A Dog in the Manger

Come to the manger.jpg
We’ve had the creche for over thirty years. It has traveled with us, ceramic pieces snugly wrapped in newspaper and stuffed tightly into a box that a boy’s brand new Nikes once came home in. The pieces have been carefully unwrapped, each year, by two sets of boy hands–both sets grown, now, into man hands. The figures have been displayed in six different homes.

There’s a tip of a nose missing on poor Joseph; a few of the animals have dinged horns. I notice, snapping photos, that the ceramic pieces are due for a good soap and hot water soak. But all in all, this nativity scene wears the years remarkably well. It wears the years easily, and it gathers in compatriots. The ceramic figures are joined now by plastic friends, glass friends, friends fashioned of straw and wood. The newest mute witness to baby Jesus’s birth is a hand-carved, wooden dog.

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My mother ordered the set for us on a hot August day early in the 1980’s. She was browsing a craft show–an annual event called the Farm Festival– in the town next to the city where I grew up, and she came upon a ceramic artist. Arrested by the artist’s Christmas figures, Mom stopped, and she picked up the pieces, turning them over, lifting the baby from his manger cradle, looking at the faces of the wise men, shepherds, Joseph, and Mary.

It was Mary’s face, she said, that sold her. Some manger scenes had beatific Mary’s, with mature and perfect upturned faces soaking in the grace raining down from heaven. My mother had a different image of Mary–an image of a frightened but awed young woman, a girl, really, of fourteen,who was exhausted by a long, mule-back trip and by the rigors of giving birth.

And yet, still limned with that awe.

 

marys-tired-face

This Mary, Mom thought, looked the part, and so she ordered sets for me and my brothers.

The artist delivered them in November or so, and that Christmas, Mark and I set the figures up for the first time, in our first married home.

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In those days, we were purists. We set out Mary and Joseph early in December, but we wrapped and hid the baby. He would appear on Christmas morning, a reminder of gifts not so material. The wise men would start their journey to the stable in a far part of the room, and each day, they would inch forward, traversing the mantle over the fireplace, the end tables, the window sills. They would miss the birth of the baby, and arrive at the manger on January 6th, the Feast of Epiphany.

wise-men

That was the same day we took down the Christmas tree. I felt a little sorry for the wise men, missing all the fun.

But then, the Christmas in the year that my mother died, we set things up, the waiting parents, the hovering shepherds, the empty manger, the distant wise men…we set them up, and then, on Christmas morning, we couldn’t find Jesus.

It seemed like some kind of tiny ceramic tragedy, a meaningful metaphor for where we were–where I was–in life.

“Where’s Jesus????!!!” I demanded of my husband and my stepson, and they frantically searched in drawers and cubbies and the Nike box. But the baby couldn’t be found.

“I can’t find Jesus,” I mourned, not hearing that irony, and then one day, Jesus turned up, wrapped in a humble scrap of newspaper, stuck up on a high shelf, unassuming, tiny, but very, very important.

I marched on past the symbolism of the event. The next year, we welcomed everyone, baby and kings included, to the stable from the very first December day the scene appeared in the living room.

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The crowd at the birth has grown.

For many years, every gifting occasion brought me a new Willow Tree angel–angels with books and flowers and pineapples and babies, angels who celebrated hospitality and gardening, reading and motherhood. They were different sizes; they clutched different symbols, but they all eventually made their way to the manger.

angels-2

They were joined by other angels, gifted or collected, tiny fragile glass angels; angels, woven of some kind of straw, lifting trumpets to heaven; salt glazed angels. The tallest Willow Tree angel looms over her tiniest spun glass sister, but they are a warm and welcoming phalanx, watching over the baby, trumpeting his birth.

Angels 1.jpg

On Epiphany, we wrap them up and stow them with their ceramic family to wait for the next year’s Yule. The shoe box, like the feet of the boys who wear the sneakers, has, of necessity, grown.

Jesus’s family is joined now by Pez people, once an essential component of boys’ Christmas stockings. The little, flippy-headed dispensers–Mr and Mrs. Claus, a snowman, an elf–are unlikely companions for the religious ceramic figures. But a young man was insistent one Christmas–“You can’t kick them out!” he pleaded–and since then, Pez joins shepherd; plastic shoulders nudge in, next to a bevy of angels.

Pez guys.jpg

A plastic snow man has snuck in, too, one of a set we made from the little drink potion bottles that Jim loved for a while–Mio-type drinks; the kind you squirt into water bottles to change your pure, clear, mountain water into a soft drink. We made enough for a checkers set–Team Snowman against Team Penguin. Only one survived, and he stands guard, now, too, over the baby.

The ceramic core group seems undisturbed. They spread out, open ranks, welcome the visitors. It’s as one would expect, and as it should be.

This year, the newest visitor is a hand-carved Thurber dog–hand-carved by Kim’s father. Kim and I both love James Thurber, and we both love art that is shaped by love and inner vision, and this summer, during a visit, she surprised me with this special gift.

thurber-dog-with-jesus

The cherished dog lives on my desk for most of the year, but this Christmas, I could tell, he wanted so much to join the group at the manger. They welcomed him; they made him room right next to where the baby sleeps on his ceramic straw.

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Little children, of course, are drawn like magnets to the scene–the breakable figures just the right size for child hands. I spent some years yelling, like a harpy, “PUT JESUS DOWN!” and then I discovered a wonderful little Avon nativity scene, sweet-faced, indestructible little figures, colorful and irresistible to little ones. Those figures joined the scene, mamas and babies getting along just fine, although this year, they found their own stable in a cave made by leaning books on the book shelves. (Some authors say the stable was, really, a cave, and the little plastic people may have been looking, this season, for a stronger sense of authenticity. But they know they’re always welcome at the ceramic family tableau, just the same.)

Avon folks 1.jpg

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Some might see our nativity gathering as motley and irreverent; some might see our family that way, too.

But I believe in a baby Jesus with shining eyes and a deep, gurgling laugh. I believe that tired young mother and her stalwart husband must have had elastic senses of humor, humor that stretched to include unforeseen journeys and visitors and outlandish requests. You want me to do WHAT??? Mary asked the angel, laughing. But she did it. Hand in hand with Joseph, a baby nestled in the crook of her other arm, off marched that valiant fourteen-year-old, off to change the fate of mankind.

I think she would have put her arms out and welcomed the stiff, plastic visitors, the whimsical, snuffling, comical hound, the mismatched angels determined to blast out the joy. Mary would have planted a kiss on the broken nose of her husband Joseph.

That was the Mary my mother, years ago, shopping at a craft show in the town of my birth on a hot August day, saw, and that’s the Mary who shares, on the top of my oft-painted living room dresser, the birth of her special boy with all comers.

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Ode to a Skillet…

…a cast iron skillet.

Let T-Fal and Teflon

Take flight!

Skillet up straight

      I was using a kind of flat, shovel-shaped, wooden spoon-type thing to chop ground beef in my cast iron skillet, kind of mushing it down to brown evenly, when I had one of those clear, bright, sensory memories.  Suddenly I saw my little mother, five feet four inches and maybe 120 pounds, as they used to say, soaking wet, hair a kind of wild auburn, brown, and gray halo around her intense, concentrating face,–saw her chopping a big chunk of frozen burger with a butcher knife.  It was way before the day of the microwave; if you forgot to take the meat out to defrost, your options were limited.

     Mom liked to decimate it into smaller pieces, which then cooked down faster. She’d turn the fire on low under the cast iron skillet, trowel in a little bacon fat, and–WHACK!–chop off a solid chunk of frozen hamburger and throw it into the hot pan, where it would sizzle and spit in the grease.

     She was a little wild-eyed on days like that, a little scary. I’d slink away from the kitchen, slide into the living room to watch TV. But the big pot of thick hamburger gravy, served over mashed potatoes, with a hefty side helping of canned peas, was delicious and hearty—not harmed a bit by all that whacking.

     The skillet she used could very well be the same one I was using to brown burger for Johnny Marzetti. When Mark and I got married, my parents gave us one of their skillets, and his parents gave us another.  That was almost 35 years ago. I’ve cooked my way through a series of omelet pans, Teflon fryers, and T-Fal skillets in those years, used ’em and cast ’em away. My cast iron skillets are still going strong.

     I started wondering about how old they might be, and where they came from, so we deciphered the block print in a big cross on the back of one of the pans. It said “Griswold,” and I looked that up on-line, discovered the pans were made in Erie, Pennsylvania, not so very far from where I grew up.  The Griswold Company had been in operation since 1865, the last year of the Civil War; they folded, crippled, according to Wikipedia, by labor and economic problems, in 1957.

     Judging by their markings–and by family history–our pans came out of the plant between 1919 and 1940, before our fathers marched off to to do their patriotic duty, before those idealistic young men saw and experienced things that would change their lives and outlooks forever.  Mark’s dad, Angelo, served in the Navy, shipboard on the O’Bannon; he remembers the ship’s cook taking special care of him when he developed a devastating stomach ulcer.

Skillet bottom

     My dad was in the Army; he did not have fond memories of the food. He couldn’t wait to get home to eat home cooking–he vowed to never eat another bite of Spam in this lifetime. And, of course, with war-time rationing and meat coupons scarce, the first meal my mother offered was Spam, fried crisp in that cast iron skillet.  That was the last time Spam touched that skillet; not once, in my whole memory, did that meat-like substance ever enter our house.

     But the skillet cooked a whole heck of a lot of bacon. My mother had a thick white ceramic mug into which she poured off the fat. And then she’d wrap two dish towels around the hot, hot handle, and, rearing around, stick the skillet into the deep farm-style sink, full of sudsy water; we loved to watch the steam explode and hear the angry hissing.

     Our kitchen could be a risky, exciting place to spectate.

     Mom saved the bacon fat and used it, again in the skillet, to fry up any number of things–fried bologna, which my father favored; eggs, cooked so the yolks were almost hard. Fried egg sandwiches were one of my parents’ favorite meatless Friday meals. I’m not sure those eggs in bacon fat met the letter of pre-Vatican Catholic law, but my mother never wavered. She even experimented with making hard little funny homemade doughnuts; she fried them in a couple of inches of melted, snapping bacon fat.  She would shake them in powdered sugar, crisp and thick with bacon grease.  We would munch them down.

     On very, very special occasions, my father would wrap a towel around his waist, fill the cast iron skillet with solid shortening and start it to melting down.  He would put us–any of us he could catch and corral–to work peeling potatoes.  It was, we imagined, like being on KP in the Army–we peeled what felt like piles of potatoes, and he’d look critically and say, “More.” Then we had to slice them, and the slices had to be thin enough to please; we’d put the sliced spuds in a cold water bath in a big old metal bowl, and, when he judged the fat was hot enough, Dad would start throwing the potatoes in, humming, cigarette dangling dangerously close to the food, stirring and flipping those homemade potato chips.

    He lined a big bowl with layers of paper towels, and he’d flip the finished chips in and liberally salt them.

    Oh, we loved those things, loved to grab them, as they hissed and sizzled on their greasy bed of paper towels, juggling them with our burned fingers and eating them straight from the bowl.

    “They taste just like McDonald’s!” someone would say.

     We had been to McDonald’s once, when my brothers’ Little League team (which my father coached) went to the regional tournament in Jamestown, New York, 35 miles away from our small town. We had eaten our first fast food burgers and fries; we had all had chocolate milkshakes; and we had heard the angels sing. I can’t remember if the team won or lost, but I can remember how those fries tasted.

     Dad’s homemade chips were as good, if not better. They were such a complex operation that, on those rare occasions he’d cooked them–maybe every two years or so–they constituted the entire meal. And we were happy, more than happy, with that.

     Mark remembers Angelo searing meatballs in the cast iron skillet, getting a nice crust on them before putting them to simmer in an all-day pot of red sauce.  His dad cooked cardone in the skillet, too—crisp little fritters of egg and flour and wild burdock with herbs and spices.  Those met with mixed reviews, but Angelo loved to make them and loved to eat them.

   Those skillets served up lots of meals to two big, hungry families. When they came to us, they learned a couple of new tricks–we like to put cornbread batter in a greased and sizzling skillet to bake; we saute breaded eggplant and then bake it, layered with cheese and sauce until it’s bubbling and oozing. We rub the skillets down with grease occasionally–we use vegetable oil, the custom of saving bacon fat having been lost, in our household–coat them well, rub the excess off, and bake them for an hour at 325 every so often to keep them seasoned.

     So Griswold skillets have been on my mind. And yesterday, Roberta, a gifted chef and adjunct faculty member, invited me into the culinary lab to see the cakes her students had created for their practicum. All the cakes were two layer round creations, all baked in the same regulation-sized pans. But, within those similarities, the students’ imaginations had taken flight, and there were flowery ‘love’ cakes, ‘Frozen’ cakes, and a fall cake with a sturdy chocolate tree, frosting leaves falling, and whimsical little owls made of marzipan. There were air-brushed cakes and there was sculpted chocolate on cakes, and there was fondant in many colors and guises. There was a cake that looked like a Stetson hat; its brim rolled off the plate and slanted up toward the hat itself, cockily, on one side.

     “You go ahead and pick your favorite,” Roberta said. I looked at all those cakes, and I looked at all the students, flushed with pride and accomplishment, and I said, “No.” They were all amazing, those cakes.

     We talked a bit; I got to hear how the students had been inspired. I was inspired by their excitement and their passion for their craft. But then I had to go back to my office and get some work done.

     So I cut through the kitchen, and I noticed a cast iron contraption sitting on the vast gleaming metal counter top.

     “What is this?” I asked Roberta.

     She opened it; inside there was a cast-iron waffle maker. She flipped it over. The bottom had that tell-tale cross. It proudly admitted to being a Griswold product, made in 1908.

    “Wow,” I said. Roberta nodded.

     “These babies,” she said, “were made to last.”

     So I think of our two pans, and I think of our two sons, and I picture them in some long distant–I hope–day, a day when Mark and I are well-loved memories.  In my mind’s eye, they have thick dish towels wrapped around the handles of their skillets, and they are running–running those skillets to some big old sink after using them to cook up a big batch of–what? Jambalaya? Chicken wings? Browned and beautiful French toast?

   Maybe I’ll be watching them from a cloud, sitting with Mark, and my parents and his, and we’ll all be smiling. It’ll be like we’re watching a relay race we all ran a heat in; our laps over, we can rest and watch the young ones carry on. Which I hope they’ll do for a long, long time, but way out there in the distance, I see granddaughters limbering up, reaching hands back.

     “Slap that skillet HERE, Bubba!” they’re yelling, bouncing, ready to rush off into their own exciting lives.

     Things are just things, after all, but these things, these Griswold skillets, carry a whole lot of memories in their sturdy black selves. I hope they’ll still be in the race a hundred years from now.

Roberta and just some of those wonderful cakes
Roberta and just some of those wonderful cakes

Estate Sale

 

efcshortstorywinner

I was blown away to get an email from EveryFreeChance.com this week; they let me know “Estate Sale,” below, won their short story contest. ‘Every free chance’ refers to when some people read, and the women who run this site are true Reader Girls.  Check their work out: http://everyfreechance.com/ (Another contest opens next month…)

 

Estate Sale

They had culled their parents’ effects, taking the few things they wanted and had room for–photographs, cherished gifts they’d given as children, some books. Sal had a coffee cup and an ashtray–she no longer smoked, but memories of pinochle games were ground into its thick amber glass base. Mindie took her father’s ratty maroon cardigan.

The rest they moved into the living room, organized neatly, displayed. Big things,– beds, dressers–they left in the bedrooms, drawers slightly opened.

They scoured the apartment until it was painfully clean; when the sale was over, they’d just have to vacuum.

They took a roll of masking tape and ripped off chunks, putting prices on their parents’ beloved possessions: $15.00. $2.00.
A buck.

The books they put in a couple of big boxes and labelled them, “50 cents each.”

They had bags and change and hand sanitizer. They had Mitch, Sal’s boyfriend (“She won’t let us call this one ‘current’,” Mindie told Shot, hopefully), for the heavy toting.

Mindie’s husband, Shot, was home with month-old Martin.

They could hear people on the stairway outside the apartment door, where, below the particulars, a sign warned, “Absolutely NO earlybirds.”

They were ready. They swigged down the dregs in their coffee cups, wiped their hands on their jeans, opened the door.

The crowd surged in.

A squat woman (crazy hair, mottled skin, steely glasses), marched to the kitchen sink, and flung open the doors. “This for sale?” she rasped, nudging her head at the cleaning supplies.

Sal reached for a box. “Just leave me the windex,” she said, as the woman packed up scouring pads, cylinders of powdered cleanser, what was left of the Scrubbing Bubbles.

Mindie roamed. She noted the people who were interested in certain things. A very young couple, still dewy-eyed, bought her parents’ bed. She called Mitch, who took minutes to take apart the frame. They bumped through the crowded living room, getting headboard, footboard, pieces and parts, down to the couple’s aging pick up.

She watched people handle picture frames, dig through books. A grinning young man, fingernails caked black, ran his hands over the end tables her father built from old treadle sewing machine drawers. He talked to Sal; he took money from a tattered wallet; he accepted a receipt.

When he hefted one table to take downstairs, Mindie hefted the other. “I’ll help you with that,” she said.

Mitch appeared. “Let me get it.”

She relinquished the table. “I’ll go with you,” she said.

Sal registered them leaving in some under-level of her mind. People threw questions at her, stuck items in her face, made outrageous counter-offers. She parried, feinted, tucked money in her waist bag, wrapped breakables in crumpled newspapers.

Mitch and Mindie clomped back upstairs, directed people through the small apartment, kept them from buying the toilet paper. Sometimes a buyer needed help carrying; sometimes Mitch was enough. Sometimes Mindie went with them.

By 2:00, they were done. They locked the door, and boxed up what little remained–some books, a little chotchke. Mitch lifted the one box, looked around, kissed Sal.

“Philo at 5?” he asked.

“Yep,” she said, a little grim. “I’ll run the vacuum, go home and shower.”

Mindie kissed her sister, too, and grimaced. “We’ll see you there,” she said. “I need to feed my baby.”

“Go,” said Sal. “I need to say goodbye.”

Mindie looked around and hurried out behind Mitch.

He asked, at the bottom of the stairs, “Are you going to tell her?”

“Eventually,” said Mindie. “But—maybe not today.”

Sal pulled the vacuum from the entryway closet–the only thing left; even the hangers had sold. Starting in the spare room, she carefully vacuumed every inch of carpet, sucked down any hint of cobweb, cleaned the dust and fine grit from sills. Room by room, she removed the hints her parents had left behind, cleaning the slate for the next occupants.

Mitch pulled into the Goodwill lot, hefted the box into the donation center, and declined a receipt.

Mindie parked the minivan in the driveway. She slid out of the driver’s seat and stood behind the van, doors open, assessing.

Shot appeared by her side, stocking footed in the crunchy leaves, offering a warm, fuzzy Martin. The baby’s eyes lighted as he saw his mother; Mindie nuzzled him close.

“Ah,” said Shot, and he pulled his wife and son into his circle of protection. “What’s all this?”

“I couldn’t,” said Mindie. “You had to see some of those people. I couldn’t let them have Mommie and Daddie’s special stuff.”

They stared at the end tables her Dad had made, at dressers that still bore scars from Sal’s Match Box derbies, Mindie’s nail polish adventures. There were picture frames, little statues, dishes and mugs.

“The good ones,” Mindie said, “I left alone. But when someone…nasty…wanted to buy something special, I followed them out and offered them more than they paid for it.”

She stared at the cache in the mini-van.

“They took it,” she said fiercely, “every time.”

Shot drew her and the baby to face him, kissed her forehead. “You,” he said, “have a hungry baby. And we need to shower before we meet Mitch and Sal at Philo.” They spun as a unit, a marching band move, toward the back door.

At the apartment, Sal made one last circuit; the rooms were anonymous and blank. She put the keys on the Formica peninsula counter and made sure the lock was turned; then she took a deep breath, bundled up the vacuum, pulled the door shut behind her.

She peeled the cardboard sign off the door. She stuck it in the nearly full bin at the end of the sidewalk. As she drove off, she could see its top in her rearview.

Estate sale today, it read. Everything must

Breakfast Sandwich Rampant

Breakfast Sandwich

Mark stands at the counter, carefully prying English muffins apart, loading up the toaster. He peels plastic sleeves from slices of processed cheese, splitting each square into triangles, and stacks them, at peel-able angles, on a plate.

The plate is Fiori ware, cream colored, thick, with raised bunches of grapes circling the rim. It is one of an eight-plate set we bought at Hartstone, and Hartstone, I hear is shuttered.

That makes me sad. When we moved here, it was the last standing pottery still using AJ Wahlco machinery–the last vestige of Mark’s first and well-loved career. (This gives me pause: if AJ’s hadn’t closed, a victim of the waning ceramics industry in the States, of manufacturers outsourcing and moving production to places where the labor work, gratefully, for pennies on our US wages, would we be living here? Would Mark have been content, or would the law school urge still have driven him? Like naggling a cold sore, it’s an unproductive but weirdly enjoyable thinking path; we’ll never know, of course, and all the riches of the last 15 years are still secure.)

I am cracking eggs, admiring the fragile brown shells that almost shatter when I tap them on the thick lip of the ceramic bowl. These eggs, free range, are so different from the ones we used to buy at Quality Markets or Tops, delighting in the sale prices–look: 39 cents a dozen!

Then I read about the beak-chopping, scant-movement conditions of industrial egg farms. Then I shared an office with Senti, whose life journey has taken her many miles further than mine has taken me, from a childhood in the Naga province of India, to marriage to a US Marine from Ohio, to the beautiful little farm where she and her family raise chickens and harvest honey and eat salads still warm from the sun that shines on her garden. In India, Senti majored in English literature, and she met tall, handsome Gary; here, she shared an office with another tall, outspoken, female English faculty, and shared, too, the joys of free range eggs.

I spill these eggs into the bowl; their yolks are deeply colored, Crayola orange. As the toaster pa-chumps its golden brown harvest of muffins, I use the little whisk-y tool my mother-in-law, Pat, gave me.

It was a sale item for her ladies’ church group; a lot of my favorite kitchen utensils–this whisk-er, sturdy little paring knives with blades that never seem to blunt–arrived in my utensil drawers from sales like that.

I whip quickly; the eggs grow into a lemon-y froth, and I pour them into the big no-stick frying pan. They sizzle in a bath of olive oil and butter. In the middle of the pan, the froth immediately gels. I lift that with the spatula and tilt the pan so liquid egg runs below it.

We are making breakfast sandwiches, making what McDonald’s calls Egg McMuffins. These are a family favorite, and as we assemble, working smoothly together, I try to remember when we as a family first decided these were great—and to recreate them at home.

I can’t recall.

I do remember one Father’s Day–it may (in fact, I think it was) have been the Father’s Day we gave Mark this very jumbo-sized frying pan, for this very purpose: sizzling up tasty, filling Sunday breakfasts–looking in my wallet, finding a ten dollar bill, and running to McDonald’s for a sack of English muffins. I got a variety–Canadian bacon, sausage,– and brought them home to the old farmhouse we were renting that year.

The farmhouse had actually been an inn in the 1820’s; it welcomed and sheltered us while we pondered whether to buy and where to perch; that morning, we sat at the table in the big old dining room and devoured the entire sack of sandwiches, Mark, Jim, and I, and wished we had more.

Who knows–it may have been that day, too, that one of us said, “You know, I bet we could make these,” kicking up experiments that led us to a beloved breakfast staple.

The eggs are almost done, still a little bit liquid just on top, and I turn off the heat and let them settle. The last of the muffins pops out of the toaster; Mark grabs it, tosses it, blows on his hand where he touched the sizzling metal, and slaps it onto the counter, quickly spreading butter, which melts into a golden brown glaze.

I line up six torn sheets of aluminum foil and open a muffin onto each. Today’s foil is pristine, new from the box. I save lightly used foil, though,–I’ve always done so– and Mark, when we first married, found that strange and endearing.

He’d call me “Jean”, after my frugal, Scottish mother, when he came into the kitchen and found me gently wiping off a sheet of used foil. I’d let it dry and fold it up for a second life covering a casserole or wrapping around a soaked paper towel to transport a bouquet.

“Save that foil, Jean!” he’d tease.

I would.

I set the ingredients out on the counter; we work together, assembling: triangles of cheese on top and bottom muffin halves; eggs on the bottom; on the top, Canadian bacon.

(Canadian bacon! I can still remember the first time I tasted it, as a very young child, and my surprise at its absolute goodness. And my surprise at what my mother said: “You look like you just heard the angels sing.” It was an unusual remark for her to make, unusual in its depth of noticing; it tickled me. That insured that Canadian bacon went on my childhood list of Wonderful Things to Eat–along with pancakes, corn on the cob, brownies with white icing.)

We flip the muffin halves together, use the foil to wrap them tight, and place them on a sturdy cookie sheet, which I slide into the oven. Mark goes upstairs to see if young James considers home-made Egg McMuffins a good reason to roll out of bed at 9:00 AM on a Sunday.

He does.

I take my coffee outside to the little table in the carport, sit and sip while the sandwiches coalesce in the 350 degree oven.

A memory niggles…one weekend, after the move to Ohio, we went back to New York to visit Mark’s parents, and we slapped together a huge batch of these babies on Sunday morning. The family gathered. I can’t remember the occasion–was it Easter? a birthday?–but I remember the laughter, the pile of silver wrapped sandwiches diminishing, and our nephew Jeremy, a true enjoyer of life, saying, “A little bit nicer than what you get at McDonald’s, eh?”

It doesn’t take long for the cheese to melt, the flavors to blend, the sandwiches to warm enticingly. Mark takes out the old, careworn black oven mitt, and slides the cookie sheet onto the range top. We grab plates, pour juice, and sit down for a Sunday morning breakfast together.

Jim narrates a couple of scenes from TV shows that the morning’s repast brings to his mind…a meal on “How I Met Your Mother,” an incident in the coffee shop on “Friends.” Mark talks about the contractors who will seal the driveway and about the unexpected, unwelcome dry rot damage he just discovered around the big kitchen window. I slide an article across the table about the World War I posters on display at the Ohio Statehouse, and we decide that we will go, that very afternoon.

Even as I savor the sandwich, I think about how quickly this breakfast will become a memory, and about how fixing this breakfast has evoked memories of so many people and places in so many different eras of my life–from very young child to silly young wife; from a cramped galley kitchen in Mayville, New York, to the expansive, old-fashioned kitchen in that old inn, to this well-loved space we inhabit today.

A mundane breakfast sandwich: a trove of vivid memories.

I understand, I think, why archaeologists, anthropologists, get excited over one tiny object, one slender shard. Look at the history entwined around a common, everyday item.

We used to do a self-awareness activity when training peer tutors. What three things would you include on a personal crest, we’d ask? Secretly, I always had trouble identifying symbols for my own imaginary shield.

But now, hey–I think it’s easy. Let’s use the humble Egg McMuffin. Maybe I’ll show it shooting out tenacious suckers that reach every facet of our lives, ensuring that we’re never unconnected to our past, to the people, however far-flung, whom we hold dear.

Yep: let’s put that on my family crest: breakfast sandwich rampant.

Finding Markers

 

Last week I took a personal day and spent it wandering around a cemetery.

I’m researching a local woman who was a child movie star in the days of silent film.  She was the first, and maybe forever, love of a famous writer, but life washed them apart.  After a second successful career in vaudeville, this extraordinary woman moved to Florida with her husband, and the story of her life grows muffled, with only a little shout out here and there  before her death.

She fascinates me, so like a good English teacher/research queen, I am finding out all I can about her. A line in an article noted that she died in Florida, was cremated, and her remains are interred at a cemetery a mile or two away from my house.

I drove there on a gray Sunday afternoon, drove through the august stone gate, and stopped the car.  The grounds stretched on forever and a day, crisscrossed by paved drives.  Old graves mingled with new ones. I got out and walked a bit and could discern no order.  But I found the office, in a snug little cottage in the middle of the cemetery, with a sign that says it is open week days, 7 AM until 3.

The next week, I called to see if any preparation was needed; the cheerful voice on the other end told me to have the name of the deceased and the date of death with me.  “And be prepared,” she warned, “you’re going to be flipping through binders.”

That actually sounded kind of like fun, so I found a work day devoid of appointments and requested personal time.  I gathered my notes.  My son, Jim, wanted to know where I was headed.  I explained and he asked to come along. I wondered if he’d really be interested, or if he’d find the expedition a little morbid. But he said he’d really like to go, so we piled into the car and drove to the cottage.

We slapped through a spindled screen door into a bright office.  Beautifully aged photographs were artfully arranged on walls and shelves. “My family,” the lady behind the desk told us.  Solemn babies; trussed up young couples in black and white looking as though they been holding their breath just a little too long; a woman in a Gibson girl getup with a decided glint.  Fascinating reminders, in a place connected with sorrow, that vibrant history lives.

I explained my mission and my readiness to carefully flip aging pages.

“Well, wait just a minute,” the lady said. “Some of this stuff has been scanned.”

She tapped and scrolled, hmmm-ing and sighing, until she got to the part she was aiming for.

“Now. Who we looking for?”

My subject is buried with her mother, and I know her father’s remains are here, too, so I supplied the parents’ names. That was a dead end.  But then I gave her the actual subject’s name and we hit pay dirt.  The lady gave me the plot number and the location.

Jim was very quiet.  “Ready?” I asked.  He turned from looking at sepia photos on a wall, and nodded.

Jim suggested we walk to our destination, a section right near the arched stone entrance. The area has a large sloping lawn, with fenced family plots and mausoleums, graves so old they been patched back together, and brand new resting places where the earth’s still bare of grass.  We started at the beginning and systematically searched row by row.

Jim exclaimed about whole families, entire histories of 150+ years, resting in a row, about babies interred many years before their grieving parents, about soldiers and sailors, and about the quotes people choose to engrave on a stone.  And then, both struck by the moment, we found them.

“This is COOL,” said Jim.

There are the graves of her parents, but my person’s got no stone, no marker.  Her ashes have been placed on top of her mother’s remains, but there’s not a sign or symbol to tell she’s there.

Oh, that makes me sad, to have a life be truly swallowed up and hidden.

It used to bother my mother, too, and we spent a lot of time, when we were children, driving to cemeteries.

There were five of us thrivers and survivors, but two of my parents’ children had died very young.  At least once a year, we would bundle into the old Buick and trek to Buffalo, where Sharon and Tommy were buried.

The trip itself was an adventure; sometimes, when we were flush, we’d take the new New York State Thruway, stopping at the booths to pay the tolls.  Other times we would take Route Twenty; in Silver Creek, it went up a steep hill, and there were times it didn’t feel like the old car, with its seven passengers, would make it.  My father, a superb driver, would shift and grind the gears; in the back seat we chanted encouragement.  My mother’s hands, white-knuckled, were pressed against the dashboard.

We always made it, and it always felt dicey.

Sharon had a headstone, but Tommy, who had died hours after his birth when my parents were very young and very insolvent, had only a little round cement marker with a number on it. One year, there was a deep hole right next to Sharon’s headstone; it must have been a rainy spring, and I remember Dad talking about erosion.  He reached his hand into the hole and I thought my heart would stop.  He and my mother filled in the gap and planted their flowers.

I had nightmares of a little girl imprisoned in an underground hole, lost and alone.

Years later, after my mother’s death, my younger brother Sean and my father went to visit the graves and found the grassy fields were gone; the graves were swimming in a sea of gravel.  They explored, quickly made arrangements, and the babies were moved.  They rest now next to our parents, and Tommy finally has a place and a name on a stone.  I think it was a great satisfaction to my father in his last days to know where all his children rested.

Those weren’t the only graves we visited. In Fredonia, my mother visited the grave of her friend Barbara in the new part of the Old Pioneer Cemetery. There was a marker there like a gray stone tree trunk; I was fascinated by the stones that had fading oval photographs of the person who lay below.

We went to St. Joseph’s Cemetery, close to home, regularly, to put flowers on Mrs. Murgatroyd’s grave, and to say a prayer at the spot where Mrs. Coughlin lay. In Buffalo, we visited the graves of Millard Fillmore and Red Jacket.

We visited a monument to a bride in Jamestown, New York; a statue in a glass case wore her bridal dress.  Legend had it that she died in a carriage accident on the way to the wedding. Although I am sure I remember reading that the legend was untrue, it sent shivers up spines, and so people clung to the story.

‘Some people,’ my mother mused, ‘might think it was morbid to take kids to sightsee in a cemetery.’  But there was something about a neglected grave that upset and shamed her, and there was something about the history in a graveyard, the stories revealed by the dead souls’ headstones and markers, that intrigued her.

I think Jim felt some of that same fascination as we searched for Eva’s grave…a sense of whole lives, of joys and sorrows, triumphs and tragedies, entrusted to that hallowed ground.

On Sunday–Father’s Day, I will make a visit to my parents’ grave, putting in some annuals and making sure things are neat and trimmed.  I’ll plant some flowers for Sharon and Tommie, too, and stop to say a prayer for Aunt Dott and Uncle Bill.  And, if the day is nice, I will wander through the grounds before climbing into the car for the four hour trip home.  I’ll read the stones and marvel at the stories they share and hope that, in some way, the souls who died many years ago will know that they are not forgotten.

The Stone Pig Story

 

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Babe the stone pig came into our lives as a kind of a substitute hound dog. This is how that happened.

When our older guy graduated from high school, we moved. We wanted Matt to finish school in his home, with his friends, and with wonderful teachers who knew and cared about him; but then, although we loved our neighbors and our community, we had to consider our hefty commutes. We decided to move to the small town where I was working, which had good schools, old friends, and a direct route to Mark’s work.

The first year, we decided, we would rent, and we found a beautiful old farmhouse just out of town. In the 1840’s, it had been an inn. The house had a stone porch, tall ceilings, sweeping rooms; it had beautiful yards and a drive that turned into a trail leading into a vineyard.

We shared the drive with John and Shirley, who were the caretakers for the property.

They were also animal lovers. Shirley walked out the trail each day and fed critters stale cereal, and they expected her; she had a giant bruise on one leg where a woodchuck, wild for its Wheaties, barreled right into her.

John and Shirley had a beautiful long-haired cat, an incredible white parrot, and a big shepherd dog named Tasha. I’ve been in their house when all three of these beasts were snuggled together, napping—cat curled up on dog with a bird on its shoulder.

Tasha was an impressive dog. She had a head as big and as thick as a good shovel; her feet were like pie plates. She was loving and loyal, but not a dog a casual visitor would want to mess with.

She was also a rescue dog. John had saved her from the basement of our house after realizing that a former tenant, the kind who left in the middle of a night, had left behind two dogs, locked in the deep, wet, scary cellar. The other pup, sadly, didn’t survive, but Tasha thrived with John and Shirley. She wouldn’t go anywhere near the door of our house, but she felt a little territorial about the yards.

When we moved in with our Holmsie dog, John dragged over a sturdy white dog house. We set it up in the backyard for Holmsie. It had a wood floor which we covered with a blanket, and we made a port for her chain.

Generally, Holmsie sought out a sunny grassy spot to snooze her days away, but whenever Tasha came near, she snarled (under her breath; no fool she) and took up residence in the doghouse.

So she used the doghouse quite a bit, and when we moved 18 months later, into a wonderful house and wonderful neighborhood on Orchard Street, John insisted we take the doghouse. She loves it, he said, motioning to Holmsie dog, and so we put it in the truck, unloaded it at Orchard Street, and parked it in the far back corner of our new backyard.

Holmsie never went near it again; she only liked the doghouse when Tasha threatened to take it over.

Holmsie spent her days at Orchard Street joyfully making dirt nests in flower beds I had recently reclaimed and choking herself when Kathy’s cat taunted her. The cat, which lived in the house (you’ll pardon the pun) kitty-corner behind us, was a genius at estimating just how much slack there was on our dumb dog’s chain.

What to do with the empty dog house, such a sturdy structure, with such nice memories of our year and a half in the old inn?

We thought we’d buy a stone dog statue and perch it in the door, and maybe paint a name over the lintel.

So we haunted outdoor stores and nurseries and couldn’t find a dog statue that called to us. We kept coming back to a pugnacious stone pig (a pig in a doghouse?), and finally it came home with us. A serious family discussion decided the name, and I took out the black enamel and carefully lettered ‘Babe’ over the doghouse doorway. And the pig took up the seat of honor.

The neighbors grew very fond of Babe, and we made sure she was dressed for any weather. She was a silent witness to our backyard barbecues and bocce games. Holmsie had no problem ceding her place in the old doghouse.

When, several years later, it was time to make the family move to Ada, Ohio, so Mark could pursue his law school dream at Ohio Northern, we left behind the doghouse, but we couldn’t part with the pig.

We’d thought long and hard about where to live during the law school years, and we decided to buy a trailer in a mobile home court. We wouldn’t have neighbors above or below, we wouldn’t have college kids partying on weekends, and we could recoup some of our investment when we left.

We found a nice mobile home court on the edge of town, and the first trailer was for sale. It had the corner lot, a nice young couple and a cornfield for neighbors, and a roomy front yard. We painted inside and out, refurbished the shed, and downsized our furnishings, and we settled in for a two-year stay. Holmsie found her favorite spot, and we planted Babe in the midst of a day lily bed, facing the curving drive.

Other people in the court had stone geese they dressed; we were the only ones with a pig, and she was noticed. Once, when the seasons were changing, we had removed her winter togs but hadn’t yet found an appropriate spring replacement at the consignment shop. Mark was shopping at the dollar store one night when a woman he didn’t know stopped him.

“Where’s that pig’s hat?” she demanded.

He promised to take care of it, and we did.

When we moved to Mount Vernon, Babe, who lost a trotter in the move, took up a seven year vigil in the corner of the fenced side yard.

Her ear broke in the move to Zanesville, but she is firmly ensconced in a little squared off spot in our old fashioned brick and cement patio.

How does a silly, quirky, HEAVY item become such a family fixture? We would not leave Babe behind. Battered and broken—which is how I feel some early mornings—she maintains her pugnacious attitude. There can be rain falling mercilessly, there can be snow piled on her knitted hat, and she sticks that intrepid snout into the air and grins that piggie grin. She bears the change of hats well, and she presides at   our outdoor meals. She beams at our visitors.

She’s been with us on the whole strange trip,–which, yes, may have cost a trotter or an ear tip, but has yielded such wonderful rewards.

Many families have icons—a battered ceramic Santa with taped toes, a blanket lovingly made by hands long stilled, a book of photographs and drawings spanning generations. Ours is a stone pig named Babe, who took up the empty space in a doghouse. She reminds us where we’ve been, greets us every day, and makes me think that, whatever the years may bring, there are some things, steadfast and sturdy, that will remain.