Every day is a gift.
I let a big pot of spaghetti sauce bubble all Wednesday, Italian chicken sausage and chunks of pork simmering in its mysterious and fragrant depths. Late that afternoon, I dipped thinly sliced eggplant in egg batter and an herb coating, and I fried it up in olive oil in the old cast iron skillet.
I piled the crisp, sizzly eggplant on a plate and I wiped the old skillet clean.
Then I swirled sauce in the bottom of that still-hot pan, and I layered the eggplant back in, and I poured more of that bubbling sauce over the top, and sprinkled it with fresh parmesan and grated mozzarella. I put the whole conglomeration into the oven to bake.
The sausage came from Fresh Thyme and the pork came from Kroger. The eggplant was from a generous lady at church whose garden has yielded her a crazy bounty. But the fancy jar of tomato basil pesto sauce that served as a basis for the tomatoey concoction that bubbled all day and thickened all day, perfuming the house so rosy-cheeked enterers said, MMMMMMMMMM…well, THAT, and the cheeses and the spices, came from a basket we won.
And all of that has me thinking about the gifts I am lucky enough to receive.
We drove to Marysville on a gray October Friday to meet Terri and Ott at the Half Pint. We’d never been to the Half Pint; we’d never been to Marysville, we realized in surprise. But the town is just about halfway between Terri’s house and my house, and we had a plan to meet up and pick up some baskets.
This is what happened: Terri’s organization, First Step, held its annual blues festival, Soulshine, in September and we couldn’t go. Soulshine’s a wonderful event, and it supports a wonderful cause—helping heal families torn by violence, providing resources to families before they reach that wrenching point. So we bought tickets anyway.
Part of Soulshine’s fund-raising each year involves a rich and wonderful basket raffle. And Terri took the money we sent for admission and turned it into raffle tickets with our names on them.
And we wound up winning two baskets.
We live near the lower east corner of the state and Terri and Ott live near the upper west corner, so making the trip to each other’s homes requires contemplation and a good amount of travel time. But we can meet in between, and then each of us only has to drive for about ninety minutes, and that’s something doable on a cloudy, cozy Friday afternoon.
So we decided to meet in Marysville, and Terri and Ott would bring us those baskets.
The restaurant was fun, with pressed tin ceilings and brick walls and scuffed hardwood floors and well-worn wood tables and metal chairs. Not a lot of tables and chairs; just about enough to seat twenty people or so; hence, I think, the name, Half Pint. There were a handful of other diners, but we had a nice corner to ourselves, space to spread out and to pass the deep-fried cheese curds and the pretzel bites and honey mustard dip while we waited for our salads and soups and burgers.
And lunch was wonderful. We ate, of course, but mostly what we did was laugh: Ott is wry and funny, and Terri has a laugh that’s irresistible. When she laughs, everyone around her laughs, too, even if they didn’t hear the funny part. It’s the best kind of contagious.
We shoveled in food in-between, and we shared the latest news, of course, and then, too soon, it was time to go. We reconnoitered parking and the boyos moved two bulging baskets, and a bag of cold food, from Ott and Terri’s vehicle into the trunk of Mark’s Impala. Terri and Ott pulled away, waving, and Mark started the ignition. Jim was untangling his earbuds.
And as we settled in for the trip back home, I suggested that maybe we’d want to go to Marie’s, which was a chocolatier’s shop not so very far away in West Liberty. It was just a tiny hair out of our way; we could, I proposed, all innocence and no ulterior motive, find a treat or two for granddaughters’ birthdays. And the shop, I thought, was not so very far away from an entrance to the interstate.
But no arm-twisting was needed; Mark pulled out according to the bossy phone-directions lady’s dictates, and we cruised country roads, sun breaking through the clouds, clouds breaking apart and fading, to find an old train station turned into a chocolate-lover’s paradise.
Marie’s had something for everything. The old depot was lovingly restored. There was an exhibit of photos that detailed its move, back, I think, in the ‘70’s.
“Look at THAT,” said Mark, poring over the pictures. They showed a huge old flatbed lugging the entire depot. Hard-hatted crews moved power lines. People lined the streets to see the spectacle. And then there were photos of the depot coming to rest, and restorations beginning.
James and I left the dad to look at history. We went to look at chocolate.
We found chocolate dogs and cats, milk chocolate with white chocolate spots, for granddaughters’ delectation. We found a bag of chunk chocolate that seemed to have Jim’s name on it. A smiling lady came around with a tray of treats—nonpareils sprinkled with scarlet and gray dots, peanut butter meltaways, little chocolate roses.
We sampled, if only to be polite.
We were VERY polite that day.
Mark slipped a bag of chocolate-dipped malted milk balls into our basket. At the counter, we discovered a young clerk packaging something called ‘chimney sweets.’
“What are THOSE?” I asked, intrigued, and she explained that they were square chocolate meltaways topped with a big dollop of caramel. Over that, they poured warm white chocolate, and the resulting confection looked very much like a snow-capped chimney.
“Would you like to try one?” she asked, and of course, I said yes. (Jim demurred. No, no thanks, he said; he really was kind of full.)
Biting into a chimney sweet: oh, my.
Jim, seeing my reaction, said, well, maybe he could fit just one.
We put a slim sleeve of chimney sweets in the basket, too.
Another friendly clerk rang us up and put an advertising flyer in our bag and told us that, if we thought the Halloween and Thanksgiving goodies were something, we ought to come back to shop for Christmas.
“This is a WONDERLAND at Christmas,” she said.
We put the chocolate in the trunk with the other goodies, heading off to let the bossy phone lady lead us home.
And we went home and enjoyed the last weak rays of sun on a day that started out cloudy, and we fixed ourselves a light dinner. And then we brought those baskets from the car and put them on the counter and unpacked them.
And we discovered wonders. Artisan salamis and chunks of hard cheese—asiago, parmesan,–and a chopping board and graters to make those cheeses into snowy mountains. Jars of pasta sauce, red and white; pastas and pestos. Mixing bowls and colanders and salted caramel biscotti. Spices. Dishtowels and potholders emblazoned with smiling, twirling, mustachioed chefs.
The travel basket had a mini cooler and drink holders and snacks and a fifty-dollar gift card for gas.
We spread the stuff out on the counter; we pulled out the sleeve of chimney sweets and shared them ‘round; and we marveled. And then we got busy putting things away.
Some days, life trudges on and I get crabby, thinking about all there is to be done, thinking about books I could be snuggled up reading by the fire, in the cozy chair. But NO, I think; oh, NO. Instead, I am pulling on my old sneaks to mow the raging onion grass in the front lawn or heading off to a meeting or running out to shop or to pick someone up.
And the rugs gripe at me, reminding me where the vacuum resides, and the weight of ungraded papers swirls overhead, and I am sore oppressed.
Thank goodness life has its own ways of smacking me upside the head when I start moaning my way down that road. It stands in front of me holding a cast iron skillet filled with bubbling cheese, sizzling sauce, eggplant baked into melting goodness.
“Excuse me???” says Life. “What was that you were complaining about?””
And I remember laughter and unexpected bounty, road trips and friendship and sweet tastes and the generosity of people only just met.
“Mmmmm,” says my husband, tucking in, and I watch him for a moment through the steam that rises from both of our dishes. And then I pick up my fork and tuck in myself. I think about our many wonders and the few reasons I have to complain, and I resolve, once again, to turn my face to see more clearly the gifts of every day.