A Fresh, Hot Batch of History

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Oh, it’s a changeable day…clouds scud across an early moon as it edges out the pale setting sun. Dry leaves skitter across the street, and children, in puffy quilted jackets that belie their terrifying masks or princess-y tiaras, trick or treat. One burly little football player is made even bulkier by the fact that his snowsuit is UNDER his uniform. His mama, wrapped up in a thick woven blanket, grins as she escorts the boy from door to door.

Mark is doing candy duty on this cold, October-fleeing night, braving the insistent wind and foot-fending the little dog who desperately wants to bark the costumed visitors away, away, away from her door. And I—I am in the kitchen, baking cookies.

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

I opened the cookie jar after lunch to find just two chocolate chip cookies.

“Cookie?” asked Mark, my hard-working husband, wistfully, and I handed them over. I washed out the jar, setting it upside down on the cast-iron stove spiders to dry. And then Mark went back to work and James and I drove to the library in Westerville.

The knowledge of that empty cookie jar went with me, a subtle but insistent prod. We have a history, cookies and me, and somewhere along the line, I signed the pledge,– the one that says an empty cookie jar will always, and soon, be filled.

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

My mother, a stay-at-home mom most of the time, kept her cookie jar full. We seldom had things like soda pop, potato chips, or ice cream novelties in the house, but we always had something baked. My friends all knew where the cookie jar lived; they all loved my mother’s baking.

I bemoaned the fact that her chocolate chip cookies doubled the batter and halved the chips.

“You don’t NEED that many chips,” she’d reiterate, good Depression kid that she was, frugal nerves twitching. But I DID–I did need my chocolate chip cookies to be lumpy, crunchy clusters of morselly delight.

My friends didn’t care. They poured tall glasses from the opened gallon of skim milk in the refrigerator, sat at my kitchen table, and munched.

“These are GOOD,” they mumbled, spitting crumbs, and they looked at me like I was crazy to complain.

I sighed. I was happier when the cookies were ginger snaps, or peanut butter drops pressed flat and crunchy with the sugared tines of a fork. I liked the oatmeal cookie recipe I was pretty sure crossed the ocean with Mom’s family from Scotland, and when Mom added Snickerdoodles to the everyday cookie pantheon, I fell in love with those too. She made chocolate sugar jumbles and frosted them with white frosting. She made molasses cream cookies and tinted the icing pink or green.

Dad liked weird cookies–like Italian fig bars, which Mom made only at Christmas. The recipe, though, made a thousand or so cookies, and they would haunt the kitchen in their tupperware for a month. Dad contended they improved with age, and he would take a bundle in his lunch, every day, until they disappeared.

He also liked minced meat cookies, which looked a lot like chocolate chip cookies, but one quick read of the ingredients on the minced meat can swayed me firmly onto the side of ‘No, thank you.’

“Try one,” Dad would say; “they’re really tasty!”

I would make an awful face and back away.

“Aw,” he’d mutter, “you kids don’t know what’s good.”

I can live with my ignorance, thank you, I thought but did not say.

Christmas and Easter brought cut-out cookies, made with a short bread recipe that was family-bound, too. Those were glazed and dusted with colored sugar. Just getting the cookie cutters out, pulling them from the top cabinet where they resided in a battered old tin, was  excitement.

Cookies were part of the everyday fabric, and part of the special times fabric, too.

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

Family photos:

My cousin Barbara shows me a picture of our grandmother Wilhelmina, my mother’s mother, in her wedding gown. She has a Gibson girl hairdo–glossy, thick hair piled high above her open, pretty face. Her elegant dress is beaded, buttoned, high-necked, long sleeved. She smiles tentatively. She is beautiful, this woman that we never knew.

Barbara tells me she has spoken with someone–an aging family member, or an old, old friend of the family, I don’t remember who–who told her that “Minnie” was ever smiling, welcoming, hospitable. She always had cookies in the jar for kids and for company, this person said.

My brother Sean sends a photo in the mail one day. Wait until you see it, he messages. When the manila envelope arrives, I carefully lift open the flap and pull out  a glossy black and white picture of my mother, tiny, scowling deeply, being held in her brother Jim’s arms. Next to them is Annie, Barbara’s mother, in a cloche hat, her arms full of flowers. Annie and Jim, young teenagers, look tired and desperate. In front of them are mounds and mounds of flowers.

They are standing at their mother’s freshly dug grave.

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

There were always baked goods when we visited Aunt Annie, a special trip that only happened once a year, if that. There were always cookies in my mother’s kitchen. For two grown girls, bereft too early of a beloved mother, maybe that was a way of maintaining connection, of keeping the faith.

A cookie jar that’s always full means someone really cares.

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Cookies: background to my personal history. But cookies are an essential part of our larger culture, too, I think. We use cookie language. “That’s the way the cookie crumbles,” we say, philosophically, when things go wrong. Or, “She’s a smart cookie!” we say admiringly, when she figures out a clever, savvy way to navigate a tricky passage.

We sing, along with a fuzzy monster, “C is for Cookie! That’s good enough for me!” We sing about animal crackers in our soup.

On Facebook, I see a meme: “If a redhead loses her temper,” it reads, “do we say Ginger snaps?”

When Bill Clinton ran against the original President Bush, there were hard issues on the table, but chocolate chip cookies caught the attention of United States voters. Whose recipe was better–Barbara Bush’s or Hillary Clinton’s? The amount of press and attention that got was a measure of how deeply we value our cookies.

So where, I wonder now, did cookies come from?

Cookies have been around a LONG time, I find on whatscookingamerica. net–gosh, since at least the seventh century AD. Scholars posit that the first cookies were ‘test cakes’ in a time of uncertain oven temps. Conscientious bakers would whip up a batch of cake dough; to make sure the oven was hot enough, they would bake up a little portion to see how well or how quickly it cooked. I imagine a jolly, roly-poly royal baker indulging in a hot little cake fresh from a flaming oven, bouncing the toasty treat  on his tender fingers. “Oh, yeah!” he’s thinking. “That oven’s hot enough. And damn, I make a good cake batter…”

Persia, I learn, was one of the first countries to cultivate sugar, and, as a result, cookie-style cakes. By the 1400’s, Europe had embraced the use of sugar and little cake-baking. A Parisian shopper in that era could purchase sweet, filled wafers on the busy city streets. Renaissance cookbooks offered an abundance of cookie recipes, What’s Cooking America (whatscookingamerica.com) tells me, and, in 1596, a cookbook called Goode Huswife’s Jewel contained directions for square shortbread cookies enriched with egg yolks.

Settlers brought their cookie traditions to United States ovens,–cookies called things like tea cakes, jumbles, plunkets, or cry babies. And the railroad made exotic ingredients available–coconut, pineapple, and oranges, for example–and broadened the boundaries of Cookiedom.

Mr. Kellogg invented the corn flake in the early 1900’s, and shortly after that, his company proposed the concept of adding cereal to cookies. (Tiger Cookies, with crushed up frosted corn flakes and swirls of melted chocolate, are a family favorite here. The random addition of the forlorn leftovers at the bottom of the cereal box to any old cookie recipe is highly frowned upon, however.)

Refrigerators hit the big time in the 1930’s, and icebox cookie recipes did, too.

And maybe the best known morsel of cookie history is the story of the Tollhouse cookie–how Ruth Wakefield, at the Tollhouse restaurant, ran out of nuts one day. She decided to chop up a chocolate bar and add that to her “Butter Drop-Do” cookie dough (www.culinarylore.com). Patrons went crazy for the cookie; by 1939, Nestle was marketing Tollhouse chocolate chips to accommodate the craze.

I go searching for the story behind Snickerdoodles, the deliberately NON-chocolate cookie that fills our cookie jars this indulgent Hallowe’en season; their story is nowhere near as crisply outlined as the Tollhouse cookie’s tale. Grit.com tells me the  recipe might have come to the States from Germany or Holland, or it might have come from a creative, whimsical New England cook’s kitchen. The name may be an Americanization of ‘Schneckennudelin,” which means, ‘snail dumpling.’ (Eeeuw.) Or–the cookies might have been named for an early 1900’s hero called Snickerdoodle. (But then, he might have been named for the cookie.)

An American Food Historian (americanfoodhistorian.blogspot.com) reports that the earliest mention of Snickerdoodles in print might be from page 8 of the June 14, 1898, Boston Globe. So of course, she notes, the cookies had to exist before then.

Like most of our history, it seems, Snickerdoodles were created in the quiet, with deliberation, maybe, but not much fanfare, and then their popularity spread, until the little cookie became ubiquitous. Most people, these days, if you whisper ‘Snickerdoodle’ in their ears, will immediately think, Cinnamon. Chewy. Yummy.

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

It’s the morning of November 2 as I finish typing this ramble; I sit at my dining room table in the just-dawning day. My son and I have a breakfast plan this morning: we will dine at the classic Denny’s out on Airport Road. Last night Jim read me a long litany of hot cake possibilities, including pecan sticky bun and red velvet variations. A purist, I will probably order something more traditional than those glorious concoctions.

But it will be an hour or two before James shakes off the night’s sleep and we pile into the Hyundai to search out sustenance. I sip my fragrant cup of fake coffee and realize I am little bit peckish. I grab two Snickerdoodles from the big plaid cookie jar. We like our cookies crisp, not soft; we like the edges nicely browned. These two, stolen from the top of the pile, are just perfect.

I place the cookies on my napkin, and yield to the importunings of the anxious little dog, who wants her Second Walkies now. We slip off into the dawning day, gray and wet, and she sniffs and considers for fifteen minutes or so. My silly slide-on shoes soak up the morning rain.

I am not concerned. My pay off waits–that steaming coffee, those two crunchable, spicy cookies. Let the winds blow, and the rains come. My shoes will dry. We’ll light a fire in the fireplace, snuggle up with fuzzy blankets.

In an uncertain world, symbols of security are precious. Today, we feel fortified and fortunate. We have our reserves. There are cookies in the cookie jar. We’ll weather the storm all right.

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Perfect Placement

“Pooh Bear has a spot, a log under a tree marked by a sign, that reads ‘Pooh’s Thoughtful Spot.’
 
“This is where Pooh would go to think. From this, a famous quote emerged, ‘This is a thoughtful spot to rest.'”

–April Giatt, “A Thoughtful Spot”, sholom.org

There were 14 of us around the table, talking about culture, talking about place. Our book of focus was JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. We all connect to the same small college. We are old and young, male and female, faculty and staff, retired, just starting out, and mid-career. And about half of us have our roots here, in this land, in this place, and in this culture.

The rest of us come, mostly, from northeastern United States and northern Ohio—places not so far away, maybe, but places that are different in shape and scope and in the way the wind smells after a soaking rain. One young instructor comes from a cityscape in new Jersey, and she is dedicated to understanding her Appalachian students.

She expected to deal with issues like excess partying and crazy costumes and disrespectful language…and she found, to her pleased surprise, that, those kind of issues are short in supply here. But she encountered other challenges, like the student who had to miss an important exam because her grandmother was in the hospital.

Her grandmother was not critically ill; it was a gall bladder operation.  No matter, the student told her professor, the family HAD to be there.

But…the young professor said. But…doesn’t your grandmother want you to pass this class—to do well in school? She must be so proud of you.

My grandmother, said the student, wants me at the hospital.

The people around the table who’d grown up in the area nodded and jumped in with their own stories. One talked of the edict, on a night that she had a very important meeting–a meeting, mind you, in which she had an organizational and a speaking role– to come sit vigil with the extended family for Aunt Aggie–who was 94, and had been slowly dying quite a while. Come and be there, the caller said, with 14 other family members, for the conference with the doctor. The person thus called upon is a smart and savvy woman, a polished professional who has made strong decisions and excelled at school and forged new pathways. And Aunt Aggie, mind you, was long past knowing or caring who was in the room with her.

So what did you do? the New Jersey refugee asked.

I told my mother, Aunt Aggie won’t know or care if I’m there, said our colleague. And my mother told me, Your Uncle Gary wants you there.

She looked at us and shrugged wryly.

So, she said, I went and sat vigil with Aunt Aggie.

Several people nodded.

It’s what we do here, they agreed.

They believe in the power and the value of family. They believe that you need celebration at birth, and support throughout your life.

They believe that, as long as you have family, there’s no reason for you to die alone.

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

There are those of us who leave, and there are those of us who stay: for all of us, there is the issue, the decision, of place. The places we choose shape us and hone us.

Our choice of place is an important part of who we are.

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

We lived for a while on the prairie in western Ohio, where Mark went to law school. We visited the campus the spring before he enrolled, exploring and observing; we watched students walking the sidewalks that intersected the manicured lawns. We gaped.

“Where are the piercings?” I asked. “Where’s the purple hair?”

I had worked at a SUNY campus where many of the students majored in music or art; they were dramatic and flamboyant young people with studded lips and noses. They wore vintage fabrics draped artfully over authentically tattered jeans.  Their hair color often changed to match their costume hues. Many students, both men and women, dark-lined their eyes, and their passionate conversations soared and crested.

On the campus that housed Mark’s law school, the students walked sedately. Young men wore Oxford shirts; some free spirits jauntily rolled their long sleeves up. We saw more khaki pants than jeans, and the young women, hair shining, often wore skirts.

They were polite and smiling; probably thinking anyone as old as we were must be faculty or administration, they all said respectful hellos when we passed.

Mark and I exchanged looks. “Toto,” we agreed, “we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Twice, faced with unexpected detours on the back roads of Ohio, I was rescued by polite young men in pickup trucks who insisted that they’d lead me back to civilization. One drove seven miles out of his way to get me onto the main road, and then turned his truck–which was pulling a trailer full of hay–around in a driveway, waved and sped off before I could even stop to thank him.

It’s how these boys were taught to behave. Or, as friends with strong roots here say, “It’s how we do things here.”

The people are nice where I came from, but I don’t see that seven mile detour happening. Place has a lot to do with how we act and interact.

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

There’s a writer I like, Sharyn McCrumb, who writes books about North Carolina Appalachian folks–folks who are deeply rooted in the hills and the hollers of her fictional county. And she touches on, in her writing, the massive exodus of the Scots and the Irish from their lands, and their flight to the United States.

There’s a strand of green mineral, McCrumb says, that undergirds Scotland and Ireland. The same mineral strand runs below the hills of Appalachia. The author believes that back in the days of Pangaea, the Celtic lands connected to Appalachia. Then some catastrophic cracking separated the mass into two continents. But when the Scots Irish came to America and looked for a place to settle, the hills of Appalachia, formed and shaped by the same geology as the hills they left behind, spoke ‘home’ to them.

“Yep,” I can imagine them saying, “This here. This is the place.”

Transient, forced to leave their birth-lands, they settled in places that looked and felt and smelled like home. And protected–or cut off, depending on your view–from outside influence, they retained many of the customs and courtesies of the lands they’d fled. In fact, the year we first moved to this area, a troupe presented Shakespeare in the park in Columbus, Ohio–presented the play in Appalachian dialect. The language, the director maintained, was the closest living language left to Elizabethan English. Nurtured and protected in those hills and hollows, it  survived when other dialects were flattened out and homogenized by proximity and media.

Some of those hollows are still pretty well insulated from modern intrusions. There are students here who go home to houses where the long arm of the Internet still does not reach–or whose “highspeed” Internet is dial-up.

If your place does not plug into modern society’s media arteries, that, too, defines you.

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

We understand that ‘click’ of connection, Mark and I do, with land that feels like home. We enjoyed the people and the long vistas and the opportunities afforded by our prairie years, but there were days when the cold wind blew in, relentless, from the west, and I could look out miles and miles and miles to try to see where it was coming from–a flat unbroken plain of view.

We grew up, both us, in western New York, on the coast of Lake Erie, where gentle foothills swell into the Allegheny Mountains. Those rolling hills shaped and formed us, and we found we missed them. (Once, then, I made Mark drive us to a nearby town called Mount Victory, so we could see the mount. We found, sadly, that the highest point in town was the railway overpass; there was no hill to climb.)

When we first visited Knox County, Ohio, where we’d live after Mark graduated, we felt an immediate connection. The hills rolled and gentled.

“This feels,” Mark said, “like home.”

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

If one lives in the United States, one comes from migratory stock. One’s ancestors may have chosen to relocate, or they may have been forcibly relocated. But relocate they did. The mythos of the country is a legend of migration–of westward expansion, of independent cusses who had to up and move when the land got crowded, when things like stores and schools and churches moved in.

My friend Wendy, who grew up in New England,–where, of course, they famously farm for rocks,–comes to visit and she marvels at the rich and gently rolling land. New Englanders must have thought they’d died and gone to heaven, she says, when they came upon this fertile land. No wonder this place called to them.

People choose their places by geography or opportunity, by job and by marriage.  Some put down long roots and really merge, and generations come to know and appreciate the same spaces.  Others are transplants; their roots stay closer to the surface. Survivors, they know that they may have to pull up those shallow roots and move on again.

There are benefits and sacrifices to whatever choice is made.

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

I am thinking about place because of the revelations that emerge in discussing Hillbilly Elegy, and some of the mysteries of this place, and some of the mysteries of these practices, are explained.

I am thinking about place as one I know contemplates a difficult choice between two wonderful jobs–one that would take him away from the home he and his family have adopted and grown to love, but that would also move him closer to his roots.

I am thinking about place because a friend is willingly exiled by a family emergency; she misses the geography and the comfort and the refuge of home.

I am thinking of place as the reality of time rubs against the needs of an adult son with disabilities; he will need to access services after his father and I are gone. Where, we ponder, is the best place for us, ultimately, to live?

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

The places we live work to shape us; the choices we make help define us. We choose this place because…it feels like home. It gives us room. It offers work. It has the goods, the services, the people, the proximity, that fill our need. Or–we choose this place because our family is here. Because our roots go deep, and we will not pull them up.

We choose because this is the sight we want to see every morning when we wake up and take our mug of steaming coffee onto the back stoop; this is the vista we need to start our every day.

The choice we make reflects what is most important to us at the time of choosing. We may make that choice many times in a lifetime. Staying will teach us many things. Upping roots and going will give us chances to learn others.

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

And those who go and those who stay blend and meld and create cultures–and those cultures slowly change and shift, enriched–not often impoverished–by the influence of people, of media, of industry and tourism and the winds that blow across the lake, the plain, the mountain peak. We may be tiny pebbles dropped into a large still pond, but the dropping makes a ripple. We change the culture. The place exerts its pressure onto us.

There is not, I don’t think, a WRONG place to live–unless the place we’ve chosen sucks our souls dry or presents us with choices we cannot bear to make. But our places absolutely shape our beings.

We all, like Pooh Bear, need to find our place. And we need to be able to look at the place we’ve chosen, to sigh, and to and say, “This is a thoughtful place to rest.”

Saturday Cleaning (This Week, a Lick and a Promise)

Saturday morning, 9:30… breakfast complete, the day’s chores begin.

The boyos clomp downstairs and begin chuddering around, packing up bins of clunking glass bottles and chingling tin cans.  They heft and stomp and chide each other. They are going recycling. They’ll drive up to the bins at the city barns, behind the new building at the College, and they will empty out the totes they’ve packed into Mark’s  trunk. They’ll stuff the aluminum and plastic and glass and paper into all the right compartments, pack up the empty totes, slam the trunk closed, and then they’ll head over to the bakery outlet store.

There, they’ll buy a couple of loaves of cheap white bread, a package of English muffins, a single serving peach pie, and a sleeve of little chocolate doughnuts. They’ll throw in two bags of cheese curls–the kind that are so cheesily powdered, they turn our lips and fingers disgustingly neon orange. (And still, I can’t stop eating them.)

The boyos might stop at the wholesale grocer, too, and buy little chunks of assorted cheese (cheddar, hot pepper, colby-jack) packed  in a baggie, a couple of long, skinny, pungent beef jerky sticks, a one-serving bag of nacho Doritos. They may find some amazing deals on General Mills cereals or frozen pizzas or canned kidney beans. Then they’ll pack their bags of goodies into the car and head over to DQ, where they’ll treat themselves to the five dollar lunch deal, complete with mini-sundae.

They have their Saturday rituals. I have mine, too. While they’re gone, I’m cleaning.

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

I have already walked the dog, who, sighing, sinks into the couch, rests her chin on the overstuffed arm, and falls immediately into a deep, elderly sleep. I throw open the coat closet where I keep my cleaning arsenal. I pull down the Swiffer duster and go to my rag bag to find a couple of soft, worn, white socks. (One Saturday, I reached for the duster refills only to find the box was empty. I said to myself,–I really did,–“Well. I’m not going to be able to dustmop until I get some refills!”

An immediate cacophony raged in my head, the derisive roaring of generations of stern Scottish housekeepers howling at the thought that I needed to buy duster refills in order to clean.

Above the howling, I swear I heard my mother’s dismayed, determined voice saying, “Oh, just put a sock on it!”

Sure enough, soft old socks, secured on the flexible stem with a rubber band, work just fine for dusting ceiling corners, light fixtures, the curved wooden rims of mirror frames, the iron fretwork on headboards, and the always dusty ledges of window sashes.)

I learned that Saturdays were for cleaning from my mother. By the end of the busy week, our house felt heavy and and dusty and lived in, and we would wrestle the proper tools from the broom closet–a dust mop with a fluffy head of brightly colored yarns, the old damp mop loaded by folding clean soft rags into neat rectangles and feeding them into its pinching, clamping jaws. The canister vacuum was heavy and irascible; it had to be wooed and fidgeted out of the closet, and its long hose was always curling up on itself, reluctant to cooperate. We used clean cloths to dust the furniture, and we did not use polish, Pledge being a hoax perpetrated on slapdash housewives with money to burn.

I did not like to clean, and my mother, a perfectionist at times, often found my help more trouble than it was worth. She doggedly kept at it, trying to train a reluctant daughter who would much rather curl up with a book and escape to a different world than embrace the romance of a freshly mopped floor. But sometimes, in frustration, she would snatch the mop or the dust rag or the vacuum hose away.

“I can’t stand to watch you,” she’d say. “Let me just do it.”

I would slink off to find my book and a quiet corner.

But she, even when feeling her lug-headed daughter was just not getting it, sowed the cleaning seeds deep. I feel that same household heaviness on a Saturday in 2017 that we felt in 1965. My arsenal of cleaning weapons may be modernized, but it, too, is much the same.

I learned the ritual of cleaning from my mother; but I did not absorb so much the best ways to go about creating a  clean house. My first apartments were grand examples of cluttered mess.  I learned efficient technique when, shortly after moving to central Ohio, I cast about for work. A mistaken phone call came when I was getting very frustrated–a wrong number from a cleaning company tracking down an applicant. Well, hey, I said, I’d be interested, and they said, Sure. Come on down.

They cleaned banks, this service. At the training, in the huge main downtown office, they unveiled the tools of the trade, and taught their philosophy of cleaning. Make your tools work for you, they said. And clean from the top down. Vacuum first, then dust.

I was assigned two small branch offices to clean; I worked with a trainer for a week or two, and then I was on my own, terrified that I’d forget the security code or take so long in locking up that the police would arrive and haul me away for questioning. But the work itself became a patterned dance–arranging all the tools, dusting from the ceilings down to counter height, scouring the bathrooms with antiseptic cleaners, waltzing the mop backwards across the scuffed tiled floors until the shine returned, sashaying myself backwards out the restroom door. Then I’d vacuum; I quickly learned where the most convenient plugs were, the locations that would give me maximum play of the cord. I’d dust the counter-tops with a citrus-y polish, pack up the cloths for the person who whisked them away for cleaning, dump the vacuum, bag up the trash. I would do one final circuit, making sure I hadn’t missed spots or left a bottle of cleaner sitting on a countertop, and satisfied, I’d grab my purse and coat, frantically pound in the security code, and rush outside while the door snapped firmly shut.

It was hard work, but satisfying–and it was kind of fun to be locked inside the bank all by myself after hours. To go from workday clutter to shining surfaces in a two hour sweep made me smile.  Before too long, I got a teaching job and said goodbye to the cleaning company, but I’d learned a thing or two about efficiency that I applied at home.

**********

So, on this Saturday morning, armed with the socked-up duster, I start upstairs, at the top, smoothing away dust strands stuck in high corners, sweeping over the tops of picture frames, scooting dust from the blades of ceiling fans.  I scrub the bathrooms and dump towels and washcloths and rugs down the laundry chute. I sweep, and then, just like the old days, I do a little dance with the damp mop on the tiled floors, backing myself out into the carpeted hallway.

I vacuum the carpets, but today, I do not move the beds or chairs or vacuum the mattresses. Today we have an adventure planned for the afternoon–a lazy meander down a road we haven’t traveled yet, one that winds south down along the river–and I want the house done before we take off.  So, I vacuum the obvious surfaces, and use the duster to tease out the under-furze, sucking it up with my Hoover. Next week, I’ll make up for the laxness, for doing what my mother would call a ‘once-over-lightly’ kind of job.  “We’ll just give it a lick and a promise,” she’d sometimes say.

My younger self thoroughly enjoyed a lick and a promise days.

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

No, I have not always been a dedicated cleaner. In fact, although I always liked a shining house, was comforted by uncluttered, gleaming surfaces, I struggled to reconcile that with a fledgling understanding of feminism. In college and just after, I felt guilty for tackling the cleaning and the laundry–Why is this MY job? I’d demand angrily,–and sometimes I would grab my book and defiantly sit reading, actively ignoring, or trying to ignore, the mess and the clutter.

But the truth was an awful, messy house gave me awful, messy thoughts. Aged twenty-four or so, an avid reader of Cosmopolitan magazine (the day the new edition hit the supermarket shelves was always a treasure day for me), I came across an article by a young woman executive in New York City who lived in a messy apartment. She wrote how defiantly she did NOT clean up–she was a liberated woman, after all,–and how disgusted a date was at her messy digs. And suddenly, she said, she saw her quarters though his eyes, and it became not an issue of gender equality, but a symbol of lack of pride and terribly poor organizational skills.

She did not date the disapproving man again–a little too stuffy, she wrote,–but she changed the way she looked at her living space. She became, she said, house proud. She made her apartment a place she was glad to come home to. She cleaned and polished and decorated, not to impress another, but to be good to, and caring of, herself.

Funny how an article in a frothy magazine could re-adjust my thinking. House proud, I pondered, and I began to clean to please myself and not to conform to anyone else’s standard. And later, when Mark and I got married, the division of labor fell into an easy, pleasant rhythm. I liked to cook, and he was happy to do dishes. He took over the laundry; I vacuumed and mopped; we changed the beds together.

On Saturdays, although he was always willing to pitch in if needed, he did guy-things, sometimes with one of the boys, sometimes solo. He handled the car maintenance, hung pictures, did yard work, took the recycling to the bins. He cleaned and organized his tools. I cleaned the house.

The division of labor seemed pretty fair and even.

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

Today,  I work my way downstairs. I straighten and tidy; I vacuum, and the sighing dog runs away to another room.  I run a soft rag over the dusty surfaces of end tables.  I empty the vacuum’s packed dust-catcher. I replace the towels in the half bath and the dishcloths in the kitchen.

The house is cleaned,–licked and promised,–and the boyos pull into the drive,  go-cups in hand, plastic shopping bags looped over their wrists, kicking the empty plastic recycling bins ahead of them. They have Saturday morning adventures to share.

I mix up tuna salad, make myself a sandwich, change my clothes, brush my teeth, and then we are pulling the door shut behind us, and heading off to explore the backroads on a sunny February Saturday. The adventure is undergirded by the knowledge that we will come home to an uncluttered, organized house, with clear surfaces on which to set any exploration swag we gather,–a lightened, brightened space where we can kick back and relax, dissecting the week.

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

“How we change,” I remember my father remarking, stopping in to see me shortly after Mark and I got married. He was remembering, I am sure, my messy bedroom, the chaos that was my first apartment in college. Now, the house was pleasantly clean, the cookie jar was full; we put on a pot of coffee and sat down for a visit at an uncluttered table, in some uncluttered time.  I was proud that he’d dropped in to find me organized, proud that I had mastered the art of caring, for my family, yes, but also for myself.

It’s funny. As a child, I needed to know that someone had it all under control–the house would be clean, there would be socks in the drawer. The cookie jar would magically refill. I needed that, but I needed, too, the teachers who dragged me out of my dependency on someone other, who nudged me into places where I knew I’d have my own landscapes under control. I needed to reach that place where I knew, having given my household terrain a lick and a promise, the promise would, eventually but certainly, be kept.

Considering What to Write on the First Cold Day of Autumn

First, I thought I’d write about history.

I got up early to start a draft. I let the dog out and said goodbye to the husband who hurried off to slay legal dragons, and I plunked my battered IPad on the dining room table. I poured steaming coffee into my new favorite mug, and I sat down and flexed my fingers.

And I thought about the author I’d met this weekend, GL Corum, who became so fascinated with the Underground Railroad in Ohio that she moved here from the east coast just to do her research. Corum showed us a map. On it, she had plotted the homes of people who were known to have actively supported the Underground Railroad. There was a line of homes, a flowing river of homes–yes, a RAILROAD of homes,–all along Zane’s Trace, placed a thoughtful and systematic twelve miles or so apart.

They were just far enough apart that a person could walk between them in a day.

But the fascinating thing that GL Corum found was that these homesteaders had bought their land and built their homes in the 1700’s, the early days of the United States. Corum maintains that a freedom network was in full force fifty years before anyone thought of dubbing it ‘the underground railroad’. She has evidence that people were quietly helping the enslaved to reach the geography of freedom from the earliest inception of slavery in the United States. And she says that prominent families, including Ulysses S. Grant’s, were among them.

There were good reasons the people involved didn’t boast to their friends, didn’t keep  receipts, didn’t write things down: lives hung in the balance. More important for a person to reach a place of freedom than for a helper along the way to get a footnote in a history book.

Corum maintains, too, that the histories disremember President Grant. US Grant, she says, was so popular that, at his death, the roads were lined for seven miles with throngs of mourners hoping to see his funeral cortege–the biggest crowd, she told us, ever gathered in the United States to that point. Grant, says Corum, was more popular in his presidency than Lincoln ever was in his, and was a highly effective president, to boot. His image as a drunken butcher was a gift to posterity from Ku Klux Klan detractors; she’s pretty certain of that.

Her presentation had me thinking all week. I thought about published history and personal histories and about how what we believe is often part truth, part myth, and part expedience on someone’s part. When it comes to history, I mulled, what can we really believe, and what should we question? And when is the questioning important?

Is it always better to know?

I sat down to explore that, to write about histories individual and familial and political and histories that are hidden and histories that are just wrong. I poised my fingers above the keyboard and pondered what I should say and how I wanted to say it.

And then I noticed that the wind was blowing, a hard sweeping sound circling my house, and I ran out the front door to see if my morning news had arrived, and if it was in danger of blowing away. The little dog came with me to the front door; she shoved her nose into the bumptious air and sniffed, and I ran down the two brick steps to the walk, and I grabbed the errant newspaper. It had a spotted green leaf glued wetly to its plastic cover.

The dog yipped; I looked up from my leaf-peeling to see the back end of a bounding deer disappearing down the slope behind our across-the-street neighbor’s house. The sun shone, pale and tired. And I said to Greta, my crazy hound, “It’s cold, Greta! The first cold day of autumn!”

We pulled the front door shut behind us and retreated to the warmth of the house.

I didn’t write about history. There were more questions in my mind than thoughts to share. I’d better explore this a little further, I decided.

I scrolled through WordPress, and I noticed that one of the daily prompts this week was ‘generous,’ a concept I like to thrash around in my head. There are more important ways, I think, than financial ones that people show their generosity, telling ways that often go unsung. Then I looked at email and opened a call from a magazine to submit essays, and their monthly theme for September was ‘generosity.’

And I thought, Well, there you go. Clearly I am meant to write about true generosity.

So I sat down to do that, and I decided maybe the best way was to create vignettes, short sketches of people who were truly giving—not of money, but of time and talents and resources–people who disdained names on plaques, or headline recognition, or medals or fanfares or flowery accolades spun from an august dais in front of a hefty crowd of the duly impressed assembled. I started to try to spin a series of stories about people who comforted when they could have used comfort, who shared when they didn’t really have enough for sharing, who made time even when it meant they might have to give up precious time later, themselves.

I wrote about all these different generous people, in these different challenging circumstances, and when I sat back to read it, I thought, No. This is all wrong. This is one person, not a half dozen. And this is meant to be a short story, not an essay.

It needs, I thought sadly, to be completely rewritten. I sighed and put my IPad back into its charger, and I went off to the do the work my day job requires. The wind was howling now; clouds were scudding across the blue sky; and I finally had a reason to wear my fleecy new jacket, swag from the 10-K Wendy and I walked earlier this month.

By the time my work was completed, it was mid-afternoon. In the kitchen, I looked at the big crockery bowl of new potatoes and at the autumn basket containing, among other things, pears and apples. I looked out the big kitchen window to the driveway and watched a series of acorns hit the blacktop, tops wrenching free and flying. The wind gusted; leaves scuttered.

The clouds were glowering now, and I knew that it was a cooking day.

I took some beef and some pork from the chest freezer downstairs; I took a ball of pie crust dough I’d mixed up a month or so ago from the kitchen freezer. Jim brought me Volume One of the family cookbook he’s crafting; we found recipes and wrote down missing ingredients, and we searched through the coupon files, and we went for a quick Kroger run.

We returned thirty minutes later with olive oil and brown sugar and Sister Schubert’s dinner rolls,–returned in a cold, soaking, autumn rain. The boy and I bundled the groceries into the house, and we settled the dog, who hates the rain. Jim had an inspiration percolating, an insistent mental jumping bean, so he gathered up his writing gear, and he moved into the living room.

I washed my hands and started cooking. I rolled out dough and shaped a bottom crust and flipped open the cookbook to the page that talks about pies with crumb toppings.  I sliced fruit and slid the slices into the big flat Pfaltzgraff bowl Pat gave us. I thought that probably there was something more comfortable than slicing apples in my kitchen on a brisk and rainy autumn day. The oven was churging into life, and cinnamon and nutmeg were dancing together, their scents rising from the growing pile of apple slices, floating on the currents crafted by the ceiling fan.

I peeled and chopped and slid residue into the grumbling disposal, and I watched the leaves flat-falling onto the slick black pavement of my driveway, where they lay, spread-eagled and hopeless, as the rain pounded them silly. I couldn’t, at that moment, think of any more comforting thing to be doing.

And I made stew, chopping meat into small neat chunks, sliding the gristle and fat into a little saucepan to simmer with some  water for the spoiled little dog. I heated olive oil in my heavy kettle, and I sautéed onions; and then the meat, dredged in whole wheat flour and seasoned, went into the sizzling mix.

The dog jumped up and cried just for the tantalizing smell of it.

I sliced celery and crushed cloves of garlic and added them to the simmering. I peeled carrots and potatoes, and I sliced and chopped and cubed. I defrosted beef broth and veggie broth; I crushed rosemary and basil, dried from plants that live right outside my kitchen door. I stirred and swirled and let it all simmer. The flavors met and mixed and married; and the smell of roasting apples rose and sang aloud.

The rain fell, and I watched the pilot episode of SuperGirl with Jim in the snug family room. When the dog leapt off my lap, I dug out my yarn and needles and started knitting a hat for a baby. Every so often, Jim would freeze the screen, and I would jump up to stir the stew, to pull open the oven door and check the pie, to slide the rolls my buddy Sister Schubert had made for us from their plastic packaging and cover the pan with aluminum foil.

The dog sighed herself to sleep on the carpet at my feet. The pie came out of the oven to rest, bubbling up fragrant caramel juices, on the warming rack. I turned the stew down to simmer gently.

Supergirl got in touch with her amazing powers.

And Mark came home and we explored the day just past, scooping ladles of stew into thick white bowls, breaking open soft hot rolls and letting butter melt inside them. The gray sky darkened into night, the dog took her reluctant last meander out in the chilly neighborhood, and we settled in to watch a long-awaited film with plates of pie a la mode.

The wind blew.  I pulled the ratty old throw up to my neck, scraping the dregs of the apple-y syrup, the vanilla bean ice cream, from my dessert plate, and laughing as Paul Newman and Bruce Willis traded barbed remarks.  Mark went to lock the back door; he reported the deer family was nestled up tight under the pine tree out back, finding their own familial warmth this blustery night.

And I thought about history, and I thought about generosity, and then I put my arms inside the old blanket and I snuggled, and I gave myself up to watching the satisfying film and savoring, in the company of my husband and son, the comfort of the warm old house, settling around me on this harbinger night. In the morning, I thought, my brain will churgle back on and I can determine what portentous things to write about this week.

Right now, though, I decided contentedly, I’m soaking in the comforts of the first cold day of autumn.

Someone Else’s Daffodils: A Posy Queen’s Lament

Flowers 2

I enjoyed being the Posy Queen at work.

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The daffodils were gorgeous this early spring, and this year, especially, I marveled at the different kinds I have in my yard.  There are the big, lush, bright yellow ones–the traditional kind, a little loud, a little common maybe, but bold and true and cheerful.  There are tender little daffs with creamy petals surrounding pale peach bells.  Some have orange button eyes; some are pure butter cream all over.  Shades of yellow, pops of orange–I went out to pick and experienced a sort of holy frenzy.

So I picked a LOT of daffodils, and still they budded and bloomed.

I put bunches all over the house–in blue-tinged mason jars and in dark green olive oil bottles with lavish, pretty labels, put them in sunny windows and in dark-ish corners. And still I had more daffodil blooms from my culling and cutting mania, tossed in heaps on the kitchen counter, awaiting determination.

That’s why I was driving to work with big bundles of fresh cut flowers cradled in wet newspaper and wrapped in cones of foil, rocking gently on my backseat.  Mason jars rolled and knocked on the floor.  In the parking lot, I scooped it all up, my work bags hanging from both shoulders, my arms full of flower cones, elbows pinning mason jars tightly to my sides. I carried it all into the employee kitchen, spent precious morning email time snipping and arranging flowers.  I shared with my wonderful, wry, funny colleagues.

I put my own bunch of blooms, happy in a blue ceramic mug thrown by our artist friend Robin, in the middle of my little round office table and went off for a morning slate of meetings.  When I came  back, a wonderful friend–kind of a “Secret Easter Bunny,”– had left some bold red carnations and frothy fans of baby’s breath outside my door.

I grabbed my scissors, snipping stems.

Oh, I loved how the red carnations and the baby’s breath moved right in, nudged hips, stretched, and settled into that blue mug with those daffodils!  They made themselves at home; they looked just like they were meant to live in that yard-cut, yellow-flower, world.

For our Easter celebration that weekend, I stopped at Kroger and bought a bunch of red carnations, and I spread red and yellow flower celebrations throughout the Easter house–a fine shout-out, I thought, to a new-life kind of season.

And every other day that Easter week, I would go out in the yards and pick some more. My goodness, there’s a never-ending supply of daffodils, and they’re in surprising pop-up spots–there are daffodils by the compost bin out back, and under the old pine tree; there are daffs by the rustic wood fence that the deer enjoy jumping, on the dividing line we share with Shirley. And then there’s the mini-Wordsworthian fields of daffs in the front yard. I supplied both house and workshop.

My colleagues loved me.  People stopped by my office to ahhhhh at my flowers.  Oh, it was lovely–that daffodilian notoriety.

And then Sunday morning, I bounded out of bed early and ran downstairs with the dog at my heels.  I turned the coffee to ‘on’ and opened up the back door…and the world was white.  Snow.  Snow blown hard inside the car port, icing the cars’ hoods; snow on the walks, and snow on the grass. The little prissy dog looked up in complaint, but forged out into it, of necessity.

Snow sugaring the pine tree boughs.  Snow highlighting the rough wood fence slats.

And snow, warping and heavy, on my daffodils.

Many of them scrunched buds and gave up.  My reign as Posy Queen was over.

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

This little house we love so well was built in 1937, almost 80 years ago.  And during most of that time–until we came along four years ago–it was lived in by the same family, the Normans. He was an engineer at the plant down the hill; at night, when the little dog and I go out for last daily rites, we look over the ridge and see the bright and busy factory lights.  We hear the clash and chunka chunk of its still active machines.

I wonder if, as a young man, a newlywed, he would dress in his white shirt and tie (he was known, they tell us, for doing yardwork in his shirt and tie), read his morning paper over breakfast, then fold it up and kiss the wife, grab, maybe, a portfolio or a briefcase, and head off on foot, down the hill, and around the sloping curve on Norwood Drive, hoofing it to work in those Depression days.

I wonder about the young wife, at home with two little girls, keeping house in a home that was smaller then; the addition that added the family room and enlarged the kitchen wouldn’t happen until the 1960’s.

And the yard was smaller, too, at first.  Townsfolk hint that Mr. Norman’s parents gave him a single, initial, plot of land, had the house built for him and his bride…but the jury was out on whether or not they completely liked her.  When they decided, finally, that she’d do quite well, thank you, they threw in some extra land, doubling the sweep of the front-yard, extending the scope and slope of the back.

The neighbors who’ve been here long days tell us stories, too, about Mr. Norman’s garden expertise.  (They tell it in a sighing kind of way, and we hear it as a nostalgically longing lament: Remember how NICE the yards looked when Bill lived here?) The Mr., go the stories, was a garden and landscape wizard.  The Mrs. was a cut flower display aficionado.  Together, they grew the flowers and arranged the flowers and they swept the horticulture ribbons at the local county fair.

We have inherited much of their backyard bounty.  So I have all those wonderful daffodils.  I have something I call snowdrops, blooming now, big drooping waxy bells that look like giant lilies of the valley. I have regular iris and African iris. I have stubborn day lilies that pop up unexpectedly and bloom defiantly until the deer meander along and eat them.  I have a little pink tea rose that’s just as stubborn; I look out the kitchen window and watch Baby Buck efficiently munching off every bloom, and then the next day, more buds explode. It’s a summer-long waltz of blossom and nosh.

Hosta rims my backyard, solid-leafed and variegated, and it is so thick and dense the deer eat their fill, and still it looks lush and vibrant.  Every year I dig up shovelsful, separate the roots, transplant them out front along the retaining wall, and every year, when the leaves begin to spread, thick and glossy, the deer stroll by, dip their heads, thank me for fast food.  But one day–ah, one day, those hosta, too, will be so thick and densely packed the deer can eat their fill and still I’ll have my glowing border.

We have rhodedendrons that aren’t quite making it and lilac, overgrown and woody, and a bunch of ragged forsythia against the rustic fence. We have a gardener’s bounty.

I wish I were a gardener.

I try to do my best.  There’s a commitment passed on, I think, an obligation to tend what’s been planted in the past, a need to honor those earlier gardeners.  All those plantings.  All that work.  All those visions of what will be, how it will look when the seedlings fill in, and the plants mature and the volunteers provide hundreds of extra blooms…

In every place I’ve lived in, I’ve always felt I owed it to the people who planted to honor their future dreams. I think of the house my parents lived in for twenty years, rented but lovingly tended, and how, if I drive by this summer, I will see the hosta my mother started from seeds burgeoning, thick and full and waxy along the side of the house.  Marsha took some of those clippings when Mom and Dad moved to their little retirement apartment, and those hosta are still glorious, abundant, growing toward the sun around Marsha’s welcoming house.

We must, when we can, keep things going.

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When we moved in, this house was shaded by five huge trees, front and side and back; think of Mr. Norman years ago, in his rolled up shirt-sleeves and tie, deftly digging holes for the root balls of tender saplings.  Paying it toward the future.

Within two years, though, of our arrival,  it became clear three of those trees were sick, were dying; they were dropping limbs in windstorms; their leaves were scant and spotted.

Tree cutters came and efficiently cut the trees away, and they hauled the wood; they returned the next spring, and rototilled the stumps and roots so thoroughly no trace of tree remained.  I felt a little sense of mourning, and a sort of sense of fulfillment–the kind of feeling I have when some beloved aged person dies, almost–the end of a long, full, satisfying lifetime, youth to growth to maturity to failing…the poignant, pressing, proper scheme of things.

For trees, yes; for us, too.

Larry came to visit, lovely Larry with his artist’s eye and his green thumb, and the next time we were out his way, he loaded my car with saplings.  They were carefully packed and accompanied by a neatly detailed list of what should go where and which would flower and what to expect in terms of growth and shade.

We used that list to judiciously plant those saplings.  And then we lost that list.  So little trees boldly grow, defying deer and weather, protected from mowers and lawn-walkers, stubborn and determined, in our yard. We don’t know what they’ll yield. The biggest one looks as though it will bud into flower, its first year of budding, in not so many days.  And then we’ll get the plant guide out and identify its type, so we can say proudly, next time we see Larry, “Hey! The…whatchamacallit is blooming!”

But we didn’t plant those trees for ourselves.  This house will have some other tenants when those saplings are mature; other feet will follow the mower around their sturdy roots, and other hands will harvest sheaves of daffodils.  Those trees, Larry’s gift to us, are our gift to–and our belief in–the future.

****************
Mr. Norman’s vision allowed me, for a bright and pretty moment,  to be the office Posy Queen.  I think I owe it to him–and to his wife, who arranged those blooms so deftly,–to nurture their flowering dreams.

 

Walking in My Neighborhood, Several Stories Deep

Maxie, the newly appointed mayor of the neighborhood...
Maxie, the newly appointed mayor of the neighborhood…

I clip the leash onto the collar of my wacky little dog, Greta, and pull open the back door. Greta stiffens, and I look down to see Maxie, the new mayor of the neighborhood, standing expectantly outside the storm door.

Maxie is a black cat with a priest’s collar; his head is the size and shape of a squashed softball. He is sleek and talkative. He waits in the ivy, under the shrubs that line the drive, when I come home. As soon as I open the car door, he starts his approach, spouting a long line of complaints: Yowlyowlmewwwwrrrryowlyou! MEW.

He always ends decisively, waiting for a response.

I usually give him a little piece of frozen turkey from a baggie in the freezer; he accepts this, but seems none too thrilled.

Max lives with the Next-to-Newest Neighbors across the street–a lovely mom and her just-college age daughter. Max was the daughter’s friend’s cat. When Daughter’s Friend was going off to school, Daughter’s Friend’s Dad calmly informed her he was going to shoot the damned cat.

Apparently he wasn’t kidding; so, Maxie came home with our next-to-newest neighbor.

He’s an outdoor guy, Max: he only goes in when the weather is too cold for cats to sleep au naturel. Meantime, he prowls the neighborhood, making sure everything is safe. He spends a lot of time with Shirley, our elderly, widowed neighbor. He naps in her window well. She provides food and drink in case Max needs a little nosh.

Sometimes I’ll pull up the driveway and see Max sitting outside Sandy’s Florida room next door, staring hungrily through the window at her squawking gray parrot, who is not amused by the visitation. And for a while, Max decided he wanted to check out the Newest Neighbors’ home across the street. He would stand by their front door and warble insistently. From the house, deep ominous barks resounded. Maxie was unfazed, but the Newest Neighbors did not seem inclined to let him in to explore.

Today, Maxie glances at Greta on the leash, then looks at me in disgust. Really? he registers clearly. Walking that stupid dog??? He gives his sleek shoulders a shake and ambles off toward his nest in the ivy. Greta rumbles deep in her throat and pulls me toward the yard and the front walk. Let’s avoid that scary cat, she’s implying.

We head out to the street. Maxie forgotten, Greta settles in to a nice sniffing meander. We don’t get two steps before she finds a fascinating pocket of scent. We stop, and I gaze across the street, at the lights down below, twinkling out this early morning. A walk with the Grets is a stop and start affair.

Our neighborhood traces a ravine; my house is on the firmly planted side. Across the street, where Next-to-Newest and Newest Neighbors have their sparkling white abodes, the houses perch. Front yards are lovely; back yards drop off abruptly.

The ravine is long and steep and wooded, a refuge for a herd of deer who wander up, unabashed, almost daily. We watch the babies grow up during the summer; we watch the wary relationship between Senior Buck and Junior Buck. Greta snuffles up their scent, fascinated, and they obligingly leave lots of it around, sometimes in freshly steaming piles on the pine needle carpets in our backyard.

Woe to my plantings; they’re fast food for deer. But this Spring—hah! I have a recipe from my woods-and-fields-savvy friend Theresa. I’ll be dousing my hosta, my impatiens, my everything, with the Theresa Formula. Take that, you foraging deer.

There are gray squirrels and black squirrels in the neighborhood; they bore Greta, who just ignores them. There are bunnies, too, and chipmunks, — although, come to think of it, not as many sightings occur since Maxie’s moved in.

Having read her olfactory messages, the dog snorts and we move on. Phyllis’s house is the last on the street, ravine-side. It has a lovely side deck, between the house and a little woods. The driveway leads right up to that deck, which overlooks the ravine, and, at night, a beautiful light display: you can see the busy commerce and industry of Linden Avenue just below; off to the southeast, the lights of the city glitter in the night sky.

The way Phyllis’s house is situated, the street at the corner leads right into her driveway.

One night, shortly after we moved in–congratulating ourselves on landing in this quiet neighborhood–(Mark would stand outside at night with his eyes closed and his arms at his side, palms parallel with the ground, murmuring, “It’s so QUIET.” Our vacated neighborhood was NOT.)–I went to bed early, worn out from the strenuous haul of moving and unpacking. I was reading in bed, eyelids drooping, when the sirens began, a low whining that grew closer and closer.

And closer. Soon, one could hear speeding cars, tires on pavement, brakes squealing; that grew rapidly closer, too. And then, very close, a crash!

I heard Mark’s startled exclamation, heard him scuffing into his old shoes, heard the front door open as he ran out to see what was going on. “Oh. BOY!” Jim said; he was, I could tell from the placement of his voice, standing at the front window.

I considered going down, but knew the Markmeister had it under control. He would tell me the story when he came in.

And so he did. Hotly pursued by a police cruiser, a car drove up the street, couldn’t make the turn, and flew right on to Phyllis’s deck. The driver jumped out and ran into the backyard, where he didn’t expect a ravine. He tumbled over the edge.

Mark stood with Phyllis and her husband Terry as the drama unfolded. The hapless driver, thinking to avoid arrest, crawled up the ravine at the other end of the street. The police, who’d been nonchalantly watching his progress, cuffed him and threw him into the cruiser, called for a tow truck, and took all the necessary information from Phyllis and Terry.

Mark, who works for a county government unit and gets all the juice, brought the details home next day.

Seems Driver Man was from a notorious ne’er-do-well family. Needing some weekend drinkin’ cash, he called for a pizza, thinking he’d take the delivery guy’s stash. Driver Man lived in an isolated country locale.

Delivery Guy arrived, got out of the car, and was confronted by Driver Man, wielding a pistol. Delivery Guy was big, and not a man for nonsense. He slapped the pizza box into Driver Man’s face and took his gun away. Then, when the pizza box fell off Driver Man’s face, Delivery Guy popped him a good one.

Down went Driver Man. Delivery Guy pulled out his cell phone and dialed 911. As he was talking to the dispatcher, Driver Man scrambled to his feet. Delivery Man popped him again.

Down, again, went Driver Man.

Now stop hitting him! the dispatcher purportedly said. Get in your car and drive back to work, and an officer will meet you there to pick up the gun and get your report.

O-kay, said Delivery Guy, reluctantly, but when Driver Man got up again, talking some smack, he couldn’t resist knocking him down one last time. By the time the police arrived, Driver Man had wobbled into his own vehicle, and the chase began.

They drove darned near all over the county before Driver Man flew his vehicle onto Phyllis’s deck, decimating it.

By the time the luckless felon crawled up the cliff, he was battered from the repeated poppings, scraped and cut from the fall down the ravine, and ready for medical attention and a comfortable bed in a cell.

The insurance rebuilt Phyllis and Terry’s deck, but it was one of the last times we saw him, that kind, friendly, helpful neighbor. He was hospitalized shortly after the Deck Event. He never came home. Now Phyllis and her sons and daughters-in-law and grandchildren enjoy sitting on that deck, talking softly on starry summer nights. But we know how much they miss Terry.

Greta makes her mandatory sniff-examination of Phyllis’s rose bush; satisfied, we wander across the street and up the long curving driveway of the Helen Purcell Home. Helen Purcell had been the sickly daughter of a local family in the early 1800’s. Since she was puny, anyway, she was designated as the one to stay home and care for Mamaw and Papaw. Her siblings went to school, got married, moved away; Helen learned to sew. And she was pretty [I so want to say ‘darned’] good at it. She took in sewing and made a little extra money.

And then, the parents both died, and there was Helen, suddenly and sadly free. She packed up her sewing stuff and her belongings and she moved herself to Cincinnati, where she set up shop. And she succeeded; she was a sought-after seamstress, and an independent woman.

Until her brother got sick. Then Helen was called home–her role, after all, was to care for the sick ones. She left her beloved independent life. She nursed her brother, but she never forgot her taste of freedom. She, the sickly one, outlived all her family contemporaries. When she died, she left her estate in trust, to establish a place where women in need could recover from whatever vicissitudes plagued them. It was a healing home for independent women needing to get back on their feet.

Now it is a home for the elderly; not so very long ago, they agreed, finally, to admit men, too, and the facility offers independent and assisted living and managed care. The staff is lovely, the residents energetic; there is a van that takes people out and about, although many of the residents park their own vehicles in the long carport that faces our house. In the lovely common area, with its polished paneled walls and massive fireplace, there is always a jigsaw puzzle in progress, and always clusters of people visiting and laughing. Not bad neighbors to have.

We round the expansive driveway, and come out on Norwood Boulevard, near the Mission Oaks Gardens. The park, open to all from dawn to dusk, is reached by crossing the Hendleys’ driveway. The Hendleys had a vision of a winding, meandering park within the city; they bought the house and acquired grounds abutting their property, then acquired more, and the gardens grew. We walk there in the good weather, sometimes sitting in the rustic log tea house; we watch throughout the summer, as the plants shoot up and bloom.

There are rhododendrons, local of root; all kinds of hosta; native flowers and imported flowers; trees and shrubs. There is a vast conifer garden. There are two ponds with tall waterfalls, and there are benches and gazebos and many places where a bride can splendidly pose.

It is not a place for Greta to walk, though. I am not sure, prissy city dog that she is, that she’d even consent to walk down the grassy paths; she’s a sidewalk girl, my Greta. But it doesn’t matter: she’s not invited. The park is home to an aging Scottie dog, who greets all visitors and likes a bit of a scratch. When we moved into the neighborhood, there were a pair of Scotties; now this guy remains, alone. He’s awfully glad to walk a ways with a visitor to the garden.

But it’s cold and muddy January; this is not a Mission Oaks day. We walk the sidewalk by the gracious, Spanish-style home on the property instead. This house, with its lovely upper deck (what a great place for morning coffee, I always think) has a Past. It was the abode of a wealthy businessman’s mistress, who lived brazenly there and entertained her paramour while the respectable wife held court across town.

Deer at the Hendleys

Now the Mistress’s House is the gateway to a great gift to the community. You just never know, I figure.

We start down the street past the Hendleys’, but Greta abruptly changes her mind, turns around, and leads me home. We take the sidewalk, the fast way. We encounter no feline or otherwise furry friends.

It’s not a long walk, but it certainly is a story-filled one. We all know how exhausting stories can be to a tired little hound, one who has to protect a house all day and contend at times with an ornery neighborhood cat.

Greta waits patiently for me to treat her with frozen coins of hot dog once we are safely inside, and then she jumps up on to the couch, paddles down the throw, and snuggles up. I get my book and join her. She puts her heads on my leg and snores; I travel vicariously to Scotland.

We’ll find more neighborhood tales on future days, as we deepen our relations with our neighbors, share their memories, hear their adventures.  It’s one of the perks of coming to such a stopping place: here we can send down our roots, several stories deep.

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

The cover photo on this site shows one of the ponds from Mission Oaks Gardens…

A Frable

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

The Frantastic Family
The Frantastic Family

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

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

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

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

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

“Teach us those songs!” her friblings begged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They began to get ready.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first thing he did was check out their decorations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drano decided Freddie had the only comfortable furniture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah,” said Framma to Frappa.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“An enjoyer,” said Frannie thoughtfully.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frappucina

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

Let Go, Let Go, Let Go

 

 

I open the back door of the Escort, and Ella peers at me from her car seat.  Her eyes well tears; her bottom lip quivers.

“Come on, baby,” I say.  “Let’s go meet the other kids!”

“No, Mama,” she whispers.  I unbuckle the belts and lift her from the car seat.  She clings to me, clamped on, across the crowded parking lot.

Inside, the hallways gleam with back to school brilliance.  Ella’s preschool starts at 9:15, an hour and fifteen minutes after the big kids start regular school, so there is a buzz, a hum, an underlying energy that vibrates in the very floor as we walk down to the preschool classroom.

We are early, but other children are already there.  The smiling teachers, Miss Claire and Miss Betsy, have a tempting array of toys spread enticingly throughout the room.  There are crayons and fresh sheets of drawing paper and books  on each of the small round tables.

“Look, Ella,” I whisper, “there’s Clifford and Emily!”

“No,” she says into my neck.  A brown-haired, bowl-cutted, boy, rubbing his red crayon back and forth on a yellow sheet of paper, looks up briefly and shrugs.

Miss Betsy comes over.  “Good morning, Ella!” she says, and she peels my three year old off my body. “This is going to be a great day,” Betsy tells Ella, “and you will make new friends.”

“NO,” says Ella with great finality as Betsy lowers her to the ground. With startling quickness, Ella is wrapped around my right leg, and she is into full tantrum warm up.  “No mama no mama NO MAMA NO! NO! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” and she is off and wailing.

Betsy looks at me sympathetically and mouths, “Go quickly.” She removes Ella with seasoned dexterity.

“Goodbye, Ella!” I say.  “I will see you at 11!”

I flee, tears starting in my own eyes, rushing out the door on a tidal roar of, “NOOOOOO, MAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAMAAAAAAAAAAAAA!

I stand in the hallway for 30 minutes listening to my child wail, and then I go out to the car and cry for half an hour myself.

***************
I pull the Vibe into the parking lot of the middle school and ruffle Ella’s newly cut hair. She turns to look at me; her twelve year old eyes are bottomless.

“I don’t know, Mom,” she says.  She eyes a couple of other girls meandering up the walkway to the big old brick building.  I know she is checking out their clothes–Did I pick right? she is asking herself.

Her little plaid skirt and long sleeved black top will do.  The other girls have very similar outfits.

“We walked this out,” I remind her.  We had come to the open school two days running and followed her schedule–from home room to math class to English to Gym. She knows how to get to the cafeteria. Her afternoon classes are next door to each other.

We have arrived early so she can get to her locker through hallways that are not tumultuous with first day mayhem.

Her hand is on the door handle, her body tensed.

“You can do it,” I whisper.  “You’ll be great.”

She leans over and gives me a quick, self conscious peck; she grabs her not-yet-full backpack, and she bolts out the door.  Head down, she scurries up the walk.  At the big shiny red door she pauses, hand on the heavy metal handle.  She turns to look at me pleadingly.

She looks suddenly tiny next to the massive door, which must be eight feet high, my big girl shrunken and frightened by this new challenge.  She is all long legs, knobby knees, and tension.

“You can do it,” I mouth, and she shakes her head, almost angrily.  Then she pulls herself up, yanks on the door, and disappears.

I sit there for  moment, leaving my twelve-year-old Ella in a nest of strangers.  She’ll be great, I think.  I pull myself up, an echo from a moment ago, and restart the car.

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

As we are pulling the crisp new blue sheets over the mattress of the bed on the right-hand side of the room–a predetermined arrangement–Abby and her mom Mary come in.  There is hugging and squealing, and the girls dig treasures out of their bags, laughing.

A coffee maker;  I’m learning to drink it!

Oh, very cool–a bagel slicer; we can go to the bakery over on Downing Street on weekends. 

They unpack their clothes neatly, folded things in dressers, hanging things behind the closets’ louvered doors.

They put toothbrushes and soaps, hang towels and washcloths, in the bathroom.

Mary and I hang the curtains we’ve collaborated on, smooth matching duvets, plump up new pillows. We fold afghans over the foot of each bed. The girls flit around, putting books on shelves, supplies on desks, saying tentative hellos to neighbors who poke their heads in to meet them.

This is 210 McHenry Hall: Ella’s new home for the next academic year.  She is 18, still leggy, but the knobby colt-like quality is gone; this is the classy legginess of a young woman.  And this is her dream school; this is where she’ll decide between the physics degree and the writing degree.  She will take her intro physics course, her calculus, her two English classes, and begin determining: Do I want to be a scientist? Or a writer?  Can I do both???

She and Abby, another bright, ambitious, over-achiever, have met twice, corresponded and emailed all summer; she is ready.

But–as Mary and I look around the room, knowing it’s all set, knowing it’s time to go, both girls begin to shimmer just slightly.  I feel Mary doing what just I am doing, girding for goodbye.

We hug our girls hard, we demand that they call that very night.  They roll their eyes,–eyes that threaten to leak.

I pause in the parking lot  as I dig out my keys to the Scion, and look up.  Her face is pressed to the second floor window, a hand flattened on either side.

You can do it, I mouth.  She gives me a thumbs up, peels herself from the window, and I climb into my car and start the ignition.

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

I love Andy; he loves Ella.  He is kind and good and smart and hard-working.  She glows when she looks at him.

She has lived in the city for three years; she is independent and savvy.  But when she emerges, changed from her tulle and lace extravaganza into a beautiful flowy top and tight and trendy jeans for the start of the honeymoon, her eyes are the frightened, sorrowful eyes of my little girl.

I hug her hard, rock her back and forth, make her giggle.

She and Andy open their Jeep doors–my liberated baby is driving; she looks at me long and hard over the roof of the car.

It’ll be great, I mouth, and I see that little shimmer; then she grins and slides inside, and they’re off to begin a marriage.

*********************
They call me when they’re ready to go, and I meet them at the hospital.  Her contractions are three minutes apart; she’s in her fuzzy robe, her long legs hunkered up in the wheel chair, her hands on either side of her big belly.

She breathes like they taught her: Huff.  Huff. Huff.

Andy signs papers and answers questions and a cheerful, motherly nurse pads out in pink and blue patterned scrubs.  The woman at the desk smiles at me and shows me where to sit; the motherly nurse rounds up Andy, deftly turns the wheelchair around, and starts to roll my Ella away.

She cranes her head around, looking for me.  There is panic.  I don’t think I can do this, she telegraphs.

You’ll be GREAT, I telepath back, and she disappears to birth my beautiful granddaughter, mysteriously named Devon after an English river neither Andy nor Ella has ever seen.

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

Ella arrives at my door; she has just taken Devon to her first day of preschool.

“Oh, my God,” she says.  “How did you ever do this?” and she tells me about the teacher peeling her four year old from her leg and shooing her, (Goodby, Mom! We’ll be fine!) out the door, and about standing in the hallway listening to her baby cry for her.

I do all the right things: I smooth her hair, I cradle her cheeks for an instant; I plant a firm kiss on her tensed up brow, and I take her out for coffee.  I tell her stories about her own stubborn little self until she is laughing shakily.

“Does it get easier?” she asks, and I tell her that it does, little by little.  And that Devon is great, so smart, so ready; she’ll do really well.

I don’t tell her everything, though, as I look fondly at my daughter, a mature woman, a wonderful mother, who is right now surreptitiously stealing half of my warm and oozey chocolate chip cookie.

I don’t tell her that I’ve decided each leaving is like having a stitch removed. If the skin is healthy–if the child is ready–it hurts just when  the stitch is pulled.  Sometimes, in fact, it stings like hell, the sudden pain vibrating up and down my body.  But then under the pain, as what was stitched together starts to separate a little bit, I discovered, there is a tiny glowing orb,  a little pearl-like nugget–a little jot of freedom.

I don’t tell her that in a month, Devon will be bolting out of the car, anxious to see her friends, forgetful of the mama dragging in behind her with a Hello Kitty backpack, a Scholastic book order form, and a signed promise to send in two dozen cupcakes for the UnBirthday Party the following week. Or that she will say goodbye and drive off and feel a rush of joy at having two hours to herself,–two hours in which she can take her tablet to the coffee shop and pound the keys in blissful quiet, or–what luxury–when she can take a deep, sucking-in- sleep-like-a-parched-runner-downs-water, nap.

I don’t tell her that each leaving signals a growth in her daughter…and a little more freedom for her, the mama.  She will savor that freedom, feeling a guilty pang for doing so, and she will help her daughter reach and grow and get sturdy and strong.  And each time they say goodbye, she’ll know: Devon is ready for this. She’ll be great.

If I told her this, she’d be brought up short; she’d think, Mom!  You were GLAD when I was gone???

I’ll let her discover the flip side of the leaving on her own.  Right now, I grab her hand, studded with dots of melted chocolate, and we laugh.  It’s these moments, I tell her, the moments between the leavings, that we savor.

You Know, I’m Not From Here, Myself

Image from whatmortgage.co.uk
Image from whatmortgage.co.uk

Some days I remember how true it is that I’m not from here, myself.

I got a fascinating letter yesterday from Clarissa, a former student become fast friend, who has moved to a farm some ways from here. Clarissa was detailing her summer exploits…in which she and her husband harvested and canned and preserved, froze, dried, and dehydrated, an amazing abundance of food.

Clarissa writes about the wonders of fresh eggs, the stupidity of guinea hens, and of drying every last piece of the tomato–skin and seeds and pulp,—then grinding the dry stuff to a powder she adds to soups. She writes about squash and cucumbers and corn (which the coons ate; she had to buy her canning corn in town), about an ancient variety of sweet peppers, and getting the root cellar ready.

And she writes about green beans,— picking them, cooking up messes of them, canning, and sharing them. But there was one sentence I just didn’t understand, so I took the letter into work with me.

Taylor and Andy and May were chatting at the front desk. As it happened, they were talking about eating off the land, which gave me an opening. I said to Taylor, “Hey! What does this mean: ‘The pale beans are going to be shelly beans now.’?”

Taylor gave me that ‘you’re an idiot’ look.

“Gimme that,” she said.

She scanned Clarissa’s beautifully handwritten letter and snorted.

“POLE beans,” she said. “The POLE beans are going to be shelly beans now.”

May and even Andy–who’s from upstate, who just moved here,– both nodded knowingly.

“Shelly beans?” I said. “What’s a shelly bean?”

There was one of those sucked in pauses–one of those pauses that gives you long enough to see the thought bubble settle over someone’s head, and to read, “Can you believe this moron????”–and Taylor said, “SHELLY beans. You know–like you SHELL them???”

Oh. Sure. SHELLY beans. I grabbed my letter and thanked her for her trouble and marched back to my office, which, thankfully, is way back at the far end of things. I folded up Clarissa’s letter and put it in my book bag, and maybe later tonight I’ll get on the internet and look things up and try to understand the point at which a pole bean becomes a shelly bean, and what, indeed, a shelly bean is.

And as I marched away I could hear Taylor explaining to Andy, “She’s not from here.”

It reminded me of another time. Mark and I were at a church event in Mayville, New York, and one of the older ladies was talking about the elephant that the town adopted back, I think, in the 1950’s.

“Wow,” I said–it was quite a story–, “I never knew that before.”

“Well,” she responded, and her voice had that same tone Taylor’s did when she was explaining my ignorance to Andy, “you’re new.”

At the time, I’d lived in Mayville almost eight years.

You shuffle your feet, and you’re destined to be the ‘new kid,’ a transplant no matter how long you’ve been there.

Or, instead of shuffling, you settle back in, and you’re a lifer.

Both have their own little cachets. Or stigmas, depending how you look at it.

I was talking to a man the other day who lives in the house in which he grew up. Bill went away to college, got his degrees, and moved back home. By that time, his parents’ nest had emptied. Bill had married and anticipated, quite rightly, as it turned out, that there would soon be children to fill the four bedrooms. So his parents downsized, and he bought his well-loved home.

He and his wife have transformed that home; it is a showplace, a warm, welcoming, expansive space, totally their own.

And still: the house he grew up in. How would that feel?

Thinking of that, I decided to make a list of homes I’ve lived in. I was very surprised to work it out to be 16. That means I’ve lived in three or more places per decade. That means I’ve spent less than, on average, three and three quarter years in each home.

What does that tell me about my life, my roots, my roosting qualities?

There is someone within hollering distance who remembers when Bill fell asleep on the school bus in kindergarten and rode it all the way to the end of the route. They still talk about his high school football exploits, and three of his four school days girlfriends (he married the fourth one) go to his same church. Bill could probably tell you all about a shelly bean and why the town shuts down when the Buckeyes play on Saturday; he can debate the merits of hot chicken sandwiches vs. pulled pork (and talk knowledgeably about whether the cole slaw goes ON the sandwich or next to it), and explain who our first female mayor was, back in the ’80’s.

My history is a little different. I grew up with friends whose mothers cooked duck blood soup (they pronounced its Polish name “Chi-nee-na,” but I would seriously have to look up the spelling) and pierogis, or spaghetti sauce from tomatoes they grew in their backyards, ladled thickly (some families called that sauce ‘gravy’) over homemade, pillowy ravioli. I grew up knowing it was beef on weck, not beef on “wick,” and I remember when the wing came to Buffalo. I had my sports-heart broken a lot of times.

Our winter talk was about lake effect. OUR storm was the Blizzard of ’77.

Here, they talk about the storm that came in 1978, and there are parking signs that tell you three inches of snow constitutes an emergency.

There’s no one here who remembers the time I got stuck vaulting over the horse in gym class and wound up hanging upside down by my toes–earning myself the forever nickname, from my gym teacher, of “Amazing Grace.” There’s no one who remembers the alcohol-fueled argument I had with the guy in the take out place who insisted on talking about the “Equal RATS Amendment.”

In some ways, being peripatetic is a really good thing.

It’s funny, though. I was a terrifically shy kid; whenever I went someplace new, it took me forever to warm up, a long time to reach out and make friends. So it would make sense if I hated moving, if the door jambs from every place I’d ever left had claw marks dragged into them from where they had to tear me away.

But the first time we moved, when I was in third grade, I remember being really excited. My brothers, who were older and settled into their classes, middle school and high school, were not; they were upset at being made to leave home and friends. I had good friends, too, and I missed them, but I was fascinated by the change from Catholic school to public school, from a homogenous grouping to a more eclectic one.

The next move brought me to a neighborhood where three girls my own age lived within half a city block–what a wonderful place to spend my middle school years. And then my parents moved to the house they’d occupy until they moved into their tiny ‘old age home’ apartment. That house was home for my high school years–where the neighbors would come out and ask me about my season as I swung my wooden Wilson racket down the street, walking to the courts; where Mr. Legier would sometimes drive me to my job at the supermarket when Dad couldn’t take me–in a grandpa car-boat fifty feet long that he drove at a steady 15 miles an hour.

Then I moved–college, apartments, marriage, divorce, apartment, marriage, job changes, law school for Mark, aftermaths. And every move has brought new treasures in friends and place and work and quirky, unique details.

I have lived in the town Mark Twain called a stud farm for idiots. I have lived in the town where the actual one-hour photo machine, used in the Robin Williams movie of that name, wound up being used to develop photos, sometimes in one hour, at the local grocery. I have lived in Paul Lynde’s birthplace, and I live in a place now that has a restaurant/bar built from barn wood taken from Agnes Moorehead’s farm, which is just down the road aways. I have lived, I can say with truth, in fascinating places. I have grown in each of them.

There’s an anchor, though, in my husband’s family, who are firm in the area where we grew up, a magnetic north that pulls us back. We have made our own ‘homeplace,’ and yet, for Mark especially, there are layers to the meaning of ‘home.’

Bill and his wife Allie have traveled all over. They’ve probably been to 35 states; they’ve been to Europe, to Egypt, and they have toured the Far East. But they return each time to where they began. Adventurous, inquisitive, their roots are strong and fast in the place of their births.

We are all needed–the intrepid, sometimes clueless, wanderers, the firmly planted live-at-homes. We need the memory of what has gone by; we need the expectations of what a place should be. Between the two, there’s a tension; the tension holds us up higher, makes us reach collectively for a little better life. Reach to match the wanderer’s expectations. Reach to honor the vision of the ancestors who built.

That’s what I think my work is about, at a wonderful community college where the students range in age from 12, sometimes, no kidding–to, gosh–occasionally, there’s someone taking a class who’s even older than I am. And that’s why little shelly bean jokes will never separate me fundamentally from Taylor, whose passion is in helping others reach their dreams. She grew up with some of those same dreams; she made hers come true, a lot of them; she’s got others that are still waiting to come to life. She’s helping, now, too,  her sweet, funny daughter reach for dreams uniquely her own.

My family’s dream required relocating; it’s been weird and painful and interesting; and it’s been fun and informative and priceless. We think that this place, this time, this fit, allows us to get cozy, to settle in, to let those shallow roots search out a deeper level.

We may be here twenty years from now, established [and old] members of the community.

And if we are, someone will say, after we ask about a story we’ve never heard, or inquire about a person we never met, “Ah, yes. You’re new.”

And I’ll just smile, and agree. It’s true, it really is. I’m not from here, myself.

 

Some names have been altered to disguise the knowledgeable.