Coming Back

Rosy and relaxed, I pushed the bedroom door open after my bath. There, sprawled on the floor, fast asleep, was Greta the dog.

Over six months ago, the dog abruptly stopped sleeping in our room after fourteen years of habit. Suddenly, she would come upstairs with me, circle around, sniff at the doors of the closets, angle her sad eyes my way, and then sigh deeply. With great effort, she would heave herself forward and head downstairs, where she’d fall soundly asleep on the couch.

Then I would wake to her wet nose snuffling at my face in the deepest hours of the night.

She’d be hungry.

She’d need to go out.

She would want her meds.

Sometimes I would get up; sometimes Mark would. Seldom would Greta sleep throughout the night…and so, of course, our sleep was constantly broken, too.

We took her to the vet.  We talked about sudden changes in habit and what that could mean. We talked about humans’ broken sleep and irritability.

The vet checked the dog for any signs of physical ailments and found none. That was good news, sort of, but it also meant that Greta’s issues were probably cognitive. At 14 human years of age, she was no doubt developing some kind of doggy dementia. We started her on meds, and slowly we increased them, adding a sedative. That reduced, but did not eliminate, the nocturnal wakings.

And then last night, there she was, in her once-accustomed place on the bedroom rug. I tiptoed around her, read in bed for thirty minutes, watched to see if she would wake when I turned off my lamp. Like there had been no interim, she slept for a full, uninterrupted, six hours.

And I slept, too, only realizing then that I had been on high alert every night, listening, even asleep, for the click click of her nails on the hardwood floors downstairs, ready (even if reluctant) to get out of bed when needed.

I got up early this morning, and Greta followed me downstairs; we went outside together in the gray light, came back in, both had breakfast. I felt as if something had clicked back into place. The dog, too, seemed strangely content.

Greta is still old. Her eyes are still cloudy, her focus still slipping. She may never sleep upstairs again.

Or she might. I’ll call her tonight when bath time looms, beckon her up behind me, see if the strange interim of spending the deep nights downstairs has come to an end.

**************

I drop Jim off at the side door of Elson Hall, in the 15-minute parking space. He gathers his back pack and laptop bag from the back on the car, waves casually, and heads into the university, where he is taking a first-term philosophy class this summer.

He loves it. He respects and likes his teacher, a bright, engaging woman with a British accent who shares his love for Monty Python. (They can both recite the lyrics to “The Philosophers’ Song.”) She shows interesting video clips, such as one of George Carlin busting on the concept of God: Jim is particularly fascinated by the arguments for and against God’s existence.

He reads his textbook at home, does his homework, and downloads the lecture notes from Blackboard. He asks us our opinions on different philosophical constructs, wonders aloud about logical fallacies. He emails his advisor, his instructor, the financial aid director. He likes to go to campus an hour before class start—just to hang out and get ready, he says.

In the second summer term, Jim will take a health class. Then, in the fall, he’ll have a more robust part-time schedule.

It has been several years since Jim gave up on taking college classes, said, “No more,” after accumulating almost enough credits for an associate degree. He felt, he said, like he was spinning his wheels. He believed he would never be able to master the math needed. He wanted, he decided, to just get a job and work.

The job search was not fruitful, but two or three years ago, Jim did begin a small home business,–a business that helped him learn about responsibility and accountability, how to talk with and communicate with clients, and how to schedule work to get done in a timely way. And then, after the New Year, Jim mentioned that he’d like to explore going to college.

He connected immediately with a wonderful advisor, warmed to the director of disability services, felt comfortable finding classrooms and dealing with unexpected class changes and the vagaries of financial aid. And then the thing that had eluded him for years—a job—fell squarely into the deal. The disabilities director put him in touch with an opening for a student worker; James starts his job on Tuesday.

Classes that challenge him. A student job in the very field he hopes to pursue. James is back in school after a long, dry spell, excited and hopeful.

************

I trim the front hedge with the clippers, not trying for strict symmetry, but for neatness. Mark surveys. The hedge, he opines, kind of looks like a caterpillar.

A caterpillar, I think. That reminds me, somehow, of the bricks painted like books that I’ve seen on Facebook. I think of Eric Carle’s book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. I say that, if you got a copy of that book, you could make eyes and antennae for the bushes. I say you could paint a paver to look like the book itself.

You could make, Mark says slowly, a kind of readers’ garden, and the idea takes hold.

I request the Carle book on line and get a call the next day that it is in. James and I drive over to the library and pick it up.

At home, I study the cover. I find a thin piece of plexiglass and cut it in half, and search in the basement for paints. I draw eye shapes on the clear plastic and fill them in green and yellow paints. I like the way they turn out.

Mark finds me a plastic lid; we cut it to make the caterpillar’s nose.

And I go outside and heave up a big cement paver, a paver that mimics the shape of the The Very Hungry Caterpillar book. I wash it off. I brush a thick coat of white paint onto it and leave it to dry overnight.

The next afternoon, decks cleared, I gather things together—little pots of latex enamels from the basement, a thick package of art brushes that I have had forever and never opened. Pencils and Sharpies and a cup for water. Rags and a paint stir-stick. A screwdriver to lift the glued-on lids from the jars.

I do a quick sketch of the book cover, and yes, it seems like it can be done. I grab an old plastic bowl for the mixing of paint, and I head out to the patio to paint a paver.

And just like that, I am painting, after years of not.

I like the result. It is far from perfect. The colors are wonky. I have lettered the text with a black Sharpie, and the porous, bubbly surface of the cement has played havoc with my printing. But there is no doubt of what I am trying to suggest; the paver actually looks like the cover of Eric Carle’s book.

I let it dry and coat it with clear enamel.

Caterpaver

This weekend we will wire the eyes, nose, and antennae onto the hedges. I dig out five pairs of old sneakers and set them aside to paint brown; they will be the caterpillar feet. We’ll take the very hungry cater-paver and prop it up in front. We’ll hope that passing children will be surprised into smiles—that moms and dads and grandmas and grandmas will remember warm cuddles with a special book.

We talk about garden books.

We could do, Mark suggests, an Iris Murdoch cover on a brick, put it by the irises. I find a book called A Fall of Marigolds, and I put a base coat of blue on a brick…I’ll paint the flowers in tomorrow.

We’ll make an herb garden and paint bricks to look like Harry Potter volumes—herbology, you know. What about a cover for a Wordsworth tome in a bed of daffodils? What about a paver that looks like the children’s book Chrysanthemum tucked into the flower bed?

Could I recreate the cover of Charlotte’s Web to sit next to our statue of Babe the Pig?

I sort and stack paint, gather supplies, make sketches. This is fun. Why has it been so long since I’ve done this kind of project?

******************

Transitions happen. Habits break. Dreams defer. Pleasures get back-burnered.

There isn’t room for everything. Sometimes, the jettison is a necessary thing. Sometimes, it’s necessary that the ending be permanent.

But sometimes, a dog creeps back into a favored spot and settles into a satisfying sleep. A young person takes a leap of faith and discovers needed skills to navigate the new path. Or a hand picks up a brush and joy re-awakens.

Some doors close forever, mourned, perhaps, but set aside. But sometimes, even if only for an interlude, that lost thing can be recaptured. There’s a special joy at times like that, I’m learning,–at times when things come back.

 

 

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The Art of Smiling

Smiling
Opens doors
And locked faces
In all sorts of places.

He was standing by the library entrance, by a stack of construction debris—orange cones and yellow printed tape and dusty gray piles of pillaged, man-made rock. His cloth coat, unrumpled and clean, looked warm for the sunny day. He pulled a cigarette and lighter from one pocket, contemplating.

This was not my city; he might have been a regular there, but he was not my regular. I smoothed my face to blankness and stepped forward to stride on by.

“Good morning!” he said, and his modulated voice shattered my smoothness. “Isn’t it a beautiful day!” He grinned, pleased at having busted the blankness, and I couldn’t help it. I grinned back and gave him his own good morning.

“And a beautiful smile, too,” he said. I hurried into the building, wearing the smile he’d just blessed.

Smiling
Tosses ropes
Across chasms
Rescuing former strangers.

I explored the library, a place that, I hoped, would reveal secrets of past lives…pin down my parents, give me some clues to their whens and wheres. I sized up the ground floor, visited the Mark Twain exhibit on the mezzanine, and went up a floor higher, just to see. And then I got on the escalator to ride back down to the local history room.

Escalators! I looked at my feet on the step, my sneakered toes pointing over the edge of thin metal strips, and I remembered once a year shopping trips to this very city, half a century ago. Then, Christmas time meant a foray into wonder, to snowy streets where department store windows glowed and danced with magical images. And going on into the stores themselves, with piped carols and glossy displays and the begged-for rides: those ribbed metal steps popping up from the floor, inviting me.

Escalators. I sighed into my memories, riding down, and then I heard it.

“Who’s got a smile for me today?”

The woman in front of me, a tiny, plump person in a tailored tunic and aqua polyester pants, jerked her head up. I jerked my head up, too, and stared into the bold face of a grinning woman, slender and vibrant, with long, curling gray hair. Again, I couldn’t help grinning back.

I saw my downward companion’s shoulders relax, too, and her posture straighten, proudly.

“Aww, I got TWO of ‘em,” the gray-haired woman said, her riser passing ours as she headed upstairs. “It’s a two-smile day. God bless you ladies!”

Smiling
Informs awkwardness
Allowing understanding
Where none could thrive before.

I was looking for a book, the first in a series about western New York poorhouses, and I wanted to buy it at a bookstore I love. The Dog-Eared Page is a community bookstore, a not for profit enterprise that shares space with a money-making coffee shop. We parked up the perpendicular street; the big front window showed us steaming drinks and talking friends and intent people, heads bent over books. We entered into a bookish wonderland.

But I couldn’t find mine. The once I’d been there before, the poorhouse books had been in a big display. Foolish, I’d expected it to be permanent, as if books didn’t have seasons, as if those seasons didn’t change. There was a volunteer at the checkout (all the clerks are volunteer), and she was busy doing something that looked a little intricate, a little urgent. I hesitated, hovering, and she raised her eyes, reluctant.

And then I saw a framed photo—a chubby girl-child playing with a black-haired, curly, jumping dog. The dynamism, the pugnacity, portrayed in that picture made me smile. The clerk’s face softened; she followed my gaze and explained. Her granddaughter. New puppy. A photo so cute she had to bring it with her.

We talked about the wonders that granddaughters are and we talked about the excitement and potential of puppies. And we found my book series, although the first volume was all sold out, and I wouldn’t be in town long enough to wait for a special order to arrive.

I bought Volume 2, promising to order the first one on-line, promising to visit the next time I was in town, looking forward to the chance of seeing Catharine Marie again. Like me, Catherine Marie was a Catholic school alum, a reader and a retiree, a dog-lover and a gran. Catherine Marie was a no-longer stranger, someone I’d be happy to talk with another time.

Shared smiles, and communication hurdles vaporized into puddles.

Smiling
Shatters stubborn
Once-boundless barriers
And walls of sullen silence.

Once I’d eaten a butterscotch sundae at Parkside Candy; it was long before Robert Redford and Glenn Close filmed their memorable scenes there for The Natural. I must have been very young, and I remember being in painful, scratchy clothes. Details come back: it was, perhaps, the day of an uncle’s funeral; we were being rewarded for behaving at the church and the reception. The memory offers glass cases and swivel stools at a snack bar, sweating metal milkshake vessels for my brothers, and a tulip dish with a jaunty swizz of whipped cream and a cherry that I handed to my mother. I remember the rich warm butterscotch, the hush and the almost furtive enjoyment on a solemn, solemn day.

And now I was back, opening the door into coolness, the gleam of the black and white tiled floor surprising me with its familiarity. Yes—the glass cases, and the well-rubbed, glowing wooden shelves and displays. Towers of boxed chocolates; crisp cellophane bags of colorful candies. Hand lettered signs, and a magnificent, wood-arched soda fountain.

We sat at a little round table, on chairs with heart-shaped metal backs, and a brisk and wiry man—perhaps my age? Perhaps a great deal older?—came and welcomed us and quietly took our orders. I toyed with the idea that he could have worked there all those years; it could have been he who made my butterscotch miracle, yea, those many years before. It could be the same hands concocting my small hot fudge sundae today.

And then I looked toward the back, toward a wonderful little alcove, just room enough for a table and six chairs. On the chairs sat six women, a timeline of ages: pretty thirty-somethings, dignified matrons of a certain age, and a scary, scary dowager, high cheekbones and paged hair. The dowager turned as if I’d called her, and she stared at me as if I’d been pugnacious; she stared and then she humphed silently, and she turned her head away.

For just a minute, I felt wrung out, leeched, discarded. And then the waiter brought our sundaes—tall, not small, in their classic tulip glasses.

This time I ate the cherry, and I lifted the graceful, slender spoon to dip it into the thick hot fudge, to layer on another memory. Anticipation and nostalgia intertwined, and I couldn’t help but smile. I lifted my eyes and the dowager lifted hers, too, and we caught, for just a minute there. I hoisted my spoon, sweet with ice cream, toward her. There was a wobble and pause, and then her fine old face cracked open, and we shared a sundae smile.

Smiling
Surprises joy
That had been buried
Where no one knew it waited.

It was the first real spring-like day, and we ate at a hot dog stand: casing dogs, grilled to bursting; curly fries, crisp and hot. The food offered up a taste of summer, and we decided, after dinner, to do a summer thing: we would go watch the sun set over the lake.

We pulled into the Park and Ride lot across the street from the park; we waited patiently while cars and semis roared by, riffling our hair, hinting at the chill that the sun’s setting would bring in just a half an hour or so. And then we hurried across the street to claim a front-row seat, a park bench looking out to the horizon, where the sun was waiting for her audience so she could put on her show.

Below us, on the smooth surface of the lake, three kayakers fished, maneuvering and casting, hovering and then relocating. One kept getting bites. He’d pull a flapping fish from the water, detach the hook, and throw it back. They seemed to be big fish. Were they the wrong kind? Did he keep catching carp when he was looking for trout? Or was it just a catch-and-release kind of sport?

I pondered the impact of slicing sharp hooks on tender fish mouths, and a large young woman, hair dyed pink and shirt a neon, tie-dyed masterpiece, ambled up to the fence. She smiled at us, acknowledging, and then, leaning on the fence top, she began to talk, her words soaring out to the setting sun.

“Hi, baby!” she crooned. “Are you OKAY? Are you doing okay? How’s my baby tonight?”

She’s talking to…the sun? I thought, and then the girl turned away from us and hurried down the pier to join her friends. We exchanged looks and shrugs, and the sun continued sinking toward the water.

A dark-haired man in a plaid cotton shirt took the tie-dyed girl’s place. Next to him, a fragile young woman, big eyes, freckles, long, long red hair, shivered in the darkening breeze. They leaned against the fence for a moment, and then the man turned to us.

“Have you seen the duck?” he asked.

The duck?

We jumped up to look, and there, in the grass beyond the fence, was a brooding duck, gray and black, fat-cheeked, sloe-eyed, unmoving on the nest that boasted her own downy feathers. She’d been there, the man said, for at least a couple of weeks, and they came down every night to check on her.

I grinned and told him about the girl just gone—the girl I thought had been offering baby talk to the setting sun. If I’d gotten off my butt, I said, I might have realized she was talking to the mama duck. He smiled, too, this new companion; he smiled and his shoulders relaxed and he beamed down at the duck he’d come to visit.

The sun inched a little closer to its plummet, and we stayed leaning on the fence, the mama duck bathed in light growing rosy, and I talked about what a treat the beautiful day had been, a perfect spring day, and now the gift of the hopeful mama and a sun sending a rosy trail from horizon to shore—bathing the hapless kayaking fisherfolk in her waning rays.

“I’m Dakota,” the man offered, “and this here’s my daughter, Dana. I’ve moved around the city a lot, but now I live near here. So we come down every night to check this mama duck.”

We speculated on how long it would be before ducklings hatched, and we looked at the steep cliff between the nest and the lake, and we wondered how that mama would shepherd her babies down that imposing slope to the water. We pictured the mama leading little fuzzballs, all of them carefully hopping, hopping down the rocks, and all of us smiled again.

And, “It’s my birthday,” Dakota said suddenly. “And it hasn’t been the best of years.”

There was a silence, and then, fumbling, I said, “But this day. This perfect day. And here you are, and this mama duck. What is she, if not a symbol of good things yet to come?”

“Yeah,” said Dakota. “Yeah.” And the sun dipped into the lake, and we watched the color spread across the glassy waters.

“You know what?” he asked. “I’m going to come down every night this summer, maybe this whole year.” He raised his cell phone and snapped off a sunset shot. “I’m going to take a picture every night. And at the end, I’m going to put them all together and think about what’s changed.”

And then the lake sucked up the rest of the sun; the breeze grew colder. Fragile Dana shivered and we all turned to head back to our cars. First, though, we gave them hugs, two strangers seeking something, two people with a story we’ll never know, although I hope the ending’s splendid. Travelers who shared some time with us through the doorway of laughter and smiles.

***********

And later, I pondered the people I pass each day, my face smoothed over and unwelcoming. I thought about their faces—haughty or brash, sleep-muddled or defiant. Hopeless sometimes. Sometimes angry. And I acknowledged my ignorance of the paths that led to each face’s condition.

I thought too, about the day’s events, about the passing of strangers who became something more—became warm memories, glued into place by the simple adhesive of a smile.

Take Me Home

Life is old there, older than the trees

Younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze

John Denver, Country Road

 

This has been a weekend of back roads and welcome views—of scrubby bushes shouting into green bloom, of redbud bursting, and of cresting hills to spy a sliver of lake, glossy in the setting sun, on a far horizon. We have savored arriving at our destinations, but, oh, the country roads make the travel worth the while.

Traveling country roads, I have learned about kindness and generosity; country roads have offered up lessons about nature’s mysteries, beauties, and harshness.

*****************

I came to driving later than many, and I was not an intrepid driver before we moved to Ohio. I would drive the thirty miles from our village home to, and back from, the school where I taught; but other than that, I was quite willing to let Mark do the driving. If the drive was substantial, I would rest my head against the window, my conversation would stutter into drowsing, and I would wake when we arrived: as magic a transportation event as being beamed up.

Mark was not available to go with me the night of my niece Shayne’s confirmation party. Shayne lived in a hamlet forty or so miles from my home; the only roads to get there curved around our mud-bottomed lake and meandered up and down forested hills. I carefully wrote out the directions Mark dictated and set off, a little nervous. But Shaynie was my darling godchild, and a little fear of the unknown wouldn’t keep me from the celebration. I drove off under sunny late afternoon skies; I drove off and enjoyed the tour through the back roads.

But the weather changed after the ceremony ended and the party wrapped up, and it was almost dark when I backed out of Shayne’s driveway to re-trace my route—it was almost dark because night was falling, and almost dark because heavy, ominous clouds were scudding together, nudging each other and blocking the last of the gentle evening sun. The rain began when I was ten minutes on the road, and, by the time I reached the far side of the lake, thunder was roiling and slashes of lightening snaked and speared the earth not so very far away. And the lightening flashing, those eerie fleeting moments of almost-daylight, revealed a horrible sight.

The road was covered with frogs, white-bellied in the flashing light. Their eyes gleamed; their legs splayed. Some were nothing but legs, their heads flattened by passing drivers. Some were just heads, their nether portions squashed.

The crashing thunder must have called the creatures from their watery beds, chasing them, unfortunately, onto the slick and curving country road.

“Oh. My. God,” I prayed, shoulders hunched, face peering over the steering wheel, shuddering every time a flash revealed the devastation of frogs on the highway. “Please don’t let this car break down.” I knew that if it did, I would never put a foot outside, that I would cower inside until morning light or clear skies sent surviving frogs back to their marshy homes.  And even then I’d have to tippy toe around frogs’ bodies in a nightmare landscape.

Please, I prayed, and of course I pulled safely into the driveway finally, safe to share my tale with the boyos. To this day, if a driving scenario comes into the conversation, Jim will say to me, “Tell ‘em about Shayne’s confirmation, Mom. Tell ‘em about the frogs.”

*************************

After that ghastly return trip, I understood how Mark felt about the Night of the Toad and the Bunny, another hard wildlife lesson on a country road.

Matthew, who was seven or eight at the time, had caught a toad at his grandpa’s house. They put the toad in a shoe box, with grass and a rock, and Matthew ran around catching some tasty bugs for the creature to eat.

Matt thought he’d bring that toad home and make a pet of it.

Mark thought differently. After the hugs and the leave-taking, Matt secured in the passenger seat and the toad’s box safely tucked in the back, after he’d turned the car onto the back road to home, Mark began to talk to Matthew about wild things and their right to live. It was wrong, he said, to keep a toad in a box, to separate him from his natural habitat. Humans, Mark told Matthew soberly, had no right to interfere in the lives of any wild beast, enormous, tiny, or inbetween.

Just as Matt was absorbing that, was preparing to say goodbye to his toad when he arrived home, Mark saw a flash of motion. It was a rabbit, and somehow, it darted in front of the driver’s side wheel in just such a way that, instead of squashing it, the wheel threw it. It threw the little thing right up, right over the hood of the car, and it landed belly first, paws extended, on the window in front of Mark.

The bunny stared at him a moment, Mark said, and then the eyes glazed over, and the little creature, bloodied and beaten, slid slowly down the windshield as Mark and Matthew watched.

Mark pulled over and stopped the car and sat for a shocked moment. And then he started to think again. What on earth could he use to clean that bunny off the car?

In the end, they used the shoe box. Matthew launched the little toad into freedom, shook the grass and rocks and bugs out, and handed the box to his father. Mark scooped the remains of the rabbit from the windshield and settled them into the box.

They replaced the lid and placed the bunny box on the berm. Mark said a few words, and they got into the car to drive home.

There was a prolonged silence. And then Matt said, “I guess that was a life for a life, huh, Dad?”

*****************

Twice in Ohio I have been lost on country roads and young men in pickups rescued me. Once, in spring, when the soybeans were thickening, green and lustrous, and the corn on the opposite side of the road was just learning to stand tall, I drove with my friend Sharon to pick up my in-laws, Ang and Pat. They were staying in a cozy cottage at a little resort town called Indian Lake, about twenty miles from where we lived. Mark was graduating from law school that weekend; we thought that it would be fun for Ang and Pat to stay in a place with privacy and a little kitchen and a backyard that sloped down to a small canal that meandered to the lake.

The night before graduation, several of Mark’s law school peeps drove out to the cottage to eat a barbecued dinner; and after the sun started its plummet, we lit a fire and passed beer and sodas around, and amber bottles rose and fell, and talk and laughter soared and mingled with the smoke from the kindling, which was slightly damp from a recent rain. The flames flickered glowing light onto the faces around it; the students’ faces, done with their hard slog through a challenging program, were relaxed and beaming. Ang and Pat grinned and laughed at Mark’s young peers’ antics. The light illuminated their joy. It was a wonderful night, and we all headed reluctantly home on the darkened, narrow roads.

But the next day, when Sharon and I drove out to pick up Ang and Pat, a detour sign blocked the route we’d taken the night before.

It was the time just before GPS and just before I could ask my smart phone to take its stupid owner where she needed to go, and we froze abruptly, unsure exactly what to do. And then, miraculously, a pickup truck pulled up next to us, and a sun-browned blonde boy asked us where we were headed. We told him, and he said, “Follow me.”

“Won’t that be out of your way?” we asked him, and he waved a hand dismissively and surged ahead of us so we could swing back onto the road behind him. He was pulling a trailer packed tightly with square bales of hay; he must have been on his way to make a delivery. But he took us through narrow back roads—some not much more than gravel drives; he was deft and sure and got us safely to the road to Indian Lake. Before we could stop to thank him, to offer some cash, he waved a lazy hand out the window and turned his rig off a road to the right and disappeared. We picked up Ang and Pat and were back at the home base in time to get everyone to the ceremony.

And then, after the law school days, when we had settled in Mount Vernon, I began teaching as an adjunct at a little college in Zanesville. It was an hour’s drive through lonely roads; at night, I trembled at the thought of deer leaping and drove with knuckles clenched on the top of the wheel, peering. But, in the sun’s strong light, the drive revealed the change of season, peeled away the layer of spring to reveal summer’s secrets. I would have an audiobook in the tape player; the reader’s words would mark a turn in the road, the interim spent behind a slow-moving Amish buggy, the revelation at the hilltop, and when I encountered that situation again, the words I’d heard would spring again to mind.

And then one day I came to the crossroads and there was a sign: Flood. Road closed ahead.

That can’t be right, I thought; mule-brained, I drove forward. A few miles ahead, a dark, mysterious lake covered road and fields and lapped up to the steps of the few buildings scattered in its path. I had no idea how to get to the college if I didn’t take the water-covered route, and a bubble of panic rose. I turned the car around and took the first right turn; I drove until I found a convenience store, and I went in to ask directions.

A tall young man in plaid and Carharrts was at the counter; he snorted and paid down his money. “I graduated from there,” he said, when I asked the clerk for directions, “and I know the shortcuts. You just follow me.”

Again, I pulled onto the road behind a kind boy in a pickup truck; again, he led me right to the college entrance, waving lazily, not stopping for thanks.

I learned a bit about the kindness and courtesy of hardworking Ohio boys on country roads.

*****************

Sometimes a country road brings us face to face with the impact of humans on nature, with the knowledge that, even though we don’t mean to, we sometimes cause pain and even death to the creatures with whom we share the world.

Sometimes country roads offer up lessons on human kindness and generosity.

And sometimes a country road allows us to see the change in nature—the sudden greening of the trees, the bursting blossoms of the redbuds, the petals flying, snowy, from flowering fruit trees. Look, it says to us, look at the beauty and don’t sleep through it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Liebster Leads to Wonderful New Blogs!

Thank you to Phil at Our Daily Scraps— https://ourdailyscraps.wordpress.com/2018/05/04/the-liebster-award/— for nominating Catching My Drift for the Liebster Award! Our Daily Scraps is an inspirational cooking blog; since I’m experimenting with a gluten-free lifestyle, I was really intrigued by the alternative Phil proposes to pizza dough. Check out Our Daily Scraps for unique and wonderful cooking ideas.

The Liebster Award is given by bloggers to other bloggers. (You can read about it here.) The rules for the 2018 award are as follows:

  • Thank the person who nominated you
    • Display the award on your post
    • Write a small post about what makes you passionate about blogging
    • Provide 10 random facts about yourself
    • Answer the questions given to you
    • Nominate 5-11 other blogs for this award
    • Ask them creative and unique questions of your own
    • List the rules and inform your nominees of the award

*******

The Liebster is a great way to meet other bloggers, and to grow as a blog, so I am very happy to nominate some exciting new blogs I’ve recently discovered. They are:

Greyzziel Stories at

https://greyzzielstories.wordpress.com/

Forwards Only at

https://forwardsonly.wordpress.com/contact/about/

What Are You Reading at

https://whatareyoureading212968983.wordpress.com/

Soul of a Gypsy at

https://soulofagypsy.me/

and Bilocalia at

https://bilocalalia.wordpress.com/

 

These blogs range from thoughtful words to thoughtful reviews to thoughtful recipes. I hope you visit!

(Nominees, questions are at the end of this post… )

*******

Why I’m passionate about blogging—

I started a blog as a means of discipline; I committed to posting every Saturday. I do believe the discipline has helped me improve my writing. The wonderfully unexpected  thing about blogging for me, though, is the sense of community and support I find online.

*******
To answer Phil’s questions…

  1. Were you afraid to start blogging? Why or why not? (Is this looking like a high school test already?) I was intimidated by unfamiliar technology and afraid I’d run out of things to say. I have stretched technology-wise, and so far, there’s still plenty to talk about!
  2. If you could pick a book to live in for a week, what book would it be? I always thought the Murray household in Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time was warm and wonderful. I’d love to visit that family.
  3. What do you think is your biggest character flaw? I dither.
  4. What traits do you look for in a best friend? Integrity and humor.

  5. If you had no internet for a week, what would you do? Read hardcover books; write with a gel pen on loose-leaf paper; cook up a storm; take long walks.
  6. What is one thing you can’t believe you have actually done/completed? When my husband and I were in our late forties, we had our change of life adventure: Mark fulfilled his lifelong dream and went to law school. We grabbed hands and took a huge leap of faith—and never, ever regretted it.
  7. What sort of things instill fear in you? Judgers.
  8. What is one thing about you that most people wouldn’t guess? I am sadly not too mysterious, but people might be surprised to know that I was one of the first girls on my high school varsity tennis team.
  9. Do you type faster than you write or write faster than you type? I type faster, but still hunt and peck.
  10. If you were an inanimate object, what would it be and why? An open book—seriously not mysterious!

********

Random facts…

I…

…love to cook

…get lost in a book

…am fond of English toffee

…recently switched to decaf coffee

…worry about my aging dog

…keep a daily handwritten log

…enjoy exploring out-of-the-way places

…love seeing smiles light up glum faces

…recently retired; I love this time

…and I have a bad habit of writing in rhyme.

 

*******

 

Nominees, here are ten questions for you:

 

  1. Why did you start blogging?
  2. Which blog post is your absolute best? Please explain!
  3. Who inspires you?
  4. What three things would you put in a time capsule to show people 1,000 years from now what life was like in 2018?
  5. If you could go anywhere, where would you go?
  6. What’s one thing you’re looking forward to completing?
  7. Do you have a pet?
  8. Where is your best writing spot?
  9. What’s your greatest success to date?
  10. What advice would you give a brand-new blogger?

 

 

 

It’s a Mystery Why Bharath Nominated Me…But I Accept!

Bharath Uphendra at Bharath’s Banter always has something thought-inspiring, funnybone-tickling, or downright charming to say. So I was thoroughly surprised and honored that he nominated me for a Mystery Blogger Award. I hope you’ll visit Bharath’s blog at https://ridiculousbharath.wordpress.com; you’ll find it very worth the visit. Thanks, Bharath, for nominating my blog for this award!

First, I must tell you three things about myself:

  • I have met amazing people in the blogosphere!
  • I have found some great recipes in the process of blogging.
  • Blogging has helped me create a writing discipline within a community of writers.

One of the many wonderful things about receiving an award like this is that different people visit your blog. I’d like to nominate some intriguing new bloggers I’ve encountered and follow; I think you will enjoy their rich and varied blogs, too. They are…

Words of a Little Heart:

https://wordsofalittleheart.wordpress.com/

The Heartbreaker Files:

https://heartbreakerfiles.wordpress.com/

Pen and Ink Sketches:

https://penandinksketches.wordpress.com/

Stories of Sandeept:

https://storiesofsandeept.wordpress.com/

and ZeroWasteChef

https://zerowastechef.com/

From thoughtful words to thoughtful recipes to wonderful sketches, these bloggers have much to offer. And if they choose to be a Mystery Blogger, the rules of engagement are at the end of this blog!

**********

Here are the questions Bharath posed to me, with my answers::

  1. What genre of music do you prefer? It’s a tough question. I guess I have to say classic rock.
  2. Your favourite song lyrics? I do love Sting’s Fields of Gold.
  3. How stupid can you be? I, personally, can do thoroughly stupid things, especially when I’m not being aware—like starting to put my jacket in the fridge and the milk in the hall closet…
  4. What’s your philosophy of life? I believe that everyone has strengths, and that focusing on them is a whole lot more productive than trying to fix the weaknesses.
  5. What’s your opinion on religion? Faith is a beautiful thing; so is spirituality. Organized religion can offer great support and community; it can also eb a divisive factor.

************

Here are five questions for my nominees:

  1. Who inspires you?
  2. What book should everyone read, and why?
  3. What food should be banned from all restaurants?
  4. When and why did you start blogging?
  5. We all agree that things are not as important as people, of course, but sometimes things have great associations. What one thing would you really miss if you lost it? Why?

*************

And here are the rules to follow if you choose to accept this nomination:

THE RULES:

  1. Thank whoever nominated you and include a link to their blog.
  2. Tell your readers three things about yourself.
  3. Nominate 5-7 bloggers you feel deserve the award.
  4. Answer the questions from the person who nominated you.
  5. Ask your nominees questions of your choice with one weird or funny one.

 

 

Home/Work

I needed some toffee bars, I decided, to make a special coffee cake the next morning: I wanted them to make a treat for Mark, and I wanted to take some slices, as a thank you, to a meeting. And we needed a loaf of bread. I reached for my car keys, and then I thought, “Wait a minute. I could walk to the Family Dollar.”

It was ten o’clock on a cool and sunny Wednesday morning, and James was in the family room, typing away.

“I’m taking a walk to the store,” I told him.

There was a pause, and then, “Can I come?”

*************

I appreciated my geography, walking. Dandelions were suddenly awake, and I noticed, in the cracks suffered by the concrete, brave little violets pushing up, faces to the sun, undeterred by their brasher yellow weed companions. We strode a ways and turned a corner; walked further; turned again. Motors sputtered and choked and caught and grumbled; there was the smell of gas and fresh-cut grass.

In the field where the school once stood, some sort of perennials were beginning to push up through a thick tangle of weeds and clover. Their leaves and stems were a vivid maroon. I wondered who those perennials belonged to now, and I wondered if it would be stealing to come back later with a spade and an old tin pot.

We made the final turn onto Taylor. As we walked, Jim told me about his favorite movie directors, and then he regaled me with some scenes from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, a show which he has recently discovered and embraces wholeheartedly.

So Jim rambled, conversationally; so we walked, steadily. It was almost hypnotic until we startled an angry dog who lunged at us from a brick front porch. His chain brought him up short; spittle flew, and the dog grew more agitated. Alarmed, we scurried on.

I found everything I needed at the store, and we turned back home, careful to walk on the other side of the street, away from that dog who, agitated enough, just might pull his chain out from its moorings.

It was just enough of a walk to challenge us. Coming up the final hill, Jim asked, jovially enough, “WHOSE idea was it for me to tag along?”

He unlocked the door, drained the bottle of Dr. Pepper he’d bought himself, and he grinned.

“Just kidding,” he said.

************

I was tempted, with Jim, to launch into a granny-pated memory binge. “Why I remember walking a mile to the store for my mother when I was just six years old,” I would begin. But then I didn’t. Instead I mentioned to Terri, in an email, that we had walked to the Family Dollar…took a walk, I wrote, to the corner store.

Terri emailed back, later that day, with some reminiscences. She remembered walking to the store on Newton Street in Fredonia, as a child, and how the proprietor had frowned when their waiting dog leapt up, paws on the Sunbeam bread banner that served as a broad door handle.

Sullivan’s! I thought. I’d spent my first ten years in Fredonia, too; I remembered walking to Sullivan’s store.

For me, the walk involved crossing the Big Street—Route Twenty—at the light by St. Joseph Church and trudging a long way down Newton Street, which curled past the Pioneer Cemetery. I was always too spooked to walk on the cemetery side, which didn’t boast much in the way of sidewalk, anyway. Newton took me past the lumber store where Dad stopped, periodically, to replenish our building blocks. The owner would fill a cardboard box with scraps from his cuttings: perfect little squares and rectangles of wood that lent themselves to the most amazing living room floor architecture.

Where Newton Street curved, I could see, in the fields beyond the houses, the cement walls of what I thought was an abandoned factory; its door and windows stared, empty. My brothers called that Hobo Jungle; my mother, urgent, warned them never to go there. They made their faces smooth and innocent, and I felt panic rise: what might those ragged men, nameless and dangerous, jumping off a railroad car—what might they DO?

The walk was always longer than I remembered, and by the time I reached the store, I was glad to gather whatever I had to buy. Sometimes there was enough change for a candy bar, and I would sit on the cement steps, the bag by my side, and eat it as slowly as I could, fortifying for the long walk home.

What fascinated me most about Sullivan’s was that the family, mother, father, and two, I think, big boys, lived upstairs. What would that be like, I wondered—to live above the store? Could the boys run downstairs and get a candy bar or an ice cream sandwich whenever they wanted? Would they be called out of bed in the middle of the night by someone pounding on the door, needing cough syrup or baby aspirin? Did the milk man deliver early in the morning, before the store opened, when the family was still waking, still in their flannel pajamas and embarrassed to be seen?

Years and years later, the store closed, and new owners converted the downstairs to a flat. And years after that, my friend Teri rented the upstairs apartment. It was an amazement to visit and see it, a whole big living space, intact and sprawling, living and dining rooms, three bedrooms,–space enough for a family to live, to come together in the common areas, and to have their private spaces and protected secrets, all above the store that made their living.

I thought about that when my father got up in the wee, wee hours of the morning to drive to work at the power plant in the driving rain, or when he had, in the depth of winter, to shovel the drive and find the old Buick under mounds of snow. What would it be like, to live where you worked?

********************

When Jim was two years old, I, kind of accidentally, fell into doing day care work at home. Two urgent mothers called, needing loving care for their kids; I wanted to be home with James, but I needed income, too. So, “Bring them here,” I said, and then, every morning, moms would pull into the drive and unbuckle car seats and bring their baby or toddler or big kid into the house. Soon there were seven children—never all seven, all at once, though—who came to our house throughout the week.

We would read and walk and play outside; we would draw and eat hot lunches and I’d try—oh, I’d try so very hard—to get at least some of them down for naps. That seldom worked. Sometimes, I’d resort, in the afternoons, to popping kids in front of the television, and popping videocassettes into the VCR. I would do up lunch dishes as the kids sat and sang along with Barney or went on a trip in a hot air balloon with the nice people from Fisher Price. Their eyes would glaze over, and they would sway a little, and sometimes I would slip in and catch a little rest in the lounge chair before TV time was over.

Then there’d be snack time and outdoor play if the weather was good, and then, over a period of two hours or so, moms would start arriving to get their kids. They would come in, tired after working, and they’d listen patiently to tales of the day, slinging backpacks over shoulders, admiring artwork, bundling, bundling, bundling, their babies to the door. And they’d head home, to dinner and maybe an hour or two of family time before baths and books and bedtime, and then a welcome rest before the whole thing began again.

And, after all the wee ones left, I’d stand, my own warm and wonderful child with his arms wrapped around my knees, and survey the rumpled house: a blanket sprawled there on the floor; a burst of crayons splayed on a half-finished drawing; a rash of Lego by the fireplace. Snack-time dishes in the sink and a dinner yet to get and a selfish, impossible wish for a quiet hour’s respite.

There’s no demarcation between work and home when home is where you work.

********************

Of course, work at home is nothing new. Farm families have done it always, and their kids grow up surrounded by the family living—learning the secrets of milking, of driving a tractor, of planting and harvest, when they are very young. Those kids grow up knowing what it means to rear an animal, knowing that the cow they raised from birth, the sparky, scratchy chickens they knew as hatchlings, would eventually feed some family—the farm family itself, or one who bought and fixed that creature the farm kid raised as food.

A different kind of wisdom, those kids learned; there was (there is) a deep knowing of the earth and its seasons in kids who grow up, working the family farm.

*******************

High speed internet in our homes has opened up a new world of work-at-home; we call it, these days, telecommuting. It’s a thing, it seems to me: it’s a trend. We know a couple of people who telecommute. One provides IT tech support; he hides in a bedroom, at his computer, and spends the day talking people through technical problems. The other does technical work for a huge insurance company, and he has a separate study just for work. He gets up in the morning and has breakfast, and then he puts on a suit, goes into his study, and closes the door. He is At Work for eight hours; he emerges for breaks and a lunch, and then he goes back into the study. He goes back to work. His employer gets full value for his work-at-home routine.

I go looking for statistics about working at home in 2018, and Fundera.com tells me these things:

  • 7 million employees (2.8 per cent of the United States workforce) work at home for at least half of the workweek.
  • Forty percent more employers offer a work-at-home option today than did in 2012.
  • Guess what? Those employers find that work at home employees are less stressed and more productive. There’s less employee turnover among those who work at home.
  • Some folks who telecommute save up to $4,000.00 a year.

Telecommuting. Working at home. See? We invented it, didn’t we, we crafty citizens of the twenty-first century?

******************

And then I think about thousands and thousands of years, years before factories and big box stores and services that are open from 8 AM until 9 PM—all those thousands of years when home was also everything else—food processing plant and clothing factory, furniture production site, and butcher shop. People sewed their shirts and pants and dresses and chopped the wood for fuel; they learned to salt and smoke their meat and to make jelly from their apricots and to preserve that jelly in sturdy rows of gleaming jars…jars would supply a taste of summer on frigid winter nights. People who ran homes had to master a little bit of everything, and I can understand, thinking of this, the origins of that old saying: A man may work from sun to sun, but a woman’s wok is never done.

Maybe, in community, people could specialize a little. Maybe the woman who was a wonderful baker contracted with another who wielded a deft and efficient needle: Alice supplied the bread for her neighbor, who sewed pants for Alice’s kids. Joshua did the roofing and built the chairs for most of the settlement, and the other men pitched in to help him in the fields. Little cottage industries sprang up, maybe, playing to the strengths of the people who lived in that cottage.

But in the remote regions, where neighbors were scarce and life depended on what you grew and crafted and produced, you couldn’t have the luxury of playing your best hand. You were the source; if you didn’t do it, there was an absence. And that of course could be the difference for a family. Absence of work completed could mean hunger and cold—could, of course, mean death.

Thousands of years of people who were work-at-home laborers, and then a couple of hundred years of industrial and technical revolution. And when technology makes it possible for some people to go back home to work, we seize on it. Look what we invented, we say. We’ll call it ‘work-at-home.’

*************************

I send off a response to Terri’s email, sharing memories of glass bottles of Coke and big bins of Italian olives, of fresh-sliced cold cuts, and of the people we knew who lived above their stores. And then I open up a file and get to work myself, editing a narrative for a grant I’m writing, a grant that is due the next day. I send off emails to the people who are guiding the process; we circle in, closer and closer, to a finished product—to the moment we are ready, when we can push a button that says, ‘Sign and submit.’

And I realize that, once again, I am doing it. Although I have time to take spring rambles to the chain store half a mile away, time to clip the leash on the crazy dog and let her tug me off on a neighborhood wander three or four times throughout the day, I am, again, working at home. The lines blur, and the hours blend, and I might be doing grant work at 7 PM and baking cookies at 11:30 AM, and that’s because I can. Those are choices I can make, when I can work at home.

Looking for Some Home Truths

I’m thinking about ‘home’: what home is, what it’s for, what comprises it. Whether it’s a place or a kind of being.

Do we go there?

Do we bring it with us?

In a loosened, untethered world, it strikes me that a sense of home is essential. But I have to define it to be able to build it.

Right?

********************

The curtains are open. Beads of water slither down the window, a kind of slow-motion race: the one who gets to the bottom first wins!

There are lots of competing beads, but most are stuck, sullen, unmoving. Only a few keep sliding, keep searching for the sill.

The dog pants on the old brown lounge chair in the family room; the rainy, changing weather, maybe, has unsettled her. Or she is feeling the pain, or the confusion, of extreme old age. We know that she is at least 14 human years old; in dog years, the vet says, she is more like 98. And, because we are not sure how old she was when she came to us, she could easily be older—she could be, say, 104.

She wakes us almost every night now, panting and sighing and pacing. She comes to draw us downstairs, to confess: she has piddled on the carpet in the family room again. In all the many years the fastidious little dog’s been with us, this has happened, maybe, twice, and only when she’d been left alone for far too long a stretch. Now it occurs more than once a week.

About a month ago, I took her to the vet; he examined her kindly, probed gently, and found nothing specific. Just old age and its probable aches and pains and growing haziness. He changed a prescription, hoping something stronger for her arthritis might help her settle down.

“Take her home,” said the vet, “and see if this helps.”

But things are growing worse. She is home, but home doesn’t seem to be a place of refuge and healing and comfort any more.

******************

Concoctions simmer on the stove. The sauce pot holds big chunks of beef and pork; they bob gently in a brew made of herbs and tomatoes, red wine and chicken broth. Onions and carrots and celery soften, weaving in their flavors. This will simmer for the whole afternoon, until the meat is almost fork tender, until it can be taken from the rich juices and sliced thin and returned to soak up even more of the robust tastes. This, for me, is a new recipe; this is called Italian pot roast.

The little pot has smaller, bite-sized bits of beef and pork simmering in a broth-based sauce. This is for Jim, who doesn’t do veggies.

In an hour or so, I will fill the battered old pasta pot with water, add a dash of olive oil and a good shake of salt, and I will put it on to heat. Mark and Jim will come back from a weekend trip to Westerville, where they browsed through the library and hit the Half Price Books store: a bookish adventure for a rainy April afternoon. They will bring a loaf of crusty bread home with them. We will cook up some noodles, lay them down, hot and buttered and glossy, as a base, and scoop up the rich meat sauces to cover them. We will eat a hearty meal on a bleak and rainy day.

Home is a place for succor and nourishment, a place to share the tales of the day, to offer up treasures found, and to join around a common table.

**********************

I wasn’t home for most of the week just past; I was training, in Columbus, to certify to teach a Mental Health First Aid class. Ha, I thought, when I was planning. I can get so much DONE in a hotel room, by myself, every quiet night for four nights. I packed my laptop, so I could grade essays. I copied off a thick grant application packet to review. And I put six books into a canvas bag, imagining a comfy bed; picturing me, snuggling under a white duvet so soft it floats, a lamp burning: the uninterrupted chance to read.

Of course, reality happened. The training was textured and intense and, some days, exhausting. We took, first, the course we were training to teach. And then we trained to teach it, each of us assigned a thirty-minute segment to address. We would present and receive feedback from our peers. We would meet, one-on-one, with a facilitator and talk about, as one of our teachers said, things that glowed and room to grow. We would listen to our classmates carefully, kindly, offering up the strengths we saw, and sharing some opportunities to enhance.

There was an open-book test to complete in the after-hours, a thinking-discovery trek that made us find material in every nook of the participant’s manual.

So the days were jammed with learning, with discussion, with new ideas to tumble around and consider; at 5:00 each day, we felt a little drained. My colleague Becky and I walked back to the hotel, debriefing. Most nights we met for salad and planning. On Wednesday, Mark and Jim drove in, and we went for a family dinner at a softly polished, wood-gleaming, Irish pub.

I never turned the TV on. I pushed myself to grade at least two essays a night, but my mind went slogging through a molasses swamp. The grading didn’t come easy. Afterward, I crawled into bed with a book and fell instantly asleep.

I opted for the green clean solution at the hotel—I didn’t have the cleaning staff in, and each morning, someone slid a $5.00 coupon toward my dinner salad under my door.  I smoothed out my own bed, hung my towels neatly to dry, stopped at the desk each afternoon and picked up my daily two pods of Starbucks decaf for the little coffee maker. I arranged my lotions and potions on the bathroom countertop, and no one moved them to clean around. It was nice to know my room was private, unvisited while I was out and about; it was nice to come back—to come home?—to things left as I had put them.

The room was a solitary refuge, a place to rest and think and recharge for the time when the day would begin again.

It was, for five blurry, action-filled days, a sort of home—a home base, at least, a place where I had all the things (if not all the people) that I needed for my everyday life to work.

**************************

Yes: I have been thinking about home lately,–about how to define it and how to create it and how much of it is physical. Home seems to me a much-needed thing in our jangling, disjointed age. It occurs to me that everyone needs a sense of home, a place where we can safely become the persons that we know ourselves to be.

“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in,” Robert Frost wrote in “The Death of the Hired Man,” (https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Death_of_the_Hired_Man) and I’ve heard that quoted time and again. But I don’t like that definition—that sense of grudging admission, of unwilling support. “You left,” it seems to say, that quote; “you left, and now you’re back and there’s nothing we can do but open the door and tell you to enter. But we’re not happy. Not happy at all.”

There’s a sense there that home is someplace created by others, tailored to others’ definitions and dreams. No wonder, if that’s true, that the wanderer had to leave.

I’m thinking that home is a destination, a long quest, a place that we practice making all our lives. “What do I need to be happy?” we ask ourselves, and the answer may well be something light and frivolous and fun when we are, say, 22.

And that is not a bad thing. So our homes may be built, in our twenties, around space to entertain, around expensive methods of piping music into every room, even when the chairs don’t match and there’s just a worn, too-small carpet to protect the aging wooden floors. Maybe there is romance, too—candles in the bedroom, wine in the cupboard, two special goblets, a set of satin sheets. Splurges in days when grocery shopping requires careful thought, when sometimes the rent and the utilities battle to see which will be the winner, which ones will be paid.

We don’t think, then, that the homes we create will be places where we absorb hard lessons—where we disappoint ourselves, where we reel from the betrayal of trusted others, where we huddle, terribly alone, where the tears that fall bring bitter revelations. Home, we realize, is not always a place we are happy, but it should always feel safe. We take our hard-earned wisdom; we weave it in and grow.

And often our homes have to open up, to house others besides ourselves, so our vision becomes a shared one. How does this partner see home? What do these children need? Where, in fact, should the dog dish reside, or the kitty litter pan hide? How can I share this space and still honor my need for home?

The quest, I think, stretches and defines us, teaches nurture of others, and demands, finally, nurture of self.

Because we need to know ourselves to make ourselves a home, to realize what we can and cannot live without, what makes us secure, what rituals are essential and which practices can go. We find that out, over and over, deeper and deeper, as we grow more firmly toward ourselves.

And a big, big house with lots of room may be the goal at one point, and then, we discover that, at this sudden point of awareness, a smaller space is perfect.

We no longer crave a sprawling sectional; two chairs, broken in and ripe for reading, are what our space needs now. Home may once have been a launch pad, a place from which we started adventures. It may now have become the constant spot, the thinking place, a place so essential that leaving is an unexciting anomaly.

Home could be both those places, all at once.

Home may become a place where sad things happen, where illness unfolds, where companions leave us, where we learn those secrets we hoped never to have to know.

And yet home needs to be a place where joy’s potential always simmers.

**************

We carry our sense of self and home within us; our goal is to actuate and refine those visions. But we need real, physical space, too; we need warmth and cover and freedom from chaos; we need the knowledge that there is food and a sleeping spot and clean clothes enough for tomorrow. We need a place to staunch our actual, physical needs.

And then we need a place to keep our treasures—the books of photographs we page through on soft-snowing winter nights, remembering. The packet of letters tied with a ribbon; reading them always makes us cry. The framed photos of dearly missed loved ones. The care-worn teddy bear that once was a constant companion. The only chair that feels just right. The stack of books that needs to be there, always, for the thumbing.

We live in a land of empty, staring buildings; we live in a land where, SocialSolutions.com tells me, there were 564,708 people living without homes in 2016. Can one, I wonder, have a sense of self without a consistent sense of home? And is that what the tearing diseases do—certain kinds of mental illness, the diseases of addiction? Do they rip us away from a sense of a safe and permanent home?

Some people, I think, have safe and wonderful spaces and yet they are physically adrift; some people have minimal living quarters, and yet they are vibrantly at home.

*****************

What, exactly, IS home? I think I need to figure that out. I think I need to learn more, to understand it better. And I think, in a troubled and uncertain time, in a culture where violence roars through the most innocent of places, that feeling the sense and the structure of a home is something no one can be without for long.

Recipes…

Gretchen’s Pie Crust Recipe

First Mixture:

  • 4 cups flour
  • 1-3/4 cups vegetable shortening
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 2 teaspoons salt

Second Mixture:

  • 1 tablespoon vinegar
  • 1 egg
  • ½ cup water

In a large mixing bowl, mix all the ingredients in the first mixture with a fork until they’re well-blended.

Whisk the second mixture in a separate dish.

Combine the two mixtures, stirring with a fork until all the ingredients are moistened.

Mold dough into a ball, Chill at least 15 minutes.

Divide in five portions. Roll out what you need on a floured surface.

Fill and bake according to your pie recipe.

Makes five nine-inch crusts; freeze the dough balls you don’t use.

 

Lee Brothers’ Mac and Cheese can be found at….

https://www.tasteandtellblog.com/cookbook-of-the-month-recipe-macaroni-and-cheese/

 

Kevin Weaver’s Mother’s Cookies (with thanks to Terry)

Mix together:

1 cup margarine

1 cup granulated sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup brown sugar

2 eggs

2 teaspoons water

 

Stir, then add to the above:

2-1/4 cups flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

 

Stir in:

2 cups oatmeal (quick oats)

And:

12 ounces chocolate chips (optional)

Drop on cookie sheet. Bake 12-15 minutes in 350-degree oven.

(For oatmeal raisin, omit chips; add raisins; and add 1 teaspoon cinnamon and ½ teaspoon cloves to flour mixture.)

 

 

A Recipe to Share

Recipes

Larisa texted a couple of us about an event she was going to at her church. “I have to bring two quiches,” she wrote. “I’m using Pam’s pie crust recipe.”

It struck me, seeing that written out. I had shared the recipe with Larisa. It is a recipe I had sought out, long ago, for less than altruistic reasons, and one I use regularly. But I’ve never thought of it as MY recipe.

Way back when, back in my husband’s murky past, there was an accomplished pie-baker. We’ll call her Lulu. Newly married, I was determined that MY pies would surpass hers, surpass them by so much that those pies o’ mine would wipe out any nostalgic memory. There would be no reason for folks at family gatherings to sigh and say, “Remember Lulu? Remember her strawberry rhubarb pies?”

So I mastered pie fillings: that was fun. But the crust part was a little harder to handle.

My mother was unabashedly, unashamedly, no help.

“My crusts are awful,” she said, calmly and with no regret. And it was kind of true. Her pie shells were containers to showcase wonderful fruits and puddings, but the crusts themselves were tough and sometimes sodden. She dealt with it, secure in the knowledge that legions of children, grown and growing, adored and devoured her vast repertoire of cookies.

So I turned to cookbooks for pie crust magic,–turned to them with varying results. “Don’t overhandle the dough!” they all admonished, but how could one get the mixture smooth without pummeling it? I bought a special rolling pin that I would fill with icy water, insuring the crust, in the rolling, flattening phase, did not get too warm. I put the shortening in the freezer. A couple of times, I substituted butter.

Sometimes my pie crusts were good and sometimes they were chewy, and I could not pinpoint any definitively good reason for the difference.

And then one day, Mark and I went to dinner with old friends, Gretchen and Jim. Gretchen served a blueberry pie with a sugar crusted, flaky crust. It was so good. It was good enough that just eating a big piece of the crust would have been an amazing dessert; to have it filled with fresh-picked blueberries, sweetened and coaxed into giving up their syrupy secrets, just put us all beyond the bend.

“I wish I could make a pie crust like this,” I moaned as I slipped into a sugar coma.

Before I faded completely, I heard Gretchen whisper, “Have I got a recipe for you…”

And she did. I know to look for it under G in my cookbook; it is labelled ‘Gretchen’s Pie Crust Recipe.’ I use it so often, now, that the book flips open to the page of its own accord. It is a recipe that makes enough dough for five crusts. It calls for an egg and a little bit of vinegar, and the result is always, always, fine and flaky. Every month, I make up a batch, and I constantly have three or four lumps of dough in the freezer—ready to use up chunks of ham and the ends of cheddar cheese bars in a quiche-y, last-minute dinner; ready to support a robust filling of apples sliced thin and tossed with sugar and nutmeg and cinnamon and cooked until they ooze up their own thick sauce.

Hallelujah: thanks to Gretchen, pie crust mastered.

Once, years after she shared that recipe, we got together again with Gretchen and Jim and other friends for a picnic. We portioned out the dishes to pass, and dessert fell to Mark and me. My friend Sandee had made a swing through town, and when I came home from teaching, I found, on the side porch, four gleaming baskets of raspberries from the bushes she and her husband Don nurtured for years. I made a Friendship Pie—Sandee’s berries, Gretchen’s crust—and toted it proudly along to share.

When I mentioned to Gretchen I’d used her crust recipe, she laughed. “I got that recipe from Karen,” she said, nodding at one of the other friends at the picnic.

Gretchen lists that recipe as ‘Karen’s Pie Crust’ in her cookbook. In Karen’s files, it’s ‘Grandma’s pie crust recipe.’

And who knows where Karen’s grandma got the recipe. I imagine young women, Depression-era maybe, meeting while the men are at work, sharing recipes and methods. I see a recipe card changing hands. It’s index card-sized, and ‘From the Kitchen of _______________’ is printed in the upper left-hand corner. “Millie” is written in the blank space, written in flowing Palmer-method script, written in spiky fountain-pen ink.

The recipe card has seen hard use, sitting on a counter, soaking up the grease and flour of dough preparation. There is a translucent half-moon on the bottom edge. There is a tiny plunket of hardened dough stuck on to the ingredient list. The woman who borrows the recipe absently picks that little plunket away; she shoots it into space between her work-hardened index finger and thumb. Then she smooths it out carefully and picks up her pen. In flowing script that belies the toughness of her hands, she fills in the title at the top of her pristine recipe card: ‘Millie’s Pie Crust Recipe.’

Someday, maybe, she muses, her granddaughter will copy that recipe into her own cookbook. And then, she, too, will share.

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I remember the first office potluck after Terry came to work. She brought a big plateful of delicious cookies, chewy, oatmeal-y, studded with chocolate. There was a crowd around those cookies; people elbowed in and shoved each other away.

And when the lovely sweet treats had been reduced to crumbs…which one forlorn cookie-lover swiped up with a finger and scraped into his mouth…we asked Terry for the recipe. Ah, she said. Those are Kevin Weaver’s Mother’s Cookies, and she told us a story about a little boy at the school where she’d once worked. He was a mischievous, freckle-faced boy, if I remember Terry’s story well, loveable in himself, but he would have been forgiven many things even if not. The cookies Kevin Weaver brought to events and parties made the angels and the teachers sing.

And Kevin’s mother, who must have been kind-hearted and full of humor, gladly shared the recipe.

Terry shared it, too, and we knew something then about her expansive spirit. She was the kind of person who loved to bake cookies that people swooned for. She was the kind of person who shared the instructions so YOU could bake them, too.

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Not every person is the recipe-sharing type.  Once I knew a woman who made a super delicious cheesecake, a double-batchy homemade delectation of a confection with a smooth and luscious sour cream topping. She was the mother of a friend; she held that recipe tight to her chest. I would beg for those instructions, and she would smile, a little smugly, and say something vague.

“When I have time,” she’d murmur, or, “Let me see what I can do.”

She never had time; she never saw what she could do. And oh, I wanted that recipe.

One day, at the supermarket that helped me work my way through college, I lamented the lack of that recipe and Marie, a good-hearted produce manager known to be an amazing cook, took umbrage.

The next day she handed me the exact cheesecake recipe. It was handwritten in red ink on a pretty recipe card adorned with a teapot. “From the Kitchen of Marie!” it read, and it was encased in a plastic, protective sleeve.

“Good cooks SHARE,” she said.

At the end of the recipe, she’d written, “Eat hearty!!!!”

I use that recipe every Easter I use it because I love the cheesecake, and I use it in honor of big-hearted Marie.

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There are some people who don’t share because, maybe, that recipe is part of a kingdom they rule with a close and jealous hand, and there are some people who don’t share because they are not the recipe-following type.  My Aunt Annie, my mother’s sister, was that kind of cook, the kind who used a recipe the first time through, maybe, but who then took those instructions as simple guidelines. Why not, that kind of cook might think, try chicken broth instead of heavy cream? Why not use half Swiss and half Monterey Jack instead of a full cup of grated cheddar?

My mother would tell stories about Aunt Annie’s mac and cheese—how people would angle for dinner invitations just to taste it, how mac and cheese nights were always call for celebration and extra beaming faces at the table. And my mother would ask for the recipe, always, and Aunt Annie, always, would say, “Well, I start with a white sauce. I usually boil a full box of elbows, but sometimes I use ziti…”

She’d go on, saying you COULD do this, or she might add that, and my mother would, finally, slap down the loose-leaf sheet on which she’d been trying to capture that recipe. She’d click her pen shut and mutter, “Never mind,” and later, she’d bemoan the lack of that wonderful recipe. She would scour magazines for macaroni and cheese methods; she would experiment with different cheeses, half and half, heavy cream. Never did her efforts meet her hopes: in Mom’s eyes, her mac and cheese never came up to the Aunt Annie standard.

So I kind of inherited a mac and cheese quest, but again, someone gave me a recipe. My niece Margaret moved to Charleston, and one Christmas, she sent up a fat cookbook by a couple of skinny Charleston lads called the Lee Brothers. Despite their extreme slenderness, those boys whipped up southern recipes that bloomed with bacon and lard and whole milk. We found our favorite collard greens recipe in their pages, and we adopted their Hoppin’ John technique for our New Year’s Day fare.

And we discovered, to our great joy—and to what I imagine would have been my mother’s great joy, too—Lee Brothers Macaroni and Cheese. We make it for company, and for a side when we roast up a Flintstone-sized slab of barbecued ribs. It is one of Mark’s go-to dishes when he has to bring a dish to pass; he mixes up a batch of Lee Brothers in the crockpot and takes it to work. He puts the crockpot on the break room counter and plugs it in and lets the smell of bubbling cheese sauce marinate his morning.

People ask him for the recipe. He shares.

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Because recipes are meant to be shared. When we share them, we weave a kind of connection net, whether we are passing on handwritten delights on aging index cards, or printing off, say, a copy of the Beef-Barley Stoup recipe that Jodi so kindly offered up on her blog. It is not the first recipe of Jodi’s to become part of family food lore; it is, Mark says, the best beef soup—or, umm, stew—err, stoup—he’s ever eaten. And even though Jodi and I have never yet met, she’s woven into our family culinary repertoire, along with Gretchen and her pie crust, and Terry, and Kevin Weaver, and Kevin Weaver’s mom.

Those recipes weave our experience together, weave us tight across time and distance, tromp over barriers, and melt away cold towers of isolation. The sharing reminds us that people are good and open and generous—that people enjoy good things at special times, and that they want others—they want everyone—to do the same.