pull up a chair

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

Month: November, 2011


welcome to the fourth annual marking of steering-clear-of-commerce, the day after that great feast of thanks when most of western civilization seems to crank up the greedy and run, grab and dash for the nearest big-box extravaganza.

why, news reports already tell us of the lovely southern california woman who hauled out her red pepper spray last night at a wal-mart, while crushing in lines for an x-box, and let rip on the shoppers and children huddled around her.

makes me want to run to the woods and holler.

but then, running to the woods is the whole point of the chair’s annual backs-to-the-mall celebration, as we attempt in our collective ways to battle the rampant commercialism and turn instead to the contemplative powers of very full bellies, and very deep thanks.

and so, we begin.

my long list of bounties this year, the sumptuous morsels that stuff full my heart, begins but does not end with the simple fact that there are two boys asleep in beds not far over my head.

there is a long and muscular fellow who these past delicious days has been showering me with the through-and-through sense that he is the very same fellow we dropped at the college gate. only perhaps he’s been thinking harder than in a very long time. perhaps, too, he’s traveled landscapes far livelier than the ones he traveled when anchored here in the leafy little town we call home.

no small feat, this reunion of hearts, discovering the boy who’s been gone, who’s been decidedly far-off in miles and minimal emails, is in fact still deeply connected, seamless, and, yes, he still makes me laugh so hard i am gasping for air.

right up with that blessing, come the ones that spring from the little fellow who has not left the roost. the one who leads with his heart. the one who leapt right into the lap of his big brother the other eve, thought nothing of plopping himself like a second scoop of ice cream into the very same chair, a kid who cannot stop oozing a rare brand of tenderness. it’s as if he knows as deeply as i do that the simple act of his being here is nothing short of answered prayer, science-defying miracle.

this old house is a blessing, too. the way it reaches out and wraps me in its sun-streaming windows, creaky old floor boards. the clouds of heat that come from the firehouse stove, the one that simply and solidly cooks up whatever i ask.

and then there is the garden that wraps this house, that nestles it into its place on the planet. the grove of old pines, the branches that each and every spring welcome the wren, and in winter harbor the hawk, the hawk who makes me shudder, afraid as i am to watch him swoop down and capture his lunch.

of all the gifts that garden brings, and it brings many, it’s being home and feast for the birds that i count as its most sacred calling. for there is something about the flutterings of the birds, the way that scarlet banner, the cardinal, posts himself just beyond the window, the way the blue jay rattles the bush, and the sparrows keep up their chatter, that sings to the depth of my soul.

i might be among the few who salute the cloudy skies of november on my long list of blessings. ah, but those angora gray skies, they comfort me, hold me solidly, harbor me.

yes, sunlight streaming in is a beautiful thing, but it’s almost too awake for me. i’ll take the somnolence, the introspection of a gray day any day.

and i’d be amiss if i did not mention how grateful i am for hearts that continue to tick, day in and day out, despite the trials we toss their way, as we worry and fret, then, without notice, shriek in deep joy and excitement. poor ol’ heart, the one that landed in me, might not have realized it was signed on for a roller-coaster ride of significant proportion.

i am deeply grateful for the creature comforts that await me each morn when i rise from my bed. for the coffee beans that sit on the shelf of the freezer. for the cranberry-studded corn bread that fuels most of my mornings. for the old blue calico pitcher that charms me. and the coffee mug that fits snug in my palm.

i am grateful for the schoolhouse clock that ticks on the wall.

and the smiles that greet me along my way, from the security guard who sits in the lobby of the tall gothic tower where i go to work each tuesday through thursday, to the checkers at my grocery store, the ones who know the names of my boys and who can tell who’s home for dinner by the plenty i toss on the checkout line.

i am grateful for a mama who comes two times each week to cook up a dinner, and tend to the boy who walks home from the bus stop.

i am grateful for faraway family, the ones who keep watch from afar, and who relentlessly believe in us, most especially the ones in new jersey.

i am grateful for a brother and sister in maine who seamlessly weave themselves into our every day, despite the thousand-plus miles. i am so deeply grateful that the woman my brother married is now, in every way, my sister. i am grateful for each one of my four beautiful brothers. and, too, for my new york city sister who regales me with tales from the front and keeps me in stitches.

i am eternally grateful for friends, most especially for the ones who pull up their chairs, and offer up words of wisdom, and unfading love.

i am grateful for the chorus of saints in my life, the ones i turn to when i don’t understand the ways of the world, or need to talk through some nettling worry. i am grateful for strangers who dish up kindness. i am grateful for neighbors who come to my door with platters of cookies and tubs of tomatoes.

i am grateful for anyone who loves words, and most especially for anyone who tells a great tale. i am grateful for old friends, and ones i discovered as recently as just last week.

i am grateful for editors who dollop careful consideration.

i’m not supposed to write about him here, but i am mighty grateful for that tall fellow i married, the one who’s stuck by my side on our considerable journey, the one who helps me steer this sometimes teetering ship. the one who has taught our boys to be very fine men. the one i still love to listen to, across any dinner table. but most especially one filled with great minds, and great hearts.

i am grateful, come to think of it, for all the old tables in this house. the ones where i set out the plates, the banged-up hand-me-down blue willows, or the lipstick-red diner china.

of all the treasures in my life, most often it’s the spread at the table that captures the deepest richest deliciousness. it’s where bellies are filled, but far more so, where lessons are learned, and laughter is launched.

if there is a birthplace for bounty, it’s right at the table, the one rung with so many chairs.

happy day of bountiful blessings, my chair friends, so many blessings and marvels they spill straight from thanksgiving onto the glorious annual day after. no discounts allowed.

what’s on your list of bountiful blessings?
and, before i sign off, happy blessed birthday to our sweet sweet azk, a father-in-law for the ages, a wise man, a good man, a gentle man. big big hug, and many wishes for yet another bountiful year. love, bam xoxox

p.s. that spread up above, that was turkey day brunch at my house yesterday, while the tv blared football, and my sweet baby bro from toledo with his beautiful wife drove in for a day of feasting. i was mighty grateful to get to do that spread, my one dollop of turkey-day cooking and baking….

welcome home, college freshman xoxo

* as published in the Chicago Tribune
(here’s a tale you all know, you who come to the table, pull up a chair. i could barely wait last week to see that boy, now asleep in the room up over my head as i type. so i wrote the essay below. it ran in the newspages. but it belongs here, most of all. you see the boy, trying to sleep, and the little one, who could not pull himself away from that bed. he just stood beside his big brother, soaking it in. so did i.

and, now as we all get ready to crank the stoves, set the table, open the door and welcome the ones we love, here is the welcome home essay, just for you. xoxo)

By Barbara Mahany

I’ve been imagining the sound for months: his footsteps.

The house has been hollow without them, the thud I came to know as his as he stumbled out of the bed, the gallop as he loped down the stairs.

I can almost feel the gust of the wind as the front door swings open and in pops that curly haired mop I last buried my nose in on a hot August day when I left him on a leafy college quad, 1,000 miles away.

But any day now — I could tell you the hours and minutes — we are about to fall into the sweetest of homecomings, the freshman in college coming home for the very first time.

It’s a film loop I’ve played in my mind over and over. Since way back before he was gone. It was, in many ways, a salve to the wound that was growing, deepening as the day of his leaving finally arrived. Nearly swallowed me whole, that widening gash.

I’ve long savored the romance of November, when the light turns molasses, the air crisp, and planes fill the sky, the crisscrossing of hearts headed home. But never before had I felt it so deeply.

This year, one of those jets is carrying home my firstborn.

Now, all these months later, I can only imagine the boy who’s more of a man now. Calls home just once a week, Sundays, after 5 p.m. “Circa 1975,” I call it, just like when I was a freshman in college and had to wait for the rates to go down to report in to the folks back home.

It took me the better part of a month to get used to the missing sounds in our house. To not wince each night when I laid down three forks, not four. To not leave on the porch light as I climbed up to bed.

Over the months, I’ve learned to steer clear of particular shelves in the grocery store, because they hold his favorites — the turkey jerky, the sharp cheddar, stuff I used to grab without thinking, his stuff.

Curiously, I haven’t spent much time in his room. Except once, when I tackled the closet, folded every last T-shirt, rolled up loose socks, rubbing my hand over the cloth, absorbing the altered equation, that I was now the mother of a faraway child.

And so, I’m looking forward to when the place at the kitchen table will be ours again, the place where we talked until the wee hours, poring over the landscape of his life, refining the art of listening, asking just the right questions.

I leapt out of bed days ago, scribbled a list of all the foods I wanted to buy, to tuck on the pantry shelves, to pack in the fridge. I flipped open a cookbook to a much splattered page, the recipe for one his favorites. It’s as if the alchemy of the kitchen will fill places that words cannot.

I can barely contain the tingling that comes with knowing that, any day, he’ll be boarding a plane, crossing the sky, putting his hand on the knob on our door.

My beautiful boy, the boy I’ve missed more than I will ever let on, he’s coming home to the house that’s been aching to hear him again.

Barbara Mahany is a Tribune reporter.

(in case my editors want the link to be floating here…)


you don’t even have to listen too closely, don’t need to put your ear to the creaky old floorboards, or one of the doors. you can hear this house humming a mile away.

i swear it’s the truth.

i started humming mornings ago, way back on monday, when i leapt from the bed and started to scribble. racked my brain for all of his favorites, went out and got ‘em. drove the old wagon all over town like it was a tank and i was a captain, and we were off on a foraging mission. rustled up every last thing i could think of, straight down to a six-pack of gentlemen’s beer. called up my faraway brother, the one who cooks for a movie star, darn it, and jotted just as he told me. “knocks their socks off,” he said of the beefy rendition, all sesame and soy and ginger. sounds to me like food for a boy who is asking for meat. lots of it.

i had that boy’s room ready back before the workweek began. even scrubbed the seat of the toilet, for heaven’s sake. as if he would notice.

but a mama who feathers the nest, at least in this ol’ nest, is a mama who doesn’t know when to stop. not probably till someone calls out the time, round the middle of tomorrow afternoon, lets me know at long last, it’s time to go to the airport.

oh, lordy.

my firstborn is flying home from college tomorrow. did i remember to say that?

and, honeychil’, it’s a homecoming i’ve been imagining forever and ever.

years back, when the mere mention of children leaving for college sent me into a case of the shakes, i’d soothe myself by pushing the play button. i’d sit back in my mind and watch the frames of a film i played in my head, over and over. it was my kid coming home for the very first time.

holy hallelujah.

it’s all very truman capote, the homecoming loop that plays in my brain. has hints of those old ‘70s TV specials, the hallmark hall of fame, when gloriously-shot family tales would air, and my mama and i, we’d sit with a box of kleenex between us, and let the tears roll.

they’re rollin’, all right.

last night i was bumping along on the rickety “el” train, chicago’s version of the subway, and there was chatter all over the train car, but i was alone in my reverie, imagining that moppy-haired kid, coming through the gate at the airport, feeling my heart leap from my chest, tears pouring, right there on the el car.

it’s been three months, and while 99-percent of my heart is somersaulting forward, there is a wee corner that’s holding back, that’s not utterly sure what this experiment in family reunion will hold.

might be he’ll be less inclined to open his heart in the way that he used to. might be he’ll hold back. might be he won’t like the gingery beef, or the book on his bed, the one i wrote and stitched together for him back when he was headed away, the one he asked me not to send to college, the one he hasn’t yet seen.

i’m old enough now to know that not everything is gauzy, no matter how deeply you want it to be.

and it’s been a lifetime, more or less, since i last laid eyes on his beautiful self. he’s been out on his own, very much so. in ways i cannot possibly know, but believe in, he’s way more of a man now, a thinking, exploring, do-it-myself sort of a man.

as happens whenever life turns a page, we have to find our place in the text. adjust to the new shadings. bend where we need to.

these are all the cautionary thoughts of a mama who’s just a little bit not so sure. not so sure if all these months apart and away might have moved me off to a new plot on his map. one farther from the middle.

but mostly i’m full-steam ahead. just minutes ago, i found myself washing a door jam. as if smudgy gray fingerprints would be something he noticed.

i’ve got shopping to do, still. and sheets to change on his bed. i’ve got a love note to write, to tuck under his pillow.

and all the while i’m humming. we all are.

i wonder if he is?

my dear chair friends, i couldn’t contain my thoughts on this homecoming, and so pounded out a straight-from-the-heart essay on the subject the other morning. the lovely editors at work deemed it newspaper ready, and it’ll run in the sunday paper (which comes out saturday morning, in what’s called the bulldog edition). it’s running in what’s called the perspective section. the place where mostly thinkers dial up thoughts, and pontificate. every once in a while they toss in a weeper. mine is the weeper. and once it lands in the paper, i’m allowed to link to it here. but i’ll also let rip the unedited version here. it’s always interesting to see the parts editors ditch. in my case it’s usually the parts with too much heart. they like to rein me in. which is, i’m certain, as it should be. but the joy of the chair is i needn’t hold back, and mostly i don’t. so this meander is really just hors d’oeuvres. come back for the full plating over the weekend. and thank you so much for following along, the glorious expansion of one mama’s heart as she attempts to send off her firstborn into the world.

do you have a sweet homecoming tale you’d like to tell??

mama’s got a tough, tough job, and someone’s gotta help

when i was a kid, my dad was larry tate, the buttoned-up business half of the ad-biz duo on “bewitched,” that 60s (or was it the 70s?) sit-com starring samantha.

well, he wasn’t really ol’ larry. but that’s how i had to explain it, whenever i said my dad was an ad man, and the follow-up question was always: “is he darrin stephens or larry tate?” darrin was the creative dude, the one who married the nose-twitching daffy-hearted witch. larry–and, yup, my dad–was the one who kept the creative types in line. but, at least in the case of my dad, that didn’t mean he was so buttoned-up.

my dad loved nothing more than a great laugh.

if there’s one sound i can still hear, it’s the sound of his big booming guffaw, breaking the air in a room, filling the space between walls, flicking the switch in my heart, making it glow.

i LOVED that my dad was an ad man. fact is, i loved everything about my papa. but knowing he rode downtown on the train, carried that briefcase filled with top-secret memos to clients like betty crocker, mcdonald’s, even the folks who made play-doh, well, that made me feel like i was plugged into the nerve center of our times.

heck, my dad brought home a plain cardboard box, marked X, and it was a test sample of hamburger helper. we were some of the first kids in america to spoon that glop in our mouths. and we lived to give him a thumbs up or thumbs down.

the stories at our dinner table would swirl with stuff that mattered to kids growing up in suburbia in the hair-raising 60s, and the dick-nixon 70s.

we knew the ins and outs of big macs, and all about all the sugar-coated cereals packing the grocery-store shelves.

pop tarts? we had ’em early, had ’em often.

we didn’t screech on the taste-testing brakes when we crossed over the sharp lines of whatever “the clients” had fobbed on the market.

why, it was our job, our patrimonial duty, to invade enemy territory. we were the spies, me in my pig tails, my brothers in freckles and iron-on patches on knees.

we guzzled whatever the ’60s and ’70s offered. we didn’t much mind (although, for the life of me, i was deadset against hamburger helper and its ilk from the get-go, not yet appreciating the ease of dumping, stirring and filling the tums of five hungry kids).

which, in a round-about way, brings me back to the latest episode in the tale of the boys we call our double-bylines, meaning the poor little fellows (one, now not-so-little) who get to grow up in a house with a dad and a mom in the news biz.

which, on rather regular occasions, means i lope home from the office with a satchel stuffed with curiosities and delights and general conversational stimulants.

like this week, when it was my job to corral the best cookies in the land. or at least among readers of the newspaper where i type three days a week.

yup, it was the annual tribune holiday cookie contest, and someone had to be in charge of getting those cookies into the great gothic tower that is the tribune. and someone had to rustle up the 16 judges, put out the paper plates, the cups of water, the pens and the score sheets.

that someone was me.

and so, when the long hard day of nibbling and scoring was over, i asked if — please! — i might be allowed to haul home just one plate of each one of the 11 finalist cookies, so my own personal judging panel could convene.

and that’s where the sugar-saturated plate up above comes in.

that was homework for my fine little boy who’s pretty much convinced that sweets is one of the food groups. if not the most essential of the lot.

just after dinner (yup, we actually held off till after the protein and veggies; give us brownie points for that, please), we lined up the contest with great ceremonial pomp.

just like back in the tribune test kitchen, i set out cups of water, pens for each judge, and the nibbling began.

in fact, i knew full well that this was yet another one of my ploys to exercise that boy’s descriptive ways. i swooned when he launched in on the first, a glimmery snowflake of a cookie, which he described thusly: “it looks like a snowflake has just fallen with sugar and sparkles dancing on it.”

or, of a chocolate-swirled marshmallowy number: “it looks like a collage of butterflies.”

find me a full-fledged tribune judge who dished out such poetry. and this from my boy who has tussled with words in his day.

while he nibbled and spun his sugary stanzas, his papa chewed and scribbled in silence. in the end, once the last crumb was licked off the plate, we wound up with a three-way tie for first prize.

but for me, the very blue ribbon i pinned on the day was the glorious fact that, for little more than my train ride into the city, i could bring home a piece of the world far beyond our little town’s walls.

in the same way that once upon a time my daddy’s job made me feel like i had a window onto something big, something exciting, i hope my sweet boy feels just a tad more engaged with the wheels of the ever-cranking universe.

i hope that while i’m the one with the measly paycheck, he’s the one who catches the magic. who sees the power of words. who tastes the thrill of civic engagement, even when it’s just a cookie contest.

if he listens–and i’ve reason to think that he does–there’s not a page from my day job that doesn’t somehow rub off him. if not in ink, then surely in stories, in laughter. and sometimes, come the start of november, in cookies that make for fine poems.

when you were growing up did someone in your house have a job that made you look at the world in a particular way? it’s a curious marvelous thing, not oft considered perhaps, how all the ways the grownups lead their lives, are all a part of the education of the little ones who grow up so closely, thoughtfully watching. it adds a dimension of meaning to the every day. and makes that ol’ trainride not nearly so onerous. tell us how you learned to look at the world?

fencus interruptus

since the day i hacked back the weeds, lassoed the wild-haired junk bush, it’s been my one guaranteed wedge of the sacred.

not very wide, my prayer alley, wedged between me and the brick house next door. just wide enough for a wheelbarrow. and once the blooming begins, barely wide enough for me and my garden-clog feets.

oh, but i tiptoe back and forth anyway, feel the rambling pink roses scratch sharp against my shins, climb over the ferns or the bleeding hearts that reach out to brush me soft as a kitten’s whisker.

for three years now i have coaxed and coddled a holy trinity of climbing hydrangea, backdrop to all of the sacred, the last line of defense between me and a not-so-nice fence.

i’ve watched with chest-thumping pride as those babies finally caught on, got with the program after sputtering starts.

at long last, as i cooed and kindly cajoled, all three of ’em stuck out their sticky-toed feets and worked their way up the humdrum planks i’ve been trying to hide.

just this past summer those vines reached the top, a triumphant hallelujah, indeed — if you’d been listening, that is, deep in the night when the plants in a garden do all their whoppin’ and hollerin’.

after all this twirling my thumbs, and all of these summers and autumns and winters of waiting, my old side garden, my contemplative place, the walk where i sit on a bench, or the stoop where i soak up the sun like a frog on a lily pad, it had finally grown lush, grown through-and-through green, become like a tunnel of leaves and fronds and bird houses and bluestone steps.

you could get lost there. and, so help me, i did.

but yesterday morn, when the winds blew mighty and fierce, my little one was scooping up pancakes, sitting on a stool that looks out through the door and onto the one swatch of garden he and i have a habit of watching.

that’s when he yelped, “oh, no, george’s fence is blowing away.”

and that’s when i looked. and by golly, that boy who keeps watch on me, on our world, now that he’s the only kid home, he was 100-percent utterly right. george’s fence was blowing away. or at least over. headed straight for my bushes and trees.


it was barely seven o’clock, but i leapt from the house in my bare naked feet, and hurdled straight over a pumpkin. i had a fence on the loose to corral, and a whole line of sacred to save.

i got there in the nick of time, you’ll be happy to hear.

but, already, it was too late.

the fence was awobble, aquake.

i called up george, our dear next-door friend, and told him what was the matter.

oh, that fence, he sighed. told me a chunk of it had caved in already, on the far side of the yard, where i couldn’t see. told me he’d get his fence guy right over.

well, that fence guy is here all right, told me he’d have to get at the fence by tromping straight through my garden.

egad, i said. though i believe, if i’m honest, the word in my head wasn’t nearly so scrubbed-up-and-polished.

um, mr. fence man, i said, you cannot tromp through my garden. my garden, you see, is very much alive, and it very much matters. the soles of your shoes, smooshed on those stems, on those leaves, they will crush every last bit. and along with the garden, they’ll steamroll my soul.

so, the fence man and i, we reached a detente. or at least his version of an agreeable deal: if i pulled down every last spoke of my climbing hydrangeas, if i tenderly talked to the hundreds and dozens of sticky-toed clingers, if i promised each one that it wouldn’t hurt, that i was actually trying to save them, well then, we might be in business.

the falling-down fence would be fixed, and my bushes and trees — and ferns and mop-head hydrangeas and forget-me-nots and bleeding hearts and sage and nodding onion and on and on and on — it all would stand a fair chance of making it through to next spring. or at least through the weekend, i gulped, fighting back worries.

the climbers, the ones that clung to that fence for dear life, the ones that had soared to the top of their particular mountain, they now dangle, adrift.

the roots, far as i know, are solidly planted. no foots have crushed them so far, and so help me God, they shall not.

but the act of tearing them off, of taking them down from their proud climbing wall, why, it felt worse than yanking a band-aid off the hair of your knee. poor hydrangea.

poor garden. poor gardener.

life is like that sometimes: just when you reach the top of the hill, when the climb is behind you and the view is quite something up there, the whole thing comes tumbling apart. you lose your bearings. you do what you’ve long dreaded.

and you start all over again.

i’ll be out there tonight, with rolls of scotch tape. and plenty of triple-strength holy water. a good sprinkle, a dousing, never hurt, now did it? certainly not in a garden whose first name is sacred.

and so goes the latest installment in the sad tale of fencus interruptus.

was a week for weird weather, all right. my boy in far off amherst, suffered a storm they’re calling “snowtober.” 12 inches of snow. trees down left, right, and sideways.
as i type, my sweet mate is on a train chugging toward that very college. it’s family weekend but i am at home. that’s a bummer, indeed. but i’ll get my turn in the spring.
in case you’re in the mood for a little typing, here’s a question: what mountains have you, like my hydrangea, finally climbed, only to discover, you’ve got to start all over again……