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!

Battery life

“And I rose
In rainy autumn
And walked abroad in a shower of all my days…”

-Dylan Thomas, Collected Poems

I am writing this on my lap top. Albioni’s “Adagio for Organ and Strings” is streaming on my tablet. Occasionally, my cell phone emits a sweet “ding” to let me know I have a text message. I am working on learning not to text anyone under the age of forty back in ALL CAPS or place periods at the ends of texted sentences unless I’m ACTUALLY ANGRY. Old habits die hard for old English teachers. We need a lot of reminding.

The battery on my computer is draining before my very eyes. I know this because of the tiny battery-shaped icon on the bottom of the screen. I plug the computer in, and suddenly, I can see electrical power working its magic as the icon begins to fill. I never stop being amazed by electricity. You need it, and it’s there, just waiting on the other side of the wall outlet. You just need to plug in.

In other news, I’m getting over the first virus I’ve had in years, and it was a doozy.  Everybody I know seems to be either be catching, or getting over, this bug. I’m a freak about washing my hands after I’ve been anywhere (ask my children) but even fanatics get sick occasionally. When I was a young mom, the only thing worse than having a sick kid or two was being sick at the same time they were. Now, when one of them is sick, they call me for sympathy, but make their own chicken soup and sneeze into their own tissues. And when I’m sick, my only job is to get better.

Today, I’m doing just that. First, I’m watching the golden symphony of maple leaves in the woods floating to the wet earth below. Later, I will bake a ham and some sweet potatoes to fill the house with good smells. Then, before dinner, I will take a nap in front of the fire. The dog will join me. That’s the plan.

I’m plugged in.

My battery is charging, too.

 

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.

Love notes

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

1 Corinthians 13:7

For Peter and Abigale

I think they asked me to read because the Groom could count on me to use my best “project all the way to the back row” teacher voice and the Bride knows that I will make sure that the back of my dress isn’t tucked into my pantyhose before I walk up to the front of the church.

The day you get married, you think you have an inkling of what to expect from marriage. You’ve seen people you love stay together, or not. You’ve been in the weddings of a few friends. You know what “getting married” means.

And then, you get married and find out what marriage really means.

You embark on a journey that will take you to the highest highs and lowest lows of your life. Between those highs and lows there will be days, weeks, years, decades of going to work and mowing the lawn. You’ll have the same five arguments over and over about things that aren’t that important. You will wear out appliances and buy new ones. You’ll forget to pick up milk. You’ll laugh about stupid stuff. If you are very, very, lucky you’ll grow old together.

That is life. That is marriage.

You will maybe make a baby or two. You’ll potty train them and sit through what will feel like a thousand piano recitals. There will be math homework you don’t understand. They will throw parties in your house when you’re not home. You’ll blink, and those babies will be standing next to someone doing exactly what you’re doing today.

Together, you will bury your parents, or a sibling, or God forbid, a child, in the years to come. You will find out what “in sickness and in health” really means. You will find out what you’re made of on a thousand different days in a thousand different ways. You’ll break, and then you’ll mend.

That is life. That is marriage.

You will have joy. So. much. joy.  Your heart will swell to nearly bursting some days because you chose this person who is the best, kindest, most thoughtful human you know. You will have days when you look at the person you chose to spend your life with and wonder if you made a terrible mistake. Nope. You just chose a human with faults and flaws. Forgive each other for being human. Forgive, and forgive, and forgive again.

On your wedding day, look around at the guests you’ve invited. We are your cheering section. We have faith that when the road gets a little bumpy, that you’ll be patient and kind, polite and humble, brave and true to one another.  That’s the promise you’re making to each other. It’s why we’re here.

So get ready. Buckle up, and hold on tight. You’ve got this.

Love.  It’s just the greatest thing, isn’t it?

I think I read that somewhere.

Auntie

A Southern gentleman

We ate, and ate, and then ate some more.

The older I get, the more I’m struck by how much the young eat, as opposed to the not-so-young.  The variety of dining options in a city as vast and diverse as Chicago is one of the reasons my girl loves living there. We ate ravioli in a buttery wine sauce in a tiny Italian restaurant, and savory Indian dishes I couldn’t pronounce at Devon Street. We had Chicago-style pizza in Lincoln Park, and grilled cheese sandwiches sprinkled with truffles in a pretty courtyard restaurant with a fountain.

I boarded the flight home stuffed full of happy memories and good food. The burly, red-bearded, young man seated in my row noticed me struggling to jam my suitcase under the seat and offered to put it between us. I liked him immediately. During the flight, we visited. He’d grown up in Mississippi and was on his way to a conference in Grand Rapids. He’d never been farther north than Chicago. He’d majored in Communications and History in college, had recently adopted a golden retriever pup who went everywhere in his truck with him, and had a mama who worried about things like bed bugs and her boy finding his way to a place like Grand Rapids, Minnesota in the middle of the night. I told him to watch for deer and that bed bugs weren’t generally an issue as far as I knew. He told me that he’d been traveling since 5 a.m. and hadn’t had time to eat dinner during his layover. I gave him my pretzels.

The lights of the Aerial Lift Bridge in Duluth caught his eye as we began to land. Once the plane was at the gate, he helped me with my bag.  I told him that when he got home, he was to tell his Mama that she’d raised a fine young man. He smiled. Our paths will not cross again.

To travel anywhere is to learn. We visit new places to understand different cultures, and to try new foods. Travel shatters the myths we’ve created in our minds of who people are based on stereotypes and caricatures, ignorance and fear.

Sometimes that happens on the way home when you offer a boy from Mississippi your pretzels.

The runway bunny

“If you become a bird and fly away from me, I will be a tree that you come home to.”

-Margaret Wise Brown, “The Runaway Bunny”

The flight from Duluth to Chicago usually takes a little over an hour. As the plane taxied for take off, the pilot’s voice came over the loudspeaker to explain that there had been some turbulence as he’d flown in, but that “thanks to the miracle of man-made flight” he anticipated getting us to Chicago ahead of schedule.

I will stop here to say that I had seen this pilot standing in the door of the cockpit as I boarded, and as God as my witness, he didn’t look old enough to fly an airplane. Seriously.

The flight was smooth and uneventful until we approached O’Hare. I don’t despise landings like I do take offs, because landings mean I am going to be back on the ground soon where moms who are afraid of flying know they belong. The plane started its descent. It circled the airport. Then, it circled again, and again. I heard the thump and whir of the landing gear.

Suddenly, the engines roared and the plane started going back up, not down. Then, we circled again and again. Finally, Skippy the Boy Pilot’s voice came back over the loudspeaker.

“Hey, Guys! You may be wondering what’s going on (you could say that, Skippy) I guess there’s a rabbit on the runway and we have been told to circle for a bit until they get what’s left of Bugs Bunny cleaned up. I should have you on the ground in about five to ten minutes. Thanks for your patience!”

A bunny? On the runway? A runway bunny? Shut the front door, Skippy.

Is an airplane sliding off a runway because of bunny guts something I need to add to my List of Things to Worry About? So many questions. So few answers.

In other news, I am visiting my daughter who lives in the sky in an apartment that overlooks the Chicago skyline. From thirteen floors up, at night, the lights of this enormous city are a sight to behold.

Even for moms who worry way too much about things they can’t control who wish that all bunnies would just stay in the woods.

To the moms of college freshmen everywhere….

She was barefoot.  Taking baby steps down the sidewalk with her arms outstretched and the fingers on her tiny starfish hands splayed and waving. She wore a bright pink hat and polka dotted leggings and had the bluest eyes I’ve seen on a baby in a really long time.

Her name was Isabella.

I met this tiny dynamo four years ago as I paced up and down the sidewalk in front of the dormitory that my own not-blue-eyed girl was moving her shoes into.  Actually, “meet” probably isn’t the correct term.  She came running full speed down the sidewalk toward me with a very tired woman chasing behind her.  So the Tired Woman and I talked, because we were part of the same conflicted tribe of moms preparing to leave their chicks in brick buildings with strangers.  As we spoke, we agreed that moms deserve a free pass from heavy lifting on dorm move-in day. That not hauling futons up four flights of stairs should be our reward for having done most of the physical and emotional heavy lifting for the first eighteen years of our kids’ lives.

Moms all over the place are standing at the doors of dorm rooms this week, taking pictures and fighting back happy/sad tears.  I did that, too, four years ago.  They will drive off into the sunset while their kids rearrange their dorm rooms again. Moms  (okay, and Dads, too) will arrive home to too-quiet houses and stand at the doors of bedrooms that look like they’ve been ransacked and tremble with fear thinking of all the free time ahead for them. And then, they’ll get to work figuring out the rest of their lives.

We work ourselves out of our jobs if we’ve done this parenting thing correctly.  That’s what I told myself four years ago.

It didn’t take long to realize that my job description hadn’t been eliminated entirely, just altered. For one thing, they come home more than you think they will so don’t turn their bedrooms into anything just yet.  And don’t take it personally if they don’t call for the first couple of weeks. Your phone WILL ring again.  I promise.  And sometimes when it does, the young adult on the other end of the line will just be calling to talk because they actually miss you. Okay, and sometimes it will be to ask for something.  But, they’ll call.  And you’ll be happy no matter why.

That day four years ago, my nest emptied out. The other mom’s nest still included a tiny chick in polka dots running just as fast as her pudgy legs would go. I remember watching and thinking, keep running through life, Miss Izzy.  In a few years, you’ll need strong legs to go up and down all those flights of stairs, too. Just like your big brother.  Just like my girl.

Sad-happy.  Happy-sad.  Happy.  That’s how it goes.

Welcome to the tribe, Mama.  Even if it doesn’t feel like it today, you’re going to be just fine.

The storm

The storm began in the cereal aisle, as many storms do.

By the time they reached the checkout lanes, what began as a bad case of the “I wants” by the small boy had reached hurricane strength. Childless strangers rolled their eyes in disgust. People behind the young mom and her Category Five son moved to other, more peaceful, lines. A few smiled sympathetically toward the woman who was just trying to hold it together long enough to pay.

And one customer, who I’m sure meant well, made the situation worse. Quick tip: if a child is having a tantrum in public and that child is not yours, do not under any circumstances tell the child’s mother how she should handle it. Keep your parenting advice to yourself. Just keep walking.

Or you can do what I did.

I happened to follow the pair to the parking lot and watched as Mom unlocked the topper on her pickup. Then, she told the wailing boy to get inside. She stood behind the truck where he could see her and lit a cigarette. When he tried to get out from under the topper, she pointed and told him to get back in until he was calm.

This mama was impressive, let me tell you. There was no drama or yelling. No spankings. She has already learned that trying to distract, shame, or jolly any kid out of a tantrum is like spitting into the wind. And so, on a sunny day in a full parking lot, she waited for her boy to come through the storm on his own.

After I put my shopping cart away, I walked over to where the mom stood. Her boy was still raging and had added kicking the inside of the truck bed to his rage repertoire. I told Mom she was doing a good job. She looked surprised and grateful and said, “Thanks. A few minutes ago, a different lady in the store tried to tell me how to handle my own kid. He’s my son. I knew what he needed. He needed this.”

Oh, sweet, young, tired, mortified, mothers of boys (and girls) who throw tantrums. I’m sorry those of us who’ve been there and waited out storms ourselves don’t stop enough to offer words of encouragement when you need it most. Whoever you are, and whatever it may look like to the outside world, you are doing a good job.

You are.