Shaken. And Stirred.

As I zipped along gray roads, under gray skies, to Coshocton, I listened to NPR’s food editor talk about planning Thanksgiving feasts.

“Don’t be afraid,” she said, “to mess with tradition, to shake things up a little.”

Hmmm, I thought.

Then she added, “But don’t shake EVERYTHING up. Some things are meant to be on the Thanksgiving table.”

She went on to talk about how they still fixed creamed spinach just the way her father had; it wouldn’t, she said, be Thanksgiving at all without Granddad’s creamed spinach.

Hmmmm, I thought again.

We have some spinach in the fridge, but I didn’t see creamed spinach being a hit at our Thanksgiving table.

It’s just as well that everyone’s tastes are different and therefore special.

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

But the food editor’s words gave me the permission I needed to stretch the lines. And my doctor’s injunction against wheat and gluten made stretching the lines a necessity.

So, we bought the turkey, a sassy little fourteen pounder. We got Idaho potatoes and frozen green beans and a jar of whole-berry Ocean Spray cranberry sauce. I even bought a bag of Pepperidge Farm stuffing because I couldn’t for the life of me think of a wheat-free alternative…and it would be blasphemy worse than that editor’s not creaming the spinach to skip the stuffing.

I bought the world’s tiniest pumpkin pie…none of us (sorry, pumpkin lovers) really cares for it. But still, it is not Thanksgiving to Mark without a crusty bit of pumpkin with a fluffy dollop of whipped topping. He enjoys that one small piece…and then spends the week after trying to get someone—anyone!—to take the rest of the pie off his hands.

So we were ready. I woke up on Thanksgiving morning and put on my hard-core cooking clothes—long-sleeved black t-shirt, black plaid flannel pants,—and went downstairs to sauté up some bacon.

Most of the bacon went onto a plate where Mark and Jim picked at it while they scrambled up eggs in the pan drippings. I rescued a good sized chunk, though; it was one odd, solid piece and both the boyos looked at it funny anyway. I hid that away for my shaking it up green beans.

And then, boyos out of the kitchen, I went looking for my pecan cookie bar recipe, and I couldn’t find it.

That put me in a little panic. The recipe is from an old, old Betty Crocker cookbook that my younger brother and I bought for my mother with carefully hoarded dimes and dollars way back in the late sixties. I remember feeling that zing of pure pleasure, knowing we had gotten something for Mom that she would just purely love, and I remember knowing just how precisely we had hit the mark when she opened it and didn’t say anything for a minute.  Then she said, “Oh,no! You shouldn’t have spent so much!”

Which we translated into, “I really, really like this.”

I inherited the book after Mom died, and the first recipe I made was the one for pecan pie bars. They were good; they were so good that, when I pot-lucked them, I was inevitably asked for the recipe. I took it out of its official three-ring binder so many times that the holes turned from islands into peninsulas, and the page itself grew soft as cloth. I folded it several times, and the bottom of the page just detached itself and floated away, and I stuck that cookie bar recipe back in the old cookbook, right up front so I’d always know where to find it.

And then, this Thanksgiving morning, I opened the book’s cover, hanging by a thread to its binding, and the recipe just wasn’t there. I pawed through other cookbooks—maybe I stuffed it in the Better Homes and Garden Cookbook! Maybe I put it in with the handwritten recipes. Joy of Cooking? Julia Child?

But, no; it was gone. And it was Thanksgiving Day, and we needed a reasonable facsimile of pecan pie that I could make with my homemade AP flour substitute, and the bar recipe had the authenticity of family history.

Damn. I was kind of upset.

Finally, I got online and searched “Becky Crocker pecan pie bars,” and I pulled up a recipe. It was not THE recipe. It put granulated sugar in the crust instead of powdered; it added corn syrup to the filling. I printed it out, debated with myself a minute, and then harkened back to the NPR food editor.

Okay, I thought. This will be another shaking it up dish.

I warmed up the oven and baked the crust with the organic, gluten-free flour mix I made from flours bought at the bulk store. I poured gooey, corn syrupy, nutty filling over the hot crust and baked it again. I watched the bars carefully, and as soon as they looked brown and set, I pulled them out and put them on the old wooden chopping board to cool.

Then I slathered the turkey with olive oil and stuffed its poor empty belly with fresh herbs, rained salt and pepper down on it, tented it with foil, and grappled it into the hot oven.

Let, I declared, the cooking time begin, and I pulled out onions and celery and carrots, garlic and some almost-gravy-thick turkey broth made on Tuesday from the frozen remains of the last bird we’d enjoyed. I sorted through herbs and spices and gleefully pulled out jars and tins and plastic tubs and stacked them on the counter.

I made the stuffing in the cast iron skillet, redolent of bacon residue. The breading and the veggies sucked up a cup of that turkey broth, and, as the bird developed its own pan drippings, I scooped some out to drizzle on top. I peeled potatoes and put them on to boil,and Jim decided a crisscross potato might be even better than mashed, so I directed him in that preparation, (“Like this?” he said. “Am I cutting it right? How much butter? Is that too much paprika?”) and we found an old metal cake pan and got that potato dish ready to roast, too.

And, here we go! I thought. Time to shake up the green bean casserole, too!

I chopped a whole onion and put it on to caramelize, and I mixed up some bechamel with the non-wheat flour—which thickened, I was happy to see, right nicely. I grated some Vermont white cheddar into that, and I chopped the funny chunk of bacon and threw those tasty bits in with the browning onions. I poured the French-style green beans into the big metal mixing bowl and shook in the sautéed bits and shlupped in the thick sauce, and stirred it all together, thinned it just a titch, and spooned it into a casserole. My counters were dotted with casseroles and waiting pots, and the turkey was starting to get all kinds of fragrant, and there was nothing to do but wait until just the right time to start loading pans into the oven, reeling things out, hoping everything would be done on time.

And the turkey baked on, as we remembered to take the brown-n-serve rolls out of the freezer and put them on a pan, where Jim slathered their butty little tops with butter. And we remembered, this year, to decant the cranberry sauce into a pretty glass dish—some years we’d get halfway through dinner, and think, Wait.  What’s…missing? and one of us would run to get the can opener.

And the turkey roasted up juicy and tender, and everything thing else bubbled right into the perfect finished state at just the right time, and we spread the brown and red plaid cloth onto the table, and Jim picked out fall-colored Fiesta ware, and Mark carved the turkey and, then, after hours of preparation, we ate.

In less than fifteen minutes, we were all full…full and happy. The dinner was just right. Traditional, with a twist or two, but all the things were there that connected us to Thanksgivings past, to stories we always have to tell, and to people we love and miss.

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

My sadly beaten phone hummed and buzzed from Wednesday afternoon through Friday; hummed with catching up texts and Facebook messages and emails and tweets. On Wednesday, two beautiful cards from lifelong friends dropped through the mail slot.

I grabbed the colored chalk and wrote “Giving thanks…” above the picture window on the chalkboard wall in the kitchen.  Every now and then, I added thoughts. “…for homemade spaghetti sauce,” I wrote once. And another time, “…fireplace fires.”

The next time I went into the kitchen, the list had grown. “Family,” it said. And, “love.”

Jim came in to put his blue plastic cup into the dishwasher.

“Hey,” he said. “I just thought: well, somebody ought to say it.”

By Thanksgiving morning, he’d added a couple things more.

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

On Thanksgiving night, we went to see The Crimes of Grindelwald. A boy stopped us to rip our tickets; he was silent and a little surly, and I didn’t blame him.

“Thank you,” I said, “for working on Thanksgiving.” A smile broke out all over his face, and he was a little jaunty handing me back the tickets stubs.

“Theater TWO,” he said, “and I think you’re gonna like it.”

Is that little appreciation enough? I thought; just that little bit?

He was right; critics be darned. We enjoyed the movie.

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

We fixed up a full divided plate of Thanksgiving feast for Mark’s mom, and the next morning, Mark got up and packed up the car and took off: back home, to see his mom and his siblings, to see Matt and Julie and the girls. I ate leftover green beans for breakfast and lunch. And then they were gone. Jim had turkey sandwiches for brunch, lunch,and snacking. The mail came with a letter and a magazine that was all about the holiday light shows in Ohio, and we went to the library, where I couldn’t help it: I brought home three more books.

I divided up my schoolwork and tackled three papers, and Jim spread his math book and notebook and scratch pad on the kitchen table and worked his way, conscientiously, through two lessons.

For dinner, a little woozy from all that turkey, we stir fried pork and veggies and tossed them in General Tso’s sauce. And Mark texted to say he’d arrived, and Terry texted a picture of special memorial blocks in the newly opened tunnel at the Toledo Zoo; Shaynie sent me a message, and Larisa texted to say she had wound up the day and was warming her toes with a fuzzy blanket and her innards with a little sip of wine.

It struck me, just then, that, just like the dinner, everything had turned out just right.

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

When I was a child, I looked forward so eagerly to Thanksgiving: everybody home; even Dad, a lot of the time, didn’t have to work. I’d get up in the morning, and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade would be on, and I’d watch for a while, floating a bit on the fumes of the enormous turkey my mother had stuffed and put in the oven. But, although I hated to admit it, the parade was kind of…well, BORING, and I would wind up in a chair with a book.

Many years, we would make Turkeys From Hell out of apples and toothpicks, raisins and green olives with pimento gobblers—one for each place. But that was pretty quickly done, and then what?

I waited for dinner, which we ate in the dining room, a lace cloth on the table, and somebody always slopped gravy on it, every year. And then dishes and everyone disappeared…to watch football, out to see friends, into a bedroom, and a long quiet lull reigned before everyone would have digested enough to eat dessert.

There’s nothing to DO, I’d complain to my mother, and she, who’d been DO-ing all day, snapped, Go take a walk.

And I would pull on my jacket and tie on my sneakers and slough down the sidewalk, thinking, drenched deep with disappointment, Where’s the HOLIDAY part of this holiday?

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

But now, finally and belatedly, I think I get it. There’s the chance to be grateful, of course; the opportunity to count blessings. And all tied into that, woven together with it, is the awareness of bonds…to new friends and old friends, to family here with us, and to family gone on.

So, traditions…a recipe from my mother’s book, a visit to a much-loved place, a pie baked like no other can bake it, –well, they are more important on this holiday. And all the communications, –a letter, an e-card, a phone call, a Facebook post, –they are all drenched in meaning. The TIME of Thanksgiving is no-pressure time; I don’t have to be gifting or caroling,partying or volunteering. I am free to make a phone call, free to remember, free to stare into the fire and search deep down for the better self that surely is hiding, way down there.

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

That food editor was right, I think. It’s good on Thanksgiving, to give traditions a little shake.

But just a little one. Shaken too much, the beautiful meaning behind those traditions might just be obscured.

Advertisements

A Little Matter of Christmas Cards

Marianne has a rule for herself: she never opens a Christmas card until she has sent hers out.

Cards start to arrive in the first week of December, and she puts them in a special basket which she keeps on the little half-moon table by the front door, handy to the mailbox. That week, she helps her daughter Phyllis settle in.

Phyllis is 36 and has recently left a bad marriage–to a lazy, lying man who has taken advantage of her for many years. Marianne has watched her sweet daughter grow grimmer and grimmer, watched her usual dance through life become a burdened trudge. She has wanted so many times to say, “Leave him! Come home and rest and get ready for something better!”

But all she said was, “If you need me, I’m here.” Marianne’s own first marriage was a mistake that had to be lived through; she did not appreciate people who pointed it out at the time. Her mistake, her decisions to make. She wanted to treat Phyllis with respect, give her some dignity. Leave her some hope.

Because after she finally gathered up the energy to leave that first man, Marianne had thought her chances of happiness were shot–that her life would be a single one, a working one, one in which she’d hope for invitations to a niece’s house so she could experience a family Christmas once in a while. And she had set about building a worthwhile, solitary life, plunged into work and joined a gym and found a church that spoke to her. And she was happy and not lonely at all.

And then she met Hank, Phyllis’s father. They had, in their mid-thirties, produced Phyllis and her younger brother Danny. Danny was a graphic designer who worked far away, on the other coast. Marianne and Hank had taken the train out to see him the year Hank retired; they meandered across the country, and spent two weeks in a cottage helping Danny settle in, exploring his new town.

Two years later–which was, Marianne realizes now with a bolt of shock, three years ago–, Hank had a sudden, swift heart attack. He clutched his chest, looked at her in total surprise, and was gone.

So, although she doesn’t rejoice in the reasons for it, it is still a joyful pleasure to have Phyllis with her this holiday season. Phyllis is a sweet, strong woman, sturdy and affectionate. She works at the library, 9 until 6, Tuesday through Saturday; she gives Marianne a certain sum each month, and Marianne puts it in a special savings account. She’ll give it right back to her at some point, all the money that accumulates, but it’s good for the girl to feel like she’s paying her way.

And Marianne has a life: she goes to the gym four days a week; she has a book club.  She plays cards. She meets friends for lunch, and she sews and crochets. She has her housework down to a science, and every year, she redecorates a room. She never stops missing Hank, but her life is full.

Still, it’s awfully good to have Phyllis with her.

So the first week in December, the two of them fix up Phyllis’s old room. Phyllis asks if, maybe, she could turn the spare room into an office space, and Marianne thinks that a great idea. They spend a bustle-y couple of days cleaning and moving furniture up and down the stairs, from basement to second floor; back down again with rejects. They survey curtains and ponder color.

After Christmas, Phyllis says, maybe she’ll paint both rooms. If that’s okay with her mother.

And Marianne, who loves the transformation of an underused space into one that’s vibrant, says that of course it’s all right.

She did get out the Christmas cards–two hefty boxes of beautiful cards; she’d bought them at an after-holidays sale last year, seduced by thick, creamy envelopes with a little golden inlay under the flap. One has a vintage Saint Nick on the cover; the old saint looks both jolly and wise. And the other has a madonna and child. Marianne’s cards aren’t usually overtly religious, but this rendering just spoke to her: the young mother’s face illuminated and alive, not saccharine or saintly sweet. She looks strong and scared and filled with wonder…which is pretty much, when you get right down to the bottom level, Marianne thinks, the human condition.

The baby sleeps in the young Mary’s arms, his dark eyelashes long on plump cheeks. The picture called to Marianne, and she bought the two boxes of cards and put them in the armoire where she keeps gifts and things to save.

Now the boxes sit, waiting, on her bookshelf.

In the second week of December, Phyllis’s church has a benefit for a children’s program they sponsor. It’s a wonderful program, providing before and after school care for kids whose parents can’t afford it. The kids get hot meals and transportation; the church insists on homework time before play, but they provide tutors and materials. Marianne has tutored math there, her accounting background coming in handy. The church makes everything fun, a challenge. The kids learn to cook in teams of five, and a different team makes dinner every week, and they can stay at the church until 9 PM if their parents work late.

It’s a tremendous program, a make-a-difference program, and it needs lots of money and resources to keep up.

So during the second week, Marianne bakes batch after batch of cookies. Julia, the director of the early childhood program at the church, drops off a garbage bag full of pretty quilted materials. Marianne takes that, and scraps and remnants from her own old projects, and she designs and sews fifty Christmas stockings. It’s like working again: she gets up at 6:00 each day, and by the time Phyllis leaves the house at 8:30, Marianne is at work, too. She breaks for lunch and finishes up just about 4:30, when she contemplates what to fix for dinner.

The pile of cards in the basket by the front door grows.

Marianne does get her Christmas card list out from the drawer. She opens it up at lunch one day, and spreads it out onto the table. It’s in alphabetical order; the list marches along with the names in her address book. And the very first name is Lisa’s: Lisa, her friend since she worked in New Concord, twenty years ago. Lisa, who died in April after a long and valiant fight against a cancer that started in her uterus and slowly, slowly, poisoned all the healthy parts of her body.

Lisa A. Marianne looks at the list smoothed out in front of her and folds it back up. Lisa’s name is not the only one that needs to be removed from the list this year.

Marianne goes back to her sewing.

Phyllis notices by the third week in December.

“Mom,” she says, “I can’t believe you haven’t done your Christmas cards yet! You’re always the harbinger of the holiday season!” Phyllis, in her quiet, organized way, has sent her cards out. She set up her computer and printer in her new office; she printed out labels for the cards she had ordered from the office supply store. She had her name printed on them, then added little personal notes on most.

Marianne liked to do her cards by hand; and there was never a question of sending cards out from “Marianne and Phyllis.” Phyllis was not a dependent child; she was a strong and independent woman who had her own life and friends.

“I’ll get to them,” Marianne says to her daughter now. She goes as far as getting the address book from the side table. She puts it next to the card boxes.

The address book is thirty years old, probably. Bits of envelope stick out–bits with addresses that have changed and that Marianne hasn’t yet had time to record. Some of the pages are thick with change. When she can, she cuts the address label off the letter and tapes it over the old address. Some people–Jenny Cobb, for instance, the student intern who worked with them twenty-five years ago, and has stayed close and in touch ever since–have moved several times. Her little address spot has a lump where six new labels have been carefully cut out and taped in.

The address book is a lot fatter than it was when Marianne picked it up at a clearance sale at TJ Maxx. She was out Christmas shopping that day, she realizes–out shopping with her beloved Hank.

**********

That week they decorate; they pull the tree boxes up from the basement. They lug the heavy plastic bins that hold wreaths and garland, ornaments, and the pretty ceramic nativity set Marianne’s Aunt See had made her when she was in high school.

They dust and polish furniture. They exclaim over statues of Santa and ceramic penguins and ornaments painted by Phyllis’s and Danny’s young hands.

The basket by the door is filling up; each day brings at least two or three more cards. After her initial comment, Phyllis says not another word, treating Marianne with the same respect she’s given. But she looks at her mother with concern.

And Marianne faces the fact: she’s got to get those cards done. So on Saturday, when Phyllis goes to work, she gathers everything–the list, the address book, a yellow highlighter, a green ball point pen, a black gel pen, a waxed paper envelope with three books of Christmas stamps. She gets the boxes of cards from the shelves; she puts them on the table. And she sighs–she feels reluctance; she feels dread. But she sits down, and she picks up the black pen, and she starts.

She pulls the list to her; she takes the highlighter and draws a firm line through “Lisa A.” She opens the address book and runs her finger over the three addresses she has for Lisa A–the first, with the partner who broke her heart, the second for an efficiency apartment. Finally, Lisa stayed at an assisted living complex that gave her the right proportion of independence and increasing care. Marianne remembers all the visits she made there; she remembers that Lisa had a big bulletin board where she pinned all the cards and letters she received. There was a whole section, Lisa had showed her proudly, just for ‘Stuff From Marianne.’

Marianne takes off her glasses and stands up. She goes to the powder room and brings back a full box of tissues. She takes her first weeping break with Lisa A.

She uses the whole day to do her cards, paging through the address book, looking at the history there. There’s a place in the beginning for ‘This belongs to…’ and ‘In case of emergency, contact…’ It still reads ‘Hank Byers’ there. She picks up the highlighter, but her hand hovers; in the end, she can’t quite highlight Hank’s name away.

She cuts out address labels and pastes them in place for an aunt who has changed retirement communities, and for friends who have adventured out to Arizona, snowbirds happily ensconced in an RV community nine months of the year. Nieces and nephews, young former colleagues–all of these entries are thick with change and exciting new events–many have added spouses and children’s names to their entries, along with new homes at new addresses.

She consigns some entries  to the natural attrition of change–people who were present and important at one stage and era, and, that era having ended, who faded into their own busy lives, tenuous cords severed. Others names have reappeared–important friends from high school and college who have re-entered her life.. That, Marianne thinks wryly, is the joyful side of FaceBook.

She takes a weeping break at David’s name, too–Hank’s stalwart best friend died of cancer early in the year. After Hank passed, David and Annie had made sure Marianne was included in parties and adventures, had holiday invitations to their big, raucous family events–she never went, feeling an invader among the tumble of kids and grandkids, and last year, the first great-grand, but the fact of having an invitation to turn down had been a comfort many days. David came over at midnight once to chase a bat, and helped her connect to a company that would do that, too– “If ever,” he said, not yet knowing, “if ever I’m not available to do that for you.”

She thinks of Annie’s first Christmas apart, remembers how hard that is. She blows her nose and swabs away the dampness on her cheeks and writes a special note.

And Rita–oh, cancer has taken its relentless toll this year. Rita from her card club, tiny dynamo Rita, who often derailed the game with a wonderful story. No one could tell a story like Rita did, tell it at her own expense, making herself a hapless, Lucille Ball-style heroine, hoisted on her own petard. She would have them gasping with laughter,and when they were done, they had to think for 15 minutes to remember whose turn it was to lead a card. It’s so hard to accept that an elemental force like Rita’s has been quenched.

She finishes just before Phyllis walks in the door, and Phyllis hangs up her coat, puts down her purse, and comes in to see her red-eyed mother, hand flat on the last page of the address book, sitting at the table with three stacks of Christmas cards, stamped, addressed, and ready to mail.

“Pizza!” Phyllis suggests, but with a kind of firmness that doesn’t brook no for an answer. “Pizza and a trip to the post office.”

Marianne rinses her face and changes her shirt and grabs her coat. She closes the address book, folds up the Christmas card list and slides it inside, and they are off.

On Monday she begins to open the cards stacked in the basket. She reads each one, and she clips new addresses from envelopes if needed. And then she uses baby doll clothes pins she’s had since Phyllis outgrew doll-play; she hangs the cards from a tough green cord she’s strung over her picture window.

Many of the cards yield photos–smiling families, loved and missed; growing kids. Some folks include pictures of new houses or beautiful pets or vacation delights. Marianne carefully writes a description on the back of each photo. She pins these to a big canvas that hangs in the family room; after Christmas; she will sort through and put the keepers in a special photo album for Christmas card treasures.

Some of the cards have letters–newsy form-letters or handwritten scribbles, catching her up on what the year has brought and wrought for special people. There have been losses; there have. But there have been weddings and births, new jobs and new friendships. An old friend, at age 63, is headed back to college for the degree she always wanted and lamented. Another is taking an exciting trip through Europe. There are seven retirement announcements.

Marianne takes her time, opening five or six cards over her morning coffee, savoring the artwork, pondering the choices and what they reveal about their senders, absorbing the news she’s been sent. Opening that once-stuck door, reveling in reconnection.

She opens the last card on Christmas Eve, shows Phyllis a new-baby photo, clips the address and sticks it in the drawer with her address book. And then she runs up to change.

Phyllis has twisted her arm; she’ll go to church services, bask in candleglow and sweet music (tonight, Phyllis assured her, is a sermon-free zone). They’ll come home and have their annual toast and open their gifts to each other. Tomorrow, they’ll Face-Time Danny. And they’ll have an unexpected crowd around their table–a neighbor, Sis, who’s had a falling out with her family, will join them, and Joey, a young colleague of Phyllis’s, who can’t get back to Buffalo because of the blizzard his hometown is enduring. And Jannie and Kevin, Phyllis’s oldest friends, who had a miscarriage this year, have decided they wouldn’t go to Detroit for the riotous family Christmas.

Marianne and Phyllis have warned them all: they are cooking their shared favorite meal: a giant tuna casserole. Kevin said he was bringing a sliced ham to augment it, and Sis is bringing bread and a green salad.  Joey commented on their motley-crewness, and asked if it would be okay if he brought a Rudolph DVD. It’s a film he watches each Christmas, and maybe, he said, they could relate to the Island of Misfit toys. Of course, said Phyllis, and she touched her mother’s arm and smiled.

It will be a Christmas laced with the knowledge of loss, thinks Marianne, pulling on a velvety blue tunic and fastening her silver snowflake necklace. She will not be able to look too long at her daughter’s face as the carols play and the candlelight flickers in the church, to know the aching pain of her little girl and not be able to assuage it. She will reach across the miles to her baby boy, hoping he is safe and happy.

She will ache, remembering the people she cherished and laughed with, cried with and leaned on,–the people she will never see again.

And they’ll eat their unconventional dinner; they’ll learn about their guests. They’ll watch a silly movie and maybe play a rousing round or two of Apples to Apples, or deal out some cards. They will laugh and hug and share a day together.

And later, she and Phyllis will look through Christmas card photos, share this year’s news from both their batches of holiday greetings, pondering the ebb and the flow and realizing they can’t make sense of it. The pattern–if one is there–only emerges, she thinks, when the tapestry is completed, and Marianne is in no hurry for that to happen. She is lonely; yes, she is, but she is filled, too–with love for her children, with the need to contribute, with the potential of new friends and new discoveries.

She may well be sending Joey a Christmas card next year–who knows? He might be one of those ‘keeper’ people, someone she thinks of every time she hears Burl Ives warbling about holly jolliness. Other friendships may deepen; other losses may accrue. Her arms may be needed for comfort and her smile for celebration.

Her address book will fatten a little. Marianne knows that this is the truth; she dreads it and she welcomes it, and she runs downstairs to let her daughter take her to church.

What Autumn Brings

Late tomatoes

We wave Mark off for his weekend in western New York. I turn to walk through the carport, back into the house, and I am distracted by a brisk breeze that tipples dry leaves in the front yard. They float, crisp and yellow, on the updraft; they lazily wend their ways into the neighbors’ yard across the street.

I have been taming the lazy early-autumn drift by mowing the leaves into mulch, but suddenly the trees are industriously shedding, getting serious about molting their summer growth. This weekend, I realize, it’s time to break out the rake.

But it rains all day Saturday, loosening even more leaves onto the grass. On Sunday morning, I wield the rake, and I drag loads of leaves to the grassy strip between the street and the little rock wall. I fill four sturdy black bags, and Jim helps me drag them back to the alley, to where the city workers will pick them up.

It is autumn, and time to rake.

The rains come back, and it is good: there are things to do inside. I finish one project, corresponding madly in the last days before deadline with Terri; we make a concert of words and thoughts. Finally she emails me a picture of our finished product, now delivered, and we both feel very proud.

I drag my notes out and polish up a paper. I email a new contact, and I back-and-forth with some other women, retired women, who want to get together for lunch. We pick a place and set a date and mark our calendars.

I think about the season, and I think about retirement, and I ponder new starts and the growing flexibility of time and pursuits.

It is autumn and time to hunker down inside, to reconnect, to rediscover interests long left to simmer unnoticed.

I buy two bags of McIntosh apples. I make a pie. We eat polished apples, crunching juicy bites. By the time Mark drives off, there are only five apples left. A friend mentions that she has made apple crisp.

I peel apples and lightly grease a thick ceramic pie plate. I heat the oven and I mix brown sugar and rolled oats and butter and cinnamon until it’s a crumbly mass and I layer and sprinkle and put the stuff in to bake.

“It smells like fall,” says Jim.

Another friend mentions making gumbo and I run to open The Joy of Cooking. I pull chicken thighs from the chest freezer and smoked sausage from the freezer upstairs. We will have spicy gumbo for Mark’s homecoming, with apple crisp and whipped cream. All that cooking warms the rainy day kitchen.

By the time Mark pulls in the next day, the sun is high and the temps climb into the 80’s.

It is autumn, time to bake and simmer; time to welcome a completely changeable day.

I read my way into a stack of thick books, and I realize I have appointments on every single day. I email retired friends and we joke about not having time to work—how did we ever fit that in? I meet with some new connections, two passionate professionals working to build college opportunities for young people who are disenfranchised and often forgotten. They are wonderful people; it is a wonderful cause. I leave the coffee shop excited and ready to dig in.

And we travel into the hills of Ohio, to places we’ve never explored before. We see the home where Clark Gable was born, meet two amazing volunteers who helped to make the museum a reality, look at pictures of The King, and at his 1954 Coupe de Ville, at his monogrammed pajama top. We think we need to get a copy of The Misfits, read a biography of Gable.

We drive through a torrential downpour, on winding, narrow country roads, past where a peace officer waves us into the other lane. There is a tow truck pulling an aging minivan from the roadside ditch.

There is no emergency medical vehicle; we hope that no one was hurt.

And we twist around corners, and we edge over on the odd times when another car approaches, sharing that narrow strip of asphalt. The wipers whip madly. And then suddenly the rain abates. The sun shines, and we pull up to another historical marker, this one for the birthplace of George Armstrong Custer, whose story was both lustrous and deeply tainted. We wander through the informative kiosk, our curiosity about his Civil War life teased by shared shreds of story. We stand before the imposing statue. We look over the hills and there is a rainbow, strong and bold.

It is autumn, with triumphant stories and desolate ones, with reminders of disaster and hopes of glory.

I come home, in the dark, from a meeting, and the dog trots gingerly out to meet me, gently butting, turning her head.

“Wait,” I say, “is something…?”

Mark crouches, turns Greta’s muzzle, and we see her left eye, swollen and weeping.

“Damn!” he says. “She surprised a black cat on the backyard step; they got into it. I think it scratched her.”

She goes to ground, Greta does, creeping into her doggy bed, sighing, hiding the hurt eye. She does not move when I reach to pet her. She does not want to eat.

She is so still I check to see if she is breathing. I make an appointment for the first available morning opening at the vet’s.

And I realize my foot hurts and my knee creaks and that age brings more than freedom with it.

It is autumn and I begin to dread goodbyes.

But the morning brings sunlight and the dog, suddenly, lifts her head and jumps from her perch and trots to the back door; she opens both eyes wide and licks my hand, and we walk through falling leaves and crunching acorns. She sniffs and explores, and she is trotting; she’s excited. At home, I scoop out a good bit of food and she eats greedily and begs for hot dog treats.

The vet finds a scratch on the white of her eye, administers drops, tells me she’ll be fine with rest and medication.

And I bring her home. We turn right around, the whole family, traveling to take Jim to an appointment, to hit our favorite bookstore, to eat a hearty dinner at an Italian restaurant. It rains a little on the drive in; the sun pierces scudding clouds as we head for home.

And Mark picks the last of the kitchen-sink-garden tomatoes, and the carport shelters drifting piles of leaves. Even when the days are hot, the nights are cool. It’s dark by 8 PM.

I think that we need to sort the winter coats, get the boots out, match the gloves and mittens.

It is autumn: winter is coming.

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

Metaphor and reminder, paradoxical vortex, wind-blown messenger-season. Time of change, of growth, of healing; time of comfort. Time to recognize the reality of loss.

It is autumn and time to hunker down, to appreciate; time to prepare for what’s to come.

Rainbow in the hills

A Freshening

Bathroom Map 2

I dismiss the basement half-bath when we move in.  It is a scary little space, tucked into the back of the basement, behind the stairs. It is cobwebbed and dank, with thin walls abetting its cinder-block sides. It hints of other, lesser beings–spiders and blind-eyed crawling things, rodents, and unknown invaders–who might have taken up residence.

I shudder, and Mark uses the space to store the many shutters we remove from the windows throughout the house. He stacks and leans them inside the ramshackle wall.  There is no door; the only privacy comes from an old pink patterned shower curtain that pulls across a sagging bar. As nice as it would be to have three working bathrooms in the house–imagine, three people: three commodes!–I write off the little space and walk off into busyness and forgetful time.

Some years pass, and Jim grows into young manhood, and he becomes interested in the basement, a warm, dry, claimable space–a space that could be a suite, an efficiency apartment, almost. We start thinking about possibilities.  Mark moves his tools and his workshop out to the unused garage, rigs up a fan, cleans and organizes.

Jim moves his desk and TV and video game systems into the basement.

We go to funky restaurants and look up at the bare-beamed ceilings with their industrial style pot lights, urban, hip, and fun, and we think: our basement ceiling is made of beautiful beams.  It could look like that. We could create this look, this feel.

To make it a fully functional space for Jim, it would be great to have a little kitchen, and it would be great to have a working bathroom, too. And so, one day,–after Mark confessed that he often went downstairs to iron a shirt of a morning and availed himself of the little commode,–“Works great,” he said,–I thought: Okay. Let’s clean it up.

We have, after all, dozens of pails of paint left over from our initial transformation of this house. There is a lovely sky blue, especially, in quantity.  And there are tubs and tubs of glossy white.

So I pull on some plastic gloves and Mark moves the shutters, stashing them under the basement stairs. We throw out the old mouse bait (I tuck fresh bait up into the rafters, just in case); we plug up some suspicious holes with steel wool, and we fill a tall kitchen trash bag with various stuff that had been moldering.  I fire up the shop vac and rid the space of a thick patina of grime and detritus, the nasty, hanging-down fuzziness of neglected basement.  Cleared and open, the space seems safer, more possible.

And now I can fill buckets with steaming soapy water and scrub–scrub walls and ducts and sink and toilet, scrub floor and cinder blocks and pipes.  With my hands in the hot water, wielding the rags, rubbing the outlines of the essential components of this small, forgotten space, I begin to know it. I begin to see what it could really look like, how it could be made to feel.

This could be more than functional, I think.  This could be clean and fun and welcoming.  We could–and then I think: We WILL–transform this space.

And so, of course, we go to Lowes. We buy high-powered, darned near explosive stuff to put in the toilet tank, stuff guaranteed to blast off years of grime and and crud. (It works.) We buy a pristine white toilet seat to replace the translucent gold one, the one that has triangular floating shapes frozen into its amber, a look I sort of remember from friends’ homes way back when, new builds in the 1960’s.

We look at sinks to fit the little niche where the tiny, vintage, corner sink is now, working but rusty. We buy, instead, a paint kit to rejuvenate the aging, perfectly-sized ceramic fixture.

We buy kick-butt cleaner, and we buy cement floor treatment.

Armed, we go home and work.  We paint the upper walls blue. We paint the duct-work and the cinder blocks (real cinder blocks, black and powdery-dense on their insides) a bright white. We scrub the sink. We sandblast the commode. We soak all the fixtures in a pungent solution of sanitizing bleach.

The little bathroom, like a sad and matted, neglected beast, seems to stretch and sigh and expand. We are rubbing away the filthy false layers. We are honing in upon the true.

And, oh, it feels good to do that.

*********

I know this to be true: I was an odd child. I did not dream of horses or get lost in the dressing of my dolls.  But when we drove, each summer weekend, to Cassadaga Lake to swim, I would watch for the little shack that perched on the side of a hill, jutting out from a new-growth woods, and I would virtually engineer its transformation. Thick plaid blankets, I would think, could insulate the walls against the snow-bearing winds of winter. I would imagine innovative heating–fireplaces made from stacked stone–, and rustic beds, and hand-hewn furniture. I would imagine a comfortable life in the woods on that hill, in a space that others had overlooked and dismissed. I would ponder possibilities in a space reclaimed, re-imagined, transformed.

That was the activity that engrossed me, the silly, childish kind of daydream I had buried until transforming the little bathroom woke it up.

***********

From beneath my cluttered craft table, in a box of treasures to one day be formatted, matted, and framed, I pluck three plastic maps. They are bas-relief geology maps; the mountains punch up, rivers snaking through them to the broad blue sea. I found them years ago in the trash-bin of a geology classroom that was being repurposed; I begged permission, and then I took them home to ponder them.

Now I think they might be the perfect artwork for a young man’s bathroom.

Mark buys wooden molding, and we find a tin of rich mahogany stain on the paint room shelves, and Jim treats the wood.  Mark takes it out, when dry, to his garage workshop. He uses his scary, venerable chop-saw to miter corners and build us some frames.

The maps, framed, transform the bathroom space.  On the blue walls, they stand out, capture interest.  They say, ‘This is a cared for space.’  At a junk store, we find a kind of wooden pillar to hold rolls of toilet paper. We rescue the goofy ceramic moose toothbrush holder from its stashed-away obscurity. We remember a couple of decorative shelves we can mount, and a painting that would be perfect to lean on the ledge. The tiny neglected powder room, tucked away in the recesses of the basement, begins to glow.

At odd times, in moments of sudden quiet, I run downstairs to visit it.

I scrub the floor with the special cement treatment, and I paint it a battle-ship gray, covering splots and scratches. The clean new floor transforms the space completely.

Visiting a friend, hitting a wonderful second hand store, I find rugs and a thick white shower curtain to provide privacy until Mark frames out the new doorway. I throw the old pink monstrosity into the wash (drop cloth!), and I soak and scrub the chunky shower curtain hooks. At night, images of the floor float in my mind.  Could I use paint and sharpie and polyurethane to create faux tiles?

**********
The little bathroom is reborn, and I see an article in Country Living about a laundry room, transformed, and I go down and eye the side of the basement that houses the washer and dryer.  Stashed in the paint room is the indoor-outdoor rug I had in my former office, a cheerful expanse with splashy green and purple and orange asterisk-stars emblazoned.  Wouldn’t that look nice?

I grab Mark. We head to Lowes.

*******

Because if we can transform these little places, these inanimate things, what else could happen? If our labors peel the layers and reveal these potentials–well, think of it.  Well else might we be able to do?

Weathered

Something wakes me up at five AM; I throw on comfy old pants and the dog, Greta, follows me downstairs. She runs outside, and then she hurries back in. I set up shop at the dining room table, my battered old binder in front of me, and I pull out sheets of looseleaf to do my morning pages. Greta sits under the table, almost on top of my feet. In the quiet dawning, I scratch my thoughts onto the paper.

The sky lightens through the bay window, and I see that the wind has picked up. The little tree is smacking its limbs against the carport roof.  The tall bushes that line the curving drive are doing a crazy, improv dance–each going its own way, shaking and swaying discordantly.

The dog begins to pant; she nudges my foot until I reach down to scratch her head.  I feel her whole body vibrating, tightly strung, in tune with the coming weather.

I grab my phone and press the weather app.  Sure enough: thunderstorms are on their way.  Greta didn’t need me to check the weather; she felt the onset in her very bones.

The rain sweeps in, battering and pounding, and deep rumbles roll overhead.  The dog jumps up; her whole body quivers, and she rests her chin on my knee.  I croon to her soothingly. She shakes.  Bright flashes scald the bay window, and Greta whimpers.

A chunky black garbage can lid bumps down the slickened street in front of the house. I reach out to pick my pen up, capture a thought, but the dog rears up with a paw and bats my wrist.  She needs my hand on her silky head, needs touch and connection.  It’s how she gets through the storm.

I stare out the window. The sky blackens and lightning crackles and sense memories surface.

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

I am ten and wrapped in a quilt, huddled in a corner of my bedroom.  Angry voices spit through the furnace grate as thunder roils above me.  My stomach aches with worry.

Would she really take us and leave?

Would he really let her go?

Rain pelts and thunder crashes, but this is a flash storm, and it quickly passes.

******

I am nineteen and he has a fully cracked, wide open smile, an extra helmet, room on the seat.  I strap the helmet on, slide on behind him, slip my arms around his lean leather-clad waist. We race away down the main street of the little college town, and I hear the sound, but can’t discern the meaning, of the words my friends shout behind me.  He leans around the curve and I lean with him and we charge out into the hills.

The storm begins just as the Harley  peaks a rise; rain echoes crazily on my helmet; flashes illuminate wild landscapes.  He’s very sure.  The rain settles into a pleasant patter; we dip and surface, dip and surface, over the gently rolling hills.  When we crest I see jagged shards of brightness splicing the night sky.  Its glow picks up wild shining eyes at the road’s edge.

There is no other traffic.  We blaze through the storm, tires spitting water, and then he takes me, finally, back to where my friends are huddled in the dark nether regions of a bar.  We walk in together; I shake my long hair free from the helmet and laugh over at him.

My tightly-strung, mother-hen friend grabs my arm.  “Are you CRAZY?” she asks me.  “Are you just plain freaking NUTS?”

I see that she was really worried, and later I will apologize, reassure her. But in that moment, propelled by that triumph, I cannot care. I grin wildly back at her. Me–always such a good girl, riding through a thunderstorm with that fast boy on his Harley. My blood sings.

This was nothing, I assure her, but a gentle summer storm.

******

I am 36 and Jim has just turned two and we have four visiting children–a little home-grown day care–in the house.  The sky is bruised and purpled, a weirder, darker color than the night-time brings, and the children are uneasy.  We gather on the couch and we start to read Patricia Pollaco’s Thunder Cake, and then we troupe tightly to the kitchen and begin pulling out pans and bowls and ingredients.  In the small, close space, children bump and giggle.  They studiously grease pans, crack eggs, put plump hands on the top of the blender that churns up that odd main addition: ripe tomatoes.  They laugh at the vibrations.

We take turns holding the hand mixer.  We pour the rich, chocolatey batter into the pans and the kids step back as I slide the pans into the hot oven.  We do the dishes and cook up some fudge frosting.

While we wait for the cakes to bake, we finish the book. Just as it promises, when the baking process is complete, the storm is done, but Megan, big-eyed Megan, refuses to leave my side. When the cake is cooled and iced and ready, she eats her slice firmly ensconced on my lap.  Right now, she does not trust the calm.

******

I am 48 and we have transformed a little house trailer into a cozy home for the law school interval.  It sits on a corner lot; it backs onto an endless cornfield.  It is 8:30 PM, and there is a funny feel to the atmosphere; James and I sit on the little porch to escape the still and stifling air inside. The Dad is at the library.

And then we see the storm coming, advancing through the corn, a dark blue wall of rain, marching quickly, sweeping toward us.  Relentless.  Jim rustles uneasily, and then a siren begins to blare.  He turns a shocked face toward me, and I hustle him to the car, throw in a couple of his favorite books, and we speed down to the law school campus, race inside, find a comfortable corner near the admissions office, and page through the books as a prairie storm rages.

When it is over, we drive back, a little fearful. We find, despite torn leaves from battered corn stalks and an errant branch or two in the yard, the sturdy little house trailer is fine.

*********************************
I sit with the dog for twenty minutes while rain batters the house, and then I leave her, quaking, while I shower and change. I dig through cupboards, making sure there are flashlights on the counter just in case the power flickers off, and I drain my coffee cup and pack up to go.  The dog looks at me imploringly; I caress her silky head.  She follows me to the door; she pleads silently, but work is a relentless obligation and I leave her trembling there; she will snuggle in the corner of the couch; she’ll tap restlessly around the living room. I tarp my raincoat over my head and dash to the carport, my purse chucked under my chin, travel mug in one head, book bag in the other.

Rain sluices down.  My wipers whip madly.  But by the time I arrive at work, the torrent has subsided to a gentle shower.

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

The sun is shining when I go home for lunch.  The dog waits at the door for me. I clip the leash onto her collar and tug her firmly outside, where she blinks warily.  Gently, I persuade her to walk with me; we head down the driveway and veer to the right, off to the Helen Purcell Home on the corner.  By the time we reach the sweeping drive, Greta has perked up; she excitedly explores the leaves and sticks and residue the storm has spread onto the sidewalks.  She sniffs the air.  It is fresh and cool, and she begins to trot.

I trot along beside her, enjoying, remembering. I am invigorated. This is what the storm always brings–this is the aftermath, the pay-off. The reward.  This is the rain-scoured world, the wind-beaten cleanliness, the opportunity to sally forth and begin again.  This is–remember this?–this is what follows the storm.

Put Her In A Pumpkin Shell

(A Loolie tale)

 Bottle of boos

Pinterest image from Teresasews (available on Etsy)