Getting Rid of the Slotted Spoon

Sometimes you have to let everything go – purge yourself. If you are unhappy with anything – whatever is bringing you down – get rid of it. Because you will find that when you are free, your true creativity, your true self comes out.—Tina Turner

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Early one morning, I find my vintage slotted spoon on a clean white napkin. Mark had hand-washed it the night before and rested it, on the counter by the sink, on the snowy cloth.

When I pick the spoon up, there is a seeping copper stain on the napkin. I can’t ignore this fact: my old slotted spoon is rusting.

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I’ve had that spoon a long time…a really long time. I’ve had it since my first, ill-advised marriage fell apart, when I was very young and completely unprepared for, and ignorant of, the buffeting life planned for me.

Back there, in my early twenties, I thought that divorce was the worst kind of personal failure, and that personal failure was about the worst thing a person could endure. I crawled inside myself to hurt for a while, and then, with the help of family and friends and a sharp-witted therapist, I began to crawl back into life.

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Being young and stupid and very, very proud, I had refused to take much of anything material (other than an old blue Oldsmobile Cutlass with one green door) from the marriage. And so, when I found a new, solitary apartment—a tiny but wonderful place—I didn’t have a whole lot of stuff—kitchen utensils or linens or cleaning tools and such. My friend Liza invited me to come and ‘shop’ her parents’ basement.

Liza’s parents owned a shipping company, and, neatly organized on basement shelves, there were contents of boxes and bins that had fallen off a truck and broken, or that recipients, for some reason, had declined. It was kind of a wonderland—a hodge podge of practical items and fanciful ones, of economy finds and lovely, luxurious things.

I, of course, was completely broke, taking one graduate course at a time, and cobbling together just enough of a living from part-time jobs. The basement shelves made me dizzy with their riches, and my mother’s stern voice, blaring in my head, over-ruled my greedy tendencies.

“We never accept charity,” said that voice. “Don’t take things!”

But Liza and her parents were kind of like chosen family, so I closed the heavy trapdoor in that bony mind cavern. I could still hear those admonitions, but, oh, they were nicely muffled, and so much easier to ignore.

I filled a box with necessities that summer day. Liza’s mom kept urging me to take more.

“Here!” she’d say. “You need one of THESE!”

I reminded her that my apartment was tiny. She reminded me that there were things I had to have if I was going to do any cooking.

Finally, she handed me a metal slotted spoon with a black plastic handle.

“You HAVE to have a slotted spoon,” said Liza’s mom. “You just do.”

I put it on the top of my box of goodies. I really can’t remember what else was in the box, probably dish towels and soap holders and saltshakers and plastic storage containers and the like. They were useful, usable things that I used up and left behind. But that slotted spoon has traveled with me ever since. It’s reminded me of where I started; it’s made me appreciate how far I’ve come.

And now it reminds me that everything has a shelf life. Yesterday, I got an email notification that my new, fancy-shmancy slotted spoon—one with a flowered ceramic handle,—will arrive on my front step this weekend.

The old spoon has been with me for forty years. It reminds me of my misspent youth, and it calls back the growth times that came after. I pick the spoon up and sense memories bloom—memories of scraping rich brown bits from the bottoms of pans as I deglazed or made gravy; memories of scooping pasta onto plates for special people on special days; memories of sifting up the good stuff from a soup pot, making sure everyone got as much meat and veggies and noodles as they did broth in their steaming bowls of homemade soup.

That was my go-to spoon for serving trifle—jagged shreds of angel food cake and pudding and whipped cream with something (chunks of toffee bars, usually) crumbled into it. That spoon scooped up dessert for lots of people.

That spoon fits in my right hand like an extension of self; it is a trusted tool.

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But now, the spoon is done. It just is.

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Lately, I’ve been reading all I can, and talking to all the experts I can, about homelessness. Homelessness is a state that’s a whole lot more complicated than it appeared when I looked at it, at its smooth surface, from a safe distance away.

There are different kinds of homelessness, I’ve learned. Art From the Streets, an Austin Texas publication, narrows the types to four.

There is chronic homelessness—the kind of homelessness that keeps a person on the streets for more than a year. This, I think, is the face of homelessness for most of us; and these are people with issues that keep them from being permanently housed—who have mental illness, say, or are addicted, or have been released from prison with a record that interferes with work and tenancy.

There is episodic homelessness, a label for people who’ve been homeless three times in one year. (If that person experiences four or more incidences of homelessness yearly, they are bumped into the chronic category.)

There is hidden homelessness, the people couch-surfing, staying with family and friends, the people with little hope of finding a place of their own in the near future.

And then there’s transitional homelessness, which takes in people who’ve experienced some kind of major crisis. That could be loss of job, loss of relationship, or loss of dwelling…to a fire, or to eviction. Transitional homelessness lasts until the person can get a purchase, get back on their feet, find employment, and build up the money for the security deposit and utilities.

Cherilynn Holloway (“The America Few Want to Discuss: A Check Away from Homelessness” on Centsai.com) writes that 59% of United States citizens are one transparently thin paycheck away from losing their dwelling, and from being, at least for a short and terrifying time, homeless.

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My parents were orphans with little money sense or experience, and that was our reality: one disaster, one catastrophe, one missed paycheck, and life would crumble. The disaster, fortunately, never happened; my father seldom missed a single day of work, much less a paycheck. But that knowledge of potentially impending financial doom informed my childhood.

I got clothes from kind cousins who took excellent care of their garments. To my consternation, though, by the time those garments passed down to me, they were years past being fashionable. I wore bulky woolen tops and long plaid skirts with saddle shoes when my classmates, sporting miniskirts and poor boy sweaters, were tripping around in penny loafers.

“There are a LOT of people who’d be glad for what you’ve got,” my mother would say bitterly when I complained. And it was true: I knew it was true. I was shallow and selfish. But how I longed to go down to the tacky department store and buy three pairs of cheap, tight jeans and a rainbow froth of inexpensive t-shirts.

We did not throw away broken lamps or reluctant vacuum cleaners; my father, who was handy, studied them and fixed them until those machines were more mend than product. Old clothes passed down to younger siblings or cousins until they could no longer be worn. Then they became dust cloths or neatly folded refills for the wet mop.

My parents always owned only one car—usually a used Buick LeSabre. Unless it blew up, as happened once, they drove that car for years and years and years—long past the time it was paid for.

We painted dingy rooms and made our own curtains and refinished and reupholstered  tired furniture.

The lust for things that are new, I learned, was sinful and profligate. And the indulgence in the new thing just might be that straw that made the whole trembling structure, teetering on that precipice, tumble over the edge.

Did I want to be responsible for THAT?

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I did not.

I learned early on that, when I had something,—a perfectly usable something—the virtue was to keep using it, to wring every drop of usefulness out of it before abandoning. And even when that point was reached, the best thing to do would be to repurpose that loyal old friend—an old headboard could be a perfectly good garden fence, for example, and broken pottery, shattered just right, could form an outdoor mosaic.

Wasteful, wasteful, whispers the voice as I think about buying new, about discarding things, and that remembered insecurity simmers; I feel the wind blowing hard and strong, and my toes grip the edge of the cliff.

It’s HARD for me to throw things out. And when the thing in question is imbued with sentiment,—well, that kind of struggle can wake me up at night.

But you know what?

That slotted spoon has to go.

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I think of that this week when I discover a new method in the Sunday New York Times for mashing potatoes. At first, I am affronted, reading this. I am 65 years old; I can make a pretty mean dish of mashed potatoes, thank you very much.

But the Times recipe goads me to try it. It involves boiling the peeled potatoes and then shaking them until all moisture disappears. They key, the recipe says, is a DRY potato.

And then I am instructed to heat milk and butter together in the microwave, and to grab my masher and get at those potatoes.

Mash them good; mash in half the milk mixture, and I’ve got fluffy potatoes.

Take a heavy wooden spoon and keep smooshing; add the rest of the milk-and-butter, pushing the concoction up against the sides of the pan until everything is smooth and nice, and I’ve got creamy potatoes.

Put the potatoes in the stand mixer bowl and let the paddle have its way…well, then, I’ve got whipped potatoes.

The trick, the recipe tells me, is to use less milk than I think I need, and more butter and salt…then the potato flavor shines through. Too much milk, and the flavor is flattened, the chef warns.

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I decide to try it, if only to prove that my trusty mashed potato method is the good one. I peel and boil potatoes and read the recipe again.

We’ll go for creamy potatoes, I think.

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We eat the potatoes with a nicely roasted herb-crusted chunk of pork and with side salads crowned with freshly grated parmesan cheese.

The potatoes are so good that laments about missing gravy cease; nummy-num-num sounds take their place.

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And just like that, my old method for mashing potatoes is discarded. The boyos request creamy potatoes to go with the tiny, ten-pound turkey we’ll pick up the day before Thanksgiving. I want to haw and complain and ask, “What’s wrong with the OLD way of making potatoes?”

But I can’t really, because I like the new way better, too.

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What strange times we live in,–when we look, for instance, at new ways of holiday celebrations. A person might, perhaps, replace turkey and trimmings with socially distanced finger foods in order to have a safely festive feast with beloved family members.

We might get together via Zoom rather than in huggable personal space.

We might take all those old ‘required’ traditions and wrestle them into a closet, thinking, “MAYBE I’ll take these out next year. And maybe, I will not.

We might use a new recipe for mashed potatoes.

We might throw away the slotted spoon.

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The pandemic has been, when not a tragedy or a truly compelling concern, then an enormous pain in the buttocks. But it has taught me things.

And one of those things is this: things don’t have to be the way they always were. I don’t have to do things the way I always did. Traditions are only as resilient as their meaning and their execution.

It’s okay to get new things, and it’s okay to try new ways. And even things steeped in history and nostalgia should go when they’re not useful.

Because when the spoon is gone, the memories, love, and warmth remain.

Loolie: Passages and Card Stock

‘Grow up and be strong,’ I told her! ‘Don’t let anyone tell you what you can’t do!’”  Loolie slumped in her chair, one hand on her heart, mocking herself. “‘You are just as capable of living on your own as anyone!’

“Oh, honestly,” she said to us. “What the hell was I thinking????”

We were halfway home to Loolie’s from Cleveland where we had just, with great fanfare, optimism, and confident smiles, with many hugs, fist bumps, and happy hoo-rahs, set Loolie’s daughter Kerri up in her own little off-campus apartment. Kerri got her bachelor’s degree in education in May, and she’ll be studying for her master’s for the next two years.  Cleveland’s not so far from Loolie’s that Kerri can’t be home within two and a half hours, and, since that child was a toddler and her physical disabilities were being discovered, Loolie has been preparing her for independence.

But now, the time for independence had come, and Loolie wasn’t liking it so well at all.

We polished off our fries and sandwiches, and, like a phalanx, we surrounded Loolie,–TJ, Jeanne, Peggy, and I,–and marched off to the two cars we had brought.  In addition to Kerri’s, they had been loaded to impossible depths, loaded like those clown cars on old TV shows that kept disgorging people and stuff.  Now the stuff was all neatly packed away on Kerri’s shelves and in her closets, the one ‘people’ Loolie was worried about was 100 miles behind,  and those cars seemed impossibly empty.

In the Hyundai, zooming through the black night on I90, I recited a litany of goodness to Loolie.  Good school–great graduate program, progressive and exciting.  She nodded. Good kid, Kerri–smart, savvy, and mature.  She grunted. Good parenting, I added; she had done a wonderful job of getting that girl ready for the  rigors of grad school and handling her own apartment.

That’s when Loolie started to cry, quietly and deeply.  She cried all the way to her house.

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TJ and Jeanne met Peggy, Loolie, and me in Loolie’s driveway.  TJ, smart girl, had two bottles of wine under her arm, and we did our military escort drill again.  We marched our girl into her house, to that table we’d sat around hundreds of times; we poured wine, and we sat with our friend during a huge and incredible life change. Loolie  had gone from “My daughter Kerri, who lives with me,” to, “Oh, I hope that child calls tonight” in the course of one short day.

We didn’t say much; there wasn’t, really, too much to say.

After an hour or so, Loolie said, “Okay, my friends. You have to leave me to begin this new life.” She hunched forward, listening to the silent house.  “I’m going to take a long bath and wallow in self-pity.  Then,” she picked up the wine bottle that still had maybe a glass left in it. “Then,” she said, “I’ll finish my business with this guy and put myself to bed.”

We did not want to leave, but Loolie insisted. We finally, reluctantly, went, but we were all back the next morning, dragging the Loolmeister out for a hearty breakfast.

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Oh, it was hard for Loolie to let that steel-and-gossamer web stretch to include separate housing/different city for her baby girl.  She had been the perfect mother for Kerri, who, in addition to needing a wheelchair for mobility, was quiet, thoughtful, and just a little bit shy.  Loolie taught her daughter to examine things critically and to make up her own mind.  She taught Kerri to be her own judge of what she could and couldn’t do, and not to let other people dictate the limits to her.  Loolie had bulldozed past bullies, school systems that were slow to cooperate, and even family members who wanted to insulate Kerri with cotton batten to keep her safe.

Loolie had taught Kerri to think for herself, and in those first weeks of Kerri’s grad school, she kicked herself for it.

Not that Kerri knew.  She would call and say, “Mom!” and share some revelation the day had brought and Loolie would celebrate with her, in just the right tone, and for just the right length of time.  Then, she’d send her daughter off to whatever–studying, laundry, a meeting with friends at a pub.  She’d hang up with a cheerful, “Miss you, baby girl, but I’m proud of you to the moon and back!”

And then, Loolie told me, she would cry.

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Whether Kerri was also putting a good face on for her mama, I don’t know, but of course passing time has a way of abrading even the roughest edges.  Kerri was soon absorbed into the rigor of her program, and Loolie had work and projects and people to manage.  When I talked to her, she told me the waking-hours tears had dried up.  During the day, she showed people cell phone pictures of Kerri cooking a spaghetti meal for new friends and expounded on the great program she was in, the wonderful grant money her brilliant daughter had received from the  awesome college she was attending, the heady way she’d plunged into an exciting new life.

And during the day, said Loolie, she believed it, too.  So she went to bed around 11, fell soundly asleep, and bolted awake at 2 AM.  And then there was no going back. She paced.  She cried.  She wrote long despairing letters to Kerri which she immediately ripped  up.  Finally, around 5, she’d fall asleep again for an hour, and then she’d start the day on four hours of interrupted sleep.

“Call me,” I said firmly, and a couple of times, in those dreary dark hours, she did, and we talked through the emptiness.

“I need to see a doctor,” she admitted, “maybe even a therapist.”

The doctor gave her a sleep aid, which left her groggy all day and gave her vicious dreams. She flushed those.

The therapist was wonderful; she helped Loolie to put it all in perspective, to build on her overwhelming pride in her daughter.

But still.  She was awake, every night, at 2 AM.

We worried, the four of us did, helplessly looking on, anxious to support and comfort our friend, and we visited as often as we could, and talked almost every day.

Then a week came that we didn’t hear from Loolie for three days,–none of us did; but when she called, finally, she sounded better than she’d sounded since Kerri moved.

Had she gotten her sleep rhythm back? I asked her, and Loolie said no.

“But you know,” she told me, “a lot of women our age have sleep issues.”  So, instead of stewing about not sleeping, she had decided to use the quiet night time.

“Remember that blog link you sent me?” she asked.  “Jodi’s? With all the wonderful homemade goodies and handmade cards?”

“Of course,” I said.

Jodi’s blog, Life Inbetween, (http://lifeinbetween.me/2015/08/23/lovely-as-a-tree/ ) is amazing.

“Well,” said Loolie, “I’ve taken inspiration.  I’m making my own greeting cards.”

But, she added, she was using all recycled materials, saving magazine pages and ribbons and doodads.  She’d made a lot of cards to send to Kerri; she was sending one a week.  She had a little stockpile, she confided, just in case the card-making slowed down any time soon.

“How big,” I asked, “is a ‘little’ stockpile?”

“Oh, you know,” dead-panned Loolie nonchalantly, her comic timing perfect.  “Maybe three, four hundred cards.”

We snickered at first, then let it build until we were full-on helpless with laughter.  We were both in tears when we got off the phone. I was picturing Loolie next to a tilting tower of cards that said things like ‘Hi, Honey!’ and ‘How’s my baby girl?’

Two days later, a handmade card arrived in my mail. The outside cover said simply ‘Thank you.’ (It was a green parchment-y card; Loolie had coordinated an upside down pizza ad for a background,and somehow, oddly, it looks great.) There was a bold red heart cut from construction paper on the front too.

Inside the message was simple: I made it through this because I have the best of friends.

Thank you

TJ, Jeanne, and Peggy got cards too.  Loolie didn’t have to thank us, but of course she knew that, just as we all knew that Loolie would hit her grief and loss and fear head on, let herself feel its full impact, then–as she typically and always does–come roaring back. We know, too, that when any one of us has to take the rugged path to letting go, the Loolmeister will be there to walk it with us.

That, as Loolie said gruffly at our latest spaghetti feast,  is, after all, what friends are for. Then she cranked up the Grateful Dead; ‘Touch of Gray’ throbbed and we put down our silverware. It was time for the Old Girls Singalong, and we belted out these words with their pointed, particular meaning:

I will get by I will get by
I will get by I will survive