There is a knock on the door and I run to answer. I am five years old and I am staring at the German exchange student who is staying across the street. We are in the era before cell phones and she is locked out of her hosts’ home. She wants to know if she can call them from our house.

“Mommy!”

Mommy promptly joins me at the door and ushers the thin, blonde girl inside. She stands in the kitchen, twirling the long, spiral phone cord between her fingers as she talks, her accent thick.

She hangs up and thanks my mother for letting her make the call.

“Do you want to wait here until they come back?” my mother asks.

She shakes her head. “No, thank you. It’s nice today and I don’t mind sitting outside.” As she turns to leave the kitchen, she motions toward the refrigerator.

“Why do you Americans all have so much stuff stuck all over your appliances?” She sweeps her hand up, then down, encompassing the mess of papers and pictures and magnets that decorate our fridge, her disdain evident. “Back home, we would never do that,” she says, her pride seeping through the accent. “We keep everything neat. Besides, appliances are meant to be kept shiny and bright.”

Her words sound harsh, but we assume that is due to her imperfect mastery of English.

She thanks my mother again as we escort her to the door. Back in the kitchen, I see Mommy looking at our fridge and frowning.


It is nighttime and I am supposed to be sleeping, but the rustling coming from the kitchen makes me curious.

I pad out into the hall and toward the kitchen. My mother is standing by the refrigerator, removing all the papers and pictures and magnets and stuffing them into a brown paper bag.

“What are you doing, Mommy?” I ask, even though I know perfectly well what she is doing.

“Cleaning off the fridge,” she says. “And what are you doing?”

“I need a drink,” I say, peeking at the nearly stripped fridge. It suddenly looks so big to me. Big and cold and plain and bare.

I take my drink and say good night.

In the morning, the undecorated fridge stands on silent vigil. I am the first one up and I sit in the kitchen, squinting at its blank brightness. Is it nicer this way?

Mommy says nothing about the fridge, but I notice that every time she passes it she gives it a long, hard look. She is trying out this bare fridge business, ruffled by the German girl’s comment.

It stands bare for one day and then two.

On the third day, I bring home a brilliantly colored painting of flowers and grass. My mother oohs and aahs -- and without the slightest hesitation takes a magnet from that brown bag and hangs my picture on the refrigerator door.

I am content and proud.

That night, I am once again in bed when I hear rustling, and I slip back out to the kitchen. I do not need to see to know. But I want to see. And I am right. Mommy is standing there holding her brown bag, putting everything back in place.

“What are you doing, Mommy?” I ask, even though I know perfectly well what she is doing.

“I am putting everything back. It belongs here,” she says. She takes out a photo of her sister’s kids and proudly sticks it in place with a ladybug magnet that I made in school. Then she takes out a drawing my brother made and labeled, “A Boy Elephant.” And she sticks that on too. Alphabet magnets follow. Then important notices, phone numbers, other photos and drawings. Mommy is so occupied with her task she doesn’t even tell me to go back to sleep.

Finally the last item has been pulled from the bag and hung up and she sighs contentedly. “Doesn’t that look better?” she asks, looking proudly at the photos and drawings that almost cover the shiny doors of our fridge.

I nod enthusiastically.

“I don’t care how they do it in Germany,” Mommy says, and gives me a hug. “I like our way. It’s comfortable and homey. All these things make me happy.”

I feel that way, too. After all, my mommy cares more about our eyes being shiny and bright than about the appliances looking that way.