Being the Things

I pulled out of the driveway to take Jim to work. He synced up his playlist and flooded the car with “Let It Be,” and I swung around the corner to see a cherry red pick-up truck charging up the hill and heading up the driveway of the Helen Purcell home.

And I gasped involuntarily. The woman driving the truck was short enough to be peering over the steering wheel, and I could see her shining blonde hair and the determined set of a high-cheek-boned face.

I gasped because Automatic Mind told me, “That’s TERRI.”

But Reasonable Mind said, “Terri doesn’t have a cherry red pick-up truck, and she wouldn’t be in Zanesville, anyway.”

And Grieving Mind demolished the whole thing. It said, “Terri died on Saturday.”

Jim turned at my gasp.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“Nothing, Buddy,” I answered. “We’re good. Case of mistaken identity.”

But Grieving Mind whispered, “What’s wrong is that Terri died on Saturday.”

**********

When Terri got her shocking diagnosis early in January, her daughters started a special Share and Care for Terri Facebook page. It became a busy place, with people posting pictures and inspirational thoughts and words of encouragement. Early this week, after news of Terri’s death had filtered out, someone posted this: Be the things you loved most about the person who is gone.

It was on a pretty background and attributed to something called Bohemian Quotes, and I looked at it for a minute before I thought, “Whatever THAT means.” It struck me as glib, and in the raw, angry aftermath of a dear friend’s death, I didn’t want any suggestion that, “Here! Just do THIS, and it’ll all be good,” although I realized, deep down, that the person who posted it hadn’t meant that at all.

So I dismissed that little saying, but, like an ear-worm, it burrowed.

Image borrowed from Pinterest

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

When Ott called to tell us about Terri’s death, he talked about the beautiful 48 hours that led up to it.

They watched her favorite movie.

She got up and into her wheelchair, and sat at the back door, where she told Ott exactly what he needed to do, and when he needed to do it, to maintain the beautiful garden she’d created.

She read, or someone read to her, her favorite children’s lit.

And deep into the night before she died, her beloved family gathered with guitars and voices, and they sang Terri’s favorite songs, a caring, loving chorus.Then, I think, she fell into her final sleep. I like to think that she started her journey on a wave of well-loved song sung by best-loved voices.

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

Be the things.

A lot of Terri’s things were about nurture.

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

She nurtured her garden, which was a magical place, with a medley of thoughtful, beautiful plantings. Terri tuned in to nature and the change of seasons. And she would write, sometimes, in her emails, about what was happening in her garden.

She had art in her garden, too, pieces that expressed something very special to her.

I am not a gardener, but last year, Mark noticed the resemblance of the hedge in the front yard to a sinuous caterpillar. We made it some eyes and a mouth and deedly-boppers; we painted a paver to look like Eric Carle’s book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. I found and read a book called A Fall of Marigolds, and I painted a brick to look like that cover, and I nestled that brick in the marigolds, which are one of the few flowers the deer won’t eat. I thought I could paint the old three-wheeled grown-up bicycle in the garage black, plant its capacious basket with more deer-repugnant flowers, and paint a paver to look like the cover of The Wizard of Oz.

I had more ideas, too. Terri was excited. She and Ott were going to come, this summer, and see how far we’d gotten with the storybook garden.

On Monday, not even 48 hours after Terri died, the first drowsy daffodil in my front patch opened its sleepy, bell-shaped blossom.

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

Terri nurtured the people she worked for, and with. She came up with wonderful events. She facilitated art and music therapy activities for grown-ups and kids. At many of these happenings, the kids walked away with a blanket and a book. It was important to Terri that we encourage kids to read, and thus to dream, and just maybe, then, to be carried forward on the strength of that dreaming.

She hosted teas with gardening themes and crafting themes and themes of magical stories like Harry Potter’s. She conceived and created Women’s Enrichment events. She masterminded a yearly fund-raiser for her organization, the Soul Shine Blues Festival.

Terri listened to people. And she took the things she loved best and rubbed them to powder in her hands and distilled them into the work of everyday life. In the doing, she helped and fortified others.

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

I cannot cook in my kitchen without using something that came from Terri—my ceramic flour scoop that arrived in a surprise package one day; the metal mixing bowls, and the spices and sauces, that were part of the Soulshine basket that we won.

I have a drawer full of notes from Terri because she was the kind of person who wrote thinking of you notes and thank you notes in her bold and happy, artistic hand.

Our friend Debbie got a thank you note from Terri in the mail on the day that Terri died. In her last days, she was grabbing a pen and writing her thoughts and nurturing far-off friends.

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

Terri nurtured her home. She changed the decorations by season. In her last Christmas, sick and in pain and not knowing why, she would email daily about her progress in getting the trees up, setting out the children’s Christmas books she loved, putting her cherished decorations on the shelves. I have no doubt Terri’s last Christmas house was a magical thing to see.

The house and the garden and even the work activities, many of which drew her husband or her children into their mesh, were all about family, which was the thing Terri nurtured most fiercely. She loved her husband and kids and daughter-in-law and grandchildren, and her parents and sister and brother and her nieces and nephews and in-laws and extended family and special friends, her family-of-the heart, with the kind of unconditional love that we should all experience just once in our lifetime.

We talked in February when there was still some semblance of hope. We talked about the possibility of nurturing the body so it can set healing processes in play. We talked about the maybe of one last chance at chemo. And Terri said, “I think my grandkids need me here. Does that sound crazy?”

It didn’t sound crazy. It sounded right and true and heart-breaking. Of course those children need that kind of buoying, believing, visioning love.

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

Terri loved music, and her family reverberated with that. Ott plays professionally and Terri would go, almost weekly sometimes, to hear him. He played, too, in church, and he passed his musical gifts on to his kids. As a family, they can make a damn fine noise. Terri often posted video on Facebook.

In her last year, Terri got herself a dulcimer, and she was teaching herself to play it, to add a new and traditional dimension to the family chorus.

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

Terri had felt sick a long time before she was diagnosed. She called for appointments; she asked for tests. For whatever reason, her medical folks didn’t listen to her. It’s a pulled muscle, one told her. They recommended things to reduce stress.

I don’t know if it would have made a difference, in the long run, had she been diagnosed in August instead of January. But it tears my heart that no one listened to her.

There were other disappointments, too, in the days after her diagnosis.

I dealt with her illness by stewing in a broth of anger and resentment on, I thought, her behalf.

But it was clear, in that last weekend, in that last precious visit, that Terri had faced those hurts head on, and synthesized them. She had jettisoned her anger and come to acceptance. She forgave. She let it go, and she found, it was clear, the joy in every last day.

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

Each year, Terri picked a word that was kind of a token or a talisman for her. This year her word was ‘shine,’ and she did, in those three short months she had left. And she does, in a legacy too rich and lasting to let the glow diminish.

She inspired me to choose a word, too. My word this year is ‘courage.’ I was thinking about making bold changes and striking out bravely on new paths. I didn’t think I’d be calling courage into play to deal with my dear friend’s death.

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

Be the things you loved most about the people who are gone.

I have two regrets: I wish I had told Terri more often how important and wonderful her special qualities were. I wish I had tried harder to emulate them when she was here.

And I know this: no one, none of us, can try to do the things she did the way that Terri did them. She is irreplaceable, and the world is changed because she’s gone.

But we can—I can—carry forth the spirit of the things that Terri loved.

I can build that garden.

I can put a stack of CD’s in the car and pick one out to play when I drive to teach my night class. I will crank up the windows and bellow along, in my flat, hoarse voice that no one else should be subjected to, just loving the music.

I can see my house with new eyes and hang things and display things that say beauty to me, that speak to me of seasons and time and what’s important.

I can write a note to a friend.

I can give a book to a child.

I can remember, everyday, to tell the precious people in my family that I love them.

I can face my hurts and resentments head on, and let them go, taking the long, hard slog to forgiveness.

I can, as Terri did, appreciate and marvel at each and every day.

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

And I can let those regrets change the way I do the business of life. I can see, wide-eyed and mindful, the wonderful things that those I love put into play daily.

I see, I can say to them, your humor, your steadfastness. Your devoutness and devotion. Your imagination and artistry. Your gift of love and your gift of perseverance.

I see those things, and I can never do them the same way that you do. But I can appreciate them and I can emulate them, in my own way, through my own lens. Because you, and the things you do, are essential. The world needs those things.

And one day, this train is going to stop, and you and I are going to have to get off. Someone, though, will try to carry on.

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

So.

Be the things you loved most about the people who are gone.

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Marbled Paint

She wakes up at 6 a.m. on Saturday morning, propelled by a sense of urgency.

“What…?” she thinks, and then it floats in to her: she and her brother are finalizing their parents’ gravestone today.

And then she realizes it is happening again: a story is unspooling in her head, demanding her attention. She swings her feet over the edge of the bed. Leans back on her hands. And listens.

There is a little girl, Lucy: thin and brown with snapping eyes and long dark hair. She must be…third grade?

“I’m eight,” Lucy says to the old lady. Lucy is sitting next to the old lady’s bedside. The old lady, she sees now, is called Mae, and she is, maybe, Lucy’s great-grandmother.

Mae holds out her hand and Lucy puts her tiny brown hand into it. Both so delicate, both so fragile. And yet. The hands grasp, and the bond is strong.

“I’m 93,” Mae is saying, answering Lucy’s question. “That’s’ very old! It’s old enough, in fact.”

“Are you dying?” Lucy asks, baldly, and Mae answers in the same way.

“Yes, I am,” she says. “But I think we have enough time to really get to know each other.”

Her phone rings—at 6 a.m.?—and she lets Mae and Lucy go, reluctantly. They slide away; a door snicks shut, but doesn’t lock; and she answers Devin’s call. No, she says; not today. Today is the gravestone day. Don’t you remember?

Clearly, he does not, but he backtracks quickly, promising to call her later, and she clicks off and heads off to take her shower.

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

Lucy and Mae dance in the back room of her consciousness as she dresses and makes breakfast. She sees that Lucy is troubled, does not fit in at school; that she is smart, but maybe not in ways teachers appreciate. She sees to the core of a person, Lucy does, and she reacts, and acts, according to what she sees.

Mae is much the same way. She sees that Mae has lived a controversial life…there may have been many men, many leave-takings. Mae did not stick around if falseness ruled; she insisted on honesty and integrity, and when they were absent, so was she. She has a picture of Mae, much younger, and a little girl who is crying. They are getting on a train, porters are stashing their luggage, and Mae is explaining, softly, to the girl, who seems inconsolable.

**********

Her brother is at her door at 8; they climb back into his car. It is almost a three-hour drive to the cemetery where they have finally decided to inter her parents—her father, who’d died of a sudden heart attack two years ago. Her mother, who’d had a harrowing cancer death four years before that. They’d each been cremated, at their request, and they had left no demands about the final disposal.

Before her mother had died, she’d said, “Whatever you decide to do, make sure I’m with your father.”

And her father, whose death had taken him by surprise, had only joked.

“What do I care?” he’d said. “I’ll be dead.”

When he was dead, shockingly dead, she and her brother were frozen. The cremation went forward as decreed, but they couldn’t, in that moment, make a decision. It had taken time and distance to see that, of course, the place to put their parents was with their brother Danny, who’d died from leukemia at age ten and was buried in the city where they’d all lived at the time.

She had been twenty when Danny died; her brother had been 22. Danny had been a beloved surprise.

The city was three miles away.

***********

Her brother drives and rain falls softly and she leans back into the seat and dozes. And there are Lucy’s parents: she is fair and has a tumble of reddish hair; she is Rachel. She calls him Zeus; Lucy gets her coloring from him. He is sharp and dark. Electric things—love and tension—crackle between them.

They are arguing about Lucy and Mae.

“What happens when Mae dies?” Zeus demands. “Where does that leave Lucy?”

“It leaves her having had one more person who loved her,” Rachel retorts. “One strong, amazing person. It’s better to have Mae for a little while than never at all.”

Then they are hugging; he rocks her, and she murmurs, “It’s too late anyway. We can’t ask Lucy to unlove her.”

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

A raw, ripping sound bolts her upright. She turns to her brother, who looks sheepish.

“Sorry,” he says. “Getting hungry.”

They turn into an Applebee’s so he can grab a bite to eat—her brother, the champion belcher.

Rachel and Zeus fade; it’s like they see her watching, and each reaches out a hand to softly close heavy doors. The doors come together with a smooth and final shush, and they are gone.

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

The stone is lovely. It says ‘O’Malley,’ in bold letters across the top, and has each parent’s name below, with their birth and death dates. The names are punctuated by a beautiful Celtic cross, and a line reads, Together: still, again, and forever.

They’d argued about that. She wanted something funnier—her father had always said that bit about being in heaven an hour before the devil knows you’re dead. Maybe, she thought, they could adapt that somehow, but her brother won out. Simple, he said. Dignified. We can share the funnier stories another way.

Finally she’d agreed, since he wasn’t budging anyway. And now, she admits it looks just right. They would like it, and like the thought of sharing a green, peaceful spot with little Danny.

The woman at the monument maker’s office is actually an old friend of their mother’s. She tears up, working with them, but they complete the paperwork speedily, handle the payment, work out the details of installation. She wants them to come to her house for coffee or a meal.

She nudges her brother in the heel with her foot, and he declines in his best charming way.

“Sis has to work tonight,” he says, “and I promised my wife I’d be home in time to tuck the little one in.”

The woman flutters; her brother shows her baby pictures. Finally, they depart, disentangled from tearful hugs.

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

She drives home; her brother snores. And she watches the road—she really does—but Lucy and Mae come back to her. Mae, it seems, has been pared away; she is leaner—she is LESS—than when she saw them talking this morning. And Lucy knows what’s happening.

“I don’t want you to go,” Lucy says, and Mae’s frail hand reaches out to take the girl’s. There is strength in the clasped hands.

“I know you don’t,” says Mae. “I’m not really excited about going, but I think it will be all right.”

There is silence between them, and then Mae says, “Did you ever make marbled paper?”

Lucy looks at her, puzzled. And Mae says, “YOU know. You put paint on a piece of paper. Different colors. And you put it in a shoe box. Then you thrown in a few marbles, and you put the top on and shake it. Have you ever done that?”

Lucy nods, slowly.

“Well, we’re like that,” says Mae. “You’re one color, and I’m another, and we’ve been shaken up together. When I leave, I’m taking part of you with me. And when I go, part of me will stay here with you. Our colors have blended. We’ll be in different places, but we’ll never be really apart.”

Lucy puts her other hand on Mae’s and they are both crying now.

And her brother snorts awake, and Lucy and Mae fade away.

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

He plays with the radio; she cracks the window open to get a little fresh air in the car. She is going a comfortable five over the speed limit. A huge SUV roars past them, and she smiles.

“I don’t know if he’s fatter than me or faster than me,” she says, and they both laugh.

“Both, I’d say, maybe,” says her brother, and then they are quiet, remembering. That had been a Danny-ism. He’d been three years old, and they had taken him to the playground, where he’d had, with another kid about the same age, a long conversation. Finally, Danny had come over to talk to her.

“He wants me to race him,” he whispered loudly. “That kid.”

“Well,” she said, “do you want to race?”

“I don’t know,” Danny whispered urgently. “Is he fatter than me, or faster than me?”

It turned out the kid, like the SUV, was both, and the line became a catch phrase they invoked before making risky decisions. Although they had stopped saying that after Danny died; it seemed to hurt them all too much.

***********

But it feels right to say it now, and she sees a streak of paint spreading across a piece of paper: green for Danny, young and hopeful.

***********

It is just after three when he drops her off; she does not have to work until six, and she settles in to the comfy chair with a book; she closes her eyes and lets the day seep in. And there are Rachel and Lucy, both wet-faced. She knows that Mae must have died.

Lucy asks Rachel where people GO, and Rachel says she doesn’t know.

“But,” she says, “physics tells us that you can’t destroy energy. And so the energy that was Mae has got to be somewhere. I don’t know, baby, if that’s heaven or something else, but I know she’s out there someplace.”

“Never really apart,” murmurs Lucy, and Rachel is puzzled, but she gathers the little girl in and they huddle, comforting each other.

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

She gets off work at 2 a.m., and she comes home and types the story of Lucy and Mae. She prints it out and puts it in the story box she keeps.

The next day she buys marbles and acrylics and she puts a piece of parchment paper in a shoe box. She pours in smears of paint. Blue for her mother and red for her dad. Green for Danny. Purple for her brother, a balanced mix of hot and cold. And orange for her, because she stills simmers, hot and unsettled.

She throws in five marbles, puts the top on, and rolls them around.

She does that nine times, and she lays the papers on her kitchen table.

The next day, before work, she picks the one she likes best, and she gets out her matting machine and an ornate old black frame. She cuts the matte, and she trims the picture, and she puts them in the frame. She turns it over to look; there is a riot of intersected color, uproarious, blended. Sometimes, one color will track away from the others, separate, but changed by the contact.

Perfect, she thinks, and she slide the cardboard backing in. She pencils onto it, “Marble painting. Never really apart.” She initials it and adds the date.

She pounds a nail into an empty space of wall right above her bread box.  The painting adds a bright splash of color.

She cleans up her project detritus, and then she gathers her things and goes to work.

 

 

 

 

Kind of Like a Duck Walk

We sat on the steps of the old farmhouse, Shayne and I, the first ones up at a family gathering, on a soft and sunny summer morning. It was less than a year since her dad, my brother, had died. I was telling her about the butterflies I kept seeing. They hovered. They lighted. They flew, over and over, onto the windshield of my moving car.

“I have decided to take them as a message, as a token,” I said. “I’ve decided they mean that Dennis is all right.”

Shayne sighed in the gentle sun of a sunny summer morning.

“I wish I’d get a message,” she said.

And in that moment, a butterfly: hovering just in front of her, long enough to be seen, to demand her full attention.

And, “One turned to two,” says Shayne,  “and two turned into…dozens.”

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

Huh. Probably, you know, just a big year for butterflies.

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

As we headed down the hill for our nightly constitutional Mark asked me about a friend who, post-retirement, is not always in town. A story she shared not long ago popped immediately into my head, and so I, in turn, shared it with Mark.

My friend’s daughter and her family live in a southward state; my friend splits her time between that state and this one. One day her daughter was explaining to her toddler twins, a boy and a girl, that Grandmother was at her Ohio home that week.

Little Will considered this news about his grandmother solemnly, my friend said, and then he made a  pronouncement.

“Her,” he stated, “has two houses. Her is a lucky duck.”

Something about that story just tickled me, and it seemed to tickle Mark too.

“A lucky duck, is her?” he said, and we rambled, on a night of cool breezes, down the hill, under a cloud-scudded sky.

We turned at the corner of Normandy and began marching up Englewood.

“Well, hey,” said Mark. “Lookie there.”  On the dashboard of a shiny new Mustang, there was a large mallard duck bobble-head.

“Hey,” I said, “SPEAKING of ducks…”

 **********************************

Just like that our evening stroll became a duck walk. Go figure.

And what are the odds that, wandering through a land-bound neighborhood, we’d come upon a park-like stretch of long green grass, long enough to ripple in the wind, and wide enough that the duck sitting contentedly in the center looked tiny indeed?

“What???!!!” we both said, and I joggled my phone out of my pocket. By the time I pulled up the camera app, the duck was on to me; he was waddling away as fast as his flat webbed feet would take him. I snapped the picture anyway; his back was to me, and his back was far away, but still: documentation of our duck walk.

Duck

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

And then, the next night, I took young James to Kohl’s to buy a new vacuum, and on the way out of the parking lot, we had to stop for a family of ducks. The mama didn’t look much older than a teenager herself, slight and still a little downy, and her six fuzzy little charges–well, they were all over the place, on the curb, in the street, veering and waddling. Mama was beside herself. She was back and forth, across the street, up on the curb, flapping and quacking; she was back in the street and herding.

The car approaching us stopped. We stopped. The cars behind both of us stopped. And then the baby ducks disappeared. We peered over and around the hood of the car, but they were just gone. Gone UNDER the car? In front of it? Mama bobbed and weaved and quacked, and there we were, a line of frozen cars, wondering what happened to those fuzzy little ducks.

So James opened up the car door to see if he could spot them for me, gingerly putting one foot down on the blacktop. That was all they needed. An explosion of ducklings ran across the street, little wings flapping, raucously yelling, WOK!WOK!WOK! They clustered around the little mama, and, in a scrum, they headed over the grassy hill to safety.

I imagine them years hence, telling the story: “And then this giant MAN put his foot down on the hard top and we RAN out from under the car…”

What a week it was. What an adventure of ducks. Why did it feel so poignant?

Why did I feel so sad?

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

An old, old memory came back to me–a memory of writing, for Mrs. Halsey in second grade, my first research paper. We had drawn slips to get our topics, and mine said, in Mrs. Halsey’s spikey, perfect, Catholic school script, “The mallard duck.”

I carried that paper home like a treasure or a sign. This, after all, was REAL homework! This was, finally, the big kid times.

I remembered the dull old encyclopedia, red cloth cover faded to rose, and the wonder of finding the article about mallards within. I remembered my mother patiently telling me how to take notes; I remembered her showing me how to record where I got my information. Because it was cheating, she informed me, to learn from someone else but to claim that knowledge as always having been our own. I nodded, serious and alert, and I carefully wrote the title of the article and the name of the encyclopedia at the very bottom of the page.  (That may have been the moment my fate as English teacher was sealed.)

I learned about downy feathers that lined ducks’ nests and the oil that gave the ducks their buoyancy and protected them from frigid waters. I learned about habitat and migration, about eggs and natural predators. I drew a square on my lined yellow page and inside it, I copied the encyclopedia photo of a nesting duck. I copied it in pencil; the picture was black and white. I drew a shiny glint spot in the eye, but, not being able to envision the colors, I did not  get my crayons.

When I was done, my mother told me I’d done well. “Well, this is what I’ll do,” I thought. “I’ll just write papers all my life.”

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

Ducks, I remember. And research.

And why not a little research now? I think.

So I pull my iPad toward me, touch the Safari app, and pull up Yahoo. “Ducks,” I type, “symbolism.”

I get thousands of hits, and pick a promising one.

If a duck has waddled across my path, spiritanimals.com suggests, I should take note of my surroundings; a new opportunity is being offered. “You will have to move forward swiftly,” the page’s author advises, “so your new ideas can take flight.”

I like the sound of that and I read on. “Alternatively,” reads the text, “Duck may be reminding you that today is a day you should spend exploring your emotions.”

And just like that another memory surfaces, of being at Mark’s parents when Stephen and Patty come in, drenched and dripping from the rain.

“How are you?” someone demands, and they laugh together and say the words that were their mantra: “Just ducky.

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

Ever after, when I asked Patty how she was, she would tell me she was just ducky. She said it the first time she beat cancer back. She said it when it returned seventeen years later, and she beat it back again.

But cancer is vile and clever and invidious, and it was waiting; it was working out a way around her strength. “We’ve got to be stealthy and quick to conquer this one,” it must have said. It must have, for Patty to be up and doing laundry of a Monday, and dead at cancer’s hand that Sunday, surrounded by her family, on that ironic Mother’s Day.

It struck so quickly she didn’t have time to fight it off, to be just ducky again.

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

When a dear one who lives far away dies, you can pretend there’s nothing wrong. There’s no big gap in your everyday life. You tamp down that sadness, and you pretend it’s just not there. You plunge into the whirlwind of daily routine, of Things That Must Be Done, and you deny, deny, deny.

I’m not listening, you say, and you plug your ears against the persistent whispers.

But the hurt of Patty’s death was there with me, waiting to be acknowledged.

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

Some folks believe that when God or Nature or Spirit has a message for you, it will get through. It will come in a dream that carries through to daytime awareness. It will emerge in a passage from a book that speaks so clearly, so strongly, it must be acknowledged. A horoscope, read just for fun, will have sudden, deep-seated meaning.

Or it may come as a symbol, showing up over and over until it cannot be ignored.

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

Despite the feyness of my Celtic roots, I’m a smart, sophisticated, educated, objective woman. I know that God has much, much better things to do with Her time than to send us image after image after image, to meet us at every corner, to suggest to us in certain terms that, although Patty may be gone, she is all right.

No, the ducks were just a coincidence. The ducks were what I call the ‘New Car Phenomenon’: I get a new car, and suddenly, I see that make and model all over the darned place.

I had my duck lenses on.

And so, I saw ducks.

I’m much too objective to think that we were getting a cosmic message, but I am glad, anyway, that those ducks were my catalyst to awareness. I can hear a message even if they weren’t sent especially to carry one.

Here’s the message I hear:

Remember (the ducks remind me) the blithe and blessed spirit that was Patty.

62 Years of Sauce

This year, my mother-in-law Pat gathered her grown children around her Thanksgiving table. They came from small cities and villages within her western New York county; they came from the west coast and from the Midwest.  They came to eat the first Thanksgiving dinner not cooked up and served up under the discerning eye of their father Angelo; he died in the dawning of 2015.

Ironically, Pat and Ang’s 62nd anniversary fell on Thanksgiving day itself this year.  The marriage spanned 61 years of growth and change, war and détente, peace, turmoil and resolution, births and nurturing, work and respite, loss and renewal–in the world, and in their lives.

That’s a lot of years together.

That’s a lot of spaghetti sauce.

**********

I ate spaghetti, growing up, and I liked it, but my Scottish mother’s version was not like ‘regular’ spaghetti. The sauce was thin enough to be translucent. Early on, she rebelled against shaping meatballs; instead she’d brown a big chunk of burger in the sauce pot.  One of my brothers had an aversion to the texture and sight of any kind of stewed veggies, so Mom would clamp the big metal grinder to the countertop and run an onion through it.  The grinding reduced the onion to mush; Mom would stir that into the cooking beef.  (She always cleaned out the grinder by running stale bread through it, behind the onion; often there’d be ground bread in the sauce, too, which didn’t bother anyone.)
She would pour cans of tomato sauce and tomato paste into the pot.  She would double the bulk with water, and stir in oregano and basil flakes.  She would simmer it all together and cook up two pounds of thin spaghetti.
We ate it all with no complaints; it was hot, flavorful, and filling.

It wasn’t, though, traditional Italian spaghetti sauce. When I married Mark, I would really begin to learn the intricacies and variations involved with cooking a wonderful, thick, bubbling pot of what his family called, in Italian, “soukup.”

*****

Angelo was the son of Sicilian immigrants Joseph and Mary–called Ma and Pa by their children and extended family. They married in the States in the early part of the twentieth century; they built a life in western New York, where they had seven children and Pa worked on the railroad. Ma was a stay-at-home mom; on Saturdays, Ang recalled, she would cook up a huge pot of sauce and bake enough bread for a week. Ang was always interested in cooking; he learned the secrets of sauce by watching Ma and helping her.

He brought those secrets, those tasty techniques, into his marriage with Pat, who was not Italian, but quickly learned the ins and outs of Italian cooking.

Sundays were family dinner days.  In the early years of their marriage, Ang and Pat lived in an apartment above Ma and Pa, and, after church, they would gather downstairs around a huge and groaning dining table. Several of Ang’s siblings would arrive with spouses and kids; a special table would be set up for the young ones.  Bowls and platters of pasta and sauce would emerge steaming from Ma’s kitchen, and the family would dig in with gusto.

When Ang and Pat bought their own home, that big table came to roost in their dining room, and the tradition of Sunday pasta dinners moved with them, too.  They had five children in all, four active boys, and then, ten years after Thomas, the youngest, was born, the lovely surprise of a baby girl.  Mark and his brothers brought friends home on Sundays; leaves extended the table to its utmost. Extended family might drop in. When the boys began marrying and grandchildren arrived, the practice of the children’s table had to be reinstated.

But the wonderful quality of the sauce never wavered.  When I first knew Pat–I was in college and we worked together at a bookstore–she canned tomatoes and tomato sauce, and the pasta sauce was simmered from ingredients mostly home-grown and hand-preserved.  A long simmer, the right seasonings, a little sweetness to cut the acid…attention to detail and patience were the most important qualities.  Spaghetti sauce was a delicious and inexpensive way to feed a hungry mob.

The sauce that Pat simmered up in the kitchen of her lovely hundred-year-old home was far different from my Scottish mother’s.  Pat and Ang served sauce that was thick, rich, and fragrant.  (Their sauce was to my mother’s what robust stew juices are to thin soups–both valid, of course, but mightily different.  I understood after first tasting Ang and Pat’s pasta why some Italian families call their red sauce ‘gravy’.)

Unless it was a Friday, or Lent, the sauce could contain many different kinds of meat–usually an abundance of meatballs, often Italian sausage, and sometimes pork or chicken.  My father-in-law was partial to putting pig trotters into his red sauce; I didn’t doubt that they sweetened the sauce. Those seemed, though, blatantly anatomical steaming on the plate of meat which Ang would strain from the sauce and place in the middle of the table. He and Pat would put little bowls of sauce at intervals; there would be grated cheese and crusty bread and greens to make a salad.  And two huge bowls of pasta with scoops could be easily reached from all seats.

A lot of sauce was ladled at that table; the sauce fueled conversation, discussion, and camaraderie.  As years went by, Pat’s methods changed; the proliferation of good, economical, high-quality canned sauce made the hard work of handpicking, peeling, juicing, and canning tomatoes unnecessary.  But the canned sauce was only a base for the magic that Pat and Ang worked in their kitchen.

Along the way, Ang discovered a recipe in his local newspaper; it was Dom Deluise’s mother’s meatball recipe, it was darned good, and we use our adaptation of it to this day. I imagine the sauce being shared around tables for generations to come–feeding hungry families, complementing joy and struggle.

So here, in honor of Ang and Pat’s long partnership, and of the first anniversary, just past, they’ve spent apart, here is the method for that long simmered sauce….

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

We use (to feed 4-6 people):
–one 6-ounce can tomato paste
–one 8-ounce can tomato sauce
–one 24-ounce can of spaghetti sauce, traditional or meat flavored
–a portion of a recipe of Dom’s Mom’s meatballs
–three links of Italian sausage
–one onion
–one clove of garlic
–olive oil
–oregano
–basil
–rosemary
–a bay leaf

–one quarter cup of sugar

Coat the bottom of a heavy stock pot with olive oil, and heat that over a medium flame. In it, sauté chopped onion until almost translucent, then add the garlic clove, crushed.  Stir until the veggies are sweated and soft, then add the tomato paste and sauce and spaghetti sauce.  Fill the empty sauce jar with water, twice, and stir into the pot.  Add the spices and sugar and bring to a simmer.  We cook and stir, simmer and steep, for at least three hours.

Meanwhile, bake the meatballs (recipe follows) and parboil the sausage. At least an hour and a half before serving–and you can do this well before then–add the meat to the pot and let everything simmer so the flavors will meld and blend.

As the acid bubbles to the top of the sauce during the early simmer, skim with a flat spoon.  You can sweeten the sauce in several ways.  We usually add at least a quarter cup of sugar; I know people who add a cup or more. We have a good friend who peels a carrot and halves it and throws both halves into a steaming sauce pot. Pork bones also seem to add sweetness and cut the acid; we save the bones and leftover meat from a roast, and in they go.

Chicken, also, cooks down into tender strands in the sauce and adds a wonderful flavor; I don’t recommend putting pieces of chicken in the pot with bone intact, though.  The tiny bones come unglued and separate into the sauce, and unsuspecting diners crunch down on bits of hard bone.  Much better to remove the flesh from the bones and throw just the tender meat into that simmering brew.

We like to serve this with a tossed green salad, grated parmesan, and a loaf of crusty bread.  Of course, a bold red wine goes nicely too.

It’s easy to double or triple this method for a crowd, and you can be daring with add in’s.  We love the sauce with fresh zucchini cooked into it, for instance. And in Lent, Mark’s dad always omitted meat and added sardines and chopped hard-boiled egg.  In those times, instead of topping the sauce with cheese, Ang would heat olive oil in his cast iron skillet, and brown up  a big batch of bread crumbs. The family would use them in place of parmesan, and Mark still loves his sauce topped that way.  And of course, vegetarian possibilities are endless, too. A neat trick Pat taught me was to add dried fennel to the sauce; its taste evokes Italian sausage, even when there’s none to be found in the freezer.

Leftover, this sauce makes a dynamite base for a thick, spicy chili.

********

Our version of Dom’s Mom’s Meatballs

2 lbs. ground chuck
1/2 lb. ground pork (ground turkey works, too, as does ground chicken…)
2 cups Italian flavored bread crumbs
4 eggs
1 cup of milk
1 cup of fresh parsley, chopped (or–I often use 1/4 cup of dried parsley)
1/2 cup grated cheese–our favorite is a romano/parmesan blend
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 garlic cloves, chopped fine
1 minced onion
***Optional: 1/2 cup pine nuts

Mix all ingredients; let stand for 1/2 hour.

Shape into meatballs.

Fry gently (to brown), or bake on a cookie sheet at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.

Add cooked meatballs to sauce and simmer.

Summer Possibles

The door to summer opens, and letters, messages, arrive… Ah, delight: there is company coming.

They survey the guest area–a pull out couch in the living room. The room has three entries; the back two can be shuttered with louvered doors, but the large front arch, the entry by the foyer, is too big for a traditional door.  When people stay overnight, they hang a curtain there from a spring tension rod.  The dog walks underneath it and jumps onto the pulled out bed. People cut through, saying, “Oh, SORRY!” when chastised.

Sometimes the guests sleep there; sometimes they put the guests in the master and sleep there themselves.  The common space shrinks to the family room.  It’s awkward, at best.

She wonders…  They go upstairs and stand in the doorway of her little box room, which is filled with craft items and boxes, photos and gifties, frames and wrapping paper and spools of silky ribbon.  A tiny room.  A room with no door.

Could we, she speculates, hang one of those barn door hardware contraptions? He backs in to the room, looks at the doorway, pulls out a measuring tape.

He searches the internet for the hardware.

“Yarrrgh!” he says, “expensive!”  But then he locates a set for less than a third of what the big box stores charge.  He places the order.

They pack all the crafty stuff into plastic bins and move them to the basement.  The dusty curtains go down the laundry chute.  She pulls out the vacuum and sucks up dust and tiny shreds of paper.  They dismantle a heavy old wooden table and lug it, in pieces, down to join the bins.

She finds a black iron day bed for seventy dollars; he puts it together. It fits snugly into the alcove formed by the dormer window. They search the ads for deals and find a mattress on sale at a discount store.  When they arrive to pick it up, they discover everything’s on sale, and there’s an extra discount with their member card.  They buy a bucket chair, a tiny dresser, a bedside table.

He and the boy go out to the garage and clean.  In the process, they uncover an old wooden door.  They set up a workshop,—sawhorses, electric sander. He sands the door smooth, paints it a soft, shining white.  The hardware arrives and he drags it and the door upstairs, mounts the black brackets, hangs the door.  The door looks perfect.

The new guest room is a tiny, pretty, welcoming gem.

Well, it’s summer, they think.  It feels like anything is possible.

She begins walking again, at night, feeling the stretch in her legs; her IPod cranks out Leonard Cohen and she catches herself marching and singing along. She smiles at passersby–the whippet-thin running woman whose ponytail pounds from shoulder to shoulder, the acrobatic biking boys who stand to charge up a long curved hilly drive. Their payoff is the thrilling return trip, navigating the downhill curves, wind riffling their short, hot-weather hair.  They zoom out onto the sidewalk, grinning, wheel around, pedal up the energy to try it again.

She thinks at first she’s crazy to try, too tired, old, and crazy to pedal up her own energy;  but soon she is walking three miles a night.

On Tuesdays, she brings big bags of fresh, local veggies home from work; they spread them out and scrutinize. Can we eat all this? they wonder. Then they begin to see recipes everywhere they turn.  They chop and blanch and freeze; they  stir together Italian wedding soup with homemade chicken broth, fresh chopped kale, tiny orzo noodles. Instead of of meatballs, they brown Italian sausage, brought back special from western New York. It is tangy and pungent; they crumble it up into the soup, eat big bowls with crusty bread from an Italian baker, and freeze containers to take for lunch.

They grill veggies and saute them; they bake chicken with summer squash and carrots.  They make dips and pesto. New recipes: why not?  They discover new favorites.

They plant basil seeds in egg cartons on the sun porch; the seeds sprout and thrive and then two desperately hot days cook their sad little stems.  She goes out and buys established plants–basil and rosemary.  They put them in the kitchen sink garden outside the kitchen door. Why not, he says, dump that good dirt from the egg cartons into the sink?

Great idea, she agrees, and sprinkles the rich black soil around the herbs.

Within days, he notices little seedlings  sprouting.  Something tells them to let those little plants be, and the seedlings get bigger and stronger.  She spicks a leaf off, rubs it between finger and thumb, sniffs.  Basil!  All the seeds they’d thought were dead come happily back to life in the rich moist dirt, the friendly sun, protected in the ell of the house from wind and storm.

Their spaghetti sauce tastes like the sun, with fresh basil and rosemary, tomatoes picked that morning at the farm down the way. It’s summer, and the time and the possibilities–even healthy plants growing from zapped seeds–seem endless.

Wendy comes to take the guest room for its maiden flight; she deems it a cozy place to sleep and read.  They take her, all three of them, on a lazy ride down the river on the paddlewheeler Lorena.  Fanned on the upper deck by river breezes, they hungrily dig into a light and lovely lettuce salad, and they fork up prime rib that cuts like butter as they chug smoothly north for an hour. They lazily eat chocolate peanut butter pie and drink hot black coffee as the Lorena turns to head home.  Children run along the riverbanks, yelling and following them. Big tough tattooed men lean out of party barges to pump their arms in the ageless signal children send to semi drivers: HONK!  PLease HONK!

The captain, a quiet, white-haired gentleman in a nautical cap, grins and obliges, pulling the long loud honking foghorn over and over.  Women, waving the hands that don’t hold clinking drinks, lounge in canvas chairs carried to the water’s edge. A storm threatens, but, of course, does not materialize. It is summer, and threats subside.

Some days she walks early and late. She loves to walk by a neighbor’s gaudy flowering shrub. Its blossoms are bigger than dessert plates, pleated and pretty with clear true colors, full and grinning in the early morning sun.

At night, the flowers curl in on themselves, as if exhausted by their boisterous, flamboyant display.  They look, he says, like hand-rolled cigars.

They walk through the Gardens around the corner; they marvel at the lily pads with their waxy blooms, exuberant in the pond where the waterfall plashes.

Some Sunday nights, a loosely woven orchestra plays in the bandshell; the group struggles gamely with complicated compositions but comes out strong with John Phillip Sousa. They clap and stamp along with the crowd, a range-y crowd with children zipping in dizzyingly circles, elders whose worn and spotted hands beat time on the metal arms of their folding lawn chairs, a cluster of black clad young people, whose cool is betrayed by feet that can’t help tapping. They people-watch and imagine unconventional matches–the crisp-cut young man, the languid and pretty young Goth.  Why not?  They’d be good for each other, maybe, they agree, and it’s summer, after all–a time for taking chances. It’s a time when it’s possible the chances will bear fruit.

But there is the chance too of the evening phone call: Are you sitting down? says the well-loved voice on the other end,–or, Call me as soon as you get this, urges the message.  These events, too, sneak into summer possibles–the ones that throw them heavily onto the bench, trying hard not to believe the messenger.

But he wasn’t SICK, he says.  He was planning a visit in two weeks.

No, she argues, he was too young.

They sit outside as the sky darkens; the birds get raucous, then grow quiet. All kinds of things, they accept sadly, are possible.

They remember by planting trees that stretch skyward and strengthen; flowers burgeon and tales of life and seasons play out in front of them.  It is a time, for them, of growth and joy, but they know,–they have the sorrowful evidence–that the pedal always turns.

They get ready for a visit from their beautiful young granddaughter, standing on the brink of so many possibilities. Her gentle hands will welcome sassy Max, the neighborhood cat, settle the antsy dog into summer slumbers.  They will go to the Zoo; they will tour the Wilds.  They’ll have wonderful meals and long walks and conversations of re-discovery.

Summer rolls up its hill, hovers for a moment at the peak, and begins to descend.  There is more glamor and flash ahead, but mothers are beginning to dream of children back in school.  The ads come out–tablets for a quarter, folders for a dime.  The first leaves on the spring-flowering tree by the kitchen window turn vividly red and flutter.

On Saturday nights, they fall asleep to the strident voice and the insistent bass of the band that plays at the bar down by the river;  the chorus of young voices rise and eddy.  It is summer yet, summer with its promise and its insistent push–you dare not rest; you must keep moving. The journey is often joyful and sometimes culls forth a wrenching loss.

They will sit outside and light a fire, sipping drinks and talking softly; they will welcome visitors to that pretty little room. They have, now, years enough on the planet to know not to fight time and flail against fate; summer will wane, and autumn will blazen. They will cosset their joys and remember their losses, and even in the midst of hard-earned wisdom, feel that little leap, that firm little flicker.

It is summer; they know what they know. Yet somehow, anyway, in the cool quiet of the night, in the friendly flicker of the fire, they still believe it’s true: anything could be possible.