One Good Thing

The weather is miserable. It rains every day. And now she is feeling better, after last week’s miserable cold (she got it checked out: it was not THAT, and it was not either of the most popular strains of the flu. It was just a deep-down, hard-ass cold, and the doctor said she’d just need to ride it out. It would take two weeks, he said, but already she is feeling halfway normal, so that’s really good). Now she’d like to get out and walk.

The gym is closed for the duration, and she’s glad of that, not wanting to wander in that closed environment, where people sweat and cough and sneeze, and whatever flies up into the air must fall down somewhere and linger, landing on foam grips and faux-leather seats, waiting for contact with the next soft, wet hand, the next bare upper leg. Walking outdoors is so much better.

And even though it rains each day, there are big chunks of time when it’s just gray; then she can go out for long, stretching walks. After she’s walked a bit, when she’s ten minutes or so into it, she begins to taste the freshness of the air. She smells the fecund earth, and she can feel the muscles in her legs and belly working, and then, it feels so good to be outdoors and moving.

And she notices things. There are robins all over now, robin couples, hopping and searching, perhaps finding what they need to set up their springtime household. And crocuses are blooming, translucent violet and shy. Tiny jonquils, impossibly pretty, bow and nod, and each day more daffodils bloom.

The air is filled with birdsong.

These are not things she would see or hear at the gym. She may be missing the machines that are supposed to stretch and strengthen her shoulder, but this crisis is ensuring that she gets plenty of outdoor time, in between rainstorms.

Well, she thinks as she marches along grimly, well. That’s one good thing.

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

Her son, grown but nervous, struggles with the whole pandemic concept. She tries to create a routine, to get him outside and moving at least twice a day. They go to the post office and mail letters and bills. They take big plastic bins to the recycling trailer and dump out their contents. They go to the fitness trail at the local hospital and walk in opposite directions, meeting, refreshed, at the car.

Facebook and other media point out that this is a particularly difficult time for small, local businesses, so she takes her son out shopping. They stop at a local butcher shop, where they buy two beautiful chuck roasts, and they note that this is a place to buy local honey. The little market also carries eggs, which are in short supply everywhere: the supermarket shelves are bare even of the cheap, factory-farmed, pale-yolked eggs.

Right now, the eggs are gone (“They sold within 45 minutes,” says the small, worried looking woman at the counter. She is friendly and helpful. She underlines the telephone number on the receipt.

“Call me tomorrow,” she says, “and if we get more, I will save you some.”)

The next day, they hit the drugstore where their prescriptions are NOT ready. They run to the car in the latest bout of rain. Before she drives off, she calls the butcher shop.

They have eggs. She could have two dozen.

They drive right over and pick them up; the same helpful woman waits on them.

“Come back soon!” the woman says, and she realizes she has gained a new market along with farm-fresh eggs.

Well, she thinks. That’s ONE good thing.

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

She spends her mornings converting her classes to on-line format, and, by the third day of planning, a clear path forward emerges. She finds Internet resources to share, links on the college library’s website, electronic resources supplied by the textbook publisher. This falls into place as she plugs away, and suddenly, it seems almost fun to make this change. It’s kind of a, ‘We’ll show you: you can’t stop this learning,’ kind of challenge.

She gets up from her computer and goes walking, and then she comes home to plan the next outing. The days grow sinew and develop a sturdy shape.

And she still has time to get some extra things done. With her son’s help, she clears off, dusts, and organizes shelves. They discover long-buried treasure, and they sort handy things into accessible containers.

After dinner they begin an X-Men marathon, one director’s cut a night. And each night, she hems another sheer curtain. That’s a project that she’s been putting off since she hung the curtains six months ago. The bottoms puddle, but are hidden by the furniture, and so the job lost its urgency.

But now, she works on them steadily, measuring and pinning and ironing, sitting with a lapful of gauzy white stuff and watching Marvel action heroes, needle slipping in and out as the good guys regroup to win.

By the week’s end, two windows’ worth of curtains hang nicely.

She feels pleasantly accomplished. Well, she thinks, that’s one good thing.

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

She touches base with friends she hasn’t spoken to in far too long; she texts and talks and catches up.

One late afternoon, she is washing dishes and there’s a pounding on the door. She dries her hands and hurries to the door to see her friend heading off to the waiting car. There’s a foil wrapped plate of cookies on the bench.

They have a physically distant conversation, and then her friend runs off to the car, and she carries the cookies into the house.

They are GOOD cookies. The boyos love them. They don’t last long.

Well, she thinks. That was a good thing.

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

She leaves a message for her friend Larry. He calls her back that afternoon and tells a painful story about trying to get home from California, about cancelled flights and crowded airports and worrisome conditions. He talks about the joys of being home.

And then he talks about going out to stock up on some things, toilet paper included, and encountering the bare shelves of his local market, the darting eyes of shoppers pushing carts full of toilet paper and hand sanitizers–grim, frightened people claiming, maybe, more than their fair share. Discouraged, he left the store.

In the parking lot, a young man in a rusty car waved him over. The boy, says Larry, looked a little ragged. He had some sort of throat problem. To talk, he pressed his hand to a device, and his voice was jaggedly electronic.

“Are you a veteran?” he asked Larry.

“No,” Larry told him. He is not.

“Are you a senior citizen?” the young man persisted. Larry owned up to that one.

The young man smiled and got out of his car.

“Here,” he said, and he opened the back door. It was crammed full of necessities, of the very things missing from the supermarket shelves.

“I had coupons and vouchers,” he told Larry, “and I got more of this stuff than I needed. So I’ve been driving around giving stuff to veterans and senior citizens, because I know some people are making it hard to find these things.”

He handed Larry a big package of toilet paper and a bottle of hand sanitizer. He got back into his car and drove away, waving off Larry’s thanks, looking for his next vet or senior.

“He didn’t have to do that,” Larry tells her. “He could have SOLD that stuff.”

“Wow,” she says, and she starts to think, Well, that’s one…but then she stops herself. There’s a whole lot more than one good thing tumbled together in that story. And, she realizes, there has been a whole lot more than one good thing tumbled into this whole week.

She says goodbye to Larry, and she sees that the clouds have lifted; there is even sun shining through. Time for a walk, time to celebrate the first day of spring, and to appreciate all the good that bubbles up, she thinks, even when life is disagreeable or inconvenient.

Change, Sustained By Friends

I pull into the car port on Thursday afternoon, turn off the motor, and fist pump: it is officially Spring Break. Classes don’t meet again for ten days…not until March 17th: St. Patrick’s Day.

A hazy jumble of things to do burbles around my bony mind cave. Some are less than glamorous, but anticipated, anyway: I ordered a new mop system and a tile scrubber, which arrived yesterday. Spring Break will mean scrubbing kitchen and bathrooms and polishing the dim old floors that make me sad.

An interesting opportunity has emerged from a welter of fascinating phenomena; I need to get my background in place. Spring Break will mean doing my research.

One break day, at least, should be an adventure: maybe James and I will take a day trip. Spring Break will mean some sort of short-term exploration.

And Spring Break will mean other stuff, I think: ideas and plans puff up and jostle each other. I grab my book bag and my lunch bag and trot happily into the house.

That night, I fix kind of a celebratory dinner, and we talk about what Friday will bring.

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

Early Friday offers a little sleeping-in time to Mark, who’ll be starting the day with a dental cleaning. We share the table as day broadens, he eats his breakfast and mutters at the paper, and I scribble down my morning pages. Then Mark happily sets off for our favorite dentist, who is fifty miles from home.

He pulls back in the driveway three hours later. Suddenly, cleaning over, his throat started to tickle. By the time he walks in the door, Mark has a full-blown cough. His chest hurts. His head aches.

We dose him up, and off to work he goes, but when he comes home, earlier than usual, it’s clear: the boyo is sick.

The next morning, early, we ride over to an emergi-care site; we are the first ones there, a minute before they open. Mark sees the doctor almost immediately. They test for flu (it’s not) and write prescriptions.

I take him home where he crawls into bed, and I run back out to get Seven-Up and the doctor’s recommended drugs.

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

Soup, I think. Sick boyo; must make soup.

And I remember a recipe Terry shared that I have been meaning to try, for Chicken Pot Pie Soup. That will be perfect for today. I begin finding ingredients.

As the chicken parboils, I cut leftover potatoes into cubes and defrost chicken broth in the microwave. I chop onions and carrots and celery, and I put them into the heavy red Dutch oven to sauté. I measure out frozen peas and corn, mix in some leftovers from last night’s dinner, stir, and assemble.

When the broth has been added and the soup is merrily bubbling, I mix up a batch of pastry dough, roll it out, cut it into circles. I put these on a lightly greased tray and slide them into the hot oven.

They turn golden brown, a little crusty-crumbly: perfect toppers for a thick and hearty bowl of chicken soup.

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

Wendy texts as I chop and stir, and I respond between cooking chores, letting her know what I’m doing, asking about her day. She texts back, saying the soup sounds like a recipe she’d love. In return, she says, she’ll send me a link to a chicken Souvlaki that she made the night before. Really good, she says.

I promise to share Terry’s recipe, feeling a nice symmetry there, a link between a special friend in New York and one in Ohio, though they’ve never yet met.

And Jim comes through with a handful of mail.

“You got an interesting thing,” he says, and I put my spoon and my phone down to check it out.

I slit the big, flat envelope open, and pull out half a dozen recipes and a note from my friend Janet. These are all Bundt pan recipes…several scrumptious sounding sweets, and one breakfast bake that is made in a tube pan. Meat and eggs and cheese and potatoes and bread…molded and baked together and tumbling out, steaming, onto a serving platter.

“Hey,” says Jim, reading over my shoulder. “HEY. That looks good.”

“We’ll have to try this,” I agree. “But it serves fifteen, I think. Looks like we’ll have to have a brunch and invite some folks.”

Jim shrugs. “All right by me,” he says.

Later, I try to copy a Bundt cake recipe and the soup instructions to tuck into a thank you note for Janet. I realize my printer has gasped and died, so I send her an email with attachments instead.

And it strikes me, the way those recipes go off in all directions, how the fixing and the eating of food links us and makes our connections all the more sturdy.

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

By the next day, I have the first symptoms of the creeping crud, and several people have emailed, after the governor’s recommendation to all the state’s colleges, to see if I’ll be moving my teaching from the classroom to the electronic universe.

“Not that I know,” I respond. “Not yet.”

For lunch, I heat up a pot of that good soup; when it bubbles, Mark and I scoop it into thick bowls, crack pastry over the top, and spoon in the thick, healing goodness of a recipe shared by a friend.

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

The next days dribble by in hack-gacking, feverish, germ-infested haziness. I trade my wrestle-with books for murder mysteries, which I open so I can fall asleep.  We open cans or slap things between slices for meals. Jim tiptoes through the wreckage, taking his vitamins; remaining, somehow, uninfected.

And then there’s a night when Mark is able to sleep six hours in a row. He gets up in the morning and showers and goes into work,–not one hundred per cent, but much better.

The next day, I open one of the wrestle-with books, and it feels good to read a chapter.

The crud has crept; we are on the mend.

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

And I keep thinking of the power of recipes shared. I text friends and ask if many of their favorite recipes are ones that friends or family gave them.

Absolutely, Terry says, and she cites her mandarin orange Jello-O salad, make-ahead mashed potatoes, and Hungarian pastries off the top of her head.  (The next day, Terry sends a treasure trove of wonderful recipes given to her by special people. Delighted, I download all into my Cooking and Baking file.)

Most, says Larisa, of her shared recipes are holiday based: noodles and deviled eggs, and her husband’s family spaghetti sauce.

Yes—MANY, says Susan. And she writes about blueberry buckle, the recipe for which Susan’s close friend Cynthia got from her husband’s mother. Now it’s Cynthia’s, Susan’s, and Susan’s daughter Laura’s go-to “take” recipe—what they take to new neighbors, to families celebrating new babies, when someone is sick. “At Cynthia’s mother-in-law’s funeral,” Susan writes, “they passed out the recipe.”

Susan also mentions a fresh tomato sauce recipe one of our colleagues gave her; she makes batches to freeze every summer. And a friend, before she moved away, always made a lemon crepe dessert for Susan on her birthday; she left Susan the recipe when distance intervened.

I think of sorting my recipe box and just savoring the handwriting of friends and family. Some of them are gone, but their recipes sustain me.

I think of framing those handwritten wonders.

I think I should email two more friends and ask about their shared recipes.

And then I take a nap.

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

On Thursday, I wake up and shower and put make-up on. It is a day to return to the world, I think.

In the quiet, after Mark has left for work and before Jim rousts his butt from bed, I go down to the chest freezer, and root around until I find a small roasting chicken. I wrestle that cold little carcass, buried beneath more recent purchases, out, and I take it upstairs and submerge it in a tepid bath.

And then I go to check my email, and I find that the shoe has dropped. My classes are canceled for the early part of next week to give me time to put them fully online.  Until the greatest danger of infection is over, classes will not meet face to face.

I send group emails to my students, encouraging and reassuring.

I check my personal email and then I start a shopping list, just to fill in the gaps left during an illness week.

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

Jim is delighted, after lunch, to go on an expedition with me. We take the paper recycling to the bins, and then we hit the supermarket. We like to park faraway and walk, so it doesn’t strike us, at first, how busy the store is. Angry people push carts burgeoning with all kinds of supplies. One whippet thin woman keeps popping out of the aisle one beyond, no matter where we shop; she glares at me as if I’m stalking her…. or as if I took the last roll of toilet paper from the empty shelf.

And it strikes me, viscerally, how much our shopping routine has changed. Our toilet paper arrives in a huge Amazon cardboard crate, enough for several months. My upstairs shelves are still comfortably stocked: no TP panic for us.

We don’t buy sliced bread, luckily, because those shelves are empty; we do buy bread flour, and there’s an ample supply.

We ignore the empty middle shelves in the freezer aisle (veggies were 10 for $10.00; now they are all gone.) Instead, I hunker down and dig industrial sized bags out from the very bottom—green beans, peas, corn. One big package of each will last at least a month before we have to dispose of plastic.

There is nothing we need that we don’t find. My whippet friend pounds down the shiny floor, looks at my full shopping cart, and once again, gives me a high voltage glare.

At the checkout, the bagger takes my brought-from-home bags with little grace. Between packing each one, she frantically Purells her hands. She turns away abruptly when we try to thank her.

I started a break expecting one thing. Quite another thing has happened.

And people are afraid.

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

At home, Jim cheerfully makes three trips to bring in the groceries, and then he helps me put it all away. When the last bag is folded, he heads off to some well-deserved video game time, and, last bit of energy expended, I take  a murder mystery to the reading chair.

An hour later, I start mixing snickerdoodles, and Jim charges upstairs to help. He has decided that, with large chunks of enforced at home time, he might as well learn how to cook and bake. He lightly greases cookie sheets, and we roll little balls of cookie dough in cinnamon sugar, space them two inches apart, slide them into the oven’s waiting maw. Jim takes his time; his cookies are tiny, perfectly shaped.

When the cookies are done, he disappears again, and I try a new recipe. I rescue the little chicken from its water bath; it is soft and pliable. I dry it off with a soft old T-shirt rag, tuck the wings back, salt and pepper the little bird inside and out. I turn the oven up to 450, and I slide the old black cast iron griddle onto the bottom shelf and close the door.

When the oven peeps its readiness, I take the tender little chicken and I place it in the hot skillet. The chicken hisses and spits, and I slide the pan to the back of the oven. While it roasts for 15 minutes, I wash and chop a bag of yellow, red, and purple fingerling potatoes, toss them with olive oil and coarse salt, and spread them on a baking sheet.

The timer sounds. I turn the heat down to 425, slide the potatoes onto the very top shelf, check on the happily sizzling chicken, and close the oven door.

I am to leave it firmly closed for thirty minutes, at which time, the chicken should be roasted to perfection, and the potatoes tender on the inside, crisp on the outside.

It’s a new recipe, called “Perfect Roast Chicken Dinner in One Hour,” from The Pollan Family Cookbook.  I have wanted to try this method for a long, long time.

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

When Mark comes home, the chicken still has twenty minutes of sealed oven time to go.  He steals a little rest period in his comfy chair. Jim gathers plates and silverware and napkins; I make two small salads. We pour ice water just as the timer lets me know the chicken should be done. Mark, master carver, joins us as I pull the chicken out and test it with the thermometer, not entirely convinced that it will be fully roasted in the short amount of time allotted.

But everywhere I test, the little bird measures done. Mark carries the pan to the counter and sharpens his knife.

I pull the potatoes out and stir them. They are crisp and sizzling.

Mark asks me about the method, and I show him the recipe in the book. I am just about to say, “It’s not a recipe from a friend, but…” when I start to laugh.

Because it IS. Susan gave me this cookbook several years ago.

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

We laugh, wryly, about whatever ‘back to normal’ means in a world facing a pandemic. We look ahead at school closings and deviations in Jim’s job hunt, at uncertainty and change.

Maybe there is a new normal coming. Maybe the pendulum will swing partway back to where it was.

And maybe there are outcomes out there we just can’t foresee.

There are too many possibilities and not enough facts, and I feel slightly off-balance. But the little bird is perfectly done, the potatoes delicious, the salad just the right crisp, cool complement. We savor, and as we do, I feel tight coils relaxing.

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

It’s a different world than the one I expected just one week ago. We are going to have to learn, I am sure, to roll with punches we haven’t quite imagined. But there will be ways of comfort, and one of them, I know, is the nurture and the succor offered by the food we make and share…in the recipes we cherish, the ones shared by friends.

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

Here, with her permission and her thoughts intact, is Terry’s wonderful Chicken Pot Pie Soup recipe:

Chicken Pot Pie Soup

Soup:

2 TBSP butter

2 c. cubed potatoes (the original recipe call for 1 c. but we love potatoes!)

2 celery ribs, chopped (1 cup)

2 medium carrots, chopped (1 cup)

½ c. flour

½ tsp salt

¼ tsp. pepper

3 cans (14-1/2 oz each) chicken broth (I use Swanson broth so 43.5 in total)

2 c. cooked cubed chicken breast

1 c. frozen peas

1 c. frozen corn

Melt butter in a Dutch oven. Add potatoes, onion, celery, and carrots. Cook and stir 5 to 7 minutes until the onion is tender. Stir in the flour, salt, and pepper.  Stir and cook for 2 minutes. Gradually add chicken broth. Bring mixture to a boil and boil for 1 minute. Reduce heat, simmer uncovered for 8-10 minutes until the potatoes are done. Stir in remaining ingredients (peas, corn, and chicken breast). Heat through on low heat 15 to 20 minutes. Serve with pastry toppers.

Pastry Toppers:

2 c. flour

1-1/4 tsp salt

2/3 cup shortening

5 to 6 TBSP milk (I used all 6 TBSP)

In a large bowl, mix flour and salt; cut in shortening until crumbly. Gradually add milk until dough comes together. Shape the dough into a disk; wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 30 minutes or overnight if desired. Roll dough to 1/8” thickness. Cut into 2-1/2 to 3” shapes (I used a flower and a pumpkin). Place 1” apart on a parchment lined baking sheet. Bake at 425 for 8 to 11 minutes. (I needed 11 minutes in my oven to get a little brown on the toppers). Cool completely on cooling rack.

Thoughts

I bet this would be just as good with beef broth and Campbell’s stew meat for a beef pot pie soup!

Getting the Board to Groan

Today is a bright, windy, snowy day. There’s an inch of snow, maybe, a surprise covering, and it’s enough to close the local schools.

[Close schools for an inch of snow??? we always scoff, we who nanooked our way through childhoods in the frozen tundra southwest of Buffalo, New York; who trudged to school (uphill, both ways) on plowed sidewalks walled in by three and four feet of snow.

This ain’t SNOW, we begin, and Jim rolls his eyes. He has enjoyed the benefits of one- and two-inch snow days, and he doesn’t care to hear our hardship stories.]

And maybe the streets ARE a little slick, especially on the back roads, but nothing’s keeping me at home. Today is Big Shopping Day, and I have an unbearable itch to fill the larder.

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

The end of the month brings weariness, when everything in pantry and fridge seems old, known, stale: the crumbly end of a bag of chips, the last few slices of bread, a sour cream pot with a scant cup left in it.

We are down to the last few chicken legs. The beef is long gone. I decide to cheer up the kitchen by making cookies; not chocolate chip, though—the chips are long gone. If we had molasses, I could make ginger snaps.

I search through the baking supplies, which are randomly depleted: flour is fine, brown sugar is missing. White sugar: gone, too.

Every menu, every cooking expedition, in the last week of the month, becomes a master planning and rooting chore.

And then comes this magical day, when the pension check arrives on the same day as the college pays post, this day poised at the beginning of the weekend, and just before the first of the month drags hordes of hungry shoppers out.

It’s Big Shopping Day. Watch out.

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

I pull up my First of the Month Shopping List on the computer. This list, I realize, is like a family historical archive; going back through all of its iterations would tell a detailed story.

Just last month, for instance, I finally deleted the ‘Dog Stuff’ section—sadly highlighted kibble, and doggie treats, and rawhide chews and pressed ‘delete,’ sending those no-longer needed items into oblivion.

We miss having a furry little beast in the house. Just this morning, Mark played a video of a lovable, prancing, rescue pup at a local pound; we both felt that dangerous melting.

Then I thought about an upcoming five-day trip with no worries about kennels or traveling with hound; I remembered that we have been discussing taking off for some sort of spur of the moment weekend adventures.

There is freedom in being doggie-less.

So, just for now, I let my heart freeze back up, and I enjoy the white space on the shopping list.

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

Other list items have morphed into anachronisms. Trying to use as little single-use plastic as possible has changed the way we shop. Toilet paper (in paper wrappers) arrives on my step in a big cardboard carton. We buy vats of dish and laundry detergent. I have amber glass spray bottles; I fill them with my own concocted cleaning sprays.

I go through “Paper Products” and “Cleaning Supplies.” I delete, delete, delete.

Then I add things to “Grocery” that we’ve never used regularly before—honey and coconut; coconut oil; all kinds of nuts. For breakfast now I eat granola mixed in my kitchen: no wheat, no additives, no plastic packaging.

I cross “Mom cereal” off the shopping list, too.

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

My challenge at this time in life is to keep myself out of the supermarket as much as possible, to avoid weekly replenishing trips that lead to splurges.

So…“Six pounds of butter,” I write on the shopping list. I guesstimate how many rice dinners we’ll need, and how many times we’ll have potato sides.

The shopping list, when it is finished, is a page and a half long.

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

Jim, who rises early, is my cheerful partner in crime; after eating the last raspberry paczki, he laces up his sneakers, dons his jacket, and helps me carry bags to the car—paper bags for packing groceries; a sack full of plastic bags to recycle.

At Aldi, we park far away from the store to get steps in. A lady gives us her cart and will not take the quarter we try to press on her.

We’ll pay that forward, I tell her.

Inside, we load up on baking supplies, canned veggies, dairy products, and the chicken cordon bleu roll-ups that Jim loves. A harried mother chases two very active small ones, pushing her heavily stocked cart; her serious oldest son tries to run and get things for her from far away aisles. He is downcast when his choices are the wrong ones but incandescent when he scores.

“They’re kind of noisy,” Jim stage-whispers, and the mother sighs. I eye-signal Jim to hush.

“Sorry!” he mouths.

We check out and grab a section of packing area; we load bags and head out to stow them in the trunk.

Jim tries to give our cart to a gentleman who pulls in; the man insists on giving him a quarter.

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

At Kroger, we fill in the blanks with produce and local honey, frozen goods, pasta sides, and snacks. The patient cashier comments on our gauzy produce bags, and her helper gamely uses our brought-from-home bags to pack up our goods.

She comments that the store’s paper bags are running low, and the cashier clucks her tongue.

“Do most people ask for plastic these days?” I ask her, and she shakes her head.

“Nah,” she says. “MOST people want plastic.”

The little helper carefully fits the bags into our cart. She looks at the cashier and then whispers, “Really, it’s just about half and half.”

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

At home, we wish for a stock boy to carry the bags in for us. We make many trips, tromping snow onto the tiled kitchen floor, and then the sorting and putting away begins.

It is good that I have cleaned out the refrigerator, ruthlessly culling partially filled bottles and jars of sauces, relishes, and pickles. We make room on shelves, stack things, reorganize freezers.

After lunch we drive to the local butcher and buy beef and sliced ham, cubed steaks, a whole chicken; we bring them home, and repackage and wrestle them into the packed freezer spaces.

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

By 3:00, Big Shopping Day is wrapped up, and I grab an hour in the reading chair. Then I get up to fashion a dinner from things that were here before the shopping trip. There is red sauce in the refrigerator; I separate two of those last chicken legs into drums and thighs. I peel and slice a zucchini, bought today, and prep carrots, onion, and garlic that predate the zucchini.

Everything sautés in the heavy old cast iron skillet; then I turn off the heat, douse it all with the red sauce, sprinkle on mozzarella and parmesan and slide the whole pan into a hot oven: a dinner made by pairing some old stuff with some new stuff.

Jim runs up from trying out his newly refurbished PS 3 and slides a couple of cordon bleu chicken rolls into the oven.

The kitchen begins to smell good.

I open cabinet doors, straighten an item or two; look at the bounty in the refrigerator; check the line-up in the pantry. I think of a phrase from Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room: she wrote about “happy, humming domesticity.”

French wrote about that as a cautionary tale, as a vacuum that can suck women in, urge them to relinquish other freedoms for the allure of providing a well-organized house, and she is spot-on in so many ways. But there’s a deep, atavistic drive in us, too, I think, male and female, old and young: the urge to provide, the yearning to have a plenty on hand,–to stave off hunger, to nourish and delight, others, yes, but ourselves too.

And that’s what Big Shopping Day does for me: it fills that need. And those of us who are able to enjoy a sense of plenty are lucky, lucky, lucky.

“It’s all right,” I think, celebrating plenty in the cupboards, as Mark pulls in the driveway. I pour penne pasta into bubbling water, and I enjoy the thought that the larder is full.

A Home-Run Bundt

“Do you think,” I asked Jim about a week ago, just a few days before that youngest son quashed my illusions of any kind of youthfulness by turning thirty, “do you think you’d like an ice cream cake this year?”

Jim has always loved ice cream cakes; I bet that, for each of the ten birthdays he celebrated in his twenties, we ordered a Dairy Queen cake to mark the day. (We would have gotten a Whit’s cake, which is made of delicious frozen custard, but Whit’s closes for most of December, January, and February; we save that delicious extravagance for Mark’s birthday, or mine.)

But, “No,” Jim said this year, surprising me. “Could we have one of those chocolate Bundt cakes instead?”

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

This little bit of cake did not last long after the photo was taken…

A chocolate Bundt cake! Well, of course, we could.

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

This all springs from the fact that, back in January, after we cleared the Christmas goodies away and the house was freshly buffed and ready to welcome a new year, I suddenly had the curious longing for a chocolate Bundt cake. I went searching for a recipe to fill that need.

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

The recipe I had in mind was, maybe, unattainable. My longing was based on a memory of going to Mrs. M’s for a Sunday dinner way, way back in the day.

Mrs. M was a dignified, older, American Irish women, and my mother’s friend. Although they were years apart, they had sons about the same age…my oldest brother, Dennis, and Mrs. M’s only, John. Somehow, during Dennis’s high school days, the two women had forged a bond.

Mrs. M had been that rarest of things in Catholic America’s 1950’s and 60’s: a Career Woman. She met and married her husband later in life; John was born when Mrs. M was somewhere near, or in, her forties.

Shortly after Mom and Mrs. M became friends, Mr. M passed away in his sleep—an unthinkably sudden and tragic loss,—and need and compassion cemented their relationship. Mrs. M used to call my mother every day to talk for an hour at a time. And once a year, she would invite our whole family over for a Sunday dinner.

Mrs. M was witty and direct and sometimes sharp-tongued; she’d lived a life that might have been called unconventional, but her dinners were as traditional as they could be. Formal in a black dress with a lace collar and a delicate cameo pin, she would usher us in. Her silver hair, shot with black, would be pulled back, sleek and neat.

After a suitable interval of drinks for the grownups and polite chat, she would serve us dinner.

The menu was always the same: lovely roast beef, mashed potatoes and gravy, and baby peas. It might be, my mother confided, the only dinner that Mrs. M, who did not really like to cook, could put together…the kind of thing a girl growing up in the forties might be taught to concoct. (“Have one amazing meal you can put together for company.”)

I suspect Mrs. M was always a little amazed and shocked at how much food my parents’ five voracious children could pack away in one sitting. (Forget any leftover beef for Young John M’s Monday lunch, that’s for sure.) After dinner, we would repair stiffly to the living room…an ell off the kitchen in that immaculate little 1960’s rancher,…and my mother would insist on helping Mrs. M clear and scrape.

When they were done, we would have the dessert: a plain chocolate cake, baked in a fluted cake pan, presented on a fancy glass pedestal.  Mrs. M would plate the cake and dollop each slice with thick, delicious chocolate whipped cream.

The cake was rich and moist, with a crust that crackled like a chocolate cookie. The whipped cream, which must have been made with melted dark chocolate, was amazing. Put together, the two made a dessert I fantasized about before sleep at night.

There were nine of us, generally, at those dinners; that would decimate most of the cake. I might look longingly at the scant slice or two left over, but I knew—even the one time Mrs. M offered me seconds—better than to have it. My mother would have tanned my hide for accepting.

But I looked forward to the time when I was old enough to sit down with Mrs. M and copy out her recipe.

Sadly, that day didn’t come. One July morning when I was just out of high school, I answered the phone. It was a nurse at the hospital, with the message that Mrs. M had died early that day, when dark stalked the world, and when Mrs. M’s heartbroken son was at a science teacher’s dig out of state. My mother’s name was next on the contact list; I had to go upstairs and tell her that her friend had died.

She didn’t thank me for bearing the news.

We mourned Mrs. M, and for years afterward, I longed to have that lost recipe.

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Those dinners took place in the early 1960’s, culminating, I think, about 1966 or so. And that was just the time, Food and Wine.com tells me (please see link below), that Bundt cakes, and Bundt pans, became wildly popular in the United States. The reason was that the second-place winner in Pillsbury’s 17th Annual Bake Off, the Tunnel of Fudge cake, a dense, chocolatey, rich, oozing confection that everyone wanted to make, had to be made in a Bundt pan.

H. David Dalquist had invented the pan in 1950—invented it to meet the needs of Minneapolis’s Hadassah Society, who wanted a pan in which to bake traditional kugelhopf. Dalquist owned Nordic Ware (https://www.nordicware.com/), which still makes kitchenware with a Nordic flair. When he designed the fluted cake pan, he called it a ‘bund,’ from the German word for ‘bond’ or ‘alliance.’ But there was a group called the German-American Bund, and that group was pro-Nazi.

That may have been why Dalquist added a -t to the name of his pan. For whatever reason, today we bake Bundt cakes.

Nordic Ware’s pans were too pricey for my budget back in the early 70’s, but I found cheap fluted copycat pans with no-stick coating at a local department store, and I bought one for my mother, and one for myself. Mine was an earthy gold-tone, creamy-white inside, and I baked many, many cakes in it.

I had a coffee cake recipe that had a filling made with Nestle’s Quik and chopped nuts; I drizzled a thick white glaze on top and thought that was very chichi.

The Bundt pan was perfect for making Pig-Picking Cake from quartered canned biscuits shaken in cinnamon sugar, with a sugary syrup poured over the top.

I made a spice cake (secret ingredient: tomato soup) in that pan.

For very special occasions, I would put together that Tunnel of Fudge cake; the recipe was in the Pillsbury Bake-Off Cake Cookbook, copyright 1969. In the early 1970’s, I used the discount from my bookstore job to buy a copy for my mother. (The book still sits on my kitchen bookshelf, its pages crisped like sugary parchment from years of sitting open on the counter as cakes and icings were blended.)

The recipe for Tunnel of Fudge

The Tunnel of Fudge called for a powdered frosting mix that Pillsbury stopped making; the recipe notes the mix and chopped nuts are essential to making a successful cake. I punch the frosting mix into a search engine and see that, even today, people lament its unavailability; the Tunnel of Fudge cake, they write, has just never been the same without it.

But for a long time, cake mixes came with instructions on how to make a Bundt cake—more eggs, usually; beating in a packaged pudding mix, often; adding sour cream, sometimes.

And then the Bundt craze kind of wound down (although Bundt cakes’ popularity  got a big shot in arm in 2002, when My Big Fat Greek Wedding aired its ‘Bundt cake scene’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rqbo2612lww).

Once in a very great while, I would dig out the old Bundt pan, and just for something different, make a cake in it. I used it until the finish wore off raggedly,–until, finally, it had to be retired.

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We went Bundt-less for a couple of years, and then I remarked on missing the pan. Mark got me one, I think, for Christmas that year, and this pan, my current pan, is an official original Bundt pan from Nordic Ware.

So I had the pan when that chocolate Bundt cake craving hit me. I had only to search for the recipe.

My cookbooks were not helpful, so I went online. I was flummoxed by the number of recipes, and finally just chose one, kind of at random. It incorporated a chocolate cake mix, a pudding mix, a lot of eggs, and some sour cream, and it seemed like it might be just the sixties kind of recipe I was looking for.

I made the cake, and I drizzled on the glaze the recipe called for, and I tried it out on the boyos.

They had been skeptical when I mentioned making chocolate Bundt cake.

“Really,” they said. “Bundt cake. Huh.”

So I was pleased when January’s cake popped nicely out of the Bundt pan onto the platter, and I liked the way the warm glaze dressed it up. But I wasn’t really optimistic that the cake would be a hit with anyone but me.

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I was, however, wrong.

I saved the cake (my Tupperware cake saver having expired long ago) under a huge ceramic mixing bowl. And every time I looked, the cake left on the plate would be a good bit smaller.

I would hear the clink of fork on china from Mark’s study, and from the living room, where Jim sat typing, and watching TV,…and eating cake.

There have been times when I made a cake, and mourned the fact that it had gone stale and had to be tossed. This was NOT true of that chocolate Bundt cake. The boyos loved it. The first cake disappeared.

Jim’s birthday Bundt had a similar fate. Just this morning, Jim finished off the last lush piece for his dubious breakfast. (“Well,” he said, a little sheepishly—but not very,—“it IS my birthday cake.”)

It is a wonderful recipe, this Double Chocolate Bundt Cake. It is rich and moist and light all at once, and it is the perfect foil for almost any kind of ice cream.

It is NOT the chocolate Bundt cake that I remember from Mrs. M’s house, but you know what? I’d be almost disappointed if it was. The search goes on; and important quests should not be too easy to achieve.

I will search in libraries and secondhand stores; I will go online every now and then and see if some new chocolate Bundt cake emerges.

Someday, I’ll find a recipe much like Mrs. M’s.

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But we’ll keep making Double Chocolate Bundt Cake, too, for special days, for dishes to pass, for company and for comfort.

Maybe you’d like it, too.

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To find the recipe, please do a search for Double Chocolate Bundt Cake on the Taste and Tell blog. For some reason, I’m prevented from sharing the URL here.

The Bundt pan history: https://www.foodandwine.com/news/brief-delightful-history-bundt-pan

Hearts and Flowers

It is 8:30 when I leave the clinic, and snow is shredding down in big ragged hunks. I let the car warm up a little—there’s a skim of frost on the windshield—and I roll my shoulders to loosen them up, and I pull out onto the street.

I turn the lights on and veer into the turning lane; I take a left onto Maple Avenue and head off to Donald’s Doughnuts.

The parking lot is full, and there is a line that edges the door open. No matter, I think; I promised Donald’s doughnuts, and I will bring them home.

But when I push past the door and queue up, I see the reality: the shelves are bare. All that’s left is a tray of glazed doughnuts and a few iced, filled, long Johns. And by the time I get to the counter even those will be gone.

I back out sadly, shake my head at the hopefuls who come after me, and, in the warmth of the car, I text the boyos the bad news.

They send back emojis with streaming tears.

At Kroger, I buy a half dozen supermarket bakery doughnuts with white icing and hot pink swirls. I get some ham, too, so we can make a special scramble on this Donald’s-less day.

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The boyos have the coffee churgling for me, and they help me unpack the bags. Mark chops ham; I beat eggs and heat the old black cast iron skillet, a little slick of oil rolling on its surface. Jim gets plates and silverware out and opens the doughnut box, just, as he says, to inspect things.

While I crack eggs into the old ceramic bowl with its one blue stripe, Mark slides the ham into the pan. It sizzles and pops.

I beat the eggs with a dash of onion powder, salt and pepper, and a little parsley, and take them over to meet the ham. And while I stir and scrape and turn that mixture, Jim grates the last of a little bar of extra sharp cheddar.

Just before the eggs get firm, we turn down the heat, sprinkle the cheddar, and put a lid on the pan.  Jim runs to get his dad; by the time they are back in the kitchen, the eggs are ready.

We pour juice and coffee and brew tea.

The eggs are perfect; we sigh, first with satisfaction, and then with regret when we realize we did not make enough for seconds.

The doughnuts are okay, but they are not Donald’s.

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In that moment between the end of eating and the beginning of clean-up, I slide Valentines onto the table.

Identical looks of realization and horror spread across the boyos’ faces.

“I’ll do the dishes,” says Mark, “and then I have to go out and…get a haircut.”

“Yeah,” says Jim. “And I need to go with you.”

“Hey,” I say, as I pull down the box of wood matches so I can light the fire, “you do NOT have to run out and get me a last-minute Valentine.”

“Excuse me,” says Mark haughtily, “but I need to get a haircut. And what I do with my time after that is up to ME.”

I have 90 minutes of reading time, snuggled up by the fire, before the boyos come back home, bearing a pretty posy of flowers and a bag of delicious organic cheddar cheese popcorn.

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The snow stops just before noon, and the sun gradually emerges until it is shining brilliantly. When I go out to sweep the front walk, though, I realize how cold it is.

It realize, too, what Valentines Day always signals: Jim’s birthday is days away. I am ready for an outing, and Mark wants to come along, so we head out to walk and shop.

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We stop first at the coffee shop; I forgot to order my two bags last week, and while they are pending, I need an emergency stash. I find dark roast decaf beans and take them to the counter.

The young barista is just that perfect combination of pleasant and professional; he offers to grind the beans for me (we decline), brews up a medium Earl Gray for Mark, bids us a happy Valentines Day as we wander out.

“What a cute old couple,” I imagine him thinking.

Mark, though, is thinking about The Youngest Granddaughter, who has texted him a Valentine wish. His face softens, and he punches in a fast return message.

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The mall is crowded, which is a nice thing, because sometimes, when Jim and I go there to walk on rainy days, we see very few people. Today, there are special displays. A wonderful inner city mission organization is having their annual fund-raiser auction. Each of the auction prizes involves some kind of chair—a rocker, a camp chair, a child’s plush seat, a bar stool,—and incentives. There are wreaths and gift certificates, dinner packages, locally made snacks, and books and toys and garden tools.

We stroll and look; the auction organizers bustle, and the crowd shifts and explores. We head off from the chairs and circuit the mall, Mark sipping his tea, noting the changes in storefronts. I see a couple deep in conversation with two men, and I realize the woman is a former colleague. She and her husband both wear red Valentine’s Day sweatshirts.  

I remember her confiding that she is twelve years older than ‘the hubs,’ and that many people advised her the union would not last.

They’ve been together, I think, at least 25 years.

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We end up at the sporting goods store, where we look for a sturdy backpack for Jim; his has gaping pockets where zippers no longer work. We find a confusing welter: there are backpacks now, specially made, for each sport. We wonder as we browse what would happen if you had, these days, a child playing say, softball and soccer. Would that child have to have separate backpacks for each sport to be athletically correct?

We find a tech-friendly backpack on a back wall. As we head to the register, Mark gets another text from The Youngest Granddaughter.

“I got a Valentine from a BOY,” she tells him.

“WHAT????” Grandpa texts back.

“Is she old enough to be getting Valentines from boys?” he asks me.

“That ‘baby’ is 13,” I remind him. He humphs. We thank the nice lady at the counter; she has registered me for the store’s awards program, which gave me 20 per cent off the price of the backpack.

We wend out way back to the exit, and out into the brisk sunshine.

By the time we reach the car, The Youngest Granddaughter has texted again.

“He gave her a teddy bear and chocolate, too!” says Mark. “And his name is SAM.”

I think he likes me, TYG texts.

He might not like you so much after I get done interviewing him, the Grandpa texts back darkly.

No doubt, she replies, resigned.

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We stop at the hardware store; this year, a right of passage year for young James, he is getting his own tool kit. Mark has clipped coupons; he picks out a sturdy canvas tool bag, and then he examines and rejects and chooses, finding a hammer, screwdrivers, a wrench and pliers, a measuring tape and a flashlight. For a long while, Jim had little time for learning to use tools, but in the past year, his interest has turned. Mark is touched by this, and he takes great care in putting this gift together.

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At the supermarket, we see a colleague of Mark at the entrance. She shakes her head.

“It is CRAZY in there,” she says. “Be careful!”

The aisles are crowded, largely with grim-faced men pushing carts loaded with flowers, balloons, and chocolate.

We locate the few things we need, round off the birthday shopping with a gift card, and head back to the car. It’s a good walk; I like to park as far away as I can. It gives me the steps I need, and it removes me from the avid competition for the Best Parking Spot.

“I was going,” Mark remarks slowly, “to say something about those last minute Valentines shoppers. And then I thought, ‘Well, maybe I’d better just shut up.’ ”

We laugh. At home, we bundle birthday treasures up the stairs while Jim studiously averts his eyes, and I head off for a walk. Rounding the corner for home, I stop to talk with our lovely across the street neighbor. She has her two pups out to exercise. Caesar, a big boxer, gives me an obligatory bark, then takes care of business. When our neighbor calls him, he bounds obediently into the house.

Little Izzy is not quite so easy, though. Still a baby, she badly wants to be obedient. When called, she heads right over to the mama…circles around her and flies around for another run. Izzy bounds toward me, practically runs up my leg to lick my hand, leaps away and heads back to her mama, again.

“She’s a pistol,” our neighbor says, “but I can’t bring myself to be annoyed with her.”

Watching that pup soar through the yard is like seeing the word ‘joy’ kinetically defined.

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In honor of Valentines day, James and I watch an episode of Modern Love on Amazon Prime while Mark does some paperwork. Based on letters to a New York Times column, each episode of the show is a rooted-in-truth story (I am especially interested because my nephew, a gifted writer, had an essay published in this column a while back.)

We watch a show about a gay couple who decide to do an open adoption. The birth mother is an offbeat but lovable young woman who cannot settle down; she knows that her homeless, rootless lifestyle is not right for her baby and she likes the fact that the couple are deeply in love.

Paths to important peaks are never, it seems, without brambles, and there is a blow up when she stays with the parents-to-be, and brings home a man she meets on the street.

But everyone persists, and the baby is born, and the parents—all three of them—work through their stubborn beliefs and their prejudices and preconceptions and they provide a loving, stable home. In the last scene, the two dads are reading their daughter, now three perhaps, to sleep, and telling her the story of what a brave woman her mama is.

The shows wraps up and Jim is silent for a moment.

Then, “I wasn’t sure what to expect,” he says, “but that was pretty good.”

And we realize it is dinner time and head off to pat burger into patties and to air fry shoestring potatoes.

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Later, sock feet toasting by the fire, I think about this Valentines Day. There is the greeting card ideal, and there is reality…there are doughnut disappointments and last-minute shopping trips. There are beautiful young 13-year-olds flushed with the excitement of their first heart-felt chocolates. There are offbeat, unexpected pairings. Little dogs leap and laugh; some people, aching loss, watch the day go by in quiet and alone.

The glitter of commercial diamonds and the perfection of advertising bouquets do not, really, apply. But the day is a reminder in a world that is gritty with deception and dirty-dealing. Love is real, and love is present, in all its guises and manifestations. That’s a truth, I think, that I need always to remember.

I get a bowl and fill it with organic popcorn, and I pad out to the family room to watch TV with my husband and my son.

Snow Days: Rules of Engagement

It’s dark when I awake at just after 6:00 a.m., dark and quiet. But there is a certain quality to the very air. I sit up in bed for a minute, and then I understand.

I throw off the puffy comforter and run to pull the curtains open.

The ground glows white in the darkness. For the first time since long before Christmas, we have snow.

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By the time I am dressed, and the coffee is brewed, by the time I am ensconced at the dining room table with my morning pages, Mark is home from the gym.

The roads aren’t bad, he says, but the snow isn’t stopping. The schools are all closed.

I run out and start the car, come back in to bundle up, and head off to physical therapy. The snow falls fine as glitter as the pale morning sun struggles to rise, but the roads are clear and the car hums comfortably along.

At the clinic, I talk to Ashley about transitioning to an at-home exercise program. She recommends that I get an exercise ball, and we talk about using the rowing machine at the rec center. She teaches me a new stretch, which feels really good, and she prints off the new exercises, and I am home by 8:45, home to a quiet house.

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I think that maybe it’s not the best day for a long outside walk, and I think of other good ways to get my steps in. So I sashay through the house with a dust mop, and then I retrace my steps with the vacuum.

In an hour, the first floor feels light and clean, and I think that rule number one of snow days should be that my house be nice and tidy.

Then I notice the front walk is iced with white froth, and I think about the mail carrier.  

I pull my jacket on and find the push broom; I clean off the steps, then I work my way down the walk to the street.

I put the broom in the car port and run back into the house for the canister of environment- and pet-friendly ice melt, and I madly sprinkle from street to door.

Maybe rule number two of a snow day should be this: Get my butt outside and make sure nobody’s going to slip  and slide on my patch.

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“There’s SNOW,” Jim says, a little wonder in his voice; he is in the kitchen, hair still a little owl-y, rummaging for breakfast.

“Yep!” I say, and some of the snow day magic seems to infect us both.

He puts a couple of frozen chicken cordon bleus on a cookie sheet to roast…on a snowy day, he says solemnly, one ought to have a hot breakfast.

I dig out the chicken tortilla soup from the freezer. While it defrosts in the microwave, I work through my email, where I find, to my delight, a long email from a special nephew. I send the soup for another defrostification spin, and I sit to write a long chatty answer (so chatty! Poor Brian!) to that special man.

Hmmm. Rule number three: use my unexpected snow day time to touch base with someone I don’t get to talk to often enough.

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Downtown Zanesville is like being inside a snow globe, Mark texts, but he’s coming home for lunch, so I pour the defrosted soup into a pot to simmer. It is bubbling merrily when Mark arrives, stamping and huffing, and Jim greets him at the door, almost dancing with the unexpected holiday quality of the day. He gets his dad a thick white soup bowl, and Mark ladles out the fragrant, tangy soup. We break out a new package of tortilla strips, and we keep Mark company as he eats and talks, telling us about the morning and the way the flurries transformed downtown.

And, I think, here’s rule number four: On a snow day, at some point in time, there must be soup.

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Mark heads back to the office and I tell Jim to get his sneaks on. His face lights up.

“We’re going OUT?” he asks, pleased, and I tell him I need to get some steps in, and I need to stop at a sporting good store to see if I can buy a two-pound medicine ball, so we may as well head to the mall.

And then, I say, we need to stop at Kroger for M&M’s, because it’s a snowy day and we really should make some kind of special cookie.

The snow hasn’t stopped, but the streets are still good. At the mall, we split up and do our individual circuits. Jim plugs in his headphones and bops away; I shoulder my purse and charge along.

The steps rack up; soon, I meet Jim and we head off for the sporting goods store, where they not only have my medicine ball, but it is marked one-third off. We use the outside exit and walk to the car, parked on the other side of the mall, through a light shower of snow.

We buy the M&M’s at the supermarket and then cruise out the back way, avoiding the busy retail section, navigating the back roads in the snow, while Jim plays triumphant anthems from action movies.

We slide into the driveway to the Indiana Jones theme. Appropriate, I think, because of Rule Number Five: On a snow day, we need to go out and have some kind of little adventure.

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There are many amazing reasons to blog, but the best one is the people you meet. A blogger I really admire has recently published a cookbook.* Lyn is an amazing woman who has traveled and lived in places I visit only in imagination; she now lives back in the States, and, with her wonderful family, she has compiled a book full of recipes that  have been tested by that most reliable group of people: her kids.

She includes recipes from faraway lands (I can’t wait to try making my own sambusas!), recipes passed down by family and friends, and recipes she herself has discovered and perfected. My copy of the cookbook arrived in yesterday’s mail, which seems like a meant-to-be kind of thing. On this snowy day, it’s Lyn’s Monster Cookie recipe I’m after.

I soften butter and peanut butter, shovel out white and brown sugar, measure up a hefty portion of AP flour, and get the rolled oats out. I crack eggs and watch the Mixmaster do its work and slowly pour in chips and M&M’s.

Then I use a one-third cup measure to scoop cookie dough; I roll it into my hands and flatten it, kind of like I’d do to make hamburger patties, onto lightly greased cookie sheets. I fashion the biggest cookies I have ever made and put them in the oven to spread and puff and settle, to turn brown around the edges and golden in the middle: to perfume the entire house.

While they bake, I grade papers (and oh, my goodness; these papers are insightful and thoughtful and organized and well-written.) The students have written about artworks or songs; I stuff my headphones in and listen to songs on links they included. I keep a little list of artists to add to my playlist. I have graded six papers so far, and I have five new artists to listen to. (The sixth paper was about a sculpture.)

I jump up from the computer to shift cookie sheets; I spatula off cookies and slide empty pans into hot sudsy water. I put more sheets into the oven and run back to my grading.

“Holy cow!” says Jim, drawn to the kitchen by the warm aroma of butter and peanut butter and chocolate. “These are like little pizzas!” And he decides that after dinner, he will put a cookie in a bowl and scoop ice cream on top and add a little caramel frosting.

I agree that’s an amazing idea; I dance back to grade another paper.

And then I sidle back to spatula more giant cookies from their roasting-hot trays, to quickly slide those trays into the dishwater, and to practice that fine old art of cleaning as I go.

Papers are graded; cookies are cooling. I wield a wet dishcloth on the countertop; I surround a beef roast with cubed potatoes in a big old Pyrex pan, cover it with foil, and slide that into the hot oven. I feel very pleased to have followed Rule Number Six: On snow days, I must make cookies and roast something wonderful, low and slow, in the oven.

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By the time Mark arrives home like a triumphant adventurer, the roast is tender, and the potatoes are infused with its spicy juices. We throw little salads together and we fill plates and we pour water, and we gather around the table. We start out in a flow of talk, but our chatter dies away as we lift forks to mouths and savor.

“Perfect,” says Mark. “A perfect meal for a snowy day.”

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After dinner, we light the fire; James curls up on the love seat with a blanket, turns the TV on, and promptly falls asleep. (A great idea, although not a requirement for a snow day: a long, warm nap.)

There is a full moon in a dark, dark sky.

There is a strange relief in seeing snow in a winter that seems to have been too warm and too dry.

And there is a strange magic in a snow day, a magic that makes ordinary tasks seem special, that imbues the everyday with holiday sparkle, that turns mundane into cozy and comforting. I pull the fuzzy golden throw over my sock feet, and I open my library chick lit, and I read by the fire.

But first I check the weather on my phone. The app says it may snow for the next three days. I take a bite out of a giant cookie, crunchy-edged and chocolatey; I slide my toes nearer to the fire.

More snow, I think. Bring it on.

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*Just in case you’re interested, you can find Lyn’s wonderful cookbook here: https://www.amazon.com/Mom-plus-nine-cooks-ingredients/dp/1794258159/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=cooking+plus+nine&qid=1581124468&sr=8-1

Lady, Who Will Teach You?

Hey, kiddo, who taught you?

Did you slide your toes, all socked-up, onto your Daddy’s shiny black shoes, and dance to Frank Sinatra in the living room—Frank crooning, your Daddy grinning, and you feeling just like the princess, your tiny hands engulfed in Daddy’s big ones, your eyes carefully watching watching every footfall?

Did your mama take you out into the backyard and teach you to bat, taking no mercy, her wiffleball whizzing by you until you learned to connect?

Did you have a baking granny, one with infinite patience, who let you grease the sheets and mix the dough and drop glomping teaspoonsful onto slick greased surfaces…carefully let you spatula off the hot cookies, and let you be the first to taste test?

Did your big brother’s girlfriend fuss over you, braiding your hair and rouging your cheeks and telling you that shade of blue, honey, was surely your color?

Did your teacher, seeing you were quiet and bookish, slip you books…whispering, “I think you’ll like this; let me know!”

Or did your school days make you cringe or blush? Was there more silence than guidelines in those young days? Were your big people better avoided than engaged with?

Did you figure things out yourself?

How did you learn, kiddo, how to be a girl?

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Who taught you to make the transition?

Did you have The Talk in plenty of time; did you put the accoutrements in the closet, looking forward, with intense excitement and almost equal dread, to the big change that was coming? When the day came, did you celebrate or commiserate, or were you just embarrassed?

Did your mother take you shopping, and out to lunch,–someplace grown up and glamorous?

Later, did that brash freckle-faced kid turn his fingers into man legs and girl legs and show you just how they fit together—kind of like Legos! he said—and crash open the glass innocence door, leaving you let down and disappointed at the blunt anatomy of the thing?

Did your coach encourage you to push yourself, to fight to reach potential?

Did the librarian smile when she saw you, telling you about the new books that just came in?

Did boys hoot and catcall when you walked by; did their comments bring you to tears?

Did someone tell you to reach, to stretch, that you could do it, that success was coming? Did someone tell you seven ways to reach your goals?

Or did someone laugh when they heard your plans; getting above our raising, are we, did they say?

When your dreams floated to the surface, was someone there to pop them, or did someone help you locate a breeze to float them on?

Did you find it in a book, in the advice from a cute but superior boy, or figure it out yourself?

Young woman, who taught you to be a teen?

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Who took your hand to teach you?

Did you feel soft palms or brusque bruising?

Did your first shy explorations meet with respect or ridicule, trust or lust?

Did you have a long, evolving relationship that let you bloom and grow? Did you have brief, abrupt encounters that left you a little sick, a little longing?

Did you settle in or turn away?

Lovely one, who taught you how to be a lover?

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

Did someone feed your dreams and say, of course you’re smart enough, strong enough, brave enough? Did someone point out that you have all the markings of a leader?

Did you find expansive teachers, or did you crash into closed doors, stumble on high hurdles?

Did you reach and reach and reach? Did you have to believe, at last, that the time had come to settle?

Did you try one path only to realize it was heading the wrong way, and then forge a whole new journey?

Did you love the life you chose, or did you nurse regrets?

Who helped you to realize what it means to be a woman?

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

Did you find true mentors? Did your work satisfy? Did you choose to raise children, tend a home, to open yourself up to fur babies, to the world of nurture?

Did you learn to cook so well that others angled for invitations to your groaning board?

Did your work energize you? Did you stumble with tiredness some nights?

Did you deepen your friendships and spend happy nights dealing out cards, pouring some wine, singing along with the tape deck, confiding over thickly iced slices of chocolate cake?

Were there lonely midnights when you wondered why and why not?

Did you develop the fine art of letting go, of saying farewell with kindness and joy, of waving that dear one off with a grin and a thumb firmly up before returning to a newly solitary place?

Did you have shoulders to lean on, wise guides to whisper truth, faithful ones who let you be you, scars and gifts and all?

Or did you think, bitterly, I guess this is all on me, again?

How did you learn to be the grownup you always wanted to be?

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

And now, dear friend, how will we learn to age, to wrap up our career dreams and settle into our family realities and cope with our aches and the pains…and our losses? Can we uncover the new joys that a new age brings?

Is there a teacher out there dancing, drawing, painting, singing…one who has gone a ways before us, but who will come on back to extend a hand?

How will we explore this unknown land?

Who will teach us to be old?

A Feeble Flapping at the Edge of the Quagmire

I stop to talk with a few of my students—the older ones, the ones who are not quite so sure they’re going to explode with guaranteed success on some future scene —and then I walk across campus to my car. I toss my book bag onto the floor on the passenger’s side; I snug my water cup into the drink holder. I take my phone from its purse pocket and put it in the crook of the arm rest, and then I start up the engine.

I listen for a minute, appreciating—it is good, this responsive power—and then I turn on NPR and pull out of the parking lot on this chill gray day.

And, from the radio, I hear this:

Rant rant venom

Rant rant venom

The impeachment trial has begun. An august senator is almost spitting in his rage at the other team.

I give it a minute, but he doesn’t waiver from his course. He doesn’t talk about the facts of the case or try to counter what’s been presented; he simply sticks his hand into a bucket of hot tar and smears, smears, smears.

I am sickened, and I turn off the radio. I get on the four lane and wend through the edges of this small gray city. It is quiet. I miss the interesting afternoon chatter of NPR, the only station that reliably comes through where I’m driving.

I think I should remember to get a book on CD to listen to while I’m driving.

I think it might also be worth looking into subscribing to a radio service.

Cityscape quickly melts into broad country fields and farms, and the silence gets to me. I turn the radio back on.

The other team has the field now, and this is what I hear:

Accuse whine whine

Accuse whine whine

So much for that. I turn it off in disgust., thinking there is no one here to be proud of, no dignity on display, and no compassion for the people these folks are pledged to represent.

I imagine the floor of the Senate opening, kind of like the dancing scene in It’s A Wonderful Life; I imagine all the senators falling into a swimming pool and flailing away.

I picture the floor closing back up and new people coming in. These people—there’s a rainbow of tones and gender and ages and accents here—shake hands and sit down together at long tables. They share information that often makes them frown and sigh, but they struggle together, trying to understand the truth, the right, the meaning. They are sitting at these tables until they can figure out the best way forward.

That fragile daydream pops softly and disappears as I pull off the four lane onto familiar home town streets. It’s replaced by a feeling of sickness, by this thought: There is nothing good here.

I am by nature a foolish optimist. I don’t want to believe in the absence of good.

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

I make the short trek from carport to house, and I see a scuttle of bugs zipping and flying. Bugs in Ohio in January. This is outlandish.

This is because it hasn’t gotten cold enough to send those bugs away.

This is because of global climate change.

My stomach clutches, and I climb up the two steps to the back door and wield my key.

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

I ponder, as I wash out my lunch dishes, what to do. Nothing is surely not an option, but what option will make a difference?

I can write letters; I am good at writing letters., and I think I will do that—write to my senators, one on either team,–and tell them of my distress.

I realize the letters will be read by some team member and never make it to the senator’s view. But I’ll do this, even if it’s only symbolic.

What else? What else? What action can make a true difference? If a butterfly flapping its wings in New Mexico can lead to a hurricane in China, how can I flap my wings? How can I direct my energy toward a more specific spot—toward Washington, where contention simmers and the work of the people—for the people—doesn’t seem to happen?

I can’t think of one single thing that might make a difference. I go downstairs to poke around in the freezer, think about dinner.

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

Jim is at home, at loose ends. He started this young year with high hopes for a great-fit job; but the organization interested in him opted, finally, to adopt a software solution instead of a human one, and Jim didn’t quite know how to process that, his filters tentative and undeveloped. It took him a week to work it through…to struggle from disappointment and anger to a realistic acceptance. There is grief in the emotional mix; there is a blow to confidence and self-esteem.

But he is back at it now, considering different kinds of jobs; his high hopes have fluttered down to a hard-nosed reality.

“I just want to WORK,” he says grimly, and he and his job coach scour the postings for anything remotely suitable.

And the days at home, waiting, are long. Jim creates projects and organization plans and tries to keep himself busy. By the time I come home, he is pacing, the walls of the house closing in.

Fuel to my malaise: why are so many disabled people sitting in front of flat screens, pushing the buttons on their game controllers, when they could be out there contributing?

HR Magazine tells me that 66 per cent of adults with autism are not employed…and that the 34 per cent with jobs are subject to a rising workplace bullying culture. And, the article adds, 500,000 more young people with autism will launch into the job market this year.

These are quirky people with varying levels of challenge, but people with considerable computer and organizational and other skills—people who could be enjoying detail-driven repetitive jobs that neurotypical folks abhor. To hire autistic adults, though, means shifting workplace attitudes and rules and culture.

While this is happening in some places, those places are all too rare.

What world is this I live in? I wonder, and I am angry and sad, and deeply, deeply frightened when I imagine the future.

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

I bag up the garbage and take it out to the bin, and I toss in the bag—made of compostable plant products. The week is half over, and there is just one other bag inside; since we started being plastic-aware, we have reduced the amount of trash we create by more than half. That at least is a hopeful sign, I think. We’re doing better, and we’ll keep figuring out how to do more.

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

“Do we have any outing-and-abouting to do?” Jim asks hopefully, and I consider quickly. This was buy-a-new-dishwasher week; there is not much disposable cash to be spent. But we could go to the library. And, I remember, Mark found a Panera gift card in the thing basket. There’s fifteen dollars on that, and I think I have another one in my wallet, with a buck or two left to spend.

We decided to take a trip to the library and then stop at Panera. We’ll buy a little treat for a gray afternoon, and we’ll get us each a bagel or two for tomorrow’s breakfast: something for now, and something to look forward to.

In the car, Jim gets music ready on his phone, and says, “Hey. There’s an email.”

It’s from Kelly, a creative job coach in the program that works with Jim. She wonders if he can send along his resume and a letter of recommendation from his supervisor at the college library.

His eyes light up.

“Why do you think she wants that, Mom?” he asks, and I tell him what I believe: that Kelly and her team have some possibilities in mind, that they are exploring new routes and different employers with the potential to become Jim’s workplace.

“But, remember,” I say, “this can take some time.”

“I know!” he says, but there’s a flicker there, like the pilot light has come back on. He picks a sprightly Abba song to play; we bop along to the library, while Jim talks about the Mama Mia movies, which, despite his penchant for fantasy and horror, he really enjoys.

At the library, he fills a bag with manga and DVD’s. On top of the stack is that wonderful redemption film, Chef, with Jon Favreau.

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

At Panera, the young cashier checks the gift card from my wallet. It has $1.45 left on it.

We choose carefully. Everyone likes an Asiago bagel; we get three of those. Then we choose an everything bagel for me and cinnamon crunch bagels for Mark and Jim. We ask the cashier to throw in a little tub of cream cheese. That takes care of breakfast.

For a sweet afternoon treat, Jim opts for a frosted cinnamon bun. I order M&M cookies, one each for Mark and me.

The cashier rings us up, and grins.

“That’s $16.45,” she says.

And that’s exactly, to the penny, the amount on the gift cards.

“What are the odds?” I say to Jim, and he shrugs and rolls his eyes, offers to get the bag, and we shlepp home the spoils, where Jim gets out a video game, and I light the fire and take my cookie and a book to the reading chair.

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

This is not to say the world still doesn’t stink. Free bagels and vague possibilities don’t add up to serious solutions to big problems. There is evil and there is tragedy and there is a huge and sucking quagmire of self-interest and power-craziness and the absolute pressing need to be acknowledged right at all cost. Children die and people are mistreated, and instead of howling in grief, we howl in blame.

I cannot hide my head and avert my eyes; I have to do something. I need to face each thing I encounter and think it through, find a way to act that contributes to healing instead of chasms.

It makes my stomach churn; it keeps me awake at night.

There is a heavy, pressing bank of clouds. There’s a dirty, pouring rain.

But there is, too, a tiny crack in the cloud bank, an infinitesimal suggestion that hope is still possible. Light pours through that crack, and, at certain angles, I’m pretty sure a small, bold rainbow shimmers.

Tonight I am writing letters,—a tiny wing flap. But I’ll know I’m adding to a greater flapping—to the actions of caring, concerned, and committed people, people who stand at many vantage points and have many different views of the situations we face. People, these are, whose hearts are good and whose concern is real.

They are people who can band together for the good of all.

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

There is work to do; I know that, and I know that what I have to offer is not very much. But hope tells me to offer it anyway.

And evil, I believe, triumphs only when hope is hidden away.

A Change in the Menu

What to eat: that’s the whole point here (eventually).

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This is the year, by gum, that I stick to my New Year’s intentions. And one of those is to be much more organized.  The first thing I did, on New Year’s Day itself, was to clean out the pantry shelves.

Those cluttered shelves, lodged in a tall, skinny, little closet-type cabinet next to the cellar doorway in the kitchen, have been making me antsy. I always save things like paper bags that can carry a lunch and plastic bags that can hold a loaf of home-made bread. (We don’t bring home as many of the plastic bags these days, as we make most of our bread at home. But there are some weeks where Jim gets a craving for CWB—Cheap White Bread—and we indulge. When that store-bought loaf is gone, I shake out the bag, and stuff it into the second-from-the top pantry shelf, against the day.)

But these are habits from a different life.

Mark comes home, now, almost every day for lunch; he doesn’t need a paper lunch bag. I carry my lunch on teaching days, but I use an insulated carry-all. The ranks of our unused, lunch-sized, paper bags have swelled, swallowing up shelved boxes of aluminum foil and wax paper, rolls of compostable, plant-based garbage bags, and a very long tube of parchment paper.

The plastic bags were doing the same to bottles and jars of sauces and condiments on the shelves below.

I needed to clean, but the shelves are high, and I dislike clambering on a chair to reach the tippy-top, to see to wipe things down, to remove long forgotten treasures, and to decide what to do with the flotsam.

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

That reality led me to the thought that one needs the right tools for the job. Jim was thinking along the same lines; he had acquired a lot of books and many DVD’s at Christmas. He has shelves downstairs with his collections organized by genre, and his new stuff mandated that he take things off shelves and reorganize.

Jim likes reorganizing; it’s one of his joys, but even the most joyful reorganizer gets weary.

So he clears off, say, five shelves, towering books on his desk and chairs, and then he works diligently to incorporate the new tomes. He considers and he places, and shelves slowly fill up, and Jim slowly slows down. After an hour or two, he will trudge up the stairs.

“Time for a break,” he will mutter, and go off to, perhaps, play a video game.

Meanwhile, there are still book towers on his desk, hovering over and thwarting his attempts to sit at his desktop and write reviews.

“You need,” I said to him one day in late December, “a rolling cart.”

Jim turned, three books in hand, and his face was illuminated. “Yes!” he said. “Like at the library! Then if I don’t finish, I can just roll the cart out of the way!”

That weekend, I went with the boyos on their regular Saturday excursion. We recycled, and we went to the ReStore and mooched around. (I bought sweet little fancy dishes to hold some wonderful, handmade soaps a wonderful friend sent as a complete surprise.) Then we went to the farm supply store.

James bought a sturdy cart, kind of like a three-tiered red metal wagon, to sort stuff on. I bought a sturdy step-stool, which doubles as a seat in the kitchen.

That weekend, I cleared off the shelf over the microwave and stove—a shelf that is just a pain in the neck to reach on a dining room chair. And then, on New Year’s Day, I cleaned the little pantry. (That little step-stool makes a big, big difference.)

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

I cleaned, and I found amazing stuff. I cleared shelves off, putting everything into a big basket, and I sorted the stuff on the counter. I found three boxes of matches; I crossed ‘matches’ off the shopping list. I found boxes of taco shells, rices for risottos, and three bags of egg noodles. Way in the back, I found some Chiavetta’s barbecue sauce (a local delicacy from our childhood hometown) we’d forgotten all about. That was exciting until Mark noticed the use-by date, which was 2014.

Glug, glug, glug.

James, who loves to watch Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives, went through an exotic sauce-buying stage a while back. Among the bottles and jars and boxes, I found Tandoori sauce, Shawarma marinade, and Peanut Bangkok sauce. Those sauces were all still healthy, and Jim’s eyes lit up.

I wiped down the shelves and put everything back neatly. Then, Mark and I went through the shelves leading down the stairs to the cellar, and we put all the bottles of sauce in the pantry, and the canned veggies in the cellarway, and stood back and took a look.

The canned goods and other staples were beautifully arranged and easy to grab. That was when I decided I needed to go back to my old, old habit: creating weekly menus.

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

I sat down on Friday to make a meal plan. I checked through the freezers to be sure I knew what meat was on hand; I looked at the calendar, seeing who would be where when. I flipped through some recipes, made out a shopping list, and I wrote down menus for the next seven days.

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

For Friday night dinner, I thought we’d have sloppy joes. But I forgot that Mark was traveling that day to New York State; he’d stay until Sunday and spend his mom’s birthday with her. Jim doesn’t like sloppy joes; it was silly to make them for just me. So Jim and I heated up a frozen pizza; I made a side salad, and we ate and watched Big Bang—a nice little break in the routine.

The next day, Saturday, Jim and I drove to Westerville, where we had the six-buck lunch at Dairy Queen. We mooched around the library and walked around downtown. We were hungry by the time we got home.

The menu read ‘cubed steaks.’ Perfect, I thought; I pulled the package of steak from the freezer. There were six in the package, separated by squares of butcher paper. I only needed three.

I’ll pry them apart, I thought, with a steak knife, and put the other three back in the freezer.

I smacked the meat down on the chopping board and stabbed the knife between the top two steaks. They were bricklike; my stab sent the meat shooting one way and the knife shooting into my finger.

“Bleaaaahhhhh!” I yelled, and ran, dripping blood, to the powder room for band-aids and antiseptic ointment.

“I think,” said Jim, “I’ll just have a ham sandwich.” I re-wrapped the cubed steaks and put them back into the freezer. I crossed the Saturday menu suggestion off the list, too.

On Sunday, I took a chuck roast from the freezer. Beef stew: that was the plan. Mark would be arriving home sometime in the late afternoon; a simmering pot of stew would be ready whenever he was hungry.

But then I felt bad. Jim doesn’t eat stew, and I hadn’t fed him very well that weekend. I’ll switch, I thought, to oven-baked pot roast, roasted with potatoes until they soak up the beefy juices and brown crisply around the edges.

Mark arrived home just before the roast was done, which was perfect.

I crossed ‘Sunday: beef stew’ off the weekly menu, too.

On Monday, Jim excitedly sauced his boneless chicken with Tandoori sauce. I doused two leg quarters with barbecue sauce and baked them for Mark and me. When they were done, we carried our plates to the kitchen table, and Jim went off happily to the family room with his meal.

“Oh muh GUG!” he yelled a moment later. Turns out his Tandoori was hot, hot, hot. He had a ham sandwich instead, and I packed up the rest of his boneless chicken.

On Tuesday, the literacy association was having a fund-raiser at Freddy’s. Support reading? Well, YEAH. Ignoring the menu, we drove to Freddy’s, where we not only had a splendid dinner, we sampled the frozen custard, too.

I just wasn’t feeling it on Wednesday; I crossed that night’s plan from the menu, and we had breakfast for dinner: crisp-edged French toast, sizzling brown sausages.

The way of things was clear. On Thursday I threw the menu away. I took out the Tandoori chicken, rinsed off most of the sauce, and made a big, bubbling pot of chicken tortilla soup. Jim put a Devour meal in the microwave.

The soup, recipe gleaned from a close, close friend, was hot and tangy and delicious. It was even better for lunch the next day. And that night, we ate those cubed steaks, which I had wisely taken out to defrost quite early.

I did not write out a menu for the week to come.

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

There was a time, when kids were young, and budgets were tight, and schedules were outlandish, that a menu was the only way to ensure that a hearty dinner made it to the family table each night.

Those days, with all of their action and frustrations and delight, glow far back on the timeline.

THESE days call for a different way of planning things entirely.

It’s not that I’m not organized; it’s that this time of life calls for a different kind of organization. So this week, I’m cleaning out the hall closet and sorting the bed linens, donating the neglected and never-used blankets and sheets to a local homeless shelter. I have my teaching days. I have my days for recycling and for food shopping. I have my appointments on the calendar.

But I don’t have a menu. These days, I have the luxury of rolling ideas around in my head, considering what’s in the refrigerator and what’s in the freezer, and deciding, finally, what to fix that night for supper. Sometimes, we might even opt to eat out or order in.

I love the structure of my week, and I love that dinner isn’t mandated by a menu; instead, it’s a little spot of adventure, a little element of surprise, in otherwise ordered and sedate days.