Unwrapping Every Day

Every day is a gift.

—Aretha Franklin

 

I let a big pot of spaghetti sauce bubble all Wednesday, Italian chicken sausage and chunks of pork simmering in its mysterious and fragrant depths.  Late that afternoon, I dipped thinly sliced eggplant in egg batter and an herb coating, and I fried it up in olive oil in the old cast iron skillet.

I piled the crisp, sizzly eggplant on a plate and I wiped the old skillet clean.

Then I swirled sauce in the bottom of that still-hot pan, and I layered the eggplant back in, and I poured more of that bubbling sauce over the top, and sprinkled it with fresh parmesan and grated mozzarella. I put the whole conglomeration into the oven to bake.

The sausage came from Fresh Thyme and the pork came from Kroger. The eggplant was from a generous lady at church whose garden has yielded her a crazy bounty. But the fancy jar of tomato basil pesto sauce that served as a basis for the tomatoey concoction that bubbled all day and thickened all day, perfuming the house so rosy-cheeked enterers said, MMMMMMMMMM…well, THAT, and the cheeses and the spices, came from a basket we won.

And all of that has me thinking about the gifts I am lucky enough to receive.

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

We drove to Marysville on a gray October Friday to meet Terri and Ott at the Half Pint. We’d never been to the Half Pint; we’d never been to Marysville, we realized in surprise. But the town is just about halfway between Terri’s house and my house, and we had a plan to meet up and pick up some baskets.

This is what happened: Terri’s organization, First Step, held its annual blues festival, Soulshine, in September and we couldn’t go. Soulshine’s a wonderful event, and it supports a wonderful cause—helping heal families torn by violence, providing resources to families before they reach that wrenching point. So we bought tickets anyway.

Part of Soulshine’s fund-raising each year involves a rich and wonderful basket raffle. And Terri took the money we sent for admission and turned it into raffle tickets with our names on them.

And we wound up winning two baskets.

We live near the lower east corner of the state and Terri and Ott live near the upper west corner, so making the trip to each other’s homes requires contemplation and a good amount of travel time. But we can meet in between, and then each of us only has to drive for about ninety minutes, and that’s something doable on a cloudy, cozy Friday afternoon.

So we decided to meet in Marysville, and Terri and Ott would bring us those baskets.

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

The restaurant was fun, with pressed tin ceilings and brick walls and scuffed hardwood floors and well-worn wood tables and metal chairs. Not a lot of tables and chairs; just about enough to seat twenty people or so; hence, I think, the name, Half Pint. There were a handful of other diners, but we had a nice corner to ourselves, space to spread out and to pass the deep-fried cheese curds and the pretzel bites and honey mustard dip while we waited for our salads and soups and burgers.

And lunch was wonderful. We ate, of course, but mostly what we did was laugh: Ott is wry and funny, and Terri has a laugh that’s irresistible. When she laughs, everyone around her laughs, too, even if they didn’t hear the funny part. It’s the best kind of contagious.

We shoveled in food in-between, and we shared the latest news, of course, and then, too soon, it was time to go. We reconnoitered parking and the boyos moved two bulging baskets, and a bag of cold food, from Ott and Terri’s vehicle into the trunk of Mark’s Impala. Terri and Ott pulled away, waving, and Mark started the ignition. Jim was untangling his earbuds.

And as we settled in for the trip back home, I suggested that maybe we’d want to go to Marie’s, which was a chocolatier’s shop not so very far away in West Liberty. It was just a tiny hair out of our way; we could, I proposed, all innocence and no ulterior motive, find a treat or two for granddaughters’ birthdays. And the shop, I thought, was not so very far away from an entrance to the interstate.

But no arm-twisting was needed; Mark pulled out according to the bossy phone-directions lady’s dictates, and we cruised country roads, sun breaking through the clouds, clouds breaking apart and fading, to find an old train station turned into a chocolate-lover’s paradise.

Marie’s had something for everything. The old depot was lovingly restored. There was an exhibit of photos that detailed its move, back, I think, in the ‘70’s.

“Look at THAT,” said Mark, poring over the pictures. They showed a huge old flatbed lugging the entire depot. Hard-hatted crews moved power lines. People lined the streets to see the spectacle. And then there were photos of the depot coming to rest, and restorations beginning.

James and I left the dad to look at history. We went to look at chocolate.

We found  chocolate dogs and cats, milk chocolate with white chocolate spots, for granddaughters’ delectation. We found a bag of chunk chocolate that seemed to have Jim’s name on it. A smiling lady came around with a tray of treats—nonpareils sprinkled with scarlet and gray dots, peanut butter meltaways, little chocolate roses.

We sampled, if only to be polite.

We were VERY polite that day.

Mark slipped a bag of chocolate-dipped malted milk balls into our basket. At the counter, we discovered a young clerk packaging something called ‘chimney sweets.’

“What are THOSE?” I asked, intrigued, and she explained that they were square chocolate meltaways topped with a big dollop of caramel. Over that, they poured warm white chocolate, and the resulting confection looked very much like a snow-capped chimney.

“Would you like to try one?” she asked, and of course, I said yes. (Jim demurred. No, no thanks, he said; he really was kind of full.)

Biting into a chimney sweet: oh, my.

Jim, seeing my reaction, said, well, maybe he could fit just one.

We put a slim sleeve of chimney sweets in the basket, too.

Another friendly clerk rang us up and put an advertising flyer in our bag and told us that, if we thought the Halloween and Thanksgiving goodies were something, we ought to come back to shop for Christmas.

“This is a WONDERLAND at Christmas,” she said.

We put the chocolate in the trunk with the other goodies, heading off to let the bossy phone lady lead us home.

*******

And we went home and enjoyed the last weak rays of sun on a day that started out cloudy, and we fixed ourselves a light dinner. And then we brought those baskets from the car and put them on the counter and unpacked them.

And we discovered wonders. Artisan salamis and  chunks of hard cheese—asiago, parmesan,–and a chopping board and graters to make those cheeses into snowy mountains. Jars of pasta sauce, red and white; pastas and pestos. Mixing bowls and colanders and salted caramel biscotti. Spices. Dishtowels and potholders emblazoned with smiling, twirling, mustachioed chefs.

The travel basket had a mini cooler and drink holders and snacks and a fifty-dollar gift card for gas.

We spread the stuff out on the counter; we pulled out the sleeve of chimney sweets and shared them ‘round; and we marveled. And then we got busy putting things away.

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

Some days, life trudges on and I get crabby, thinking about all there is to be done, thinking about books I could be snuggled up reading by the fire, in the cozy chair. But NO, I think; oh, NO. Instead, I am pulling on my old sneaks to mow the raging onion grass in the front lawn or heading off to a meeting or running out to shop or to pick someone up.

And the rugs gripe at me, reminding me where the vacuum resides, and the weight of ungraded papers swirls overhead, and I am sore oppressed.

Thank goodness life has its own ways of smacking me upside the head when I start moaning my way down that road. It stands in front of me holding a cast iron skillet filled with bubbling cheese, sizzling sauce, eggplant baked into melting goodness.

“Excuse me???” says Life. “What was that you were complaining about?””

And I remember laughter and unexpected bounty, road trips and friendship and sweet tastes and the generosity of people only just met.

**********

Mmmmm,” says my husband, tucking in, and I watch him for a moment through the steam that rises from both of our dishes. And then I pick up my fork and tuck in myself. I think about our many wonders and the few reasons I have to complain, and I resolve, once again, to turn my face to see more clearly the gifts of every day.

 

 

 

 

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Thanks for the Gifts of Stuff and Spirit

Gifts.jpg

A dog barks, nearby, urgent, in the dark cave of night-time. I wake up, listening, startled out of a silly dream in which my job seems to be driving my car around a former campus and picking up students who can’t walk on the slick ice.

And then my 62-year-old bladder reminds me it’s awake, too. We take a walk together.

In the bathroom, with its window on the backyard, I breathe in the deep, pungent odor of skunk. Now I know why that pup was barking. And I know what that family is going to be doing for a few days–the tomato baths and the special shampoos, and the reluctant letting of the smelly, shaggy hound into the family room to sleep on these frosty, crisp, clear nights.

Skunk smell seems to graft itself into tender sinus tissue. Long after it’s dissipated, you still think you smell it.

Ah, the mercurial gifts of nature, I think. I crawl back into a warm bed, pull the covers high, and drift back into sleep. My little dog, curled into her cozy dog bed, doesn’t twitch.

**********
Mark does not let the dog run out into the backyard this morning; he clips the leash onto her collar and walks with her, just in case a furry black and white friend still lurks in a cozy, shrubby spot. They startle Mama Deer and her two almost-grown babies curled up in one of the rock-walled flower beds; the deer reluctantly shake themselves, heave up on their long, stalky legs, huff somewhat indignantly, and head, unhurriedly, away.

But, fortunately, Mark and Greta do not find the skunk.

What Mark DOES find, tucked between the glass door and the mail-slot door, is a fat package from Florida, a gift from my niece Shayne. He brings it to me, and I put my pen down and grab a pair of scissors. I cut the top away and find wonderful things–a card, a hand-written note, a lovingly decorated oven mitt, and a pot holder artistically emblazoned.

They are almost–almost!–too nice to use; I could hang them on the wall in the kitchen. But I know I will not do that. I will use the oven mitt and pot holder; they will become my new favorites, and they will make me smile every time I pull a steaming casserole from the oven, lift the top off a bubbling sauté, or situate a tray of cookies on the rack, ready to be lifted off onto a platter.

Nieces are the nicest, I think, and grand nieces are, too. What a wonderful gift to find wedged in my door on a skunky cold morning.

*************
After breakfast, I lace up my sneakers and head out into the cold sunshine. I walk down the hill and away from the skunk smell. Tomorrow, there will be wind and rain and the scent will wash away. Today it’s a reminder of all the different kinds of things that nature gives us, the yin and the yang of it.

I walk under trees that burst with color, as if they have grabbed all the sunlight they can get and gripped it fast in their soon-to-be-fallen leaves. Flaming colors–golden, red, amber, almost purple. I try to capture the glory, with my limited skill and technology, in a cell phone shot.

I think of the tree in my front yard, which is called, I believe, a Taunting Tree. Trying diligently to keep our leaves from cluttering our treeless neighbors’ yards, I rake or mow every three days. Mark says the tree waits until I’ve turned my back on the uncluttered green expanse I’ve just created, and then it does a sassy shake. Leaves detach and flutter down.

By evening, it’s not really clear that anyone has recently cleaned that lawn.

And the Taunting Tree plots, coyly. It hangs on to its leaves, sending only outliers to the ground–enough to keep me working, but not nearly all it has to share. This week, the city will send the metal-pated leaf sucker around. It will snuffle up the piles of leaves neighbors have raked to their curbs. Their trees are all but bare, and when the voracious sucking is done, their leaf-cleaning duties will be over.

But not my tree. My tree waits until the leaf-sucker goes, lumbering, sated, down the hill, before it starts to pelt the ground with leaves in earnest. How do you like me NOW? it asks me gleefully, as the leaves pile up, and I debate the merits of raking and bagging over mowing and mulching.

Sometimes, it times the divestment so well that snow covers the thick pad of fallen leaves, and they are there for me to deal with in the spring.

Not this year, I vow. This year, I’ll deal with all the leaves that tree can give me. I’ll do it in real time. This year, I will not be snookered into a spring leaf cleaning.

Of course, I’ve vowed that vow before.

**************
I pour myself a cup of decaf, post-walk, and pull up a list of books that Terri sent me. These are wonderful books, essential books, books to tease and tweak and entice kids of all ages into a lifelong love of reading.

I think about the books I loved as a child. There was a little book that probably had been handed to me by three sets of older brother hands, a story about a little boy who lived in the West but was too small to help with the horses. By the end of the book, he’d proven his worth, and his dad had given him a real, ten-gallon, cowboy hat. I craved that book. I demanded that book, over and over again, thousands and thousands of times.

I think that was the book that taught me how to read, the repetitions turning into keys to the code.

And then, one day, that book was gone. I mourned it and searched for it at the library, but I never could find another copy. (Knowing now what I did not realize then, I almost bet my mother threw that book into the burn barrel and danced around it, knowing she would never have to repeat those familiar, threadbare words again.)

I think about reading A Wrinkle In Time in grade five or six, a book found on a library shelf, and having some brand new doors crack open. A plain, sometimes cranky, unpopular girl who loved math and science as a HERO! Of a fantasy!

A copy of that book, and its companions, remains on my shelves today.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Caddie Woodlawn. Chronicles of Narnia. Anne of Green Gables.

I think about reading Chicka Chicka Boom Boom to a snuggly boy in footie pajamas. I think of reading Mike Mulligan and The Steam Shovel and having that little boy’s teenaged big brother and his two friends sneak into the living room to listen.

I remember plotting ways to destroy the chirping device in the Eric Carle very-quiet-cricket book, and substituting a hungry caterpillar book as soon as I could.

Books are gifts; being read to aloud is a gift. And it’s a gift, too, to work with Terri to get good books into tender, pudgy, eager hands.

*************
And then it’s time to get ready for lunch. I close up my laptop, and I carefully iron an old work shirt I have embroidered new words on.

It used to say, “Zane State College.” Now it says, “I do not work at Zane State College anymore.

I am meeting four equally retired women; we will crunch into our salads, spoon up steaming soup, and we will remember past days and celebrate new ones. Because retirement brings both perspective and opportunity. Some of us are volunteering in grade schools, giving children–maybe children not gifted with wonderful books–a firm hand up into the land of reading. That’s a land from which, I know personally, you can travel pretty much anywhere.

Some are spending more time with grandkids and grown kids and nieces and nephews. Some are traveling. One has seasons tickets and never misses a Buckeyes’ game, come snow or high water.

Some of us are working independently, and some are using this long-awaited time to polish new skills–crafting beautifully quilted bags, mastering the art of a perfectly fluted pie crust, dipping brushes into water color paints.

It’s a wonderful time of life in many ways, and I realize it’s a gift to share it with these wonderful women. And I think about this time of life and the gift of friendship, and how things circle back. The important people, from all of your ages and stages, seem to make their way back to you…the people you knew in school, the people you met on jobs, like-minded souls from organizations you joined, people forcibly thrown toward you by chance, who wove themselves firmly into your fabric. It’s a real gift, now, to be able to spread out that fabric and see the pulsating patterns emerge, the wonderful shots of color. The individual shades and hues of friends.

Some of those shots occur once, in a vibrant section of the cloth, and disappear. Some appear early and then return. And some persist, a constant motif, a joyful, laughing presence, especially important when the weaving goes through one of those phases–when the threads are gray and black and purple, when the uplift of those vibrant colors are needed most.

What a gift, those friends.

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

It’s a day with an overwhelming bounty of gifts, a cornucopia of gifts…some a little sweeter smelling than others. I should, I think, write a thank you note, and I begin to compose it in my mind.

Dear Universe, (I’ll write) thanks so much for this day’s gifts…for the strength and health to walk and to see, and for the front-yard tree that keeps me in touch with the world outdoors. Thank you for words that last, and for friends that last, and that both those things continue to inspire. Thank you for the love that arrives unexpectedly in the mail, and for reminders, as I light the candle or lift the cookies from their tray, of people I cherish, both near and far.

Thank you for this gift of time and place, even when my knees ache and my energy flags.

And thank you…thank you, thank you…on this Day of the Skunk, that this time, it’s not my dog getting the tomato juice bath.

What an instructive and joy-filled set of gifts you’ve given me today. Thank you. I treasure them all.