A Frable

Framma and Frappa Frantastic had five frabulous children: Freddie, Fralph, Frieda, Frannie, and the baby, Frappucina.

The Frantastic Family
The Frantastic Family

As each child came of age, Framma and Frappa presented him or her with a house. That way, each child learned how to clean and how to cook, and they each had a chance–and a space in which–to develop his or her own skills.

Freddie learned that he loved to work with wood. He made tables and chairs, desks, and picture frames. He taught all his friblings how to measure, saw, and hammer without error.

Fralph found he was a cook. When he simmered his stews, he drew the whole family to his house. He loved having them all around his table. He loved to feed them, and he loved to teach them his culinary secrets.

Frieda decorated! She could make a lovely display out of things she found in the woods, laying on the sidewalk, or in her junk drawer. She had an artistic eye and an imaginative soul. Her family praised her creations, and all of her friblings loved working on special displays with her.

Frannie threw herself into working with plants, indoors and out. She could make a tiny seed shoot up six feet high. She sang to her plants, and she said they sang back to her.

“Teach us those songs!” her friblings begged.

The Frantastic kids had many talents
The Frantastic kids had many talents

When Frappucina came of age, Framma and Frappa presented her with her house. Then they gathered all five children for an announcement.

“Now that you are all grown, and can take care of yourselves,” began Framma…

“…we are taking our long awaited world tour,” finished Frappa.

“It should take us four or five months,” Framma added, helpfully.

The Frantastic children were stunned. Five months? But then they thought, How wonderful. How wonderful for Framma and Frappa. And how wonderful that they know we can take care of ourselves.

The children helped their parents pack, and they waved them off with barely any tearful goodbyes.

It was a little weird at first, living without the tender strong center parents provide, but soon they found they were quite liking the novel sense of autonomy. Every day they worked together, shared their skills, and created new things…furniture or food, decorations, floral displays…

And they were all watching to see what Frappucina’s special skill would be.

So far she seemed to love doing everything, but not to be particularly brilliant at anything.

The days rolled on into weeks. Framma and Frappa sent cards and called every three days. The weather changed, the leaves brightened, and then the leaves fell, and one morning, when they met in the courtyard to plan their day, the Frantastics found fluffy white snow on the ground

They knew what that meant: the Feast of the Fruminaria was fast approaching!

They began to get ready.

Freddie made each of them a wooden frame to put outside their homes. Frieda gathered pine cones and vines and made a very pretty display on hers. She twined twinkle lights throughout, and it was very beautiful.She shared her supplies with the others and they each had fun making a display.

Ralph invited them all over to decorate the cookies he had made. Frieda’s were frilly. Frannie’s looked like flowers. Freddie’s were well-constructed. Fralph’s were delicious to taste, and delicious to behold.

Frappucina’s were, frankly, a little bit odd-looking, but she had so much fun with the frosting and the sprinkles that she made them all laugh, over and over and over again.

It was a good day. They went off to their little houses tired, excited, and happy.

The next day they had a surprise visitor. It was their cousin Drano from Drabulatia.

They all liked Drano, even though he was a little bossy.

They liked Drano despite his bossiness
They liked Drano despite his bossiness

The first thing he did was check out their decorations.

“This is the only GOOD one,” he said when he came to Frieda’s. “Why don’t you let her do all of yours?”

The Frantastic kids looked around. Suddenly they saw their decorations through outsider eyes.

Drano was right. Except for Frieda’s, the decorations were all–well, they were just frappy-looking.

“I’ll be happy to do yours over for you,” Frieda said to all of them. At first she was kind and sweet. Then she got a little crazy. They weren’t all sure they liked the creations she put in front of their houses, but she and Drano insisted they were brilliant.

They had a coffee break and Drano tasted their cookies. He said Freddie’s were clunky, Frieda’s and Frannie’s were too francy, and Frappucina’s were just plain weird. Fralph’s were the only good ones, he said. They looked at each other, then they looked at the cookies they’d thought were so wonderful only the night before.

Each one, when he or she thought no one else was looking, slipped their particular not-quite-right cookies into the garbage. Except for Fralph, of course…Fralph got just a little high and mighty about being the King of Cookies.

Drano decided Freddie had the only comfortable furniture.

He said Frannie was the only one whose landscaping was worth a frit.

And he said it didn’t seem like Frappucina had any special skills at all.

“Too bad,” he said. “I guess there’s one in every family.””

And then he left, whistling and skipping a little, clutching a bag of Fralph’s good cookies.

The friblings sat. They couldn’t think of a single thing to do that might be fun. Before it even got dark, they drifted to their own houses. Each went to bed early, and each tossed and turned discontentedly.

But the next morning brought a wonderful surprise: Framma and Frappa were home—home just in time for the Feast of the Fruminaria!

They had had a wonderful time, and they had stories to tell and gifts to share. Together, Framma and Frappa fixed a big, wonderful breakfast, and as they ate their first meal as a reunited family, the Frantastics all began to cheer up.

The children were anxious to show their parents what they’d done while they were gone. Framma and Frappa admired Freddie’s new chairs,and they asked what the other fribs had made.

They loved Frannie’s planting, and they looked for the plants at the other houses. They liked Frieda’s decorations, but they were puzzled when they looked at the other children’s.

“This just doesn’t feel like it’s yours,” they said to each one.

It was the same with Fralph’s cookies…Framma and Frappa loved them, of course, but they were sad not to see their other children’s creative hands in that fun and tasty project.

“Did we tell you,” asked Freddie, “that Drano was here?”

“Ah,” said Framma to Frappa.

Frappa was quiet for a minute. Then he said, “Let’s open presents!”

What a lovely lot of things Framma and Frappa brought them–fripperies and furbelows, francies, funny faddy things, and frodaciously frumptious frivolities. The Frantastics were ecstatic, and they played together and ate together and laughed together all day.

They had so much fun. It was almost impossible to say who enjoyed it most, BUT–Frappucina had the widest grin and the loudest laugh, and the way she trilled and carried on made them all smile, inside and out.

That was a wonderful day. And, as the sun dropped behind the horizon, each of the Frantastic kids kissed the parents, hugged the friblings, and wandered off to bed—except for Frannie. Right at the end, Frannie had gotten thoughtful; she’d gotten quiet. And she waited.

When her brothers and sisters had all drifted off to their homes to sleep, she went to her parents and asked the question that was fracking her heart.

“Do you think it’s really true,” she asked, “that Frappucina isn’t good at anything?”

“Ah, Frannie,” said Framma, and Frappa gave Frannie a great strong hug.

“Everyone,” said Frappa, “has many, many gifts. Finding them is your life’s work.”

“But,” said Framma, “you are all on your way. Already–

“Freddie is a carpenter; his gift is to shape the wood.

“Fralph is a chef; his gift is to fricassee and fry and to feed us with his lovingly cooked food.

“Frieda is a decorator; she combines elements to make us feel happy and at home.

“YOU are a horticulturist; you coax even the most reluctant plant to grow into glossy beauty.

“Frappucina is going to grow into many wonderful skills and gifts, but right now she has discovered one of the very, very best: she is an enjoyer.”

“An enjoyer,” said Frannie thoughtfully.

“Did you ever notice,” said Frappa, “how Frappucina’s laughter makes us all laugh? How she reminds us how good breakfast tastes or how nice it is to all be together?”

“She does,” said Frannie. “She does do that!”

“Each of you is brilliant at your big thing”, said Framma, “and because of that, we all appreciate those things a little more and a little better. Frappucina’s big thing is enjoyment; she makes us all enjoy EVERYTHING deeper and better.”

That was exactly right, Frannie thought; what Framma and Frappa said was right and true. Frappucina DOES add spice and life to every occasion.

But,– “Why did Drano make us all feel so BAD?” asked Frannie.

“Well,” said Frappa, and he looked at Framma, and he smiled and shrugged. “Drano may be my nephew, Frannie, but when it comes to enjoyment, I’m afraid he’s a little,—a little,— What is it I’m trying to say, my dear?”

“CLOGGED,” said Framma. “When it comes to enjoyment, we’re afraid Drano is a little CLOGGED.”

“Ah,” said Frannie. “I think I see. But if Drano is clogged, do you think he will ever discover his special thing?”

“Let’s hope,” said Framma, “he is lucky enough to spend time with a creator and time with an enjoyer, and to keep his eyes open and his mouth closed. It’s the very best way to get unclogged.”

“I’m glad you’re home,” said Frannie, and she hugged her parents, and she skipped back to her own little house, thinking about the treasures the next day could bring.

Frappucina

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Greaty’s Cookbook

 

Time tested sources of favorite recipes...
Time tested sources of favorite recipes…

 

 

 

Greaty and I are making jubilee jumbles in her warm, sparkling little kitchen, with its organized and well-stocked cupboards. I love it that she always has things like canned milk on hand–she tells me that, when I set up housekeeping, I should always keep canned milk or powdered milk in my cupboard, just in case I’m in the middle of a recipe and realize the milk is gone–or gone bad.  (Of course, she adds thoughtfully, if you’ve got milk gone bad, you can make a cake, too.)

She’s thrifty, my Greaty, born in 1925, a child of the Depression.  She likes to tell stories about that time; I like to hear them.  They say that communication and understanding skip a generation, so that kids and their grandparents click when kids and their parents don’t.  With me, it’s two generations; I love my mom and my grandma to pieces, of course, but Greaty is the one who really gets me.

I like everything old and weathered and seasoned; Mom and Gram say, if it’s old and doesn’t work, chuck it and buy new.  Greaty tells me stories about the making-do she and her family did during the twenties and thirties.  They never threw out a piece of cloth; they’d turn a shirt inside out, make it into a smaller shirt for a younger child, salvage the buttons, save the bits and scraps to make quilts.

I have one of those quilts on my bed; Greaty made it with her mom and older sister Gwyn; it’s a crazy quilt with tiny pieces of everything from cloth flour bags to Aunt Gwyn’s best velvet dress.  The stitches are infinitesimal and regular; the pattern is wild; the colors blend and flow.  I love that those three women, challenged by the economy, chose to create a thing of lasting beauty from the little that they had.

Another thing I love is the cookbook we’re using.  It’s one of those fund-raiser cookbooks, from the Town of Wales Old Regular Baptist Church, and it was published in the 1950’s.  It was a time, Greaty tells me, when people were finally realizing that all the ingredients they needed were on the shelves–you didn’t have to make up substitutions for eggs or butter or sugar.  If you needed the stuff to make cookies, it was available.

That, says Greaty, and the fact that the women were home again, their overalls traded in for housedresses, made cooking and baking very popular in the 1950’s.  She and Grumpy had just moved to Ohio then; and in their small town, it was a big deal when the ladies of the Baptist church decided to put a cookbook together.

It wasn’t her church, Greaty–a confirmed Congregationalist– hastened to inform me, but her best friend, Ardyth was a member, and Ardyth, whose job was to collect all the recipes, kept her apprised.

Greaty tells me the stories behind many of the recipes.  Bertie Bohldocher and her daughter Lillibeth, when they heard about the cookbook project, went right to the library and took out some French cookbooks.  So the recipes for vichyssoise and bouillabaisse are from Bertie and Lillibeth, but, says Greaty, neither one of them ever cooked such a thing in their entire lives.  They just wanted to go on record as being aficionados of grand taste.  And so the recipes are their testament…and probably, says Greaty, those are the only two recipes in the book that have never been tried.

Greaty’s book has fallen apart so many times the tape has been taped and taped again; finally she pried apart the yellowing pages carefully, copied the backs at Staples, and pasted all the recipes into a notebook.  That notebook is open on the counter today.  Like a greased baking machine, we work together, reaching for measuring cups, passing over the eggs, grabbing flour and brown sugar from the pantry shelves. We have been doing this since before I can remember.

“You’re 16, Ash,” she says to me, “and I’m 89, but we don’t need words to talk to each other.”  It makes me glow.  I love my Greaty, and I know I am lucky, lucky, lucky to have her, healthy and funny and a vital part of my life.

The cookies are in, and we sit with tea.  One of us gets up every few minutes to rotate the trays in the oven, then a few minutes later to put the bottom tray on the top shelf and vice versa.  The cookies will be perfectly done, with those nice crisp buttery brown edges.  When they’ve cooled, and we’ve eaten a few each, we’ll make a batch of browned butter frosting, a recipe in Greaty’s head, not her book, and frost the ones we haven’t eaten.  I’ll take a plate to Mom; Gram will visit Greaty and get her share.They like their modern conveniences, Mom and Gram do, but they always love our home baked goodies.

Greaty leafs through the cookbook.  “Look,” she says, “here are ‘MAB’ brownies.  That’s a recipe from Mabel Ann Brown, and there’s no chocolate in ’em.  She always said, MAYBE they’re brownies..and maybe they’re not.  Hence, the name, which she thought was a good joke on her initials.”

We’ve made that recipe–they’re buttery good, with pie filling spooned over the crust layer, and then little splots of dough melting on top of that.  When we have bake sales at school, people beg me to bring MAB brownies.  I always say, “MAYBE I will,” and laugh to myself.

There’s a recipe for what Greaty and I call buckeye krispie treats…crisp rice cereal mixed with a boiled concoction of corn syrup and peanut butter and spread in a pan.  We top it with melted chocolate and butterscotch chips, and we melt them in the microwave, which was not a foreseeable option when Greaty got this book.  But the recipe still works perfectly.

There’s a recipe for the most wonderful fudge in the world, which has become a family treasure.  Even non-bakers Mom and Gram can’t let Christmas go by without making a batch of that special fudge.

Greaty and I usually head right to the ‘Cookies and Candies’ section, but she says there are great meal time recipes in there too–a wonderful method for Swiss steak, and a no-fail recipe for roast chicken.

“When the Baptist ladies finally got the book together and ready to sell,” Greaty tells me, “I bought three copies.  I sent one to Gwyn, who loved it too.  I kept one to use.  And I bought one for your Grammy, but she said, ‘Oh, poo, Mom; I’m not using those old lady recipes.’  She hurt my feelings, I’ll tell you.  I asked your mom if she would like it, when she first married your dad, and she laughed.  Cooking wasn’t on her list of things to do, she informed me.”

I think of Greaty putting the book away, hiding her hurt feelings with a laugh and a shake of her head.  I imagine her selling the book at a Congregational Church rummage sale, picture one of the Baptist ladies finding it, getting HER feelings hurt because nobody wanted that very special collection.

I don’t know why–it’s such a little thing–but it makes me ache. I put down my tea, and lean forward to give Grammy a big hug, but she’s bending away from me, reaching into her capacious black purse.

“And isn’t it,” she says softly, “a good thing those women said no?  Because you’re the one that will appreciate it.  If they’d taken it, it would just have gotten thrown away or left behind.  But now, I can give it to you.”

She hands me a manila envelope.  I open it and slide out a perfect version of the Wales Township Old Regular Baptist Ladies’ Guild Cookbook, 1952.  It’s in pristine condition, although the edges of the pages have turned a rich golden color…almost the color of the edges of our jubilee jumbles.

“Oh, Greaty,” I breathe, and it’s a moment too big for awkward, fumbling gestures.  So I just grin and say, “I promise I will use this and use this and use it, until it’s in worse shape than yours.”

She grins back and gives me a quick hug, and we start to make the frosting.

 

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

 

I was looking through cookbooks this week, and, in one my retired colleague Crisanne (a great colleague but not, as yet, a great grandma) gave me, I found a recipe called ‘Marietta Cookies.’ I made the cookies—they’re different and delicious. The name intrigued me, though—was ‘Marietta’ a person? Were these cookies that someone from Marietta always served? I couldn’t discover any answers, but I did find the same exact recipe, under ‘Potato Chip Cookies’ on cooks.com.

The recipe for MAB brownies follows, too; we’ve often speculated about the name. That comes from a book my mother-in-law, Pat Zanghi, was kind enough to share many, many years ago. The cover is falling off; I may soon have to go Greaty’s route and take this book apart in order to save it. The recipes, of course, remain tried and true.

The directions here are just as they appear in the cookbooks.

Marietta Cookies

1 c. butter or margarine
½ c. sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
¾ c. crushed potato chips
½ c. chopped nuts (I put mine in the food processor and pulsed them fine)
2 c. flour

Cream together the butter, sugar & vanilla. Add potato chips & nuts. Stir in the flour. Roll dough into 1” balls. Place on ungreased cookie sheet. Using the flat bottom of a water glass dipped in white sugar, press each cookie until flat. Bake at 350 degrees for 15-18 minutes.

Contributed by Betty Stover

–from Iliff United Methodist Church’s Sharing Our Best (2009, Morris Press Cookbooks). The church is in Crooksville, Ohio.

 


M.A.B. Brownies

1 c. margarine
2 c. sugar
3 c. flour
4 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
1 can fruit pie filling (or make your own)

Cream 1 and 2, add 1 egg at a time beating after each. Add flour and vanilla. Spread ¾ on greased cookie sheet. Spread on pie filling, then spoon on remaining batter. Bake 350 degrees, 30 minutes.

Contributed by Bev Barnes

—from Cooking With Love 1987, compiled by members and friends of the Laona United Methodist Church, Laona, New York (Walter’s Cookbooks, Waseca, MN)

The Deer Ate My Yardwork: A Two-Part (I and II) Lament

I:

I am not a gardener:

A red bird lands
on a dead branch
of the ivy covered tree

near the
deer decimated rose
that grows by the rock wall

and everywhere, ivy inches;
it infests the hosta.

The Cleomes

II:

Her friend Louie, a landscape wizard, tells her that, as a gardener, she’s a wonderful English teacher.

Oh, he doesn’t say it like that–not Louie, gentle genius that he is, a man who nurtures people in the same kind and patient way he nurtures plants and flowers. They walk through the gardens around his home on a hot August afternoon. She exclaims at every turn–bold, dramatic flowers here; around this corner, shy shady blossoms. Louie has clever statuary intermingled perfectly in his plantings–whimsical stone animals, re-purposed ironwork. Out back, water burbles in a rock-bordered mini-pond, complete with lily pads.

They rest on a weathered bench. Louie, who has been working in the beautiful yard all morning–she interrupted when she pulled up his steep stone driveway–takes a blue bandanna from his pocket and mops his shining, hairless scalp, a bit rosy in the summer sun.

“Where’s your hat?” she asks, automatically, then adds, “God, Louie; I can’t even keep my lawn mowed.”

He pulls a soft baseball cap from the pocket of his khaki cargo shorts and plops it on his pinking pate.

“You know,” he says, slowly, “I couldn’t grade an essay to save my life.”

She gets it. In the land of gardening, she is a landscape loser.

Oh, she tries. Each spring since they moved into the English property–the English family lived there for 54 years, and the whole community still refers to her home as Bob English’s house–she has started out strong. The backyard is bordered with hosta, deeply rooted, and somehow impervious to the roving neighborhood deer. She shovels and digs through the tenacious ivy that is everywhere, chunking up whole plants and root systems.

She takes her gleanings to the stone patio, and cuts them apart with an old kitchen knife, removing invader parts, and spends the afternoon transplanting them in front, by the tree where the ivy has been pulled up, uprooted, the one truly ivy-free spot in their sprawling double lot. She plants hosta–full green, variegated green and white, acid green with blue green borders.

Neighbors stop by while she is butt-up in the dirt. She pushes her errant, disobedient hair from her face–glamour gardening, this is not–with one muddy hand, and they chat. Usually what the neighbors chat about is the former beauty of these grounds. Bob English was not only an engineering genius; he was a master gardener. His plantings were renowned; his home was a yearly spot on the haute monde garden tour.

She peers up from where she sits in the dirt, peers at her friendly neighbor through a muddy bang, and she promises herself that her yard will be at least presentable this year.

So she plants the hosta–and they take hold. They perk up! They thrive! She watches them for two weeks, and declares a victory: the deer don’t touch these. She is going to have a beautiful hosta patch with waving stalks of purple blooms, which, imitating Louie, she will use in bouquets as exclamation points. The bouquets will be entirely from her own gardens—pale pink roses from the wild tea rose out back, brown-eyed susans, coneflowers, frilly ferns, wild blooming things that add drama and grace.

She will, she thinks, have cut flowers in her house all during the summer. She will have rustic bouquets in mason jars in her office; she will share the endless bounty with her colleagues, who will exclaim at the artistry involved.

And then she gets up the next morning, and finds, under the shade tree out front, what looks like a small sea of green brushcuts. The deer had just been waiting for her to get cocky.

It’s not just the hosta. They’ve eaten her tea roses; they’ve eaten her impatiens. The sweet potato vines she lovingly planted to trail over the rock retaining wall have disappeared.

She throws her gardening gloves onto the old bench and stomps her size elevens.

Then the rains come and the grass in the yards grows deep and thick. They get home from work late and throw dinner on; by the time the dishes are done, it’s too dark to mow, or it’s raining, or the grass is soaked from that day’s deluge. The grounds grow a little bit unkempt; the house, except for the cars in the carport, might look a little bit abandoned.

The neighbors, when they walk by, aren’t quite as cordial as they were before. They don’t stop to chat about former garden glory. They look at the grass; they look at her; they keep walking.

She takes the electric hedge clipper, on a finally clear, dry night,  and starts to trim the wild hedges and saws through the industrial strength extension cord. The shock turns off all the power in the house.

“But I’m all right,” she tells her husband. “Thank God, right?”

She takes his muttering, as he stomps down the cellar stairs to fix the fuse, as effusive agreement.

She hangs the offending hedge clippers in the car port. They are gone, stolen, in the morning.

She is doomed to fail in the garden category.

But there is one little triumph. In the backyard: the cleome patch. Their first summer, when Martin mowed, she noticed that he circled one odd green volunteer that sprouted up mid-yard. She asked him about it; she and their son, 22 or so then, had come out to investigate.

“I think that’s something,” Martin said, “like some kind of flower or something. Something GOOD.”

She looked at the splayed and fringe-y leaves and snorted.

“I think,” she said, “it’s marijuana.”

Her son looked at her, startled, and she added quickly, “Or at least it reminds me of pictures of marijuana plants I’ve seen in textbooks.”

Martin insisted on letting it mature; she agreed reluctantly, and of course he was right. It grew into a bold and stalky cleome, with firecracker blooms that changed and deepened color throughout the summer. It broadcast its seed, and the next year there were three plants.

This year, she carefully mows around a volunteer cleome patch with twenty, thirty, forty joyous plants. These, the deer truly don’t seem to like. These, when Louie comes to visit, he finds wonderful.

“Save me some seeds,” he says, as they sit on her patio, sipping iced tea and ignoring milkweed, dandelions, and rampant bishop’s weed.

“Yeah,” she mentions casually to her friends, “I’m drying some seeds for Louie.”

Says it like one who knows and understands flowers, who communes and colludes with plants.

Says it, and savors a tiny moment of triumph in her awkward stumble through lifelong gardening gaffes.

Martin’s House of Books

Most days she loved her work. She loved the ‘standing on the threshold’ tentative bravery of the sixth graders she taught: their readiness to explore new territory. She liked searching out accessible translations of classic works–a modern Odyssey, perhaps,– and sorting through the latest young adult offerings to find the finest, most meaningful, most compelling pieces to share with her class. She even liked grading their essays, although with two a week, it was a never-ending chore. But she saw their growth, in thought, in craft, in expression.

That was most days. Some days nothing clicked and many things grated. The students snickered and tweeted; parents complained; the school administration badgered her with reminders of soon-due reports and the necessity of administering state-mandated testing during precious class time.

On those days, she looked at her students, who were not looking back, and doubted she was even making a dent. She pondered how to respond civilly but cogently to the note from the parent who thought her son’s English homework was taking precious time away from his basketball participation. She got out her big paper calendar and tried to see how she could fit the damned tests into the schedule of lessons and still cover all the essential topics. And she wondered why she was pouring herself into this thankless, thankless job.

On those days, she wished life came with a backdoor which she could just walk out for a while, leaving all the hassling behind.

On those days, she packed up her things after the school day ended and went to Martin’s House of Books.

She’d leave her car at home, dumping the heavy bag of schoolwork in the corner by the china cabinet, and put her canvas shopping bag, neatly folded and waiting on her desk for just these excursions, into her purse. And then she’d walk the half mile to Martin’s, down the hill, past where the neatly creepy gothic manse perched, and onto Alder Avenue, a working class street with bars and resale shops, automotive supply retailers, convenience stores, and sturdy old family homes.

It was in one of those sturdy, broad-porched houses that Martin Dempsey had his bookstore.

She always stopped on the porch to look at the clearance books; they stayed on the little shelf centered in front of the picture window until they sold. Some had been there since the day she discovered the shop. She’d open one of them–a vintage copy, say, of James Michener’s Hawaii–and hold it up to her nose: musty and crisp all at once. The pages were yellowed with age, and finely spotted.

She’d pull on the screen door and go inside. The house had no vestibule. A step through the door took her right into the first common room. The stairs stared right at her; Martin sat at his desk just to her right. And everywhere there were books.

The cookbooks lined the facing wall, and she always browsed through those first. She could spend an evening with a good cookbook, and if it was a cookbook memoir–well, she’d turn off her phone. She loved the classic food memoirists–MFK Fisher, Gladys Taber–and she liked the sassy new blogger-type writers–I Loved I Lost I Ate Spaghetti; Lunch in Paris: a Love Story with Recipes.

She’d say hello to Martin and survey the cookbooks, checking to see what was new. Well, new to Martin–all of his books were used, of course; rarely did he offer anything printed in the last year.

While she looked, Martin would slide off his stool behind the desk, and, as he put it, “pop into the kitchen.” He’d put the tea kettle onto his gas stove. This was Martin’s actual kitchen; he lived in the bookstore, and often she could smell a delicious roasting dinner. He lived alone, Martin did, —alone with thousands of books— but he believed in what he called “real meals”, and he made good use of the cookbooks on his shelves.

By the time she had explored the cookbooks–maybe setting aside a Jacques Pepin or something by Alice Waters–the tea was steeping in Martin’s little turquoise ceramic pot, a pot which had been his mother’s. He would bring out two sturdy mismatched mugs from the local pottery–one might have hand-painted pansies, the other a rustic plaid pattern,–and a delicate china plate. One of the things she liked so much about Martin, one of the things they shared, was a reverence for everyday objects with history. He used his mother’s dishes, things he’d eaten from as a child, that reminded him of that special woman. He made his living sharing the literature from the past century–sometimes, his books were even older than that.

There’d be two cookies on the china plate, large flat cookies, golden, sugar-studded, crispy brown on the edges. The cookies crunched and exploded; they were all butter and sugar, outrageous flavor. Martin made them once a week and shared them, he assured her, only with his most cherished customers.

They would settle in, with their mugs of Earl Grey, for a chat; she sat on a folding chair on one side of the counter, and he climbed back onto his stool behind it. One of the cats (there were two; the other was a woman-hater) came and curled up under her chair. It would yowl softly, hopelessly, wanting a chunk of cookie, knowing that would probably never happen. The tea and the food sat next to the adding machine he used for a cash register. He took cash and he took checks, Martin did; he didn’t deal in plastic. She could leave her credit cards, her debit card, at home.

Martin, who was cranky, opinionated, and very, very kind, would prompt her. “What,” he would ask, “are the little shits up to now?”

She would talk it through; Martin had taught high school history for 25 years, and he would guide her so that she didn’t stumble down into the land of misery. She would start out bemoaning the woeful receptivity of modern children to literature and thoughtful inquiry. And he would agree. But by the time she was finished, she’d be acknowledging that the latest project, in which the children wrote letters to characters or illustrated book jackets, was actually working quite well.

Martin would listen carefully. He was an odd looking man with parts that didn’t quite match. He was tall, but his face was round except for a jutting chin. He had slender shoulders and strongly muscled arms. His eyes were the piercing blue found in the Irish isles he loved so much. He had straight lank hair, gray and brown and white, and it fell, a limp bang, into his eyes.

These days, he seldom left his shop; a friend came in on Wednesday mornings and spelled him so he could take his big old muscle car out, do his shopping, pay his bills,– which he did in person, not by mail, if possible. He went to St. Nicholas Church’s 8 AM Mass on Sundays. In his youth, he had served in Viet Nam, and afterwards, he had not come home; he had gone to Ireland, to the Pacific Northwest, to Nova Scotia, back to Ireland. Had there been someone special there?

She wondered.

He came home finally, got married, got his schooling, took a teaching job. They’d never had children, and somewhere in that net of years, his wife had left. He retired early to care for his mother; she had left his father, too, but she moved into a house–this house–two doors down from the old man.

Martin kept his father updated throughout his mother’s illness. The old man brought the dog to visit and took care of his wife’s garbage and yard work. She slipped away in the middle of one night, without fuss or bother, as Martin nodded beside her bed.

He started sorting through her things, through her hundreds and hundreds of books, and then just gave up, moved into the house, built shelves, and opened a used bookstore. In the beginning, he closed on Thursday and Friday and traveled the state, going to sales and thrift shops, collecting even more books; now, people brought their books to him; his inventory grew and shifted, ebbed and flowed, and he stayed closer and closer to home.

She’d learned all this through the course of several visits. He would also tell her of some specific teaching disaster that would make her laugh–one time, he said, his students were so angry at a pop quiz (given because he had been so angry at their lack of preparation for his class) that they stormed out of the school when the bell rang and somehow hefted his Volkswagen Beetle onto the roof. It made a fetching sort of hood ornament, he allowed now, but in the day, he had failed, pretty much, to see the humor.

They had, he said, a helluva time getting it down.

He had refused, of course, to press charges, and some of those ‘boys’ visited the shop monthly now, small children, older children, grandchildren, in tow.

As they talked, they would savor their cookies, crumbs bursting onto counter and books, and she would lick her fingers and pick the crumbs up and eat them. The cat would sigh. When the tea was gone, Martin would clear his throat and clear their dishes away; conversation time was over. She would prowl through the shop.

Children’s books rested in and around and above the fireplace on the wall to the right of Martin’s desk–lots of Beatrix Potter, and an odd jumble that delighted her–every episode of the Babysitter’s Club; Anne of Green Gables; Lois Ehlert picture books; a series she especially liked by a British author about a boy named Tom and his stuffed monkey, Pippo; a random copy or two of a Hunger Games volume. The classics–Black Beauty, Mutiny on the Bounty, The Secret Garden,– were jammed onto shelves right inside the fireplace itself, paperbacks, hard covers. She often chose her next class read-aloud from inside Martin’s fireplace.

Then, ignoring the really old books and first editions housed behind Martin’s desk, she’d move back into what must have been his mother’s dining room. He had shelves from floor to twelve foot ceiling, and the room was a cave of fiction, with one wall of nonfiction and biography. She always found something there to soothe her–a Rosamund Pilcher or a Marcia Willet, Maeve Binchy, Jane Austen–something light and faraway, with likable, believable people and troubles that resolved by the end of the book.

She would take the books she’d chosen and leave them on the counter; Martin, who was reading, would grunt. And she would head upstairs, to where the paperbacks waited, in two old bedrooms, on wire racks that turned. High, unwieldy stacks crowned each rack, so that she didn’t dare actually turn them; she would snake through. She had a couple of mysteries she liked; Lord Peter Wimsey was a good read, and she liked the exploits of Dame Frevisse. There was a contemporary series about knitters in a seaside village that seemed to be a breeding ground for murders; those were fun and required no literary criticism or unraveling of symbolism on her part.

The back room held spy thrillers, cowboy series, military books. She didn’t usually go in there. Through a door on the back wall, always cracked open, she could see Martin’s Jenny Lind style bed, gleaming wood, chenille bedspread tightly pulled and tucked under the pillows. On the wall above, two pictures hung: a red toned Jesus with his sacred heart; the blessed Mother all in blue.

And then she would go downstairs, put her paperbacks on top of her other finds, and Martin would tot up her costs. She’d pull out her canvas tote, and they’d pack up her loot and say goodbye.

At the door, she’d always turn slightly and Martin would give her this funny little salute, first touching the index finger of his right hand to his right eyebrow and then pointing at her. She would smile and let the door slam gently behind her, swinging her bagful of books, swinging down the porch stairs, out onto the sidewalk.

Those were ‘can of soup’ nights; she’d heat one up on the gas stove, and eat at the table with a book splayed open next to her. She’d forgo doing any schoolwork, instead running a hot bath, soaking while she read. Often she’d finish the book in bed.

She’d think about Martin and his students and wonder–she, who was a relative newcomer to this town–if any of her sixth graders had descended from those boys who muscled that little car up onto the high school roof.

The next day, she’d walk back into her life, and always it turned out to be better. She was relaxed, the kids were in tune, the obstacles and irritations were bearable. She loved her work, even knowing that a different day would roll around, maybe next week, maybe next month. Knowing, too, that Martin’s House of Books was there, a doorway into a different world, an escape hatch when she needed it.

In Story Land

 

I’m reading Pat Conroy’s My Losing Season, and I’m asking myself this question, “Is Conroy a reliable narrator?”

It’s a question I’ve pondered a thousand times, I bet, from Mr. Durkin’s satire class in my senior year at Dunkirk High School to discussions with Dr. Bob Deming, almost twenty years later, as I pieced together my master’s thesis, to my own reading, forever tinted, and maybe tainted, by English classes.  We were analyzing [some would say over-analyzing; I had a class once that developed an exciting theory about the back story in a book.  Since the author was still alive, we sent off the theory and begged her for a comment.  Her comment was: “You English teachers always over-analyze everything.”] the story and asking ourselves, “Can we trust this narrator?”

Conroy uses his senior year at the Citadel as the framework for this memoir, which is the story of how important basketball has been in his life.  He was a scrappy, smart point guard, but one of the things he tells us in the book is that he was never more than a mediocre player.  Conroy might believe that; his strongest male influences, his father and his coach, were both odd, abusive men who seemed to have absolutely no interest in developing the young people in their charges. They certainly never told him to think highly of himself.  In fact, the mantra Conroy remembers Coach Thompson yelling at him, over and over, every game he played, was, “Don’t shoot, Conroy!”

So one of the tenets of this story is that Pat Conroy loved basketball, ate it, drank it, and slept with it all through college, but that, as a player, he never rose above the ranks of just so-so.

I don’t buy it.  The stories Conroy tells about the games he played, the quotes he includes from sports writers, the fact that his coach, that strange and turbulent man, once reamed out the team but excused the author from the rant–i.e., “You’re all losers and scum–except Pat Conroy,” suggest a very different story.

I believe Pat Conroy was a helluva basketball player.  But I believe, too, that he is convinced otherwise, that he would argue with anyone who suggested his excellence.  “I was a mediocre basketball player,” is one of the key beliefs his book is built upon.

I bet we all have things like that.  So much of our lives is built upon the stories we tell ourselves and others. We are a people of story.

There are stories we believe about ourselves, and a lot of time our first teachers are the ones who impart these tales.  Those can be positive or negative, delivered harshly or lovingly.  So a child whose mother says, “I love that picture!” will begin to believe herself talented, artistically.  The same child, when her mother, surveying her cluttered bedroom,  ruffles her hair and says fondly, “You’re such a little messypants!” starts to think, “I’m kind of a slob.” One telling won’t usually be enough to implant a belief so strong it defines the story, but, told over and over again, we begin to believe and internalize what we hear.

The telling can have enormous–and tragic–consequences.  I think back to when we lived in Ada, and I was going to a library book club.  We read a memoir by a man who had gone from abject poverty to being the Dean of a prestigious law school.  At the same time, a young man was pleading for his life in sentencing hearings at the court where my husband interned.  This young man had lined up seven people and shot them, gangland style; included among the people he shot were a two year old and a young teenaged girl, who both died.  The miracle, I guess, was that the others lived and told the tale.

That young man, too, grew up in abject poverty; in fact, as I read the book and read the testimonies of people who knew the defendant growing up, I was struck, over and over, by how similar they were.  It was eerie.  What was different in the way the men turned out?

In his memoir, the law school dean noted that his father was one of his main tormentors, neglecters, abusers–an addicted, seldom rational man.  But, every day his father told him:  You’re smart.  You can get out of here.  You’re going to college.

Did the other young man have a voice like that in his life?  I doubt it.  In fact, one of the people who testified about the cruelty and despair of his childhood said something like this, “We knew he was gonna turn out no good.”

Simplistic, yes, but still–Those were the childhood stories those men heard; those were the adult stories they lived out.

At my godchild Shayne’s house in Florida, I saw a picture of Shayne’s lovely niece, a beautiful young girl of Nicaraguan lineage, with a tiara on her head, a lovely gown–and my grand-niece Madelyn, with a tiny tiara of her own, happily ensconced on her cousin’s lap.  Shayne explained that the photo was taken at her niece’s quinceanera, a tradition in cultures with Hispanic roots.

I had never heard of the quinceanera, so when I returned home and found a copy of Julia Alvarez’s Once Upon a Quinceanera at a library book sale, I bought it and took it home to read. Alvarez, who grew up in the turbulent sixties and seventies, and never had or considered a quinceanera, became fascinated by the custom as an adult, and so she traveled around the country researching it.  She visited families of great wealth, who had celebrities and over the top celebrations– and families of great poverty, who provided parties that were just as lavish and financially disastrous by their standards.  There is a quinceanera industry, Alvarez reports, sellers of dresses and tiaras, party planners and caterers, who make their livings on quinceanera customers.  It’s a big deal.

Alvarez explores the roots of the custom and its meaning, and she tells us it’s all tied up with the stories we’re telling our daughters. What does this particular quinceanera say to the young woman–is it, “You are now a beautiful sexual being, ready for marriage and motherhood”?  Is it, “Look at you: beautiful, powerful, vibrant! You can do anything you put your mind to”?  Or is there another story behind the glitz and ruffles?

Alvarez writes, “…there are stories in our head about who we must be and what we can do, and these stories drive our lives.”

Do the stories doom us?  I have to think otherwise.  I have to think that there are moments in our lives when the stories we have accepted rise to the surface of our consciousness and we are forced to choose.  Do we accept the belief that we will never amount to anything? Or–do we start the course that will prove those storytellers wrong?  And what can we do to realize what stories are driving us, what beliefs we have internalized that define our choices?

Pat Conroy’s belief is an appealing, humble one, “I was not a very good basketball player…” Conroy obviously has gone on to a dynamic and successful career; he’s a well-known writer.  Heck, he’s a person who worked out his private story on a very public stage.  Would he have been a different person if his belief had been, “I was an outstanding leader on the basketball court?”

I don’t know, but isn’t it interesting to ponder?  And isn’t it fascinating to ask ourselves what stories we play out every day?  How do we bring those stories to awareness, to where we can accept them or reject them mindfully?

That, I think, is the climax of our rising narratives—the point and the path that will determine how our own individual plots play out.  I hope my narrator’s been reliable.

 

If you’ve met one person with autism…

I just learned a catch-phrase often used in the autism community. It goes like this: “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”

Today, on April 2nd–Light It Up Blue for Autism Day, at the beginning of National Autism Month, — I can’t tell you what the autism walk is like for everyone. I can’t say definitively that these are the causes, symptoms, problems, joys, and challenges all people on the spectrum experience.

I can tell you, though, in a mother’s voice, about one autism hero. My son, James, is 24, and on the autism spectrum.

James is a big guy, 6’2″ or so, and broadly built. He has the thick head of hair my mother’s genes so generously bestowed on many of us; the red glints come honestly from both his Dad and me. Jim has Mark’s brown eyes,–eyes just like his brother Matt’s– as brown and glossy, we used to say when they were each little, as M & M’s. Jim’s eyes seem to snap when he is intrigued, compelled, or outraged.

Big guy that he is, Jim has never been much interested in competitive sport; competition is not a language he speaks. Instead, he’ll walk endlessly, pumping his arms, listening to music on his smart phone, writing–I’m guessing–sagas in his head. Writing is Jim’s passion, and he feeds that passion with film, television, role-playing video games, and books. He started reading at an incredibly young age, and the world of story shapes and defines his life.

At 24, Jim is just beginning to find his stance. The transition from a structured school experience–the end of high school–to a life of choices and options and uncertainty has been difficult for Jim. As I read more, talk to more families, and get to know more adults on the spectrum, I learn that this is one of the few things that can be said universally of [almost] all adults with autism.

Education and job-training programs are built with a kind of ‘one size fits many’ philosophy, and they don’t often work for people with autism. In the adult autism community, unemployment is outrageously high; one study I read recently places it at 85 per cent. The college completion rate, too, is much lower than the average, despite the fact that many autistic adults have higher than average intelligence.

When Jim walks in and sits down, people who’ve just met him don’t say, “Hey. Gosh. A disabled guy.” But things that neuro-typical folks would brush off, cope with, or accommodate, are impassable boundaries to him. (This often appears to be laziness or defiance to people who have no training in, or familiarity with, spectrum individuals.)

Autism seems to mean that a layer of protective insulation against sensory bombardment has been peeled away. Jim is particularly vulnerable to sounds and smells; he couldn’t stand one job, for instance, because Top 40 music played, loudly and constantly. The coordinator, very sensibly and fairly, tried to work out a schedule…the folks who liked Top 40 got their days, Jim could pick the music on others. But it wasn’t a matter of fairness or sharing time; the Top 40 songs were a constant battering to Jim, and he soon left that experience.

“C’mon,” people say. “He left a job because he didn’t like the music?” That, I think, is the place where the path of the neuro-typical and the path of the autistic person start to diverge. Most of us would be annoyed, maybe, but we’d accommodate–we’d wear our ear buds, negotiate a different spot in which to work, or find a compromise all could live with.

That compromise, I have come to understand, is not a possibility for folks on the spectrum. The sensory input is not an annoyance. It’s insurmountable.

An example: A friend of a friend has an adult son on the spectrum who is a hard worker, reasonably social, and very bright. He has held a number of fast food jobs and lost them all. It’s not because he is late, unreliable, or inappropriate. It’s because he cannot–and really cannot, although it seems like ‘will not’–wear the uniforms. This young man doesn’t like the polyester texture or the tags. He says he can’t breathe in those clothes. He says he can’t wear clothes with writing on them. His bosses say, over and over, “Sorry, son. You’re fired.”

Sensory rawness marks these adults as different. Their social reactions can also be very unique and difficult to understand. I’ve found that many people on the spectrum are almost completely literal. If they’ve been told something is true, for example, they believe it should be true in all circumstances.

So a lovely young autistic woman, a former student of mine at a different college, seemed to morph into a virago when told she was not going to be allowed to take a make-up test in the testing center. It was 4:45 and the center closed at 5:00; there wasn’t time to take the test.

But Angie (not her real name, of course) had been told, by her instructor, that she could take the test at the testing center. And so, to Angie, the person who said that wasn’t true was a liar, and she told the poor assistant who had to share the bad news that, loudly and unceasingly. The center staff called for help.

Jim has really worked hard at learning to read social cues, and he does a great job, but he will still ask for help in unnerving situations. Looking in at his world, I sometimes think it must be like living in a foreign country, one where he can learn the customs if he works really, really hard. He never completely understands the random-seeming reasons behind the customs, though, and every once in a while, one practice might just loom as being totally intolerable.

But, like anything, there are flip sides. The literalness that makes some situations difficult for Jim and for others on the spectrum also makes some situations very, very simple. Jim believes, for instance, that all people have a right to respect, and he is always a champion for the underdog. He doesn’t care if you have a label of ‘PhD’ or of ‘DD’; if you’re his friend, you’re his friend. He is impressed by your spirit and not by your title. He is moved by photos he sees in the back pages of magazines of babies born with cleft palates ; he is incensed by injustice to marginalized folks–the mentally ill, the developmentally disadvantaged, gay people who can’t get married, the elderly abused in institutions we should be able to trust. Like competition, injustice is not a language Jim speaks.

Jim has arrived at his point in life by a lot of hard work, a lot of frustration, a lot of luck. He earned his high school degree on a normal schedule. Since high school, he’s completed over a year of college–he’ll return to that pursuit this summer–, and he’s taken part in several different job training programs.

He wants, very strongly, to live independently, and he’s working toward that. At the same time, that thought is pretty scary, and we need to help him take the steps to becoming secure in his ability to navigate independent, adult life.

This might sound like the writing of a wise and competent mother, but the truth is, the mistakes I’ve made are enough to fuel Jim’s conversations with his therapist for a lifetime, at least. Here we are, imperfect and impatient, in this unmapped territory, trying to help our intelligent, funny, vulnerable, loving son find a very good route to where he wants to be.

There’s not a route that’s well-traveled enough, though, for Jim to see the landmarks. In many ways, he’s in a rain forest with a machete, hacking away, not knowing what’s behind today’s particular clump of overgrown vegetation. I have no doubt, though, that he’ll create a path; Jim perseveres long after I would have given up. That, I think, is another gift autism has given him.

Jim is just one gifted, challenged, creative, sometimes difficult, sometimes amazing, always cherished, person with autism. Mark and I sit in support group meetings and are amazed by the commonalities we have with other parents and by the rich and distinct differences our offspring display. We hope that through our meetings, our discussions, our support of Jim as he increasingly takes ownership of his path, we can help, in a small but meaningful way, to ease the path that other young autistic young people will have to take as they reach that adult threshold. We hope there will be precedents or models they can learn from.

But we know that each of those young adults will also need, in so many ways, to walk their own walks. There’s not a one-size- fits-all answer–although there are things we can and must do to make life more livable for adults on the autism spectrum. As the understanding of this diagnosis grows, and its scope is defined (the CDC recently released a study estimating one in 68 persons is on the autism spectrum), we need to create opportunities for these individuals to use their gifts to help make society richer.

If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. And you’ve also encountered someone who can change your world view. This month, we celebrate that.

A Good Sauce Simmerin’

Handwritten methods, preserved and passed
Handwritten methods, preserved and passed on

Even on really, really cold days, little dogs have got to go outside. Greta is dancing anxiously. I go shlep my feet into my duckies, zip my purple “Washington DC” hoodie up to my chin, and slip my jacket on over top. I stuff one pocket full of plastic Kroger sacks [read: poop bags], pull on my gloves, and we head outside.

Greta is as dismayed as I am by the cold; she dances around the yard. The snow has a thick crust, and she can’t find a place that feels good. After several fruitless circles, we head out the drive for our normal neighborhood walk.

Pretty soon the dog settles down, ignores the cold, and starts sniffing; there are splashy deer tracks from one yard across the street to another (I came home at moonrise the night before and saw them, our neighborhood deer, seven in all, loping silently across the street; it was eerie and beautiful). Something with a compelling smell must have been dropped near the sidewalk around the corner before the snow fell; Greta doesn’t want to leave one spot, and keeps pawing at the crust and trying to snout something out. I give her a few minutes’ sniffing time and nudge her on.

Eventually, cold or no, we enjoy our usual productive walk around the block, and arrive home energized and feeling a little righteous for having braved the frigid air. And then the big reward: opening the back door and being enveloped in the fragrant scent of spaghetti sauce simmering.

I have been learning to make sauce since, in my early twenties, I realized that my version of red sauce was totally uninspired. Spaghetti sauce could be a wonderful meal, and it was economical for struggling young marrieds; it was the meal of choice for small dinner parties, and the preparation got a little competitive. (I remember friends who served us our spaghetti and meatballs at a coffee table, where we sat on fat, hand sewn pillows, eastern style. The meal was delicious, but our legs fell asleep and we hobbled out to our car afterwards.)

I went looking for kind mentors who would share their sauce-making wisdom, and I was blessed with good ones.

I still have the index card on which Mrs. Louise Pelletter wrote out her method for me. It was the first time I’d ever considered cooking with real garlic bulbs, and Mrs. P., who, with her husband owned the Book Nook, where I worked for joy–and who was the mother of dear friends–took pity on me and wrote notes like, “When using garlic cloves, I usually take them out & discard them when sauce is cooked. You may use garlic powder.”

For a long time, I opted for the powder; the bulbs were just too exotic for my novice cooking skills.

Mrs. P’s recipe involved a 24-ounce can of whole tomatoes, a big can of tomato puree, an equally large can of tomato paste, and a day’s hearty simmering. It was the first time I’d ever known that you might put sugar into spaghetti sauce; Mrs. P’s recipe called for a cup, and she wrote in the margin, “I use MORE!” The secret, I learned, was a long simmer, and to skim the furzy acid off the surface as the tomatoes cooked down and the flavors melded.

In the summer, with my sister-in-law Mary and her sister Marsha, I juiced bushels of tomatoes in Marsha’s backyard, spent long hot hours canning the juice, and put that in my spaghetti sauce as part of the base. I swore you could taste the sunshine.

And then I was lucky enough to marry into a family whose sauce is legendary; I learned tricks like throwing in some fennel when the budget doesn’t stretch to adding Italian sausage. I discovered, too, that there are lots of meats that really enhance a spaghetti sauce–pork is wonderful; chicken is amazing. Simmered all day in the sauce, the meat is tenderly drenched with the robust flavor.

The Zanghis would scoop the meat out and serve it on two platters, put little gravy pitchers of sauce at about three foot intervals down their long dining room table, and set out two big bowls of pasta. The big table, passed down from Angelo’s mother, Mary, always seemed to be crowded; friends of Zanghi offspring were never shy about inviting themselves for dinner.

As food processing got more sophisticated and more really decent, ready-made spaghetti sauce become available on the supermarket shelves, our sauce methods have adapted. We no longer use the jars of whole tomatoes or the tomato puree; instead the bases of our sauces are canned spaghetti sauce, tomato paste, and little jars of tomato sauce. To that we add as seasons and freezer allow.

If we’ve had a pork roast, I’ll save the bone and the leftover meat, which sweeten the sauce in a wonderful way. Boneless chicken breasts cook to tender pieces in the simmering sauce, and in the summer, sautéed zucchini and yellow squash add to the joy. My friend Wendy suggested throwing a carrot in for sweetness; it makes a nice compromise for Mark and me, as I prefer a sauce sweeter than he likes.

But the sauce still simmers for at least three hours.

Along the way, Angelo, my father-in-law, found an incomparable meatball recipe. It was in an interview with Don DeLuise in the Dunkirk (NY) Observer, and we call the wonderful result Dom’s Mom’s Meatballs. First roasted in the oven, then simmered in a bubbling sauce, they are absolutely primo. (Our adaptation follows.)

I have gotten to the point where I know my sauce will be reliably good, but I doubt I’ve finished learning. I look forward to ‘aha!’ moments when friends casually share the secrets that give their sauces that special, unique zing.

And I look forward to the fragrance of the house on a cold winter’s day, when the sauce has been simmering, when the boiling pasta water steams the kitchen, and when a fork slices a meatball in half, releasing an irresistible scent. And when the meal is over, the leftovers tuppered, and we’ve toddled off to watch TV, there’s still more looking forward to be done. Because I know that sauce will make an AWESOME chili the next night. But that, perhaps, is a story for another day.

******

Our version of Dom’s Mom’s Meatballs

2 lbs. ground chuck
1/2 lb. ground pork (ground turkey works, too, as does ground chicken…)
2 cups Italian flavored bread crumbs
4 eggs
1 cup of milk
1 cup of fresh parsley, chopped (or–I often use 1/ cup of dried parsley)
1/2 cup grated cheese–our favorite is a romano/parmesan blend
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 garlic cloves, chopped fine
1 minced onion
***Optional: 1/2 cup pine nuts

Mix all ingredients; let stand for 1/2 hour.

Shape into meatballs.

Fry gently (to brown), or bake on a cookie sheet at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.

Add cooked meatballs to sauce and simmer.