Have Yourself A Party (A Loolie Tale)

“Here,” says Loolie. “Do you still like to do these?”

She hands me her local paper, opened to the puzzle page. And there, — oh, joy! — are both the Jumble and the Cryptoquote.

I grab a pen and happily plunge into my usual morning routine. I unscramble the Jumble, read the funnies, then take a piece of loose-leaf paper out of my bag and transcribe the Cryptoquote.

Now I can solve it and weave its message—sweet, silly, or profound,–into the way I approach this day.

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

We are sitting at Loolie’s broad kitchen table, savoring our morning coffee. It’s been a good visit; we met up with four of our dearest high school friends, forty years later, and we collaborated on a wonderful dinner in Loolie’s kitchen. We each brought photos and we cracked open our dusty yearbooks.

We reflected on then, but we really concentrated on now: on who we’ve become and on the journeys that brought us to here and on celebrating the sweet essence of those unknowing young girls, all those years back.

Some of that essential sweetness, we were all delighted to discover, still remains.

Two of us–TJ and me—bunked out in Loolie’s lovely home. And now it is 7:30 on a quiet Sunday morning. While we wait for TJ to rise and shine, wait to fix breakfast together before we pack up and say our goodbyes, I solve the Cryptoquote.

The words were Jorge Luis Borges’. Here is what they said:

“So you plant your own garden and embellish your own soul instead of waiting for someone to bring flowers to you.”

Borges Quote

“Huh,” I say, and Loolie, of course, says, “Let me see.”

She studies the paper and she grins.

“Yep,” she says. “He’s got it just right.”

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

Loolie gets up and pours herself another steaming mug. She gestures at me with the pot; I shake my head, and she returns it to its machine. Then, she whirls back to the table in her flowing, multicolored bathrobe.

As she settles into her seat, I can see it coming on. Jogged by the Borges quote, we are in for a story.

“You know,” she starts, catching my eye to make sure I am fully engaged, “for all of their married life, Dan’s father gave Dewey a Whitman’s Sampler and a bouquet of flowers from the supermarket for her birthday. Dewey hated it! She’d made a big happy fuss the first time he did it, so he figured that was just the ticket. It took her a couple of years to realize that he’d just forgotten her birthday and run into the supermarket and grabbed the first festive things he could find.

“By the time she figured it out, the candy and the flowers were a tradition. That was it, Dewey said; that was her birthday. She spent hours of time and effort making sure everyone else had such wonderful birthdays, Mort and the kids and her in-laws, even; planned surprises and meals and treats and good friends and games—all the things the birthday person loved. But on her birthday: the Sampler. The flowers, which she had to cut and arrange so they looked like something special. Cards and gifts from the kids. And then a great dispersal, and Dewey was left getting dinner on the table and then cleaning up as Mort went off to watch the news and the kids went to do homework.”

Loolie sighed, and she took a deep slug of coffee. She plunked her mug down on the table.

“It got, Dewey told me, to the point where she HATED her birthday. ‘Say something!’ I’d tell her. ‘DO something about it!’ But she wouldn’t. She didn’t want to hurt their feelings.

“Then Dan and I got married. The first year was all romantic. The second year, our feet had hit ground, and I was pregnant, and we were both working crap jobs and money was tight…and on my birthday, Dan came home with a Whitman’s sampler and supermarket flowers.”

“Oh, NO,” I said.

“Oh, YES,” said Loolie. “He was tired and stressed, and I didn’t have the heart to say anything that night. But I understood how disappointed Dewey was, year after year. And I have to tell you, I really hate the chocolate in a Whitman’s Sampler.”

She sighed again, and we heard TJ stomping down the stairs, and we poured her coffee and got organized and started tag-teaming bacon, eggs, and toast. And we caught TJ up on the topic, and Loolie picked up the thread of her story.

“So the next year,” she said, “there I was, home with a baby who needed LOTS of attention, tired and bedraggled. And I thought to myself: this year of all years, I need a wonderful birthday.

“So I started dropping hints—they were more like blatant infomercials than hints, actually. I needed a new jacket, I told Dan, and I wrote down the size and the style and the store. I really wanted to get out and see a movie. I gave him THAT info, too. I mentioned that his mother was dying to come and stay so she could babysit.

“And about a month before my birthday, I started leaving notes that said things like, ‘Only thirty shopping days left till Loolie’s birthday!’ I’d put them on the fridge. I’d write them in soap on the bathroom mirror. I’d tuck them into his pants pockets.

“I was pretty sure I had it covered. On the day of my birthday, I took Kerri’s little hand and we waved Dan off to work together. I cleaned the house that day, so it would look nice when Dewey—surprise!–showed up. And I got the baby down to sleep about four, so I could shower and dress up a little, put on some make-up. Be ready.

“And Dan came home and he looked at me in surprise. ‘YOU look nice,’ he said.” Loolie paused, dramatically. “And just guess what he handed me?”

“Oh, NO,” TJ and I said, together.

“Oh, YES,” said Loolie. “And I vowed it was the last Whitman’s Sampler birthday I would ever endure.”

There was a long pause. Lools likes to check and make sure her audience is listening. I tong-ed the bacon onto a paper towel-covered plate and put it on the table.

“What,” I asked, “happened the next year?”

TJ brought a plate of buttered toast to the table and slid into her seat. Loolie spooned fluffy scrambled eggs onto all of our plates, replenished our coffee, and continued her tale.

“The next year,” Loolie said, “I decided I was going to give myself the best birthday ever. I was back working by then, but I took the day off and I took Kerri to daycare anyway. Then I went home and soaked in a bubble bath. I got gussied up and I met Peggy for lunch at the Forum. I love Greek food,” she said dreamily, “and we had the best lunch. First time I ever tried ouzo, too.” She grinned. I’m thinking she might have tried more than one.

“After lunch, I took myself out shopping,” Loolie said. “I bought myself a pair of jeans, and I got my hair shampooed, and then I went and got a massage. On my way to pick Kerri up, I stopped at this wonderful chocolate shop and I bought myself a quarter pound of chocolate covered caramels.

“It was the BEST day. And when Dan came home with the Sampler and the flowers, it was almost funny. But the next day, I suggested to him that he take the chocolates to work and share them. I told him that was too much candy for me, and I hated to see it go stale.

“’I thought you LOVED Whitman’s Samplers,’ he said, and I told him, gently, that no, I really didn’t.”

Loolie got a little thoughtful, and it was clear she was playing her years with Dan out in her mind.

“He never got me a Whitman’s Sampler after that. There were a few years when he really tried and my birthdays were filled with wonderful surprises. And then there were the years when things started going south, and a birthday surprise would not have made much difference to the sadness we were living.

“BUT,” she said, and she looked at us and twinkled. “I have celebrated my birthday just the way I wanted to ever since. I’ve always taken the day off, made wonderful lunch plans, and pampered myself with the special things I long for the rest of the year. And, you know what? If people forget, well, that’s okay. But when they remember, it’s just wonderful—like all this extra icing on top of a cake that was heavenly in the first place. The calls and the cards and the mementos are all wonderfully unexpected surprises. I think,” she said thoughtfully, “that the reason they’re so wonderful is that I don’t DEPEND on getting them.”

We sit quietly for a little bit, finishing up our breakfasts, sipping last mugs of steaming brew.

“I told Dewey about it,” Loolie says, “after Dan and I split, while Mort was still around. And she loved the idea. She started going  to a movie matinee on her birthday, with a friend. Mort always hated going to the show. And she gets herself a hot fudge sundae afterward. She still does that, at 88. She said it turned her birthday from something she dreaded and resented into a day she looks forward to all year.”

We’re quiet for a minute. Then TJ says, “I love it. SO much better than being a long-suffering martyr.”

“So much better,” I agree.

We push ourselves reluctantly away from the table; we carry dishes and scrub pans and wipe down the table. And then TJ and I drag our bags downstairs and stash them in the trunks and come back in to say our goodbyes.

Loolie hugs us both tight. “Embellish your own souls, ladies,” she says, and she hands me the folded loose-leaf with the deciphered Cryptoquote.

We promise to text on safe arrival, and we look forward to a planned visit in a couple of months, and then TJ and I get into our cars, back down the drive, honk our farewells and head off in our separate directions.

Then I pull out onto the Interstate, thoughts buzzing. Loolie always distills issues down to their roots, and things seem so simple. Why WOULDN’T one go out and grab the things she wants, rather than sitting and waiting for those things to be bestowed? Why wouldn’t she shape her days rather than waiting to see what shape others would give them?

But I remember stern dictates from the 1960’s and 1970’s. A lady never calls a man. A girl never asks a boy out. So, often, a person sat on her hands, waiting for someone else to open the door for her, the door she dearly wanted to go through.  It was a kind of self-imposed disability, so ingrained that to make the first move was impossible.

And I remember, too, avidly reading articles with titles like, “Make Him Think It Was HIS Idea!” or “How to get Him to Do What You Want him To Do Without Asking!” It was an age when subtle manipulation and the fine art of passive aggression were the tools to achieve an end.

I never learned those tricks.

And then things exploded, in the late sixties and early seventies, and there was a push for equality.

You want to get to know him? Go talk to him.

You want to have lunch with him? Go ask him.

I never quite mastered the art of forthrightness, either. A lot of us wandered, I think, in a kind of hazy gray area in-between.

But how much better, I think, sliding into the left-hand lane to pass a lumbering semi, to take the Loolie approach. Decide what you want (that, it seems to me, is half the battle), and then take steps to put that desire into place. Simple, elegant, and no one suffers from misconceptions…or from forty years of Whitman’s Samplers when that’s not her heart’s fond wish.

I finally reach the spot where the FM reception is good, and I turn on the radio and find an oldies station. And wouldn’t you know it, the first song they play is Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond singing, “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers Anymore.”

“Plant your own damned garden,” I say to Barbra. And then I turn the song up so I can, in the anonymity of my speeding vehicle, sing along.

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Loolie’s Latest Monkey Business

 Monkey 1

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.

******
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.

*******

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.

***********

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

Vegetable Healing: A Loolie Tale

Special wishes for healing to Lulu, whose wonderful blog is at http://luluopolis.com/2015/06/06/a-surprise-part-6-good-news-good-pathology/

Beautiful glossy green leaves of spinach; buttery baby romaine; white and red onions, the mud from their earthy erstwhile home still clinging to their hair-like roots.  I gentle them out of their bags and put them on the counter next to rugged, curly-leafed kale, some broccoli, and a burgeoning bunch of red, red radishes.

They make a beautiful still life, the veggies I brought home from the CSA I signed up for this year.  And they challenge me:  what will I do with this bounty?

I am pulling my copy of Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food off the bookshelf when I get a strong sense of deja vu.  This reminds me, I think, of the time Loolie got herself roped into cooking for Thom.

We were staying at the lake for a couple of weeks that year; some friends back home had called and offered us their cottage if we were free when it was vacant. It was the summer after Mark finished law school; we were both exhilarated by his accomplishment and exhausted by the marathon that had led to it.  We were happy to say yes.

The cottage was a charming rickety place on a dirt lane that led to a gravel lane that led to the beach.  The three bedrooms were separated by partitions; the walls didn’t even reach the ceilings.  The wood floors were smooth and blond from years of bare feet and flip flops scrubbing sand into them.  The living room had old saggy furniture with canvas slip covers.  There was an oval 1950’s table, metal with a formica top, in the kitchen, and four chairs with cracking vinyl seats. There was a turquoise apartment-style electric range, an old round-topped refrigerator, a big old sink with runners built into the porcelain. There was no dishwasher and no air conditioning.

But there was an indoor shower and an outdoor shower.   The window screens let beautiful lake breezes flow through the house, and at night the shooshing of the waves lulled everyone off to sleep.  The first full day there, a Saturday, it poured, and I discovered just how pleasant reading on a screened-in porch, rain lashing all around me, could be.

On Sunday morning, at just about ten o’clock, Loolie and Kerri pulled up in their van.  We were lounging at the picnic table; I had been down to the beach for a walk, and the boyos were grilling steak and scrambling a cast-iron panful of  eggs on the charcoal-fired barbecue. The day was fresh-washed after the rain; the sun shone, and the air was cool and sweet.

Loolie hopped out and carefully lifted a brown paper bag from the passenger seat.  The back door slid open, and Kerri lowered herself down on the lift.  She deftly wheeled her chair across the bumpy lawn to where we were gathered, and Loolie followed more slowly.

“What’s in the bag?”  asked Mark, and Loolie grinned.

“What’s on the grill?”  she countered.

I went inside to grab a couple more settings.

We divvied up the steak and eggs and ate every morsel, and then Loolie pulled her offering out of the bag.  It was a strawberry rhubarb pie, and the rich, fruity smell wafted.

“Oh, my,” I said.  “That’s still warm from the oven.”

Mark was already in the cottage, rummaging for dessert plates and a serving spoon.  He came out with those and a half gallon of vanilla ice cream, a little soft from the ancient freezer.  We cut the pie; the juices oozed, the crust exploded flakily, and the ice cream, dolloped on each serving, melted into puddles.  It’s amazing what fresh air can do for one’s appetite–and one’s capacity. We ate, the five of us, the whole darned pie and all the ice cream.

I brought out an old plastic dish rack and piled all the dishes in it, and Jim took them over to the side of the house and hosed the whole lot down.  Loolie looked at me in surprise.

“I’ll wash them later,” I said, “but this way, they’re not so sticky.”

“Were those fresh berries?” Mark asked, and Kerri said they were.  She and her mom, she told him, had signed a Community-Supported Agriculture agreement with a family at the farmers’ market. It was like buying a share in the farm.  Every week, the family brought them a basket with a portion of whatever was ripe.  They had, Kerri said, been trying a lot of new things.

Jim, never one to indulge in veggie talk, slipped inside to find his laptop, and Loolie launched into a paean about the joys of her CSA and the creative challenge the interesting offerings presented.  And just at that moment, another car pulled up, a sparkling black SUV; the door opened and a fashionably shod leg appeared.

“Oh, lord,” muttered Loolie.

It was Weedy,–elegant, tailored Weedy.

She hadn’t always been so put together, our Weedy.  In fact, the etymology of her nickname came from her propensity for a certain substance, slightly illegal, during the aptly shrouded days of our high school careers.  But then she and her sweetheart, Tommie, had gone off to college together, and when they came back, the scruff was gone.  It was replaced by the gleam of ambition.

Tommie became Thom, and Weedy, who could not shed her nickname, began to insist it was derived from a younger sibling’s cute mispronunciation of her given name, Louisa.  Thom was a CPA with political aspirations; he was a city council member, and it was no secret he was biding his time for a mayoral run.  Weedy ran a local foundation and rode herd on their two children.  Nobody ever suggested Thom and Weedy’s son or daughter strayed over the line of legality; they were beautiful young teens, held rigidly in line.

That Sunday morning, Weedy emerged from her sleek machine with a bulging grocery sack and a woeful face.

“I am SO glad to see you girls!” she wailed.  “I need help!”

She came over and air-kissed everyone; after his obligatory buss, Mark decamped,  muttering about dishes and a walk on the beach.  He grabbed the dish rack and scarpered, chinking and clunking.

Weedy sighed and heaved her shoulders, and then she heaved her paper sack onto the picnic table.

“Look at THIS,” she said.

Out tumbled beautiful veggies, onions and spinach, broccoli and kale, tender leaves of lettuce. The greens and reds and pearly whites gleamed in the morning sun. It was beautiful.

We looked at the veggies, then we all turned to Weedy, not seeing the problem.

“My sister’s on vacation,” said Weedy, “and she had me pick up her weekly farm goods; she’s got one of those CSA things. And not only do I not know what to DO with this stuff, but I know Thom won’t eat a bite of it.” She put her hands on her hips; a bracelet jangled.  Her expensive linen shorts suit–what the well dressed matron wears to visit friends at the beach–was charmingly rumpled.

“I guess,” said Weedy, “I’ll just throw it all away.

Loolie choked.  “Throw it OUT!” she said.  “Those beautiful things!  Why, you can make wonderful meals with this.”

“Oh, I don’t think so, Lools,” said Weedy, sadly.  “I don’t have the culinary imagination that you have. And Thom calls all this field greens.  He says he’ll eat the cow but not the cow’s food.”

“I’ll tell you WHAT,” said Loolie, hotly. “I could make a meal out of this that THom would be glad to eat.  He’d eat it and ask for more, Weedy!”

Loolie started pronouncing the ‘h’ in Tommie’s name about the time he, as a young, eager school board member, opposed Loolie’s request for adaptive equipment on the school playground.  He’d made, Loolie’d told me, a pompous speech about understanding her request but having to be a wise steward on behalf of ALL the children.  Before things got too ugly, Weedy stepped in with a foundation grant, and the playground equipment was purchased. But Loolie had never forgiven Thom.

Weedy looked at her now, woebegone.  “I just don’t think you could, Loolie. There is no way Thom would ever eat a meal with these ingredients.”

“MOM,” said Kerri, warningly. But it didn’t help. Within moments, Weedy had left, the veggies had stayed, and Loolie had a commitment to cook a meal for Weedy, Thom, and their kids the next night–a meal, I should add, that would take place in the carport of our borrowed cottage.

It had all happened so fast. Kerri and I looked at each other, and then at the seductive veggies on the table; we avoided looking at Loolie.

A moment passed, and then there was a heavy sigh.

“Played me!” snorted Loolie.  “She played me like a cheap plywood violin!”

I studied my winter white toes, which peeped forlornly from my summer sandals.

“Oh, well,” said Loolie, finally.  “I can still make my point.”

Kerri and I looked up at the same time, met eyes, and grinned.

“I’ll be in charge of decorations, Mom,” said Kerri.  “We’ll wow ’em with food AND ambiance.”

Loolie made me get a pad and pen from the house, and we started making our plan.

*****

The challenge of the project kicked in; by Monday evening, we were ready.  Loolie had organized us, organized the menu, organized the work.  We had shopped and prepped; we had scrubbed and swept; and we had floated like hungry cartoons on the amazing smells emanating from pot and pan and casserole.

At 6:30 precisely, the black SUV smoothed to a stop in the cottage’s driveway, and Weedy and Thom and their children, Lisa and Todd, emerged.  Kerri ushered everyone into the carport. Its walls were draped artistically with drop cloths; an old, dumpster-dove chandelier was wrapped with fairy lights and suspended from the ceiling.  Two banquet tables were draped with old white sheets, and mason jars full of wild flowers served as centerpieces.

“Oh, it’s beautiful,” whispered Lisa, and I saw Loolie rigid jaw soften.

“THIS,” she said, “is all Kerri.”

Her daughter bowed her head, graciously.

Then Jim and Mark emerged with trays of appetizers, spinach and cheese in puff pastry triangles, a tray of raw veggies and a hot spinach dip, some cheese and crackers.  People grabbed drinks from the old tin wash tub we’d found in the tall grass; it was scrubbed within an inch of its metallic life and filled with ice.  The sounds of chooching screw tops and fwapping tabs was heard, and people organized themselves into seats.

And the dinner began.  Loolie started us with a salad beautifully presented in her gleaming wooden salad bowl; spinach and kale and tender young lettuce, drenched in a  sweet and sour sauce, augmented with bacon and slices of hard-boiled egg. Thom cleared his plate, scrapingly, and asked for seconds.  Weedy raised an eyebrow at Loolie.

Round two was a savory French onion soup, bubbling cheese covering crusty chunks of baguette from the local bakery.  The fresh, sweet onions all but melted into the homemade broth.  Thom scraped the last of the cheese with his spoon, and picked up the bowl to down every last bit of broth.

And then came the lasagna, layers of kale and spinach sandwiched with mozzarella, ricotta, and fresh Italian sausage and tender pasta, the red sauce made with tomatoes Loolie had canned herself.  Silence descended as people ate. And ate. And ate. The huge casserole emptied in stop-watch motion, and everyone sat back and groaned.

The silence lengthened just a little, and then Thom said, “Loolie.  All of you. THAT was amazing.”

As if at a signal, people started moving and talking.  Weedy grabbed Loolie and asked about recipes.  Todd and Lisa went inside with Jim to play video games. Thom pulled up a chair next to Kerri’s and soon they were deep in conversation, heads bent close together.  Mark and I looked at each other, sighed, and began to gather up the dishes. We needed to move.

We filled a couple of basins with the dirty dishes, gave them the hose routine, and lugged them in the house, filling and refilling the old sink with soapy water.  He washed; I dried. We listened to the kids, who were having a good time; their voices rose and eddied into a kind of happy melody.

We watched the four outside, nervously.

“Everyone seems to be being very civil,” said Mark hopefully.

We stacked the last cleaned dish on the drainer and loaded up the tray with dessert plates.  There was a basket of flaky homemade biscuits, a big bowl of fresh strawberries swimming in their own sugary syrup, and a dish of snowy whipped cream sitting on ice.  We called the kids. They groaned a little, but they saved their game and gamely followed us out.

Loolie and Weedy had joined Thom and Kerri at the table.  They looked up as we emerged.

THom,” said Loolie, “has just invited Kerri to be part of the city’s playground planning committee. He wants to be sure the plans work for kids in wheelchairs.”

“Do you think,” Thom said, quietly, “we could go back to Tommie, Lools?  And you could maybe forget that I was a horse’s ass all those years ago?”

There was a tiny moment where sentiment threatened; I could hear the music begin to swell.  Then Mark said, “STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKE!” and slammed his tray down on the table, and serving spoons appeared, and people who claimed they couldn’t eat one more bite not thirty minutes ago were heaping their plates.

The men built a fire; the kids headed down to the beach, Kerri’s wheels crunching on the gravel. Weedy and Thom insisted on taking care of dessert dishes.  And then we sat around the fire, completely replete, and we talked and laughed without any stiffness or reservation.  It was lovely, and Tommie and Weedy stayed until after midnight, when they dragged their sleepy kids home.

Jim excused himself to head to bed, and Mark and Loolie and Kerri and I sat around the fire, sweatshirts on against the cool lake breezes, watching the embers sigh and open, neon against the smoky ash. Oh, it was quiet.  I thought about friendship and rifts and what it takes for healing to take place.

“That was something, wasn’t it?” I said thoughtfully.

“Yeah,” said Loolie. “It really was, wasn’t it?” I saw her grin in the glow of the dying fire.

“Yep,” she said. “He ate every bit of the cow food I served him.  I told Weedy. I told her.”

Kerri grinned and started humming, channeling Marvin Gaye.  Then her sweet voice soared into the night:

When I get that FEELing I need VEGETABLE healing.  Vegetable: whooaah Oh! It’s been GOOD for ME!

Loolie picked it up, and I joined in, too. We three women harmonized, Mark beating rhythm on the washtub, until we heard a nearby window scrape open and a neighbor’s irritated cough.

*****

Healing powers, indeed, I think now. The memories make me grin. And they send me to my recipe notebook, to pull out the ‘Farmer’s Lasagna’ recipe written in Loolie’s bold scrawl. I’m humming as I work, and I bet you can guess the tune.

We will eat well tonight.

Loolie’s Leftovers Challenge

It’s not that she’s vicious or vindictive, Loolie assured us.  It was just that she could never resist a good challenge.

We were sitting with a glass of wine, having enjoyed yet another wonderful pasta meal; we were relaxed and replete and working on a little wine buzz on Loolie’s patio.  It was one of those gift-y April days when the temp soars.  Three days ago, maybe, we’d been shoveling snow; now it was warm enough to take the wine glasses outside and watch the sun sink down into Lake Erie.

TJ mentioned again how good the sauce was, and Loolie said, thoughtfully, that it was really kind of a conglomeration of leftovers.

“Go on,” I said, but Loolie said it was true.  She figured sauce days were good fridge clean-out times; she stowed bits and bites in the freezer, and then she added a snippet of this, a dab of that, from the refrigerator shelves.  She sweated up  onion and a little garlic in some extra virgin olive oil, and then she poured in jars of spaghetti sauce, cans of tomato sauce, and a can of tomato paste.  She sugared it, added basil and oregano and a bay leaf, and let it simmer.

That was her base, Loolie said, but what happened after that depended entirely on the last week’s meals and the contents of her freezer.  So she might add:

–half a cooked boneless chicken breast;
–a pork bone with roasted meat clinging to it;
–two links of grilled hot Italian sausage, sliced into coins;
–a sad looking carrot (It sweetens the sauce, says Loolie)
–the rest of the mini-meatballs, the ones she didn’t use for Italian wedding soup.

Or, Loolie ruminated, she might go a completely different route.

“You know what they say, right?” she said.  “You never step in the same spaghetti sauce twice.”

We contemplated that, sipping our wine, pulling afghans around our shoulders as the April sun slipped into the still-icy lake.

And then Loolie laughed and told us about the first time her in-laws, Mort and Dewey, visited. She and Dan got married in a small ceremony, by a justice of the peace; his family was all on the west coast and the thought of planning a cross country marathon of family and friends and flights and lodging just left them tired and financially frightened.

So they suggested to his parents that they’d take the cash they would have spent on a wedding and fly them out for a good  visit. Mort and Dewey would stay at the Holiday Inn–Loolie appreciated their insistence on a little breathing space–but they’d spend the whole of their five day visit with Dan and Loolie.

And eat their meals with them, too.

“What do they like to eat?” Loolie asked Dan.

“They’ll eat anything,” said Dan.  “Except leftovers. My father refuses to eat leftovers.”

Dan said it like a kind of joke.  Loolie heard it as a kind of challenge.

Mort and Dewey arrived late on a Sunday morning, and Loolie, all a-blush with newlywed domesticity, served up a real Sunday dinner–roast chicken and mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, and a crusty loaf of bakery bread.  They had brownie sundaes for dessert, and Mort sprawled in Dan’s new barca lounger and patted his belly.

“You’re a darned good cook, Loolie,” he said.  Loolie thanked him and said she came by it honestly; the oldest of six hungry kids, she grew up helping her mom in the kitchen.

They ate well that week, and most of it was Loolie’s home-cooking.  They had a baked ham; they had chicken shepherd’s pie.  They had a lovely French toast brunch, and they had ham pancakes for breakfast one day.  They had sandwiches Loolie called “Croak, I’m Sure,” and they demolished a big skillet of Loolie’s famous hash.  They enjoyed big bowls of delicious chicken vegetable soup.

It was a great visit, with day trips and card games and the discovery of all they had in common, in addition to their shared love for Dan. The time seemed to fly by.  Suddenly, Dan was shoving Mort and Dewey’s luggage into the trunk of his aging Honda  and Loolie was standing with open arms, waiting to hug her in-laws goodbye.

Mort gave her a big smooch on the cheek. “You’re a lovely girl, Loolie,” he said, “and a great cook.  And you didn’t try to serve me leftovers once.”

Dewey leaned in close for a hug and whispered in Loolie’s ear. “The old fool,” she said.  “You’ve been feeding him leftovers all week!”

They were wonderful in-laws, Loolie told us, for the span of her marriage to Dan.  And they were awesome grandparents to Kerry–Dewey still was the world’s best long-distance grandma, although Mort was long gone.  And Dewey and Loolie stayed close, despite the divorce.

In fact, said Loolie, they liked to exchange recipes.  Dewey was always looking for clever and tasty ways to disguise leftovers.

*****

Before I left Loolie’s that night, I wrote down her Chicken Shepherd’s Pie recipe (maybe method is a better word).  I thought I’d share it with you here:

When you have any combination of these things on hand, the stars are in alignment and the time is ripe for chicken shepherd’s pie:

Leftover mashed potatoes
Cooked chicken
Broth you made from the bones of the cooked chicken (or canned broth)
An onion
Three carrots–any age will do
A cup of frozen peas

Preheat the oven to 350. Chop the onion; cut the carrots into julienne strips, about 1 ” long.

Melt two tablespoons of butter in a cast iron skillet on your stove top. Saute the onion until it’s tender and translucent; stir in the carrot and cook until that, too, is tender. (Loolie notes that she often adds garlic powder, too, at this point.)

Add the chopped leftover chicken and stir until it’s heated through.

Sprinkle two tablespoons of flour over the chicken and veggies; stir until you can’t see a single trace of flour. Gradually add one cup of the broth, season with salt and pepper, and bring the contents of the skillet to a slow boil. When the broth is slightly thickened, stir in the peas.  Remove the pan from the heat.

Put the leftover mashed potatoes in a bowl and beat them with a wooden spoon; if they’re very stiff, add milk and whip them by hand until they feel a little fluffier.  Drop the potatoes by large spoonsful on top of the chicken mixture.

You can, says Loolie, add a nice sprinkle of parsley for garnish.

Bake for about thirty minutes–until the potatoes are crusty and golden.  Loolie notes that she sometimes sprinkles a little grated cheddar on top for a savory change of pace about five minutes before serving.  She puts the skillet back in the oven just long enough for the cheese to melt.

*****

I’ve tried this shepherd’s pie recipe many times; it’s very good–good enough, in fact, to serve to company.

Hashing it Out With Loolie

Hash and a side of green beans...
Hash and a side of green beans…

Searching through the little chest freezer for the package of boneless chicken I know is nestled somewhere down near the bottom, I dredge up a meaty hambone.  Hmm, I think: what can I do with that?

Upstairs, I pull my Joy of Cooking off the shelf and find the recipe for black bean soup; it makes a rich and tangy, wonderful pot of comfort, using a ham hock as inspiration.    I bookmark it.

That evening, Jim fixes the chicken for us with a cheesy pasta side–yum.

The next morning I wake up to my phone bouncing and burbling: the College is on a three hour delay.  I sip my coffee and watch the gentle, inexorable snow, and I think it’s a perfect morning for throwing together a big batch of hearty soup.  Soon, I’m at the counter, happily chopping celery and onion and carrots.  The little dog smells the hambone waiting in its tupperware at my elbow; she comes out and sits next to my left ankle, snout pointing up to the counter, hoping.

The veggies go into the hot olive oil in the pot; the rich smell swirls as I start to cut the ham from the hock, and a memory, floating above my noggin, finds an opening and seeps into my head.

This is just like that time Loolie came, unexpectedly, to visit, I think.

That was a Saturday, and I was up early making black bean soup that day, too.  The veggies were sweating in the pot–the aroma woke Jim up.  He floated downstairs–Damn! If he didn’t remind me of a cartoon character buoyed on curly, misty lines of scent!–and said, “Mom! What smells so good?”

Then he looked in the pot and said, with deep disappointment, “Oh. Veggies.” He went into the family room, dragged the Book Woman blanket off the lounge chair, and wrapped himself up on the love seat. He was snoring within minutes.

I went happily back to my chopping. And then, just like today, my phone started to burble and bounce on the counter.

That time, though, it was Loolie.

She was, she informed me, marooned at the Columbus airport, unable to get her connector flight to Chicago, so she could fly from there to Montana, where her sister Jules lives.

“This is so frustrating!” she bellowed.  “There’s no chance I can get a flight before tomorrow morning.  They said they’d get me a room in the airport hotel, but what would I DO all day?”

I grinned, thinking of Loolie, that high-pitched bundle of energy, ping-ing from wall to wall in a tastefully tiny executive hotel room.  “Absolutely NOT,” I told her; “you’re coming here.  Do you want Mark to pick you up?”

I could hear huge relief in her voice.  No, she said, she’d get the airline to rent her a car instead of springing for the room.  She’d see us in a couple of hours.

By the time she arrived, just before eleven, the soup was doing a long slow simmer, and the house was awake.  I had the vacuuming done, the sofa bed pulled out and made up, and the living room closed off and turned into guest space. One load of laundry was chunking around the dryer; another, splooshing in the wash. Mark and Jim had gone out to pick up a few things, food-wise; the dog had been walked.  I was ready for Loolie when she gusted in.

We took big mugs of coffee to the dining room table, and she told me her tale of woe–how her 45 minute layover in Columbus turned into an overnight stay.  She was on her way to Jules’ house because Jules’ oldest son, Trevor, was getting married in the spring, and the bridal shower was that Sunday.

“Looks like,” she said bitterly, “the best I can hope for is to get there about two hours after it’s finished.”  She sighed a heavy sigh.

Then she shook it off, just like that.

“Oh, well!” she said.  “This way I’ll get to visit with my sister for a week without having to help her cook for the shower.” She grinned wickedly, delighted at her unexpected reprieve. “AND I get a nice long visit with you! Hey, this isn’t such a bad deal after all!”

By the time Mark and Jim came back in, Loolie’s ordeal had turned into her adventure.  She enveloped the boyos with great big hugs; she helped them unpack their bags–“Ummmm! What is this?” she demanded, pulling out the crusty loaf of sliced french bread Mark picked up at Giacomo’s.  Jim opened it up and grabbed a slice for himself and a slice for Loolie; they ate it like candy, like potato chips: no butter, straight from the bag, marveling and ‘ahhhhhhing’ at its goodness.

“Save some to go with the soup!” I reminded them.  Jim ran down to get a frozen pizza to pop in the oven for his own, non-vegetative, lunch.

While I putzed around getting lunch ready, Mark and Jim re-connected with Loolie, whom–since I usually visited when I was traveling solo,–they didn’t often get to see.  It was fun to listen as I chopped the ham into tiny morsels and stirred them into the rich, fragrant soup–fun to watch them all spreading the past year out on the table like a funny, lumpy hand of cards, picking out things of interest and delight to snatch up and examine.  By the time I brought big bowls of steaming soup to the table, garnished with little rings of green onion, they were caught up and comfortable.

We sat and ate the soup–we actually each had two big bowlsful; it was tangy and good, pure comfort food. Jim chowed down on his pizza. We watched as the blue winter sky clouded over and the snow began, first gentle, then fierce.  Loolie sighed with satisfaction.

“I am so glad you were home! I was afraid you’d have meetings or plans or visits scheduled,” she said.  “This is so NICE.”

“After lunch,” said Jim, “Aunt Loolie and I are going to watch Star Wars.  You want to join us, Mom?”

“And I’m making dinner,” said Loolie firmly.  “This was a wonderful lunch, and you’ve cooked enough for the day.  James, you’re making dessert, okay?”

Jim saluted.  “Ma’am! Yes, Ma’am!” he said smartly.

We finished our soup, mopping up the final remainders of the rich broth with the good bread, and everyone crowded into my tiny kitchen to clear away the mess.

“I’ll get the movie ready!” Jim said, and he slipped out of the chaos to the family room. The kitchen sparkled in ten minutes, and we grabbed comfy seats in front of the TV, dragging in the big round ottoman so the love-seat-sitters had a place to park their feet. I sat in the plaid chair; I pulled the old foot rest closer, and I grabbed my knitting–a scarf I was making from scraps for a vibrant young colleague who shared a passion for repurposing.  The uplifting, regal Star Wars music filled the family room, and we settled in.

The snow fell, the beloved old movie played, the knitting slipped from my fingers.  I surfaced a couple of times–once to hear Loolie say, gleefully, “See? See? Han steps right on Jabba’s tail!” Jim launched into some back-story he knows about that particular scene and I drifted away again, waking to the distinctive music and the final credits rolling out on the TV screen.

“Oh, my gosh! What a hostess, eh?” I said, and we all laughed, and then somehow,–I think it was Loolie who suggested it–we were all bundling up to go outside and conquer the snow.  We divvied up the push brooms and the snow shovels, and the four of us, hooting, a few snowballs flying here and there, cleared the driveway and the front walk, the back steps, and the paths from the carport to the front door. The snow had gentled down; the neighborhood was hushed and lovely.

And we, we realized, were getting hungry again. It was 6:00. Loolie took charge.

“How are we on beer?” she asked, and she sent Mark and me off to the Wine Rak with clear instructions on what to buy.

“Can I use anything I find in here?” she asked as we were leaving.  Her nose was deep into my freezer.

“Sure,” I said.  “And Jim will help you find anything you need in the cupboard.”

James, gathering the ingredients to make a brownie mix, nodded in agreement.

Mark and I went out; we got the Sam Adams; we came home to find a merry mess in the kitchen.

Jim had his IMac on the little glass table; an episode of “How I Met Your Mother Was Playing,” and he and Loolie were roaring at something Barney Stinson said.  The rich smell of brownies baking perfumed the air.    My counters were covered with potatoes in various stages of undress, chopped onion, garlic bulbs, and some cooked, indeterminate meat Loolie had plucked from the freezer.  The microwave was churgalating merrily. The little dog was everywhere, hoping for free-fall, as Loolie chopped, chopped, chopped.

She whirled as we came in, brandishing the serious knife I bought at the College bookstore, a knife recommended by and intended for the culinary arts program.

“You two,” said Loolie, happily in her element (which is to say, in charge), “grab a beer and go sit in the family room.  James and I have things under control. I am making,” she added, “HASH.”

“Hash!” said Mark reverently; he believes it is one of nature’s perfect foods.

“Hash?” I said questioningly.  “I’ve never MADE hash. I’ve only OPENED hash.”

“Oh, honey,” said Loolie, brightly, “you ain’t lived, then. You just wait.”

With only a tiny jot of guilt–Loolie LIKES to be busy; she has, we often joked, two speeds: high, and asleep; she is NOT your typical guest–Mark and I settled into the cozy chairs in front of the set and found an old episode of “Salvage Dogs”.  Loolie poked her head in once.

“Do you still get,” she asked, “those wonderful eggs from your buddy Heather at work?”

I assured her that we did.

“Yes!” said Loolie, triumphant, as she whirled back to the kitchen.  More pans clattered, and I envisioned my entire shelf of pots and pans denuded, each pot coated with dregs of some concoction or other and flung haphazardly around the kitchen.

“Hash and eggs,” said Mark dreamily.

My first taste of home-made hash was a revelation.  Loolie had diced potatoes and onion and garlic; she had chopped up the meat, which we theorized was a chunk of leftover pot roast. She had stood at the stove and stirred and sauteed, stirred and sauteed, until flavors blended and shared their secrets with each other.  She stirred in the broth she’d microwaved; she poached eggs.  She took out the thick and sturdy Fiori-ware plates and put a steaming scoop of hash on each, topped with a perfectly cooked egg. She seated us at the dining room table, and insisted on bringing our plates to us.

Hash cooking in the cast iron skillet...
Hash cooking in the cast iron skillet…

As she served she sang, a riff on Sting’s “Fields of Gold”:

You’ll remember me when I serve you HASH
with EGGS from HENS of
HEATHER!

You will sigh with JOY
when you cut inTO
those eggs with yolks of GOLD!

The song might have been boisterously off-key, but the meal was so GOOD.  I thought Mark would float away from the table, he was so uplifted. The hash was perfectly cooked, a little bit crusty, tender and savory.  The fresh eggs DID have yolks of gold, and the flavors were perfect together.  We had our first helpings with egg–vegophobe James had a sandwich–and then we divvied up the rest of the hash in the pan and ate every single morsel, scraping the crust off the cast iron skillet with forks and fighting, to the little dog’s dismay and disgust, over the tiniest remaining shard.

Mark and I cleared away the preparation mess; we ate Jim’s brownies, still warm, with scoops of ice cream (CHURNED ice cream, I consoled myself guiltily, after a day of rich eating–only half the fat) drizzled with Hershey’s syrup.  I poured coffee for Loolie and me; Mark and Jim steeped themselves mugs of tea and hot cocoa; we pulled out the playing cards from the sideboard and dug around for nickels.  We played game after game of ‘skat’–uproarious games that elicited groans of dismay and crows of delight, and that ended–no surprise–with Loolie heavier by a hefty stash of coinage.  Then, realizing that Loolie’s flight could require an early morning departure, we bundled everyone off to bed.

We were up by 6:00 AM, and that was good, because Loolie called and found she needed to be back at the airport by 10:00.  She packed up quickly, expertly; she ate a fast breakfast of bran flakes, gave us all big hugs, and was gone like the whirlwind she is.

She called me a couple of weeks later, and she said she and Jules had a great visit.  Loolie loved meeting Trevor’s intended, a feisty young woman named Amy who volunteered as a ski guide when she wasn’t working as a CPA.  Loolie and Jules cooked up a storm together and went to all the local sites and had a big family dinner to make up for the beloved faces Loolie missed seeing at the shower.  It all, she told me happily, turned out GOOD.

Things have a way of doing that when Loolie is involved, I thought.  And now, as I slice the ham from the hock, getting it ready to go into the pot, I muse about visits with Loolie: they always yield unexpected gifts, surprising dividends.  Homemade hash has become one of our family staples–I begged Loolie for her recipe, but she could only natter about a hint of this, a pinch of that, and what’s in your freezer and your pantry? That’s a little loosey-goosey for me, I’m afraid–I need structure, instructions,–so I start with the Joy of Cooking method (here’s a link to their ‘Farmers’ Market Hash’ recipe: http://www.thejoykitchen.com/recipe/farmers-market-hash) and give myself free reign to improvise.  Hash is a warm and comforting Saturday night supper, and the memories it evokes of a visit from the Whirlwind make it taste even better.

The soup is simmering; it’s starting to perfume the house, and Jim, once again, drifts downward, following the good smell.  The snow has stopped; in 90 minutes or so, I’ll head off to work.  For dinner, we’ll cook up a big pot of rice and scoop the black bean soup over the top; we’ll tear apart slices of Giacomo’s french bread and mop up the last remains of rich broth.  Jim will eat his pizza, and we’ll reminisce about the time that Loolie got stuck in Columbus.

Mark will mention how good some hash would be; Jim will say how impressive Loolie’s Star Wars knowledge is; I will think to myself that travel season is coming upon us. Time to think ahead, maybe planning a visit with Loolie, to connect with her and Kerri and  some of our high school buddies–a time to recharge  and revitalize.

And to, maybe, discover a new recipe.  Spring is coming.  I can’t wait!