Symphony last Saturday, I fully expected him to grimace and say no, which was pretty much how he reacted to “nights out with Mom” in high school. But he’s grown a lot (literally and figuratively) in his first year away at college. Laughing, he said, “Sure! Why not? A date with my mother. Just don’t look at Facebook when we’re in public.'”

“Deal!” I told him, even though I always turn my phone off in Abravanel Hall. “I’ll do that if you promise to actually walk with me instead of rushing 20 paces ahead like I have the Ebola virus. If anyone thinks I’m a ‘cougar,’ that’s their problem. Be ready to roll Saturday night at 7.”

During the drive downtown, my son combed his hair in the passenger-side visor mirror and we cranked the Tom Petty CD he gave me last Christmas. Arriving with 10 minutes to spare, we bought some chocolate-covered blueberries and Mentos, then my kid actually agreed to pose for a selfie with me in the lobby for the first time ever. That moment alone was worth the price of admission. But the highlight of the night was stealing a glance at my son’s face during “Also sprach Zarathustra” by Richard Strauss (the intro was famously used in the film, “2001: A Space Odyssey”), and seeing a look of pure contentment and joy.

“Everything about it was perfect,” he told me later. “The horns and the timpani, the guy playing the chimes! Wow. Thanks for taking me. I loved it.”

As soon as we got home, he opened the fridge (I’d filled it with his favorite treats) and let out a dramatic sigh. “Mom! How is it that we STILL have nothing to eat?” He was kidding, of course. Well, maybe.

It’s a delight to have him back. ☺️❤️🐦