We have lost a third family member in 6 months so I will not be writing this week other than this post–my dear mother-in-law now, following my brother and sister-in-law in spring.
Too many funerals–for far too many, not just me. We never hear the end of it. Will not.
But we gamely live out our time as long as we can, an assortment of contentments, aspirations, losses, accomplishments, wounds, and varieties of loves, our random musings circling in an infinity about our minds and shared with one another, and our daily motions made large or small, selfish or not…then exit this atmosphere in some way or another. And those left behind…are left behind awhile longer… to muddle through while keeping our hearts open, minds alert, spirits attuned. Or so I hope.
Be brave, be kind, and I send blessings your way. I will return here next week.
In the spacious front hall closet I was rearranging toppled baseball caps, a pair of hiking boots, three IKEA folding chairs, two camp chairs, a small storage unit for more hats/gloves/scarves and a box of Architectural Legos so a new vacuum would fit behind crammed coats when it jumped out at me: a Three Person Wedge Dome Tent snug in its plastic casing.
“Huh,” I said to no one, since I was alone. “How come this is still here?”
Never mind that the corners are shadowy even with a hall light on. It seemed nonsensical that a full-sized tent could be hiding out in there. You see, we don’t camp. The “camp chairs” are what we take to an outdoor concert, or for a restful afternoon by a lake–not for hanging out in the woods for several days. Then I recalled dishes on the shelf above, the pine green enamel service for two plus stainless pot that are good for…camping. We do have basement storage. Yet here this stuff sat.
“We don’t ever camp, likely will not camp again, so what the heck?”
I pulled it out. It almost pained me, looking at it. The tent was beautiful with its lightweight royal blue water repellent fabric and polyethylene floor, the mesh door to bar insects yet allow ventilation. It’d look great with camp chairs and green enamel ware out there in the misty cool mornings under a canopy of Oregon evergreens and big leaf maples and so on and on, with eagles soaring above in hunt mode, owls hooting in velvety depths of night, and a campfire charging up the storyteller in us, even a few songs rolling out as we sipped soup from mugs…But not to be, I mused wryly.
I used to camp a great deal, with enthusiasm. I camped out as a child when at various summer camp programs, of course. And with my parents during my teens (though not too often) with a simple pop-up camper they towed behind their Chrysler and then the Plymouth. We even camped in Canada which was more interesting to me then the camping with parents.
My first husband, Ned, and I went “primitive”; areas we camped around northern Michigan had no electricity or flush toilets with few other tenters around. When we had a family, we took our babies along, I nursed on the go. We backpacked along overgrown trails, branches reaching down as we made our way. We scavenged kindling, chopped and split “downed and dead” logs and cooked simplest fare over an open fire. I had married a man who was at perhaps most at home in the woods and the solitude found there. I wasn’t so far behind with willingness and appreciation. At first there were more skills to learn but it was fulfilling to work alongside him. It was peaceable out there and we and our kids felt good.
My current husband, Marc (who camped as a kid on Lake Michigan during summers with grandparents), and I camped at times with our combined five kids, borrowing my parents’ camper until they sold it. We tended to do this for other purposes, i.e. we were visiting a certain person “up north”, attending a folk or bluegrass music or similar event or were on our own Canadian sojourn. It was more economical and fun to camp rather than throw away money on hotel rooms. Not all the children were thrilled–hotels were luxurious playgrounds, unlike home–but most adapted. Naomi and Joshua, my children with Ned, were at ease, happy, helpful. Alexandra, our youngest, was excited to try anything new and adventurous. My stepdaughters were more skeptical. But Cait easily embraced the beauty of nature, loved finding wild berries, cooking with us. Aimee loathed it. She insisted she was genetically programmed to be a city person and to drag her out into any wilderness–despite flush toilets, showers, electricity: near civilization–was a true injustice and perhaps neglect of our responsible parental duties. (This never changed–she adores the concrete jungle and generally avoids being in dirt or in spitting distance of bugs unless required.)
Over time camping was less and less a family activity choice. A few grandchildren still went, however, with my parents–even when Mom and Dad were in their seventies. They were good at the more comfortable style of outdoors living. My dad had talents one would never suspect when he was in his tuxedo, conducting a symphony. He’d set up camp with simplicity and speed. My mother was a farm girl-turned-teacher and organized, efficient, if not thrilled with constant dirt in her makeshift home, under her nails–hadn’t she been done with all that? But they both respected, even seemingly revered what nature offered and taught the children more valuable lessons with each trip. Among which was cooperation with others–a love of familial fellowship. Those who enjoyed those trips still recall them fondly.
The last time spent hunkering down in a tent was autumn of 2010. Marc and I bought the tent when my son, Joshua, and his family (with two dogs) invited us to join them. I was thrilled he invited us. We didn’t have what we needed but he did. Joshua is a veteran camper and hiker, a woodsman-type like his father. He, his two children and their mother know how to manage the basic and arcane things one learns when spending much time in wilderness or close to it. By the time they were in school Avery and Asher could identify many animal signs via scat and tracks, bird calls and even wild plants. They could explain differences between poisonous and nontoxic ones for use as, say, poultices for injuries and bites as well as for teas and food. I looked this info to verify it and was stunned. And Joshua can start a crackling fire with little and no modern helps, spot a deer in the distance before anyone else, root out stones from water or earth and name the types found. He has made a peaceable connection with all bugs and even spiders, despite a few having bitten and infected him badly with venomous wounds made.
My son and I experience nature at a perhaps primitive core which also encompasses our highest sense of all things–but he knows more about the outdoor life by now. Hence, it would be good to tag along with him into Oregon’s forests in the Columbia Gorge.
If only I could tell you it was an entirely satisfying time but our one night camping experience was rough at moments. For one, my husband snores and has sleep apnea and without his CPAP machine, even with pillows propping him up a bit…well, it was an even less restful sleep for me; he seems more adapted to his apnea. We inhabited two separate sleeping bags with thin foam cushioning beneath. Nonetheless I felt may stones, lumps of dirt and stray twigs every time I was awakened by the drone from my husband. And I sweated too much so threw off top half of the sleeping bag, then felt the chill of skin drying inch by inch.
Sightless in the seas of blackness, I listened to the wilderness’ darkened voice in between the snores and coughs. Its enveloping presence was alternately soothing and disconcerting. Thoughts arose about cougars, my most feared (such hunting prowess with stealth and fierceness) wild thing in these parts. And bears which I knew tended to be avoidant of people if food was securely put away (it was). I had long trusted deep forest when I’d camped before and that night it was like a familiar but also a stranger one. I had lived at the edges of a few woods, miles out in country, and rustlings and sighings and snappings and occasional unknown soundings of something, somewhere…yes, it was so recognizable. I was duly mesmerized. The trees were so alive–of course they were!–but they were so utterly alive even if sleeping–did they ever sleep?…What else was awake besides me? My blood coursed with adrenaline at odd moments despite sensible self-talk. Heart rat-a-tat-tatted or harrumphed. Mostly I wanted to stop itching and sweating, feeling the uneven ground and hearing Marc emit snores. Wait, what was that landing on my forehead? And why didn’t I just buy a second small tent? Pitch it on the other side of the site? Why didn’t he just find a happy pause in racket and lsnooze on? Likely scared off near anything out there.
But even the dogs were sleeping.
Breathe in the good magic, Cynthia, be at your ease.
It started to rain, fat drops smacking and sliding off tent walls. A relief to hear its music. I closed my eyes and fell asleep a couple hours out of exhaustion. Dawn arrived with a whisper and sweetness that is unlike city mornings, not with a slap but a caress. And the fragrance of fire burning and oatmeal cooking and coffee simmering. I crawled out of my sleeping bag, sneaked outside and stretched sore muscles and bones, grateful for the new day. Mist hovered in the distance like a benign spirit gathering. I could hear the kids at the river, their voices soft. Joshua was tending to the fire, sitting on a log. He looked up and smiled his crooked smile. The dogs noted me, licked his hand and took off.
“It was a sort of rocky night, but glad to be here.” I wanted to be a great camper so I did not want complain to Joshua.
He chuckled quietly. “Good. You just have to get used to it again.” He gestured to the flickering fire. “I piled some wood in the tent. Found other kindling not too damp.”
I nodded, looked out into the wetness and light creeping into inside the cooled air, a persistent brightening of a dullish day. The forest was breathing its fresh breath and I took it in deeply. Damp earth radiated its musky goodness. How I loved woodlands after rainfall, how trees shook off their shower and other plants bathed and glistened. My grandchildren scampered about with muddy boots and clothes, hands full of stones and berries. I thought back to those other days when my children were their ages and life was woven of inexplicable beauty and sorrow, not unlike how it was, still. But now it was safer, freer, deeper for me in countless ways. And my son was cooking breakfast, hugging his two, quietly talking with me as I poured coffee into our mugs. I watched him and was startled, as I still always am, to glimpse his father.
Before long Marc followed his nose to join us. I held my tongue. He seemed more achy and groggy than I. He and Joshua talked wood, stones, fire building. Content to listen, I heard Avery and Asher chattering as if freed of a spell of enforced stillness. The dogs, a mess of mud and plant matter, caroused with them.
Sitting around a small sputtering morning fire, sipping hot percolated brew, hearing birds’ wings slice through a sprinkling of rain and our muted talk, I was nearly as pleased as when camping years ago. Just more sleepy and quite a bit older. But I felt perhaps even more alive than decades ago. Oh, I was flush with boundless energy and vivid talk and brave dreams then. But now…now I was more rounded at my sharp edges, more permeable, flexible. Able to welcome insights other than my own fragments. I was humbled. Enriched. In fact, I had stayed alive when more than once I thought I might not make it so long. And that was something.
Only the enormous, aged trees about us might grasp this and they seemed to lean toward me, branches graceful and strong, their lives enduring an opening of every new day and its progression in this communal place, then into nights. Events of import that seeped into them, slipped about them. I nodded at the forest and heavy sky that promised more rain. A gratitude that filled my throat with tears a second. But, too, I wondered if I could do it again or if aging had begun to conspire against me. If I had what it took to be fearless and sturdy enough of body and soul to make a camp out there. If we would take another chance, just go out on our own s before.
We tore down our lively camp, hiked as light rain came and went. By the time we separated and said farewell, sunbeams were vanquishing soft fogginess and how it shone on us. My heart swelled with wonders even as my body griped a little.
I put the tent back in the closet, tuck it into its corner. Can we even think about camping again at 66 and 68? Maybe, maybe not. But I want to see it there when items need reordering or when I just want to pull it out and look it over. Or when we finally move from here. I want to know it has been done and done well enough. How it has nourished us all, made us let go and attend to the immediacy of life, venture just a little more into the wilder variations of what matters: love becoming even more visible within the realm of natural manifestations.
Still, I find myself dreaming of staking my claim to a spot amid the sentinel trees. And a sturdy blue tent–one for Marc, one for me.
I awakened a recent morning and stretched well, squinted at the window to ascertain what the sky was up to, then lay still again, as has been usual. Just coming back into this world. Through half slits of myopic eyes I scanned the soft blur of an inviting, comfortably large space around me. A thick warm dullness weighted me inside and out, and words arrived: stuck in a blue room.
I closed my eyes, drifted, wished for gold, wished for amethyst or vermilion or sage or flamingo pink.
The walls of my bedroom are painted a tender sky-in-lake blue. The quilt is Wedgwood blue. The bedroom light appears a sheer silvered blue early mornings, a soft navy at night. My mind, too, generally seems blue as I lay in bed. This usually reflects a peaceful ease, but it can also emphasize variable sadness or restless worry. Also, this blueness is a celestial dreaming that carries me, or a threshold to cross that reveals a poem or story that arrive unbidden. Then I must write and the blueness morphs into a span of colors–I use the word loosely here, color can be more than actual color– that rise and fade under my pencil.
Stuck in a blue room…
Blue is the way I live when at repose–not engaged in living with greater amounts of physical energy and movement. Those activities are differently colored. Though it may seem odd to others, this is what it is for me. Color means life. There is no such thing as colorlessness to me. White, after all, is all colors that show themselves on earth. Each reflects more, is a vibration of energy, physics made mystical. They can telegraph to me an active emotion, a deeper expectation or a simple state of mind. I accept these with delight –until it bears down, makes me think hard. Color, then, signals clues to life as I know it.
So that morning it meant something other and more. If blueness is a state of being I walk into when I open the bedroom door, it is familiar and I accept it’s character. It is the color always chosen for my bedrooms. But there are times it can feel oppressive, close around the edges. It can be such density of blue, creating a wide boundary beyond which I feel less able to experience fullness of life. If I was a long and languid sleeper, this would seem reasonable, I’d gladly succumb, but I am not, by nature. I am used to jumping up and getting going. I prefer to not waste much time in that state.
But lately I often find myself captive in this blueness, and the room, for more than a little extra time. Floating amid watery light that fills the space.
I want out of there faster, more easily. I tell myself this as I lie there, let my eyes drink of this rich tone of palette, see early autumn’s cooler light chime its way in.I am not restive but becalmed.
I remind myself: it is grief, nothing more or less. I have been here before. My days and nights have not shown up the same since my brother got so ill and died late spring after a conversation with him shortly before. His gentle kiss stayed on my cheek a long time; I still can recall it. Then a sister-in-law who had my respect and friendship. Actually, it has been since four family members in total that have passed in three years. Like my world is shrinking. Rooms are emptied even as I sense presences. Just there…weren’t they….then not there at all.
Not that life should be the same as before. We lose parts of ourselves a little each time someone we love dies. They are not here for us to rebound off, to connect with, to herald similarities. Laugh with and be frustrated by. Those certain familiar meals/conversations stop. That part of my identity, of being sister and sister-in-law—only as I could be with them and they with me–has dissipated.
I get it. I don’t much like it. Nor the tears that rise and spill as I smell a familiar fragrance, hear a piece of music, catch sight of their images. Or just see a child reach for an extended mother’s hand: exquisite tenderness of blood with blood. Or read of more sudden deaths in the greater world. Such fragility and rawness of life stun me anew; I want to turn away even as I want to wrap my arms about it, hold all close. It is a magnetic thing, human life. But it also can repel us when we have had enough for awhile. When we need a rest.
I thought today (as I power walked, admired green if drier rustling leaves) that if I still drank, if I still harbored that desire, I might be a little drunk by evening. Instead, I drink tea with my breakfast and an iced tea or coffee in afternoon. But there was a time when I’d dose my morning cup with a dab or two of whiskey. It made the hard, the tedious or loathsome qualities of living less damaging, I imagined. Way back then I couldn’t find the right effective remedy for that stuck state of mind–or perhaps I was too worn out to keep trying. But alcohol was a generous giver and soothed my fighting ego/wounded soul/aggravated heart/sleep-hungry body. My housewife boredom. Overwhelmed motherhood. The woman with displaced dreams. Well, just tamp it down and carry on. Put on a good show–but first, have a small drink.
It was the sweet escape discovered later than many (age 27) and when I did it was: Amazing, it’s notillegal, expensive or lethal and also is sociallyacceptable. Not many years after, I gained a more vicious experience in time. But meanwhile it was handy, it worked pretty well on inner and outer kinks, scars and blockages I’d wrestled with for so long. Or rather, the illusion of aid was convincing. One little sip was good, three big drinks or wine glasses were better or finally why not the entire blasted half pint of liquor…and more, who’s even counting. Somehow I carried on with life for a long time, so thought I fooled everyone. That thinking led me down an escape route from which it took a long time to safely emerge and when i did, I was blinking like a captive creature turned into brittle sunlight.
Alive by the skin of my teeth. That’s what alcohol does to some: strips us down to the core and then abandons us to try to survive in the human wilderness, anyway.
So I don’t drink. Not for decades now. I have far better coping skills. I seek spiritual help, pay attention to what feels (as in instinct) best and actually works. But at times I long for escape. Not with the old avarice for oblivion. Just a kindly breather. Another trail to traverse. A better vision to replace what I have. My story redesigned so that I fit it better–or it, me. I want to be happier again, and I want to be more useful to others. To feel more worthy of each day’s arrival. To slip these bonds of grief, the depression of the sorrowful.
Single out the spark in daily discoveries once more.
Is it so much to hope for? Maybe I was born rather too lucky…I have always felt able to find replenish-able joy despite the miseries that informed and bordered my life too soon. So when taxing times hang about I am still shocked like a foolish innocent who finally realizes the world is as it is. Like I have forgotten that this is part of it, we cannot be safe from it , and no one gets off easy even when it appears otherwise. Every time I ponder how it can be so sorry on this earth. And at times in my own life, which I used to feel was fabulous. Not me, but simply being alive– despite evidence otherwise. I know that heartaches reach and twist innards even as they teach us, and so deepen us at the seams,. Make us stronger and more aware.
I long ago created a life motto: Courage, Strength, Tolerance, Determination (“CSTD”, I said over and over to myself). I was 12 or 13 and decided it had to be that for me or sink. But before each challenge ended I’d experience resistance to being courageous, would rather claim my basic life joy in all its permutations. I think it’s human nature to shrink from and even fight off tribulations even as we rise to meet them head on.
So I still have to root about for it, dig deep and seek far until I can locate it– that shining thing, whatever emanates possibilities–then bring it close, spread it about for a look. I have to get out of bed, that room of waiting/dreaming/perseverating, out of that eternal blueness. The room inside me which offers a small protection. But not enough of what I realistically need otherwise. Right now.
Writing does this for me, as might be obvious. Who–if he or she is a writer or reader– can resist the cure of language that carries one inside other characters’ lives and their landscapes, creates a whole new, eventful territory? The horizon shimmers, tantalizes. Such force within the explorer words. Writing for me is the proverbial silver cord that attaches me to God. But also to earth and much that matters to me.
Any creative pursuit can provide remedial action. I am taking a world music choral workshop once a week for two months. I’ve learned a Zulu song (I haven’t mastered words yet) and a Native American-derived song. I like the people, how easily they sing out and share talk afterwards, though I sing with self-conscious reluctance (I am yet rather too blue) and it will take time to feel more chatty. I intend on taking a drawing or painting class this winter. When the hand moves the mind quiets, focuses, awakens to visualization of ideas that are freeing. I need to dance beyond my living room but also need to choose wisely how to expend such energy. One woman I met at choir noted she’d belly danced for 18 years. I try to imagine it… but am likely to do interpretive dance or Latin styles or perhaps Zumba again. To each our own.
I walk. Every day whether tired out or in poor weather. For my heart to stay better and become stronger. To get out of the blue rooms of mind. To reconnect with nature’s potency. I hike in forests and on mountain trails, with or without my husband. Every walk cures something, a surly mood or a medium headache. Realigns my soul. Last Sunday Marc and I spent a couple of hours in Portland’s fine Japanese garden, enchanted at every step as I took photographs and breathed in the forested air. So much better than the blueness alone.
Reading is a favorite way to get me out of a confining head space, such an easy escape. I read several articles and pages of books every day. Recently my landlord had to check a window in my bedroom and I was a bit embarrassed by the two walls covered in full to overflowing bookshelves as well as neat stacks of books near bedside. Also, my dining room table tends to look as if designated for massive paper and print, but it feels like home to see it. I flip a page, am entertained but also instructed, moved, irritated, thrilled, shocked, healed. Given sustenance.
Movies and television serve a prime purpose of escape–last night it was the last of an Agatha Christie mini-series and a baking show. Tonight it may be a house renovation show or a wildlife documentary. Even a reality show, lowest of the low culturally, yet it can grab my attention a bit. I recently attended the fine film “The Wife” with one of my best friends, after which we went out for a great Italian meal. She prefers to escape into movies. I am happy to go along with her. Inhabiting another story, marveling at the artistry of film–a pleasure that broadens horizons.
This week-end we are attending the concert of glorious classical songstress Renee Fleming. Next week-end I am attending a musical based on Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” with another dear gal friend. Escape with intention of gaining intellectual nourishment.
I am fortunate to have these options, I know. It is a good thing I have them. I drank before, yes, and at a younger age also seriously abused drugs. But I have never escaped into gambling and my shopping is not much or pricey. I am far past the sexual hunt mode. No food addictions beyond intense desire for chocolate that visits me suddenly (I will pay well for superior quality). I am not a “techie” who buys lots of gadgets or even a fancy computer. Collecting items other than books or maybe t-shirts (so comfy) is not on my agenda. My love of music is upheld by fairly cheap transmitters such as radio and CD player plus a few concerts each year. Well, I do have a Sirius XM subscription for my car.
I could become a board game addict–a real draw for years, and I still love a competitive Scrabble game. I am as already noted quite enamored of frequent physical movement–hikes and walks, dance, exercise with out without weights, just wiggling about. I could see that taking up ore time. Exciting, aye? My escapes are manageable these days, and that works for me.
Travel has become more attractive though I tend to be reluctant initially. Last night Marc said he is longing for travel soon. Which is interesting as he travels too much for work. But now it needs to be for fun once more. So it seems we are escaping somewhere for a week or so. There is my being lately stuck and so slow to want to leave. Yet as he noted, travel can re-set or refresh the self, the body. It might be a way in which we both benefit after the year’s memorials, tears–and a fresh batch of questions about our family’s future. (We have several children, grandchildren and extended family and there is always another concern now or later no matter what family.)
All escapes noted are fleeting, of course. They are still effective coping mechanisms. Far better than nothing. And without a doubt more effective than the drink (or other distraction that is problematic) that leads to greater losses. Healthier entertainment escape routes bring forward the relief desired. Or they are the beginning of small movements inside us, leading to inspiration, a glimpse of new viewpoints, an expansive moment shared.
Other people can steer me away from myself. Thank goodness and it is mostly good. I appreciate others’ ideas and experiences. People are a wealth of fascinating things, of wonders more often than not. And if I can be of assistance, so much the better.
When there are significant concerns about people it can get sticky. That’s a reason for tossing about in bed at night, counting the long list of “why life needs to be kinder” and naming names of those whom God must watch over even more, if God may please use my advice. In the morning I may awaken with residual memory of adrenaline spikes or tears, images of loss wallpapering my mind. Words of discouragement can erupt and tackle me like an adversary. I need them to stand down if I am to have a decent chance at making it a good day. I try to open to clues, to wisdom that floats from Divine Spirit to me. To us all. Because I know we are not left alone, even in blinding dark, echoing valleys.
So I get up at last, absorb the blissful blue of the walls, then watch how daylight shifts and illumines books and quilt and drifts over my bare legs, hear birds trill in an old tree and balcony chimes sway and speak into breezes. My heart ratchets up a few beats per minute as I exit through the first door into the new day, released from my haven, that small box of day and night, homey bluest of rooms. As my mind sharpens there are prayers for well-being and guidance, and the power to inhabit life as well as can be done this coming 24 hours –mine and others’.
I set out to discover what is good and true, whether in sadness or joy. It’s required, isn’t it, to go on, to hold onto another new morning. To be readied for what comes this way. To yet hope when all hope seems so small.
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 BettyCrocker 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.
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.
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.
(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.)