In with the new…

The family — that dear octopus from whose tentacles we never quite escape, nor, in our inmost hearts, ever quite wish to. ~Dodie Smith

It is the week for taking personal inventory, isn’t it?

We are the only creatures who do this. Dogs live in the here and now, and while cats appear to hold more grudges, I doubt that they spend a lot of time beating themselves up about it. Only humans make mental checklists of their successes and failures as one year ends and a new one begins.  It’s kind of our thing. I read this week about a festival in Peru called Takanakuy, which translated, means “when the blood is boiling.”  It is an annual ritual that allows residents of the community to solve differences by beating the holy hell out of each other once a year on December 25th.

I read this and was fascinated. You can’t make this stuff up. Well. You could, but I didn’t. Google “takanakuy” if you don’t believe me.

On the day of the festival, men, women, and children gather in bullrings and engage in bare knuckle fist fighting refereed by local officials.  It is an indigenous tradition intended to really clear the air with family and friends before the new year begins.  There are only two important rules. You don’t kick an opponent when he or she is down. And once you’ve fought, you forgive and forget.  You hug it out and move on.

I guess that’s one way to settle scores. I can’t see it catching on here, but you never know.I suppose it depends on how many people you’ve had around at your house for the past week using your towels and eating all of your food and watching football and just generally being in your business.

They will all go home soon.  I promise.  And then, you will miss them. You will.  If you have young adults home visiting, they will have to go back to work. If you have college students, a new semester will begin. If you have kids home on Christmas break, they will eventually go back to school, too. And if you have grandchildren, you will clean up the mess their parents let them make in your house and be sad a week from now that there are no more sticky fingerprints to wipe off of anything.  You will take down the tree and pack Christmas away for another year. Then, you’ll collapse with a cup of tea or something stronger, proud that you didn’t punch anyone for anything.

So take a deep breath this week and count to ten. Or twenty. Or a hundred, if you must.  Count your blessings and love your dear ones.  Step away from the bullring.  You’ll be glad you did when a new year dawns, fresh and bright and full of promise.

Happy New Year!

 

 

 

 

 

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Pie

It seemed like a simple enough question.

If you could only have ONE type of pie for Thanksgiving, what kind would you want? 

In asking it,  I hoped to reach a  pie consensus.  Instead, I got the following requests:

Pecan….no wait!   Pecan Fudge!!

Blueberry! Strawberry Rhubarb!

Pumpkin…no wait!  Jameson Pumpkin!

Frozen Peanut Butter! Cherry! Raspberry!

Pumpkin Cheesecake!!

PUMPKIN CHEESECAKE?

I am hosting Thanksgiving dinner for twelve people.  I am pretty sure that if they had it their way, there would be twelve pies cooling in my back porch right now.

Clearly, we are pie zealots.   In fact,  if there was an organized religion we could all  join that had pie as one of its central guiding principles, we’d never miss a Sunday.  Our patron saint would be in an apron holding a rolling-pin.  There would be a smudgy spot of flour right in the middle of his forehead.  On Thanksgiving, we would light a pumpkin spice scented candle in his honor.

Okay, so maybe I’m overstating it.  But I do think that the world would be a kinder, gentler place if people baked more pies.

Cookies are a ridiculous waste of time.   Spending all that time dropping spoonfuls of dough onto cookie sheets and then waiting for each dozen to bake isn’t my idea of how to spend my life. Besides, about fifty percent of the cookies I bake are either too hard or too soft. And cakes are just kind of dumb and fluffy. How hard is it to open a box,  crack a couple of eggs, add oil and water and bake?  If I had a monkey, which I don’t, I could teach IT how to bake a cake.

But pies? From scratch?  Now pies take time, and effort, and creativity.  Every slice of pie is a flaky little fruit-filled wedge of love.

Last summer, I spent one glorious August afternoon picking wild blueberries with a dear friend. She was the perfect picking partner, and we spent hours squatting in an enormous bog picking some of the most beautiful berries I’ve ever seen.  I will remember that day for the rest of my life.  I froze a couple of bags of the berries, and this week when I made my blueberry pies, I thought of her and that day in the bog with the sunshine on our necks and was thankful for her friendship, the memory, and those berries.

On Thursday, once the dinner dishes are cleared, I will sit at the table that first belonged to my great-grandmother with most of  the most important people in my life eating my pies and be thankful for the noise and the laughter and those everyone-talking-at-once-between-bites moments  that never come often enough in any family.

Other Thanksgivings will come to mind, too.  The ones when there was always a custard pie for my grandfather, baked by my grandmother.  Holidays when it was me coming home,  not my grown kids.   I’ll look at the faces around my table and remember the babies that the set of young adult cousins there used to be.  And for another year,  I will be grateful that all five of them are happy, healthy, and whole.

The faces at my table will remind me that time passes.  That chairs left empty by the passing of one generation in a family are filled by the next, and then the next.  That life is a circle.  Like a pie.

It takes some effort to bake a pie, raise a kid, make a marriage last.  When one has been blessed with the gifts of family and health and enough of what’s important in life, it is easy to take all of it for granted.  My prayer today is that I never do.

Some day, hopefully a long time from now, someone will write my eulogy. I hope when the time comes, that I will be remembered for more good things, than bad. But if they can’t think of anything else to say, this would be enough:

“She was grateful for her many blessings.  Oh,  and that woman could bake one helluva pie.”

Happy Thanksgiving!

Every October

At dawn, there was a heavy blanket of fog over the river.  This is a bittersweet sight for people who spend one last night at the cabin before it is closed for another season. At least it is for people like me who love the summer months and get a little bit melancholy as the days grow shorter, darker, and colder. Autumns, and fog, and cabins by rivers are mixed blessings in October.

Over the weekend, I sealed nearly everything in plastic to keep the mice, who were surely watching from the meadow, out of my bedding and silverware. In October, I am  an optimist when it comes to the war on mouse poop. Come May, I will discover that they have done an end run around the aluminum foil sheets in the drawers and the plastic bags in the closet. I removed all the paper towels and toilet paper but probably missed at least one open box of tissue. I will, no doubt, come back to a shredded mess somewhere. Oh, well. In October, you just do the best you can. You hope that no chipmunks or squirrels move in for the winter and pray, instead, for a nice, plump, little weasel who enjoys mice.

The mist rises and the sun shines. The red oak leaves flutter in the morning breeze. You hear a single gun shot far off in the distance.

You pack up the car with the dog and the rest of the groceries, check the windows and doors one last time, and say goodbye. The cabin by the river will sleep through the winter in her new coat of red stain.

Waiting for Spring, like me.

 

 

 

Monsters

He loves everything about guns, this son of mine. Buying them, cleaning them, and especially shooting them. Especially that. He’s good at it.

I could blame his attraction to firearms on video games or his obsession with monsters and aliens when he was little, or that my brothers and dad once took him to the gravel pit when he was about twelve years old and came home proudly exclaiming that he was a “Helluva Shot” while he sat off to the side, beaming with pride. Maybe he just likes hitting a target. Who knows?

Here’s what mothers of grown sons do know. They come home for shorter and shorter visits and you want to spend as much time as you can with them so you do what they want to do while they’re home. Even on perfect September days when what they want to do is shoot guns at the gravel pit and you haven’t shot a gun in forever and really have no desire to even though you can.

And so, off we went. We took turns. The couple of cans I actually managed to hit were more luck than skill. I spent the rest of the time watching my fine, broad-shouldered son handle and load his guns, focus on his targets and hit every one. Everything he knows about guns and shooting he has learned from his uncles. This is part of what he has already inherited as a member of our family.

It is easy, during a week like the last one when innocent people have once again, become victims of a mass shooting to hunker down in whichever bunker we find ourselves for whatever reason when it comes to the issue of gun control.  It is easy for people on both sides to say, “See? Here we go again.”

I wish I had the answers. I wish I had never seen the faint scars from bullets on the dark forearms and legs of several of my students from the south side of Chicago. I wish a tall, soft-spoken, basketball player from Detroit had never told me that he’d done prison time when he was barely an adult for killing a five year old at her kitchen table with a stolen gun during a drive by shooting.  I wish I didn’t worry about some angry, bullied, middle schooler bringing his dad’s handgun into my daughter’s classroom, too, but I do. All the time.

I wish that having “Active Shooter” lock down safety training wasn’t a necessary part of the fall workshop agenda for teachers, but it is. That tragedies like Columbine, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, and so many others didn’t make me sick with dread at the thought that one of my grown babies might be in the wrong place at the wrong time at a sporting event or concert or in a quiet restaurant on a Saturday night.

Guns and hunting are part of the culture here. If you grow up in rural Minnesota, you are taught from a young age to respect firearms and use them responsibly. That they are weapons, not novelties or toys. We are taught never to aim at anything we don’t intend to either destroy or eat. I learned all of that growing up. Most of you reading this probably did, too. Thanks to his uncles, my son did. Clearly, far too many others have not. We see it more and more. The fact that these individuals own guns is what keeps this mother, this teacher and citizen, awake at night. I wish I had the answers.

So if you do, please tell me. Because there are monsters under my bed.

And I’d like to get some sleep.

 

 

A healing place

Here’s the most important thing I learned last week. If you want to feel lucky, visit the Mayo Clinic on an ordinary day when you are just along for the ride.

It’s easy to take so much for granted. Clean water, abundant food, cell phone service, ATM’s filled with as much cash as our account balance will permit, gasoline at pumps, and a dry bed to crawl into come to mind as just a few of those things that we all take for granted until we can’t. One natural disaster removes all chance that a person will ever take those things for granted again, I’m sure.

And then there’s medical care. Most of us take that for granted, too. Because even when we may gripe about our high deductibles or not being able to see the doctor we want, we know that in a true emergency that we will still be seen and treated by qualified nurses and doctors in clean hospitals pretty much wherever we live here in the U.S.

According to the Mayo Clinic website, 1.3 million people from all fifty states and 137 countries were seen there in 2016. The organization employs over 63,000 individuals. The day we were there, we learned that one of the labs sees over 1200 patients every day just to draw blood. It is an amazing place. Just amazing.

Patients are rich and poor. Male and female. Different races and religions. Many speak English, and many do not.  There are tiny, brand-new humans pushed in strollers and frail, not-so-new ones with walkers. The ravages of disease are evident on many who slump in wheelchairs pushed by worried family members. Whether you happen to be a president or a prince, a pauper or prisoner, once you enter the Mayo Clinic you have just one title: Patient. In a world that often seems more and more divided racially and socio-economically, this is reassuring. The Mayo Clinic displays the best of who we are, I think.

And maybe that’s why I left there feeling luckier,healthier, and more hopeful than I have felt in a really long time. Going along for the ride on an ordinary day to witness a healing place like the Mayo Clinic will do that.

 

 

 

Indestructible

The table is ugly mid-century modern fake-wood Formica. It is not much to look at. The vinyl upholstered chairs around it make an unholy screeching sound and scratch the linoleum when a felt pad falls off a leg. How is it that we have created vaccines and the internet but can’t seem to develop a pad that will stay stuck to the bottom of a chair leg? What’s that about? The chairs are currently blue. Before that, they were green. Before that? I don’t remember.

What 1950’s furniture lacked in appearance, it more than made up for in durability. This set is proof. It is indestructible. It has been used to roll out pie crust and for cleaning buckets of blueberries. It has cooled hundreds of oatmeal cookies through the years. Back when grandmothers still sewed sundresses for their granddaughters, it was the ideal surface for pinning and cutting out patterns. More than a few sunfish have been scaled on it through the years, too. Guns have been cleaned and oiled. Grocery lists written. Hundreds of games of gin rummy, cribbage, and solitaire have been played. The New Testament has been read cover-to-cover during breakfast more than once. It has been cut on, spilled on, painted on, and eaten on. In a kitchen with about eight square feet of actual counter space, it also doubles as the perfect meal prep surface. Forget about those big, fancy kitchen islands you see on new home tours. We have a kitchen table for that.

People, thankfully, do not chain-smoke around it any more, though a generation ago they did. There are fewer black coffee drinkers around it than there used to be, too. The older faces I remember around the table in my youth are just sweet memories and stories now. The pudgy baby faces of our children have morphed overnight into adult faces with jobs, worries, and other people who matter to them. They come for visits and then go back to their lives in the city. Some are starting to bring along new baby faces. If we are lucky, there will be more. That is what makes a family indestructible, isn’t it? New faces?

Some families build palatial lake homes with cathedral ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows and call them cabins. Their kitchens feature the finest granite counter tops and largest “islands” money can buy. They plop cute pillows embroidered with the word “Gather” on plaid upholstered benches and wait for company. In places like this, I’m never sure whether this is an invitation, a suggestion, or a command.

We have an island, too.  It’s called my grandmother’s kitchen table. It’s where her people gather. It’s where we always have. It’s where we always will.

And let me tell you, that is a thing of beauty.

 

Our people

My friends are my estate.

-Emily Dickinson

Lately, and for no particular reason, I have been thinking a lot about what makes a community.  I had breakfast with four dear friends on Saturday. As I looked around the table at the faces of women who, with each passing year, remind me more of their beautiful mothers, it struck me that I was the only one at the table who hasn’t yet added “orphan” to the list of titles written on her soul. When it is, they’ll be there.

How do I know? Because these women are my people.

This morning, a younger relative who is an ally to my two adult children of color in all the best ways, told me she is trying hard to be a better one in the lives of the people of color she loves. She does not know how much this means to me, and when I try to tell her, I stumble. I tell her that my kids know she gets it, which is true. I don’t tell her how lonely it so often is to be the educator or bigger person or have to constantly choose which conversations to have with well-meaning friends or family members. That I am, more than anything else, grateful to not feel so alone.

This woman is one of my people, too.

I think of all of the women I’ve known throughout my life who’ve loved me, steadied me, and been my friend through thick and thin. Women who know my secrets and guard them as closely as I guard theirs. Who don’t judge when I am impossible or unreasonable or just, well, me. Women who’ve walked the transracial adoption road with me and understand that mothering this way is both the same and different. Very few of these women share my DNA, but they are still my sisters.  Every one.

Things get complicated when a baby is born “breech” with her legs twisted up around her ears. If we’re lucky, we come into this world head first, looking toward the light. And if we’re lucky, we leave the way we came. Facing forward and clear eyed. Sliding out instead of yanked.

And in between the coming and the going, there are our people.

If we’re very, very, lucky.

 

 

 

 

What we save

May the roof above us never fall in, and may we friends gathered below never fall out. -Irish Toast

The thing about always running late is that sometimes you get as many freshly cut zinnias as you can carry at the Farmer’s Market.  I learned this yesterday when a friendly gentleman farmer handed me more than I could carry when I stopped by his stand. Since he had “rows of the things at home” they would have been tossed out at the end of the day, no doubt. So I saved them. The dozens of sturdy, long-stemmed, red, orange, and purple flowers are in a crystal vase in the center of my dining room table.

The four half-dead African violets I saved a week ago from the garden center in town have a new lease on life, too. They have thanked me profusely by putting out new blossoms. The plants and I watch the red squirrels in the yard trying to figure out how to empty the feeders since I’ve greased the poles with a thick layer of petroleum jelly. They are loud, angry, furry little pole dancers. For now, the chickadees happily peck away at the seeds while the squirrels first leap, and then slide to the ground below. It’s nice to see the birds winning for a change.

In other news, the two large parrots that plastered themselves to a 22nd story window sill in Miami this morning were definitely not winning at much. Even if someone had wanted to save them, I’m guessing that opening a window on the 22nd floor during a hurricane was out of the question. And so, the wet, terrified, birds sat side by side on the ledge, looking in. Today, like all of the other two and four-legged creatures in Florida, they are on their own.

A couple of weeks ago, it was Hurricane Harvey and our friend, Randy and his cat, in Houston. Joel, another classmate, kept us updated on the water levels in his son’s home. This week, it is Kevin who evacuated from Key West and Laurie who left her home near Tampa to escape Irma’s wrath. Chris is worrying about her son and grandchildren in the Panhandle while Julie worries about friends and family in Sarasota. There are others we know too, scattered like coconuts throughout Florida, watching and waiting. We watch and wait, too.

Meanwhile, in the west, according to our other Julie, over a million acres have burned. The ruby-red sunsets we see here in Minnesota as a result of all hell breaking loose there does not make up for the fact that so many farmers and ranchers have lost everything or that our national parks are ablaze. My daughter asked me today where alligators go during a hurricane. I’d like to know where the creatures great and small in Montana and Wyoming go, too.

We connect on social media and offer up encouragement and prayers to the people we care about. We provide refuge in the form of friendship. Meanwhile, the world turns, like the leaves. Soon, there will be no more zinnias until next summer to save. The squirrels will inevitably figure out a way around the greased poles and empty my feeders. Maybe there’s a lesson in all of this rain and wind and fire and destruction. Or maybe the only lesson is that we all end up needing saving eventually.

And when it happens, we’d better hope that we’ve held hands and stuck together.

A once in a lifetime event

Although we did our best and took a walk after lunch, the dog and I missed seeing the eclipse. The sky became eerily dark, but there were just too many clouds to get a glimpse of the moon crossing in front of the sun. Oh well. Better luck next time, I say. If eclipses are your thing, I hope you were luckier than we were.

When we came home, I noticed a bright red maple leaf no larger than the size of a quarter on the driveway. Every autumn, I am both happy and a little sad to see the leaves change. Our five acres of sugar maples are a lovely sight to behold in September and October. It’s what comes after that I’m not too crazy about.

The grass still needs to be cut and so, after our walk, I went to find my special lawn mowing shoes by the back door. I gave each one a good whack against the side of the house to make sure there were no spiders in them. Then, I sat on the back steps to put them on. The left one went on fine, but when I stuck my foot in the right one, I felt my toes touch something soft and squishy. I pulled my foot out and peered into the shoe. Let me pause here to say that at this age, I am only still deathly afraid of two things. The first is out-living one of my children. The second is toads.

By now, you have no doubt guessed what was in the toe of my tennis shoe, haven’t you?

What does someone who is deathly afraid of toads do when one realizes that a toad has taken up residence in her shoe? Well, I can tell you what this someone did. I threw that shoe. Hard. Then, for good measure, I tossed the other one right next to it. Both bounced near the raspberry bushes. The dog walked to the fence, looked at the shoes on the other side and then looked back to me as if to say, “how am I supposed to get those over there?” The shoes are still there. So is the toad. I know, because I checked.  And I have a new special pair of lawn mowing shoes. In the garage, I might add.

And so, while I missed seeing the eclipse and am feeling ambivalent about that little red maple leaf on the driveway, I am still grateful. For a lot of things, actually.

Mainly, I am thankful that on the day of a once in a lifetime event, that I was wearing socks.