The Tropicana Orange
My mother has the tenacity of a bulldog, looks like June Cleaver, and curses like a truck driver. She grew up the daughter of two alcoholic parents in the projects of Newark, New Jersey. She learned, by necessity, how to stretch a dollar bill around the block and is one of the most resourceful and industrious people you could ever meet. She once told me she rarely felt valued, loved, or beautiful, but she held tight to the promise she made to herself that, once she was old enough, she’d find a way to a better life.
As a kid, I remember going through the Sunday paper together and cutting coupons. She taught me all the different ways to save money. She also taught me to pay close attention to the free stuff that brands would send you—like recipe books or cooking utensils—if you saved up and mailed in a “proof of purchase.” One of my mom’s most prized possessions was a little transistor radio she got from juice, for free. The radio was the size, color, and shape of an orange, with a red-and-white-striped antenna sticking out the side like a straw. She loved that little radio.
My mom is one of those people who is constantly busy. As a little girl, I knew I could find her somewhere around the house or yard by listening for the tinny sound coming out of that Tropicana orange. One day I was walking home from school and heard the radio playing off in the distance. As I got closer, I realized the music was coming from above. I looked up and saw my mom perched on the roof of our two- story house. “Moooom! Is everything okay? What are you doing all the way up there?!”
She yelled down, “I’m fine, Ree. The roof had a leak. When I called the roofer, he said it would be at least five hundred bucks, probably more. That’s friggin’ nuts! I remembered seeing some extra asphalt in the garage and figured it would just take a few minutes to fix it up.”
Another time, I came home from school and heard the radio buzzing from the back of the house. Mom was in the bathroom, surrounded by tools and exposed pipes. Dust particles filled the air. “Mom, what’s going on?!”
“Oh, I’m just retiling the bathroom,” she said. “I saw a few cracks and didn’t want it all to get moldy.”
You’ve got to understand, my mom is high school educated and this was the 1980s. It was a pre-internet, pre-YouTube, pre-Google world. I never knew where I’d find her or what she’d be doing, but all I had to do was follow the crackle of that radio.
One fall day, I came home late from school and something was different. Everything was dark. There was an unusual silence. Something was wrong. I quietly walked through the house afraid of what I might find. Where was the sound of the Tropicana orange? Where was my mom? Then I heard clicks and clacks. I followed that sound and saw my mom huddled over the kitchen table. It looked like an operating room. I saw electrical tape and screwdrivers, and spread out in front of her were countless tiny pieces of a dismantled Tropicana orange radio. “Mom, are you okay? What happened to your radio? Is it broken?”
“It’s fine, Ree. No big deal. The antenna got busted and the tuner dial was a little off, so I’m fixing it.”
I stood there for a second, watching her work her magic. Finally, I asked, “Hey, Mom, how do you know how to do so many different things that you’ve never done before, without anyone showing you how to do it?”
She put down her screwdriver, turned to me, and said, “Don’t be silly, Ree. Nothing in life is that complicated. You can do whatever you set your mind to if you just roll up your sleeves, get in there, and do it. Everything is figureoutable.”
I was transfixed, reveling in and repeating those words in my head: Everything is figureoutable. Everything is figureoutable.