Plan B

I’ve been thinking lately about the possibility of change, and how I need to be open to the thought that people can do it.

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

For instance. Once we took a trip and stayed at a place that did not live up to its hype at all. The beds were hard and lumpy; there was a yawning cellar that puffed out musty breath, and there was evidence that once, cats had made that place their own. By the time the sun rose on our first night’s stay, the boyos were sneezing and miserable.

We had to cancel that reservation and move to a hotel. This really bothered my son, James, who is on the autistic spectrum, and who likes very much to know what is coming next.

Then we went to an event that was loud and bumptious and crowded. There was music and strong cooking smells and raucous laughter. The noise ramped up, the rooms filled up, and James grew whiter and whiter around the gills. Finally, I had to take him back to his hotel room.

He never quite gained his travel equilibrium, and we cut that trip short.

Last minute changes of plan, Mark and I agreed, are tough.

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

But. Not so very long ago, we took another family trip—this time to Toledo.

Originally, I had us booked from Friday through Sunday, via a rental provider, into a private home, where we’d have our own little apartment. And I had researched Toledo attractions. I thought we’d visit the Toledo Zoo on Saturday afternoon. I found a classic family restaurant that has been in Toledo since 1948. That’s where we would eat on Saturday night, I thought.

It felt good to have a firm schedule. I wouldn’t say I’m a control freak, or anything, but I do like, when I’m traveling, to have things planned.

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

So late on Friday afternoon, we drove into a historic Toledo neighborhood and pulled up in front of a grand old painted lady. It nestled next to a neighborhood park with blooming roses and fresh green grass and a trim little gazebo with shaded benches.

“Nice,” we agreed, and Mark popped the trunk, and we lugged bags upstairs.

The apartment looked just like its online pictures—a beautiful little living room, its AC unit chugging cheerfully away; a tiny sitting room where two comfy chairs overlooked the little park. The bedroom doors were open, and beautifully made beds enticed. We explored; Mark and I parked our stuff in the room with the queen bed. Jim had a pleasant room with a double bed and a quiet, strong ceiling fan.

It was gorgeous and pristine…and then we went into the dining room, with its pretty, sturdy, carved table and chairs, and discovered plaster on the floor and builder’s tape dangling from the ceiling.

Clearly there’d been some recent water damage. We took photos and texted them to the owner, who was out of town.

She responded, shocked, immediately. She’d have her roofer come over and check; if we chose to stay, she’d give us a discount.

The kitchen was fully up-to-date with Victorian ambience. There was a sweet butler’s pantry.

We found a broom and cleaned up the plaster. I thought about getting up in the dawning hours and walking in this beautiful neighborhood.

We conferred, the three of us, and agreed: we’d stay. I texted our host.

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

That evening we located a supermarket and did some shopping. We cooked up some cubed steaks we’d gotten from a special butcher shop—they were tender and juicy—and we made sandwiches and salads and helped ourselves to chips. After dinner, Mark took a newspaper out to the sitting room.  I plugged in my laptop and worked on my Saturday post at the kitchen table.

Jim was comfortably in the living room, typing away.

Internet access was fast and good.

We were content in our little home away from home.

By 10:30, everyone was tucked up, drifting away; it strikes me as odd that spending a large chunk of day driving or riding—just sitting—can be tiring, but, for some reason, it always is. So the house quietened quickly and off we nodded.

Until 11:00, when a four-foot chunk of dining room ceiling crashed to the dining room floor.

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

By 12:01 we were in a downtown hotel, on the 13th floor. Jim’s room overlooked the Mud Hens stadium. We wheeled the luggage cart to his door.  He opened it and surveyed.

“This is a cool hotel,” Jim said, and he shut his door on us.

Mark and I had a panoramic view of the Maumee River meandering into Lake Erie.

The rooms were clean, and the beds were comfy, the pillows plumped.  The rental owner had responded quickly and given us a full refund.

This wasn’t the original plan, but it worked.

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

We had a good night’s sleep and, in the morning, we took a wonderful long exploring walk around the Toledo waterfront and the Hensville neighborhood. Hours melted away, and soon, it was time to head for the Toledo Zoo. The sky was a little gray—“Might rain a bit,” Mark said thoughtfully—so we were thinking the Zoo’s Natural History Museum was a good indoor destination.

Five minutes before we arrived at the Zoo, the clouds opened.

They opened full throttle.

We pulled into the zoo parking lot and watched people stream out of the gates, their hair plastered to their faces, their soaked clothing molded to their bodies.

Their umbrellas were not helping.

We sat in the car. Water beat on the roof and sluiced down the windshield. Cars veered by, careening up great plumes of water. In those cars, unhappy people huddled, dripping, their faces turned from each other.

We contemplated parking the car, walking to the gate, then walking to the natural history building.

Jim sighed.

Mark said, “No.”

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

We wound up, instead, spending the afternoon browsing in a wonderful little used bookstore called Nevermore.  Mark and I were delighted to find the exact books we’d been meaning to read. Jim scored two full bags of fantasy novels. By the time we were done mooching around, dipping into shelves, selecting, paging, and reading, and talking with a very nice clerk, the rain had stopped completely.

The sun was even peeking out a little.

“Well,” I said. “At least we can relax over dinner and laugh about the rain.”

We pulled up the directions to the restaurant on the phone, hoping it wasn’t going to be too busy. We drove through a beautiful university district, until, “Turn LEFT,” said the Siri-like voice. “And the destination is on your right.”

“Doesn’t look too busy,” said Jim, optimistically.

It didn’t look busy at ALL. In fact, there were no cars in the parking lot.

There was a sign, though. It said, “Closed today; death in family.”

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

Silence.

Then Jim said, “Jeez. I feel bad for that family.”

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

We ate dinner that night at the Maumee Bay Brewing Company, a block away from the hotel. I had a great bowl of gumbo, Mark tore into a Lake Erie fish fry, and Jim opined that the French dip-prime rib sandwich he ordered might be the best sandwich he’d ever tasted.

Jim did a little research the next morning and suggested we try the Glass City Café. It turned out to be not far from where we stayed. It had brick walls and half curtains and a menu full of homemade comfort food. The wait staff were friendly and attentive but not intrusive. It was GREAT.

“Can I pick ‘em?” asked Jim, and we allowed that, for sure, he could.

And then we drove home. When we arrived, dragging suitcases and cooler and sundries into the house, Jim stopped a minute.

“That,” he said, “was a great trip.”

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

Later, when we were settled back in, I pointed out to James how well he’d handled all the changes in plan—a midnight move to a new place to stay, a completely unexpected afternoon adventure, a restaurant not even near the one we’d hoped to visit. I reminded him about that other trip, when the outcome was not so good.

He offered me a fist bump, and said, grinning, “Well, look at me. I’m changing.”

And he is, maturing and growing and learning how better to absorb those random twists life lobs at him.

There’s a lesson there. People DO change; people continue to grow. People surprise us.

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

I release my choke-hold on the Control the Travel Agenda throttle for a minute, and I ponder. Do you suppose control freaks mellow, too?

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.

******************
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?)

*******************
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)

Ahhhhhhhh, Baloney!

Bologna

The little diner that we’d liked so much a couple of years ago–the kind housed in a sleek and shiny, old-fashioned, silver bullet-shaped building–was dark and shuttered.

“Awwww,” we all said in unison, remembering real, hand-patted burgers charred on the flat-top and served with fresh-cut fries and little cups of catsup, and an older, wiser waitress who called us all ‘Hon’ in her gravelly, whiskey voice.

Closed. THAT was a disappointment.  And, having been on the road a couple of hours, having passed through Columbus and turned north a while back, and having been discussing the wonders of that boarded-up place and its food, we were, suddenly now, all terribly hungry.

The four lane stretched before us into unfamiliar territory.  Jim reached for his smartphone to start exploring possibilities, but then Mark said, “Hey.  Want to stop in Waldo?”

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

Oh, where in the world, you might ask, is Waldo? And I will tell you: it is an Ohio village in Marion township, north of Columbus, just off the road on the way to Bowling Green or Toledo.  It has, says Wikipedia, 338 residents as of the last census, and a whopping total of .65 square miles of land.

But it also has a legendary bar where one can get a legendary fried bologna sandwich. The G and R Tavern has been highlighted in umpteen newspapers and magazines in recent years; people stop there and bring back stories of that sandwich, and you hear their angels singing hosannas in the background.  Mark really wanted to try the fried bologna.  Jim and I figured a place like that should have decent pub food.

The exit sign loomed, and we were starving.  Mark veered off the highway, and we drove into Waldo.

It wasn’t hard to find the tavern. Retirees in their comfortable shoes and sensible traveling togs–shoot, people my age–were waiting patiently in line outside to take their significant others’ pictures in front of the wall mural that reads “G and R Tavern: Home of the Fried Bologna Sandwich.”

We found a parking place amid the interesting mix of Beemers and beaters, gleaming SUV’s and well-used, mud-splattered pick-ups.

***********
Childhood memories bubbled: that cool, dark musty smell; the slapping of a screen door, and the rumble of good-natured men, hard-working men, having a cold one on their lunch hour. A lower murmur of polite talk from the visitors, sitting straight on vinyl-covered chairs tucked primly into formica-topped tables.  We got the last free booth, right near the doorway.  The menu was on the wall. The waitress, who was young and wiry and harried, appeared quickly and took our order.

Jim got chicken fingers.  I got a burger.  Mark ordered the bologna sandwich.

Of our lunches, Jim and I said, “Eh.”  They were standard–meat and fries tumbled out of bags from the freezer, no doubt, and cooked up on the flat-top or crisped up in the deep fryer. Nothing terrible, nothing fantastic: predictable and okay. But Mark had a different reaction.  When his sandwich arrived, plated on paper, grease already spreading, making the plate translucent, he sighed, “Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.”  And before the first bite, he snapped a picture on his phone and posted it on FaceBook.

“My father,” he said dreamily, “would have loved this place.”

*************
Mine would have, too. Growing up, the answer to the question, “Got any lunch meat?” was generally, “Just bologna.”  Boiled ham, sliced and square, was a true luxury; the spicy thuringer was reserved for my father’s lunch bucket.  But bologna was cheap and plentiful, and there was usually some of that in the refrigerator.

For the most part, the thought of bologna sent me searching for the giant vat of peanut butter. But, once in a really great while, when the bologna had just come home from the grocer, and the white bread was softly fresh,–just once in a while–the taste of a bologna sandwich was a wonderful thing.

I was not so thrilled when dinner was fried bologna sandwiches, which happened every couple of weeks, usually on the the night before payday. My brothers didn’t seem to mind, and my father would get downright lyrical.

“Ah, you don’t know what’s good,” he’d say to me, and he’d slather up white bread with great swipes of mustard, pile on the bologna slices, charred around the edges, impossibly rosy in the middle.  He’d slap it all together, take a big bite, and wink at me.

Mark remembers fried bologna, too, and having cold bologna sandwiches packed in his school lunches.  His mother, Pat, added a more exotic dish to their family menu: bologna and pickle.  She would grind up the meat and add chopped pickle and mayonnaise.  It was good, Mark said, but only once in a while–not as a regular weekly diet.

My off and on job, through the last years of high school, and in college, and just beyond, was in a supermarket deli, where I learned to know bologna and pickle more intimately.  We called it ‘sandwich spread’ to differentiate it from true ham salad, which actually used ham as the main ingredient.  Next to the slicer, we kept a big, clean plastic tub that had once held pickles.  Into it we threw all the too-small-to-slice ends of bologna; sometimes other compatible meats went in there, too.  Pickle loaf: a definite yes. Olive loaf, we squabbled over; not everyone liked the taste of olives.

Our tough little boss, Emily, always decided the debate.  “Put dem IN,” she would command, and we would throw the olive loaf scraps into the bucket.

At the end of the day, we covered the tub and stuck  it into the walk-in cooler. Early the next morning, one of us would retrieve it and run the meat through the industrial grinder, spreading it into a long, high-sided, gleaming metal pan.  We’d add a huge jar of salad dressing and a matching jar of pickle relish–always sweet.  And, voila: sandwich spread, which many of our older customers, good Depression kids, preferred to the ham salad it nestled next to in the case.

“Better deal,” they said, and, “Better taste.  I like to taste the bologna in my sandwich.”

Once, back in those deli days, Emily ordered a big mortadella sausage and made us slice it up and feature it in front of the case.  It smelled a little like bologna, but it had great chunks of fat in it; fat and peppercorns, too.  It was hard to slice.  If I wasn’t careful, the fat and peppercorns fell out and got lost and the stuff looked kind of like Swiss cheese-ed bologna.

“Yuck,” I thought, gingerly picking up circles of fat to plug the holes, but our older customers with Italian backgrounds lit up when they saw it.  They took home thick packages of mortadella wrapped in the white deli paper, sealed up with a piece of food-quality masking tape, price scrawled in grease pen. It sold right out, but Emily was told not to order it again; it was a non-standard item that our supermarket chain did not endorse.

“Dumb asses,” muttered Emily.

“Awwwww,” said the disappointed customers who’d enjoyed it so much.

“Thank God,” thought the rest of us, who didn’t like to slice it.

**************
So it was interesting, after we’d arrived home from our trip, and I started pondering the history and the provenance of bologna, to find out that, despite being a smoked and wurst-y kind of sausage, the meat’s roots weren’t German at all, as I’d presumed.  Its roots, according to an interesting article in The Huffington Post, are in–duh–Bologna, Italy. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/24/national-bologna-day-what-is-in_n_4151151.html)

I thought of our good friend Brian, always up for a culinary adventure.

“GREAT idea, Jim!” I agreed.

And Mark sighed. It was the sigh of a man unable to share his culinary delights with his family. He swerved onto the on ramp, and the car surged northward. We sped away from Waldo, and all that bologna.