Friendly Market. Friendly Town.

This week, I have been walking with memories.

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First, there is Buffalo.

I remember Christmastime shopping trips, packed into the old Buick, a car as sturdy and graceful as a tank.  I remember us driving to Buffalo as snow fell thick and silent.

To Buffalo! To our Big City! Where we would look at the displays in the Hens and Kelly windows and the Adam, Meldrum, and Anderson windows, see animatronic doodads spinning, hear music piping. Snowflakes and tinsel and ice skates and red, red velvet.

And inside, escalators. Escalators! The magic of that. And the magic of a more polyglot people than my small town offered, bustling, chattering, an enchanted mix of faces and hues and shapes and accents…it was a crowd, it was a place, where anything was possible.

Buffalo was crazy potential.

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And Buffalo was steel-strong roots. My parents, as we drove, would tell us stories.

The Sheas, my father said, who owned the theaters—they were some kind of cousins on the Irish side. (Oh, that theater, my mother interjected. Sometime, we’ll go to a movie there just so you can see it. Velvet ropes. Chandeliers. The glamour and the glitz. I pictured it, and I couldn’t wait for sometime to come, although it never did quite arrive.)

Not that, Dad continued, being cousins meant anything. We still had to sneak in to see the movies.

How’d you do that, Dad? someone asked, fascinated, from the back seat. Dad’s eyes sparkled. 

Jim, my mother said, that warning in her voice.

My father cleared his throat and laughed and drove the car.

When we were first married, my mother might say, we would walk downtown in Buffalo at night—just walk and walk. It was safe and no one bothered us, although people would say hello.

We drove through busy downtown Buffalo, through streets lined with art deco buildings, and past rawer, newer builds, through pavement bustling with people, and through car-filled streets.

I would erase the people and the cars from the picture in my mind, darken the stage lights, and place my young parents on those pavements. In those days, they loved to dress up (I knew this from photographs), and I would have my father in a broad-shouldered jacket, dark shirt, pleated slacks. My mother would wear some kind of frothy dress and, maybe, spectator pumps.

In a time before heartbreak and disappointments, they would bump shoulders, laugh, lace fingers, and greet the people they passed.

Buffalo. City of neighbors.

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City of family, too: we would go to visit cousins, go to play in the big driveway of the house they shared with a dentist’s office. We would marvel at how tiny the yards were, how close together the houses.

We were jealous of their quick walk to the corner store, the jingling ice cream vendor’s van that cruised the neighborhoods.

Once, when I was very young, maybe four or so, my mother took my brother Sean—a baby then—and me on the train to Buffalo. At the bustling trainyard, my Uncle Donald picked us up in a car that seemed flat and long. He drove us slowly and carefully to his house, where we visited with my Aunt Annie.

Aunt Annie’s house was gray-shingled and narrow; the steps to its one bathroom were steep and winding. There was a trunk in the kitchen full of toys.

Framed pictures of proud, kilted Scotsmen hung in the parlor.

Aunt Annie’s house always smelled spicey and good. They ate things there—ground lamb, little cups of orange sherbet—that seemed strange and exotic. There were older cousins there, impossibly glamorous.

I don’t think I said much at Aunt Annie’s, but I loved to go visit.

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Buffalo was a place, later, to visit friends who went to college there, to put lunches together and backpack over the Rainbow Bridge to Niagara Falls, Canada; to go to bars and restaurants that teemed and bustled with intriguing faces.

Buffalo was Antoinette’s chocolates and Sahlen wieners and real wings from the Anchor Bar.

Buffalo meant rooting for the Bills, staying strong, even in the awful years, and, even harder, in the years they came so close. And the Sabres—the hockey team; the Sabres didn’t always bring our hearts up to the peak and drop them over the precipice. The Sabres—sometimes they WON that cup.

Buffalo was going to see the Bisons, the bush league baseball team (Johnny Bench had been a Bison!), eating hot dogs, watching the Earl of Bud dance on the dugout, waving down the guy who strolled the aisles, yelling, “Get-chuh ice cold BEEE-YAH HEEE-YAH!”

Buffalo was the Albright Knox art gallery, where I always visited Marisol’s The Generals, my favorite statue,–Simon Bolivar and George Washington rode a horse-barrel together. One of them had a finger showing in a very un-generally way. (I read, too, that, while much of the statue is free form, the hands were exact replicas of Marisol’s own.)

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Buffalo was where my parents got the health care they needed, care that wasn’t on offer in our small town. My father had his heart surgery there, in the early days, when the doctor said, “Well, I can tell you it can give you five more years. I can’t say more than that, because we’ve only been doing it for five years.”

He soared through the surgery, Dad did, and the doctors had him walk down the hall to encourage other patients.

A decade after, my mother went to the same hospital for cancer surgeries and follow-up. Time and again, the medicos would shake their heads; time and again she would rally.

After we went to visit her at Buffalo General, we might go to the Anchor Bar, order a huge load of Buffalo wings and pitchers of beer, let the tension crack, crack through the guilt we felt about enjoying something so much right after visiting our terminally ill mother.

They beat the odds, though, again and again, until finally, time ran out for both those Buffalo Depression kids.

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I still go back, when I can, to visit special people, to locate old haunts, to eat at Irish pubs and Italian restaurants, and to visit Mark Twain’s handwritten Huckleberry Finn manuscript, shining under glass in the main branch of the Buffalo Public Library. It’s regularly turned to a new page. Twain and Livy lived there once; their son, Langdon, was born in Buffalo, too.

Buffalo is history—personal and shared; Buffalo is arts and sports and change.

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And then there is Tops Friendly Market. I worked at a Tops, in high school, in college, even, for a while, in grad school. I worked in the deli; I sliced huge loaves of luncheon meats, making sure the stacks burgeoned behind sparkling glass, and the refrigerated storage spaces below were stocked enough to cover the busy bouts. I learned about cheeses and sausage and how to mix a huge vat of ham salad.

It WAS a friendly market; I had special customers. They would take a number, which they would trade with someone else if one of my deli colleagues called them earlier. I would take care with their orders, make sure their ham wasn’t fatty, laugh at their bologna jokes, and look forward to seeing them next week.

It WAS a friendly market, despite the barrel-shaped manager who scared us.

“Can you SMILE?” he growled at everyone during their entry interview, and we would bare our teeth in horrible grins.

“Not like THAT,” he’d say, and shake his head, but he hired us anyway, and we learned how to smile at the customers all on our own.

Later, I moved on over to the meat room, where I learned, as I opened huge boxes of leg quarters, packing them in ten pound bags, about the desperate, clammy coldness of chicken parts. I learned to tap packaged clams on their open shells in the morning, determining if they were live clams or dead ones.

I learned, too, about what makes a good cut of meat; Richard, the British butcher, would instruct us in his lovely accent.

“See here?” he’d say, pointing to a section of a chuck steak (some weeks, chuck steak was 69 cents a pound, and I would buy three or four to take home, cut up, and cram into the tiny freezer in my efficiency apartment). “This is the same muscle as a filet. You can cut that apart and make yourself a nice little treat.”

I joked that, no matter how thoroughly I washed my hands, dogs followed me when I walked from that job to my apartment. But no job is without its education; I earned a lot of practical knowledge, and I made a lot of friends, at Tops Friendly Markets.

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And then there is Mark, staring at his phone, reading me words I don’t want to hear, about a shooter who traveled 200 miles to the City of Neighbors, bent on human destruction in a Friendly Market.

“No,” I say to him. “No way.”

The Tops Market that shooter targeted is just down the way from the street where our grandfather grew up and my great-grandparents lived for 40 years, my brother Sean, who writes for the Buffalo News, texts me.

That killer came to Buffalo, where, in the worst of snowstorms, people shovel each other out, push cars to safety, share shelter.

No, no. no.

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Mass murder in Buffalo.

I have a new “Big City” these days. I cannot claim this as “my” tragedy: I’ve never looked into those eyes that are now forever closed; the shuttered store is not MY friendly market. The sadness I feel is nothing to the grief that shudders along Jefferson Avenue and radiates outward into the city itself.

But what occurs to me, more viscerally with this latest mass murder, is that the grief and the aftermath does radiate out to all of us, like ripples in a murky pool; that senseless violence, no matter where it takes place, injures us all.

We say things like, “This has to stop.”

How do we stop it? Can the potential for mindless acts of deadly destruction be countered by mindful acts of loving creation?

What steps do we take, moving upward, moving forward—not moving the other way?

My heart aches for Buffalo, and for the people that much-loved city lost last week. My heart aches for ALL the places and all the losses.

And I don’t know what to do.

A Good Day To…

There’s one bird chirping, a sad, snippy, repetitive chirp,—a chirp that says, maybe, “You made me fly back from Florida for THIS?” The sky is gray; rivulets run down either side of the street, and the rivulets are pa-pinged by the insistent fall of a relentless Friday rain.

It’s a day for a hot breakfast. We pull the last of the ham chunks from the freezer, chop them up, and sauté them while the eggs are beaten frothy. The eggs join the ham in the big skillet; I grate sharp, hard cheese.

The omelet cooks quickly; before it’s quite done, I sprinkle the cheese in, flip it folded, turn the heat to very, very low, and put the old, dented aluminum lid on top. Within a minute, we have cheese ooze. The toaster dings, and Mark pulls out his bread, nicely charred—Zanghified, we call it. The boy likes a little carbon on his toast.

Jim clatters downstairs, and his eyes light up at the thought of an eggy hot breakfast. We share up the omelet, sit at the table, let the rain serenade our morning meal.

And then the boyos are off, Mark dashing out the backdoor to the carport, holding a file over his head, Jim scurrying down the front walk to the minibus that picks him up.

Doors slam on both sides of the house, and a certain quiet settles in.

I had thought of taking my umbrella and walking outside, but the streets flow and the ground, in this weird-weather week, is sodden. (This week, I got caught in a hailstorm on the drive home from the library. The sky was split in two: one half was a normal, cloud-scudded sky, with even a little blue peeking through; the other half pushed along a curled wave of murky white clouds, like the roller on an old-fashioned window shade. Beyond the roller, the sky was black and roiling.

“Let me get home; just let me get home,” I muttered or prayed, but five minutes away from my house, the roller shade surged overhead, and rain started pelting. It was pelting sideways, and I felt a clutch of fear, waiting five cars deep at a light.

By the time I moved forward, the rain had turned to hail, and the lights in the houses and restaurants on the street I normally take were snuffed out. Blind traffic lights swung crazily, and I took the first left turn, hoping that the side streets might somehow be more protected.

The hail was big. It pounded the roof and the hood and the sides of my car: POCKPOCKPOCK…an overwhelming and frightening noise. I thought once of stopping to wait out the siege, but I was afraid the hail would break my windows…and there was no getting out of the car to run.

I crept along, crunching the hail beneath my tires, struggling to see. In one part of the street, the skeleton of a trailer—the kind you pull a boat on, maybe—rocked back and forth in the righthand lane, escaped from its weighted perch, no doubt. Turning around was not an option; I nudged as close to the far side of the street as I could and, blessedly, didn’t scratch against the errant thing.

“Just let me get home,” I implored again, and somehow, I did, catching my breath in the carport before dashing to the back door. There was a cascade sluicing off the roof of our little back entry; hail was piling in glistening heaps. In the ten seconds it took to run inside, I was drenched and battered. And safely thankful.

What a storm. Mark’s car was parked outside while he worked; my little car suffered through the hail on the ride home. They are pockmarked, both cars, but we are the lucky ones. Friends lost windows in their houses and chunks of roofs or siding. The power went out in bizarre and random, patternless fashion. Across the street, our neighbors’ houses were dark until the deep of  night. Our power never flickered.  

So lucky. And so completely intimidated by the rage of nature unleashed.)

But now it’s Friday, and the rain is vertical, relentless, but gentler. Still, even with an umbrella, it’s not weather to walk outdoors. I grab my five-pound dumbbells and I march around the house for ten minutes. It’s a day to walk inside.

It is a day to do laundry, too. I go downstairs to throw in a load of towels, and then I open the new upright freezer by the basement steps. It is frigid and pristine inside, having chilled all night; I move the food from the old chest freezer—bought, probably, 15 years or more ago. It has been a good little chiller, but these days, the mechanism that holds the lid up is weakened. So I stick my head in, rootling for the pork chops I need, the pork chops that are, inevitably, on the very bottom of the freezer, under the turkey breast and the beef roasts, under bags of peas and broccoli and containers of frozen chicken stock.

And, as I rustle around, the lid gets gleeful. “This is fun!” it says. “Let’s wrassle!”

And it slams down on the bumpy, bony, back part of my neck. I yell words I won’t write here, and I smack the little freezer with chunks of frozen meat, which doesn’t help at all.

But: we waited out the supply chain freezer issues, and now we have our reward.

Now I can open the freezer door and see exactly where the pizzas are, or the bags of berries, the cool whip containers, or the sausage patties.

I empty out the little freezer and the even smaller freezer over the downstairs refrigerator, and I stand back to admire the space and organization of the new appliance.

Today, this rainy day, is a good day to be thankful for little, oddball things.

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It’s a day to use things up, too. James and I went on our bi-monthly trip to Sam’s Club yesterday. We brought home cases of canned tomatoes and kidney beans, big cases of vinegar jugs, industrial sized boxes of cereal, and a great big vat of spring greens. Goodies, somehow, crept into the oversized shopping cart, too, and when we got home, I stood on the stool to put M&M’s on top of the cupboard, and I marveled that we have an old, opened container with M&M’s still left in it after a two-month lapse.

This morning I decide to use up that aging candy. I’ll make peanut butter oatmeal cookies, a lovely cookie that contains nary a drop of wheat. I clipped the recipe from a newspaper many, many years ago. A long time passed before I used it; I just had no faith that these cookies would hold together, be a treat.

The trick, though, is to let the mixture settle for an hour; then, I think, the oats drink in the moisture and expand, and the cookies plump up perfectly. This is not an “Okay for a gluten-free recipe” cookie; this is a cookie everyone in the house just loves.

While the dough settles, I check email and switch laundry over, and march around the house some more. Then I preheat the oven and plop sticky, chocolate-studded doughballs onto cookie sheets; when the oven’s ding announces its readiness, I slide two trays into the oven, and wander away.

Soon the scent of hot, sweetened peanut butter floats richly into all the corners. I sit at the dining room table, reading a book about life in Hong Kong; I am there, and I am marveling. Then I am here, and I am switching cookie sheets, then flippering hot cookies onto the giant pizza pan where they settle and cool.

I eat a hot cookie; the oven chiggers and sighs its hot nutty breath, and I grab the dumbbells and march around the house for another ten minutes.

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I discovered, when I moved chunks of frigid food from old freezer to new, that we still had a piece of beef brisket. And this is a perfect day, I think, to have a braise, a long, slow, moist cooking; the result a tender, almost shredded chunk of meat to serve up on mashed potatoes.

I settle in with recipe books and decide to use Alice Waters’ method in The Art of Simple Food. That process, she writes, “combines the best of roasting and braising into one method to produce a meltingly tender, mouthwatering golden roast with a rich deeply flavorful sauce.”

We had bought a huge chunk of brisket, cut it into manageable portions, and eagerly anticipated the feasts we would concoct. But our first foray, involving smoking and barbecue, left us sadly disappointed.  The meat was tough and stringy.

The next time out, we tried a long, slow braise—guided by Alice Waters—and the result was fork-tender and amazing.

Today—this rain-softened gray day,—is the perfect day for a patient braise. I pull down the roasting pot, and I defrost beef broth.

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And the rain falls, and I grab towels, hot from the dryer, fold them into neat squares and rectangles—such a simple, soul-satisfying job. Now the house is scented with a rich, beefy smell, and I grab the five pound weights and walk some more, noticing…

  • The goodie bag Jim brought home from his TRiO orientation, with a T-shirt, a custom notebook and pen, and a plastic vial of hand sanitizer;
  • The goofy game Matt forgot to take home with him when he visited, a game he picked up for 94 cents at a Goodwill store, and I spy a box it would just fit into;
  • The gleeful, joyful, tomato plants, seeds from last year’s bounty surging into life;
  • A stack of books, some library, some ‘home’ books. (Jim texts from work to pass on a recommendation from his boss, Janelle, who has found tasty gluten-free chocolate chip cookies at Trader Joe’s in Easton, and he ends by writing, “You should grab a book and a cup of coffee and sit in the chair and read!”)

I think that Jim gives good advice.

Tomatoes plants are raring to go…

It is a day to enjoy the slow roast, the hum of the dryer, the taste of a fresh-baked cookie, and the rain-mandated diffusion of pressure,—a ‘count my blessings’ kind of day when ordinary and homely things snap into clear focus, reminding me that humble, humdrum parts of life are pretty important, too.

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Peanut Butter Oatmeal Cookies

(I clipped this recipe from the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch many, many years ago. It was submitted by Miriam Beachy.)

½ cup butter, softened

¼ cup firmly packed brown sugar

½ cup granulated sugar

2 eggs, lightly beaten

¾ cup crunchy peanut butter

2 teaspoons vanilla

2-1/4 cups quick-cooking oats

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ cup roasted peanuts, coarsely chopped

8 to 12 ounces M&M’s or butterscotch chips

–Cream butter, sugars, eggs, and peanut butter. Beat in vanilla, oats, and baking soda.

–Stir in peanuts and M&M’s.

–LET MIXTURE STAND AT LEAST ONE HOUR. (If it’s left to stand longer, please refrigerate.)

–Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Drop dough by tablespoonsful onto greased cookie sheets. Bake for about 12 minutes.

What We Eat; The Recipes We Share

Losing a beloved family heirloom is a very real, personal loss; they’re things that cannot ever be replaced or re-created. But perhaps the most precious heirlooms are family recipes.

—Stanley Tucci, Taste

Really men DO eat quiche—we had it for dinner last night, and I watched the boyos, real men both, down two thick, steaming, cheesy slabs each.

I had been thinking we had leftover Easter ham in the freezer when I stumbled on the idea of quiche for dinner, and I’d been wanting to experiment with making pie crust from gluten-free flour. Quiche seemed like the perfect way to incorporate the goals of using up leftovers and experimenting with pastry; it seemed a good thing to nosh on, too, on a kind of chilly Thursday night.

I followed a traditional one-crust pie dough recipe, substituting my “1:1” flour. The pastry mixed up just fine; it rolled out pretty cooperatively, too, on my flour-dusted Tupperware pie-crust-rolling cloth. But when I picked it up to slide it into the pie pan, the crust crumbled. I wound up patting it in place, chunk by shattered chunk. I smushed it together as seamlessly as I could, and I covered it with a couple of layers of thick aluminum foil; it baked while I mixed up the quiche filling.

And we DIDN’T have any leftover ham; that Easter ham was so good we devoured it within a few days, making sandwiches and omelets and fried egg and ham breakfasts. We had some deli ham, though, so I rolled up a couple of slices, and used the new knife Mark got me for Christmas—a knife so finely honed, it’s a dangerous weapon in mindless hands; my thumb is healing nicely, though—to chop them up fine.

The ham went into the batter, and I grated up some “Emmi” Swiss and some Dublin cheddar, and I tossed those shreds in my gluten free flour, and then I pulled the crust from the oven (“Pour the filling into a HOT crust,” my recipe admonishes). I stirred the cheese into the batter. Then I poured the batter into the crust, which was brown and a little lumpy, but still, it looked appetizing enough…and it was sizzling hot.

And while the quiche baked, we threw together little side salads, and Mark sliced up chunks of the sesame seed-topped pave’ bread (I bought it for him on Wednesday, after he had one of those knock-‘em-out procedures at the hospital—the kind of procedure men of a certain age seem wont to encounter, and often need cheering up after. Mark did very well; the cheering maybe wasn’t even necessary, but he surely liked the bread.)

The quiche, perhaps fueled by half-and-half instead of insipid skimmed milk, thickened up beautifully. A gluten free meal it was, even if a light one it was not, and Jim said he really LIKED the crust. Not just, “This is okay, considering,” but, “I LIKE this crust!”

So that was a little triumph.

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After dinner, after washing up, after we went for a little walk around the shady grounds of the Helen Purcell home, we watched the newest episode of Julia on HBO Max. This week, Julia Child went to New York City for a PBS awards ceremony at the Waldorf-Astoria, and she got thoroughly dissed at least three times during the trip. Julia had lunch with her editor, Judith Jones, and with Blanche Knopf, Judith’s boss. Knopf made it clear that she found Julia’s fascination with and appreciation for food trifling.

Then the authentic French chef came out to be cosseted and admired by Knopf, and Julia introduced herself. The chef admitted to knowing who she was, and he took her hand and told her to leave the real cooking to the men who were oh so much more capable of doing it.

That night, at the gala dinner, Julia encountered Betty Friedan. The character was compelled to tell Julia that she was an intellectual lightweight, and that her show was contributing to women’s imprisonments in their homes and kitchens.

In the show, the impact of those three negative encounters is shattering for Julia Child. Did they really happen? They COULD have, my internet search tells me, but not for sure. The dressings-down are well dramatized, and they are unsettling enough that I am composing arguments FOR Julia Child in my head.

“Look,” I say, “whose philosophy stood the test of time!” and, “Certainly, because  of Julia, in part, we appreciate food more now, and the cooking and appreciation of it is every gender’s responsibility…women are not chained to their convection ovens…”

Julia is right to advocate appreciation of wonderful food at home, I muse, as I wander off at 8:30 or so, to soak in a tub and read Stanley Tucci’s Taste: My Life Through Food. It’s here that I encounter Tucci’s quote about recipes being the very best of heirlooms, and that gets me thinking.

Julia Child’s recipes are certainly a legacy; I made her scalloped potatoes for the first time this Easter. They are much easier and faster than the recipe I had been wont to use, and Jim absolutely loved them.

And as I read Tucci’s book, I think that every family creates its own culture, and a big part of culture is food.

What kind of food culture do WE have? Do we have heirloom quality recipes?  Does quiche in a gluten-free crust count?

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Mark’s family of birth, much like the warm Italian family Tucci was raised in, has a definite culinary culture. His father, Angelo, loved to cook, and he and Pat, Mark’s mom, collaborated on many a meal. They were famous for their red sauce, which most always had meatballs the size of baseballs in it. It might also have Italian sausage, pork, or ham hocks, slow-simmered and succulent. They would scoop the meat onto large platters and pour the sauce into sturdy pitchers, one for each end of the table. There’d be hefty bowls of pasta that passed around, and sliced crusty bread, and people who weren’t used to the meal would breathe in the fragrant steam, taste, sigh, and sink into flavor-induced ecstasy.

Lasagna at Christmas, when Mark was growing up, was another amazing feast. Mark’s dad made fritters, in spring and summer, with dandelions or nettles. And some concoctions, cooked up in Lent, I couldn’t always cotton to: sardines and boiled eggs in the red sauce, and a clear soup with olives in it—olives that bobbed to the surface like the eyeballs bobbed in Kathleen Turner’s soup, in, I think, the banquet scene in Temple of Doom.

Loved recipes, unloved recipes—still, Mark’s family had a food culture and definite heirloom recipes. We emulate the red sauce these days, although we seldom start with whole tomatoes; we use canned spaghetti sauce, tomato paste, and tomato sauce, herbs from the backyard, garlic and onion, minced, and whatever kinds of meat are on hand: meatballs, maybe, made with ground beef and pork from Rittberger’s butcher shop, fat links of hot Italian sausage, the leftover bone from a Sunday pork roast… It may not quite meet the sublime levels of Mark’s parents’ sauce, but it is thick and hearty and very, very good.

So that, maybe, is an heirloom recipe. That’s one for the box.

And, building on my brother Dennis’ wisdom (“Good chili,” Dennis said, “always starts with good spaghetti sauce”), we make some mean chili. That could maybe be considered an heirloom recipe,–an heirloom technique, at least–too.

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On my side, the culinary history was maybe not so rich. My father grew up half in orphanages, half at his father’s house, mostly when he was old enough to contribute—and when his father had married a much younger third wife. She was so young, she’d had little time to learn to cook, and dinner, my father remembered, often was fresh-cut bologna and a loaf of white bread from the corner store.

My father went from that table to the Army, where he didn’t get much chance to experiment with fine cooking; he had the opportunity, though, to learn that he didn’t much like Spam.

My mother was half-orphaned, too, and she remembers her Aunties thriftily cooking up the cheap cuts from the butcher shop. They’d make, for instance, Mom would recall, kidneys, and the house would smell like steaming urine, and she would wander off to find a better option—there were so many children in the extended family, and so many family members’ homes peppered along the same street, that no one much noticed when one kid didn’t show up for a kidney dinner.

There is one recipe for an oatmeal cookie that my mother passed down. It is kind of a sweet oat cake; it has a dry dough that must be flattened with a fork, and it’s almost as rich as shortbread. I think that may be one of her mother’s cookie recipes…and my grandmother, who died when my mother was three, is said to have been famous for her always-full cookie jar, and her always-scrumptious cookies.

Together, my parents favored a meat and potatoes cuisine; the meat and the potatoes both would often be fried. The meat would certainly be fully cooked; those Depression kids had had horror of trichinosis firmly instilled into their tender hearts. Roast beef, baked chicken, pork chops: what we knew about them was that they were chewy; lots of glasses of milk washed that protein down.

What did emerge from my birth family culture were goodies: a holiday sweet dough, rich shortbread cookies, and, of course, Chocolate Fudge Delight. Those recipes, for sure, could be considered heirlooms.

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And then there’s the family we’ve morphed into, and the people and places that have influenced our tastes, the sensitivity to smell and texture that affect the foods that Jim will eat. What dishes, I wonder, what foods can we call our culinary zeniths? We have some tried and true recipes we love—a chicken and rice bake that we make with a bechamel sauce instead of the originally-called-for cream of mushroom soup. There’s a Hungarian goulash recipe we’re fond of. Oh, there’s Alfredo sauce, of course, and we like risotto when I’m in the mood for labor-intensive stirring.

The thing is, though, I feel like we’re still exploring, still evolving. I am much more comfortable, less achy, and more energetic, living in a gluten-free world. I am finding my way; what’s better: gluten-free pasta, or skipping pasta entirely? Thin strips of eggplant are a reasonable substitution for lasagna noodles, and spaghetti squash is lovely baked with red sauce and mozzarella cheese. I am still exploring the world of zoodles, though, and gluten-free pizza crust techniques, and whether there’s any point in gluten free bread, or whether I’m just better off going bread-less, altogether.

Because of this, some old family favorites are fading out of the dinnertime repertoire, and others are being, cautiously, perhaps, added, and sometimes, the three of us eat completely different things.

Lately, too, I’ve been thinking about my meat consumption and how much healthier plant-based eating is both for the human body and for the planet. This is not a shared passion; meat-free eating is not, I believe, ever a practice Mark and Jim will embrace. So I sort through my meat-free cookbooks, and I ponder adapting recipes—adapted for me, though, and served alongside their carnivorous food, and it feels like I am sailing further and further away from developing any kind of rational, unified family culinary culture.

We like stir-fries, for instance, but these days, stir fry instructions might look something like this:

  • Put your rice on to simmer.
  • Slice the boneless chicken as thinly as possible, and sauté in a mixture of olive and sesame oil. When cooked through, put in a covered dish to keep warm.
  • Chop and slice veggies; cook in the same pan as the chicken was cooked in. When crisp-tender, remove from heat.
  • Scoop tender rice onto each plate. On Jim’s, pile slices of chicken. On Pam’s, stack those stir-fried veggies high. On Mark’s, mix the chicken into the veggies and ladle that onto the rice.
  • Pass around various sauces—sweet and sour, hot and tangy, teriyaki…let each apply liberally according to taste.
  • Dig into what are, essentially, three different meals.

Maybe an heirloom recipe is this: let each craft the food according to their own taste.

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Could our culinary heirloom be confusion?

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Still, I have five binders full of recipes that Jim has organized for me: some recipes we’ve tried and loved; some adventures are still waiting to be brought to fruition. We flip through those and pick tasty sounding dishes and try to experiment with something brand, spanking new, at least once a month.

Maybe there are culinary heirlooms waiting there to be discovered.

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

Not so long ago, Matt, Mark’s firstborn son, and our youngest granddaughter, Kaelyn, came to visit. I had pulled out some steaks, thinking we’d make fajitas with all kinds of veggies and shredded cheeses and thinly sliced seasoned beef, and everyone could basically compile the meal of their choice. But when I asked Kaelyn if she liked fajitas, she shyly said no; really, she said, what she liked to eat were burgers and chicken fingers and frozen yogurt.

So that night, we went to the steakhouse instead of cooking, and everyone was happy. Matt and I loved the crispy, honey-butter Brussels sprouts; Mark and Jim made gagging noises and ate seared meat. Kaelyn enjoyed her breaded chicken, and afterwards we stopped at the Sweet Frog shop and built our own frozen yogurt sundaes.

Maybe an heirloom recipe could also be this: Go to a restaurant that everyone approves, order what you like, and relax and enjoy the company of these people that you love.

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

Beyond a couple of obvious staples, I’m not exactly sure what our heirloom recipes are; maybe we’ll just have a lot of multiple option meals to talk about. What’s important is that we have the chance to share meals with the people we love, the pleasure of seeing them enjoy flavors that make them smile, and the warmth of rich conversation fueled by real interest in what the other has to say.

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

I think that’s what Stanley Tucci is saying in his book; I think that’s what Julia Child was trying to tell the world, and why her teaching reverberates long after she herself is gone. Sharing food IS important; what food that might be is personal and unique to each of us. Maybe the true, perfect heirloom recipe is this: eat food that makes you smile in the company of people you love.

Haven’t the Foggiest

The fog comes

on little cat feet.

It sits looking

over harbor and city

on silent haunches

and then moves on.

-Carl Sandburg

From https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45032/fog-56d2245d7b36c

As it cools to the dewpoint of the air mass, water condenses and forms fog.

—Dan Russell, Buffalo News

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

Friday morning: Jim and Mark are heading off to work, and I am not. I have a day that stretches out before me, a nice Friday-shaped outline to fill in with my Crayolas, to color in any old way I want to.

And one of the things I want to do, I think, in the hazy morning minutes, is to take a nice long walk.

I sleep in a little, then dodge the boyos as they hustle around getting ready for their days, and I nuke up some tasty gluten-free pancakes. The house swells as people run, gathering, answering calls, looking for lost things, pulling on shoes, locating glasses, packing lunch, and searching jacket pockets. Staccato comments pound the walls. And then, with a whoosh, the boyos are gone, and the house relaxes, shrinks back down to regular size.

But I decide to vacuum floors instead of walking right now: it is too foggy outside.

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

I sometimes think of fog as an Ohio phenomenon. When we moved from western New York to Ada, Ohio, James was in the summer before his fifth-grade year. And, of course, we hyped him up all summer long. New grade! New school! New chances!

Really nice teacher, we all agreed.

Jim was excited.

And so that first day of school, he got all dressed in his new, but, we hoped, cool clothes, packed up his book bag with all the items on the required-for-fifth-grade list, and Jim and I drove to Ada Elementary School through a soft gray haze.

When we pulled into the parking lot, we were, so sad, all alone.

We went to the door of the school. It was locked.

There were no laughing children running in the play yard, no buses honking. No stern teachers waiting to herd children into organized lines so they could head into the halls of learning.

We went home and I called the school. I reached a secretary, who told me, “Oh! There’s a two-hour FOG DELAY today.”

A fog delay! That was something we had never heard of in western New York.

So Jim divested himself of backpack, had a snack, popped in a video game. I called my place of work and let them know I’d be about two hours later than I’d expected to be.

And right around 10:00 a.m., I dropped Jim off at his new school, where the bustle we’d expected earlier was indeed simmering. But the shiny edge was off the day, and he tromped, not reluctantly but pretty unexcitedly, over to where his teacher was gathering his new class, and he started his first day in an Ohio school.

Started two hours late because of something we’d never experienced: a foggy postponement.

And his teacher WAS nice; the kids were welcoming. Jim made a friend. It wasn’t, despite an anticlimactic, hazy beginning, at all a bad year.

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

 Of course, we had fog in Fredonia, New York, where I started academic life as a student.

I remember one day when fog rolled in, thick, off the lake, and my mother worried about us walking the two blocks to our school. She worried, but she sent us: I think for her, the children clearing out of the house—all but the baby, of course—was a different kind of fog lifting.

That may have been the first day I heard the term “pea soup” applied to fog, which I thought was very charming, even though I had never in my life seen a bowl of pea soup.

And that was the day, I bet, the somber, habit-swishing nun who taught first grade read us Carl Sandburg’s fog poem. The words stuck on the as-yet-unrusted barbs of my mind; they stuck, and they swing there rhythmically until this day.

But I disagreed with Mr. Sandburg. I was not a cat lover; I did not know the movements of cats; and I did not think fog was like cats. Fog was a soft gray billow, an unreliable coverlet that lifted, and tore, and disappeared.

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

And of course, when my parents moved us to Dunkirk, which nestled on the shores of the lake, there was fog there, too. In fact, I look up ‘fog in western New York,’ and I find that there is actually a fog season, according to Dan Russell, who wrote about fog in the Buffalo News. And that season is right now: Spring, when warm air shoves and nudges up from the south, meeting the cold air shivering above the still-frigid waters of Lake Erie. Those opposing-temperatured airs meet and swirl together, and the consequence of their embrace is fog.

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

But maybe there’s a difference between lake fog and river fog; maybe fog hangs more thickly, stays longer, in the gentle indentations between rolling hills. Fog seems foggier, somehow, in Ohio.

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

This morning, when I look at the weather app on my phone, it warns me about the fog, which is dense and limits sight. I peer out the window, and the streetlight shines, bright but opaque, in the grayness.

The sun will come out this afternoon. I will delay my walk.

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

Just FYI: the foggiest places in North America are, according to The Farmer’s Almanac, these sites:

  • Grand Banks, Newfoundland
  • Point Reyes, California
  • Cape Disappointment, Washington
  • San Francisco, California (legendary…)
  • and Mistake Island, Maine.

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

For the heck of it, I look up the etymology of ‘fog,’ and I find that the word crept (perhaps on little cat feet, perhaps not) into the English language about 1542. Etymonline.com tells me it came from the Danish, where it meant snow or heavy mist or rain. But England had real fog, and England crafted the new meaning of that word.

Think of London Fog, raincoat makers since 1923. “London Fog”—the words roll off my tongue, completely logical and acceptable.

Think of the Great Smog of 1952, when, in London, fog hit soot. The landscape became a thick swirling soup of cold air and smoke from factories and homes and cars, from the diesel-powered buses spewing their exhaust. The swirl created a thick, viscous murk that shut the city down.

An image of “Killer London Fog” from CBS News.

Those buses couldn’t navigate; they had to pull over. Trains stopped. Schools and businesses closed. People, walking with flashlights, shined the beam downward and could not see their feet. A “greasy black ooze,” history.com tells me, coated the sidewalks, making them slick. The same ooze coated the faces of people arriving, finally, at their destinations.

The Smog was caused by a high-pressure system that settled in for five days; the warm air above trapped the colder air below, pushed it, stagnant, toward the earth, opaque and dangerous.

That Smog of 1952 was lethal to the frail elderly, to the vulnerable very young, and to those people whose respiratory systems were impaired. Think of the horror of that: you’d know you shouldn’t be there; you’d know there were safer places to be. But the toxic soup threatening you was also what wouldn’t let you escape.

People died. History.com says that as many as 12,000 people (three times the officially released total) may have died from those five days of foggy mess.

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

I met a woman at a breakfast not long ago who has ‘Long COVID.’ She is a person who is respected—it would not be stretching a point to say revered, I think—in my community.

She was charming and engaged, interesting and interested, at 9:00 a.m.

“It won’t last, though,” she said. “In a couple of hours, the brain fog will come back.”

Brain fog! I know that condition in a sideways kind of a way. When I was a child, “You’re in a fog!” my mother used to say, and, “Get your nose out of that book!”

And it was true: the worlds in books were clearer and sharper to me than the world I actually inhabited. When I tried to focus on the ‘real’ world, it didn’t always click into sharp relief.

But that was my choice. ‘Brain fog’ is an actual, physical complaint; COVID is not its only cause.

“Brain fog is not a medical or scientific term; it is used by individuals to describe how they feel when their thinking is sluggish, fuzzy, and not sharp,” writes Dr. Andrew Budson, on health.harvard.edu.

It may not be an officially sanctioned term, but brain fog IS a medical condition. People who experience it report feeling drained all the time, forgetting things (names, where their phone is, important appointments), and just not having the will or the energy to properly engage.  

Doctors have determined causes for ‘brain fog,’ even if they don’t use that exact term to describe it. Mitochondrial dysfunction can cause brain fog; so can interference in gut health. And, as women of a certain age may already know, hormonal imbalances also contribute.

There’s no nice and easy cure, sadly. Medicos recommend reducing toxicity—both, I guess, in nasty food additives and in nasty people,—following a good nutrition regimen (specifically for COVID-caused fog, the Mediterranean diet was mentioned), and doing everything possible to relieve stress, including getting ample aerobic exercise. Some practitioners advocate essential oils and supplements, as well.

Dr. Budson adds, in his article about COVID-specific brain fog, that getting a good night sleep, being with engaging people, and tackling some stimulating, possibly different activities, can all help dispel the haze. Listen to music, he says, practice mindfulness, and work on positivity.

It sounds like the steps to dispelling this kind of fog can be long and measured and slow.

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

Brain fog. I can clearly remember childhood illnesses, especially those with fever. One day I would wake up, and the world, again, would have its sharp corners. I would know the illness was over.

I didn’t have the words for it then, but the brain fog was gone.

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

And now, I am sitting, pounding on these keys, and I realize the light outside the window has changed. There is no reason, now, not to lace up my sneakers and head out for a lovely spring-morning walk.

The fog is gone.

I welcome the sun, even as it shines on the dandelions and highlights tufts of onion grass I need to mow down in my front yard. The sun shows us what we need to see, illuminates the shadows. The sun calls forth the growth.

But the fog has its place, too. It mutes the edges; it slows the bustle. It bids us rest. Fog gives me respite; it entreats me to light the fire and float a soft blanket over my feet. Fog should never stay forever, but its hazy lack of urgency can comfort, for a time.

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

It’s over, now, though; the fog is over. Time to engage with a sharp-edged world.

Word Games and Spring Thoughts

Oh, it’s a wonderful season!

That, my friend, is not a first line so much as it’s a word reservoir. How many words—especially spring-themed words—can one find in “Oh, it’s a wonderful season”???

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

Here’s one:

Flowers

Daffodils…

Now there’s a Spring word: flowers are the icons of this bursting-into-life season. These past two weeks, I have made posies and bouquets of daffodils and forsythia, put them into old honey bottles and mason jars, enjoyed the splash of yellow—sunshine successfully captured—in the house and at work.

When we moved into this house, we had a daffodil field worthy of Wordsworth in both the front and back yards. Early, early in the spring, those blonde heads would begin nodding on their green stalks, and for two months, there’d be a continuous explosion of yellow. The Normans, who lived here for more than sixty years, were the flower people who planned the glorious exhibition.

Now, though, it seems the daffodils are flagging. We still get beautiful blossoms, but we get more and more long, thin leaves sprouting, no stems in sight. Non-blooming daffs, they are, maybe weary after what surely must be a lifetime of flowering.

I don’t blame them; there’s a time that comes for resting.

Mark’s been researching the planting and care of daffodils, and this fall, we will plant new bulbs, start a new generation, we hope, of yellow glory.

And now the season is moving from the yellow time to the pinking and the purpling. The flowers trees are flaring—magenta and lavender (white ones, too). They scent the air. And tulips cup their blooms to gather the sun in milky petal-bowls—pink and purple, and, still, some yellow.

Yes, flowers is a good first word in this find-a-word game.

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

It may be true that I didn’t always agree with my mother, but in one thing we were solid: we loved words. And word games were a part of that; sometimes, when I was very young, we would sit at the table with scrap paper and pencils and challenge ourselves to see how many words we could find. How many words in ‘Merry Christmas’? How many in ‘Happy Birthday’? How many, I ask you, in ‘Groundhog’s Day’?

Mom was always good at this challenge. I grew adept, too—I enjoyed the hunting and exploring and thrill of discovery. Oh, the rush of pride when a five letter word appeared from the mix! (Our rules said words had to be at least three letters long, but the only scoring was just a word count. No extra points for, say, a ten-letter word, but, boy, one sure could claim bragging rights. “Good one!” we would say. “How did you FIND that? That is amazing!”)

Sometimes, we would go to bridal showers or baby showers, and the hosts would have us play this game. (How many words can you make from ‘Sharon and Larry Hibbetts?’ How many words can you make from ‘Welcome Baby Smith?’)  Mom and I would jump in, scribbling. The pencils around us might scratch a little more slowly.

“Time!” the gamekeeper would call. “Who’s got more than twenty?”

I would open my mouth, and my mother would put her hand on my arm, catch my attention, shake her head.

I put my hand over my page and observed.

The winner might have 25 words, and they would choose from the tissue-paper-wrapped baskets of prizes. (A bottle of hand lotion! A flowered rain bonnet! A scented bar of soap!)

I would peek at my mother’s sheet. She had found 161 words, which beat my 82 all to heck.

On the way home, she said, “That’s just our thing, the word games. It would be like bragging to say, ‘Ooooh, I got so much more than you did.’”

Different people have different gifts, my mother said, and we’d never get rich or famous finding words in other words. It was just something we liked to do.

Thou shalt not brag was like the eleventh commandment in my family of birth.

We kept our word magic quiet, even as we’d read headlines (Johnson Declares War on Poverty! Beatles Take US By Storm!) and think, “How many words could you find…????” My fingers would itch for a pencil and a spare sheet of paper.

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

Here are more words from the phrase, “Oh, it’s a wonderful season.”

Snow

Rain

Sleet

Hail

There we go. There are four solid springtime words in Ohio plucked from the reservoir. We learned, early on after moving here, that a common Ohio saying is, “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.”

Last Saturday, that saying was truth. We got all of those forms of precipitation, in windy waves. It was raining, cold and bitter, when I woke up and put the coffee on. We made a hearty Saturday breakfast and listened to the wind and the water lashing the house. We cleaned up the dishes and righted the house, and things seemed to have calmed down.

“I’ll go for a walk,” I thought, but by the time I had my sneakers laced up, there was a blustery, discouraging snow, and the wind was gleefully, randomly, tossing it hither and yon.

“Never mind,” I said to myself, and we decided it was a great morning to have a fire in the fireplace and snuggle up with our books.

I never did get an outdoor walk in that day. We went out and did some grocery shopping, walking the perimeter of the store, dodging up and down the aisles, getting our steps in that way. We loaded the car as that treacherous wind puffed up again, and we drove home with hard little balls of white hail bouncing and skittering on the windshield. We were glad to pull into the carport and unpack the groceries.

And we were glad to be home and snug when the hail turned to sleet.

Spring in Ohio. Snow, rain, sleet, and hail: I can find them all in one cozy weekend day. And I can find those spring-themed words in my handy word reservoir, too.

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

I can’t remember when I first was introduced to the game Boggle, but it was like a wordy rite of passage. It was ‘how many words can you find?’ on steroids. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boggle)

Boggle has letter-dice that sit neatly in kind of a square ice cube tray. There’s a clear plastic, squared off dome that sits atop. To play, one person shakes the whole shebang, firmly holding the dome and the base together, and then gentles the dice back into their slots. She pulls off the plastic top, flips a three-minute timer, and people start writing.

Vintage Boggle game image from etsy.com

One has to see how many words they can find from the face-up letters, but one can look in any direction, as long as letters are contiguous and one does not use the same letter twice in the same word. Just like our home rules, words have to be at least three letters long, but in THIS game, the longer a word, the greater the points.

When the timekeeper shouts, “Stop!” players finish writing their final word, and then, in turn, read off their lists. When someone else has the same word, the players cross that find off their lists. Only the words that aren’t duplicated on any other list are victorious.

I loved Boggle from the first time I played it; I felt like I had been training for this challenge all my life. I was good at Boggling, and I didn’t mind people knowing that; never mind the family dictum about bragging.

“Let’s play Boggle!” became my rallying cry, and that worked for a while, and I would crow and gloat when I won.

“Let’s play Boggle!” I would continue to beg, but people began to dig out pinochle cards.

“Let’s play Boggle!” I would implore, and people I loved would turn away, muttering, “Not with YOU.”

Boggle slowly faded from my life, although I have a Boggle game (a game that is probably at least 35 years old) tucked in the cupboard. I still can’t find anyone to play Boggle with.

But, as I was looking up Boggle to write this post, I discovered a Boggle game on-line.

I will add that to my daily on-line word game line-up.

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

Here’s a spring word found in our reservoir:

Lawn

This weekend, getting the lawn mower up and moving is a top priority. The front yard sprouts all those un-budding daffodil leaves; it also hosts tuft after tuft of tough, pungent, onion grass. Sweet gum pods have rained down, shaken by last weekend’s winds, and dry sticks and dead leaves pepper the grass, which is newly, greenly, gleaming.

Once we fire up the mower in Spring, we are committed, I know: that means wheeling it out, yanking on the rope, cranking it up, at least every three days. April showers bring lawn mowers; I think that’s how the old saying goes, and I hate to jump into the endless guilt about whether to mow today or tomorrow.

But the lawn is messy, and the sun is shining this weekend.

And it’s a productive way to get my steps in.

So. Here we go. Sometimes ‘lawn’ is a four-letter word.

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

Sometimes in the mornings, I am in search of four-letter words. Slowly, over years, I have developed an on-line word game morning repertoire. I started doing the Jumble and the Cryptoquip in the paper, and then I discovered that Microsoft Word comes with word games built in.

And Microsoft Word Games gives me coins: Bronze! Gold! Diamond! There are three kinds of games—a crossword, a jumble, and a boggle-y type word search. If I complete them all successfully in a day, I get 500 bonus points.

Of course, I quickly became hooked on that. Oh, humans: how easily we’re trained by glittery rewards.

Then I discovered a game called CodeWord on the AARP games site; it’s now firmly part of the morning routine. Codeword is kind of a backwards crossword. Instead of clues, the game-makers give us two letters. So, ‘C’ and ‘L’ might be in their spaces around the board, and I have to figure out what word might fit where. So, if I’m right that THIS word is ‘cycle,’ then I have populated all the E’s on the board, and all the Y’s, and suddenly I can see the skeletons of other words, and I know where to put an A and a T, and, quickly as I can, the words build up, interlock, and, when I am successful, I get a little score announcement.

At the end of the month, I can submit my whole month’s score, but it is never one of the highest scores, which are posted for all of us losers to yearn over. Still, I enjoy the games, and I like to think I’m getting better.

I like to think I’m stretching my brain first thing in the morning, too, although an annoying little voice in the bony mind cavern hisses that I am using growth as an excuse to indulge my love of word games.

Oh, well, I think. I could be hooked on lots worse things than word games.

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

Sweets

…is another word floating in our reservoir. And sure, I have weightier and more spiritual things swirling and tumbling in my mind, but sometimes a sweetie can make the contemplation of those necessary but maybe not joy-filled things more palatable.

Late in this Lent, I decided it was time to forego chocolate. I decided that because I began to think maybe I had a little addiction issue, that I could not get through the day without a handful of M&M’s, a stack of tiny Mr. Goodbars from the bucket at work, or without a rectangle of goodness snapped off a dark chocolate salted caramel bar. (Dark chocolate, I felt, was practically a health food.)

It would get to be 3:00 p.m., and I’d be having a serious chocolate craving, which, most often, I’d indulge.

Finally, “This can’t be GOOD,” I thought, and I put all chocolate—healthy or NOT—on the Lenten verboten list. I will have some on Easter, but just some. I’ll have to write new rules for Ordinary Time: maybe chocolate, in judicious portions, will be allowed on Sundays, for example.

I don’t like the idea of being in thrall to anything, food, or chemical, or set and determined ways of unexplored thinking—although of course, I am. But when one of ‘em is so severe it floats right up into my eye-line, blocking my sight, demanding attention, I have to do something about it.

Ah, Chocolate. We’ve had a lovely run, but from now on, we’re just friends. Let’s agree to see other people.

I wonder if I can bond with caramel without getting obsessed???

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

Not too long ago, one of my lovely nieces sent me a link to an on-line word game I had never explored. I had seen other people’s posts about their grand successes and sad days with the game, but the results came in rows of colored squares.

“Whaaaaat?????” I thought, and did not explore.

Then Meg sent a link, and explained the game, and now Wordle, too, is a daily adventure.

In Wordle, you can type letters into five empty spaces. The letters have to comprise a word.

If the letters are in the word, but in the wrong place, they turn a sort of golden tan.

If the letters are in the word in the RIGHT place, they turn a vibrant green.

It’s an interesting challenge: we have five chances to get the right word. So much depends on the first word I type in. I often try to use words with multiple vowels, like ‘oasis’ or ‘rouge’. Once I get the vowels in place, I have a better idea of what consonants might glue them together.

But it’s a challenge. Friday, for example, something just told me to use ‘shank’ as my first word. And, oh my goodness, SHA were all in exactly the right place. On the next turn, I got the E right where it should be. But it took me three more turns to get that final letter.

All right: I am fighting my chocolate addiction, but my word game addiction: not so much. It’s good for my mind, you know: stretches it.

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

And here’s a final, most appropriate word that rises to the top in the reservoir:

Easter.

Easter, the word of ultimate hope; the word that says, no matter how bad things are, new life is coming. The growing things—even the onion grass and sweet gum pod litter, remind me of that. The flowers bring it home with more beauty and pleasure. The confusing swirl of weather reminds me that sun is coming, and the absence of sweets is a promise that sweetness will return.

I may be playing with words while there’s war in the world, while climate changes spin our weather in unexpected directions; I may be wondering how to help friends and family who are going through challenging times.

Sometimes the challenges seem insurmountable.

But, Easter. Whatever our belief system, this holy day, this time of year, reminds us that new life happens—happens around us, in spite of us, and maybe even, sometimes, with our help.

However you arrive at this time—with letters popping up from a word reservoir, with comfort arising from deeply held beliefs, with joy fizzling and shared with ones you love—I hope it is infused with hope and couched in warmth.

Happy Easter. Happy Spring.

Riding in My Car

I was alone, I took a ride
I didn’t know what I would find there
Another road where maybe
I could see another kind of mind there

—John Lennon and Paul McCartney

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

It is a gray, chill morning. Mark gathers up his things—phone and glasses, bag of popcorn mix to share with colleagues, wallet, and umbrella—and heads off to work. James, breakfast eaten, is happily puttering; the SEAT bus will pick him up at 9:00 so he can be at work at the campus library by ten.

I gather my things, too,–daffodils and forsythia I have picked and trimmed and wrapped in a damp paper towel and rolled in aluminum foil—fresh flowers for the office. Lunch and satchel with calendar and notebook, keys and phone, and the library book that was due yesterday. I’m hoping that if I leave a little early, slide it into the book drop before the library opens, I’ll avoid the fine. I don’t mind paying the ten cents; it just bugs me to have that black spot on my record.

“Adios, amoeba,” I say to Jim.

“Adios, amomba,” he replies, and I head out into the dull gray day.

I beep the car open, stow stuff in the back seat, careful with the flowers, and start the car.

As I back out of the carport, the clouds crack open, and out beams that special kind of sun that early spring brings.

It rained last night; the driveway and the street are sugar-glazed. I do a little three-pointer so I can drive forward down the driveway—backing is not my specialty—and my maneuvers must startle a fat gray squirrel. It bounds from a rock at the edge of the messy garden to a tree limb, probably jumping four feet neat. The limb shudders, and the squirrel takes a moment to readjust. Then it goes leaping through trees and onto powerlines, a fat little acrobat, a well-fed birdfeeder thief.

I head off from the homeplace into a gentle spring morning.

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

We’re in Spring’s yellow phase. Daffodils and tiny jonquils bob and feint, fields of them, like a Wordsworth ode, in the broad side yard of the Helen Purcell Home. We visited there a week or so ago, for the Foundation; the director told us that residents like those yellow flowers. They like to walk through the pathways that intersect the daffodil host. They like to sit on the benches on warm spring days and enjoy harbingers of spring.

And, if they’re not up to walking the paths themselves, they like to sit where they can watch others—residents, neighborhood walkers,—taking the trails, weaving in and out of fields of green and yellow.

Daffodils nod in many other yards, too, and forsythia bushes bow their slender limbs graciously in the breeze. Some forsythias are trimmed to perfection, smooth rounded flower-puffs. Others are let to go their own ways—woody and assertive.

They all glow, capturing the soft early sunshine.

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

I turn the heat on; it’s a pretty morning, but it’s a cool one, too. I turn the radio on, as well. A man named Myroslav Serhijchuk is talking to an interviewer on NPR. He owns a Ukrainian gift shop in Chicago. I wonder if my nephew Brian, a hip Chicago urbanite/artist, has ever happened on that shop.

Serhijchuk says that his sales have tripled; people are buying things, especially Ukrainian flags, to show their support of his native country.

Serhijchuk’s supply chain has been interrupted, though; it is impossible to restock his shelves with Ukrainian goods. And he has family in the Ukraine. It is not so urgent, he says, to get the items he needs to sell.

“Important is to end the war, for now,” he says.

The interview is infused with the knowledge of the massacre in Bucha. Hearing the voice of a man desperately worried about his family brings that war home in an immediate, very human way.

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

I stop at a three way stop at about the same time as another driver. We gauge each other, and then she abruptly pulls out in front of me, turning left.

“No directionals,” I think bitterly, my little flare of morning righteousness. And then I move on.

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

The radio commentator is talking about COVID, now, about the variant that’s emerging, and about how confusing the situation is. It seems rampant in some places and inconsequential in others. But China is experiencing, she says, a huge, worrisome surge.

I pat my pocket as I drive: do I still have a mask with me?

And I do: my cloth mask printed in a book pattern. I like to wear that one to the library and when we go to Half Price Books, two of the last mask-mandate holdouts. But now even both of those places—even my pharmacy!—have relaxed the mask requirement. Now I sometimes leave the house without a mask, the sudden disappearance of a three-year habit.

Now our discussion is about getting a second booster. Two doctors we trust have advised against it, saying wait. Wait until a new surge comes in. Wait until the percentage of cases in the County goes up to five or seven per cent.

They didn’t say IF a new surge comes; they said when.

I vow to keep a mask in my car and one in the pocket of every jacket, in case I need them; so I won’t forget.

Although I won’t go IN the library this morning

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

I navigate through the construction areas; our interstate offramps are being reconfigured. It will be five years before the project is complete, and patterns have immediately changed. In the afternoons, I encounter unusually high traffic in this area.

Now, though, I am happy that my shortcut to the library is till intact. I’ll have to do a little navigating, though, to head back onto Linden Avenue.

I pull close to the book drop, yank open the reluctant drawer, and slide my book in. It’s a book on women’s suffrage; I’ve been using it to write a paper on the 19th amendment for a meeting I’ll be going to in May. I’ve renewed the book four times, and now the library says, “Bring that darned book back, you book-hog.”

So I do, twelve hours past the deadline.

Then I pull out onto Fifth Street.

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

Fifth Street is a one-way street; I get into the right lane, and I drive past the courthouse, where Mark has his office. There is the empty, rubbled lot next to the Courthouse, where the Masonic Temple stood until a fire decimated it on January 6.

I turn right onto Main Street.

I stick to the right lane, and, in a few blocks, I bear right on the Y-Bridge, one of Zanesville’s claims to fame. The Licking and Muskingum Rivers meet in downtown Zanesville; an ordinary bridge won’t span the two of them. Our one of a kind bridge is Y-shaped. In spring, summer, and fall, it is glorious with baskets of flowers that hang from the ironwork lamps that line it.

The broad little waterfall rages this morning, lots of rain churning over it, churning the waters below.

This river can be treacherous, they tell me; there are currents and undertows. People, trying to swim and play, have died.

That’s one of the reasons the Foundation helped some County communities get their pools back up and running last summer.

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

The Y Bridge is kind of a marvelous thing, often taken, by those of us who live here, for granted. This morning, in the fresh, careful sunshine of a tenuous spring day, it seems to me again kind of miraculous.

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

Spring brings construction; a sign warns me of a one-lane road ahead. Sometimes those signs are mistaken, maybe left-over from another day, but not this one. I stop behind a creamy green-colored Jeep. Its rear lights have X-es in them, like, Mark, Jim, and I agree, the eyes of cartoon animals who are dead.

A thin, blonde and bearded traffic worker holds the ‘STOP’ sign, and he dances with it. He leans forward digging the pole into the street, bending until he’s almost perpendicular. He shakes his head—I can see the locks fly, even under his white hard hat, and then he gracefully pulls back. He dances the STOP sign like a partner, and he keeps us happily amused until approaching cars inch through, and the dancer-man can flip the sign to ‘SLOW.’

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

I drive up Linden Avenue, past the Day Nursery, an institution that’s been in place, I am pretty sure, since the 1940’s, long before other communities decided they needed to provide safe, engaging care for children whose moms have to work. Another point of pride, I think.

I pass a new little coffee shop where, Mark says, the owners bake the most amazing cinnamon buns.

After the stoplight, Linden skirts the river. This morning, that river is muddy brown and smooth.

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

And I turn left at Military Road, climb uphill past woods into a lovely neighborhood of new and mid-century homes. The road ribbons around twists and turns and comes out at the crest of a hill. 

I just need to continue downward to reach the office, where I park and gather everything up, the bags and the flowers, which have survived the journey well.

I grab the mail, which is just an ad, open the door, and start the workday.

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

The early morning ride, though—it flavors my day with spring sun, discussions of war and pandemic, and reminders of the uniqueness of this town I call home.

It’s nice, I think, to go a little out of the way in the morning, to celebrate the weather, whatever it is, and to look around with fresh eyes. I might just take the long way ‘round on purpose one or two days a week.

Even if, as I find out later, my early drop-off did not fool the library. Later that day, I stop and pay my fine.

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

Safe as Houses: Random Thoughts on Home

The wind is truly howling. Mark and Jim are howling, too, watching some show where people do the stupidest of things—and they do those things knowing they’ve been captured on video, and then they say, “Sure, you can air this!”

“Oh, my GAWD!” Jim cackles from the family room; I hear a crash and then a profound silence from the television and then the commentator’s comment, and I hear Mark snickering, too.

I am snootily sitting in the other room; the fire crackling as the windows shudder just a little. My feet are nested in a tan knit coverlet, and the lamplight shines golden on the pages of a book by a new author I’m exploring. Decaffeinated green tea steams in a mug on the end table, and oh, it’s wild, pulsing, and unpredictable outside, but I am home.

Home and safe.

Safe as houses.

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

I suppose everyone looks back on their life when they get to the rung I’m on and says, “Oh. Okay. That’s what that was all about,” and they may see themes like service or adventure or advancement, nurturing, or even escape. I cast my eyes down that long and wobbly ladder I’ve been climbing, and I think, “Of course. It was always about home.”

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

The Oxford Dictionary defines home like this: the place where one lives permanently, especially as a member of a family or household. (https://languages.oup.com/google-dictionary-en/)

But…permanent. That seems difficult, outdated, unrealistic, especially in the United States. According to Lee Nelson on the Mortgage Reports, “In 2016, the tenure of homeowners increased to ten years. One more than the year before, according to the National Association of Realtors 2016 Profile of Homebuyers and Sellers.”

The home we live in now may not be the structure we will live in five or ten years from now. The concept of the old family homestead—of there being one building, one piece of land—that always has, does, and will mean home—for many of us, that’s no longer a reality. For many of us, actually, it never it was.

Where does one live permanently?

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

One of the first issues Susan wanted to address when I started at the Foundation was homelessness. Imagine people in two hundred years (when, I hope, the problem’s been long solved) trying to understand homelessness, looking at us, at society in the early 2000’s, and saying: They had empty buildings. They had people who needed buildings to sleep in. Wasn’t the answer obvious?

It seemed to me, too, that the solution to homelessness was pretty clear: find or build homes. Put people in them.

But when we started to learn more about the state of homelessness in our community (and homelessness often flies under the radar in small communities and rural areas), I realized how little I understand.

The reasons people are homeless are broad and varied. The barriers to having a ‘permanent’ place to live are many.

And some people don’t want that—don’t want to be tied to a structure.

When COVID spiked, it did not neglect the homeless population. And it was winter; people were at risk.  A local coalition housed homeless people in warm hotel rooms.

Wouldn’t that seem like heaven, after being on the street? Hot water, a warm, clean bed, cable TV? Privacy????

Many of the people so housed could not stand it. They left the rooms before the night was out and went back to where they had been.

I am reminded of working with others creating a computer lab for students who were returning veterans. The planners told us we could not set up the tables so that the vets sat with their backs to the door. Many veterans would just not feel safe sitting that way. They wouldn’t be able to do their work.

Maybe something similar was true for some of the homeless folks who were given hotel rooms which, generally, only have one door. Maybe they didn’t feel safe in those rooms where, if someone else could come IN, they might not be able to get OUT.

Is home the place where one feels safe?

Maybe the ‘cure’ for homelessness is not as simple as building homes. (But I still think that’s a start.)

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

Growing up, I realize now, I was obsessed with the idea of ‘home,’ even while I rebelled against the thought that women were destined to be housewives, homemakers, stay-at-home mamas. I read ladies mags avidly at the same time as I took courses in women’s history and feminist ideals, and I sent away for Oneida teaspoons—a quarter a spoon!—developing a nice collection for my hope chest, which was more a concept than an actual trunk. (I wasn’t hoping, I’d tell people, to find a HUSBAND; I was hoping to find a HOUSE.)

I loved to knit, and I made blankets and throws. I embroidered pillowcases. I pored over cookbooks and magazines, looking for recipes that produced wondrous results on a crimped budget. I memorized techniques from articles about topics like, “How to make a small room look larger,” and, “Creating guest space in your small home.”

I always had a job that took me outside the home, but finding home, coming home, creating home—those were happy life challenges.

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

And of course, I’m far from alone; ‘home’ is a burgeoning magazine industry, with Better Homes & Gardens, Ladies Home Journal, Southern Living, and Country Living attracting avid readers. And media! Look at the success of This Old House and HGTV; we love to watch as clever people transform a dismal dump into a welcoming place, love to see the family who’ll live there come in at the end, tears flying: they are home!

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

We each, maybe, carry a definition, an ideal, of home within us. We looked at houses when Jim was six or so, and he hated the whole process. He did not want to move. He would whine and sigh and tell us he was STARVING as we traipsed through an empty house. We were mentally populating it with our furniture, wondering where we’d put the Christmas tree; Jim was dug in, ready to leave. And even without Jim’s resistance, none were quite right, or quite affordable, or quite where we needed them to be.

Then we looked at the house on Orchard Street, a simple place, three bedrooms up; kitchen, dining room, living room down. Dry basement. Nice back yard.

It felt familiar to me; it was laid out exactly as my parents’ house had been when I was in high school. The price was right. The neighborhood was perfect.

And where was Jim? He was sitting on the carpeted staircase, reading a book.

“I now where my room is,” he said, without looking up from the page.

We bought the house. As Jim said later, it just felt like home.

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

I like to read British novels and British murder mysteries. Horrendous things might happen in those books, or sad things—violence is wreaked, people die too young, lying lovers disappear—but there is always an anchor, at least in the books I like. There is, for instance, a big old cooker in the kitchen with the flagstone floor. There is someone who brews up a batch of hot chocolate and slices cake when comfort is needed. Broad windows look out onto calm vistas, and worn bedspreads carry memories of happy childhood exploits. Those books may push us into danger, but they also, always, carry us home,—carry us to where it’s safe.

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

I click the ‘Home’ key on this computer to get to the ‘select all’ tab. Home, in this case, is the place where I started, the place I go to when I have to perform certain tasks. Home is, very practically on a computer, the place where I can find help.

Home is a place of return.

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

I think about ‘home’ in baseball, too. It’s not only where I start, it’s the place I try to reach. And it’s probably no accident that the rules of the game say reaching home only counts when I’m safe.

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

Home—a structure, a place, a sense of freedom or belonging?

And home, of course, can be people, too. Consider military families, housed in a complex for, maybe, long enough that the kids pass a grade or two, and then sent on to the next posting. They carry along objects that say ‘Home’ to them—blankets and furniture, kitchen utensils. A favorite mug. A flag for the front yard, when they have a front yard to wave it in.

But they move for each other, to stay with the people they’ve chosen. That’s home.

My father died one day short of 18 months after my mother. In his last days, hospitalized, he was, much of the time, wandering, oblivious, incoherent. Once, though, my brother and I were sitting on either side of his bed. Dad picked his head up, made eye contact with each of us in turn, and said, clearly and with no confusion, “I’m going home.”

I think he told us that to comfort us. He died the next day. Going, I hope, to join my mother. For Dad, she was home.

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

War destroys a great many things, but maybe the worst of it is that war destroys homes. We read about those who lived through the attacks, and those who escaped before the attacks, and how they have come to other countries. They may not speak the language; they may not have much money. They cling to each other, to the few things they were able to carry on the train.

War has made them refugees: they are without the refuge of their home.

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

It snows again this morning, early on, starting as big, ragged chunks of cotton ripped from the clouds—looking like, Jim says, the feathers UNDER the feathers we see on birds—and then turning into a pelting white torrent for a while.

Mark sighs and heads off to work, and Jim gets his stuff together, laces up his shoes, and suddenly his ride is out front, and he goes proudly off to work, too.

The house settles quiet around me, and I pour the last of the coffee into my favorite mug, the thick one with the blue pansy design, and I sit down at our scarred and sturdy dining room table. Drinking it in: the comfort, the quiet, the departures with the promises to return.

Lucky, lucky, lucky: lucky to be home, and wishing everyone had that same kind of luck.

“Safe as houses,” I think.

Self-Reliance. (Well, that, or contracting it out…)

“If you spend your life trying to be good at everything, you will never be great at anything.”
― Tom Rath, Strengths Based Leadership: Great Leaders, Teams, and Why People Follow: A Landmark Study of Great Leaders, Teams, and the Reasons Why We Follow

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

James bought himself a couple of new pairs of jeans, one a traditional indigo, one kind of a faded black. They were nice jeans, and they fit well, but they looked like the jeans we used to wear on purpose when I was in high school. They were way, way too long; James was walking on the fabric.

“We need to hem those jeans,” I said vaguely, and James agreed that might be good.

One day, it got warm in the afternoon—warm enough to be officially No Jacket Weather, and James thought he’d run up and swap his jeans out for shorts.

“Wait!” I said, and I made him stand on a chair; I grabbed my little cloth tomato-full-of-pins, and I pinned up one jeans leg’s hem, so we’d know how much extra there was.

James ran up and changed (very carefully, he said; he was a little nervous about that pin in his hem), and then he brought me both pairs of too-lengthy jeans.

I took them and the pin cushion tomato, my sewing shears, and a measuring tape to the basement, where I fired up the iron. I measured the extra material, and I folded the hems over and pinned them. I cut away the excess denim, and I wielded that steaming iron, making the new hem-line as crisp and sharp as I could. I pinned up all the legs of the two pairs of jeans, and I took them upstairs and put them, neatly folded, next to the little gray love seat where I sit to watch TV.

That night, we all watched the next episode of Broadchurch; while we watched, I hemmed.

And, while I hemmed, I thought about my mother teaching me how to do a hemstitch, how to make it small and neat, especially on the side that shows.

“It’s important to know how to do these things,” I thought, and I remembered once, in a different lifetime, sitting on the couch and darning socks. A friend walked in—in that lifetime, no one knocked,–looked at what I was doing, and scoffed.

“When socks have holes,” he said, “I throw them away and buy more.”

What an idiot, I thought, and I smiled at him vaguely.

Now, whip-stitching those hems of James’, I thought how everyone should know how to do this—how I should teach James to do this, and about how there are so many things we COULD do for ourselves, but we just don’t bother.

I thought of my oft-told tale, too, about my former student who didn’t realize that you don’t need a boxed mix to make macaroni and cheese.

We need to teach the next generation how to be self-reliant, I pontificated silently. Our culture—our aggressive commercial media—teaches that it’s better to let someone else, or some magical product, do the work—whether it be cleaning or cooking, parenting, job-hunting, computing, or eating out.

I felt a wee bit self-righteous thinking all that, and I finished up the last leg of the second pair of jeans and tossed them to James when the Broadchurch episode ended, on yet another groaning cliffhanger.

“And no pins left in the hems?” James asked, a little nervously.

“All pins out,” I assured him. “Safe to wear.”

He kind of crumpled the pants up into a big ball and carried them on upstairs.

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

And all week the importance of being able to do things for one’s self rumbled around in my mind. One shouldn’t have to pay someone else to hem a pair of pants, for heaven’s sake… A little measuring, a little pinning, maybe an hour’s worth of work in front of the TV set. And why would one use a mix to, for instance, bake cookies? Mixing up a batch of cookies is, really, pretty easy, and the end results (just like homemade mac and cheese) tastes SO much better than the boxed version.

My thoughts were running along these lines: We need to teach kids the skills they need to be self-sufficient. There are many, many chores—maybe MOST chores—that we should just do for ourselves.

I had, after all, just hemmed two pairs of pants. I was feeling pretty justified.

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

Wednesday I did something that still has the tang and savor of oddity: I went to an in-person meeting. The presenter had some very pretty charts pulled up on the projector, and while we waited for everyone to arrive, we talked about that.

The presenter said the charts weren’t HIS work; they were the work of a colleague. If he tried to put the charts together, he would have been up all night.

One of the professionals there agreed. She said that if she HAD to, she could assemble a chart for a meeting. But, she said, it would take her hours. If her more technically-skilled colleague created the chart, though, she’d have it done in minutes, and then both would have more time to expend on equally pressing matters.

Huh, I thought, and I started pondering that, and what that meant to my ideas of being self-reliant, doing things myself.

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

Here’s one of the things I thought about: a year or two ago, I decided to use all the material I’d been saving to Make A Quilt Someday.

I had been seeing pictures, on Facebook especially, but all over social media, of bookshelf quilts. Brown material strips framed the shelves, and then a riot of multi-colored books lined them, in different heights and widths. Some had favorite book titles embroidered on their cute fabric spines.

I need me a quilt like that, I thought.

So I drew myself a series of templates, copied them, then cut the first one apart. I painstakingly chose the materials I wanted, and then I cut out the ‘books’ for the first of my quilt squares.

When everything was cut, which took a lot longer than I expected, I pinned all the pieces together.

Then I basted them together and took out the pins—I don’t like being pierced by those invidious little buggers any more than James does.

Then I carefully, carefully, sewed the block together,

The whole process took three weeks. When I got done, I had a lumpy, dubious square that was taller on one side than the other.

It looked a little bit like books, but not a lot.

I let it sit for a few days, and then I threw it away, along with my fantasy of making a quilt by hand. I donated the material.

And I felt about ninety pounds lighter…the burden of that thing that I COULD do, but that would take me eons and not produce the end result I wanted, was GONE.

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

I know two people—call them UhUh and Cookie.

UhUh hates to cook; really, really hates it. Guess what? Cookie loves the whole process of preparing food—chopping, stirring, combining, seasoning, cooking, roasting, baking.

Cookie hates shopping, though.

So UhUh, who likes to shop, buys the ingredients and Cookie puts them together. She makes enough for herself and enough for UhUh, and sometimes Cookie even has enough for UhUh to share with family members.

What an elegant arrangement! Both UhUh and Cookie do the things they ENJOY doing, and both of them end up with delicious meals.

UhUh COULD cook if she had to…if there was a snowstorm that kept her housebound for days, say, and she ran out of Cookie meals, UhUh would not starve. But she wouldn’t be whistling as she stirred, either.

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

And here’s a confession: every other week, a wonderful, cheerful, efficient young professional cleans my house. This is a thing that I used to joke about; if I engaged a cleaner, I always said, my lower-middle class roots would rise up in protest. I’d have to clean the house before the cleaner came, so she wouldn’t think I was a piggie.

But I retired and then went back to work, and there never seemed to be quite enough time (let alone energy) to get it all done.

A wiser friend schooled me. “Get a cleaner,” she said. “And you can pick up before she comes, but you don’t CLEAN up.”

And what a marvel, every other week, to have Sarah power through the house. She has a system; she has the tools; she has envious energy. When she leaves after four hours, the house is lightened and brightened, and the toilet paper is folded into neat little hotel-room points.

I still go out and do my shopping while Sarah’s here though, because it’s just so weird to be in my house when Sarah’s cleaning it.

“Your mother,” Mark says, “is rolling in her grave.”

But I’m not so sure. I think my mother, and other women of her generation, would see the wisdom in choosing to do the things we do well and happily, and finding talented, willing people to do the others.

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

I still believe there are basic skills we all should have. We should be able to paint a room, change a fuse (or address a breaker box), sew on a button, hem a skirt or a pair of pants. Everyone should have one meal they can fix if unexpected company descends.

But just because we know HOW to do those things doesn’t mean we always have to do them. It’s a matter of time and efficiency; it’s a matter of value added to life.

The challenge is finding the right person to take on the jobs that don’t, to paraphrase Marie Kondo, bring us joy. If I can do that, well then, I believe that sometimes the best thing is this: let someone else do it.

 Gimme Comfort

I don’t know what it was about this week.

There were memory layers, like gauzy sheets of onion paper covering the flat, hard surface of the NOW. Three years ago, this was the week where I gave up foolish optimism and realized that my dear friend Terri was going to die—that there was no last-minute reprieve, no Hallmark movie miracle waiting in the wings.

That was a hard realization and it left stains that still spread, and I notice them more vividly, this time of year.

And last year, of course, and the year before that, we were locked down and terrified; the new virus was changing life as we had always known it, with the rifts in society drying up and cracking deeper as another loathsome result. Those memories spread themselves on top of the Terri-thoughts, thin, brittle, uneasy.

And this year, my mother’s 100th birthday fell right into this unsettled time, a day like the buckle on a Pandora’s box, opening up to a big, yarny, tangled mass of memory.

So there was that: memories soaked with sadness, fear, anger, and the unknown. That might have been why this week was the way it was.

Also, people I know were visited by sudden and debilitating illness—illness that will, with care and right practice, get better, but that was also a little bit scary for the ones right in its path.

The weather roiled—from three inches of snow to 71 degrees in four short days; winds blew, and clouds scudded and gathered, and then the sun pierced through, sharp and bright. Sweet gum pods flew from the tree in the front yard, bouncing and skittering.

The time changed, and when I left the gym just before seven, it was no longer bright, no pinking of the sky.

“Back to darkness,” moaned the mournful voice, the Eeyore voice, that speaks from a little broadcast chamber in the bony cavern.

And, of course, there is that war.

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

This week I had odd dreams, unsettling ones, dreams that woke me up, sat me upright, sent me downstairs at 4 a.m. to start the day. The voices, the tones, the threat in those dreams stayed right with me, all day long, scary little awareness clouds.

Later in the week—last night, in fact—I had GOOD dreams, the kind I don’t like to end, the kind that make me disappointed to watch, on waking up, lovely dream fragments dissipate into frail, wind-rent bubbles. Of course, I couldn’t remember a single detail of THOSE dreams—just the warmth and contentment they engendered.

I hope those feelings stuck, too, that they are buried somewhere deep, maybe, but accessible when I need ‘em.

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

Oh, there was nothing terribly different this week—no emergencies or crises—but there was a cluster of uncertainty.

And I said to myself, this week, that what I needed was some comfort.

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

I bet each of us could clearly define what comfort means, and each of us would say different things.

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

Once when I was a young professional, I was in a leadership group, and we took a very official kind of paper and pen test to see what motivates us. We got the results back at a meeting; they came in sealed manila envelopes. The facilitator stopped us from opening them.

“First,” she said, “I want everyone who believes they are motivated by people and relationships to stand on this side of the room. And everyone who believes they are task-oriented and motivated by accomplishment go to THAT side.”

I stood up and walked with well over half of my peers to the ‘people and relationship’ space. I mean, I thought, come on. That’s what my whole career and personal life has been ABOUT, right?

And then of course, we went away to privately open our envelopes and read what our assessments told us.

And mine told me that I am accomplishment-driven—not just a little, not just in some certain circumstances, but all the way. All in. The report told me that, clearly and without question, I liked to get things DONE.

That was, for a bit, a bitter pill. Seriously? How could I not know this about myself?

But as I read deeper into the literature, and as I thought about what I read, I realized that being motivated by completing tasks did not mean being uncaring or unmoved by people. Doing the jobs, the chores, completing the projects—well, all of that somehow benefited others.

And there was my nightly habit of unspooling the day, thinking, “Well, I got this, this, and THIS done, but I didn’t finish THAT…”

I like to accomplish things, I like to finish tasks, I like to cross entries off my To Do list.

It’s a comfort to me. So this week, I did some of that.

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

Early Monday morning, awake way too soon, I pulled out a crisp piece of lined paper and made a list, day by day, for the week. And I made myself a list of chores to tackle, splitting them between each day.

And all this unsettled week, I followed my list and completed my chores.

And by Friday, with a week’s worth of completion behind me, I was starting to feel better.

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

And this week, too, I thought I’d wrap up in a knitted blanket and sit in the reading chair and fall right into a good book—a good couple of hours’ plunge in the quiet after-dinner hours. I was almost finished with This is Getting Old, a book of essays by Susan Moon, a Zen Buddhist who teaches writing workshops, muses about aging, and is older than I am. She shows herself, in the essays she writes about losing her mother and raising her kids and loneliness and solitude and awareness, to be not perfect, but striving. Those essays were a comfort, to be sure, but they were coming up on DONE.

I went to the To Be Read pile I keep on one side of my mother’s old treadle sewing machine, and I sorted through the stack.

Not one of them was a comfort book. Each one of them was a naggy, SHOULD book. So, this week, I gave myself permission to decimate my To Be Read pile. I put the books back on my own shelves or returned them to the library to be put on their shelves.

And then I restocked. I monopolized the reserve librarians’ time at the library, requesting some mystery books that take place in England and in which the most horrible things can happen, but where the characters I care about go home to neat flats or charming homes, to welcome quiet or to beloved bustle. In those books, the food is wonderful and the comfort comes in understanding, hugs, and steaming tea in thick ceramic mugs.

I reserved Elizabeth Berg’s Tapestry of Fortunes, maybe the only one of her novels I have not read, and let me tell you, Berg writes comfort like no one else. Her characters may be fragile or faltering at times, they may be bereft and betrayed, but they always know what steps to take to succor themselves. In a Berg book, I taste the wonderful meal, appreciate the hand-woven textiles, go and grab my favorite mug so I can take tea with the main character. And, thinking about the 100th anniversary of my mother’s birth, I also asked for Berg’s memoir of her parents, I’ll Be Seeing You.  

I requested a Fannie Flagg book I haven’t read, a Rosamunde Pilcher tome, and the next in a mystery series by Ariana Franklin. And because my library doesn’t have them, I ordered myself used copies of the next two Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries.

The next day I picked up all the library books and made myself a new TBR stack. And I want to read every single book in that pile; none of those books nag me with ‘shoulds.’

Having a stack of books I want to read is a comfort, too.

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

Then I cooked. There is a valid reason we call some dishes comfort food. This week, I stirred up a batch of gluten-free pancake batter, and some mornings, I got up, went to the gym, and then came home to make myself crispy, sizzling pancakes.

One night I made a chicken pot pie from a wonderful recipe. And, for the first time in my life—because I did not feel like mixing up pie crust dough,–I went to the store and BOUGHT refrigerated pie crusts, ready to roll out.

The pot pie was GOOD. The crust was good, too,–maybe not as flaky as my homemade recipe, but I could taste the time saved in every bite. That was delicious.

And one morning I got up and had leftover chicken pot pie for breakfast.

The pot pie had the added benefit of using up refrigerator leftovers—peas and corn, carrots and cooked potatoes. Using things up always makes me feel better, so today, James and I went to the store and bought the sharing size bag of Rolo candies.

I had three-fourths of a bag of miniature pretzels on top of the fridge in a basket. I ripped a sheet of parchment paper and covered a cookie sheet, and then I filled that cookie sheet with perfect, unbroken, little pretzels. I stood at the counter and unwrapped Rolo’s, and when I had the exact amount, I put one candy right in the center of each pretzel.

Then I carried the tray VERY carefully, so as not to jog the Rolo on each pretzel out of place, to the oven, and I baked them at 250 degrees for four minutes. They came out oozey and smelling like hot milk chocolate and caramel.

I pushed an M and M into the sticky center of each Rolo, and now those treats are cooling, firming up. Tonight, after a dinner of corn-flake-crumb-coated pork chops, after a salad made with thin slices of Granny Smith apple and pecans and asiago cheese and crisp artisan lettuce,  I will eat three of those Rolo treats. They are sweet and they are salty; they are chewy and they are crunchy.

They are SO good.

They are comfort food, and I am going to eat some with no guilt at all.

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I suspect that you may read my list of comforts and think, “Meh.” And I know that deep problems can’t be unraveled by a flurry of organization, by immersion into a lovely book, or by eating something yummy.

But there is something to be said, when days are challenging, for practicing self-care,–for being as nice to ourselves as we would be to someone else.

Sue Moon writes, “I’m accustomed to taking care of other people, but taking care of myself turned out to be a satisfying project, too, as if an exchange student, who happened to be me, had come to live with me for a month. I saw that she deserved to be taken care of, maybe even for more than a month.”

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I used to teach a NAMI course for care-givers of people living with mental illness. My co-teacher had an analogy for those who felt guilty or ashamed about needing some time for themselves.

“If you’re on an airplane,” she’d say, “and there’s an emergency situation, you don’t run around making sure everyone else’s oxygen mask is in place. FIRST, you get your own mask on. You can’t help other people when you can’t breathe yourself.”

Some days, some weeks, some months or years, even, our spirits cry out for comfort. We should no more ignore those cries than we would let a baby scream or a loved one suffer alone.

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Not all the week’s problems have been solved, but each day, things looked a little bit better. Each day I felt a little more capable.

There’s something to be said, I think, not for pleading, “Gimme comfort,” but for going out and finding comfort, for providing it, myself.