Friday’s Thoughts: Earth’s Nature, Worst and Best

Day 6 Interlochen, Leelenau 162

You will please bear with me for not being whimsical or profound or very creative today. I have two daughters in the path of Hurricane Florence. (My husband, on an extended business trip in N. Carolina, took heed and flew out in time.) Cait feels she is now a bit safer than thought in Williamsburg, Virginia as she continues her work as a chaplain though she is not far from the Atlantic. Naomi evacuated to the northwestern corner of S. Carolina, leaving her work as art professor and her home in Columbia. It is the relentless rain that is now ruining and will damage or destroy so much, endanger untold numbers and vast amounts of property as this system, now a tropical storm, very slowly rotates across the Southeastern states and then northward (we think). Rainfall is catastrophic in many areas already; storm surges are major issues along with wind gusts still up to 70- 90 mph in places and tornadoes are developing, as well. Over 900,000 people are without power at this moment, and four have died. And the last I heard, over 1.9 million had been evacuated  but there were countless others who stayed behind. I certainly worry about my children but I am very concerned for all the others, their safety and loss of their homes and businesses. The first deaths have brought me tears, an ache of sadness. These next weeks at very least will be unbelievably challenging.

We know about long, hard rains in the Pacific Northwest, how they easily flood our many rivers and create sudden mudslides, erode coastal lands as well as other acreage, take down aged, mighty trees and invade homes. But I have never been in a hurricane or tropical storm. And it is daunting and disheartening  to think of, yet it weighs on my mind all day, each day.

I offer you, however, a few photos of the astonishing loveliness of nature this time of year in many locales. I cling to the mysteries and attractions. As we try to cope with significant climate changes that engender big events all over the world, we need to never lose sight of how nourishing, exquisite and complex a living entity this planet earth is, despite the destructive impact of other powerful actions/reactions.

And we love her so, cannot help it despite the growing perils; this is our human abode. Do we truly know what we have here? We must learn all we can, hold on to what we have and to hope, respectfully avail ourselves of bounties and wonders, and work to help in even small ways to abate ongoing threats to such abundance.

Thank you for prayers offered all those endangered–not only in the U.S but everywhere that undergoes such catastrophic shifts and losses. We cannot  abandon our spiritual strength, no matter our belief,  in times such as these. Together we must keep on.Day 6 Interlochen, Leelenau 279

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Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: My Prodigy

She was a mathematician at heart, in her very marrow, but what Stella loved secretly was composing music. More than anything, which was certainly a reality of which I had to take notice. Not that the two subjects were so dissimilar, music being built upon a signature of rhythm, connecting notes set aloft by designated half, whole and sixteenth beats and perfect pauses and complex flourishes that just elude my language– but there it was, simple fractions creating all the difference in the world, another world entirely. Each mode of exploration required careful observation of how one thing related to another to make an exemplary, useful and exciting construct.

So she told me and I agreed.

How did this set of numbers or notes impact a prior or later entry on that paper? What was the internal dynamic that supported the growing whole? How did one numeral change the meaning or perhaps unhinge the entirety? Mathematics and music were  both symphonic in scope and just amusing. Or dramatic, even life altering. They were reflections of and underpinnings of vast webs of life.

These were the questions and musings that came naturally to Stella from quite an early age. I know this because I was her tutor from ages six to sixteen, though I also knew from the start that shortly she would hold more instinctive knowledge than I  and entertain me with it. I could teach her facts and formulas, draw up intriguing puzzles of thought but she could solve or undo them before she had left childhood. In truth, she would reconstruct bits and pieces and deliver something new to me with a shrug and a laugh. It was frightening as well as thrilling.

She ought to have been sent straightaway to university by adolescence but no, Kenneth and Aurelia Lanningham knew what was best for their child. The plan was to not expose her intellectual superiority to the common, often specious aspects of the world’s realities until truly necessary. She had to be given a solid chance at childhood, maintain less awareness of her brilliance until…until sometime later. Keith proposed garnering a worthy mentor, a scientist or mathematician within his diverse circle. There would be direction given in time, he believed.  We all knew she would pass any college entrance exam; an Ivy League school could not refuse her.

Stella’s father was an absolute quantity in her life, a tireless supporter of her keen mind and cheerful heart, doting on his only child with a fine balance of affection and well-placed discipline. He had found me in the Want Ads and determined I was “it” when I inquired if Stella had shown interest in geometry or calculus yet and was not cowed by the idea of genius; I had been a rather bright child, myself. And I laughed at his sharp dry humor. Stella observed me after the interview with bright eyes and a few questions of her own. Was I interested in pond life and amphibians? Did I own a number of hats and any with feathers and if so, what were those? Was a lady alone or did I have a favorite beau? She was so young but not intimidated by life’s frontiers. I started my new position the very next day.

I didn’t meet Aurelia until that first 24 hours. With hand held out to mine, she smiled the way a crocodile might before a sneak attack, I thought in passing, then chided myself for my judgmental ways. She was just  reserved. With impeccable manners, she could be charming, was willowy, even statuesque and had the finest skin I have ever seen. It looked illumined and I had to tear my gaze away as she led me to my rooms. It was a sprawling big house, one fit to hold her, Keith, their precocious daughter and more. But at times over the years it felt small, too constricting to roam freely, to allow Stella the joy of noisy play, to hear my own thoughts at night when all was still. And Aurelia, despite her gorgeous name and countenance, was not cut of the same cloth as her husband and daughter. I am not sure I understand even now who she was. Restless, conspiratorial. She had what she wanted–until she did not. But, too, she had more than she had quite bargained for–a genius for a child. Not a mild and dutiful, conventionally beauteous girl. I noted the tensions like a noxious fume some days.

Still, those years rolled one into another. I was happy for the most part. My weekday mornings were taken up with the tutoring of Stella, afternoons spent on my own or with her, depending on our schedules and personal needs or preferences. She worked on dance competency with her ballet teacher and was most attentive to the grand piano, practiced baking with the cook, ran races, built forts and put on plays with her cousins Riley and Harriet who came to visit for the week-ends once or twice a month. Stella had social engagements with children of neighboring estates now and then; in time she wished fervently she might go to school with them.

“I am not always cheerful here alone, Margaret,” she confessed to  me after her tenth birthday party and the small but lively flock of children had gone home. “You know it can get so boring that I’d rather be pricked by wild blackberry bushes than endure one more hour of myself. Especially after so much fun like today. I would enjoy school with regular people my age.”

“That’s why I’m here, I think,” I said quietly. “To offset some of that.”

She slumped in the overstuffed chair by her bed. “You do give me good ideas, but you’re too old to play a rowdy game of tag.” She sat up and reached for my hand, a look of real apology in her eyes. “I mean, I am sorry, it’s true you’re only twenty-three, of course not old, but that’s still thirteen years older than I. And there are limits.” She smoothed her party dress and grinned at me, eyes crinkling beneath pale brows, “Even for us.”

I tried to not burst out laughing. She could be so serious, say the oddest things for a child but I kept a stern face. “I must say you are right, with my older legs I might trip and fall in this maddening skirt and pinching shoes and then we’d not be able to race around here again since we’d both be in trouble. Especially me if your mother had a say.”

“Correct.” She nodded and gazed out the window. “Mother always has her say. That never bodes well for shenanigans.”

We were still a few moments. Yawning, I made to leave and read awhile when her hand rose, hovered in the air as if to delay me. She was riveted by something out a window and I could guess what it was.

“Listen. Our Baltimore Orioles are singing so loudly right now. They so rile up the air.”

She got up to hear better, pressed into breeze beyond the open window. I followed. She took a breath and held it. They were there daily on tree branches, yellow-orange feathered breasts flashing within the greenery. She thought all creatures on their acreage were “ours” and birds were near the top of her favorites list. She never tired of their songs. She tapped out the rhythm of their tune with fingertips on the windowsill and soon very softly sang along with them. It riveted me, always.

“I’d like to write that down.” She turned to me. “Can you get me musical manuscript paper or do I have to make my own again? It is just not the same with ruler and ink, I make blotches rather than notes.”

“You could use pencil,” I suggested as usual.

“You could buy me some manuscript paper…and better ink.”

I knew Aurelia wouldn’t approve of my doing so or her daughter’s writing down even innocent, intricate songs of birds. She didn’t like the idea of Stella getting too involved with music. She barely tolerated the art; Kenneth had purchased the grand piano against her wishes. Her mother had been a very good singer, apparently, and finally left the family to perform in vaudeville. She was never heard of again until she died in some manner no one spoke of, despite Aurelia’s family’s status being the one redeeming factor in all messes. Or it was unknown, more likely, because of that.

She did not want Stella to indulge in many musical pleasures (nor slip down the path to which they led). She had even suggested the piano be sold but Kenneth had forbidden it–he liked to play a few tunes, himself, for fun. He was a harried businessman; music quite relaxed him. And Stella loved it, too, so they’d play together sometimes–Aurelia glaring from her perch in the neighboring drawing room or hiding out in bedroom or garden.

“I know, it’s dangerous in this house,” she conceded, but with a shrug. “What’s the worst that could happen? My music manuscript paper taken away. I’d find another way. Right?”

Her smile gave me such joy. She was invincible, this girl. And sometimes reckless.

No,  more might happen. I could be sacked. But I made a decision. I knew she had music begging to get into the world. I had heard her sing and hum for years, watched her hands play their own way across piano keys to such good effect. Her father knew all this, too, and yet was reluctant to encourage her further. He had a wife, too, after all; he had quite a bit at stake.

I bought the manuscript paper, new pen with a fine nib and silky ink out of my own mad money. And so it began.

******

Stella touched the paper with the tip of her right index finger, letting it meander over the preprinted five-line stave with four spaces, the treble and bass clefs.

Her oval face was pink with excitement as she waved the page in the air. “Do you know different clefs are used for different instruments? And that there are many of them, not just the usual two we find on piano music? There are treble, bass, tenor and baritone and soprano and alto and mezzo-soprano but they’re not altogether different looking and–well, anyway, like human voices in a vocal choir.” She shook the expensive paper at me. “I can write a choir’s worth of music on this piece of paper, imagine, Margaret! But for now I can write the Baltimore Oriole’s song right here, then look at it anytime I want, and hear the melody in my mind… I could tell you more about this wonderful paper but, of course, you know about it already, and I must get to work… Oh, excuse me, Margaret, pull and lock the door tight behind you…no one must know but us!…thank you so much for this, you are a truly righteous dear.”

I took one last look. What had I done?

But she was in heaven as she started, bent over her little roll top desk. Her hand flew across that paper in a series of special dashes, dots, slashes, pauses. her lower lip was caught by her front teeth and she breathed hard at times, head angled close to the calligraphy of musical notation. She was transformed from a rather extraordinary child into a creature infused with passionate calling. Her being was lit up.

I finally tiptoed out though I longed to stay, to see what she could do with it, to offer minor guidance since I read music, too. On the other hand, Stella had a basic grasp of basic musical notation after six years of excelling at her piano study and already playing with finesse. No, more important was my patrolling–casually–the second floor hallways, keeping an eye out for Aurelia’s whereabouts.

Most days it was easy to avoid Aurelia. She was busy with her social calendar, her charitable works and managing the house. Stella and I had agreed on two days a week to start, a half hour each time. After I heard her hum the very close rendition of the Baltimore Oriole’s song (which she had so neatly written as if she knew exactly how), she managed to stretch that to longer sessions as I gave in. Once or twice Aurelia had called for her daughter repeatedly until she came to the door, popping her head out with a sulky, “What is it, Mother? I am busy studying.” I distracted her on numerous occasions and got quite good at it. It was often her advice I sought; flattery had a tempering effect on her unpredictable nature. She began to teach me some about the garden which I enjoyed in any case, and she saw that I had good results with Stella all these years and told me so, to my surprise. I felt some guilt that I was duping her, being the necessary yet untrustworthy diversion so her daughter could pursue the very thing she feared.

Of course Kenneth knew. I found him with an ear pressed against her door one day. When he heard me his raised eyebrows  and smile betrayed his delight, and he placed a hand to heart and said nothing more of it. But he’d sometimes nod at me with a covert glance; we had a pact from then on and I felt reassurred.

I wondered at what cost this meant to any or all of us only once. Aurelia had stored a large portrait of her mother done in her mother’s youth and came across it when Jane, a maid, found it in the attic recesses. She had been looking for another family painting her mistress desired dusted and hung and thought it worthy of a place. Jane left it leaning on the outside door for inspection. layer she informed me that Aurelia gave a gasp and became faint, her hand steadying herself against the wall and Jane steadying her other side, then commanded it be taken to a trash bin far out back and, if possible, burned. The force of her rage and renewed horror of abandonment kept her in her rooms at dinner that night. Over the next few days she was sullen, white about the mouth and red about her eyes, and offered tears in response to a slightly charred roast beef. She had never cried openly. I thought it a mark of progress that her poised demeanor could be so stirred. perhaps there was room for other emotion that might open her further.

But, oh, what music Stella began to write as time fled. I did not regret it, how could I? The child was so at her ease, in her element with music. And I still am not sorry, not even a little.

******

It was only very small songs at first; she would hum and tap it out, show me her neophyte’s work. Then it got more intricate, the music flowing.  She’d ask me to take a second part or third and we’d make do with the severe paucity of instruments, imagining the whole of it if only we had an orchestra. During morning studies she would make time to share the pages and I’d nod and wonder over what was happening there. At times she’d hide in the pages in her clothing or a bag and we’d take a picnic at the far reaches of the garden. We’d take a trip to town, sit on a park bench near the fountain, just hum it out as she showed me what she’d change to make it work better. Sometimes Aurelia was blessedly gone for the day. We’d sit in the music room at the grand piano without fear, both of us cozied up at the keyboard. The truth was, I sang just well enough to add harmonies and my piano playing didn’t match hers even when she was a child. But it was exhilarating to be part of what she was developing. Stella Lannigham had a gift–she had more than one, yes, but this was possibly going to be a magisterial blessing among the others. Meanwhile, she excelled as usual in all her subjects. I wondered how much longer they would keep me. She was far past due for grander challenges; she needed university coursework  and more very soon.

Before too long–the years got fuller and faster with each one that arrived–she was sixteen. There was a party, a coming out party, replete with extravagant dress and food and legions of guests. It was a thrill to see her pull it off, as I knew she found it “a complete bore, Margaret, there are so many things I could do with this money and time if they’d let me–how about a charitable event? How about my very own adventure in Italy, Greece and Spain? How about a new really good telescope– or a full-sized harp? I’d so love a harp and lessons!” But she played her role well.

I wandered about, nibbling and drinking a bit and caught the eye of a man, Theodore Taylor, whom I had met briefly once or twice before, the son of Kenneth’s friend. I liked him. We were both past the age of reckoning, too old to admit we yet hoped to marry but not ready to give up that hope.

“I can’t imagine she would have turned out so beautifully without your instruction and interventions,” he said as we sipped champagne.

“Thank you for that, I have worked hard all these years but she has never been difficult to reach and she teaches me more than I teach her, I’ve long suspected.” I felt his hand on my elbow; it disturbed me in all the right ways so I smiled back at him.

“She’s such a brilliant young woman. I hear she’s a natural mathematician. What are her plans?”

“I wish I knew. Kenneth expects her to enter college–she is due to entrance exams soon–but Aurelia…she has her eye  on a suitable husband already.”

Theo laughed. “A losing battle, It’s not medieval times, the girl can do–and should– as she chooses. Time for marriage later.”

An enlightened male whose touch warmed me so readily?  I turned to face him and his broad hand fell to my wrist, lightly, then my fingers over which his own slid, then were gone.

“Don’t be fooled, her mother is a powerful influence on her husband, at least. His daughter, however, has less and less patience with her demands.”

“I know how much he adores Stella. He knows her gifts and wouldn’t deny her access to a bright future.”

“I agree. Or at least I hope you are correct, as for Stella to waste all that brilliance and curiosity and zeal for life would be painful to see.”

We stood shoulder to shoulder and watched the lovely, fluffy girls flutter by like a bevy of butterflies, and Stella easily outshone them all–her pleasing face notwithstanding, it was her bearing and characteristic joi de vivre that carried the night toward a  sublime conclusion.

“Would you like to dance. Margaret? I was hoping al night.” Theo asked. And that was that.

At around eleven, people were tiring of merriment and starting to float towards the door when Stella’s clear alto speaking voice rang out: “Please stay if you can, all! I have something to share with you as my thank you!”

Theo and I, hand in hand, blended into the group gathered about the piano where she sat. I felt goose bumps race up and down my back and arms. A lump cast about my throat and I swallowed hard. She was not going to do it, we had spoken of it a month ago and she had agreed. Just a quick few musical delights, something from Broadway or just a light sonata or two. But not anything revealing, nothing that could change the course of things.

Stella placed her hands on the ivory and ebony keys and began to play. The piece began with a delicate touch, arpeggios of light on water, swift rounds of melody that danced, then merged with a vast array of notes, a growing tapestry of sound that wove with verve, coloration and texture and grew into a greater story as it crescendoed into something so exquisite that as it hovered there, the crowd held its collective breath with chins up, chests leaning toward the music, and the girl, and then waiting for release. Which came fast, then a slower cascading of notes like leaves twirling within brilliance of day, then landing within a mysterious softness of twilight. Quietude. Fulfillment and deliverance.

She sat still at the piano, her hands slowly leaving the keys that had responded with vibrancy. The room was full of sudden stillness. It had been a short composition, a simpler one than she had been able to create, and yet its charm was in its varied movement and its bursts of happiness, and how it completed itself, easy yet complex at once.

One then another and another applauded until the house vibrated with it. Stella stood, bowed slightly, her eyes sparkling with excitement, even while Margaret knew she thought even then of risks just taken. Yet Stella knew she had succeeded in forging her own path. Kenneth was not about to regret anything. He simply loved her and so he rushed forward and embraced her, held up his hands, with one of hers in his, to the guests as if to say, “How wonderful a thing this moment, how fortunate I am to have such a daughter–can it be denied?”

It could not.

And yet Aurelia thanked the guests for coming with her gracious manner and generous smile, then slipped out the back doors and into her refuge, the garden. To cry or shake her fist at the sky–or to possibly thank God, I would not have the privilege to know. The next day, despite tearful pleadings of her daughter and a well- spoken defense of my worthiness by Kenneth (who did not quite admit he had knowledge of what went on within Stella’s hidden life), Aurelia let me go. With not even a thank you for my service, only an indictment. I had betrayed her trust, it was true, the worst crime as a tutor and in this kind of home.

Stella pressed her face against her bedroom window, tears streaming, as I got in the cab. I pressed both my hands against my own window and squelched a scream. I was not an innocent and had known the high stakes. Yet. Stella. And teaching. Gone.

******

It has been ten years now. Ten engaging and momentous years but without Stella in my daily life, though nine with Theo and our son, Damian. My husband’s work has taken us far from that city, my glorious and demanding life lived with a prodigy who had large, defiant dreams (when young girls of this age are directed to more proscribed paths). With parents who alternately gave to and withheld much from their daughter in surprise or fear and, it must be said, sheer awe. Caring was present, Kenneth’s sweep of love, Aurelia’s rather timid love that surmounted the barrier of her blindness. She gave approval in small bits and later, much later, she gave more I am told.

And there was my affection which grew into love but easy to give, the devotion of one who risks much but knows the worth of it, so cannot help it.

More and more we now hear Stella’s music on the wondrous radio, and have attended her concerts, and read the rave reviews of her compositions which are performed by many others. We have remained in touch, how could we not? Many times I have thought: I was there to witness a good portion of transformation. And it was stunning and humbling. There is a steady glow that knowledge yet gives me.

She has thus far lived the life she could not refuse. As have I. A lesson gained long ago has guided me: that we all are given gifts and pivotal moments within which to chose our use of them or not. To follow the talent or passion. The trick is to let ourselves be led. To surrender, as did Stella.

 

Friday’s Quick Pick/Poem & Photos: Summer Released

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I have been at length in love, overcome
with summer’s glittery, crackling beauty,
its sheer points of no return in wildest blue
and emerald that trumpets a surfeit of life.
I’ve basked in its generosity, slunk about
in valleys and peaks that dazzle and sting.
I’ve slipped into fairy’s dusk as treetops shake
their big bodies, heat coaxes perfume from my skin.
Summer has courted me, wooed me enough
that I vow patience, loyalty, passionate gratitude.
I have opened my arms, been embraced, gained a healing.

Yet I am willing to prepare for it’s denouement, to
accept its blare of wild light and music will drift afar.
I am ready to welcome eruptions of rust and brass, vibrating
air and muted nights that stir an aria of autumn,
and with it another quickening. And the chiming chill of rains.

Winter even now paces in earth’s cavernous wings.
I sense its call but turn my mind to this reckoning.
Vagabond wind travels north and circles, speaks.
The days will sooner reveal a worn raiment;
it will loosen, float about, seeds of blessings.
I will find my way to other hallowed things,
freed in skittering leaves, captured in the cape of darkness,
the stealthy cold like a spell upon every creature,
a cocoon that deepens magic, unleashes dreams
and will weave me into the sweet, tender ache of living.

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All photos, Cynthia Guenther Richardson

 

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Recipe Boxes

I searched like mad in my two ancient recipe file boxes for a hot German potato salad recipe that I believed my mother had long ago bequeathed to me. It was for our annual Labor Day family BBQ that also celebrated youngest daughter Alexandra’s 38th birthday. It gave me pause, those files. Those years of our family dinners in our homes as we moved about, my parents’ sunny dining room and in various in-laws’ were unveiled in mind’s eye.

On my own turf, I was once a decently functioning if reluctant cook. That is, I managed to cook entire meals (usually) three times a day for 7-12 people (finally 5 kids, often their friends plus 2 parents), and not repeat menus so often they were entirely predictable; they might even fool you as aromas drifted from the kitchen. This went on for decades. But it isn’t meant to insinuate I was the cook everyone longed to become or so adaptable I could pull off a fancy dinner in an hour’s notice. No, I knew my stuff but only as far as my knowledge spanned. Thus, a proficient cook–I had honed fair skills by my mid-to late twenties, being a late starter. I made sure everyone got their fill at the long oak table. And if that table overflowed with extra diners our kids dragged in from the area, they just had to share: cut meatloaf slices in half, break corn cobs into two so all stretched for all.

This was before cell phones so people actually ate their meals, not photographed them. We talked a lot between mouthfuls or even while chewing despite manners prompts. It was a theater for big personalities, each competing against the others in a seemingly random manner. Plus we all had ideas and loved to explain them or toss about smart retorts. One child was very quiet by nature. I swear she rolled her eyes at the rest, and know she raised her hand to speak if needed. But such diverse energy cannot be denied; our table was never boring. My family was less aware of the goodness of the food than bellies being again full enough to move on to a more arresting event. But I felt satisfaction as morsels disappeared–another meal pulled off and done. But I also got frowns, teasing words despite my best attempts. My extended family thought I was not likely to amount to a cook at all so I cooked less and less for them.

I was content to often eat what was left over. I got too busy getting more milk or juice, forgotten salt and pepper or more napkins, that jar of dill pickles someone had to have and so on. My husband shouted over a murmuring din, “Cynthia, sit down and eat!” but as soon as I did, the phone begged to be answered (and it hung on the wall) or there came the dog to be subdued or a window had to be shut as rain slashed through a screen. I was a lot thinner then, but nourished enough by what had been left as we cleaned up. There were more serious leftovers if it wasn’t so great. It wasn’t often that people begged more. However, I got good at baking, so desserts were the treat they anticipated as they shoveled in pallid green beans with tuna curry and rice; beef (extended with soy protein) stroganoff and a fat green salad; burgers with fries plus coconut-lime Jell-O topped with mini marshmallows. I counted on chili as a favorite as well as beef stew. Soups. Anytime I could toss 6 ingredients into a pot and forget about it for 2 or 3 hours I was relieved. Otherwise I had to plan. And not having a grocery list with all things checked off could throw me into a moderate anxiety attack (which I felt only an annoyance of being a bonafide housewife).

Since the thought of being original and proficient and on time might fill me with a subdued fear some days, I’d cut out recipes to save in the junk drawer. Stick on the frig or a bulletin board. I studied reliable ole Betty Crocker plus Better Homes and Gardens’ cookbooks and then The Wise Encyclopedia of Cookery, the one that ruled with every single help for a problem or desire– far more than mattered to me. And I collected recipes from resources such as friends, neighbors, mere acquaintances, church suppers. Naturally our extended families.

They were handwritten so legibly on index cards often decorated with fancy stoves or shiny food or floral motifs. Works of kitchen art, advice to the food-bemused. My mother dashed them off on to lined index cards. Every woman had these at home; they were even given to the bride-to-be as wedding shower gifts. I found that strange but filed them in the new boxes that had dividers naming food groups or meal courses. In case I really cooked a full meal by myself; I was still an innocent then and married to an artist so didn’t yet worry. You could not underestimate the power of a trusty recipe from someone who cared, these ladies said. Though I barely knew the difference between an egg yolk and egg white at the advent of my first marriage at almost 21. Luckily, my husband’s mother knew fully how to cook and offered tips as deemed crucial–she commandeered a successful catering business, after all, so I took notice, committed info to memory. (Even his sisters had the gift of cooking and other such arts. But this was a clue to my future; it did not bode well in domestic departments. I was a poet, had other things to do, just like Ned, my husband.)

Yes, I learned to be prepared for requisite meals; if not, I retrieved what was needed in time even if knocking on neighbor’s doors for forgotten basil–what was that exactly?– or one tablespoon of sour cream. Every day, before I knew it, my life was built around other people’s schedules. Proscribed mealtime preparations were critical to running a harmonious household. Then, after I had learned a little and gotten wiser, my second husband–with whom arrived more kids–began to travel for his work. I panicked alone some meals–was the oven working quite right when the temp seemed a bit iffy? Were the peaches spoiled or fruit flies just in love with their deliciousness? Was it terrible for children to eat graham crackers soaked in bowls of milk instead of a whole meal when I had a raging headache?

They grew. We got by even when there wasn’t much money in early years. There was no help but my hands and those of my children if I could round up a couple, perhaps threaten no more outdoor time that day (or TV, their rare treat) unless they assisted. Luckily, they liked to cook a bit so I started them on it then, unlike my mother. They all assisted off and on when they had time…even my son, who did great eggs on Saturday mornings when he hadn’t sneaked off on bike or skateboard. They could scrape plates clean and wash and dry dishes (by hand, usually; we did not often have fancy or large kitchens) at ages 6 or 7. They could make simple salads by then and cook up a few things by 9 or 10. But mostly they liked to be called into the house, sit with everything laid out nicely and fill up. Of course. They didn’t work for me but vice versa.

I dreamed of fine tablecloths like my mother used, matching and even crystal water glasses and bright bouquets at center that would stay in place rather than fall as a few hands aimed badly for a bowl of mashed potatoes. I intoned again: “Pass the dishes clockwise or pass yours to me to be served. Napkins on laps. Elbows off table. Okay, wait a minute,hold hands and say our prayer. Okay, now you can eat and don;t forget to say please and thank yous.” These provided me with a sense of civilized order despite stray peas squashed underfoot, the dog being fed unwanted Brussels sprouts under the table. Despite my sense of loneliness when things didn’t work out well–or did.

And when I didn’t want to even look at or smell food–not a rare thing as I had colitis plus various food intolerances that visited me with significant pain and distress–I thought how strong, how capable our children, in truth, were. How they thrived, overall, and needed steady support in the natural progression to adulthood. Even my attempts at being a mother-type chef could help. Cooking might not have felt like true love to me much–come on, it was sweaty work, a necessary sacrifice of time and energy–but it was service to my family I cared to provide, needed to provide. Only when I baked–cakes and muffins, cookies and pies, rolls and breads–came the happiness, my love in action. I believe they knew it. But major food groups well represented, nicely arranged on their stoneware plates? Just part of the job. The flowers in the vase made it better, as did pretty napkins–presentation and decor did matter, as my mother taught me.

Why did I feel that way, and struggle? I had little to no talent for cooking, that’s all. I liked to do things I did well, not stumble through with heart in throat as the timer ticked away and the throngs were getting restless–especially if husband or perhaps mother (or mother-in-law!) waited hungrily in the dining room. Or hovered over me–unbearable. I knew I would get a “C+” on average, a “B” if I sweated harder and then got lucky–and there were times my effort didn’t make any grade at all. But I worked at it, I made progress. Each meal was taking care of my family. In that process I even had a good time here and there, slicing up juicy nectarine and pineapple and slippery avocados, browning onions and pork chops, folding fluffy eggs into an aromatic omelet, by gosh.

All of this came back to me as I sorted through decades-old, stained and disorderly file boxes, looking for that German potato salad recipe. I never found one so resorted to Betty Crocker’s advice. But I found recipes from my first mother-in-law, Blanche, the caterer, who instructed me regarding a happy marriage: 1 cup of good thoughts and good deeds each; 2 cups of sacrifices; 3 cups of forgiveness and much more. And her Amazing Coconut Pie and Original Brickle Crunch Cookies, among others (her famed honey-lemon diamond cookie recipe was not given to me but my daughter, her granddaughter got it). From her son, then-husband Ned, were hand printed recipes for Sour Cream Chocolate Cake and Salzburger Knockle. I even found one from Marc’s (second and current husband) ex-wife–one of my college friends long before marriages and divorces–for her good Soft Molasses Cookies.

I came across a recipe that my youngest daughter created as a four year old: Flamingo Dance Salad. She made it when we lived in Tennessee, her tiny self atop a kitchen stool, leaning plump arms across the counter, her hands shredding things into a bowl as I wrote it down for her. I hear the echo of her squealing laughter as she announced the name of her offering. (And gave it as a fun gift for her birthday this year.)

There were plenty in my not-quite-refined, embellished penmanship on those cards, ideas for when I’d run out of steam, favorites to be revisited, finer ones ones for guests. I made our yogurt back then; fresh picked fruits were turned into jams; tomatoes from our own garden yield transformed into freezer pasta sauce; brownies made with bitter carob and sweet honey; and my golden poppy seed bread was given away at Christmas.

And  I thought I hadn’t liked cooking, at all.

I guess I stopped as it became less pressing to do. I got a career going, had less time and other interests each year as kids grew up, left. My husband has cooked the past years; we can afford to eat out a lot more. When he travels I somehow make do, more or less, but still cook very little. Okay, essentially none. Why bother? Salads are fast, yummy and handy. Take out is quite good around here. I will still make stew and chili and a few other things if asked by someone who cares…

But I stared at the cards, absorbed by the treasures, looked closely at my mother’s elegant teacher’s handwriting told of lots of vegetable, fruit and Jell-O mould salads, her famous apple strudel passed down from my grandmother and ten different bar cookies and several cakes and pies; hearty meat dishes and soups; holiday punches and eggnog and cocoa mixes…and much more. Perhaps she wanted to make up with all those recipe cards for not insisting I learn to cook. She’d wanted me to keep studying, to write, to practice voice and cello, play sports. She was an excellent Southern cook, the grits, hominy, fried chicken and far more that I liked better. I would watch her work, at ease and dancerly, buzzing along in one of her many elements as we swapped news of the day, long winded stories we delighted in telling each other. Maybe, I thought later, she knew I had no gift with food but had other talents and that was that.

I chose a few recipes I might want to try out again–me, this rather grey haired woman I am becoming, who retired from cooking a long time ago. Cooking was never that much fun–time consuming, unpredictable. I also had a habit of reading to pass the minutes and forgot to check the roast or batch of cookies. The smoke alarm was busy. I then started again, biting back curses. Had to get this or that on the table in time for everyone to eat, maybe chat, go forth into the world. Me, too.

So I smoothed a mere half dozen of many creased, faded, stained cards on my table, lined them up in rows and I saw there those grand times and mundane moments; mind numbing sorrows and cheery celebrations. Life markers and yes the mighty love that abided. It was all there. And this year’s BBQ gathering overflowed with the last. I have to say the hot German potato salad was even quite tasty.

 

 

Friday’s Quick Pick: The Falls that Felled Me

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The Columbia River Gorge (All photos, Cynthia Guenther Richardson 2018)

Every year I revisit Bridal Veil Falls where, in 2001 while hiking, I experienced the heart event that garnered me a diagnosis of aggressive coronary artery disease. I was literally brought to my knees by the proverbial “elephant on the chest” that gorgeous early September afternoon. I was 51; my doctors were not optimistic about the future. After stent implants I entered a difficult period in body and soul, but labored long and hard to regain health. It’s possible to take this disease in hand, and for the heart to become even stronger.

It’s been a thrill to once more vigorously hike the trails in Columbia River Gorge as I please. As I trek to the Bridal Veil Falls especially, it is easy to count abundant gifts of life with deep gratitude. The pictures posted are of that waterfall. At the top of the steps to a viewing platform, I collapsed. For a couple of years following my fateful hike this trail frightened me and I could not face it down. Soon I had had enough of intimidation and began to seek it out in August or September to celebrate staying alive. I am about set to head out this year once more.

Columbia Gorge, Cascade Locks, misc 114
Last visit in 2017, so glad to be there again

I love it there: the heady scents of damp earth and dense forest, the rush of water and wind-singing leaves, the birds chorusing and my heart and feet and legs carrying me up and down the rocky paths. I love that the place remains in its wild variations, its cyclical nature and its impartial acceptance of my visitations. I am filled with more joy each year I set out on the trail to Bridal Veil Falls.

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(If you are interested in learning more about heart disease, as well as recovery and health maintenance please search for my series entitled “Heart Chronicles” on this blog.)