Gifts of Food in a Thankful Season

It is a cold, gray, wet afternoon, and the streets are coated with leaves, sodden and slick.

I talk my self out of the walk I should take and decide to make some soup instead.

I find a baggie of red pepper slices and a package of boneless chicken in the freezer. It occurs to me that we have not had chicken corn chowder in a long, long time. I rummage in the cookbooks and find The Reader’s Digest Great Chicken Dishes (copyright 1999; Mark and Jim got this for me long years ago). I open the book; it flips right to Chicken Corn Chowder. We have made this recipe many, many times, especially during the law school years.

The kitchen becomes a bustling place. I put the solid, frozen poultry block  in a big skillet, pour water in up to its knees, set it to steam on a slow burner. The chicken was a deal Mark picked up when he and Jim were in Westerville; they stopped at Fresh Thyme and snarfed up bargains, including boneless chicken: 1.69 a pound.

While it poaches, I chop veggies: the pepper while it’s still frozen-crisp, potatoes, and onion. And I remember that the potatoes and onion are freebies. Visiting a friend, I went to her local supermarket and discovered an amazing sale. If I bought a plump chuck roast, the store would give me nine other pot-roast-y items free. The onions and potatoes were in the mix. I filled a cooler and brought my goodies home to unpack and ponder.

The roast was so big I cut it into three hefty pieces. We used one chunk that night, making beef fajitas. I froze the rest, with hazy thoughts of soups and stews.

But now I dig into the sack of small potatoes, wash them well, dice them fairly small, put them in a bath of cold water. The chicken sizzles and spits; I add another inch of water, and I flip the fowl, which breaks apart into separate, still pinkish, cutlets. I sprinkle on light seasoning—just a little salt and pepper—and go back to my chopping.

I peel my freebie onion, toss the skins, and dice that too.

This is a pantry-shelf kind of dish. While the chicken completes cooking through, I search my cupboards and shelves. I pull out a can of creamed corn; way back, I find a can of evaporated milk. I measure the half cup of milk I need and pour the rest into a plastic container and slide it into the fridge. In the back of my mind, thoughts about how we can use that extra milk begin to simmer.

I dig out the packet of herbs de Provence I bought at the farm store. This recipe calls for a little cayenne, too.

I chop the chicken, thinking that Jim won’t eat the chowder, and I remember there’s a jar of Alfredo sauce in the pantry. That came from a burgeoning basket we won, and James loves chicken Alfredo.

I fill the big pasta pot, drizzle in some oil, and put it on the simmer burner to warm up to the boiling point.

The chicken is done. I turn off the flame, look at the clock, and head off to pick up Jim from work.

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

We need a dessert, I think, and I pull a butter wrapper from the freezer. I shine up the insides of my baking pan. While the chicken cools, I boil together corn syrup and sugar. When they are bubbling hard, I turn off the heat and stir in a cup of peanut butter. It’s a thick, hot, viscous syrup, and I pour it over the crisp rice cereal I’ve dumped into the pasta bowl.

I stir, vigorously, and rice krispies fly everywhere, until they are tamed into obedience by the sweet syrup. They tumble into the pan; I press them down and melt chocolate in the microwave to spread over the top. Buckeye bars, we call them, sweet and chewy and not a shard of gluten in the mix.

I put the pan, warm and heavy now, on top of the toaster to cool.

Jim chortles over something he’s watching in the family room.

The rain begins again, hard and insistent.

I pull chicken from the frying pan, I get the big knife out, and I chop.

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

Mark comes running in, glinting rain droplets, a little after five, and exclaims about good smells. There are three pots simmering on the stove. The chowder lifts and bubbles, lofting herb-scent into the warm, steamy kitchen. The Alfredo sauce heaves sullenly, weighted down by its own richness and its bounty of chicken chunks. The pasta water is popping, jittery and anxious.

Jim decides he’d like linguine noodles, and we pull them from their plastic package and satisfy the agitated water shivering in the pasta pot.

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

Mark lights the fire in the fireplace to cut the chill, and we gather over steaming plates. And it comes to me, rich and fast, the meaning of thankfulness, the reality of bounty. We have enough and plenty; we have true gifts of food…food we bought with the pay from our labors, food that was gifted to us in surprising, delightful ways.

Mark savors a spoonful of chowder.

“Such good flavors,” he says. “Remember how Cheek used to love this?”

Todd, a young law school classmate, used to pass Mark notes in class when he was in need of a home-cooked meal.

“I like chicken corn chowder,” the note would say.

Soon, we would cook up a batch, and Mark would invite Todd and other friends over.

Tonight, this food has the savor of herbs and the comfort of memory.

The canned Alfredo sauce, Jim says, is really, really good. And when I washed the jar, I discovered it was beautiful and decorative, a stamped mason jar…something we can use, maybe to pack up some kind of savory Christmas goodies.

There’s past, present, and future in this meal.

And a call to remember and be thankful, in this month of Thanksgiving; we have much to give thanks for, and that is not true, we know, for everyone tonight. A call to action; a time to reckon how we can share our gifts.

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

I take a long, sharp knife and cut the rice krispie treats into bars. We carry dishes to the dishwasher; we fill the sink with hot soapy water. Jim wipes the table. I lift burners with a potholder and sponge off the dappled, overworked stove top.

Mark is elbow-deep in soapy water, telling a story about a very nice person from his office who went home for lunch and never had time to eat. Outside the last sip of sky-light is gone and the sky gentles into full dark.

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

Dishes done, table cleared, I take my book to the reading chair. I munch a Buckeye bar and read about magicians in the Victorian era, and my socked-up feet toast in the warmth of the fire.

Warm and dry and sated, family safe around me, I am struck, physically, by my luckiness, a luck I enjoy, but did not, particularly, earn.

The rain still comes down, relentless, steady.

 

 

 

 

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A Generous Dash of Humility

Dell is with her colleagues. They are bunched tightly together in the lobby of the building, listening to the CEO expound on a large gift their not-for-profit has just received. Cameras click; words like ‘capital campaign,‘robust giving,’ and ‘moving the effort forward’ float like cartoon bubbles above their heads.

“Incredible generosity,” the CEO intones. Her mind closes its speech-receiving door and takes a wander.

Define generosity, Dell instructs herself. And she thinks about some things.

*************
There is this:

Ten people found packages on their desks on Monday morning, sturdy gold toned boxes tied with wiry ribbon of autumn orange. They were filled with the most delicious homemade chocolate chip cookies. Ten people reached in and removed a cookie, took a bite, and smiled.  Ten Mondays just got a whole lot better.

There was no note, no card, no hint of whom the provider might be. Hmm. Pixies have been at work, maybe?

But most of them had a pretty good idea of their benefactor’s identity. There aren’t too many people who’d stay up until 2:00 AM, packaging freshly baked cookies to bring smiles to tired faces. And they know he didn’t do this for elaborate thanks and gratitude.

He’s just a generous guy.

***********

And there is Kim.

Kim has a project, a pet project, one she has been angling for permission to roll out. And that permission has finally arrived.

She’s an organized woman, Kim, and she has neatly written plans and timelines. She knows exactly how this should look. She knows exactly who should be involved–the right people to take this project to exactly the place she wants it to go. Kim creates a binder, a structure of the project, kind of a neatly-presented seed pod that will produce a wonderful, living, breathing, plant.

Kim has got a project. And Kim has got a colleague whose office is next door.

Her colleague is talented and lovely, but a little bit…bossy. A little bit…opinionated. If you invite this colleague to a  meeting, there’s a good chance the meeting’s facilitator will have to continuously grapple the conversation back onto the rails, keep it moving in the predicted direction. Often, the derailments lead to unplanned discoveries, but rarely are deadlines met, and seldom do meetings wrap on time, and the neatly ordered plans in binders sometimes get torn out and replaced by projects and events and activities and plans that no one had envisioned when the whole shebang got underway.

Kim’s colleague is audibly aching. The project that colleague has been working on, one whose objectives are closely related to those of Kim’s own project, just crashed outside of her domain. For no reason that Kim can discern, her colleague has been replaced as team facilitator; she’s been replaced and not invited even to sit on the team itself.

The colleague sits in her office instead; from next door, Kim hears a muffled sob.

She looks at her binder, neat and ready to be implemented, step by step. She thinks of the meeting she has called for later that day, and the three key people who will see what she sees, who will take it and  create it just the way Kim’s been envisioning.

She thinks of all that, and she thinks of her colleague, and suddenly she is in that office, explaining what she’s planning. Wondering if the colleague, whose eyes begin to light up, might have time to join Kim’s team.

The sum will be greater than its parts, Kim knows, and she bids a regretful farewell to her tidy control. The outcome will, once they’ve fought their way through all the unknown mess and chaos she’s certain is to come, exceed her expectations.

But that afternoon, the meeting, as expected, plunges, roller coasters, veers out scarily into unexplored territory. There’s a little bit of vertigo involved for Kim.

She kicks herself until,  just before she leaves work, the colleague comes in, with shining eyes and a new idea, and Kim’s heart leaps at the transformation. It might not be the clear and tidy road she wanted to take, but her goals will be accomplished, and a talented person will feel worthwhile and needed on the way.

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

There’s Sherri, too, of course.

She’s exhausted, Sherri is, and what she could use right now is a glass of white wine, a chance to take off these god-awful shoes, and thirty minutes of quiet before the race to dinner begins. Her neck is one great knot, and the parting shot from her supervisor doesn’t help her mood.

She’s jonesing for a momentarily empty house and a chance to pull herself away from the teetering abyss.  And then she sees her married daughter’s car in the drive.

Sherri pulls in and sits, just for a moment, just gearing up. And then she turns her key and hefts her bag and heads inside to where her daughter waits, turning slowly as she hears her mother at the door. And Sherri sees tears standing in that baby’s eyes–her baby even though she’s thirty-four–and she can’t tell right now if those are joyful tears or desperate ones, but she does the only thing her mother’s heart will allow her to do. She opens up her arms, and her baby girl flies into them.

And they will talk and cry and whisper plans, and never will the daughter know her mother’s stress or need. Sherri will be present and her love will never falter.

Her only concession will be the kicking off of shoes.

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

There is Liz’s chocolate cake.

The chocolate cake was wonderful; they have all enjoyed it. It’s a recipe she’ll use again, dark and moist and rich, and the frosting…worth the extra effort of simmering and fussing. Reminds her, it does, of the fudge they used to make every year when the Wizard of Oz was on TV, an annual event, a once a year treat. So this cakes tastes like right-now-goodness with a hefty dash of happy history added.

Everyone had had two pieces after dinner; they couldn’t resist. There was just one small corner left, and now that the house was settling, steps slowing overhead, bed-springs creaking, dog sighing…now she is going to get herself a glass of milk and sit at the table with her book. And she is going to just sit and savor, both the quiet end of day and the last morsel of delicious cake.

Then her husband materializes in the door, his face etched with all the worries of the day. He strokes the foolish dog’s silky head, he takes the lumbering beast out for her final evening venture, and then he comes back in to where his wife waits, with the one little piece of cake, and with two glasses of milk and two dessert forks.

************
Oh, Dell thinks, what is generosity? Is it the giving of donations with fanfare and hoopla (an act that is certainly meaningful and necessary to many important issues and initiatives)? Or is it the quiet giving of self? Is it the relinquishment of tidy control for messy sharing and growth? Is it, maybe, the setting aside of personal troubles to listen to the worries of another?

Is it thoughtfulness undertaken in the quiet of the night, undertaken and dispensed in anonymous form?

The season of thanks approaches, when we are grateful for generous gifts. And, as the crowd politely claps a final time and begins to disperse back to their busy work days, Dell’s thinking the best of those gifts are the last to be recognized.

My First Komen

We got off the shuttle, my good friend Wendy and I, and found the statue of young Lincoln, the spot where we’d meet Kate and David later on. A pink crowd pulsed on the green, ebbing into and flowing out of long tents. We plunged in.

The tents housed tables; the tables were staffed by vendors, healthcare professionals, and representatives from not for profits. We made our way through, smiling at people in their official ‘Race for the Cure’ t-shirts—pink for survivors, white with a pink logo for us, the supporters. We gathered freebies—water bottles, lanyards, pink shoelaces, literature—chatting with the folks behind the tables. And then the music swelled up and a voice called us all, over the loud speaker, to come watch the survivors’ walk.

Wendy led the way; she’d done this before. We stationed ourselves by the walkway leading to the stage, a spot where Kate would see us cheering when she came through. An enthusiastic young emcee introduced the Boobalicious girls, dancers in magenta wigs, oversized pink sunglasses, and bubblegum pink cheerleader costumes. Music pulsed, the Girls started to dance, and the first survivors strode through an archway of bright pink balloons.

The crowd began to applaud, and the applause turned to rhythmic clapping. The breast cancer survivors moved to the music. They surged toward the stage, where the emcee, the mayor, representatives from the Cancer Treatment Center, dignitaries of every sort, stood waiting to greet them. A teenaged girl, bald and sassy, one string of pink metallic beads around her neck, rolled her eyes at her teary mother. She rolled her hips to the music.

Behind her bobbed a woman we’d talked with on the bus, 89 years old, sporting 35 strands of beads. And behind them came tall women, short women, plump and thin women, women of every imaginable hue,– and men, too. Five strands, they wore; ten strands; one.

They danced and they hugged; they reached out for people in the crowd. They laughed. Tears ran.

As the first survivors reached the stage, reached the point of hugs and congratulations and official well-wishes, progress slowed. One lone woman, tall with long dark hair and a quadruple strand of pink beads, waited silently just in front of where we stood. She eyed the stage, thoughtful, patient, head high, hands at her side. As people jumped and crowed around her, she emanated calm and cool grace.

And then “I Will Survive” started to play.

At first I was afraid
I was petrified…

The song began its slow warm up, the crowd began to keep the beat, and the brunette survivor began to move, pumping a muscle on, And I grew strong…and I learned how to get along…

By the time Gloria Gaynor sang, Go on now go, she was in full dance mode, the song carrying her. She pointed with her long slender finger; she shook that finger tauntingly: Did you think I’d crumble? Did you think I’d lay down and die?

And she jumped into the words I will survive! with hands flailing, hips swinging, lips parted in a huge and triumphant grin. The survivors around her made a circle; she danced their fear, their joy, their pain, their resurrection.

Wendy stood very still. My throat felt thick and frozen.

The last stanza rolled around; the crowd, survivors and supporters, was chanting it, belting it out. Did you think I’d lay down and die? OH NO NOT I! And the survivors again began to move forward. The brunette dancer looked a little startled; she resumed her slow promenade to the stage, coming to herself, no doubt a person who didn’t normally dance for a crowd of thousands. She caught my eye and gave me a quick thumbs up.

The song ended, the moment passed, the dignitaries had their say, and Wendy and I—Granny Brigade that we were—went hunting for the porta-potties.

We met our vibrant young friend, Kate, her husband, David, and their supportive entourage by the Lincoln statue, and we walked the cordoned streets of the city. It was a slow and dignified walk, past grand old homes, through medical complexes, down streets with trendy shops and open-air cafes.

It was not a race—though it was billed as a race for the cure—it was not a competition; it was a slow, steady surge of support and belief. It was an affirmation. Whatever happens, these people—these thousands of people—seemed to be saying, we are going to make it. From those of us there to walk in support, to those with one, seven, or 37 strands of survivor beads, to the family members with the smiling picture of their beautiful mother and her birth and death dates emblazoned on their custom T-shirts, the message was clear: the spirit can’t be quenched.

Whatever happens—WHATEVER happens,–the crowd carried the message forward: We will survive.

In Prose and Thanksgiving

Mark on the River

 

This morning I talked with my colleague Pete
About a sobbing student, who said
She didn’t know you needed Internet to go to college.
Life was a whole lot easier, she told me, in prison.
That was not a metaphor.

I know, I know, said Pete;

my friend…
Hometown boy, in for twelve years:
Now all he wants to do is go back.
It’s sad, so very sad, we both agreed,
And thought about the little we could do.
But you never know what rocks, said Pete,
Hope might push up under,
might twine around.

And my colleague Roy, this morning,
showed me how to share folders
In the cloud. Simple. Elegant. Almost magic.
There’s always a new wonder to explore.

I sat with Cris this morning,
Packing brown paper bags—
“Survival kits” for adjuncts.
It’s the last Wednesday Cris will work
After 42 years—
Next week she retires, and her Wednesdays are her own.

Tiffany, an adjunct, poked her head in the door,
And wound up staying
To stuff pens and pencils
And 8 gig flashdrives
And Life Savers,–of course!–
Into survival kits.

We listened to Cris tell stories of grandkids and gardens,
Of the College long ago,
We watched as she continues to loosen, fondly and gently,
42 years’ worth of ties.
We packed the bags, we shredded twine
And threaded it through gift tags–
A communion of colleagues
At different points on the continuum.

I took the afternoon off and had lunch with my son James
Whose autism gives him fierce focus:
He told me facts about the author Stephen King,
Things I would never otherwise have known.
On this hot day, Amy, the waitress, unasked,
Brought us each a travel cup of our chosen drink-
Cool you off in the car, she said.
(And that worked very well.)

I changed into grubbies to mow the backyard
Steering the mower carefully around the cleome patch
Springing up, volunteers, in front of the garage window.
The deer eat my roses, and the cleomes rebound.

And Mark came home early so we could ride the Lorena,
The paddlewheeler,
Down the Muskingum River on a warm July night;
Eating prime rib and sipping iced tea on the top deck,
Digging into peanut butter pie,
Talking with Dorothy, who shared 26 years of healthy retirement
With her husband, before he died.
She told of offspring in the city and by the sea
Of grandkids leading international lives.
Children on the banks of the Muskingum waited to wave
Although they must have seen this paddlewheeler churn past
Tens of times before.

Different view of life, trolling down the river:
We put our phones away; stopped taking pictures,
Used our eyes, felt the breezes,
Breathed in the warm and muddy scent of water.

I must say thanks to Whomever made this day
And ask,
When tomorrow brings crisis, confusion, chaos,
That S/He help me reach inside and find the vessel
Where this day’s pure, calm, jubilant
joy
Is stored.