…That’s the Way I Spell ‘Success’

(Because I haven’t reached out to the folks or their families, and because the information here’s a little bit personal, I’m altering the names of the real and wonderful people about whom I write.)

*****

My mother, when I was growing up, had herself a frienemy.

Oh, of course, we didn’t call the relationship that then, but that’s what they were, my mom and Thea–frienemies.  I have to think they really, deep down, loved each other–why else would they keep calling, keep visiting, keep plugging away at a relationship that seem to chafe them both?

Thea’s kids were all around the same age as my mother’s own darling offspring, and they were all–sigh–so much BETTER.  They got good grades, and they didn’t get rides home in police cars, and they didn’t rip their pants climbing chain link fences to get out of places where they shouldn’t have been in the first place.  They didn’t roll their skirts up to mini length as soon as they were out of sight of the house. Their breaths didn’t smell suspiciously wine-y or malt-y, never mind a thick overlay of sweet spray mouthwash, after Friday night football games. And they didn’t provoke evening phone calls to parents from school personnel, unless the call was to tell Thea and her husband that their child had earned yet another scholarship, award, or academic kudo.

When the school called our house, the room quickly cleared. My older brothers–oh, they were unfeeling!–would send one of us younger ones back in as sacrificial scouts after the receiver banged back into place.  If the canary stopped singing, those bad boys would stay out of the mine a little bit longer.

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

And, the next day, maybe, Mom and Thea would wind up chatting on the phone, again.  Comparisons would commence.

Thea would call Mom, say, to tell her how wonderfully well parent conferences went, and then she’d ask, with gleeful concern, how Mom had enjoyed hers. Of course, when Thea talked to teachers, she heard things like, “A joy to have in class!”

When my mama went to conferences, she heard…

…Not working up to potential.

…More interested in socializing than in schoolwork.

…Messy.

…Missing work.

…Attitude needs adjustment.

The Mom/Thea kid-comparisons lasted until well after we all left school.  Some of us bumbled around, discovering ourselves.  Some others charted a course, followed it, and quickly secured career advancement.

I leave it to you to guess whose kids did which.

One day–I was teaching middle school at the time–I stopped in to visit mom and interrupted her on the phone with Thea.

“Well,” my mother was sputtering, “well, maybe my kids aren’t all successful.  But at least I think they’re HAPPY!”

She slammed down the phone and turned and smiled at me.  “Coffee?” she asked.

***************
I certainly didn’t debate it with my mother at the time, but her statement has stayed with me all those years.  What IS being a success, after all, if it isn’t being happy?

But happiness shouldn’t be a contest, and, I’m thinking, neither should success. This whole line of thought gets me to pondering the people I’ve known whom  I can honestly and unequivocally call successful.  The trappings that society considers requisite for success don’t really apply.  To be successful, I think, you have to set goals and meet them–or, have the wisdom to know your goals are wrong and change them.  To be successful, you have to be willing to try and fail and try again–and know that failure is a real and potentially permanent possibility.  To be successful, you need to know yourself and to have the courage to stay true to whatever it is that means.

It’s the rare person who does all that consistently.  I don’t always, or even often, reach all those high notes.

But I’ve known folks who have, and did, and do.

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

I knew, for instance, Dan and Jessica, who never bought a single thing on time.  They had seen the world–Dan had been in the service and stationed in Europe. I was so impressed that the little downstairs powder room in their lovely house sported a wooden sign that read, “WC.”

Ah, that’s class, I thought: who in the States calls their half bathroom a water closet? Dan and Jessica had traveled. They’d been there.

They had a houseful of books, a houseful of music, a houseful of art, and a house full of rich conversation.  Dan was the maintenance guy at the little private school where I taught; he was a gifted ‘fixer,’ but never too busy to put down his tool belt to discuss the merits of a poem I’d just lettered on the bulletin board in the hallway.  He was a poet himself, and he crafted odes to celebrate all kinds of events–entries and exits, commencements and commemorations.  I remember his poem to celebrate the first time a goat visited the school, and I remember its historic refrain:

There’s goat doo-doo down in the hall.

Jessica taught; the two of them entertained; they continued to do some traveling; and together they raised three wonderful children.  The first time they ever took out a loan was when the oldest one went off to college. And you can bet those bright, funny, hard-working kids worked their butts off, got and maintained scholarships, and paid back, in giant ways, their parents’ faith in them.

Long after we moved away, we learned that Dan had died, much too young.  But what a lot of living he and Jessica packed into their years together–what integrity and passion.  What laughter, and what fun.

In the Dictionary of Pam, when you look up ‘success,’ you’ll see pictures of Jessica and Dan.

*************
I knew a man named Luke who had absolutely no reason to be happy, and yet he was. Luke was dying from AIDs by the time I met him; he dragged a long and hurtful past behind him.  He’d made mistakes; he’d learned some big things–bigger things than most of us ever have to tussle with.  He’d forged a fierce authenticity in a fire that had raged overly bright.

We met at a soup kitchen run by our church.  I believed in organization and lists and volunteers signed up for shifts.  I believed in meal planning and smart shopping and counting the cost. I believed our hands were the only hands God had on earth–and that we had better keep them washed and busy.

Luke believed–he really, really did–that God would provide, and that a spirit of radical hospitality was more important than counting out the chicken breasts.  It was all, he would assure me, going to work out anyway.

The two of us worked the kitchen together for a couple of years.  We drove each other crazy.  We disagreed on lots of things–but never on the dignity of the people whom we served.

It worked out, as it turned out, really well.

Luke had a tiny apartment a block or so away from the church, which was good because he had no car. He had thrift shop clothes and hand-me-down furniture and he could tell you stories about winters, back during the time he lived in New England, when he couldn’t pay for heat and there was truly and literally nothing to eat in his house.  He hadn’t acquired a whole lot of material goods since those days, but he had learned a deep and abiding faith, and he had come to accept himself. He kept a prayer wall, Luke did, where he wrote, in Sharpie, the names of everyone he cared about and everyone who needed prayer and all the causes he just ached to see resolved.  He could see the lists from his bed; when he felt too sick to get up, he would stretch out and read the names and send up prayers.

And then, a day or two would pass, and Luke would feel better.  He’d get up and come back to church and tell me I was too fussy, the way I peeled potatoes.

Luke bounced back so many times that I just knew, deep in my knowing, that he was going to be around a long, long time.

But of course, he wasn’t.  He died way too young; he died way too soon.  And he died having made a far-rippling impact.  He taught a congregation about acceptance and grief and a kind of hospitality that says I don’t CARE how badly you smell or how funny you talk or whether your filters aren’t firmly in place: it just doesn’t matter. You are welcome here, my friend.

Luke lived his beliefs, stayed true through pain and neglect and deeply wounding sadness, found faith, built family, left us way too soon.  Luke, too: success.

**********

Successful? Hey, I know people.

I know someone, for instance, who works to reunite broken families.  Her methods, which are creative, maybe a little unconventional, are sometimes frowned upon by a canon-bound establishment. But they are compassionate methods, and ones that keep people safe.  They are methods that work. She often celebrates success.

I know a woman, born to wealth, who spent her career educating people to go out and build themselves better lives, and who, in retirement, insures her family’s funds help others.

I know a man who yearned, despite Fate’s other plans, to go to law school; he passed the Bar the week that he turned 50.

I know a school counselor who never gives up on her students–who pours her heart and soul and being into getting them on the path to success.  Sometimes, she has to testify in court. But often, she is dancing at their weddings.

I know a woman who happens to have Stage Four cancer but has never–not for one day–let that define her.

I know a mother who survived the unthinkable suicide of a child; she now works to promote better understanding of mental health issues in young people.

I know a person who, deprived of the opportunity to have a traditional family, opened his arms to lost sheep and lonely souls. He built a family, person by person, heart by heart. It is one of the strongest, most loving family groups I’ve ever seen.

I know people who reach deep into the pits of their gifts and talents, and who bring up treasures clutched in both hands.  They use their words, their music, their ability to teach, their compassion, their parenting skills, their creativity, their movement, their awareness.  They have wrestled with the Meaning Demon long and hard.  They have been victorious.  Their words and sounds and touch and thoughts enrich the lives of those they reach and nurture and respond to.

Still wrestling with the Demon myself, I am blessed with all these role models.  I hope to reach that plateau, that victory platform, where I can join them and say, at last, “Success!”

Right now, I can say, “Working on it.”

But my mother was right. Mostly, and blessedly, I’ve been happy.

*********
I know some other people, too, ones for whom the whole idea of wrestling was too much–the ones who turned away, who settled, who–it seems to me, anyway–gave up.  They are not happy, those ones.  But neither are they doomed.

I firmly believe this: it is NEVER too late. And there is always something you can do.

Success is understanding the hands we’ve been dealt and looking at all the options of playing those cards.  Then it’s picking the option that matches what we know of ourselves and our gifts, our values and our yearnings, and committing ourselves to playing that game, whole of heart and single of mind.

It has nothing–success doesn’t–to do with money or clothes or cars or trappings.  But you can have those and still be successful.

**********

Mom is gone.

Thea is gone.

I stay in touch with one of Thea’s kids on Facebook; she’s out West, but we keep each other informed.  So I know that, in her siblings’ lives, there have been divorces and estrangements, disappointments, arraignments, and muddles.  But they have all come through okay. Their lives might not look exactly like the triumphs they’d envisioned back in the day when Thea and Mom compared notes.  But they are all, my old friend tells me, true and strong and happy.

Ah. So. Competition over.  There is plenty of room on the victory platform, plenty of space for each of us to climb up and grab those sashes and slide them over our heads. The music will pulse; we’ll all be bouncing, hands flailing joyfully, the silky word ‘success’ flared across our chests and bellies.

It’s crowded, that platform, with successful people; they dazzle me with their grins and their dance moves. They inspire.  Wait for me!  I call to them. I think  I’m getting there!

And then I go back to the wrestling.

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The Iron Man Interview

 

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

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.

Reader Girls

 Reading girls

I’m raiding my book blog for a post in this quiet spot of time after a crazy week. But this gives me a chance to show off photos of my beautiful granddaughters, Alyssa and Kaelyn (taken by their beautiful mom, Julie), and one very literary cat.

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Perhaps only a truly discontented child can become as seduced by books as I was. Perhaps restlessness is a necessary corollary of devoted literacy.
—Anna Quindlen, How Reading Changed My Life

She is a pale child with cropped brown hair that’s not always entirely clean or tangle-free. She wears plastic gardening clogs to school; they’re too large, and other children snicker. On the bus, she dives into her book so deeply that she rides until the very end of the route; she is startled when the bus driver, alarmed, speaks sharply to her.

She is a plump girl whose bangs, mother-sheared, are always too short or crooked. She blushes painfully when called upon in class, and stammers when other children try to talk to her. She carries a book everywhere, to restaurants, on car rides. She takes a book to the movies and reads with a pocket flashlight during previews.

She is a tall, proud girl who wears clothes that have important names on the labels. She moves regally through the hallways. When she sits down in the cafeteria and carefully pulls her book out of her bag and opens it to read as she eats her lunch, it is part of her implacable coolness.

She is an angry girl who often sasses the teacher. She grabs her book and carries it to her accustomed seat outside the principal’s office. He has to call her twice, lost as she is in a different world, to come inside and talk about today’s troubles.

She lives in a mobile home court, in a rented house on a nondescript street, in a big house surrounded by sculpted lawns. She lives in an apartment building 17 stories high. She is a known quantity at the public library. Her favorite gift is a book. She has books she re-reads periodically, and sometimes she talks to the characters in her mind.

People say to her:

Get your nose out of that book!
Put that book down and go outside and play!
How can you read in the middle of this mess?
I wish you’d pay as much attention to [fill in the blank] as you do to that book!

For her, people and friends and school and all the stuff that happens at home are the bricks. Reading is the mortar; reading holds all the other things together. And so, in every chink and nook and cranny of time and events, there is a book waiting for her.

Sometimes she is reading two books at the same time. Always, there is a book waiting in the wings. If she doesn’t have a book to read, –if, say, she’s returned her books to the library when it was closed, so she couldn’t get a replacement,–she knows true, deep, painful anxiety.

She is a reader girl.

Alyssa and The kitty with their books

Some girls love horses; some love clothes; some have to be surrounded by friends and action all the time. Reader girls know that covers of books AREN’T covers; they are doors. Reader girls open those doors and enter other worlds as often as they can.

It is not that they are abused (although, sadly, some are.) It is not that they have families who neglect, ignore, or misunderstand them–although, sadly, of course some do. It is not that things are so grim (always) that they need to escape.

It is just that she has, whoever she is–fat, thin, rich, poor, any of a rainbow range of colors–an undeniable urge to know, to find out, to live for a while in that other world.

Kaelyn reading

She reads, depending on her generation and inclination, Anne of Green Gables, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, all of Jane Austen. She reads every single book in a series, in order, if she can swing it–Nancy Drew, Babysitters Club, Boxcar Children. She reads Harry Potter and Hunger Games. She reads random books by little known authors and she reads Little Women and the compiled works of Edgar Allen Poe. She reads about saints and she reads about vampires. She reads, later, Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary and Fifty Shades of Grey.

Her reading may go underground after puberty forces a transition, but her purse will be bulky enough to hold a book, or her tablet will have a reading app, and she will carry it with her everywhere.

She may be older, but she is still a reader girl.

One of my favorite reader girls, my beautiful granddaughter Alyssa, reading her favorite book, The Art of Racing in the Rain.
One of my favorite reader girls, my beautiful granddaughter Alyssa, reading her favorite book, The Art of Racing in the Rain.

She grows up to be a teacher, and she cleverly strives to inculcate a love for literature in even the hardest cases. She becomes a librarian who glories in the visits of the tough little reader girls in her branch’s hard-bitten neighborhood. She becomes a talk show host, starts a book club, and encourages a nation to love books, re-awakening reader girls who’d fallen asleep to the printed word.

She becomes a writer, snaking her words out to other reader girls.

She becomes a tired waitress, who nevertheless reads to her children every single night.

Does she find it–that thing she is always looking for, every time she opens a new door and enters a new world? Does she overcome the discontent, so that she lets go of books, relegating them to things of childhood?

Or does she conduct life with book in hand, stirring soup, rocking children, writing grants, ringing up orders? Does she make her commute bearable with audio books; is the reward at the end of the day thirty minutes of quiet, soaking in the tub with a book?

It is not that she is unhappy or discontented or deprived (although each of those things, in some cases, may be true.)

Her brown hair may now be sleekly groomed, her footwear sleekly Italian, and she may spend her days in contentious courtrooms requiring her full engagement.

Her body may have stretched and thinned; she may have learned the joys of swinging a racket, pounding a track (although her solitary runs probably involve an IPod and a recorded book).

She may have a genial and interesting partner waiting at home.

Her work may be compelling and satisfying; her friends may be many, and her interests legion. Her children may have shining faces and accomplishments to make her beam with pride.

But the urge to open that door and plunge into that other world still throbs. If she doesn’t have a book in progress, she’d better have one in the wings, or she is fidgety and anxious. Her life’s structure still includes regular library visits; she shops for books almost as often as she picks up groceries.

She is happy, she is successful, she is miserable; she is yearning. She is healthy, she is ailing; she is 35; she is 59; she is 87.

It doesn’t matter. She is, still and always, a reader girl.

Martin’s House of Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She wondered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tales told to strangers

The receptionist called her son. She picked up her book–Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch–and settled in to read. This was a week with a house full of guests, and this was a book she’d been longing to read. The hour of wait time while her son saw the therapist seemed heaven-sent.

Sun poured through the windows on both sides of the waiting room, and she moved to another chair, against the wall facing the reception desk. There was only one other wait-er, and he was facing the windows.

But when she moved, he turned to face her and said, Yes. The sun.

It was, she knew, choice time. She could smile, tightly and politely, open up her book and end the conversation. Or she could swing the door open a little wider and let him talk.

She said, I can’t complain about the sun after all the rain we’ve had.

His face relaxed and he began to tell her about his garden. She studied him, and Humpty Dumpty came to mind. Not because he was fat–he was tall and rangy, long white arms emerging from the gray sleeves of a t-shirt emblazoned with a local high school’s emblem, long white knobby-kneed legs emerging from gray knit shorts. But his head, face and scalp, was absolutely hairless, oval and shiny.

He shinnied as far as he could to the side of his chair, put his elbows on his legs and clasped his hands. He leaned toward her, and spilled a torrent of information about his corn and zucchini. He told her about making his own bruschetta with every damned thing from his own garden, which was something, he’d tell you, his kids loved but couldn’t be bothered to do themselves. His wife–

Here he stopped to explain that she was in seeing the therapist. They’d just come, he said, from the emergency room. Couple days ago, she was sewing and she poked herself a good one. Didn’t tell him though. And then this morning the thumb was as big as his chin, and tight and hot.

So the emergency room doc took one look and he lanced it wide open, and you would not believe the stuff—

She moved sharply here, and he veered. The wife, he said, was sensitive, and after all that, she couldn’t stop crying, and so he’d brought her here, and they was going to get her calmed down.

And where, he asked, do you buy your meat?

Well, she said, startled, we watch the sales and go to several different places.

Well, he replied, don’t be going to Kroger. That meat ain’t no good. Now Campbells, that’s the place to go, or even Mattingly’s–you can get a rib eye at Mattingly’s some weeks for 4.89.

The trick to it, he said, is to marinate. And the marinade has to have something sweet, something sour, something oily. His kids–they love it when he grills.

This other day, he tried something different, he said, and he sluiced his eyes at her, wondering maybe how she’d take this bit. He had a friend ’bout twenty miles north whose truck had a problem, and he himself was a good hand with fixing an engine, so his friend asked him to come take a look.

Well, this friend makes his own shine, Humpty confided, and the problem with the truck seemed to be that someone had maybe drove it into a ditch, and maybe that someone’d been drinking his own shine and didn’t want anyone to know he’d been driving under the influence.

He was able, he said, to get the truck running pretty good again, and his friend gave him a pretty good payment, and he sent him home with a good jar of shine. And by the way, ma’am, do you know how to tell if shine is safe to drink?

He cocked his shiny head toward her and she shook hers slightly. Looking pleased, he said, Well, here’s what you do. You take a little capful of the shine and pour it on the ground. Then you throw a lighted match on it.

If it burns blue, why you’re good to go. If it burns yellow, don’t you drink that shine–it’s poison.

His friend’s shine was good, though, and he made himself a moonshine marinade.

Trying new things, he allowed, was good, and his daughter had a website–write this down, he told her, or remember it so you can check–MissyDelishy. She got all these great recipes for marijuana. Yes! He learned about that from his daughter; she made brownies and chili and marijuana butter–

Mom? said her son. Ready to go?

She picked up her book and held her hand out to the man. He shook it, half-standing up.

As she turned to leave, he said, his voice almost pleading, I’m only 51, you know.

They walked to the car, opened the doors to stifling heat. As she ramped up the air conditioning, her son asked, Why’d he tell you how old he was?

I’m not sure, she said, thoughtfully, but I think he wanted to know there was enough time left.

Left for what? her son asked.

That I don’t know, Buddy, she answered. They headed home to their company, the unopened book resting on the back seat.

********

The Motor Vehicles Bureau was jam-packed. Normally, she’d just renew by mail, but the way the pays fell this month, it was better to show up in person and renew her registration. She took a number and found an empty place against the wall at the end of a bank of seats.

A boxy woman with sawed off hair and steely glasses was in the last seat, one leg pumping anxiously. She had a brown jacket in her lap; on the jacket was a badge with a garage’s logo, and the name ‘Enid’ was stamped beneath.

I never had to do THIS before, Enid told her. I always come in and took care of it, but this time, they tell me I gotta have my husband with me. Truck’s in his name. So I called him, told him to get his ass down here. Now I’m just waiting. Soon’s he comes, I get back in line and you can have my seat.

Enid paused, and then snorted. My business, she said, is towing unregistered vehicles to the police compound. Guess it wouldn’t do to be driving an unregistered truck.

Enid contemplated that for a minute, and then heaved herself out of the chair. There’s the old goat now, she said. You sit. You got you a wait.

She sat down and put her book on her lap, and the woman next to her turned and said, Can you BELIEVE this? I just come down to get my husband’s motorcycle registered. I didn’t expect to be here an hour. I just got out of work,– and she gestured, Vanna-like, to her flowered scrubs. She had a name tag that said, ‘Ana B’.

I work, Ana B. said, couple days at a rehab for old folks. It’s not bad, and I like the old folks. They remind me of my mother, before she passed. And hey, she said, a little fiercely, we all need someone when we get up there, right?

Ana B was probably pushing 60, she thought. Her husband, standing so the women could sit, came over to check on her. Gray cropped buzz cut, pale eyes behind rimless glasses, he leaned over her. Want anything, Mother? he asked. Need a drink?

No, no, Ana B told him, shooing him away; don’t fuss.

That man, she said to Ana B, clearly adores you.

Ana B paused, then, Yes. Yes he does, she allowed. It’s been a tough row, and so I’m glad he can get him a bike. Last time he had one was before the babies, so that was almost forty years now.

They had five girls, and they were all doing okay. But the baby–he was a boy, and he was right around 21, and he was–Ana B turned to her, and her eyes were bottomless–that boy is rotten. I’m not kidding. He is ROTTEN, she said, and she shimmered with sorrow.

They lived in the city, Ana added, and she was a city girl, but their place burned down and the insurance only paid them enough to rent an apartment down by the train terminal, and they would wake up in the night to gunfire. Pimps and hookers, drug deals on the corner, she said, and every day it seemed, one of the kids would be there: Can I borrow twenty bucks? And they were soft touches, both of them; they’d dole it out.

We got sick of it, said Ana B, and we looked around and bought us 85 acres out in the country. No neighbors, no gun shots, no drugs. And when the kids call to ask for money, she says sure. Come out here and get it.

And they say, MOM. It would cost me thirty dollars to drive there. And Ana B says, Oh, honey. Better not, then.

That’s a big change, she said, city to country. Do you like it?

Ana B was thoughtful again, patting her long hair–wavy lengths of gray, brown, blonde and white, behind her back. I cried every night for two months, she said. And then I thought I’d try a garden. You have a garden? That garden saved me. I love my garden.

92? shouted a clerk, and she held up her ticket, got up, and wished Ana B the best. The husband, seeing her rise, inched over to sit next to his wife. He grabbed Ana B’s hand.

Think of us, Ana B said, whizzing down those country roads on this man’s new toy.

—-

After dinner, dishes done, guests snug in the family room watching The Grand Budapest Hotel on DVD, she grabbed her IPod, pulled on her sneakers, and went out for a walk. But she pulled the ear buds out before the first song played, needing the quiet, needing to let the voices of strangers play out in her mind.

Her husband sometimes joked that she should have ‘Sap’ tattooed on her forehead.

People, he’d say, will tell you any damned thing.

She thought about that, about the tales told to strangers in a waiting room. Crazy stories, sad stories, stories that made her want to laugh, ask questions, give advice–although that was not what the tellers wanted or needed.

She thought about the rotten son, about MissyDelishy’s website.

And then she put her earbuds back in and headed out for a vigorous walk.

 

The Carrying of Cookbooks

Streusel topped muffins

This cool and foggy May Sunday morning, I’m baking streusel topped muffins to warm us up. The recipe (a coffee cake recipe; I prefer to use a good coffee cake recipe to make my muffins) is from what we call ‘the new cookbook’–a version of the red-checkered Better Homes and Gardens recipe book. My sister-in-law Mary gave me my first copy when I first got married way back in the early eighties; that copy lasted until about 1994, when my husband and sons got me the latest edition for Christmas. Jim, who was four then and very literal, dubbed it the new cookbook because of its recency, not its title. Twenty years later, when we’re discussing where to find a recipe, we might say, “That one’s in the new cookbook,” and the seeker will know to go grab that twenty-year-old book.

I read a fable once about a man who drowned because he refused to let go of a trunk filled with his prized possessions. And I’m on board with that; our things should not own us. Every so often, I go into purge mode and really think: do I need this? Does this add anything to my life? Would anyone be at a loss if I got rid of this? Have I used this within the past year?

And so blouses that I like but will probably never wear again, books that were mind-opening when I was 32, jewelry with broken clasps, scented candles, tape players,–they all land in a box for the thrift store. I have cookbooks on my shelf, however, that I’d be hard-pressed to let out of my grasp, even as the waters swirled around my ankles.

My Betty Crocker cookbook holds together with packing tape; it has a pie chart photo on the front featuring, among other culinary treats, a fondue pot full of pale orange stuff. My brother Sean and I bought that book for my mother in the very early seventies; we bought it with money saved from baby-sitting and paper routes, and when Mom opened it, she blurted, “No! You spent TOO MUCH!”
We were so proud; that was Mom-speak for, “What an incredible thing!” The Betty Crocker Cookbook was Mom’s cooking bible, and her old version came out just past World War II. We knew we had given her a gift she would cherish and use, and when it came to me after her death, the cover was already wobbling apart. I used it enough to seal the separation and the packing tape came out.
I make the recipe for Hungarian Goulash in this volume; it’s a recipe I met under the name ‘Beef Paprika’, and that’s what we still call it. A dear friend, Pam Hall, fixed it for a dinner party when we were running with the same crazy post-college crowd, and my companion then and I fell in love with it. It was a recipe that Pam’s mom, a truly gifted cook, was testing for the Betty Crocker kitchens. It’s re-named Hungarian goulash, in Mom’s cookbook.
Pam is gone now, too, and I never follow that recipe without thinking of her openness and generosity; nor do I ever use the book without memories of meals at my Mom’s. (And…I love the picture of Betty Crocker on the back of the book; she had been revamped for the Women’s Liberation movement of that day, and sports a smooth page boy haircut and an ascot type collar. She looks as if she could be bringing home the bacon before cooking it up in pan…)

From that same era, I have a slim paperback volume, Betty Crocker’s Dinner for Two Cookbook. That was a wedding shower gift from another dear friend, Sharon, a high school friend who stayed close during college. We lost the reins of friendship after that, but I still think of her fondly whenever I gently open this aging book. One section talks to young couple-cooks about stretching a budget; I used those recipes a lot. I still make the ham and bean skillet fairly regularly, and there’s a concoction made from leftover ham, cheddar cheese, and Bisquick–Bisquick’s big in a lot of these 1970’s recipes—and sprinkled with sesame seeds that’s a nice side with a steaming bowl of soup.

Last month, there was a potluck at Mark’s work for a departing colleague; most people signed up to bring a dish, but Mark was tapped by his colleague Debbie to bring what we call ‘Lee Brothers.’ It’s a mac and cheese recipe from a book that my darlin’ niece Meg gave me–The Lee Brothers’ Southern Cookbook. There they are on the cover–Matt and Ted Lee, their waists about as big around as the circumference of my knee–and I turn the page to find recipes with no regard whatsoever for modern diets and cholesterol concern. The mac and cheese recipe is actually listed under vegetables, with the argument that school cafeterias always considered macaroni and cheese a vegetable side.
The dish calls for whole milk, lots of cheddar and Swiss cheese, butter…it is oozey and fattening and totally wonderful. (How do those Lee boys stay so thin? Do they EAT their own cookin’???) For the potluck, Mark mixed it up the night before and rolled it into the crockpot, letting it cook on low all morning at work. There were no leftovers to worry about when he brought the crock pot home. (This recipe, by the way, is easily available via a quick Web search; I needed it just post-move when cookbooks were still packed away, and opted for the easy route.)
I also favor the Lees’ recipe for Hoppin’ John at New Years’ time.

Meg, like the Lees, is now a South Carolinian, and she gave me, also, Baked by Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito. Lewis and Poliafito opened their first bake shop/cafe in Brooklyn, but they followed it, I believe, with one in Charleston; when I visited Meg, we visited that (no longer run by the founders, but still–quite, quite yummy.) This book yields the closest recipe I can find to Starbuck’s Reese’s cup cookies. I can’t find those cookies in any of the Starbucks in this area of Ohio; I insist on braking for Barnes and Noble stores in New York and PA–not a hard sell with my boys–on the off chance of finding my favorite cookie in their attached cafe’s—and usually my luck holds. Meanwhile, I strive to re-create those cookies in my kitchen; Baked offers a pretty darned good approximation in its peanut butter cookie recipe.

Mark gave me a chicken cookbook, the Reader’s Digest Great Chicken Dishes, when we lived on Orchard Street; its chicken corn chowder recipe was a great thing to cook when in the law school years, with hungry young law students visiting for meals. (Mark’s young classmate, Todd, used to pass him notes in the midst of challenging class sessions. “I’m hungry; I need soup,” the note might say, or, “I like chicken corn chowder.”)

I have a stack of those little fund-raiser compilation books with the plastic spiral bindings; they yield the best recipes for things like no-bake cookies, Buckeye-style Rice Krispy bars (corn syrup and peanut butter instead of marshmallow; a topping of melted chocolate chips; these don’t last long on my counter), and never-fail pie crust. I go to Julia Child for roast chicken (and one of these years, she’s going to show me how to make French bread). My Joy of Cooking helps with everything from how long to cook a roast of beef to a reliable recipe for raspberry bars. And Alice Waters’ Art of Simple Cooking is my go-to for risotto; my homemade broth is forever enriched by her technique of roasting the bones and veggies before immersing them in a deep, long simmer.

I also have notebooks full of recipes clipped from newspapers and magazines or printed from the Internet; my son Jim helps me organize these by numbering pages and creating tables of contents. This is where Mark’s parents’ recipe for “Dom’s Mom’s Meatballs” resides and my sister-in-law Mary Ann’s directions for Buffalo Wing Dip, along with a classic cheesecake recipe that can’t be beaten and Louise Pelletter’s directions for a long-simmering red sauce.

I suppose I could add my favorite recipes from each of the cookbooks I’ve mentioned; type them out, save them to a thumb drive, print out a copy and paste them in a notebook. That would be efficient, maybe.

But I am not so interested in efficiency in this process.

Everyone once in a while my Jim, who is a lover and a maestro of lists, will sit down with a cookbook and start listing recipes we should try. So we will experiment, say, with parmesan crusted chicken–very, very delicious-or pepperoni bites, a classic seventies appetizer treat. Our repertoire, getting just a little bit stale, expands.

And my cookbooks give me the sense of continuity, of gifts, not just of the physical book, but of the tastes of the giver, and their care for my well-being. The cookbooks I’ve gifted to myself give me the sense of the passing on of important techniques and processes–a true home-making tradition not limited to an age or a gender, but an essential part of any life. I like to open and savor them; I like to read the intro’s and anecdotes.

I have worked with young people immersed in strong passed-down traditions; I have worked with young people whose lives don’t have the shape and the girding this kind of passing-down provides. I feel for that second group, having been lucky enough to have both, the passing down of lore from family and friends, and the acquiring of new traditions along the way. But I know that, with caring friends and personal curiosity, good stuff can be shared, and traditions can be begun.

That’s why my cookbooks travel with me. I’d let go of their trunk if I had to choose between them and the deluge.

But it wouldn’t be easy.

Musing About Food and Cooking, Again: Apron Memories

Quick—who and what first comes to mind when you think of an apron?

I’m thinking about aprons because Terri Mercer, in her role as executive director at a very special organization called First Step, sponsored an activity, asking folks to write and share their apron stories. Terri challenged us, on Facebook, to think of our own apron memories.

(First Step, by the way, addresses domestic violence, but its practice is unique. It works with men as well as with women and children, looking at the family as a unit. It employs female and male counselors. It was the first program in Ohio to design and build a shelter to meet its clients’ needs, rather than trying to adapt a house. It was one of the first organizations to help males who were victims of domestic violence, too. Ground-breaking, brave, fascinating work–I shouldn’t be at all surprised that this organization has fascinating workshops and activities. I discovered they have a great website, too, if you’d like to take a look: http://firststepweb.org.)

But. Aprons.

I am a lover of metaphor, and aprons, in my lifetime, have been a metaphor. In my earliest days, in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, every woman needed an apron. As I grew into young adulthood, and the movements of the ’60’s and ’70’s rocked and changed our world, aprons began to symbolize ties to an unfair bondage–as in ‘Untie your apron, Sister, and fling it aside! Embrace your independence!’ I picture a woman going in one door wearing an apron, and coming out the other in a pinstriped suit, her rolling pin traded for a briefcase.

And now…at least in my life, at this stage, aprons are back–not a symbol of a return to some kind of domestic drudgery, but as a badge of practical, protective warmth and nurture.

I remember ratcheting into my mother when I was very young, three or so, short enough that my head bounced against her apron. It must have been a Sunday; I clearly remember Mom’s dress, one I loved–navy blue with white dots, long sleeves and white collar and cuffs. It was classy, and it was protected by an apron because she was, no doubt, cooking Sunday’s chicken dinner.

I got a swat for my careening, and a revelation–bouncing off Mom on Sunday was like bouncing off a basketball. The apron hinted at softness, but underneath, all was firm and bouncy at the same time. It was Sunday, so of course Mom had on her panty girdle. It held up her stockings; it held in her stomach.

Mind you, I don’t think my 5’4″ mother ever tipped the scale at more than 125 pounds in her life; she was not (unlike, sadly, her daughter) in need of that kind of restraint. But girdles and aprons were part of a woman’s wardrobe, and that was what she wore.

I think the panty girdle is a much better symbol of a time when women were tightly conscribed than an apron ever was.

My mother made her aprons, mostly, cranking them out on an old Singer treadle machine, a machine outdated already in my childhood. She said she liked it because it could handle heavy duty jobs, like patching the knees of our jeans. I suspect she liked the ease of it and that it was a piece of furniture, always ready. Unlike a portable electric machine, the treadle didn’t have to be dragged out of a closet, set up on the dining room table, taken down again in time for dinner. Projects in ‘mid-sew’ could be left on the treadle and returned to when a hole opened in a busy household schedule.

Mom’s aprons were of the lap variety, tying in the back, covering from waist down to knees. She made the ties of one color, and the rest from bright prints. She added matching or contrasting pockets. Her aprons were colorful and fun.

I, of course, did not like them then; I wanted a full body apron, one you had to stick out both hands to slide over your shoulders. My Aunt Annie wore that kind. My mind’s eye sees her in a blue calico print apron with navy blue trim–whether that’s an apron Aunt Annie ever owned or one embroidered by memory, I’m not sure.

We moved from my comfortable little home town to the grindy little city next door when I was in fourth grade, and for a time, nothing–especially me–seemed to fit. I remember the art teacher in my new public school telling me to bring in an apron for art class. I brought in one of Mom’s half aprons.

“What’s THIS?” the teacher asked, holding it up by its waist tie, and then, seeing my crestfallen look, she backed off. She got me an old shirt and had me put it on backwards. It was soft with age and covered with paint splots; it smelled of talented, oil-based, creation, I thought. I folded up the apron and put it away at school. At the end of the year, I took it home, unused. My mother washed and ironed it, and used it again immediately.

In junior high home economics, we made our own aprons. Mine was clumsily sewn, but I liked the colors and the style.

And then came high school. I walked into high school in a carefully selected skirt and blouse, with panty hose (still, at that time, a fairly recent innovation) squinching my waist, Mary Janes on my feet, and a purse that matched my outfit slung over my shoulder.

I walked out of high school four years later in torn jeans so long my heels walked wear spots in them, wearing a faded army jacket, and carrying a backpack. Why would I need an apron? My classmates predicted jokingly that I’d take over the reins of Cosmopolitan from Helen Gurley Brown.

Stuck in the kitchen? Please. I had, you’ll excuse the expression, bigger fish to fry.

Funny, though, how Life turns around and smacks one in the head–sometimes with a nice, nerf-y bat, and sometimes with something a little bit firmer.

I will not, I proclaimed, teach or type for a living–I will not be stuck in a job reserved for women by a patriarchal society. I will not go willingly into that oppressive female ghetto.

Five years after college graduation, I was happily teaching middle school Language Arts at a wonderful little intercity parochial school. During term breaks I painstakingly typed final exams on my portable Olympia typewriter, index finger stroke by index finger stroke, for other teachers and for extra money.

But I still didn’t have an apron.

Well, I did have one, but I never wore it for cooking. It was a gift from a friend so close to the family she could have been an aunt, Mrs. Mary Muench; she sewed the apron in a tiny flower print in shades of peach and brown. It fell below my knees and tied around my waist, and was so dress-like it covered my butt in the back. It had ruffles around the bodice, and it looked like a GunnySack dress. I loved GunnySack dresses, and I wore Mrs. Muench’s apron like a funky tunic.

In those days of trendy handmade and repurposed clothing, I could wear that beautiful apron over jeans and a deep brown turtleneck and look like I was making a fashion statement. I would not have dreamed of getting food splatters on that beloved garment.

So there I was, in my ‘second wave of feminism’ passion, teaching school and typing; then I married Mark and cooking joined the list of darned-near daily occupations. We had a close galley kitchen in our first house with an enormous old seventies brown earth-tone stove. In that tight space, on that vintage appliance, I cooked family meals and company meals, baked birthday cakes and everyday cookies, experimented with wondrous dishes like eggplant pizza and a haphazard quiche or two for the real men in my household.

I will not be chained to the kitchen, I allowed, and then I enjoyed the artistic and creative challenge of trying to take our budget and stretch it to feed a family with tasty, attractive dishes. Not owning a single item of daily worn clothing that couldn’t be thrown in the washer, no apron was needed.

Matt grew toward teenager-hood; Jim was born. Time flew. We moved, and moved again. We invited family and friends to celebrate milestones, and I did a lot of cooking on those celebration days and washed a lot of dishes. I remembered my brother Denny, always man enough to help, shlepping into my kitchen on Orchard Street and starting the water for a sinkful of suds.

“Got an apron?” he asked, and I didn’t; he wound up tucking a dishtowel around his waist.

Fast forward to today; if Denny were here now (and how I wish he was!) I could offer him a choice of aprons. Now, Crisanne, with whom I work–although she will retire this summer–has a gift of cloth creation, and thanks to Cris, I have an everyday apron and a holiday apron. They are things of beauty, but I don’t hesitate to let them be splattered with food.

I still spend a lot of time in the kitchen. In fact, when I done with this essay, I am going to try a new recipe in my quest to make a peanut butter cookie as tasty as the ones I can get at Starbuck’s in Erie, PA–a Reese Cup cookie that I really do go far out of my way for–and that the Starbucks in Ohio don’t seem to carry. But today, in 2014, it is trendy to be ‘cook-y’, to think about the food we eat, to craft our meals from fresh ingredients.

Feminism–in its third? fourth? wave– has embraced nurturing…with the stipulation that men can do it, too. It’s okay to cook and bake and play with grandkids, to plan and execute company dinners, to sew, and to decorate tastefully. It’s okay to focus on home.

Of course, all those things always were okay; we may have done them apologetically; we may have gone about them in a clandestine way; but we never once considered not doing them. And the apron is the perfect metaphor for that, so ever present in the fifties and sixties; lost or hidden in a drawer during the social revolutions of the last part of the 20th century; proudly rediscovered in these latter days.

Terri’s simple challenge–tell us your apron stories–delves deep.

I’ll bet you have an apron story, maybe about the early sensory memory of cookies baking and a warm lap; about your first cooking experience; of hefting that turkey out of the oven the very first time you plated a Thanksgiving dinner. Is there, in a drawer somewhere, an apron sewn by hands so dear to you that you just can’t part with it at all?

Oh, here’s to our aprons; to the meals and memories we’ve shared; to the meals and memories yet to come.

Sacrifice and Celebration–different definitions

The sun is pouring through my dining room window as I write this in the early morning of Easter 2014–a glorious sun, like a metaphor, like a proof.  The season of sacrifice is over, and the day of celebration has arrived.

I made my pig-picking cake this morning, and we feasted on that for breakfast; there is Anthony-Thomas chocolate waiting on the counter. In an hour or two, we’ll get in the car and drive for five hours to the home of Mark’s parents, and we’ll feast again, on traditional Easter noshes provided by Mark’s brother and sister-in-law, Thomas and Susan.

Lent is over; the season of sacrifice is over.  But I keep thinking about some young men I met recently.  Their time of sacrifice seems to roll on and on.

We were putting together, at the College where I work, a workshop called ‘Dealing with Challenging Classroom Situations,’ and planning what topics to cover: What to do when a student is hostile, or helpless, or rude or distracted.  How to proceed when a student stops coming to class or shares dire information about a family situation.  What actions to take when a student really seems to need accommodations but refuses to seek them, or conversely, says s/he needs them, but doesn’t have the paperwork to support the claim.

We were talking about which campus experts could best cover which topic when my young colleague Heather made a suggestion.

“Why,” she said, “don’t you talk about about returning veterans in the classroom?”

So that’s exactly what we did.  Heather, who is one of our outstanding veterans’ support officers, gave us some scenarios, dug up grant money for refreshments and door prizes, and found three student veterans, all young men, to serve as resource people.

We set up the panel discussion in a ‘speed-dating’ format, so the participants, in small groups, spent fifteen minutes talking to each of five sets of ‘experts’.  When the whistle blew (or in this case, when the screaming monkey doll flew to the center of the floor), each group moved to the table to their left, and a new discussion.

There was great information being shared from the Advising Center, from Disability Services, from the Student Success personnel who help track down the absentee student.  But what the student veterans had to say impressed people the most. They didn’t talk about their service, except to tell us where they’d served–one in Kuwait, one in Afghanistan, one in Iraq.

“How was it?” someone asked, clumsily.

There was a pause, and then–I’m making up these names–Kurt said, “It was hot.”

Steve added, “It was really hot.”

And Bill agreed.  “You’ve never seen hot like that hot.”

And that was the extent of their comments on active duty.

(It reminded me of the only time I’d ever seen my father get truly, white-edged angry. We were at a family-style picnic and an acquaintance of my dad’s was holding forth on World War II.

“I saw my buddies die on either side of me,” the man said.  “I’ll never forget how it sounded. I’ll never forget the smell of battle.”

Not long after the man started expounding, my parents bundled us into the old Buick, and we headed home.  But before he started the car, Dad–who never got mad, and very seldom used any kind of vulgar language–said, “That horse’s ass was a typewriter jockey.  He never left the States.”

He added, “If you’ve been there, you don’t talk about it.”)

What the student veterans did tell us, though, was about the difficulties they encounter transitioning from active duty into the classroom. They don’t like to sit with their backs to a room’s only entry.  They are there to learn, and they are really bothered when other students goof off, are rude, or disrespect an instructor.

Kurt told a story about a classmate who, asked to pull something up on a computer screen, displayed a vulgar and distasteful picture.

“The instructor turned beet-red, but tried to play it down,” he said.  “She said, ‘Oh, I think you got one of those annoying pop-ups.’  I wish she would have told her, though.  I wish she would have kicked her out.”

They talked about the conditions they brought back from war matter-of-factly.

“I let all my instructors know that I might have to leave the classroom when my PTSD kicks in,” said Steve.  “They’ve been good.”

They talked about wounds to limbs and wounds to brains.  Traumatic Brain Injury was a common enough circumstance to warrant its own acronym–TBI.

And they talked about their struggles in the classroom.  Most times, they said, a vet won’t complain.  He or she will just cope, or if that doesn’t work, drop the class.

Should we ask veterans to identify themselves in the classroom? an instructor asked.

The young men looked at each other.

If it’s relevant, they agreed.  If the class is talking about war, or the military, or a Middle Eastern country, of course, ask if anyone’s been there and done that.

But to recognize vets and say thank you?  Not so much, they said.

They just want to get their degrees, move on, and get jobs.  They’re not looking for praise or gratitude or recognition.  Just make it possible for us, they told us, to get this job done.

After the workshop, a participant said, “Boy, give me twenty four students like THAT in my classroom.”

Amazing, we all agreed. But it was a perilous and overly costly course for these young men to reach their points of extreme maturity.

Much of what the young vets said–and one looked young enough to be a high school senior–nagged at me.  I went home and did some research, and what I found isn’t very ‘feel-good’ information.

An article in the Huffington Post (3/19/13), tells me the transition back to civilian life is fraught with hardship.  Unemployment for post-9/11 vets is higher than the national average.  Medicine, the article said, is making it possible for veterans to survive with catastrophic injuries–or, to be blunt, wounds that not so long ago would have killed the veteran are being treated successfully, and people are returning to civilization a different form of themselves–missing limbs, brains irreparably damaged or changed,–and they are expected to get back to normal life.

In 2010, the article stated, 22 returning vets committed suicide EACH DAY, and 228,875 vets who served in the Middle East conflicts had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Homelessness among returning vets, according to the Huffington Post, was still way high, but getting a little better.  At the same time, veterans’ education benefits were being suspended by several branches of the military.

I got on the Wounded Warrior website and reviewed the results of their survey of the veterans who, returning with one of those catastrophic injuries and looking to the program for help, had offered their insights. Depression and PTSD hover around 75 per cent for this group; they have sleep issues, and their energy is low, and many state that they require the assistance of another person or program to get through the day. It’s an eye-opening report; if time allows, you may want to look it up.

What can we do?  The best I’ve been able to come up with is to create a place where we can comfortably talk. In a kind of accidental serendipity, and because of Heather’s outreach, the workshop provided that.  It opened my eyes, and the eyes of my colleagues. I’m proud to work at a College with an official “Veteran Friendly” designation, proud of my colleague Heather and the wonderful work her office does.

This Easter morning unfolds, and my silly little sacrifices–no chocolate, no soda pop, no noshing after dinner–come to an end. There ought to be a different word for that kind of giving up, a smaller, less consequential word, than the one used to describe what the young veterans we talked to gave up in their active duty tours.

I hope, on this day of celebrating new life, that each of them can find that, can move beyond the nightmares of the memories they’ll never share to a future that is rich in achievement and joy.

So here’s my prayer this Easter season: Lord, help returning veterans find a place where life holds joy and promise again. And help us end this fighting, in a swift, just, and compassionate way, so no more young people have to make this transition.  Amen.