2020: Really Giving Thanks

“It could be worse; it could be raining.”

—James, quoting Marty Feldman in Young Frankenstein

“At least we ain’t got locusts.”
          —-Mark

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When I was nine or so, and he was maybe 5, my parents took my brother Sean and me to a wake. The man who had died (call him Dave) was a colleague of my father’s, a fellow softball player, and the dad of my brother Dennis’s good friend. He was older than my parents, Dave was; he died of heart-related problems, if I remember correctly. He left behind his wife (we’ll call her Evangeline), and, I think, three sons.

I’m not sure why Sean and I went along that night. It could be that no older brothers were available (or willing) to sit with us. It could be that my parents decided that we were old enough, and that seeing death up close and personal would be a good thing for us.

It could be that having us along would give them a reason to politely leave after a decent interval.

For whatever reason, with trepidation, I walked into my first funeral parlor.

I remember hushed, thick carpeting, with shooshing doors and unctuous greeters and mourners whispering. The air was heavy with the scent of flowers and sonorous with the tail end of a priestly litany.

In the viewing room, a line snaked toward the casket and the widow. Dave’s sons were scattered throughout the room, talking to friends, hugging aunts and uncles.

We got in line; my parents ushered us closer and closer to where Dave rested, serene in his special days suit, hands folded over his middle, a tiny trace of a smile on his craggy face.

(“He looks just like he’s sleeping!” an old lady from church whispered, and I looked at the powdery stillness of Dave. He looked peaceful, but he also looked, I thought, very, very stiff and very, very dead.)

We knelt and we prayed, and then my parents put their hands on our shoulders and steered us toward Evangeline.

My mother reached out to give her an awkward hug.

“I’m so sorry,” Mom said. “We’re going to miss Dave.”

“I’m not sad!” Evangeline crowed. “I am happy! Dave is in a better place! No more suffering! He’s gone to his reward.”

The priest next to her (Evangeline was devout and generous) patted her arm, smiling beatifically. My mother’s face froze; she gave a tight little smile, my father said his piece, and then we pivoted quickly toward the door.

“I’m THANKFUL!” we heard Evangeline say. “I’m GRATEFUL Dave has left this vale of tears.”

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“She must,” my father said, when we were safely in the car and out of earshot, “be in shock.”

“Cripes,” said my mother; that was one of her very worst epithets. “So pious!” She turned to my father, scowling fiercely. “When I die, I don’t want people to be grateful my suffering’s over. I want them to MISS me.”

(She got her wish, I’m afraid; after my mother died, when her long bout of cancer ended, my father missed her deeply and constantly. He would have been thankful only for a magic remedy to bring her back; he thought the best place for her to be was with HIM.)

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I think about that strange funeral home visit in these days of challenge, as we get ready to celebrate a quiet Thanksgiving. Many of us grew up in traditions that asked us to say, “Thank you!” for the hardships life metes out…to imagine ourselves martyrs and happy for the status.

There’s a feeling that God sends us hardships to teach us, to make us better people.

I don’t buy it. And I’m not thankful for the awful things.

I do think challenges give us opportunities to learn, but I believe that God created us to know joy. I don’t think we have to be like those stereotypical soldiers who, plugging away at pushups, are made to say, between each agonizing, torturous exercise, “Thank you sir! May I have another?”

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Take the pandemic. There is no reason to be thankful for this ravaging disease, which has killed 1,369,446 worldwide to date according to https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/ on November 20. That those people died, whether they were aged, whether they had ‘underlying conditions,’ is nothing short of tragic. Their gifts and potential contributions exited the world before they were meant to leave.

There is no reason to say we’re GLAD this pandemic happened. There’s no way we can be thankful for systemic disease.

What crises do, I think, is plunge me, goose-bumped and shivering, into the cold, sharp waters of awareness. I realize what I have taken for granted. I cherish the people I may not have consciously appreciated until this cold wash is cast on my habits. I take note of the lessons the bad time teaches; I lay them out carefully and study them, and the somber reality of the time makes me take them into my heart, for real and for true.

I do not believe God sent the pandemic. What God did do is give us is the ability to learn from tragedy and pain.

But I don’t think God wants us to be thankful for the awful times.

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I go searching for the roots of ‘thankful’ and ‘grateful’ on Online Etymology (etymonline.com)

Thankful, it tells me, comes from the Old English root pancful, which means “satisfied, grateful.”

Thank, says the source, is related to think “as song is to sing.” So thinking about the treasures I’ve encountered leads to giving thanks for them and leads to keeping what the writer calls loving memory fresh and close.

Grateful comes from the Latin gratus, meaning pleasing or agreeable. It is a “rare, irregular case,” writes the etymonline author, “of English using -ful to make an adjective from an adjective.” (That’s a little tidbit an aging English teacher is, truly, grateful to know.)

The bad stuff life sends my way does not make me feel satisfied, pleased, or agreeable. It makes me angry and sad and regretful.

I do not wish the challenges away, or moan that they ever happened; I would be silly, and it would not be useful, to harbor those kinds of regrets.

But I am not grateful for the fact of those challenges either.

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Mark and I both started working as very young people, and work quickly became essential to our lives. (Now, both at retirement age, we find that choosing to work anyway is what we need to do.)

We have learned a lot from jobs we’ve had. Not all the learning has been positive; not all the people we’ve worked with have been big-hearted, altruistic, or even honest. I am not grateful for the pain of some of those experiences.

I am thankful, though, for the life-long friendships forged in some of those trying times, for the people who held me up and helped me through. And I am thankful for the work ethic I developed and the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction working life has brought me.

If I could go back, though, and avoid the pain and agitation of all those bad times, by gum, I would do it. I think the friendships would still be there, the bonds formed by joy instead, and I hope there would have been different chances to learn the hard lessons adversity taught me.

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One of the hardest things, I think, about relationship, is to watch dear ones go through really hard things. In the last two years, Matt and Julie have dealt with shocking, unexpected losses. Mark has been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, and Jim struggles to create an identity as an adult confronted with the challenges of autism and chronic depression.

I am not, and they are not, grateful for any of these tough times. But each wrenching event gave my loved ones choices. They could let the slamming blows close them up in bitterness, or they could walk into the pain, really feel it, and emerge changed. I am proud, so proud, that the bitterness did not win out.

I see Matt and Julie reaching out and gathering in; I see Mark deciding that having a treatable disease is better than having one that he can only hope to manage as it becomes worse. James is embarking on new testing, the results of which will help him understand his learning style and show him how to focus on his strengths.

There is no reason to be thankful for hardship, but we can appreciate the graces hardship engenders.

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I have been thinking about prayer lately; many things, global, national, local, and personal, have called me into active prayer. So when I saw a copy of Kate Braestrup’s Beginner’s Grace, a book on prayer, on the library shelf, I impulsively checked it out.

Braestrup is a Unitarian minister who works with the Warden Service in Maine. I devoured her well-written memoirs, the stories of losing her very young husband, of raising kids as a single parent, of opening up to a kind, gentle man with children of his own and remarrying. Humor is one of Braestrup’s gifts, humor in the face of hard and tragic things. It’s humor that is imbued with a real spirituality.

So I have been reading Beginner’s Grace. And this passage really resonates as I think about thankfulness:

If, as my husband defines it, disappointment is the feeling you get when reality doesn’t meet your expectations, gratitude is the feeling you get when reality exceeds your expectations. The truly rational, realistic person should feel overwhelmingly grateful all the time.  (p. 21)

I like the thought of that, that thankfulness is the counterpoint to disappointment, and that thankfulness should inform our days.

Because, in the nooks and crannies that the sinew of tough times often separate to allow, there are true and simple things for which to be grateful.

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So this year, two days before Thanksgiving, we will travel, quite literally, over the river and through the woods to Mount Vernon, where we’ll pick up a tiny turkey at a favorite butcher shop. We’ll be thankful for my new hybrid car and its awesome gas mileage, and for the ability to buy that car.

We’ll change up tradition a little bit in these odd days. We’ll try a cornbread recipe that includes shredded chicken and cheese and pickled jalapeños. We’ll make hand pies instead of whole pies and try our hands at making molten lava cakes in our under-used ramekins.

We’ll have twice baked potatoes, and we’ll make our own homemade cranberry sauce, another first.

Whether all these culinary adventures have juicy outcomes or not, we’ll be happy to experiment and for the fact that, for now, we are safe, and we are healthy.

We’ll enjoy our new lounge chairs in our cozy house.

We’ll Zoom with the family and friends we are so thankful to have. We’ll think about our plenty and how to give back in gratitude.

And we’ll enjoy that tiny, fresh turkey. This year, we’re going to try dry-brining it and layering some freshly cut bacon on top to baste it as it roasts. We hope for a fine result.

I keep in mind the great words penned by my mother’s countryman, Robert Burns:

“Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it,
But we hae meat and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thankit.”

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We have meat, and we can eat, and those are just two reasons to thank God this year. I’m thankful for having the eyes to see and the ears to hear those reasons, too.

I hope you are safe, and I hope you are healthy, and I hope that, together, we can endure the bad times and discern the joyful things that hide, awaiting discovery, in-between them.

May you, and all of yours, have a very, very warm and meaningful Thanksgiving.

A Quiet Kind of Thanks

She gingerly sorted through the frozen turkey breasts, looking for the absolute smallest one. She wasn’t that crazy about turkey, Ella wasn’t, but she bowed in recognition of the day. She would have a slice or two; she would freeze the leftovers.

One day in cold December, she would bake a turkey pot pie.

She pushed her little cart down the vegetable aisle, and added two cans of green beans and a big container of French fried onions to the mix. Prowling, she found boxed stuffing and a bag of pecans, corn syrup, and a carton of heavy cream.

She backtracked and picked out two big potatoes.

Cat food and kitty treats and a pint of Ben and Jerry’s. She was ready to check out.

Allen, her favorite stock boy, watched over the self-check-out, and he grinned large when he saw her. She knew, with her teacher’s eye, that Allen had some sort of developmental disability. He was as large as his smile, big-bellied and booming voiced, and he had adopted her as a favorite customer. She knew all about the miniature train tableau he kept in his mother’s basement, how each payday, he added a tree or a figure.

The train had been his grandpa’s; his grandpa, now, was dead. But Allen felt close to him when he ran the trains, when he added to the display.

She checked out her groceries, hefting the turkey into its own bag, and bundling up the rest of the stuff, and Allen loomed at her side.

“Special dinner!” he said, and she smiled and agreed.

He insisted on carrying her groceries to her car.

“Thank you, Allen,” she said. “You’re very good at what you do.”

He grinned, beet red, delighted.

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The library was quiet, and Sallie at the desk waved to her.

“Miz Graham!” she said. “Your reserve is in!”

“Wonderful,” said Ella, and she reached for the hardcover mystery. It was the fifth in the series; she’d been waiting for it. This was a pivotal story: the detective would find a new lease on life, or he would not. This author didn’t give things away, and she wasn’t afraid to disappear major characters. This mystery really was a mystery.

Ella surfed through the new books, taking a few of the novels out to read the dust jackets. She selected a new memoir, a story of the autistic boy who found a friend in Siri. It was written by the boy’s mother. Ella’s grand-niece had autism; her parents, Ella’s nephew Tim and his wife Gayle, barely had time to do the dinner dishes. She wanted to read the story, and she wanted to ruminate on how that mom made time to write.

She checked out both books, looking forward to the time to read.

“Thank you, Sallie,” she said, smiling at the beaming clerk. “Have a happy Thanksgiving.”

“Thirteen people!” Sallie groaned, and she rolled her eyes. “Do you have special plans?”

“Oh, yes,” said Ella. “A very special dinner.”

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She put the turkey breast in the refrigerator, packed the rest of the groceries away, and picked up her buzzing phone. It was her oldest, dearest friend; they’d met in Grade Five and never lost touch. She sat down and had a wonderful talk.

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On Wednesday, she roasted the turkey breast, and that night she had a turkey sandwich, with mayo and salt and pepper and one crisp slice of lettuce. Afterward, she cleared the table and wrote a letter to her niece, a soldier in Afghanistan.

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On Thanksgiving day, she slept in—slept all the way until eight o’clock!—and she was still in her robe when the neighbor, Ginny, knocked at the door. Ginny had a plate of turkey-shaped cookies, and she wanted to know if Ella had dinner plans.

“I do, indeed,” Ella said. “Very special ones. You’re very kind to ask!”

Ginny came in for a cup of coffee, and they lamented the tree that still had not dropped its load of leaves.

“We’ll be raking in January!” Ginny said. Ella shook her head and dunked a turkey cookie into her creamy coffee.

After Ginny left, she dressed in her maroon sweats and quilted vest; she put a Wonder Woman stamp on her niece’s letter, and she walked it down to the postbox.  Her cheeks were crimson when she came back.

“Time to turn the oven on,” she thought. She rolled out crust and whipped eggs frothy; she constructed a pecan pie.

At two she made her dinner: a big pan of green bean casserole, made with white sauce instead of canned soup. She liked to add cheddar cheese, and she used every single French-fried onion. She ate it from her best china, with a side of Stove Top stuffing. She shared some with the cat, who much preferred his slice of turkey.

After the dishes were washed and put away, Ella turned on the gas insert in the fireplace, and she kicked off her sneakers. She got her favorite knitted blanket; she bundled up, and opened her book. She was asleep within minutes.

She woke at seven. The fire snapped, the sky was dark, and the cars were pulling away from Ginny’s house. Ella imagined stuffed daddies and cranky children and tired moms who’d spent hours cooking a meal that disappeared in minutes. She smiled, and pulled the heavy cream from the fridge and poured it into the bowl of her Mixmaster.

When it was whipped into high, snowy peaks, she cut herself a generous piece of pie. She took it to her chair by the fire, and this time, she read her mystery. She made the rich slab of pecan pie last for the better part of an hour.

The cat jumped on her lap when she put the empty plate on the side table, and Ella sighed and turned another page.

At nine o’clock, she shagged the cat off her lap and did up the last of the dishes. She turned off the fire and locked the doors.

The weekend loomed, with visits and meetings; she had promised to bake cookies for the social time at church, and her brother and his wife would be coming on Saturday. There would be busy days.

She thought back on the day just past and sighed. It had been a perfect day. It was, maybe, not everyone’s idea of a Thanksgiving celebration, but it had all the elements she needed. She had wonderful food, and a visit from a neighbor; she had touched base with people dear to her.

She had discovered, to her delight, that the detective survived and solved the perplexing mystery. She was rested and refreshed and ready for the whirlwind the weekend would bring.

She shut off the lights and turned down the thermostat and shooed the cat up the carpeted stairs, and she whispered a soft “Thank you” in the quiet dark.

 

 

First Frost: A Peregrination

Frosty morning fog

Greta and I crunch out into the driveway, down to the street, and we gaze at a changed world. Each leaf, in the waiting pile, is finely limned, dusted and glazed. They are not what they were yesterday. A cold fog hovers over Sandi and Colleen’s houses, over the Helen Purcell home up on its hill. And the lawns are white, each blade of grass carefully picked out, Crayola greenness muted on this cold, cold morning.

My valiant marigolds have thrown up their petals in defeat. The last seven blooms are choked and crispy. Today, I’ll pull them out, throw them on the leaf pile.

It’s over, the season of outdoor growth.

First frost has come.

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The Impala is warming up when we sidle back through the carport, and Mark is bundled into his winter coat. We wave him goodbye. The furnace chugs in the morning house, and I grab my cell phone and go out to take pictures, to try to record the magic the night has wrought on the neighborhood. I try to capture the immensity in my forlorn little shots, the transformation and the message. Because the season turned a corner last night, irrefutable, irrevocable.

First frost brings, of course, the possibility of Indian Summer, which can only happen after temperatures have plummeted. But there is no doubt now: winter surges toward us.

Leaves on grass

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In the dining room, I stare out the clear, insulated glass in the bay window. I remember waking to lacy, intricate tracery on my bedroom windows long ago. It was art that grew and moved, climbing upward, rolling forward. I could make it stop, make it disappear, with the heat of my fingers.

“Jack Frost has been here,” my mother said. I pictured a fox-faced, blue-tinged boy ordering frothy designs to appear on the cold glass of my windows, and I shivered. That impish sprite felt like no friend of mine.

But now I find we are fascinated, as a culture, by Jack Frost. I look him up on Wikipedia and find that every culture that has winter also has some sort of Jack Frost figure. He may be old (Grandfather Frost in Russia) or female (Mother Holle in Germany). The Hindus believed that a giant from the arctic regions ruled the highest, permanently snow-covered areas of the Hindu Kush; this giant waited, malevolently, for all passersby, and one had to be canny and fast to elude him.

The Jack I know comes to us from England; he may have traveled there with his Anglo-Saxon ancestors or on a Viking ship.

He has appeared in books and poems and films and television–impish, sly, a little destructive. He slows things down. He stops them, mid-growth. He makes things end. He seduces us with the power of his pretty art—art that draws one closer to explore the detail, to gasp a bit over the never-ending variety of pattern. And all the while we are drawn further and further into the cold.

Wikipedia notes that Elizabeth Bishop mentions Jack Frost in a poem, “First Death in Nova Scotia,” and I pull my Complete Poems from the shelf and look it up. The poem tells the story of the death of a cousin, little Arthur, who is laid out in the narrator’s childhood living room. Her mother gives the girl a sprig of lily of the valley and bids her put it into the baby’s hand.

Jack Frost had started to paint him [Bishop writes]
the way he always painted
the Maple Leaf (Forever).
He had just begun on his hair,
a few red strokes, and then
Jack Frost had dropped the brush
and left him white, forever. 

Bishop’s work makes me think of another Frost, of Robert Frost; the anthology of his collected works sat on my parents’ bookshelf. It was a gift, I think, from my brother Dennis, who focused on the poet in his undergrad days. Dennis came of age as John F. Kennedy was sworn in, with Frost as his accessible, inaugural poet, worn and craggy voice of a hopeful people.

We read in school, of course, about the two roads diverging; I fixated on that patient little horse. And I explored the book of poems and was caught by “Out, Out—” Another child dead, this one from the leaping, malignant, laughing saw (it shared a little of Jack Frost’s horrible mischievousness, I thought–a blank-walled lack of care about who might be hurt). The suddenness, the horror, the raw, untempered grief…and then the return of the family to the things that every day must bring. The boy, buried and gone.

I went back to that poem time and again, worrying it like an aching loose tooth, feeling the frost.

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Now, wondering about the history of the word itself, I go to dictionary.com and find that ‘frost’ has not changed much over hundreds and thousands of years. Hard, cold, crystallized, the word fell through time, from the Old Norse, the Old High German, the Old Saxon: a shared word, it seems.  It tumbled untouched, hard and brittle, through the Middle Ages, and landed in this modern age, self-contained, essential. Frost, akin to freeze. It means what it means, now as it did then.

Frost is “a degree or a state of coldness sufficient to cause the freezing of water.” It is the forming of tiny needles of ice in the night, “when they have cooled,” the website says, “by radiation below the dew point.” This is called hoarfrost, a lovely, harsh romantic word, evoking flint-eyed battling giants in my mind.

We are in the time of the hoar frost, I think, and the days begin to wear a kind of frozen splendor.

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There are many other ways the word ‘frost’ can be used. Relations, once warm, can become frosty. Enthusiastic planners can find their proposals stopped by frost. Plays and movies, songs and stories, may meet a frosty reception. Frostiness is not what we want to encounter at, say, a job interview.

We frost cakes. We frost glass. We frost people, as in, He was so nasty that the whole staff was frosted at him. We frost our hair.

My hair is frosted, not by design, but by nature, a consequence of retired life: I decided to stop coloring when I decided to stop working in higher ed. I waited, tentative and nervous, to see what would emerge. The last time I’d seen my real hair, there were occasional sproinging grays that stood straight up, like periscopes sent skyward by a spying scalp. A random pure white strand would wiggle out to breathe, brittle and tough. But most of it , seven years ago, was my own reddish color.

First I decided to add blonde highlights, Then, I said, let’s make them all the same color–MY color.

Now I want to know, in these latter days, what ‘my color,’ means.

We cut my hair as short as it’s ever been, and then wait. Each month, Don, the master hair cutter, trims off the colored ends. They fall like brassy auburn leaves to his immaculate shining floor; he rakes them up and tosses them away.

By November, he says, you should be completely YOU.

My hair frost coincides with the hoar frost.  That’s something I need to ponder.

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The growing season is over, but that does not eliminate the chance of growth.. In fact, I think, with the tumult and lavish energy expended, now is the time to employ the fruits. The frost has come, the crops are bundled into their silos, the potatoes are in their cellar bins, and the tomatoes glow in rows and rows of Mason jars. Now we think about what we can make from those harvested treasures.

Growing time over, it’s time to create.

Time, too, to celebrate: to gather in, to roast gifts of field and flock and give thanks for another year’s bounty. Time, maybe, to mark down the costs the year brought us, and render their meaning into mindfulness. The frost has come, and we are called to be grateful.

The time of frost deepens into winter, and our lights spring up as the darkness enfolds. We become makers: cooking and knitting, painting and rearranging. Labor of the growing time done, we can bring order and thought and care to the living of our daily lives. We can rest, and we can prepare for the swing back into spring.

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First frost–it seems, at first, like a mischievous, ill-meaning, taunting time, but as I explore more deeply, I find comfort and possibility. There is beauty here, and there is potential. There is the chance to bundle up against the chill, to walk on crisp, leathery leaves in the small remaining sunlit hours…to wave at neighbors, to savor the sight of pumpkins and corn stalks. There are the evening hours that open up to literature and films and the writing of letters. There are naps in front of a crackling fire, wrapped in a warm afghan.  There is the impulse to create.

Every season has its depth and its meaning and its purpose. I settle, as if drawn by Jack Frost’s fern-like artwork, deeper into the time of frost. I hunker down, tentative and a little fearful, but I see more clearly now: this time can be so good.

Leaf on leaf.JPG

 

 

Toothpicks and Traditions and Musing on Meaning

“Tradition is a guide and not a jailer.”
― W. Somerset Maugham

Turkey.jpg

We were traveling for Thanksgiving. I was looking out my window as Mark drove; I was looking at the trees, all nearly bare, although some still had a furze of copper leaves. It was a gray day, and we drove in and out of rain, and my mind wandered.

I thought about the jar of cranberry sauce we’d left snugly in the pantry, and the stuffing mix, secure, at home, on the pasta shelf in the broom closet.

“We’ll have to shop when we get there,” I thought hazily, and then, unbidden, a question surfaced. “Should we buy stuff to make toothpick turkeys?”

I hadn’t thought about toothpick turkeys in years. On childhood Thanksgivings, while the turkey cooked, and when the parade was over, (I have to admit, while I looked forward eagerly to watching the Macy’s parade on Thanksgiving, I always found it, in reality, to be dull), my mother would plunk the stuff to make toothpick turkeys on the dining room table.

Apples formed the bodies.  These were three-legged turkeys; they got a tripod of toothpicks for legs. I had to pluck an olive (Ick, I always thought; and olives still aren’t my favorite food) from a tall, skinny, brine-filled jar and spear it on a toothpick. Then the delicate task was to tease out the end of the pimento, tease it out just long enough to resemble a tom turkey’s red gobbler. If I was hasty or too forceful, the pimento escaped, and it was not easy to put it back in and begin again. There was always a little bowl full of empty olives drying on the table when I was done.

Finally I made tail feathers by skewering raisins onto more toothpicks, tightly stacked, with just enough pointy wood left at the bottom to stick them into the back-end of the apple. Each turkey took eight or nine raisin-laden toothpicks

And that was a toothpick turkey. One would go by each place-setting.

After the meal they would sit, ignored. None of us really liked either the olives or the raisins. My mother would finally take them apart, throw out the toothpicks with all their attachments, and use the poor, mutilated fruit to make apple cinnamon cake.

Still, they were a sort of tradition, and, grown, I would always provide the material for kids to make them. One year, at my brother’s house, Matthew and Ben and Tom–who must have been in the eight to eleven years old range–grabbed the playing field and concocted creatures unlike any seen before or since.  They might have had seventeen legs or five staring heads, pimentos long lost. The tail feathers might be anywhere, upside or downside; there might have been one raisin or thirty studding them. Several had fields of empty toothpicks, much like porcupines.  They marched across the table, an army of deformed toothpick aliens.

We laughed and took pictures and put one scary creation by each seat, and we called them the Turkeys From Hell. After dinner, we didn’t bother to dissect them. We just threw them away, wholesale.

That’s the last time, now that I think about it, I remember making toothpick turkeys.  That was a tradition that was easy to let go. It had no real meaning, except I suspect, to keep my annoying little self occupied on a holiday when my mother had many kitchen tasks to attend to.  There was no true sentiment attached. There was no reason to hope that generations moving forward would embrace the habit.

It’s not always that easy to let go of tradition.

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So, say, you might have newlyweds Bob and Taja struggling to negotiate holidays, especially when both come from families who have ALWAYS done things this way. Both families have the big feast and the opening of gifts on the eve of Christmas. If they go to Bob’s parents, Taja’s will be bereft, their baby girl missing, their family unit cracked for the first time in 25 years.

“This is our TRADITION,” they will wail, and Taja, sitting on the edge of her chair with an unopened package in her lap, will be yearning, at her in-laws, to be taking part in the REAL Christmas celebration. And Bob will be awkward and uncomfortable, knowing his wife is not happy, knowing his family is annoyed, that they’re thinking, “Why can’t she be more enthusiastic? Why is she ruining our wonderful family Christmas?”

They may spend years, Bob and Taja, running from one house to other, exhausted and unhappy, fulfilling, to the letter of the law, at least, the family expectations. Ensuring the tradition survives intact.

Sort of.

No one examines the roots of the tradition, which was to gather a family group together, and to share joy. (Could they be just as joyful, early Christmas day?)

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All this musing reminds me of the Easter ham story I read years ago, in a ladies magazine. The tale is probably apocryphal, but it goes like this:

The newlyweds, negotiating holidays, go to HER family for Easter dinner. And, as in many other households, Easter dinner at this one always has a huge ham at its center.

They arrive, the young couple, at her grandma’s house, and there are hugs and drinks passed out, and good-natured teasing before everyone is ushered to the table. The table is extended by many leaves,and all the people gathered ’round it, as is their custom, join hands and say a prayer of blessing.  Then the grandma gets up and goes to the kitchen.

She returns with the ham, glazed and studded, on a ceramic platter. Her daughter, the bride’s mother, follows her. She carries a plate with the end of the ham on it.

The ham proper goes into the center of the table. The bride’s mother puts the end of the ham in front of her husband, who happily cuts into it and takes a big chunk.

The groom is fascinated. “Why do they do that?” he asks.

His bride is puzzled. “Do what?” she asks.

“Serve the end of the ham on a separate plate.”

She looks a little stunned. “Well, it’s Easter,” she says. “We always do it that way.”

“But why?” he persists, and she gets a little annoyed.

“I don’t KNOW,” she says. “Ask my mother.”

So he does, when the opportunity allows, and she, too, is a little surprised and annoyed at his question. She directs him to HER mother, and he gets the same reaction.

“This is the way MY mother taught me to do it, so it’s how we always do it,” snaps Grandma.

The groom can’t let it go, so after dinner, they head to the nursing home, where Great-Grandma has opted for the communal feast rather than the family’s this year. They find her, replete and resting in her room.  After the obligatory greetings and inquiry, the groom takes her hand.

“Great Grandma,” he asks earnestly, “why does your family always serve one end of the ham on a separate plate?”

Great Grandma looks at him a long moment, taking his measure.  Finally she snorts.

Well, son,” she says, “I never had a pan big enough to fit a ham big enough to feed us all. I always had to cut the end off and roast it separately.”

These days, her daughter has a pan plenty big enough for the festive ham.  But
she still cuts out the end of the ham, even though she doesn’t know why she’s doing it.

It’s a tradition.

********************
I know a woman who created, twenty years ago, a tradition of giving. It involved shopping for a child and donating those carefully chosen things to an organization that would distribute, it promised, her gifts to a child who needed them. She was very quiet about her giving, believing the best gifts are given in silence. But this Fall, she happened to mention the act to a good friend.

The friend looked troubled. The next day, with many apologies for intruding, she showed the woman an article that claimed her charity group was biased and judgmental and, perhaps, a little bit bogus. The woman was shocked.

She did her own research, and what she found disturbed her enough to end her twenty-year tradition.

“I don’t regret my impulse,” she told me, “but I regret the time and money I wasted, when I could have been making a difference.”

This year, she said, she is donating time at a local mission that offers homework help to kids after school. The kids also take turns, in teams, making dinner for their whole group.

This woman I know, a math whiz and a wonderful cook, tutors math on Tuesdays and oversees dinner prep on Thursdays. Her former tradition, she says, let her feel generous at a distance. Now she is right in the middle of the messy, unpredictable stew that is working with kids.

“It’s not a tradition,” she says. “My tradition was a knee-jerk, once a year, rote thing. I traded tradition for action. The kids are annoying and stubborn and beautiful. I look forward to Tuesday and Thursday.”

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

There are wonderful traditions; there are traditions with meaning and zest and the ability to infuse our lives and our gatherings with spirit. There is music and there is food; there are gatherings and games and giving. There are rich and warm and lovely things we do, singly and together, that give light and life and meaning to our years and to our passages. We should honor and keep those traditions.

But sometimes a tradition lies over the top of meaning like a heavy metal plate. It gets so hard to move it that we don’t; we let tradition cover meaning, and we go, for years and even decades, without budging that metal. And sometimes, when we finally are prompted–by a new family member, by a change; sometimes, even, by a loss–to move that heavy covering, we discover the meaning has gone.  It has tunneled through the dirt to a place where it can breathe. Or it has shriveled into dust that blows away when we finally lift that metal.

Like everything else in life, I muse, as the landscape slips by, streets shining dark on this soaked gray day, traditions need to be approached with mindfulness. With meaning. Without them–without the observant eye and the open heart–my traditions may be no more lasting than a toothpick-studded apple.

 

(Opening quote retrieved from goodreads.com)

A Day All Pies Would Fly

This week, WordPress’s daily challenge (http://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_writing_challenge/pie/) was to write about pie…That and the upcoming holiday remind me of a story my youngest son used to demand over and over again. It is a true story, but I told it to young James so many times that memory and embroidery morphed and blended.  I got so I wasn’t sure what was real, and what I’d added–but Jim, aged two, knew every  told detail and would brook no changes. Others who were there might argue things happened differently…and they might just be right.  But…here is my pie story.

******

I put the Tom and Pippo book on top of the stack.

“That’s it,” I tell my almost three-year-old. “Seven books. Time to sleep.” I am aching for that half hour, the time when the boy is asleep and there is absolutely no pressing work to be done, when a book or a TV show is a beacon at the end of the day, a luxurious choice.

But.

He looks up at me with big brown pleading eyes—beneath eyelids that are not in the least bit heavy. “Tell me a story, Mama,” he pleads.

I sigh–a martyr in the making–and say, “What story would you like? Pete Pete with the Stinky Feet?”

“Tell me,” he says, “about when the pies fly.”

Again. Ah, me.

I squelch another mama-martryr sigh and begin.

“It was Thanksgiving day, and your grandma–the grandma who’s in heaven now–had been cooking all day. There were stacks of cutout cookies shaped like turkeys and autumn leaves on one counter.”

“With sugar topping,” murmurs my boy.

“That’s right,” I say. “The cookies were frosted and sprinkled with colored sugar–orange and red and yellow: autumn colors. And next to them were two big beautiful pumpkin pies. They were a rich orange-y brown; there were little beads of moisture clinging to their shiny surfaces. The crusts were just that right kind of gold-y-brown, ready to explode into buttery flakes.”

“You didn’t like it.”

“That’s true–not all of us liked pumpkin pie, but the ones that did,–well they couldn’t wait for Thanksgiving to come when they could eat one, two, three–maybe even four!–pieces. The house smelled wonderfully of turkey roasting and other good things, and we pottered around in the living room, watching the parades on TV, playing games, reading, until finally Grandma called me to set the table.”

“There was a tablecloth,” he prompts.

“Yes, there was,” I agree. “There was a lace tablecloth the color of pale, weak tea. We used the special plates, the ones with fluted edges and old-fashioned scenes on them–Cousin Shaynie has those plates now, and she still uses them every Thanksgiving.

“We put water glasses by each plate. We used the fancy salt and pepper shakers, the special platter with a turkey painted on it, and the big people–Grandma and Grandpa and Uncle Dennis–had wine glasses by their places.

“For the Duck,” he says, knowingly.

“Yes! Cold Duck was what Grandma thought, back then, was a really special drink, and she bought it every holiday. So there’d be TWO birds on the table,–a turkey and a duck.”

He nods. “What else?”

“There was a huge bowl of mashed potatoes, white and piled up like soft mountains. There was a pat of butter melting on the top. There was another big bowl of stuffing, straight from the bird; it smelled like celery and onion and sage, turkey and bread, all jumbled up.There was a sizzly casserole of orange sweet potatoes. There was a bowl of steaming peas—”

“CORN,” he corrects, impatiently.

“Ah, you’re right,” I agree. “It was corn. That had butter melting on it, too. And there were two baskets of crescent rolls; that was the only time we ever got those, and we thought that was a really big treat.

“Grandpa came in from his half day at work at the power plant; he washed up and changed, and came right down and carved the turkey. Your uncles started drifting in from the living room or their bedrooms or wherever they were, and Grandma made people pour water and wine, get the cranberry sauce from the fridge, and put serving spoons in all the good food. It was time to eat.”

I look at my boy. He is quiet now, but bright-eyed, waiting for the good part.

“We said our grace and Grandpa passed the turkey, and we loaded our plates with potatoes–making a little hole in the middle so we could pour in a lake of turkey gravy. We dug in to corn and stuffing.”

“But you didn’t eat the sweet potatoes.”

“I didn’t. Back then I was a kind of picky eater, and I didn’t eat sweet potatoes. OR the cranberry sauce.

“We cleaned our plates and we filled them again, and we all said how good, good, good everything tasted. And when we were done, we helped clear the table. The tablecloth was splotted with gravy, and I bundled it up and tossed it down the cellar stairs. Grandma would wash it the next day and iron it and put it in the cabinet drawer until the next feast at Christmas. And we helped with dishes.”

“Uncle Dennis washed,” he says.

“Yes, he did,” I agree. “And Uncle Mike dried. Your Uncle Sean and I put away, and Uncle John helped Grandpa take the trash out. Grandma, for once, got to sit and read.

“Pretty soon, all the mess was cleaned up, and everyone drifted…some went for walks and some watched football. I drew pictures at the kitchen table. Grandma read her book.”

“An hour passed, or maybe two,” he whispers, the cadence of the tale memorized.

“Yes. Time passed. Grandma put her book down and came out to the kitchen. She plugged her little handmixer in, and she took two little cartons–they looked like little houses–of cream from the fridge. She poured those into a big metal bowl–a bowl that had a little ring to hook your thumb through, so it wouldn’t fly away when you used the electric mixer. She added a capful of vanilla and a couple of heaping spoonsful of powdered sugar, and she beat up frothy peaks of whipped cream. It was beautiful.”

“It was time for pie,” he says, a grin beginning.

“Yes!” I say, “and everyone was ready. Your grandpa came out and put the two pies right in the middle of the table. Grandma handed him the bowl of whipped cream, and he joked that maybe he’d just take a spoon and eat the whole bowlful. ‘No!’ everyone yelled. Grandma got out the knife and the pie server, and the little dessert plates, and she cut pieces of pie for everyone but me and Uncle Sean.”

“He didn’t like pie either,” says my boy, and I hear in his voice, at last, the edges of sleep tugging.

“He did not,” I agree. “So Grandma cut pieces for everyone else, and plopped little clouds of whipped cream on top, and put a fork on each plate, and when everyone had a piece, they each picked up their forks, sliced down to cut off a big bite and they raised the forks to their mouths, closed their eyes, and tasted…”

“And it was awful!” he crows.

“It was! There was no sugar in that pie! Grandma had been in a hurry and she mistook her big bag of salt for her big bag of sugar and those pumpkin pies were salty, salty, salty.

“There was a huge and deafening silence. My brothers and my father were frozen. They did not want to hurt Grandma’s feelings–but they sure did not want to eat that pie.”

“And then GRANDMA said–” he nudges, hurrying toward the good part.

“GRANDMA said,” I continue, “‘Dennis, I know how you love pumpkin pie. Here. Have mine.’ And she scooped up the piece of pie–the piece with one bite missing–and she threw it at your Uncle Dennis!

“Uncle Dennis froze in shock, and the pie hit him on the side of his head, right above his ear!

“There was a moment of stunned silence, and then Uncle Dennis recovered and said to my mother, ‘I could never leave you pie-less. Please. Take mine.’ His pie flew through the air at my mother, but she was quick and ready, and she ducked. The pie hit the wall, quivered for a moment, and slid.

“And then it was flying pie day. Your uncles and your grandpa threw their own slices of pie, and then they grabbed the pies left on the table, and the battle was on. I ran out to the living room–I didn’t like to eat it, and I didn’t want to wear it–and I hid behind the ottoman while the laughing and the splotting went on.”

“Finally it got quiet.”

“Yes, it did,” I say. “In the kitchen they couldn’t stop laughing, all those crazy pumpkin-covered people. But when they finally did, they took turns in the bathroom, washing the pumpkin off themselves, and we all helped clean up the kitchen. And then Grandma made a pot of coffee and we all sat down and ate those wonderful sugary cookies.”

“It was the day of flying pies,” he says, satisfied.

“It was the day of flying pies,” I agree. “And now it is the night of sleeping boys.”

He yawns at me and grins, too tired to argue. The eyes flutter closed, and I escape into the living room, where I pick up my waiting book,–and fall instantly, soundly asleep.