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where wisdom gathers, poetry unfolds and divine light is sparked…

Month: October, 2007

not at my house

if i cranked up the wagon and cut–illegally, mind you, there’s a sign scolding you not to–through the alley, bumped just two blocks toward where the sun sets, i would screech on the brakes–everyone does–at a shrine to the season, the one glowing above, the one that chews kilowatts as if they were candy, all through the most hallowed night.
glows for weeks and weeks in advance, really. the lady who lives there must use up her whole carbon footprint in the instant she plugs in her nine million cords. she’s got every light in the world, and an army of billowing creatures, each powered by fans down below. at least i think so. i hear the sound of something that’s whirring, and i don’t think it’s her, sprawled on the ground, blowing with all of her might.
i imagine the beds at that house are all tucked with sheets that are scary. and not just from the holes that no one is mending. i’d not be surprised if the papier de toilette unrolls with the faces of goblins.
expect no such hysterics here.
not at my house.
we did manage to carve the requisite pumpkin. and my children will not go naked to school (or that wasn’t the plan, anyway). at least one will go off in something approximating a costume.
but if everyone in the world gets just one holiday pass, one time where they can be a scrooge or a grinch or a plain old bump on the log if they please, well, then, i’m in the line awaiting my little orange ticket.
i am, contrary to the river of halloween madness swirling out there, decidedly au contraire. i am the halloween minimalist.
give me a pumpkin and a deadline. tell me i must get it carved. or my children will never forgive me. all right, all right, then, pass me the knife. but make sure it’s a dull-bladed one, so i can curse as i try to impale the sacrificed flesh of the seasonal vegetable victim.
guaranteed, you’ll not find one of those whizbang carver’s deluxe ensembles at my house, the ones i’m certain they sell. with intricate blades to do intricate tricks on the face of the poor bulbous gourd.
at my house it’s strictly euclidean geometry. triangle eyes, triangle mouth. this year, because the little one insisted, because he saw something like it on the neighbors’ front porch, we did add a triangle carved in the cheek. he called it a scar. i played along.
it seems to get worse every year. not that i’m getting worse. really, i’m not. i’m standing still, nonchalantly ignoring the madness.
it’s just that the madness gets madder, gets earlier, gets brighter. and with each string of lights strung on somebody’s porch, or each ghoulish scene staged in someone’s front yard, i sink deeper into my season of seasonal ennui.
a french diagnosis, i tell you, makes even the dreariest syndrome sound just a wee bit exotic. hmm, ennui, mais oui, i feel better already.
i think, doctor ghoul, it goes back to my youth, that place where so many troubles seem to be hatched.
there was annual angst, once i outgrew the suffocating, hard-to-see-through, red-riding-hood mask someone kindly bought at a store, of what in the world i would be. (such are the existential quandaries of adolescence, even if it’s a matter contained solely to the subject of costumes.)
you see, this whole dressing-up thing plays to my deficit. i am, day after day, not so smart in the fashion department. holidays make it no better. certainly not the one that’s upon us, the one that demands sartorial know-how.
except for the year i paraded as a picnic table, complete with red-checked cloth and a marching battalion of ants, i seemed to replay the same humdrum tune year after year. my needle was stuck on bum upon bum upon bum.
take old ratty clothes, add charcoal briquet rubbed on the cheeks. bingo, you had it. license to go bag some chocolate.
and therein lies issue no. 2. i am not, never have been, much of a chocolatey girl. i know, it’s a birth defect. i did manage to make up for it, for a spell there, with bag after bag of what might have sufficed for a food group in college, that ol’ candy corn, three-stripe trifecta of fructose and sugar and syrup of corn.
but without incentive, i ask you, what is the point? why go to such trouble?
as predicted, there i was on the eve of the eve, just last night, begging my mama with needle and thread to please hem the pants of the halloween beggar–i mean child–who switched, at the very last minute, of course, from star wars to football for the costume brigade.
and, oh, do not tell me, here he is at my side, half naked, the player of football. egad, could it be, yes it could, the essential jersey is still rather, um, moist down in the sudsing machine, not yet in the dryer. did i mention it’s quarter past eight and we leave for the school in less time than it takes to spell b-u-s-t-e-d, as in “i am so…”?
that’s not the least of it. after sprinting to the on-demand costume parade, i’ll be scrounging the shelves of the grocery, in search of the elusive and oxymoronic halloween snack that is healthy, a teacher request that i’ll heed out of sympathy, deep and undying.
and then, mr. weather man, he who reads clouds and rains on parades with astonishing regularity, he tells me there’s cold and there’s drizzle in my immediate bone-chilling future. oh, how splendid.
anyone mind if i sit this one out, or at best shuffle slowly behind the one, hopefully fully clothed by the bewitching hour, who is dashing to doorbells, filling his sack with foodstuffs sure to give him the jitters, keep him awake till the saints roll in on the morrow?
oh sinners and saints, i implore you. please give me a nice quiet night with only the glow of a pumpkin. i’ll take a moon, if you will. and maybe an owl. or a wolf off in the distance. that there would be to my liking.
but it’s a notion that seems to be lost in a forest of over-lit trees.

any other hallow’s eve grinches, or less-than-eager participants? step right up, let it rip. or, if, on the other hand, you are gaga for all that is ghoulish, if you live for this day of disguise, if you can’t keep your mitts out of the candy bag, by all means, defend it. speak up for yourself and your holiday. all’s fair here at the table. but don’t expect cute pumpkin cookies, or cupcakes bulging with eyeballs. we’re taking our holiday straight up here. coffee’s black today. (pssst, if you look in the sugar bowl, you might find some corn. candy corn that would be. but of course.)

company for lunch

it certainly wasn’t fancy, and it certainly wasn’t planned. it just so happened that somewhere ’round the middle of the day, the two of us happened to be home, and we happened to be hungry.
he sat with his mac-n-cheese. i sat with my cottage cheese on toast. and on an ordinary monday, with no one else around, we sat and finished thoughts.
for two whose lives, from dawn till dinner time, are normally so distant, so very far apart, this was nothing short of revolutionary. nothing short of sweet.
and for one–that’s me–who spends long spans seeing not another soul, save for the mailman, the meter reader, and maybe someone come to patch the house, the blessed communion of breaking bread with the father of my children was wholly nourishing.
truth is, most days, i relish the long hours of time alone. it is a blessing earned, i tell you. no chasing toddler. no big bird and friends squawking in the background.
it is so quiet here i can hear the clock tick. i can, from 9 to 3, put something down and find it hours later. i think that i’m still letting out a sigh from finally being alone. all the years and years and years of not a minute to myself.
not so long ago, it seems, i was stingy with my hours. if i sniffed a fraction of a quarter hour in which the house was mine, i all but barred the doors.
but now i’m not so stingy. i needn’t cling to seconds unattended. the tide of life has flowed my way, released me from the sound of footsteps always at my side.
and so i found the softness of the typing in the other room a perfect pairing to my own. heard the whistling of the teapot and welcomed its shrill drowning of the tick and tock.
if a year unfolds in seasons, so too does marriage. there’s been a changing of the colors in our leaves, it almost seems. i’d call it golden tinged with crimson.
we’ve borne enough, been around so many bends, we know each other from nearly every angle. and through and through and through. and still i find the man i married the truest soul i might have ever known. i would not be whole without the women of my life, some of whom are the sisters of my deepest heart, the very breath of life itself. but there is a man, one man, who sees and speaks so clearly, he is my beacon in the fog. and, besides, he makes me laugh.
by blessed accident of nature, or by flat-out divine design, we’ve got a little one just cobbling three-word paragraphs, while the children of our friends are penning college essays. but in just another year, we’ve got one who will be learning how to drive. so it’s not so out of sight to realize these here are the years to seize.
as we scrambled in the kitchen, he to grab his macaroni from the little box that zaps it, me to peel an orange and rinse some berries, it dawned on me that this interlude, this time alone, this time of sharing a holy hour, was a marker along a trail.
take time, i heard a whisper urge. don’t let it slip away.
oh, if every day and not so long between, we could find a way to push back all the expectations that pull us far apart. and hold, as if some golden syrup, the sacred moments that, one upon another, drip, drip,drip to fill the vessel of our life. we’ve not a clue how vast this cup. and all i know is company for lunch, simple as it was, left a sweetness in my soul and a hunger i should sate.
take time, i heard a whisper urge. don’t let it slip away.

it needn’t be a mate who comes for lunch. it might be a stranger even. the point is pausing, rearranging the day to allow for someone’s thoughts and heart to flow across your table. even a monday, it seems, can be the start of something far beyond the mad dash toward the weekend. interrupt your regularly scheduled programming. turn up the teakettle. invite someone you dearly deeply love. or someone altogether unknown. a tuesday, too, might be a fine day to do the same. have you had, of late, the unexpected company of someone who made an ordinary lunch into a feast you won’t forget?

the straggler

it doesn’t know, apparently, what the little box on the calendar says, what it insists. doesn’t know the frost is due any day now. it sticks its bold blue neck out. damn the proscriptions, it shouts. in its wee little glory of morning soprano.
it’ll bloom when it darn well pleases. and apparently it pleases now.
pleases me, too.
startled me, caught my eye, made me stop, turn, go back and kneel there. i knelt at the feet of that blue burst of i’ll-do-it-my-way. a something worth kneeling for, if ever there was one.
i’d been loping, as i often do, from one spot in the alley, down to another. taking a shortcut. scooting along.
the alley, as all alleys are, especially at end of october, was mostly all gray, with long stretches of shriveled-up leftover green. or brown. the mint gone to rangy. wild asters seeded, collapsed in exhaustion. the golden rod splayed, as if it too merely gave up the ghost, laid down and gasped its last breath, there on the cracks of the asphalt.
garbage cans, even, were tossed willy-nilly. it’s been windy of late, and the cans leap into the melee, join the percussive parade, rolling and banging, scattering this way and that.
and then, that one recalcitrant bloom. as blue and as bright as a midsummer’s fine afternoon. one where the sky and the lake seem not to know there’s a difference. the blue just bleeds from below to above. not a cloud mars the tableau. it’s blue, as far and as deep as can be.
that ol’ morning glory minds its own clock. it bloomed when it was darn well ready. and not a minute before.
all the rest of the morning glories are long shriveled, and dropped from the vine. they’d had their moments of glory, way back in august, maybe early september. but not this one. she waited till nearly november. and she paid no mind to the morning that is, after all, her first name. heck, that sun was near as high as it gets at the end of october, it was just after 2, maybe 3, on a day that demanded a sweater.
but there she was. in all her glorious glory. how could i not turn on my heels, do a 180, slow down and take in all that she offered?
she offered much, that five-petaled promise of heart-skipping joy amid autumn’s not-so-showy attempt to pack up the goods, put it away for the winter. there is little poetic, i tell you, in shriveled-up weeds.
but there is a whole sonnet, maybe two, in the lone blue bloom, the straggler who reached out to me.
sometimes–almost always, truth be told–i am convinced that these out-of-the-blue whispers and sightings and knocks on the head are love notes from way beyond clouds. i call them Divine, with that rare capital D.
the way my curly head pictures it all, it’s God who’s loping the alley in front of me, looking here and there for places to drop just a sweet little morsel, a reminder, that grace and beauty are right there around the corner, if only we allow them, the cousins divine, to seep into our peripheral vision.
that’s what i felt the afternoon that glory of morning just leapt out and grabbed me. it was a whisper, or maybe a shout, a sign from above or beyond or within–wherever you place the great gentle goodness that i happen to call by the simple name God–pulling me wholly out of my lope down the alley, telling me simply, there is good.
i needed to hear it. we all do. there is, far as i know, not a one of us, anywhere, who needn’t regular infusions, reminders, that we are not alone out here, adrift, dangling from strings without anyone minding the cords.
it’s almost a game that i play. looking for God in unlikely places. there on the bloom on a vine. or there in the branch in the tree where the cardinal is calling.
i’ve spent whole spans of my life connecting those dots. there’ve been rich spells and dry spells. spells where i knew not a thing. but then, on a whisper of wind, a moonbeam, a shaft of bright sunlight, i’d feel that tap on my shoulder.
i’d turn and behold what could only be something bigger than me, but delivered in quietest, softest of telegram.
i learned of this naturally, growing up as i did at the hand of a mama who, as i’ve mentioned before and again, keeps one eye on the limbs of the trees, the other scanning for God. she connects dots, every time. in a hawk that circles her head. in a bluebird she finds in the woods. in a tissue-thin lily that pokes from the ground in a place where she didn’t plant it.
so do i.
i am, after all of these years, a disciple in her brand of religion; a beautiful thing, the finding of God in the leaves underfoot, the wings overhead.
and that’s why the bloom in the alley, that’s why it took all my breath. it reminded me that out of the blue, when you’ve felt all alone for day upon unending day, when all has been gray, has been dimmed by the shadows, there is the brush stroke of God, handing you, if you stop and you listen and look, the undeniable knowing that you are, not for a minute, left to dangle on strings.
there is, very much, someone to keep you from falling, from getting too tangled. i think that someone is God.
and the morning glory reminded me.

do you look for or find God in blooms in the alley, bird calls at the dawn? what might you have stumbled upon lately? do you have a someone who taught you their brand of religion, a way of taking the big sweeping picture and stitching it into your every day?
be sure to check
the lazy susan. it spins anew for this, the season of pumpkin. there is a roasted stuffed pumpkin, a jolly fine orb to bring to the table, you might want to give it a try. i know, at my house, it’s not autumn without it.

cooking up a storm

i’ve been clangin’ up a ruckus all week around here. pots hauled from the shadows. pans doin’ doubletime. little gizmos and doodads–squeezers and peelers and plug-ins that do all the work–let loose, some of them, for the very first time.
if it was steamable, roastable, sauteable, i had my hand ‘round its neck. i was plunking sprouts into boiling water. turning legs of poor little lambs into fuel for the masses. i went so far as to drown a chicken in half a bottle of wine.
i was, believe you me, cooking to soothe, to forget, to pretend that the world is the one that i lay on the table.
the urge, really, was unstoppable.
i’ve not been such a cooking tornado maybe ever. did not do that thing with the baking while timing contractions, those stories you read in the expectancy books or laugh through on reruns of ol’ i love lucy. nope. not me. i was too green at the gills, too rumbly of tummy, to ever care much about flour or sugar or whipping or beating there on the brink of delivery.
but this was different. this was me locking the door, wrapping the blanket, standing up to a world that ruffled my feathers. this was me claiming one piece of the planet where all could be as i cooked.
dinner would roll onto the table in courses. why there’d be main dishes, grownup ones, the kinds that often escape me–roast beast, that fine drunkard chicken–and side dishes, too.
i had my best cookbooks off the shelf. and usually that means the ones where the scribbles are all down the page, or tucked onto scraps with the barest of thoughts.
i pulled out the stops. if i could think of a something my children loved, i made it. pears sliced and simmered with cranberries, check. cherry pie. ala mode. you betcha.
i even invented a few things that now will be made on demand. eggplant roasted with baby tomatoes. drizzled with olive-pressed oil, showered with salt of the sea. the last of the rosemary from one of my pots. a pot now on hiatus till spring.
it is autumn, the season for taking out screens, letting the sun pour in unfiltered. the season for slipping on leggings, sneezing through dust that settled all summer on all of your sweaters.
it is autumn, the season for stews and simmering fruits.
but that wasn’t the thing that drove me this week. it wasn’t just autumn. it was aftershock.
it was, and it is, the lovingest thing i could think of to do. for myself and my children and the tall one who stood right beside me.
i would if i could spread my table as far and as wide as the world. i would set a place for every last soul on the planet. even the lost ones.
but that’s just my imagination running amok. and my heart. i keep learning, the hard way, this is not that fine world. i cling like a fool to the notion that redemption is right around the next bend. that we could stitch back together even the most broken heart.
but then there’s the other voice in my head. the one that says, give it up. you do what you can, and then you let go.
well, maybe then, that’s why i’m a mother. because here in my kitchen, at the table i set, i can make mistake after mistake. i can burn the broccoli, raise my voice, undercook the lamb, slam off the tv, but still i can lay out a meal.
i can fill tummies, and repour into the vessel known as the heart. i can crowd the table with foods that whisper, somebody loves you. i can kindle the candles, watch the plates and the faces glow in the dance of the flame, flickering.
i can cloak the ones i most love with the one inexhaustible foodstuff: i can spoon-feed them comfort and love, a cook’s prerogative.
i can close off my eyes to the world just beyond the edge of the table. at least for the minutes it takes to hold hands, drop heads, whisper grace, lift forks, clean plates, and then linger. over pie ala mode.
it’s the ruckus i made in my kitchen this week. and it was, a most beautiful riotous sound.

do you find you too cook for comfort? the distinction i didn’t even get into is the cooking, not eating, for comfort. long long ago, i ate for comfort. overate. ate to go into trance, really. is it a sign of evolution, progression, that now i partake of the communal? i cook to comfort. rather than simply consume. if that’s not a notion you care to nibble on, and since the subject of food always seems to rouse comments galore, feel free to stick to the no-muss-no-fuss, what might be your most essential comforting recipes?

the impulse to curl

i am home now. home and wanting only to curl. to curl into a chair, under a blanket. let the dappled light bathe me, perhaps, sprinkle me.
as if seeds, maybe, of sunlight. as if seeds of something that might lick the wounds, soften the places that hurt, sprout something that heals.
i’ve been before to places that hurt. i’ve been opened and cut. i’ve come home without what i wanted–a father, a baby, whole parts of me, really–when i walked out the door.
but i’ve not before been to a place like a courthouse. not where, when you say, “i’m the victim,” a vernacular they insist that you use, to identify why you are standing there at their window, they ask, “domestic violence?” to which you shudder, and think, no, no, thank God, no. that’s not why i’m here.
i am here because i don’t want to be here. i am here because there i was minding my business. not even my business really. someone else’s. i was cooking for people i’ve come to think of as friends. friends i want to do right for.
and that’s when, out of the blue, the man came and took what wasn’t his. what was mine. and now, here i am in this courthouse.
it is a beautiful morning. a golden one. with light not seen in the courtroom marked 106. not in the room where the machine churned. one after the other, justice on hold. continued. rescheduled. delayed. no lawyer. no defendant. no witness. always, it seemed, someone or something was missing. the machine could not move. instead it started and stopped, in fits and starts. in sputters and coughs.
they bark out your name. mispronounce it. make you feel like you are the one who’s done something wrong. something unseemly. like really you must be a lowlife to be here at all.
“domestic violence?”
no no, i said, no not that at all.
what, i’m a well-dressed white woman, that’s the obvious choice?
how very sad.
i can’t say, really, because maybe i shouldn’t, what happened. but they did finally call me by name. and someone else too. someone outfitted in khaki pajamas. or so it seemed. a face i just barely glimpsed. a face i don’t want to remember.
they asked me in bits and pieces to tell my whole story. or at least the part of the story that mattered to matters at hand.
i was told to stick to the bones.
but i did manage, because i went with my heart, to say, “bless him,” referring to the man in the khaki pajamas. did manage to say it out loud to the judge and the lawyers and most of all to the man himself, in telling them all how, after much hemming and hawing, he went, bless him, and retraced his steps to my backpack, where he had dropped it, off in some bushes. i’ll not forget that he did what he needn’t have done.
and i got to say what i needn’t have said.
but i did very much want to infuse or inject just a word from a whole other plane. a plane i believe in. a plane i desperately wish i could bring to that man. that man who, i think, already knows it, at least some of the time.
all my life i have searched for and found the divine in each soul i encountered. it’s no different here. only i don’t think it looks that way. i think it looks like i am a white woman seeking revenge. like i am trying to send away the lost soul who did a dumb thing. a stupid thing. a wrong thing.
if nothing else, it’s those two words–“bless him”–that i hold onto. that’s where i distinguish myself from the system. where i lift higher than the bar they set rather low.
it is a system that strips men of their clothes, and all of us of our dignity, whatever scrap of it we manage to bring in, in through the metal detector and the river of life that is messy and mostly in trouble.
so i’m home now. back in my house where the light comes in sprinkles that spill on the oak on the floor, and the cushions on chairs.
i am next to my chair with the checks and the blanket. i think i’ll climb in in a minute. pull the wool tight around. let the tears spill. i feel a need for a cleansing. the cleansing of tears. and the lifting of prayer. i have no other way for the man in the khaki pajamas to know i wish him no harm. quite the opposite.
bless him, i said, and i meant it.
bless him, dear God, for he knows not what he’s doing. those are words, once spoken from up on a cross, now recited, now prayed, year after year.
they take on new meaning, on a day in a week when your actions and those of a man in khaki pajamas mix in a terrible stew. and he is in jail and you are wrapped in a blanket by a window where the light comes in golden-strewn seeds.

all i ask is you whisper a prayer. for him, or the whole sorry system. it might be the best that there is, but, whoever you are, it’s hard to walk in and come out feeling whole.

pause. bow head. strike sullenly pose.

“did you see the obituaries?” my mother asked, first thing in the day. she was insistent. she was bothered. “peg died.”
peg bracken, she meant. peg, who might as well have been our next-door neighbor growing up. the one who passed virginia slims over the picket fence. poured a cocktail soon as the kiddies polished off the afterschool snack. i’m thinking her only use for her apron was to wipe her muddy shoes.
despite–or because of–the anarchy, my mother consulted her. followed her. stood off in the corner of the kitchen with her, often, snickering in a most unusual way.
she was apparently, my mother’s alter ego. she was, maybe, the trouble maker my mother wasn’t. she was, in 1960, when her book came out, her cookbook, her anti-cookbook, really, “the i hate to cook book,” a breath of something new in the simmering winds over by the range (for what had been the stove became the range somewhere there in the latter half of the last century).
her most famous recipe, perhaps, the one that’s been unfurled for all the obits, is the one for “skid road stroganoff.”
it goes like this:
“start cooking those noodles, first dropping a bouillon cube into the water. brown the garlic, onion and crumbled beef in the oil. add the flour, salt, paprika and mushrooms, stir, and let it cook five minutes while you light a cigarette and stare sullenly at the sink.”
you must love a woman who whisks “sullenly” into a recipe for stroganoff. even if the thought of stroganoff has you grabbing for the counter while you tamper down the urge to gag.
growing up in my house, that blue book with the funny drawings–the ones done, by the way, by the fellow who drew the daylights out of eloise at the plaza–stood mostly for one dish: a dish once named chicken rice roger. but in our house, now, it is mostly known as chicken rice grammy, for it is the perfect embodiment of all things cozy in a covered dish.
it a.) comes bubbling out of the oven, it’s b.) made with stuff dumped from a can, and c.) it is the surest cure for a bad day that i can think of.
of course, i’ve gussied it up over the years. but still i follow its cardinal rule. i mostly mess around with things that can be found in tin cans. i add artichoke hearts, which might be fresh or might be frozen, but from a can are just as good. i dump in broth, which again is happy from a can, is practically unheard of in my house in any made-from-scratch rendition.
it seems only fitting that we all bow our heads today. for i am guessing peg made her way, in one form or another, into the kitchens of our youth.
perhaps your mama made stayabed stew, sole survivor, or spinach surprise. certainly while james beard was informing half the country to saute, a fancy french verb that stood up the more american “to fry,” ms. bracken, a working mother who used her maiden name, mon Dieu, was subverting the other half.
fact is, she and betty friedan arose together. it’s just that bracken was a little quieter in her subversion. she was infiltrating suburban kitchens while friedan ransacked the bedrooms and beyond.
as the child of the i-hate-to-cook-book era i, of course, revolted. i grew up in a house where hamburger helper was tested for the folks at general mills. if it came, ready-mix, in a box, we were guinea pigs.
is it any wonder, then, that i stopped eating when i was 18? i decided frances moore lappe, she of small planet diet fame, she who wanted all the world to be fed fairly and without animal sacrifice, was more my speed. i worshipped at her altar, complemented protein all through college.
i am old enough, and far away enough, that now i see the humor in that food chain. my mother snickering in her corner, taking shortcuts willy nilly; me in mine, measuring grains, steaming broccoli.
i am old enough, now wise enough, i hope, that i can see the beauty too of a voice that whispered to my mother. told her to dump the long hours at the stove. get out, perhaps, play tennis.
for my mother who grew up with french nuns and a mother who made her wear white gloves, peg bracken was the safest radical she could invite into her kitchen.
if i drank something more than the wimpy white wine i sip each night, i might pour and lift a dry martini.
to peg, who made my mother giggle. to peg, who had her dumping cans all around the kitchen.
in case you’d like a taste o’ peg, here’s what we call chicken rice grammy
3/4 cup uncooked rice
1 cup mushrooms
grated onion
1 3/4 cup chicken broth
chicken pieces

brown chicken. dump on top of rice, mushroom, onion, broth. bake, covered, at 350 degrees for 1 hour.

(note the lack of specificity up above, no one advising organic broth, basmati rice. just get the job done, seems to be the underlying message. and get it done, it surely did. a more delicious comfort dish, i’m hard-pressed to find.)

did you grow up with peg? was your mama snickering in the corner, staring sullenly into the sink? i thought it might be fitting to strike up a write-like-peg contest. feel free to pen your own bracken-esque recipe below. (use words like sullen with abandon, please)….and i would like to cordially invite my very own mama to say, in her words, why she so loved peg bracken….
p.s. i might be late tomorrow, as i must be in court at 9. and i think, even with chicken rice grammy under my belt, my tummy might be churning. so perhaps i’ll play court reporter and fill you in after all the courtroom drama. egad.

sticking close

when you are six, cops and robbers belong in books, on TV screens, maybe in your imagination, the games you play on rainy days.
you should not have to close your eyes and see real scenes of cops with guns, and a man you’ve given ice cream to, now clasped with cuffs, being loaded in a jail on wheels.
but the little one, the one who gasped for breath between his sobs, he saw it all. and he needs to know that sometimes people with tender smiles make mistakes. even people who you’ve been buying papers from since you were one or two.
turns out the fellow i chased through streets, the one whose face i couldn’t see the whole time we were running, turns out he is the very one who sits outside our grocery store. a hundred times, at least, my little one has asked me for a dollar bill, rolled it up, handed it, with a smile, to a docile fellow who smiles back. we kid around. i always tell him–and now he knows–that i hardly have a dollar. i live on one single credit card. now, now that he’s rummaged through my pack, he knows i wasn’t kidding. poor guy got the single dollar bill and the little bag of dimes and quarters, and a lot of pennies.
i’m not dwelling, not at all, on the fact that he’s the one we called our friend. he’s taken in enough, my little one, without that sorry fact.
but still he’s got ideas, my little law enforcer.
when you are six, and sitting in a squad car, when your driver is a guy with loaded gun, and all the grownups are taking way too long to fix things, you have ideas.
“he has two choices,” my little one said loud enough for all the cops to hear. even the tough-faced plainclothes cop, the one leaning by the car door, he cracked up. wholly melted at the clear-eyed justice of the backseat thinker.
last night in bed, combing through the stories of the day and the night before, he spelled out the harshest punishment: “when you see him next time at soup kitchen you shouldn’t give him any food,” he ruled.
a variation, of course, on that age-old “go straight to bed without your supper,” a line he knows from maurice sendak’s “the wild things.” it’s not a line i’ve ever used. i don’t believe in harsh, which is why of course this is all so hard. my six-year-old, it seems, is clearer here than i am.
“God must be mad,” he said in passing of the back-pack escapade, before moving on to the real worries of the day, the third-grade boys who fill the halls at school, he says, with “swear words.”
the swear word, he tells me, is s-h-u-t-u-p. he didn’t spell it, but rather sounded it out, a letter at a time, the way he’s learning how to read, for fear he too would pay a price if he said the sounds, slurred into the word itself.
while bedtime here is often slow and soft, last night i made sure to take as long as that boy needed.
fact is, i was taking as long as i needed too. he’s not the only one whose world feels upside down. lying next to that little guy, his legs all bumpy in his winter longjohns, made me feel warmer, safer, than i’d felt all day.
i truly sighed when at last we pulled up the covers, and my world was no bigger than the mattress of my grandma’s old old bed. taking care of the little one log-rolled beside me felt like something i could do, at the end of a long day of feeling torn and worried and not so clear-eyed.
fact is, that mattress is a two-way street. he too took care of me. as i lay there soaking up his simple justice. and saw the world where swearing third graders trump a guy who stole a backpack, any day.
that seems to be a world that even i can handle.

gotta run here this morn. up way too late talking to a teen, who then needed a ride to school. and at the crack of the workday i am heading off to meet up with the other newspaper guy in this house. we are aiming for our third-ever double byline–and the first two are the boys mentioned above. we are off to review a brand new women’s hospital. a birthing hospital. and he thought, wisely, i might know a thing or two in that dept. he asked me to come along. to pen my critical thoughts right beside his. so stay tuned….coming soon in your chicago tribune.

safe and sound and torn in two

the bag is home now. is nestled at the top of the stairs, off where no one can see it through a window. it felt safer that way.
so did i.
that bag had quite a chase last night. three blocks through streets, a gravel parking lot, a long alley. for awhile there i was hot on its trail, just a half a block behind. then in the gravel lot beside a bank, it went one way; i, the other.
or maybe i was just too slow. when i came through, onto the sidewalk on a busy street, when i yelled, did anyone see a guy running with a flowered backpack, all i got was hunched shoulders, a collective shrug.
no one saw a thing.
that’s when the cops came screeching to the curb, yelled to me to get in, and we chased some more. darn red-flowered bag. made it kind of hard to hide, eyes everywhere were peeled, looking for the child’s backpack with the big red flowers.
guns drawn, flashlights combing shadowed nooks and crannies, that’s how policemen seem to look for things. they wouldn’t let me out, and all i could think, was, oh, my mom, and T, the little one, they must be scared to death, back at soup kitchen.
that’s where it all had started. back at the big church kitchen where we always cook. every third sunday of the month, there we are. been doing it going on five years. i always stash my bag atop the freezer, not too far, i realize now, from the locked back door.
what happened is i got there early. decided this time to do some cooking from whatever was sitting in the fridge. i was alone for quite a while. my mom came later, and near 6, my 6-year-old. he got hungry around 6:30, still half an hour before we fed the folks. i made him a little plate of things he might actually eat, the corn, the stewed apples, a roll with pbj. my mom was hungry too. she made a little bowl of the stew bubbling on the stove.
since i was ready, since there was nothing left to do, except wait for the big clock to slide to 7, when they’d let the hungry in, i decided to leave my post for just a minute. to be hospitable instead of busy, to sit with the two early diners, my mom and T.
soon as i sat, i heard my mom call into the kitchen, “hello.” someone just walked through, she said. so up i leapt to see if i could help.
not a soul was there. and then i saw, neither was my bag. i went straight for the door, saw someone running with what i thought looked like my bag. hard to miss those big red flowers. i ran and yelled. hey drop that, you’ve got my bag.
when i rounded the corner, i saw some folks, did you just see a guy with a bag? uh huh they said, and pointed toward the street that ran along the tracks.
i ran too. running, yelling. one guy in a white mercedes wagon even made a U turn to chase him in the gravel lot. someone along the way must have called police. someone saw him close enough to say, later on, that’s him.
all i knew was i was chasing navy pants, and a navy-grayish top. and a flowered bag that wasn’t his.
what happened next is we thought we’d lost him cold. they finally drove me back to the soup kitchen where it started, where my little one was sobbing, and my mama rather shaking.
then the cops came back, said we picked up someone who matches the description, you need to come for ID. so in we slid, into the back seat, me, my mom and T. he was shaking to my left, my mom and i squeezed hands on the right. this is not why we spend the week planning menus.
the police pulled up to a leafy corner. there against the fence was a guy in jeans and a navy-grayish shirt. my mom, who’d seen him in the kitchen, said right away, “that’s him.” so did another couple who they brought back, who’d seen him running right along their side.
right away, my heart sank. i thought i knew who it was from the years at soup kitchen. and i thought i knew him too from selling papers (a newspaper written and produced by the homeless) outside my grocery; i’m pretty sure he’s a guy i often talk to.
i said, to the plainclothes cops, just get my bag, and i won’t press charges. i just want my bag. i had realized how very many pieces of my life would be lost; nothing that really mattered, my work ID, a credit card, a driver’s license, that little bag i love.
once the other folk said it was him, 100 percent, they slapped on handcuffs, walked him in the paddy wagon. the plainclothes cop got a call. said it seemed, from inside the wagon, he was talking. next thing we knew, they were walking him, in cuffs, down the block to get my bag, they were fairly certain.
bless his soul, i say, he went and showed them where he dropped it. all the pieces of my life i wouldn’t have to retrace and chase.
but then the cops, oh, eight or nine, came to where i sat in the back seat of the unmarked squad car, they said he had 30 previous arrests, had twice been let off for similar thefts inside churches. they wanted me not to drop any charges. the commander, a big gruff guy, did all the talking.
hey lady, he said, we’ve had half the force out here for the last hour. you let him go, it gives him carte blanche to keep stealing.
i asked, they denied, had they made a promise, that if he gave me back my bag, i’d let him go? i don’t like to double cross. it’s not why i spend the week planning menus.
i was lucky, they told me. no one got hurt. next time, it might not be so lucky. someone might get hurt. the right thing, one or two or three said to no one in particular, was to not let him go again.
i sat there churning. i thought i knew this guy. i thought i like him. and for heaven’s sake, he gave me back my bag.
but in the end, with eight cops looking me in the eyes, i finally nodded. go ahead.
late last night i got a call. it was one of the arresting officers. he said i need to be in court on thursday. said the charge is felony theft, as his record leaves them little choice.
i asked where he was, the guy who took my bag. in jail, at the police department. then he’d be moved to the county jail. a place i wouldn’t wish on anyone.
i climbed into my bed a couple hours later. that comforter felt soft, too soft. i thought of him, the man i am now maybe sending off to prison.
i am feeling sick. and torn.
like i said, it’s not why i spend the week planning menus.

talk about real life ethics. not even the jesuits, got me clear enough for this one. i think of my brother, once carjacked at gunpoint. i remember he wrote letters for years to the guy in prison. i remember the hope for redemption. i have the same thoughts. think in some ways a night in jail beats a night on the street. in other ways though, it beats not a thing. i’m too close this morning, to think much besides the details of how it unfolded, and how i had no intention of going to court when i walked in that kitchen to feed the folks so very hungry. any wisdom out there?

the pot lady and other secrets no one told me

sometimes i think i must be living in a land of secret handshakes and furtive whispers. all around me, i find out, there are phone calls people make and places where they meet.
it is enough to give a girl the willies. and make her want to hide behind the curtains–if only she had them, that is. (i think there might be a curtain fairy; she delivers in the night, yards and yards of flowing silk, drapes it over rods, lets it puddle on the floor. but apparently she never got my address. because my windows, alone in all the land, are buck naked, sans the puddled silk.)
take the requisite front pot. you know the bulbous vat, dumped with mud, the one that tries so very hard to stay abreast of seasons. the one positioned just beside the door that in our case we always use. though sometimes, i am certain, it is just for show, and all the traffic flows in some hidden entrance. the kind for which you punch a secret code. i’m telling you it is the land of secrets.
which brings me back to that ol’ pot. you see above–because this is really simply grownup show and tell–that my pot is probably behind the times. limping in a land of sleek and muscled tri-athletes. poor pot, it really tried.
it’s just that, well, i guess it didn’t meet the code.
my mother, bless her heart, tried to be my pot maid. she pulled her car right off the highway entrance ramp. left it idling, while she trudged into the weeds, clipped some cattails and swishy grasses.
why, we even snipped a blue hydrangea from the bushes out in front, sacrificed its pretty head for the sake of that fine pot. we tucked little pumpkins, just for color. but now they seem to have been gnawed, by buck-toothed rodents hungry for a nibble with their afternoon’s spot of tea.
for nearly five years now, i’ve been motoring around these leafy parts, here on the shore of that great and vaunted lake. i’ve seen through all my travels pots supreme. pots not at all like my front pot, my pot my mother filled with what she borrowed from the swamp.
i’ve seen pots that looked as if they belonged at versailles. and pots that would have fed an army, stuffed as they are with all the food groups, except for maybe steak and cheese.
i’ve seen pots that make me want to pull over to the curb, set up easel, start to squeeze my tubes of oily paint.
i’m telling you these pots redefine rococo.
and every time i see one i think, holy cow, how do they do it? do they have a little corner of the garage, just for all their pot accessories? do they haul home shopping carts, just to fill their pots? and how, i want to scream, do they get those itty-bitty eggplants to keep from falling off the gourds?
those are the thoughts, and the rat-a-tat of questions, that a simple brain might spew.
but nothing here is simple. and this is how i tripped upon the truth:
just the other afternoon, i traipsed down someone’s walk. i had something to drop off. i rang the bell. the man of the house pulled back the door. wow, those pots are really something, i exclaimed, pointing to a pair piled high with kale, and chili peppers, pumpkins and some squash that could have used a visit to the dermatologist, what with all its many warts.
“oh, that’s the pot lady,” he said, not knowing that he’d slipped, divulged a deep dark whisper, the sort that draws a line ’tween us and them.
“she’s like a fairy,” he chirped, confirming my suspicions about that there curtain lady too. “i think she comes in the middle of the night, takes the pots, brings ’em back, looks like art.”
uh huh, i mumbled, backing off the stoop. i wanted out of there before he realized his grave error. he’d let me in on a big fat secret, a secret kept from those of us who for whatever reason haven’t made the grade.
had the lady of the house been home i am 117-percent certain she would have said, “why, thank you,” when i said the pots were something. she’d have kept a lid on full disclosure. she’d have known i didn’t know the password for admission to the pot club.
but now i know. and now i’m not so giddy. i am lurking, skulking, tree to tree. i am thinking there are other secrets i don’t know, here, where pots are perfect.
i remember now how when i mow the lawn, push my little roto-blades, the ones that make the clip-clip sound, a purr, i like to think, how odd it was when the lady down the block came to tap me on the shoulder, ask, as if i were a species near extinct, if i found delight in cutting grass? or did i merely like the taste of sweat?
she’d not seen in years, she said, someone inclined to cut her own. my mother, too, says cars come to a crawl when she is out doing her yard work. she digs in mud, hauls a bush from here to there, because she likes it, frankly. can’t imagine not doing it. where’s the joy, she asks, in pawning off the job?
apparently, we are of the lineage that is losing ground. we are of a mind to do the work our very selves.
but now i see that there’s a downside. your pots look like, well, they’ve been standing in the rain, making lunch for squirrels, and your neighbors down the block appear as if they’re in the running for ol’ martha’s glossy spread.

i do believe this to be a quirk of my corner of the world. or have you spied the handiwork of someone like the pot lady? do you find yourself in the dark, sometimes, not knowing all the secrets? what jobs do you like to do all on your own, when all the world is calling in the experts?

cooking school

oh, we’ve always dabbled. cracked the occasional egg. picked the shells out of the bowl of orbiting yolks before they got in the brownies, down the throat, into a cranny where they might not be welcome.
we’ve supplied little hands with cutters. watched dough turn to abstract-art cookie. we have certainly poured sauce from a jar to a pile of cherry garcia. made concoctions that started with yogurt, but then took a turn, a sharp one, that resembled a goo–a primordial swamp, maybe–that you’d not want to spoon on your innocent tongue, your tongue that did nothing to deserve such a lashing.
but until now we’ve not had reason to put syllabus to the science of measuring, mixing, making what passes for rations.
good thing, though, i travel through life with a phalanx of sensible folk. they keep me in line. tie me down like gulliver and all of those wires. (i remember distinctly the drawing from long long ago, of the very big traveller ensnared with dozens of cables, courtesy of the little people in the land of faraway lilliput.)
i’ve an old old friend from the news biz, you see, and she now makes a living wholly in kitchens. at the moment she cooks at the right hand of that fellow who’s made quite a name taking mexican food to very high art. he has cookbooks galore, and a tv show too. you might know his name; it rhymes sort of with payless.
but long ago, when i went to a newsroom each day, my friend typed just over the wall of the cubicle that backed up to mine. mostly because i happened to sit–a mere accident on the seating chart, i assure you–next to what’s called the test kitchen. so my friend jean marie, decked out in her apron over working girl clothes, cooked a little, typed a little, perfuming the room with eau de onions and garlic.
as a matter of fact, in the first weeks after my wedding, that dear blessed soul supplied me with nightly lessons on how to get food to the table.
now she’s back writing again. a dalliance i suppose. since she’s busy cranking out cookbooks, jetting all over the globe.
and she wrote, not long ago, that it is imperative children learn to feed their sweet selves. or else, she warns, they’ll starve off in college.
she lays out five easy pieces.
read recipe, gather ingredients, make sure teaspoon does not turn into tablespoon is class no. 1.
next, boil water. three, preheat the oven. and learn how to wait till it’s really, truly hot enough to roast a fat hen. four, she insists, is fry a potato. five, scramble eggs.
you’ll never go hungry is her sensible motto, what with those little tricks in your pocket. you can fill up from sun-up to sundown, day after day, if you don’t mind a perpetual run of eggs and pasta and a hunk of some bird.
i’m not so ambitious. i started my boys with toast. how to, the verb. how not to set thin slabs of bread to smoking the kitchen.
i skipped over boiling; visions of saints and sinners dunked in cauldrons of bubbling solutions might have steered me away. (i’m telling you, catholic school fills a head with colorful pictures.)
in our defense, eggs a la hot sauce was long long ago a weekly adventure for boy no. 1. like some sort of astronaut launching toward space, he cleared the deck of our old maple island, lined up his beakers and flasks, and had at it, following religiously every step of dear mollie katzen’s “honest pretzels” (a fine children’s cookbook, one i would recommend) prescription for plain scrambled eggs.
i’ve not seen those eggs, though, since he needed a stool to see over the counter.
hmm. maybe it’s my fault; i have been accused of babying my boys. maybe ouef a la neuf, served on doily-draped trays, as i puff up their pillows in their beds in the morning, is, i admit, just a little too much.
but after reading my friend, i stepped up to the cutting board. we got serious. filled in the blank spots in their schooling. which means i tried to teach boiling.
the stove, there, got in the way. see, we have a model that belongs in a fire house, or maybe a diner. just yesterday, in fact, the lovely people who make it informed me i shouldn’t have it here in my house. i might want to sell it on ebay, they kindly suggested. seems the level of flames on a commercial old stove could singe the hairs off the arms of a child. even a child who’s not yet a saint.
so for now, we are skipping that lesson, taking the fast track straight onto roasting. but then again, that nasty hot oven might singe some more hairs, so maybe we’re back to a refresher in eggs.
the little one, though, has his own kitchen plan. he would like to start and stop in the dessert dept. he thinks pie a la mode is the height of his reach. thinks it will put him through at least community college.
he suggests whipped cream–how to push down the nozzle, squirt a spiraling blob–makes for a sensible next step.
the boy, basically, is rewriting the cooking school curriculum. back on the day he enrolled, he leapt straight into lemony squares. found the dusting of powdery sugar a climatological trick he’d not tire of, as long as it coated his tummy, his tongue, and half of the kitchen. why bring out the snow shovel, please.
next day after school, he enlisted his grammy to teach him the fine points of making that pie. the filling, he learned, comes from a can. the strips you make with a wheel zoomed through some stuff that comes in a package. how thoughtful, he thought, for some faraway stranger to go to the trouble of starting his pie.
criss-crossing the crust did get a bit tangled. but oh, well. at worst, he discovered, you just lick the canned goo off your pinkie and thumb.
i though am worried. unless we kick it all up a significant notch, we are destined to a long life of eggs ala tabasco, polished off with a spinning case of desserts that might never stop spinning.
it is not, not at all, what my friend had in mind when she insisted we head off to school there in the kitchen.
but at least we’ll be fed. and no one will starve off in a dorm with a bunk and a keyboard, and our own personal requisite: the wheel that makes highways of pie crust.
i can’t imagine a single professor who wouldn’t trade lattice-top pie ala mode for a pass on a paper turned in a day or two late.

what essential lessons would you count in your cooking school? have you already tried the fine art of teaching your children to fend for themselves? who taught you? what are your most unforgettable kitchen triumphs or fallen souffles?