Talkin’ Trash in the Kitchen

Finished Trash.jpg

Ah the sun is full out: Sunday morning.
I am fresh back from taking my walk.
My coupons are stashed
and my dishes are washed
and I’ve already pottied the dog.

The boys have a task set before them,
A mission that took them to Lowe’s.
The outdoor faucet is beat;
Plants need juice in this heat:
So the boys will re-able the hose.

But I’m pounding chips in the kitchen
The remnants from several sacks;
Pretzels come next;
Yes, I’ll see them compressed.
I am trying a recipe called Trash.

Bags

It’s a recipe Mark saw on Facebook;
We decided to give it a try.
So I’m making Trash in the kitchen.
I’m not sure that I could say why.

********
The butter melts quick in the big pot.
But the marshmallows stick to the sack.
They’re all glommed up and tricky,
Yuck–my fingers are sticky.
I’m too entrenched, though, to take that mess back.

I stir and I stir and I stir them;
They finally consent to melt down.
Not a cuss word I utter;
Just stir in peanut butter,
swirl together sweet white and nut brown.

And then it is time for the salty.
I mash in the pretzels and chips.
The mess is released
to a pan that is greased
(Only tiny, wee tastes pass my lips.)

And the boys struggle on in the basement;
Here an oath, there a triumphant cry.
While I’m spreading Trash in the kitchen.
I’m not sure that I could say why.

Faucet fixing

************
Well, the thing comes together in last steps,
So I sprinkle on M and M candy.
I press on one quarter cup.
Having MORE than enough,
I devour the remains (which is handy.)

Sprinkled Trash.jpg

And then I fill a bowl full of chocolate,
and microwave-melt it to drizzle.
Ah–sweet melty slop!
I adorn the treat’s top.
(Can I cut these? I might need a chisel.)

So the treats are congealing and chilling,
As the boys labor over their chore.
I wash out the pot;
I might like these a lot.
And I surely will make them some more.

And the drill grinds away, then is silent,
To be followed by a joint victory cry
And I’m writing Trash in the kitchen.
I’m not sure that I could say why.

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

Trash Treats

(from Delish.com…)

3 tbsp. butter
1-16 oz. bag marshmallows
2 tbsp. peanut butter
4 c. potato chips, crushed
2 c. pretzels, crushed
¼ c. M and M candy
½ c. chocolate chips, melted

Grease a 9 x 11 inch pan.  A small cookie sheet would do well, too.

Melt the butter over low heat in a large pot.

Add the marshmallows; stir until melted and smooth.

Add the peanut butter; stir to combine.

Turn off the heat, and quickly stir in the chips and pretzels.

Press mixture into greased pan. (I find that wetting my fingers, and shaking off the excess before pressing, helps in the pressing process.) Sprinkle with M and M’s; press the candy into the surface of the treat.

Drizzle the bars with the melted chocolate.

Let harden before serving, about thirty minutes.

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…That’s the Way I Spell ‘Success’

(Because I haven’t reached out to the folks or their families, and because the information here’s a little bit personal, I’m altering the names of the real and wonderful people about whom I write.)

*****

My mother, when I was growing up, had herself a frienemy.

Oh, of course, we didn’t call the relationship that then, but that’s what they were, my mom and Thea–frienemies.  I have to think they really, deep down, loved each other–why else would they keep calling, keep visiting, keep plugging away at a relationship that seem to chafe them both?

Thea’s kids were all around the same age as my mother’s own darling offspring, and they were all–sigh–so much BETTER.  They got good grades, and they didn’t get rides home in police cars, and they didn’t rip their pants climbing chain link fences to get out of places where they shouldn’t have been in the first place.  They didn’t roll their skirts up to mini length as soon as they were out of sight of the house. Their breaths didn’t smell suspiciously wine-y or malt-y, never mind a thick overlay of sweet spray mouthwash, after Friday night football games. And they didn’t provoke evening phone calls to parents from school personnel, unless the call was to tell Thea and her husband that their child had earned yet another scholarship, award, or academic kudo.

When the school called our house, the room quickly cleared. My older brothers–oh, they were unfeeling!–would send one of us younger ones back in as sacrificial scouts after the receiver banged back into place.  If the canary stopped singing, those bad boys would stay out of the mine a little bit longer.

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

And, the next day, maybe, Mom and Thea would wind up chatting on the phone, again.  Comparisons would commence.

Thea would call Mom, say, to tell her how wonderfully well parent conferences went, and then she’d ask, with gleeful concern, how Mom had enjoyed hers. Of course, when Thea talked to teachers, she heard things like, “A joy to have in class!”

When my mama went to conferences, she heard…

…Not working up to potential.

…More interested in socializing than in schoolwork.

…Messy.

…Missing work.

…Attitude needs adjustment.

The Mom/Thea kid-comparisons lasted until well after we all left school.  Some of us bumbled around, discovering ourselves.  Some others charted a course, followed it, and quickly secured career advancement.

I leave it to you to guess whose kids did which.

One day–I was teaching middle school at the time–I stopped in to visit mom and interrupted her on the phone with Thea.

“Well,” my mother was sputtering, “well, maybe my kids aren’t all successful.  But at least I think they’re HAPPY!”

She slammed down the phone and turned and smiled at me.  “Coffee?” she asked.

***************
I certainly didn’t debate it with my mother at the time, but her statement has stayed with me all those years.  What IS being a success, after all, if it isn’t being happy?

But happiness shouldn’t be a contest, and, I’m thinking, neither should success. This whole line of thought gets me to pondering the people I’ve known whom  I can honestly and unequivocally call successful.  The trappings that society considers requisite for success don’t really apply.  To be successful, I think, you have to set goals and meet them–or, have the wisdom to know your goals are wrong and change them.  To be successful, you have to be willing to try and fail and try again–and know that failure is a real and potentially permanent possibility.  To be successful, you need to know yourself and to have the courage to stay true to whatever it is that means.

It’s the rare person who does all that consistently.  I don’t always, or even often, reach all those high notes.

But I’ve known folks who have, and did, and do.

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

I knew, for instance, Dan and Jessica, who never bought a single thing on time.  They had seen the world–Dan had been in the service and stationed in Europe. I was so impressed that the little downstairs powder room in their lovely house sported a wooden sign that read, “WC.”

Ah, that’s class, I thought: who in the States calls their half bathroom a water closet? Dan and Jessica had traveled. They’d been there.

They had a houseful of books, a houseful of music, a houseful of art, and a house full of rich conversation.  Dan was the maintenance guy at the little private school where I taught; he was a gifted ‘fixer,’ but never too busy to put down his tool belt to discuss the merits of a poem I’d just lettered on the bulletin board in the hallway.  He was a poet himself, and he crafted odes to celebrate all kinds of events–entries and exits, commencements and commemorations.  I remember his poem to celebrate the first time a goat visited the school, and I remember its historic refrain:

There’s goat doo-doo down in the hall.

Jessica taught; the two of them entertained; they continued to do some traveling; and together they raised three wonderful children.  The first time they ever took out a loan was when the oldest one went off to college. And you can bet those bright, funny, hard-working kids worked their butts off, got and maintained scholarships, and paid back, in giant ways, their parents’ faith in them.

Long after we moved away, we learned that Dan had died, much too young.  But what a lot of living he and Jessica packed into their years together–what integrity and passion.  What laughter, and what fun.

In the Dictionary of Pam, when you look up ‘success,’ you’ll see pictures of Jessica and Dan.

*************
I knew a man named Luke who had absolutely no reason to be happy, and yet he was. Luke was dying from AIDs by the time I met him; he dragged a long and hurtful past behind him.  He’d made mistakes; he’d learned some big things–bigger things than most of us ever have to tussle with.  He’d forged a fierce authenticity in a fire that had raged overly bright.

We met at a soup kitchen run by our church.  I believed in organization and lists and volunteers signed up for shifts.  I believed in meal planning and smart shopping and counting the cost. I believed our hands were the only hands God had on earth–and that we had better keep them washed and busy.

Luke believed–he really, really did–that God would provide, and that a spirit of radical hospitality was more important than counting out the chicken breasts.  It was all, he would assure me, going to work out anyway.

The two of us worked the kitchen together for a couple of years.  We drove each other crazy.  We disagreed on lots of things–but never on the dignity of the people whom we served.

It worked out, as it turned out, really well.

Luke had a tiny apartment a block or so away from the church, which was good because he had no car. He had thrift shop clothes and hand-me-down furniture and he could tell you stories about winters, back during the time he lived in New England, when he couldn’t pay for heat and there was truly and literally nothing to eat in his house.  He hadn’t acquired a whole lot of material goods since those days, but he had learned a deep and abiding faith, and he had come to accept himself. He kept a prayer wall, Luke did, where he wrote, in Sharpie, the names of everyone he cared about and everyone who needed prayer and all the causes he just ached to see resolved.  He could see the lists from his bed; when he felt too sick to get up, he would stretch out and read the names and send up prayers.

And then, a day or two would pass, and Luke would feel better.  He’d get up and come back to church and tell me I was too fussy, the way I peeled potatoes.

Luke bounced back so many times that I just knew, deep in my knowing, that he was going to be around a long, long time.

But of course, he wasn’t.  He died way too young; he died way too soon.  And he died having made a far-rippling impact.  He taught a congregation about acceptance and grief and a kind of hospitality that says I don’t CARE how badly you smell or how funny you talk or whether your filters aren’t firmly in place: it just doesn’t matter. You are welcome here, my friend.

Luke lived his beliefs, stayed true through pain and neglect and deeply wounding sadness, found faith, built family, left us way too soon.  Luke, too: success.

**********

Successful? Hey, I know people.

I know someone, for instance, who works to reunite broken families.  Her methods, which are creative, maybe a little unconventional, are sometimes frowned upon by a canon-bound establishment. But they are compassionate methods, and ones that keep people safe.  They are methods that work. She often celebrates success.

I know a woman, born to wealth, who spent her career educating people to go out and build themselves better lives, and who, in retirement, insures her family’s funds help others.

I know a man who yearned, despite Fate’s other plans, to go to law school; he passed the Bar the week that he turned 50.

I know a school counselor who never gives up on her students–who pours her heart and soul and being into getting them on the path to success.  Sometimes, she has to testify in court. But often, she is dancing at their weddings.

I know a woman who happens to have Stage Four cancer but has never–not for one day–let that define her.

I know a mother who survived the unthinkable suicide of a child; she now works to promote better understanding of mental health issues in young people.

I know a person who, deprived of the opportunity to have a traditional family, opened his arms to lost sheep and lonely souls. He built a family, person by person, heart by heart. It is one of the strongest, most loving family groups I’ve ever seen.

I know people who reach deep into the pits of their gifts and talents, and who bring up treasures clutched in both hands.  They use their words, their music, their ability to teach, their compassion, their parenting skills, their creativity, their movement, their awareness.  They have wrestled with the Meaning Demon long and hard.  They have been victorious.  Their words and sounds and touch and thoughts enrich the lives of those they reach and nurture and respond to.

Still wrestling with the Demon myself, I am blessed with all these role models.  I hope to reach that plateau, that victory platform, where I can join them and say, at last, “Success!”

Right now, I can say, “Working on it.”

But my mother was right. Mostly, and blessedly, I’ve been happy.

*********
I know some other people, too, ones for whom the whole idea of wrestling was too much–the ones who turned away, who settled, who–it seems to me, anyway–gave up.  They are not happy, those ones.  But neither are they doomed.

I firmly believe this: it is NEVER too late. And there is always something you can do.

Success is understanding the hands we’ve been dealt and looking at all the options of playing those cards.  Then it’s picking the option that matches what we know of ourselves and our gifts, our values and our yearnings, and committing ourselves to playing that game, whole of heart and single of mind.

It has nothing–success doesn’t–to do with money or clothes or cars or trappings.  But you can have those and still be successful.

**********

Mom is gone.

Thea is gone.

I stay in touch with one of Thea’s kids on Facebook; she’s out West, but we keep each other informed.  So I know that, in her siblings’ lives, there have been divorces and estrangements, disappointments, arraignments, and muddles.  But they have all come through okay. Their lives might not look exactly like the triumphs they’d envisioned back in the day when Thea and Mom compared notes.  But they are all, my old friend tells me, true and strong and happy.

Ah. So. Competition over.  There is plenty of room on the victory platform, plenty of space for each of us to climb up and grab those sashes and slide them over our heads. The music will pulse; we’ll all be bouncing, hands flailing joyfully, the silky word ‘success’ flared across our chests and bellies.

It’s crowded, that platform, with successful people; they dazzle me with their grins and their dance moves. They inspire.  Wait for me!  I call to them. I think  I’m getting there!

And then I go back to the wrestling.

Of Snow Storms and Fitness and Cookies, Still Warm

 

Soup

When I leave work at 5:30, it has just started to snow, a hard, fine sugar that glazes the roads.  I take the long way, carefully, and savor driving through the sparkling mist in the half-light of dusk.

At home, the dog meets me at the door; she trots to the edge of the back stoop, and she puts her nose out into the weather.  She turns her head, gives me a look that says, clearly, “Never mind!” and hurries back inside.

I feed her.  I change into a soft old navy blue sweater and pull-on pants.  I start a pot of soup.

The soup is a hearty recipe from a dear friend, Kathie, and it  goes together quickly. I follow the recipe exactly. Well, I do, except that I have five cups of broth made from the bones of Sunday’s roast chicken in the fridge, and I put that in instead of the water that’s called for.  Which is just as well, because, instead of a package of wild rice mix with its tangy flavor packet, I use the leftover rice from a big batch of risotto.  And I discover a little cup of French style green beans from last night’s dinner, so I throw those in–with a hefty helping more from the bag in the freezer–instead of broccoli.

Other than that, though, it is EXACTLY Kathie’s recipe, and it begins, quickly, to burble enticingly. It blends sautéed onion and shredded carrot, the nice lean chicken, the broth with the fat skimmed off. It is hefty on the vegetable matter–even the broth was a long simmer of celery and carrot and bay leaf, herbs and spices and bones with shreds of meat a-clingin’, onion and leftover corn and one sad tomato. For the most part, I think, Tara would approve of this soup.

Tara is our wellness coach at the College; every Wednesday she meets with us, and evaluates us and talks to us.  She demonstrates good stuff to us.

At our first meeting, she takes our measures. Considering them, she sets the curriculum: we’ll work, she says, on body mass indexes, cholesterol, and nutrition.  We’ll learn, Tara tells us, to incorporate activity into our days, to do exercises that relieve the stress in our backs and our necks, and to walk until our heart rates reach a nice healthy thumping pace.

We nod and smile and look at each other plaintively.

Tara is an inspiring person, glowing of mien, joyously giving, and there is no way we can doubt that what she tells us is what we should do.

So we begin, and we encourage each other: I pack celery sticks for snacking, enough to share.  Linda brings baby carrots; Jaime stashes a six pack of little Greek yogurt cups in the staff room refrigerator.  We bring our sneakers to work; in the afternoons, at 2:00 or so, we lap the building, striding down the hallways, romping up the stairs.  For the first circuit, anyway.  We elevate our heart rates.

Tara talks about changing habits rather than dieting, so I set myself two immediate goals:  increasing the helpings of fruits and veggies I eat each day, and building three thirty minute sessions of heart-pumping exercise into my week.  I’ll start, also,  practicing better portion control, and, as time rolls on, when I use up a bag of flour or a loaf of bread or a box of pasta, I’ll replace that soft white starchiness with something whole grained and hearty.

I am determined. I am committed.

I am home on a snowy cold night, and I am–sorry, Tara,–going to make cookies.

The soup bubbles merrily. I get out the peanut butter, the eggs, the flour, the rich dark brown sugar.  The butter. I pull out my old red-checkered cookbook and check the instructions. I mix up a double batch of peanut butter cookie dough.

By the time I am done, the boyos have arrived, safely home from their excursion to Westerville, 50 miles away. The roads were fine on their way there.  They kept an appointment, browsed through a bookstore, stopped at Panera for dinner.  By then, the snow had begun to fall, and they drove sedately home. Mark brought a beautiful little loaf of sliced, crusty, rustic bread.  It is the perfect thing to go with the steaming soup.  I ladle out a bowl and take two small slices of bread from the bag. The boyos shed their snowy jackets and stomp off their boots in the back hall, and I grab my cozy murder mystery and take my lovely supper to the table.

Despite my variations, the soup is as good as I remember; the bread is a fresh and  chewy treat, and the book is a tantalizing, comforting read. Refreshed, I turn the oven on to 350, pull the baking sheets out of the cabinet, and begin shaping little meatballs of peanut butter cookie dough. It’s a learned task; I must have first done this well over fifty years ago, when my mother taught me that the cookie jar should never really be empty.

She was not an extravagant shopper, my mother–and the family budget applauded that: we did not have soda pop or potato chips or ice cream treats in the house very often.  But we always had baked goods.  The cookie jar was full or it was being replenished; and sometimes there was also a cake or a pie. Our friends liked to visit. They were each on a first name basis with the cookie jar, and they knew where to find the glasses to contain tall drinks of milk.

No more demonstrative than she was extravagant, my mother showed she cared by baking for us.  A house devoid of home-baked cookies was an empty home, indeed.

That’s especially true, I think,  on a night when the furnace has to struggle and chug itself to life and the snow’s so cold it glitters. I set up trays of peanut butter doughballs, dip a fork into sugar, and flatten the balls with criss-cross tine marks limned in sweet crystals.  I slip the first two trays into the oven; in moments the smell of warm peanut butter floats through the house.  The dog comes out to sit by my side as I type, hopeful, keeping me company, trotting at my heels when I pull two sheets from the hot oven and replace them with two more.

She gets the leftover burger, the dog does, but no cookies. She considers that, and then, a canine pragmatist, accepts.  Mark and Jim appear in the kitchen, take themselves little stacks of cookies warm from the oven, slide back to their electronic universes, munching.

“These are GOOD,” they say.  I try one, too, and I agree.

Outside, in the full dark, snow still falls, getting more defined and less sugary.  The wind picks up.  Drifts pile up in the shelter of the hedges.  This is a storm so strong the weather gurus have named it; I watch the deepening glitter and fantasize that work tomorrow may be cancelled. Mark goes quietly through the house, opening cabinet doors that shelter pipes; the warmed air will cradle those conduits, keep them from freezing.

I pull the last two trays of cookies from the oven. With a spatula, I slide the cookies onto a platter, adding them to a burgeoning mountain.  I clean the last of the baking things, setting the cookie sheets face down on the warm stove to dry.  I divide the soup into little containers, and I look around my kitchen.

Some deep-seeded need to fill the larder, to batten down against the storm,  is satisfied.  Maybe the snow will stop within the hour; maybe it will continue all night. I hear the vigilant snowplow scrape by; I acknowledge, sadly, that a snow day tomorrow is an unlikely thing.  But whatever happens, there is soup in the refrigerator; there are cookies in the jar.  My family is safe and warm, protected from the elements.

Tomorrow I will chop more celery sticks to take to work; I’ll do some solitary Saturday laps around the building.  I will keep to my goals. But I will not regret the cookies, those warm and fragrant amulets that keep winter’s breath at bay.

PB Cookies

 

Missing Burnt Umber (But Mixing My Own)

Coloring 2

Even the dog has given up and gone to bed. It is 1 AM, January 1st, 2016, and I am sitting at the dining room table, under the one light burning as the house sleeps.  I have sprawled my crayons, my colored pencils, and my markers across the shiny wooden tabletop, and, in the quiet of the year-changing night, I am coloring.

I am coloring a floral design from a book called The Enchanted Forest, a gift from my stepson Matt, his lovely wife Julie, and Alyssa and Kaelyn, their two beautiful daughters. It is a thoughtful gift on so many levels:  I love fantasy, and there is a fantastic story that undergirds these intricate visual designs.  I love puzzles, and as I color my way through the book,  I will find little clues hidden in each picture–clues that add up to a key. The key will unlock the castle door, and then I will know the secret.

I love knowing the secret.

But mainly, hugely, historically, I love coloring.

**********

My very first memory has to do with coloring:  It is my third birthday, and I am unwrapping a stack of same-shaped gifts.  In my memory, the stack is at least twenty gifts high; I suspect, given family finances and a mother with frugal tendencies in the best of times, the stack might have been about half of that.  But still.  Each carefully wrapped gift was a coloring book.  With the stack came a box–16!—of Crayola crayons.

Even at age three, my predilection for coloring was clearly noted. And my mother had strong opinions on the tools required.

She liked the idea of us coloring, but she was picky about coloring books.  The ones that featured popular characters, back in the early 1960’s, did not always have the best art.  So I might find a coloring book in the supermarket that featured a popular doll  (a doll, it might be added, which I did not own. There was no point, my parents felt, in toys that played for you.  YOU make your dolls walk and talk, they said.  What do you need batteries for?  Use your God-given imagination.) I’d show that book to my mother, who would flip through the pages and snort.  “That’s crap!” she’d say.  “Look at these lines!”

And she’d show me where the hasty artist hadn’t bothered to finish a drawing, left a shape incomplete, or inked eyes flatly lackluster.  On a good day, she’d put that book back and take a moment to sort through the other offerings, finally selecting a book for me that met her standards.

On a bad day–or maybe on a week with not so much overtime in the paycheck–we would move briskly along.

“You’ve got paper at home,” she would tell me. “You can draw your own pictures.”

We did have an endless supply of newsprint, bought at the local newspaper office.  The staff cut the leftover paper into 8-1/2 by 11 inch pages and sold it by the pound, cheaply.  My parents kept a deep stash on hand.  We were encouraged, when the weather did not support outdoor play, to gather at the dining room table to draw and color.

We had the newsprint.  We had an array of coloring books, shared among us.  You put your name on a page to lay claim to it.  I tried, sometimes, to savor a book, to keep it all to myself, but it was never possible.  If I hid it, Mom the super-cleaner would find it, and put it back with the stacks in the dining room, and then anyone could lay claim to the best pictures in the book.

I particularly liked panoramas–those drawings that spread across two flattened out pages, and it made me sad when another person colored in half, necessitating a creative reach to match their style and complete the vignette adequately.

We had a three-pound coffee can filled with crayons. A crayon was good until it was too small to hold–full value all the way down the waxy stick, although coloring with pristine crayons that still had their points was an undiluted pleasure.  To find a color, one dumped the crayons out on the broad, dark wood table and spread them out. Once the wrappers had been peeled away, it was a challenge to identify black, which was always the prime, most-needed, crayon.  Purple looked like black; so did navy.  It was good to have a testing sheet of that reliable newsprint at elbow; we had sheets and sheets of paper with scratchy little scrawls on them–scribbles of dark colors, blue and indigo, blue-violet,–until one hit paydirt: BLACK.

She was not given to indulgences, my mother, but she would not buy cheap crayons. We always had Crayolas, but we rarely had more than the eight-pack.

“You don’t need someone else to mix your colors for you,” Mom would say.  “You have all the basics right there; make your own colors.”

She didn’t believe in big fat crayons for little hands, either.  In the first place, none of us was that tiny; we were tall, sturdy children with big, capable hands from a pretty young age.  And in the second place, she felt that providing some sorts of support tools–fat pencils, fat crayons,–put a young child at a deficit.

“You learn to use the fat one,” she’d say, “and then you just have to unlearn that when you get the thin one.  Why not start as you mean to go on?”

It was a rare treat to get a box of sixteen virgin Crayolas; it was unheard of to get the 96 box.  One memorable Christmas, I got the 96-box WITH A SHARPENER.  That was as close to perfection as I could imagine.

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

In the 1970’s, a phenomenon called the ‘anti-coloring book’ surfaced.  It was a book that didn’t provide pictures; it provided activities.  So, instead of a picture of a dog, there would be a blank page with a prompt.  Draw, it might suggest, the most wonderful pet in the world.

The anti-coloring book was supposed to encourage creativity, which, the theory had it, the regular coloring books inhibited. But I never found it to be so.

Encouraged, perhaps egged on, by parents and brothers, I felt free to ignore expectations and to build surprises into my coloring book forays.  So, despite the fact that my friends informed me Cinderella’s dress was a beautiful sky blue, I made it rainbow striped.  I had purple trees.  I gave things auras.

We paid attention to coloring in the backgrounds of pictures, and I learned early on that the sky reached all the way to the ground. But it didn’t, necessarily, have to be blue.

A big discussion, when coloring with siblings, was whether or not to outline.  Most of us thought outlining was GOOD; you traced the picture with your crayon, and that created a waxy barrier that kept vigorous strokes pretty firmly within the lines.  Parents did not outline; perhaps, I thought, it was an age thing.  My father colored very lightly, I noticed.  I liked to hit the paper so heavily the waxy residue shone.

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

Perhaps coloring is usually a past-time of childhood, but I never left it behind.  In middle school and high school, I drew and colored pictures to illustrate popular lyrics. I might have an elongated figure about to step off a surreal lemon and orange colored rock structure, high above the burnt umber earth. (How I loved burnt umber!  How I mourned when it was retired in 1990!)  In Flair pen, I would write below the drawing: I’ve got the answer.  I’m going to fly away. What have I got to lose?  and credit Crosby, Stills, and Nash. I decorated my lockers and my notebooks with such flights of fancy.

I bought permanent markers with my babysitting money and created intricate two-color grids for myself and my friends.  We called them ‘op-art’, and we swore we got high on the strong alcohol smell of the markers.

I had an early job at a bookstore where we carried coloring books for grownups-books that had intricate symmetrical drawings; coloring them could pluck out patterns and create illusions of three  dimensions, or of movement.  I always felt good about supporting my store by buying those books.

And then my brothers began to get married and to give me the wonderful gift of nephews and nieces–little people with whom to color, enthusiastic little souls for whom I could buy Crayolas.  There was never a lag in reasons to color; after college, I fell into teaching at a K-8 parochial school, starting out in the gym and in the art room.

“I’m a teacher,” I could argue. “I must have crayons!”

Stepmama.  Mama. Home day-care provider.  There was always a need for crayons and coloring books, drawing paper, colored pencils, washable markers, in the house. Mark took to buying me a 96 pack of crayons every year for Christmas until I had such a supply that it became ridiculous.  I grew very attached to certain colors–burnt umber among them: sigh.

I rejoiced when burnt sienna was saved by popular vote in the early 2000’s. (http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1000466/posts )

I discovered other people were as fascinated by coloring as I am: Ed Welter did a whole history of crayons, and has his own website on the subject–a wonder to explore. (http://www.crayoncollecting.com/) Crayola tapped into that lifelong fascination with coloring and called for user input to name new colors.  A five year old named ‘Macaroni and Cheese.’ An 89-year dubbed a special shade of violet ‘Purple Mountain’s Majesty.’  (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/05/22/crayola-crayon-color-history_n_7345924.html)

There is, clearly, no age limit on coloring.

***********
So.  Solitary, absorbed, 1 AM, I color in my new coloring book.  The process relaxes and engages me; it taps into that other side of the brain, takes me out of official time into another realm, floats me down a restful stream away from mundane cares and worries.

I am NOT too old to color; no one is too old to color.  Publishers have sussed that out; every retail space, this year, has offered its variation on the adult coloring book theme.

I am delighted with mine.  I love the colored pencils Matt and Julie gave me; I’m using them and just them–eight color options which I blend and combine; thank you, Mom–to mimic the colors in my dining room curtains.  I will search out gently used picture frames and use my new matting equipment, and I will frame and hang this picture, once I’ve completed coloring the whole book.

And when I’ve completed this picture, I’ll add crayons and markers to the mix; I’ll experiment. I’ll play.  Playing is something, I’ve become convinced, we all, age and dignity notwithstanding, need to do.

So. Mark will call home to chat with Jim on Mondays (my day off), and he’ll ask, “What’s your mother doing?”

Jim will sigh and respond, “You know. She’s COLORING.”

And it will be so.  Relaxed, engrossed, not a whit repentant, I’ll be at the table on my day off. My duties done, I’ll have Crayolas rolling across the shiny surface: I’ll be bringing a lady bug’s glossy shell to life.

Oh, it’s a true, true pleasure. You should join me!

Wandering Back

They were three deep in the line–a lunch-time line; she looked at her fellow shoppers and concluded they were all using a scant lunch hour to make their purchases. A plump grammy-type lady had a basket full of little girls’ socks and sweaters; a twitchy gentleman in a long, expensive looking topcoat jiggled a trendy, bullet-shaped blender. Dell herself had the counter-top convection cooker that was her stepson’s number one wish this Christmas.

At the register, a young mom (bespectacled, no make-up, hair pulled back severely, her sleeping baby in a car seat in her shopping cart) fed baby toys onto the belt.

The cashier was a pretty young thing, pale of skin and startlingly black of hair–her lips and nails a vivid matching crimson. She languidly pushed the toys under the scanner with one hand.  The other hand held her smart phone, into which she was tittering. Tittering over, she’d fling her head back and listen, hand poised on an item to check out. The process was taking a long time.

The grammy sighed; the coated man twitched, and the young mom anxiously rocked the sleeping baby back and forth as she waited.

Back at the end of the line, Dell pulled out her own smart phone.  The store was Berger’s; the local owner, Freda, was famously imperious and impatient with her help.  Dell punched in her own office number, and, as her recorded message began, she started talking, loudly.

“Freda?” she crowed, and the cashier’s head jerked up.  “Yes! I’m waiting in line at the store. It looks like it’ll be at least 15 minutes so I thought I’d call you back.”

The cashier muttered a quick ‘gotta go’ and put her phone down.  She flashed an abashed apologetic look at the mom and began quickly shoving toys into bags.

Dell paused–her mission was accomplished, but a  demon had possessed her.  “Name?” she asked.  “No, Freda, I can’t see her name, but I can send you a picture!” She held her phone up, snapped a photo of the startled young cashier, and texted it to herself.

The grammy guffawed; the coat turned around and bestowed a pale smile.

By the time Dell got to the the register–which didn’t take long at all, considering–the cashier was leaking tears.  Dell paid in silence and lugged her hard-won bounty to the car.

******************
There was a message on her machine, she saw as she flipped on the office lights, and she listened as she booted up her laptop.  Oh, lord: Mary Carole.  A former young colleague, MC had returned to grad school and now she was suffering agonies of indecision about next steps.  She called Dell and used her as a sounding board.  “I could do this,” she’d say, “but then I’d lose this and that!  But what if…”

Dell would listen patiently, interjecting a caveat or two. She’d learned, Dell had, to give a caller like MC ten minutes to vent. Then she took control of the conversation, soothed and encouraged, pleaded meetings and obligations, and promised to touch base again soon.

Which was not an empty promise, because the caller always called back.

But today, she wasn’t going there. She deleted the message and grimly moved a thick stack of files front and center. When MC called again–twice more–, she let the calls go through to voice mail.

******************
On her way home, she stopped at that stupid three way corner with only two stop signs. One never knew if the approaching traffic was making a right or not,–fewer than half the drivers bothered to signal their intent–so people sitting where Dell sat had to be wary.  But the oncoming traffic cleared, and Dell waited while the car at the stop sign to her right, which had been waiting before Dell pulled up, made the turn.  Behind that car, a woman in a battered mini-van split her flat face into a wicked grin and made the turn in front of Dell, cutting her off just as she started to accelerate.

“Bitch!” thought Dell, and she laid on the horn.  FlatFace turned and waved gleefully.

Dell waved back, but she only used one finger.

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

At home, she checked messages.  Martin, who was away visiting family, had called to see how her day had gone.

“Well, let’s see,” Dell mused. “I made a cashier cry.  I ignored a plea for help from a  young friend. And I gave a stranger the finger.”

She turned on the flame under her teapot, and went into the living room to turn on the tree lights.  It was December 17th.

“Merry freaking Christmas,” Dell thought.

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

She woke up in the dark hours of the very early morning with the sense that something was terribly askew.  It was 4:12, and sleep was gone.  She got up, pulled on her warm, fluffy robe, let the dog follow her down the stairs of the quiet house.  She stood, the cold air bathing her ankles, on the back porch as Sheba ran into the yard to transact urgent business.  There were stars in the clear black sky, pinpoint diamonds.

Dell thought, with great clarity, “The thing that needs to change is ME.”

When the sky began to lighten, she called her boss and took a personal day.

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

That day, she sat down with her journal and made a list of all the things she loved about Christmas.  And then she clipped the leash on the dog and bundled up. They took a long walk; they meandered for over an hour.  When she got back to the house, she felt clear and centered; walking was Dell’s best form of prayer.

Martin was home in time for dinner, and they grilled veggies and sliced cheese and took rolls from the freezer. They constructed sandwiches and submitted them to the panini maker.  And they talked.  They cracked a bottle of wine, and they talked and talked and talked.  The talk deepened and turned into laughter; they sat on the couch in the living room and lit the gas fire and fell asleep by its glow.

The next day, Saturday, Dell made phone calls.  She called each of the boys, who normally woke up at 5:30 or 6 AM on Christmas to open gifts with their families before heading off to the in-laws for a full slate of festivities.  Then, late in the afternoon, they’d come to Dell and Martin’s for another full meal–rib roast and mashed potatoes–another round of tearing paper and mayhem, before taking their tired, cranky, overwrought kids home to bed.  Dell offered them Christmas off.  What if, she asked, they got together the next day?  Or, even, the day after?

The boys were shocked, but then thoughtful, and both asked to call her back.  She imagined earnest conversations with their harried wives, a little surprise, and then a realization–how much easier that would make things.  What do you think?

They both called back and asked if they could come the day after Christmas, and Dell agreed a Boxing Day celebration would be a wonderful thing. She passed the phone to Martin, so the boys could check in, make sure this wasn’t just some passing whim of Mom’s–let’s make sure Dad is good with this, too.  Martin’s calm laughter and easy tone assured them.

*************
She called Mary Carole and let her talk for half an hour.

**************
Dell got on Facebook and posted a note to all her friends.  “One of my joys at Christmas,” she wrote, “is sitting down to write cards to all of you, to touch base in writing, with time to reflect and savor.  But the days leading up to the holiday are so rushed that I usually plow grimly through the task.  This year, I’m taking time over Christmas to really enjoy the process.  So if you don’t receive a card from me before the 25th, know that it will be coming after Christmas–maybe even early in the New Year.  That will give me time to remember and anticipate and think about how important you are to me…and try to get that all into writing before I mail off my card to you.”

Seventy-two people pressed ‘like’ and three of her friends messaged what a great idea that was–and that Dell might just get a fat greeting a little later than usual, too.

****************
She gave up any more trips to big box stores and bought gift cards at the supermarket instead.  Then she made special trips to small, local shopkeepers.  She bought hand-dipped chocolates and wooden toys, kaleidoscopes and candles.  She picked out bottles of local wine and beautiful chunks of cheese at a dairy in the country.  She found the most incredible ruby-red sundae glasses at an artisan’s shop in a little village twenty miles away.

She bought a wonderful painting of their town for Martin from a local artist. She bought hand-crafted necklaces for the daughters-in-law, and plump, whimsical animals for the littlest grands.

She took her time with the shopping; she didn’t always get out of the shops in fifteen minutes, but she had wonderful conversations with talented, original people.

She took the long way home from work, avoiding the three-way stop corner completely.

And she created fabulous stockings for Martin and the boys and their families. She even, because it was something she loved and not something Martin did easily, put a stocking together for herself.  It seemed silly at first, but she found herself anticipating pleasure of re-discovering those tiny treasures.

She did not make cashiers cry.  She did not give fellow travelers the one-fingered salute.

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

On Christmas Eve, because it was important to her, Martin went with her to the candlelight service at their church, and she soaked the soaring, hope-filled carols in through her pores.

On Christmas Day, because it was important to him, she watched “The Christmas Story” with Martin.  They snuggled in their old, comfy PJ’s, ate eggs and toast, and roared at Ralphie’s antics.  They didn’t dress until 2 PM.  Martin took a nap; Dell and Sheba went for another peaceful meander.  They ate chili for dinner and cracked open one of those bottles of local wine. Their phones burbled throughout the day, and they sat down and had relaxed conversations with the lovely persons on the other end.

On the day after Christmas, the boys and their families clamored in around 1:00; Dell and Martin passed out little boxes with the gift cards inside and the stockings, and they spent an hour unwrapping, exclaiming, and playing. Dell had called their favorite pizzeria, who delivered three huge  pies and dozens of  chicken wings  and they grabbed and ate–kids disappearing to play video games in the sunroom or toss a ball in the unseasonably sunny green weather or play on the carpet with tiny cars.  It was a carefree, relaxed celebration, and both boys thanked her, wondering if maybe THIS could become their new tradition.

She and Martin cleared up after they’d left, the silence pronounced after the whirlwind, and they agreed it had been a wonderful day.

*************
Dell let her thoughts wander during the sermon the next day, sitting next to Martin, who needed an occasional nudge; he was inclined to indulge in a little nappy time as Reverend Cass plowed on, exploring her theme.  She thought about how rested she felt, and how that hadn’t been true two days after Christmas in any of the years gone by. And she realized how far she’d wandered from her core, obeying what she’d felt were society’s imperatives.  But who, really, had she been making happy?  Not Martin, not the boys, not her friends and extended family. Certainly not herself.

She had found herself turning into a shrew, a politely-veneered virago, and it had been time for a change.  A return to her beliefs; a return to her desires; a return to a true thoughtfulness about those dear to her.

And, in returning, a wonderful holiday.

Today she and Martin would go home and  frost the shortbread stars she’d cut out and baked in the quiet, calm of the house, post-family, yesterday.  Dell loved those cookies, had to taste them at Christmas, and today they had the leisure and the energy to do them justice.  And today, they’d decided, they would sit down and think, really think, about their time and their gifts and the way they could use them to help their community in the year to come.

It was simple. It was rich.  It had meaning.  Centered and grounded, Dell felt, for the first time in many, many years, the peace and hope of Christmas seep into her bones.

Take the Pepper; Come Back for the Salt

 

 Evelyn sat behind the counter and watched as people passed by, never turning to look her way or stopping to explore the wonderful, quirky, lovely things she had in her little store. She had taken a great leap to open the little gift shop, a leap of faith–faith in the Almighty, in her own ability, and in her nephew Barney’s assurances.

“Aunt Evy,” he’d said, “you have taste and a discerning eye.  People will pay for that.”

This store, with its little stash of glowing inventory, had taken all of her savings.  She had left her job in the doctor’s office, and they quickly replaced her.  If this didn’t work, she would truly be in trouble.

“Wait,” Barney assured her. “Ride it out.  It takes a little time.”

But Evelyn didn’t think she had much time before the bottom crashed away, and she couldn’t sustain things any longer.  She needed a miracle–just a little miracle would be nice.  She needed shoppers–four or five a day would be fine, especially if they each spent thirty dollars.  She sighed and went back to get her dusting cloth.  At least she would, for sure, have the most immaculate shop in town.

************
Jorie was wiry and dark and unremarkable, not pretty, not ugly, not smart, not dumb.  I am completely UN-special, she thought. I’m so un-special that I’m invisible sometimes.

It was a complicated time at her house.  Her oldest sister, Mills, was pregnant–19 and pregnant, and hadn’t there been some screaming about that? Mills was the pretty one, all golden hair and blue eyes, and she was smart too.  She was in college studying to be a teacher, except that now she’d take some time off to have her baby.

She had married Danny and they were living at Jorie’s house, but just until the first of the year, and there was tight-lipped, silent disapproval seeping from her mother’s pores.

Mills acted unconcerned.  “Don’t you worry, Mother!” she’d snapped.  “I’ll finish my degree.  The college has a daycare.  I’m not going to be derailed.”

She said it like an accusation, like a taunt, to her mother, who had only had one semester of college before it became apparent Mills was on her way.  But, Jorie thought, her parents loved each other; they would have gotten married anyway.

And it was her mother’s choice, wasn’t it, to keep on having kids? Four years after Mills, there was Freddy, who was a sophomore now and had just discovered what he called the Wonderful World of Alcohol.  He stayed out late; he came home drunk; there was more screaming.

Jorie–Marjorie, really, but no one called her that, just like no one called Mills ‘Mildred’–came along four years after Freddy, and there was a bigger gap–almost six years–between her and Patrick, the baby. Patrick and Freddy had blue eyes and blond hair, too–Freddy’s kind of a dull and dirty blonde that he shaved close to his head.  Patrick had a nimbus of curls.

Between Mill’s pregnancy and Freddy’s partying and Patrick’s excessive cuteness, Jorie felt like there was only a narrow space for her.  She would be, she advised herself, smart to squeeze into the space available, shut up, and crouch beneath the radar.

Which she did, pretty well, but it got lonely sometimes.  Sometimes she wished her mother would just talk to her–just for 15 minutes a day or so.

She’d asked yesterday if she could help with the holiday baking, and her mother about snapped her head off.  “Just let me DO this, Marjorie!” she’d said.  “If you want to be helpful, go clean your room.”

That wasn’t right of Mom to say, because Jorie always kept her room neat, and she vacuumed it weekly.  She enjoyed dusting and rearranging her pictures and statues.  She made her bed, every day. She cleaned and straightened Patrick’s room, too.  She picked up the magazines in the living room, and she loaded the dishwasher.  She was learning to do her laundry and loved the feel and the smell of an iron in her hand, crisply pressing cotton cloth.

She DID help.  Mills and Freddy mocked her, mercilessly; Patrick accepted that Jorie was there to pick up after him.  Her mother kicked her out of the kitchen.

It wasn’t fair.

Her dad got home late, usually, at 6:30 or 7:00, always one to pick up overtime at the plant; by then Jorie would be in a chair with a book, and Dad would come in and just for a minute rest his hand on her head and smile down as she smiled up.  They were the dark ones in this fair-haired family. But Dad was handsome–distinguished, even, with his snapping eyes and high cheekbones and glossy mop of hair.

Jorie was just…unremarkable.

*********

After school on Wednesday, Mom was taking Mills to her OB/Gyn appointment, so Jorie had to walk over to pick up Patrick at his kindergarten class, which was in a separate school about a half mile from hers.  And he would be whiny and not want to walk home, so Jorie, who had three dollars saved, would take him through the little downtown, and they would stop at the coffee shop and share a coke.  That way, he’d shut up and not drag behind, bitterly resenting the lack of ride.

Patrick was out playing with two friends when Jorie got there; he left them reluctantly and opened his rosebud mouth to protest the walk home.  Jorie cut him off with a promise of the coffee shop.  Patrick clamped his little mouth shut, considered, and accepted the placation with a shrug.  He dragged his book bag behind him, and Jorie remonstrated; they wandered, bickering, into the little downtown area, until Jorie lifted her head, looked in a window and saw wonders.

It was a new little store; she’d never seen it before.  In the window was a display of music boxes and kaleidoscopes. Oh, Jorie loved kaleidoscopes.  Inside, she could see beautiful frothy clothes on a rack and little statues and doodads arranged enticingly on counters.

“Patrick,” she said.  “Patrick! Let’s go in here.”

************
Evelyn was dusting when the bell jangled, and hope surged and then faded.  It was children; she’d have to watch them.  She hurried behind the counter and kept a sharp eye.  They were whispering by the salt and pepper shaker display.

There was a great deal of low discussion, and then the little boy came over, a pepper shaker cupped in his chubby little hands. He looked up at her, enormous blue eyes shining, and he raised the little shaker toward her. It was a clever little owl.

“Please, ma’am,” he said, “could I buy the pepper today and come back for the salt next week? ‘Cause I only have three dollars?”

His hair was a molten golden aura encircling his head.  He looks, thought Evy, like an angel, and her heart leapt. It seemed to her, suddenly, like a sign or a test, and of course she would let the little one take the pepper and come back for the salt.  She solemnly took his money, and handed him a clipboard. He printed his name carefully on the sheet of paper attached and handed it, equally solemnly, back to her.

“I won’t let anyone else buy the salt owl,” she promised.

“My mother loves owls,” he said, almost reverently, and he left, herded by another, bigger child. Blinded by all that blue and gold, Evy didn’t take much notice of the bigger one.

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

That week, Jorie turned into an odd job whirligig.  She shined Dad’s shoes; she walked to the store for Mills.  She vacuumed Danny’s car and she folded laundry.  She earned a quarter here and fifty cents there.

She told Mills about the little store and Mills went down and did some Christmas shopping.  Mills saw a necklace she liked and she hinted broadly to Danny, who went down with his mother and bought the necklace.  His mom got a few little things, too.  Jorie told the kids at school about the store and some of them went in to get gifts for their moms, or to buy one of the homemade suckers in a pail by the counter.

By Thursday, she had the money they needed. Patrick had a play date, so Jorie went into the store alone.

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

Evy looked up at the thin, dark child standing in front of the counter.  “You want what?” she asked.

“The owl,” said Jorie, “the salt owl.  For my mother. She loves owls.”

“Sorry,” said Evy, sharply. “Not for sale.”

Barney looked up at her hard tone, folded up his paper and stood.  He smiled over the counter at Jorie, who had frozen in shock.

“But I was HERE,” said Jorie. “I was here with my brother, Patrick.  He wrote down his name and you gave him the pepper and said we could come back for the salt.” Jorie’s eyes glazed over, and Evy realized: this was the darker, bigger child.

“Oh, darling,” she said.  “I am sorry.  I didn’t see you that day.”

“I’m know,” Jorie whispered, apologetic. “I’m not especially stand out-ish.”

“Oh, darling,” whispered Evy again, and she shook her head clear of its cobwebs. “I’m going to get you a special box and a gift card. You wait right here.”

She went into the cluttered little back room and sorted through boxes, and she could hear  Barney’s rumble and the child answering him, stumbling a little at first and then being drawn into the conversation.  Their voices rose and fell. Evy found the box and a little Christmas gift tag with a beribboned owl smiling up from it, and she took them out to Jorie.

She took the shaker down from its shelf and nestled it in tissue.

“See how I did that?” she asked, and Jorie nodded.  “Well,” said Evy, “here’s another piece of tissue for the pepper.  And if you need help, you just bring it back.”

Jorie’s face was shining now, and Evy saw how her dark eyes snapped, and, with that blush creeping up under her skin, how pretty she would be.  “Oh,” she said impulsively to the girl, “oh, with that complexion and those eyes,–you’re going to be so lovely.”

Jorie’s eyes opened in shock and she hugged the bag Evy gave her tight to her chest.  At the door she remembered her manners and turned to thank them and say goodbye.

“Come in any time you’re bored,” said Barney, “and you can help me grade papers.” Barney taught second grade and was always co-opting help with the endless math sheets.

When Jorie left, he turned to Evy. “She’s been sending you business,” he said.
**************
Jorie didn’t expect much that year, but it turned out to be a really nice Christmas.  Her Dad and Danny decided they would do all the cooking and cleanup and they spent the whole day, Christmas Eve, simmering up spaghetti sauce and making meatballs.  Mom disappeared upstairs to do her wrapping, and Mills, after she threw up twice in the morning, ran around humming and grinning.  Freddy didn’t go out with his friends at all, and he went to midnight Mass with Dad and Jorie.  Mom stayed home with Patrick, who couldn’t sit still that long or that late.

The next morning there was a ton of presents.  Danny and Mills got her a necklace with a real diamond, and Dad got her books.  Her mother got her a cookbook and her own cooking things–wooden spoons and pans and a little electric beater, and she said they would make cream puffs the day after Christmas.

Freddy got tons of clothes and Patrick tore and jumped and threw wrapping and got his new toys out right away, right in the middle of the wrapping paper mess.

There was a very dewy moment when Mills pulled the paper off a big package and discovered Grandma’s christening gown.  All four of them had been baptized in it; years before, Mom had been baptized in it.  Now Mills and Danny’s baby could be too. Mills gulped out a thank you and hugged Mom for a long time, and even Dad had snail tracks on his cheeks.

*********
When Mom opened the pretty  box, she stared down at the little owls, and her hands stopped, fingers splayed, frozen, for a minute, in the air.
 
 
“They’re beautiful,” she said, a little gruff. Patrick jumped up and down on a pile of gift wrap, grinning. “Let’s,” Mom said to Jorie, “go fill them up.”
 
 
“Don’t we have to wash them?” asked Jorie, shocked.
 
 
“I can’t wait that long to use them,” Mom said. In the kitchen, she added, “I know who did all the work to get these, Missy.”
 

 *********

She saw me, Jorie thought.

**********
On the 27th, Evy made a little clearance display of Christmas doo-dads; they were gone within the day.

“I’ll actually have to come in early to dust,” she said to Barney, who’d arrived to take her out to dinner. “I didn’t have time today.”  She thought about Jorie and Patrick, and how the day they’d come in had been the last frozen day; after that, the ice thawed and things started flowing.

She put her hand on Barney’s camel-hair-coated arm and she laughed. “I thought the angel was Patrick, with those curls and those eyes, but it was Jorie all along.  I’ll look closer next time.”

“Not,” she added after a pause, “that Patrick isn’t a sweet little guy.”

It had been a nice Christmas, Evy thought, and she had a small but steady stream of customers coming back.  And she was having dinner with her favorite nephew, at the Chinese place they both loved.  She gotten what she’d asked for: just a little miracle.

********

Just a little miracle, and it had been quite enough.
*********
My blogging friend Jodi posted a wonderful, real-life photo of a little Christmas angel just recently—our thoughts were on that same kind of Christmas innocence! 

The Iron Man Interview

 

Vegetable Healing: A Loolie Tale

Special wishes for healing to Lulu, whose wonderful blog is at http://luluopolis.com/2015/06/06/a-surprise-part-6-good-news-good-pathology/

Beautiful glossy green leaves of spinach; buttery baby romaine; white and red onions, the mud from their earthy erstwhile home still clinging to their hair-like roots.  I gentle them out of their bags and put them on the counter next to rugged, curly-leafed kale, some broccoli, and a burgeoning bunch of red, red radishes.

They make a beautiful still life, the veggies I brought home from the CSA I signed up for this year.  And they challenge me:  what will I do with this bounty?

I am pulling my copy of Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food off the bookshelf when I get a strong sense of deja vu.  This reminds me, I think, of the time Loolie got herself roped into cooking for Thom.

We were staying at the lake for a couple of weeks that year; some friends back home had called and offered us their cottage if we were free when it was vacant. It was the summer after Mark finished law school; we were both exhilarated by his accomplishment and exhausted by the marathon that had led to it.  We were happy to say yes.

The cottage was a charming rickety place on a dirt lane that led to a gravel lane that led to the beach.  The three bedrooms were separated by partitions; the walls didn’t even reach the ceilings.  The wood floors were smooth and blond from years of bare feet and flip flops scrubbing sand into them.  The living room had old saggy furniture with canvas slip covers.  There was an oval 1950’s table, metal with a formica top, in the kitchen, and four chairs with cracking vinyl seats. There was a turquoise apartment-style electric range, an old round-topped refrigerator, a big old sink with runners built into the porcelain. There was no dishwasher and no air conditioning.

But there was an indoor shower and an outdoor shower.   The window screens let beautiful lake breezes flow through the house, and at night the shooshing of the waves lulled everyone off to sleep.  The first full day there, a Saturday, it poured, and I discovered just how pleasant reading on a screened-in porch, rain lashing all around me, could be.

On Sunday morning, at just about ten o’clock, Loolie and Kerri pulled up in their van.  We were lounging at the picnic table; I had been down to the beach for a walk, and the boyos were grilling steak and scrambling a cast-iron panful of  eggs on the charcoal-fired barbecue. The day was fresh-washed after the rain; the sun shone, and the air was cool and sweet.

Loolie hopped out and carefully lifted a brown paper bag from the passenger seat.  The back door slid open, and Kerri lowered herself down on the lift.  She deftly wheeled her chair across the bumpy lawn to where we were gathered, and Loolie followed more slowly.

“What’s in the bag?”  asked Mark, and Loolie grinned.

“What’s on the grill?”  she countered.

I went inside to grab a couple more settings.

We divvied up the steak and eggs and ate every morsel, and then Loolie pulled her offering out of the bag.  It was a strawberry rhubarb pie, and the rich, fruity smell wafted.

“Oh, my,” I said.  “That’s still warm from the oven.”

Mark was already in the cottage, rummaging for dessert plates and a serving spoon.  He came out with those and a half gallon of vanilla ice cream, a little soft from the ancient freezer.  We cut the pie; the juices oozed, the crust exploded flakily, and the ice cream, dolloped on each serving, melted into puddles.  It’s amazing what fresh air can do for one’s appetite–and one’s capacity. We ate, the five of us, the whole darned pie and all the ice cream.

I brought out an old plastic dish rack and piled all the dishes in it, and Jim took them over to the side of the house and hosed the whole lot down.  Loolie looked at me in surprise.

“I’ll wash them later,” I said, “but this way, they’re not so sticky.”

“Were those fresh berries?” Mark asked, and Kerri said they were.  She and her mom, she told him, had signed a Community-Supported Agriculture agreement with a family at the farmers’ market. It was like buying a share in the farm.  Every week, the family brought them a basket with a portion of whatever was ripe.  They had, Kerri said, been trying a lot of new things.

Jim, never one to indulge in veggie talk, slipped inside to find his laptop, and Loolie launched into a paean about the joys of her CSA and the creative challenge the interesting offerings presented.  And just at that moment, another car pulled up, a sparkling black SUV; the door opened and a fashionably shod leg appeared.

“Oh, lord,” muttered Loolie.

It was Weedy,–elegant, tailored Weedy.

She hadn’t always been so put together, our Weedy.  In fact, the etymology of her nickname came from her propensity for a certain substance, slightly illegal, during the aptly shrouded days of our high school careers.  But then she and her sweetheart, Tommie, had gone off to college together, and when they came back, the scruff was gone.  It was replaced by the gleam of ambition.

Tommie became Thom, and Weedy, who could not shed her nickname, began to insist it was derived from a younger sibling’s cute mispronunciation of her given name, Louisa.  Thom was a CPA with political aspirations; he was a city council member, and it was no secret he was biding his time for a mayoral run.  Weedy ran a local foundation and rode herd on their two children.  Nobody ever suggested Thom and Weedy’s son or daughter strayed over the line of legality; they were beautiful young teens, held rigidly in line.

That Sunday morning, Weedy emerged from her sleek machine with a bulging grocery sack and a woeful face.

“I am SO glad to see you girls!” she wailed.  “I need help!”

She came over and air-kissed everyone; after his obligatory buss, Mark decamped,  muttering about dishes and a walk on the beach.  He grabbed the dish rack and scarpered, chinking and clunking.

Weedy sighed and heaved her shoulders, and then she heaved her paper sack onto the picnic table.

“Look at THIS,” she said.

Out tumbled beautiful veggies, onions and spinach, broccoli and kale, tender leaves of lettuce. The greens and reds and pearly whites gleamed in the morning sun. It was beautiful.

We looked at the veggies, then we all turned to Weedy, not seeing the problem.

“My sister’s on vacation,” said Weedy, “and she had me pick up her weekly farm goods; she’s got one of those CSA things. And not only do I not know what to DO with this stuff, but I know Thom won’t eat a bite of it.” She put her hands on her hips; a bracelet jangled.  Her expensive linen shorts suit–what the well dressed matron wears to visit friends at the beach–was charmingly rumpled.

“I guess,” said Weedy, “I’ll just throw it all away.

Loolie choked.  “Throw it OUT!” she said.  “Those beautiful things!  Why, you can make wonderful meals with this.”

“Oh, I don’t think so, Lools,” said Weedy, sadly.  “I don’t have the culinary imagination that you have. And Thom calls all this field greens.  He says he’ll eat the cow but not the cow’s food.”

“I’ll tell you WHAT,” said Loolie, hotly. “I could make a meal out of this that THom would be glad to eat.  He’d eat it and ask for more, Weedy!”

Loolie started pronouncing the ‘h’ in Tommie’s name about the time he, as a young, eager school board member, opposed Loolie’s request for adaptive equipment on the school playground.  He’d made, Loolie’d told me, a pompous speech about understanding her request but having to be a wise steward on behalf of ALL the children.  Before things got too ugly, Weedy stepped in with a foundation grant, and the playground equipment was purchased. But Loolie had never forgiven Thom.

Weedy looked at her now, woebegone.  “I just don’t think you could, Loolie. There is no way Thom would ever eat a meal with these ingredients.”

“MOM,” said Kerri, warningly. But it didn’t help. Within moments, Weedy had left, the veggies had stayed, and Loolie had a commitment to cook a meal for Weedy, Thom, and their kids the next night–a meal, I should add, that would take place in the carport of our borrowed cottage.

It had all happened so fast. Kerri and I looked at each other, and then at the seductive veggies on the table; we avoided looking at Loolie.

A moment passed, and then there was a heavy sigh.

“Played me!” snorted Loolie.  “She played me like a cheap plywood violin!”

I studied my winter white toes, which peeped forlornly from my summer sandals.

“Oh, well,” said Loolie, finally.  “I can still make my point.”

Kerri and I looked up at the same time, met eyes, and grinned.

“I’ll be in charge of decorations, Mom,” said Kerri.  “We’ll wow ’em with food AND ambiance.”

Loolie made me get a pad and pen from the house, and we started making our plan.

*****

The challenge of the project kicked in; by Monday evening, we were ready.  Loolie had organized us, organized the menu, organized the work.  We had shopped and prepped; we had scrubbed and swept; and we had floated like hungry cartoons on the amazing smells emanating from pot and pan and casserole.

At 6:30 precisely, the black SUV smoothed to a stop in the cottage’s driveway, and Weedy and Thom and their children, Lisa and Todd, emerged.  Kerri ushered everyone into the carport. Its walls were draped artistically with drop cloths; an old, dumpster-dove chandelier was wrapped with fairy lights and suspended from the ceiling.  Two banquet tables were draped with old white sheets, and mason jars full of wild flowers served as centerpieces.

“Oh, it’s beautiful,” whispered Lisa, and I saw Loolie rigid jaw soften.

“THIS,” she said, “is all Kerri.”

Her daughter bowed her head, graciously.

Then Jim and Mark emerged with trays of appetizers, spinach and cheese in puff pastry triangles, a tray of raw veggies and a hot spinach dip, some cheese and crackers.  People grabbed drinks from the old tin wash tub we’d found in the tall grass; it was scrubbed within an inch of its metallic life and filled with ice.  The sounds of chooching screw tops and fwapping tabs was heard, and people organized themselves into seats.

And the dinner began.  Loolie started us with a salad beautifully presented in her gleaming wooden salad bowl; spinach and kale and tender young lettuce, drenched in a  sweet and sour sauce, augmented with bacon and slices of hard-boiled egg. Thom cleared his plate, scrapingly, and asked for seconds.  Weedy raised an eyebrow at Loolie.

Round two was a savory French onion soup, bubbling cheese covering crusty chunks of baguette from the local bakery.  The fresh, sweet onions all but melted into the homemade broth.  Thom scraped the last of the cheese with his spoon, and picked up the bowl to down every last bit of broth.

And then came the lasagna, layers of kale and spinach sandwiched with mozzarella, ricotta, and fresh Italian sausage and tender pasta, the red sauce made with tomatoes Loolie had canned herself.  Silence descended as people ate. And ate. And ate. The huge casserole emptied in stop-watch motion, and everyone sat back and groaned.

The silence lengthened just a little, and then Thom said, “Loolie.  All of you. THAT was amazing.”

As if at a signal, people started moving and talking.  Weedy grabbed Loolie and asked about recipes.  Todd and Lisa went inside with Jim to play video games. Thom pulled up a chair next to Kerri’s and soon they were deep in conversation, heads bent close together.  Mark and I looked at each other, sighed, and began to gather up the dishes. We needed to move.

We filled a couple of basins with the dirty dishes, gave them the hose routine, and lugged them in the house, filling and refilling the old sink with soapy water.  He washed; I dried. We listened to the kids, who were having a good time; their voices rose and eddied into a kind of happy melody.

We watched the four outside, nervously.

“Everyone seems to be being very civil,” said Mark hopefully.

We stacked the last cleaned dish on the drainer and loaded up the tray with dessert plates.  There was a basket of flaky homemade biscuits, a big bowl of fresh strawberries swimming in their own sugary syrup, and a dish of snowy whipped cream sitting on ice.  We called the kids. They groaned a little, but they saved their game and gamely followed us out.

Loolie and Weedy had joined Thom and Kerri at the table.  They looked up as we emerged.

THom,” said Loolie, “has just invited Kerri to be part of the city’s playground planning committee. He wants to be sure the plans work for kids in wheelchairs.”

“Do you think,” Thom said, quietly, “we could go back to Tommie, Lools?  And you could maybe forget that I was a horse’s ass all those years ago?”

There was a tiny moment where sentiment threatened; I could hear the music begin to swell.  Then Mark said, “STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKE!” and slammed his tray down on the table, and serving spoons appeared, and people who claimed they couldn’t eat one more bite not thirty minutes ago were heaping their plates.

The men built a fire; the kids headed down to the beach, Kerri’s wheels crunching on the gravel. Weedy and Thom insisted on taking care of dessert dishes.  And then we sat around the fire, completely replete, and we talked and laughed without any stiffness or reservation.  It was lovely, and Tommie and Weedy stayed until after midnight, when they dragged their sleepy kids home.

Jim excused himself to head to bed, and Mark and Loolie and Kerri and I sat around the fire, sweatshirts on against the cool lake breezes, watching the embers sigh and open, neon against the smoky ash. Oh, it was quiet.  I thought about friendship and rifts and what it takes for healing to take place.

“That was something, wasn’t it?” I said thoughtfully.

“Yeah,” said Loolie. “It really was, wasn’t it?” I saw her grin in the glow of the dying fire.

“Yep,” she said. “He ate every bit of the cow food I served him.  I told Weedy. I told her.”

Kerri grinned and started humming, channeling Marvin Gaye.  Then her sweet voice soared into the night:

When I get that FEELing I need VEGETABLE healing.  Vegetable: whooaah Oh! It’s been GOOD for ME!

Loolie picked it up, and I joined in, too. We three women harmonized, Mark beating rhythm on the washtub, until we heard a nearby window scrape open and a neighbor’s irritated cough.

*****

Healing powers, indeed, I think now. The memories make me grin. And they send me to my recipe notebook, to pull out the ‘Farmer’s Lasagna’ recipe written in Loolie’s bold scrawl. I’m humming as I work, and I bet you can guess the tune.

We will eat well tonight.

There’s a Place for You

The first day, her mother marched her from the school to the library. It was three blocks, and Tillie would have to cross a big street.  But there was a light, and, Mama said, on school days there would be a crossing guard.

“Do you get it?” asked Mama.  “Can you get yourself here?”

Tillie nodded, but her mother tested her anyway.  She drove her back to the school and left.

“You walk there and I’ll wait for you,” she said.

Tillie walked back the exact way they had walked before.  Crossing the street at the light was a little scary, but she waited until the light was red, she made sure there were no turner cars, and when she saw it was okay to go, she ran across, really fast.

She got there, no problem.  Mama was waiting outside, smoking a cigarette in the car.  When she saw Tillie coming, she ground it out, and she got out and slammed the door. She walked up to Tillie and grabbed her by the hand and tugged her up the steep gray steps of the library.

At the big glass doors, Mama showed her a button to push that would make the doors open.  Tillie liked that. She itched to do that herself. Tomorrow, she thought.

Inside there were more steps, shiny marble steps that went up to a big room that had a big desk in its center. Radiating out behind the desks were shelves–big, tall wooden shelves, loaded with books. It was very quiet.  A pretty lady with big glasses and her hair pulled back sat at the desk.  She looked up as Tillie and Mama came in, and she smiled right at Tillie.

“THIS way!” Mama said gruffly, and she pulled Tillie off to the right, where there was a door and a stairway going down.  The stairs opened into a big hallway.

“There’s your bathroom,” said Mama.  “See that?  Lady with a skirt?”

Tillie nodded.

“You need to go?” asked Mama sharply, and Tillie quickly shook her head.

Mama tugged her into the big room then.  There were books here, too, but the shelves were shorter. And there were little round tables, wooden tables, with chairs that were just children sized. Books lay open on the tables; next to one there was a fuzzy puppet, and Tillie could see the puppet was also in the book.  She walked around, a little bit amazed.

There were some other kids in the room, and one or two other mothers, but they were very quiet.  There was a big desk here, too, like upstairs, but the lady behind it was old.  She had a crinkly face, and she smiled at Tillie.  She nodded toward a table where there was a plate of cinnamon graham crackers and dixie cups of juice.

“Would you like a snack?” the crinkly lady asked Tillie.

She opened her mouth to say, “Yes, PLEASE!” but Mama answered for her.

“She don’t need none,” she said, and she pulled at Tillie’s hand.  “This is where you come, you get it?  After school, you come here, and one of us will fetch you.”

Tillie nodded, a growing excitement bubbling. Everyday after school, she would walk here and see the pretty lady, then the crinkly lady.  She would have a graham cracker and she would sit at one of those tables and look at books until Mama or Daddy picked her up.

This wasn’t scary.  This was wonderful.
Tillie was five years old.
*******

The pretty lady upstairs was Miss Gail; the crinkly lady was Miss Dell. Every day, after she pushed the big flat button and the doors swung open wide, Tillie ran up the stairs and said hello to Miss Gail before she ran downstairs.

Some days were just ordinary days in the Children’s Room. Then Tillie would have a graham cracker and some juice and  go sit at the table with the big stack of books Miss Dell had gathered for her. Miss Dell knew all about good books, and she picked ones that had few words and wonderful pictures–sometimes made-up stories and sometimes about real things, like a zoo or a farm.

When there weren’t a lot of people, Miss Dell would come and sit at Tillie’s table, and they would read a book together.  Miss Dell read in a gentle, happy voice, and she would point to the word and then to the picture.  After they were done, Tillie would turn the pages, slowly, and she would point to the word and the picture, too.

Other days were special.  Sometimes there was a circle of kids and Miss Dell read to them.  The stories might all be about the same things–dogs, maybe, or the way leaves change color in the Fall, Hallowe’en stories, going to school,–things like that.  Often Tillie was the oldest child there–the other kids had to have parents with them, and they mostly sat on their laps; that’s how little they were.  Miss Dell asked Tillie to show them how to act, and so Tillie always sat very still with her hands in her lap and looked right at Miss Dell when she was reading.

“Such a good listener,” one of the mothers said once, and Tillie’s cheeks burned with happiness.

Sometimes a visitor came and talked to them and read to them.  Once it was a fireman in his slick yellow coat and big boots, and he talked to them about Stop! Drop! and Roll! and then read them a book about a fireman who rescued a silly cat from a tree for a little boy named Johnny. Another time a dental hygienist came and talked about tooth brushing.  He gave them coloring books and a little bag with toothpaste, fluoride rinse, and a new toothbrush. Tillie decided to keep her bag with Miss Dell.  Everyday after school, she took her bag into the girls’ room and brushed her teeth and then rinsed.

When her rinse ran out, a new bottle appeared.  Miss Dell said the dental hygienist had left a whole lot of extra ones.

Around 5:00 someone came to get her. Usually it was her mother.  Sometimes she would come in and sit down and let Tillie show her a book.  Sometimes she stood in the doorway and hissed, “Get your little ass OUTA here.”  Those days her breath had that strong, funny smell, and Tillie knew better than to argue.  Some days, her daddy would come, and he would say hello to Miss Dell and ask what everyone had done that day.  Miss Dell always told him what a good child Tillie was, and what a good helper.

Daddy would put his big hand on her head and smile down at her, and Tillie didn’t care that there was black in the creases of his fingers from all the greasy cars he fixed. That hand felt good right where it was.

*****

By December, she was reading, the words Miss Dell pointed out painting pictures in her mind even without the ones in the books.  By then, too, Mrs. Grace, her teacher, was walking her to the traffic light and watching her across.

“It gives me a little chance for fresh air before I go back and grade papers,” Mrs. Grace told her.  On rainy days, she loaned Tillie an umbrella.  Tillie just left it at the library, and Miss Gail, who was a friend of Mrs. Grace, made sure it got back to her. When it snowed and the sidewalks were icy, Mrs. Grace kept a tight grip on her hand and watched her all the way up the street after she crossed by the light.

After the Christmas break, during which Tillie didn’t get to go to the library–that made her very sad–Miss Dell announced something new.  Tuesdays were “Read to Me” days, and Tillie was going to be reading to Miss Dell, and sometimes, even, to Miss Gail, who liked to switch with Miss Dell every once in a while. Tillie held the books just like Miss Dell did, so her audience could see the pictures.  She was getting, the library ladies told her, better and better and better. Sometimes, Tillie read to the little kids.  Just like Miss Dell, she would point to the word and then point to the picture.

As the year wore on, her daddy came to pick her up more and more. One day he took her to a diner for dinner.  They had fried chicken and mashed potatoes, and peas, and pie, and Tillie had a big glass of chocolate milk.  And after dinner, before he handed Tillie her jacket, Daddy said, “Do you know your mama is a kind of sick, Tillie girl?”

Tillie looked at him.  “On bad breath days?” she asked, and he smiled at her, but it was a sad kind of smile.

“Yes,” he said. “On bad breath days.  She gets mad on those days, too, doesn’t she?”

Tillie hesitated, but then she nodded.

“Well, baby,” said her daddy, “Mama’s going away to try to get well.  Tomorrow, Grandma Judy’s coming, and then Mama will go to a kind of hospital on Friday.  She’ll be gone for a good while.”

He helped her get her arms in her jacket, and they went off to a home that was, suddenly, changing.

Grandma Judy stayed all summer.  To Tillie’s delight, Grandma Judy took her to the library every week.  While Tillie read her books, Grandma Judy would go upstairs and find books for herself.  Sometimes she got a book or a magazine for Daddy, too. They got books to bring home, and Tillie had a special spot to keep them in, on a shelf in the living room.

Daddy said they were all turning into bookworms.

On Sundays they called mama.  Sometimes she cried when she talked to Tillie.  She said, every time, “Baby, I’m so sorry!”

Once, in the middle of the summer, they went to visit. Mama was thinner and pale, and her hair was neat and shiny and pulled back in a pony tail. She showed Tillie her room.  They couldn’t stay long, but before they left, mama hugged Tillie so very tight.  Her breath was sweet and minty.

In the Fall school started again.  Tillie had a new teacher, but Mrs. Grace still met her each day and walked her to the light; she told Tillie she hoped she didn’t mind.  It was just a nice kind of habit, and she’d miss it if they stopped. Tillie said, “Of course!” and she grabbed Mrs. Grace’s hand and she skipped when they walked together.

Grandma Judy stayed, and she picked Tillie up every day, and then Mama came home.  She had to rest for a couple of weeks, but pretty soon she started picking Tillie up on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

When Mama came to the library now, she would say hi, shyly, to Miss Dell, and she would sit with Tillie and look at all the things she was reading.

“You’re my smart girl, aren’t you?” she said.  Mama started going upstairs and asking Miss Gail about books.  She would take only one home at a time, but she read them fast; sometimes she returned them next day and got another.  “I like me a good romance,” she said to Tillie, and Tillie smiled brilliantly at her.  Maybe when she grew up, she’d like her a good romance too.

Grandma Judy stayed on; she helped Tillie’s mama.  The house was always clean, and they had home-cooking for dinner. Some Saturdays, Tillie’s mama and daddy went out to a movie or for dinner at the diner.  Tillie and Grandma Judy would rent a movie and make popcorn in the whirligig, and Tillie would read to Grandma Judy for a long time.  She was reading chapter books now.

It was the best time of Tillie’s life so far, and she still got to go to the library every day.

******
When Tillie was nine, her daddy took her out for another dinner, and he wasn’t smiling.  This time, he told her, Mama was a different kind of sick–sick on her insides, with cancer.  She was going to have to have some treatments, and the treatments would make her even sicker, but they might make her get better for good.

“But, Tillie,” said her daddy, “I have to tell you something.  There’s a chance the treatments might not work.  There’s a chance we might lose your Mama forever.”

“Don’t cry, daddy,” whispered Tillie.  Her stomach hurt, and they went home.

At home, Mama was resting and Grandma Judy was crying.  “It’s not FAIR,” she said to Tillie’s daddy.  “She’s been trying so damn hard.”  Daddy hugged her for a long time.

******

Mama died when Tillie was eleven.  Mrs. Grace, Miss Gail, and Miss Dell were all at the funeral, and they hugged Daddy and Grandma Judy, too.  When she went back to the library the following week, Miss Gail gave her a book called, Losing a Parent: a book for young people.  Tillie and Grandma read it together.

Tillie also started looking in the non-fiction section.  She would take home craft books.  She took home books of recipes, and Grandma Judy taught her to cook.

*****
When she was in sixth grade, Miss Gail and Miss Dell invited her out to eat.  Tillie was, they informed her, too old and too good a reader to read in the children’s room any longer.  Miss Gail solemnly handed her an adult’s library card.

And then they offered her a part-time job, two hours a day, four days a week, helping out in the children’s room.

In eighth grade, she started working five days a week and shelving in the upstairs room.

When she turned 16, she added six hours on Saturday to her library working schedule. Miss Gail said Tillie had a knack for helping older children and junior high kids find just the perfect book.

“You don’t think about what YOU like,” Miss Gail told her.  “You think about what they like.”

*****

She went to the state college in town, and she majored in English.  “Getting A’s for reading books,” she grinned.  “That’s pretty good.”

They were all there when she graduated with honors: Daddy and Grandma Judy, Miss Gail, Miss Dell, and Mrs. Grace.  Grandma Judy and Miss Dell were getting a little frail; Miss Dell said she was trying to hold on for two more years; then she’d retire at the library. Daddy’s girlfriend, Abby, came too.  She was pretty, plump, and kind, and Tillie hoped that the two of them would decide to get married; they were good together.

Tillie didn’t have a boyfriend now. For a long time, she’d thought Bobby was the one, but Bobby grew to have a drinking problem. Bobby’s bad breath days, thought Tillie.  It made him lie and cheat and cuss at her. You need help, she told him.  I don’t need YOU, he’d said.

It was a good time for no entanglements, Tillie knew, but the thought of Bobby would always make her sad.

****

That afternoon, Tillie took her library book and she drove to the cemetery in her noisy old car.  She had the place to herself, so she knelt on  her mother’s grave and talked to her. “I graduated today, Mama,” she said, “and I’m working at the library again this summer. And then,” Tillie pulled an envelope out of her purse, “I think you’d be proud.  I’m going to Kent State to be a librarian.  I got this letter this week; I have a scholarship from the university women.”

A car pulled up, and two chubby old women climbed out with potted plants and trowels and a watering can.  Tillie stopped talking to Mama; she wasn’t embarrassed exactly, but she felt like their talks were too private to share with strangers.  She sat on a stone bench next to Mama’s grave, and she read in the sun.  The breeze riffled her hair.

The ladies huffed and talked and grunted and planted, lunging up off their knees and groaning dramatically.  They took a long time watering the flowers they’d placed on the grave of their someone special, but finally they finished.  They slammed back into their car and drove off.

Tillie closed her book and slid off the bench to hunker by her mother’s grave.

“Mama,” she said.  “I just have to say thank you. I don’t know how you knew to do it, but thank you for sending me to the library when I was five. Mama, it’s my place, and I found it because of you.”

She put one palm flat on the cool marble of her mother’s grave stone, and then she sighed and stood up.  Her people were waiting; there was a special graduation dinner in the works.

Tillie dusted off her jeans and walked to her car, and she drove off into her future.

One More Sailor Sounds the Bell

Grandpa Angelo with Alexander, his youngest grandson
Grandpa Angelo with Alexander, his youngest grandson
Monday night, at 11:15, Jim knocked at our bedroom door.

“My stomach feels funny,” he said.

I sat up, poised to go into full mom-mode.  “How about a Tums, buddy?” I asked. “Would that help?”

“It’s not that kind of funny,” said Jim. He paused and then started to say something, but before he got very far, Mark’s cell phone rang.

It was Jim’s big brother Matthew, who, joined by his cousin Jeremy, had been sitting a loyal vigil at his Grandpa Angelo’s bedside. Matt was calling to tell his dad that the vigil was over; Angelo had made that final passing.

“Oh,” said Jim, softly, and he went back down the hallway and closed the door to his bedroom, needing to be alone for awhile.  Somehow, I think, his stomach had been letting him know the news Matthew shared over the phone.

******
Angelo was 94 when he passed peacefully from this life into the one that comes next.  He was a patriot and a family man.  He was a hard worker who believed in the value of education.  He was someone who didn’t give up, who cherished his faith, who was passionate about his interests.
******
Memories, stories, images, tumble…

I think about working with Pat, Mark’s mom, at the bookstore. Long before either of us thought we’d be connected by marriage, we were friends. I was a just-out-of-college, newly married, party-loving kid then; so were many of the crew.  Pat was maybe early forties; she trained us and she tolerated us, and one night we persuaded her to come out with us after work.  She let her husband know, of course, but Ang probably figured she’d grab a cup of coffee and be home, oh, maybe 45 minutes to an hour later than usual.  By 11, he was calling my home phone, a little frantic, asking my husband if he knew where we could be.
Where we were was the Park Pub; we were sitting with big drinks, sharing wedges of a giant roast beef on kimmelweck sandwich. We were laughing and munching and telling tales and confessing hopes and fears and great loves and disappointments, and Pat was gently riding herd on our exuberance.  She got home around midnight, I think, and the next few times Angelo came into the bookstore, he narrowed his eyes at me–a wary, speculative look.

Later, when life had shifted in unexpected ways, and Mark and I were dating, I would ask for an ashtray when I visited Pat and Ang.  I smoked while Mark and I dated and in the first part of our marriage.  Ang would get me the ashtray and talk about his own habit; he only smoked, he told me, when Pat was pregnant.  So he smoked for four of the first nine years of their marriage, from the early fifties to the very early sixties,–smoked while waiting to welcome Mark, Joe, Stephen, and Tommy.  By the time a wonderful little surprise, Mary Ann, joined the cast in 1970, the need seems to have ebbed; the boys don’t recall Angelo smoking in anticipation of Mary’s birth. (Mark, 16 when his baby sister was born, confesses to being mortified that people of such advanced years on the planet could be having a baby. “ Mother, how COULD you? At YOUR age?” Pat remembers him saying.)

I remember rollicking meals with the family and an ever-changing cast of guests around the big dining room table that Ang inherited from his mother, another Mary, whom everyone in the family called ‘Ma’.  Ma bought the table from a peddler in the Depression era; the peddler shopped his wares from a horse-pulled wagon.  He’d load up the wagon and make his slow way from Buffalo into the outlying areas, stopping to see if housewives needed chairs, a sofa, a bed-frame.  Ma needed a table that would seat her burgeoning family. Ma and Pa–Grandpa Joseph–had ten children; the twins, Vincent and Theresa, died shortly after birth. The rest of the children,–Tony, Frances, Joe, Angelo, Lucy, Sam, John, and Russell, in that order–grew up strong, hard-working, and hungry.  They gathered around that table–stretched by up to eight leaves–for many years.

Ang remembered Saturdays at home and Ma baking bread and simmering spaghetti sauce.  For lunch she would flatten out a big hunk of dough, spread some of her good homemade sauce on top, grate cheese, chop meat–homemade pizza to feed her hungry kids and her husband, who worked hard at the railroad before coming home to tend his amazing garden.

Ang learned to make the sauce.  He and Pat were ahead of their time; they shared household chores, and Pat used her amazing customer service skills to pursue her own career in retail sales.  Ang would come home from the plant; Pat would leave for work; Ang would feed his own hungry horde.  But on Sundays, the whole family gathered together around Ma’s table.  Friends and extended family were welcome; there was always room for one more.  Mark’s college buddy Frank, who attended the Culinary Institute and cooked at the Tavern on the Green for a time, rhapsodized years later about eating lasagna at that table. The best he ever had, swore Frank stoutly, nothing to compare, before or since.

Now the table belongs to Ang’s baby girl; from Mary to Mary: a full circle.

Matthew, at Grandpa’s side for that final passage, wrote on his FaceBook page:  One more sailor rings the bell….farewell and following seas, Grandpa….
Matt served in the US Navy Presidential Guard, choosing his Grandpa’s branch of the service.  Ang served during World War II, on the Fletcher-class destroyer, the USS O’Bannon.  It was a ship that had a plucky and determined crew, and they saw a lot of action.  Famously, though, the O’Bannon miraculously avoided a confrontation when a Japanese sub surfaced within hailing distance.  A crewman was on the O’Bannon’s deck, peeling potatoes.  Somehow, he had the presence of mind to take the roughly grenade-sized spuds and begin lobbing them rhythmically at the submarine.  It submerged and left quietly,–not, I guess, interested in taking any chances.  The potatoes saved the O’Bannon that day, and she and her crew served honorably in many actions.
Angelo in Navy
Angelo, a young sailor on the USS O’Bannon


The war left a lasting impression on Angelo; he wrote movingly of his abhorrence of armed combat when he inscribed copies of the book Action Tonight, by James D. Horan, for each of his children. (Action Tonight detailed the O’Bannon’s World War II journey.) But Ang retained his deep love of country, and he kept close touch with his shipmates, attending reunions and sharing correspondences.  In November 2014, the local veterans’ association honored Ang in a special ceremony.  After WW II, medals which he had earned were somehow never delivered; he finally accepted those medals at age 94, in front of his family, friends, and admirers.


Jennifer, Angelo’s granddaughter, also serves in her country’s military; her Grandpa was very proud of his smart savvy granddaughter, an officer and a helicopter pilot with the US Army.

Ang and Pat believed  in education.  Ang himself never finished high school; in Depression days, boys from big families often didn’t.  They left school at 14 or 15, they got men’s jobs, and they contributed the money to their families without quibble or bicker.  But Ang and Pat were determined that their kids would go to college.  They couldn’t afford fancy residential schools, but there was a good SUNY college within an easy commute. All five kids earned their bachelor’s degrees there. Ang and Pat provided a roof and food and a car to get back and forth—and plenty of life lessons.

They might have been commuter students, but Mark, Joe, Stephen, and Tommy all made a real effort to be part of college life. And on Friday nights, that might mean partaking of the partying that was so much a part of 1970’s college culture.  They would crawl home in the early wee hours, sometimes to a chorus of birds greeting the dawn, and stealthily creep up the stairs to pass out in their beds. They needn’t have worried; their concerned parents had just the right hangover cure. 

Pat would vacuum at 7 AM; Ang would clash pots and pans; the boys would be rousted from bed to perform early Saturday chores.  Mark tells tales of mowing the dewy lawn; clipping the hedges that surrounded their football field side yard; scraping and painting house and garage;–all on a couple hours of sleep. He said he always had a really bad boo-boo head.  He said he never realized until then that sweat could actually smell like beer.

In 2001, Ang saw a blurb in the local paper that said a program was being set up to give high school diplomas to WWII vets who’d left school to go to serve their country.  Ang called the number. ‘Am I eligible?’ he asked.  He explained he had left school to work, only later, in his twenties, serving in the Navy.

The woman he spoke to gently told him no.  The award, she said, was only for those vets who actually quit high school to enlist.  Ang said he understood and hung up the phone.

Several days later, an article appeared in the paper begging the gentleman who’d called to inquire about the diploma to call back. After talking with Ang, the woman had been unsettled; she investigated and found that Ang WAS eligible.  He received his high school diploma that year, standing straight and tall in the  auditorium, applauded by family members and an SRO crowd of clapping community members and students.  He was 81 years old.

The stories about Angelo swirl as the family sits at the kitchen table–childhood escapades, work stories, memories of standing with Angelo in the basement, running the intricate, multi-gauge miniature railroad he’d set up over the passage of many years. There’s the story of the car Pat turned down to marry Ang, who was 14 years her senior; her brother offered to buy her a convertible if she’d abandon the idea of  the wedding.  Pat and Ang were married 61 years. The sons in particular remember hopping to it when their father began to utter the words, “By the Christ in heaven…” Mary Ann has her own stories to tell,  the cherished baby girl, the pretty teenager whose dates had to pass a tough, tough scrutiny.

Memories flicker and flash likes snippets of old time movies, out of context, out of order: Grandpa and Number One at the town dump, rescuing metal Tonka trucks left carefully at the edges by those whose kids had outgrown them, taking them home to sand and refinish, creating a dream of a fleet for a kid with a dirt pile.  Angelo with his eight year old daughter, come to the store to show the mom what they’d bought. Grandpa with a warm, pudgy hand in one of his, flowering plants carefully balanced in the other, walking toward the graves of his parents.  That picture morphs quickly, flipping through the years–the pudgy toddler gradually becoming a tall, handsome, young man, but still at the cemetery every year, still at Grandpa’s side. Angelo at Christmas, passing out decorative wooden wheelbarrows he’d painstakingly crafted in his basement workshop. Grandpa and granddaughter, barely old enough to sit by herself in a lawn chair, having a long serious conversation on a hot summer day, while her big brother buzzes energetically around the yard. Grandpa with any one of his beloved grandchildren, driving his little tractor around the lawn.

There are many ways to take stock of a man’s life; one of them is to count the number of grandchildren who post on Facebook, when he passes, that they have lost their best friend.  Ang took infinite pride in his wife, Pat, and his children, Mark, Joe, Stephen, Tommy, and Mary Ann. He was a kind and fond father-in-law to Patty and Phil, Susans and Pams,  a devoted grandfather-in-law to Julie. He was a loving brother, uncle, and friend. But in grandfathering, he seemed to come fully into his own.  He had unflagging time, love, and patience for his grandchildren, Matthew, Brian, Jeremy, Phillip, Bobby, Jim, Jennifer, and Alexander. He delighted in his great granddaughters, Alyssa and Kaelyn.
Angelo, Jeremy, and Matthew, c. 1983
Angelo, Jeremy, and Matthew, c. 1983

He lived a long, hard-fought, wonderful life, did Angelo, and he passed from it convinced he was going home.  In the days and weeks and months to come we will, I hope, be able to write the stories down, to take scattered fragments and anecdotes and create a narrative that gives an inkling of just how rich the life, how lasting the legacy, Angelo leaves behind.

But for now–now I hope that man of faith is where he firmly believed he would be–at a long, many-leaved, celestial table, enjoying, maybe, some pasta and sauce with his parents and the siblings who’ve gone before.  Friends who’ve also made that trip are welcome, I know. As each of us contemplates that departure, we can do it knowing that no matter how many people crowd around that table, there will always be another leaf to add, another chair to pull up.  Plates will be passed from hand to hand; the newest guest will be given silverware and a napkin.  A glass of wine will appear on their right. 

There’s a great loss, of course, but great comfort in this: Angelo’s home with his parents tonight, getting things ready.