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Category: family history

the underground and me: how my papa tried to save me

papa letter

the first draft of history is what journalism’s been called. and so, today, i take a crack at one such draft; i write not knowing quite what epiphany will come, toiling more as an excavator, seeing if there is any shimmering shard buried in the layers of history, my history, a piece of which recently unfolded — in three crisply typed pages — and stirred up the long long ago. turns out, it’s a love story…

it’s not everyday the artifacts of your past tumble out of the cracks of history. but one of mine came in the mail week before last. it was a letter, dated january 7, 1975, written by my papa, mailed to a beloved high school english teacher, a teacher i remembered most vividly because she was the one who asked a prescient question the monday after homecoming of my senior year, a question that foreshadowed the arc — the heartbreaking arc — of that last year of high school.

what i’d remembered was that she was the teacher, the arch, very cool at the time, teacher who’d assigned kerouac and burroughs and zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance, works with their thumb on the pulse of the thrashing that was 1970s america. what i’d never forgotten was standing outside the library on the monday morning after i’d been crowned the homecoming queen, an unlikely event if ever there was because i was nothing like most homecoming queens. i was not beautiful, not even close. i wasn’t a cheerleader, or one of the pompom girls. all i was was kind. and i remembered the names of just about each and every someone in my 2,400-student high school. and all the janitors, too.

as i was standing there, this teacher we all loved and were afraid of, in equal measure, strode up to me, raised one eyebrow, and volleyed her question: “barb, have you read ‘the demise of the homecoming queen’?” a book apparently with a very bad ending.

consider me unsettled. i answered no, and marched on with my day, the query sufficiently stinging.

but that odd interaction has nothing to do with the letter i got week before last. it only underlines the impact of running into this teacher at synagogue a few weeks back, on rosh hashanah to be exact, when a woman whom i did not recognize, leaned into our pew and exclaimed, “barb!!!!” while my brain gears churned to figure out who in the world this was, she went on, and soon i realized it was ms. feder, the high school english teacher we all feared and loved.

as i climbed over the legs between me and the end of the pew, so i could leap into the aisle to hug her, she went on with a story she was bursting to tell me. (mind you, i’d seen her only one other time in 43 years, when i bumped into her on a train riding downtown and i was carrying a baby, so this encounter was swiftly sweeping me back in time and space and emotion.)

she’d been cleaning her basement, she recounted, barely pausing to breathe, and was rummaging through piles and years of stuff accumulated, when she unearthed the first-ever issue of mother jones magazine, and as she lifted it from cobwebs to give it a look, out from its spine tumbled a 10-cent-stamped envelope addressed plainly to “Ms. Feder, Deerfield High School.”

inside, was a three-page letter from my very own papa, meticulously typed by his secretary of many, many years. in it he explains in thoughtful measured tones that it had come to his attention that the underground newspaper, for which ms. feder was the faculty advisor and to which i was a contributor, had recently raised a few eyebrows. scatalogical jokes, perhaps. he didn’t exactly detail, except to mention that they might be “in bad taste — more befitting bathroom walls than a student publication (even an unofficial one).”

and then toward the end of said letter, my papa takes off his official hat — he’d been writing as a member of the PTO board and editor of its newsletter (of which i have zero, zip, nada recollection) — and mentions that, on a personal note, he has exacted from me a promise that my name would no longer appear on the masthead (my first foray into journalism outside the walls of our basement, where i typed up the neighborhood news complete with comics, was the underground newspaper of our not-so-radical white suburban high school). he went on to write that “I have told her [that would be me, his scribe of a daughter] that I feel that her material has been completely acceptable and in no way of questionable taste.” but — brace yourselves — “Frankly, I am embarrassed to see her (and my) name in even a loose juxtaposition with some of this material.” and he asked that my name be deleted from any future publication.

apparently, that’s when i went even further underground and assumed the pseudonym under which i wrote for the rest of the year, or at least until i was taken out of high school in may, and plunked in a downtown hospital, a skin-and-bones girl who’d whittled down to 85 or 90 pounds (i can’t remember the low point), in the vanguard of that scourge known as anorexia nervosa, a clinical coupling of words that grates at my soul (and my psyche) to this day.

some decades ago, perhaps at a high school reunion, one of my fellow underground rabble-rousers had recounted this incident to me, told me the story of how my papa had forbidden me from writing any longer for the Student Voice, as our anti-establishment rag was called. i remembered not a wisp of it, couldn’t imagine my laser-focused-ad-man of a father paying one bit of attention to my underground toils. i considered it apocryphal, a story someone had conjured up over the years when i became — thanks to my early and strange diagnosis — grist for the small-town rumor mill.

thus, word of this letter’s actual artifactual existence intrigued me completely. to say nothing of the fact that i have astonishingly few (read, almost none) letters or personal writings from my dad who wrote two monthly magazine columns for the ad biz. and the finding of even a page — let alone three — was a find of supreme proportion.

i ran to the mailbox day after day. when two weeks had passed, but no letter had arrived, i began to search for ms. feder. i found what appeared to be a phone number, called, left a message. she called back. she’d made a photocopy, she explained, then put the letter aside. she’d forgotten, but she promised to send.

the day it fell from the pile of mail, i took a deep breath and pulled the three still-stapled pages from the 44-year-old envelope, mailed originally from my papa’s downtown office.

right away, i heard his long-silenced voice, oozing up from the spaces between the typed alphabet letters. i heard his tender protectiveness. his measured level-headedness. in fact, he began by defending our faux-radical shenanigans: “While much of it is irreverent, iconoclastic and generally anti-Establishment, that really didn’t concern me,” he wrote. and then, when i got to the part about my promise to erase my name, i got teary. when i got to the part where he wrote that frankly he was embarrassed, i winced.

this is not the memory of my papa i’ve kept tucked closest to my heart. the scenes that have played, over and over and over, are the ones where i’m in the hospital — a psych ward is where they put me, if you must know, and if i’m completely honest — and it’s lunchtime, and my lunch tray has just been delivered, and the door to my room nudges open, and in walks my papa, face beaming, brooks brothers suit crisp as ever, even after his long walk down michigan avenue, from his high-rise office tower to my hospital. he is clutching a white paper bag, one he’s been handed in the women’s auxiliary cafe just off the hospital lobby, where every day they sold sandwiches and every day for that month he bought one. he sat beside me, pulled a straight metal chair right to the edge of my bed, sometimes taking my hand. he unwrapped from wax paper his choice of the day — chicken or tuna salad on white bread, almost always on white bread. he chewed while i tried to. he never missed a day. not once in the month — the terrible, awful, loneliest month — i was there.

and that’s the love i’ll never forget. that’s the love i lost — or so it felt — when he died.

but now i have another story to tell. the day my papa made me give up my name, and go deeper underground.

i cherish them both. my papa was paying attention, such close attention. and i was blessed to be in his sights.

was there someone in your life who paid close attention to you, closer perhaps than you realized at the time? and what was the difference it made? 

p.s. perhaps the sweetest part of the letter was that i could show it to my beloved blair, who read it the night it arrived as he rode home on the el (i’d taken a picture of each page and sent along to my mom, my four brothers, and blair and will and teddy, wanting everyone to share in this closest encounter of the typed-and-stapled kind). blair’s texts came in two parts: “Loving the letter. Have read first two pages. So, so wise and precise…eager to see conclusion….” and next: “Wow! Loved it. What a good parent. 3 pages of controlled passion. He loved you so much, Fred. I’m thoroughly impressed.”

the love of my life has only gotten to know another love of my life through the dribs and drabs of story, and now the three long-lost typed pages….

the curious pull of family history…

Iwo Jima funeral mass

funeral mass on iwo jima for soldiers who died on its soils, april 1, 1945

amid this summer of deep discontent and dyspepsia, i’ve been visited by an almost mythical faraway sprite — a cousin really, a distant cousin — who has opened for me long locked vaults of family history, and drawn before me the not-so-faint outlines of heartbreak and who came before me.

i signed up for a 14-day free trial of ancestry.com. figured i might learn a thing or three about the irish, german, and eastern european roots of my beloved and me, roots that trace directly to our pair of boys. i had no illusions of finding fine-grain stories, of hearing the voices of long ago come reaching out of the depths. i carefully marked my calendar so i’d remember to un-subscribe on day 13, get in and out without much trace.

and then, after i’d pulled the plug and skittered away, paddy shannon found me. paddy is a cousin plenty removed. we share the same great great grandfather, he told me in his first message. if i was willing to share my email, he told me, he had plenty to share.

within a day i had photos of the old family home, a hodgepodge of sod walls and windows and doors built between two bridges in a wee little place on the map not too far from the eternal tide of the atlantic, in county clare in ireland. i scribbled notes, drew diagrams, to try to trace and re-trace these lines and roots. i followed biographical bits — birth, death, burial — struggled to keep one daniel j., one teddy, one patrick straight from all the others (there are multiples of each, a few fine names used over and over and over, ancestral prize to those so christened).

i read once again of mothers who died in childbirth (on christmas day, no less), and filled in narrative. narratives of heartbreak, of loss, and starting over again.

i was particularly struck this time around (for i’ve gone down these roads before, with far less detail, never before guided by my very own ancestral guide) by the heartbreak that visited my grandma mae — how one of her brothers was struck and killed by lightning when he ran for cover in the tobacco barn on their kentucky farm in a rainstorm described in biblical proportions in the front-page news. how the other brother, the one who lifted his brother’s limp body, tried to revive him, how he died years later of cirrhosis of the liver (i couldn’t help but imagine the heartache that drove him, likely, to drink). i read how my grandma married the widower with four young children, and how four years after they married — he 44, she 35 — she gave birth to her one and only child, my papa (i imagined what a treasure he was, the unlikely and long-awaited firstborn).

and then this week i read the most i’ve ever read about the big brother (my uncle) who was like a papa to my papa, a brother named danny whom i’d always been told was destined for some degree of greatness. i knew he’d run one of the great kentucky racing stables, calumet farm, just outside lexington (he’d left university to learn racing from the ground up, literally starting as a stable boy and rising to business manager of the farm that trained whirlaway, a kentucky derby legend). i knew he’d signed up for the army at the height of world war II. but this week i found out that he’d been plucked for an officer’s college at harvard, had written a regular horse racing column in the lexington herald, and when pearl harbor was attacked in december 1941, he’d been on the california coast at the santa anita track, where he’d remain with the horses for months (racing was shut down in the wake of the attack and no transport of horses allowed), and where — my brother wisely hypothesized — his decision to defend these united states might well have been sparked. my uncle danny wrote a stirring anthem on the obligation to serve, one that ran with a grainy black-and-white photo that couldn’t hide the handsome lines of his bespectacled face, in the pages of the sunday herald-leader of lexington, on january 10, 1943, eight months after he himself had enlisted, and 10 months before he set sail for iwo jima.

and then, because my ancestral guide was himself a marine and stirred to understand how an army air corpsman came to be buried in a marine plot in the national cemetery in nicholsville, kentucky, i read the gruesome details of how my uncle danny and 14 others died in a pre-dawn banzai raid on iwo jima, on march 26, 1945, the very last battle of that awful siege of the japanese island. at 4 in the morning, some 300 japanese soldiers — ordered to stage a final suicide attack — rose up out of miles of caves, surrounded the tent camp not far from the beach on the southeast corner of the island, lobbed grenade after grenade and then, one by one, called out “banzai,” before charging into the tents with bayonets that slashed and beheaded.

my uncle, a first lieutenant at his death, was among the ones buried there on the island, in a military grave with a makeshift funeral mass preceding (see photo above). his father, my grandfather, would later have his remains exhumed and moved to kentucky, where he was laid to final rest beneath one of the white granite gravestones that stretch endlessly across the bluegrass he so loved.

it’s all a narrative that had mostly escaped me. my father — who’d been the one who answered the door when the soldiers came bearing the telegram and the news that danny had died — barely ever spoke a word about it. as my third-cousin paddy put it, “I hope this helps in understanding your Uncle “Danny’s” Service and Death and why your Da never spoke of it. It was to say the least a Horrible Place, and Horrible way to die.”

dear blessed paddy, my patron saint of genealogy, was so moved by danny’s story, he sat down and wrote a doggerel, an irish-intoned ode to the life and death of a little-known american soldier.

my own “da” has been gone now for 37 years. but all week, all summer really, i’ve been swirling in the mists of the past, his past. i’ve ached to hear him fill in the details, to fill my ears and my heart and my soul with the depth of the heartache that stilled him to silence.

there is much to mourn in the stories i’ve turned up this summer. and, just as emphatically, there is much to inspire. it’s a history rife with tragedy, and yet — and yet — it’s a story that goes on and on. triumph over loss. rising up from the unbearable.

and in the summer of 2018, when the world all around shatters me, i am holding onto shards of the past and breathing in the will to not be succumbed.

danny headstone

what family stories do you hold, and learn much from?

trying to stay sane in the summer of 2018

front page NYT

well, there’s a bold proclamation, trying to stay sane in an unrelenting summer.

sanity, defined: teetering on that knife’s-blade edge between despair and shards of hope, listing away from full-on darkness, into the atmosphere where breath comes in full-enough cycles, where dreams have not lost all their air, where the few fine words you choose to speak are ones that rise up from the holier parts inside.

and how to get there, in a summer that each day brings onslaught of ugly news, the latest being the riddling of a newsroom with bullets, and yet another crop of americans now shattered for the rest of their days? that’s a question that animates so many of the soulful moments, soulful conversations i’ve been having.

what i ache to do is just plain fix it. that’s my auto-pilot. in some corners of my life, when things are broken, i leap into action. stay up all night till i get the glue to set just right, trace my way to the ends of the earth (or the internet) till i track down replacement for whatever object has gone missing.

in this particular instance the things i want to do — lock up the bullies, throw away the keys; turn back time to just before the bullets flew; wrap my arms around the little children, look them in the eye, and promise them i’ll find them their mamas and their papas and the ones who keep them safe — i can’t. my superpowers seem to have expired. they were never more than make-believe anyway.

am i fooling my sorry little self to think the most i can do is keep the circle within which i live a sphere where the light keeps burning, where the words stay gentle, where i check myself and aim to turn the other cheek, not spout the sharp retort, steer away from hornets’ nests of hate, or just plain grumbly folk? where i ought to try even harder to make this old house a respite, a hive of rooms where kids are free to romp, where i don’t nag about the silly things — the clothes in heaps, the stinky soccer bag, the chores undone? where my most important job might be to be the peace-filled center, the one who models “this is how we love”?

as i so often do when things need to get done — and here, the task is hewing toward some measure of sanity — i’m making a list. these few things have brought some semblance of serenity, some anchor in the roiling seas.

  1. i’ve found a little chapel, a sacred space with a carved-wood door at the end of a stone walk that meanders through a shady garden. inside the vaulting rooms, at the foot of the gilded altar, i listen to the words of oxford-educated men and women — yes, women here are priests — and i am emboldened, reminded of what matters, and called to action, holy action. as a lifelong believer in a hundred roads to God, i pay no mind to what the signpost names the church, all i know is what’s inside is stirring me to tears, and, sunday after sunday, taking my whole breath away. better yet, it gives me words so delicious, so must-be-remembered, i’m wont to surreptitiously reach for and scribble in the blank little book i keep tucked in my backpack, and this holy, wholly animating place sends me home with thoughts to percolate all week.
  2. i’ve somehow been pulled into the mists of history, my ancestral history. i can spend hours tracing family roots, poring over news pages from long long ago. i’ve read of a great uncle struck and killed by lightning, when he ran for cover in his tobacco barn during a summer storm of biblical proportion. i’ve read of my grandpa’s first wife (and the mother of their four young children) dying in childbirth on christmas day. and another uncle — the one who tried to resuscitate his lightning-struck brother — dying years later of cirrhosis of the liver. i’ve absorbed the truth that life is hard and, when we’re blessed, we survive — banged up, dented, hobbling along, but somehow we gather up just enough to watch the sun rise and sink again.
  3. i spend a lot of time with my toes in the dirt, out in my garden fully armed with felcro pruners, and trowel, and twine. there is sustenance to be had in nursing limp leaves back to full salute, in chasing down a runaway clematis vine or a tomato plant that’s reaching for the clouds. it’s quiet out there, save for the chatter of the birds, and the occasional butterfly who flutters by me so unassuming he barely moves the breeze.
  4. i read. and read some more. my job for work, as i’ve said here some dozen times, is to read for soulfulness. that’s my assignment: find books that stir the soul. and the occupational by-product is that my soul gets stirred before i pass along the revelation. this week, ol’ jimmy carter, 39th president and peanut farmer, did some stirring. before i go, i’ll leave you with this one passage that reminds me good will come again. it’s our job to seek out those few fine souls whose moral compass never wavers, whose goodness is so good our knees go weak just watching. here’s what our cardigan-wearing, energy-saving president spoke in a 1978 address to his fellow southern baptists:

“A country will have authority and influence because of moral factors, not its military strength; because it can be humble and not blatant and arrogant; because our people and our country want to serve others and not dominate others. And a nation without morality will soon lose its influence around the world.”

how do you strain to stay sane in this soul-testing summer?

lost in the cobwebs…almost.

IMG_9234

it’s been one of those weeks that’s found me sifting through drawers, sifting through history, following threads hither and yon.

there’s a particular drawer, in the old pine writing table across the way from here where i sit, and it might as well be my holy of holies. it’s where i stash particular love letters, and every mass card from every funeral of someone i’ve loved. it’s where, apparently, i’ve stashed the polaroid snapshots of my firstborn lying bruised and bloodied in a hospital bed in the children’s hospital ICU, the day after he flew from his bike and broke his neck. and where i’ve tucked the recording of my then-little one’s long-ago phone machine greeting, a delectable slur of words that always left callers confounded — and me charmed, beyond words.

it’s been one of those weeks where threads seem to be pulling me this way, then that. one question leads to a search. another leads to the creaky old stairs that unfold from the attic.

i’ve been discovering shards and treasures all week. i’ve bumped into more questions than answers. why, oh why, do i have a silver coin from 1909, one with abe lincoln’s buIMG_9236st on the front, and on the back the words, “for merit in an essay on abraham lincoln”? who won this, and where is this prize-winning essay? and how did the coin come to be in my drawer? might it be from my grandmama mae, the irish school teacher who bore my sweet papa? might my love of words flow directly through her bloodline? and might my boys’ love of abe be their genetic inheritance?

these are the questions that keep me awake. and won’t let me rest till i unearth the answers.

long long ago, standing in the kitchen of the house where i grew up, i remember leaning into my father’s shoulder (he was wearing the navy velour pullover he so often wore, and i can conjure the nub of that cloth even today — 36 years after the moment), and my father spoke these words that have echoed ever since: “you have a real sense of history.” it was one of those moments when suddenly something you’d not known appears as the most obvious truth in your life. my father died less than two months later. so the words became prophetic. the words have become my divining rod. i follow history. i sift through old letters and artifacts. i study old photos, the ones now faded. i try to make sense.

and i can’t bear to let history — to let story or love, for that’s what so much of a history is — crumble to dust in a drawer or the attic.

which is why i was a bit frazzled this week when i realized that years of my old newspaper stories are all but lost in the cobwebs. it’s intricately complicated, i found out, to pluck certain stories from the digital archives. without a date and precise headline, it’s nearly impossible. which means a good 20 years of bylines might never again be unearthed. which, mostly, won’t matter. but among those two decades there are stories that poured straight from my heart, and i can’t bear the thought that they’re never to be pulled to daylight again. they were, each one, a love song to or about someone or something that mattered. they were moments in my story that i’m not ready to bury.

which is why i decided that, every once in a while, when i find one, i’m going to lovingly paste it here, a digital scrapbook of bylines gone by.

this is the first, a love letter, really, to the very fine soul who picked up his hammer and built the nooks and crannies of this old house and the one before it, a construction of love beyond what we’d dreamed.

Being graced by the hand — and soul — of Jim
January 04, 2004|By Barbara Mahany, Tribune staff reporter.

At my house, his name is Jim.

I still remember the first time he walked in, walked in to talk about taking down walls, putting up a dormer. One minute, I’d never seen him before, the next minute, I’d known him all my life.

I still remember standing out by the sidewalk, watching the roof come off our old house, leaning against the wrought-iron gate next door, and he told me, in the most matter-of-fact way, “My dad always said to leave behind a footprint wherever you go.”

Jim leaves footprints. In the form of a box-bay window the architects hadn’t drawn, but that he knew was just what we wanted, to make the trees feel like they stretched right into our room, or, rather, to sweep the window seat right out into the limbs, making a treehouse of what might have been simply a room for a bed.

In the form of drawers that glide in and out as if on Rollerblades, making me feel elegant every time I reached inside for a lumpy old sweater.

In the form of bookshelves that wrapped around me in my little room, making me feel hugged and safe and home — very much at home.

It didn’t take long for all of us to fall in love with Jim & Co. The whole summer they were at our house — Jim and Tom and Bri, the musketeers three — my husband couldn’t wait to vault out of bed and dash over to the Dunkin’ Donuts, where he’d return with a box dripping with sugar and round puffy blobs. My little boy took to sitting on the stairs, watching. He had a big red tool kit that he started lugging around. He put on his safety goggles and he built things in the back yard. Boats. A race car. Bigger boats.

That was at our old house.

I didn’t want to leave it behind because I couldn’t bear to leave behind the magic that Jim had pounded into its walls, its windows, its tucked-away secrets.

Jim, you see, is indispensable, and not just because he wields a mean hammer. Jim is indispensable because what he builds goes far beyond the blue lines you see in the drawings. Jim is indispensable because he knows, without words, the poetry of walls and windows and doors, and all they hold for those of us who hatch our dreams at home like eggs in a nest.

So when we moved, it was pretty simple: We brought Jim with us.

In fact, we bought a house that I could see only through the lens of Jim and all that he could do. I saw right past the ugly tile in the kitchen, the tile someone loved so much they glued it right up the wall once they ran out of the floor. I saw right through the bathrooms with the vanities that looked as if they took three oak trees to build them, they were so big and bulky and in the way.

That was almost a year ago. And in that year, slowly, patiently, whenever he had a minute in between building other people’s houses, he’s been pounding magic into this house, as if it really mattered.

And the point here is: It does matter.

Every single day, most likely for the rest of my life, this house, these walls, these windows, will be the ones that shape my every day. It is within these rooms that I will take in my first waking breath each day and every other breath that forms my every word. It is through these windows that I will look out at the world and drink in the fuel of my dreams. These are the nooks I will curl up in. These are the stairs I will climb, every time it really matters, and plenty of times when it really doesn’t.
But the point is, because his hand is here, everywhere I look I feel his soul, and the soul of something much bigger that speaks to me in a soft still voice, in every room.

Where once upon a time there was a single-car garage, and where after that, just before we moved in, there was brown-striped vinyl wallpaper and nubby carpeting all shredded by a yappy dog, there are now floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall bookcases, and two window seats that stretch out beneath the windows. It is nearly a re-creation of the little tiny room of my dreams I had to leave behind in the house that is no longer ours.

Only this one is better, because I get to stay here forever, and because Jim & Crew pretty much built it from memory, trying to mend the heart that got wrenched in the move.

By the time we’re finished, pretty much every room is going to be graced by the hand of Jim. He’s building a corner cabinet for all the books my little boy has yet to read, and I have visions of us curled up for hours there, for years and years to come. He’s already built a wall of bookshelves for my husband, a wall that could only be called majestic, so elegant and mighty as its fine-honed pilasters reach for the ceiling, and hold my husband’s anchor in the world, his library of books about all the ideas he treasures most.

My 2-year-old, who picked out shoes at the shoe store because they look just like Jim’s, took on a refrain this summer that pretty much echoed the truth in all our hearts. He walked around the house, and whenever he noticed anything amiss, he proclaimed matter-of-factly: “Jim fix it.”

Jim, he fixes everything. And not just with his hammer.

and, now, that one is saved, tucked away in my treasure box, here at the table…..

have you ever discovered — in the nick of time — that some treasure of yours was nearly lost? and if so, how did you save it?

telling time

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listen in: tick tock chime 

in this old house, bed linens are worn thin. old quilts bare their threads. spoons stir porridge for decades. chairs are passed from generation to generation. in the right slant of light, you can make out particular dents in the old kitchen table, where long ago, my third-grade self, or one of my brothers, pressed pencil to homework to maple slab, and the addition in columns, the ill-formed alphabet letters of some week’s spelling words, still stand. even the potato masher in this old house bears the weight of half a century — at least.

new things aren’t often acquired here. but we made room last week for an old, old clock. a new-to-us old clock. a beehive clock, it’s called. with westminster chimes. and from the very first gong, it’s felt as if it’s ever been here. right away, it lulled me. made me feel even more at home.

it chimes every quarter hour, the progression of chimes compounding with every passing slice of the hour, for a total of 96 chimes in a day. and when the minute hand points heavenward, points due north, it gongs the big ben gong, one for each accumulated hour, of course.

it sounds to me like honey dripping across a slice of poundcake. or molasses poured onto flapjacks, if sound came with pictures. velvety, smooth, utterly unruffled and unruffling. it’s the very definition of soothing. it might sound, in its quieter intervals, the ones where it’s merely ticking and tocking, like water dripping. because i’ve been reading all about clocks, i understand why i hear the water-drop sounds. in ancient times, back near the beginning of measured time, the greeks devised a water clock, realizing that the drips fell at a particular rate per hour, and thus could be harnessed for time-telling purposes.

i tried to find out if there was some physiologic connection between the sound of time ticking and the workings of the human body, the heart perhaps. i’ve not yet found my answer, but i have a hunch: the sound of a ticking clock is the closest we’ll come to the in utero sounds, when our newly-formed ear was pressed against the wall of our mama’s womb, and the whooshing and swooshing of her heart was the first thing we heard, was the round-the-clock soundtrack of our very beginning.

i know that in nature there’s a particular universal set of shapes and designs and symmetries and proportions (consider the snowflake or the rose petal, the starfish or even the tiger’s striped face), and that the patterns repeat and repeat throughout creation. mathematicians and artists alike have spent their lives obsessed with these ineffable truths. they’ve put names to them, names like divine proportion or the miraculous spiral.

i like to imagine God dipping into God’s paint kit to pull from that oft-used palette, applying God’s favorites here, there, and everywhere. do you think it’s true too of the patterns of sound? clock ticking = water dripping = human heart, no matter how you rearrange it. do you think God had a shortlist of sounds, of ones reserved for the soothingest jobs?

affection for clocks is not new in this old house. in one of those curious entwinings of the histories we’ve woven together in this adventure called “our married life,” the tall bespectacled fellow and i both grew up with grandparents whose walls were covered in clocks, and whose hours erupted in cacophonous gongs and chimes and whistles and tweets (in the cases, of course, of the cuckoo clocks). sleeping at grandma’s, for both of us, meant falling asleep and awaking to clang upon clang upon cuckoo.

long ago, in our very first house, we hung on our wall a simple kitchen clock, one with gingerbread carvings and etchings in paint the color of gold. it had belonged to the tall one’s grandfather, and i’ve long considered it the heart sound of this old house. i didn’t need another one.

but the man i married started thinking about clocks a few years ago, when i was writing a book called “slowing time,” and he thought a clock was the perfect way to mark the birth of that dream. we’d considered a true grandfather clock, one that stood against the wall like a wood-limbed soldier. every once in a while we’d amble through a clock shop, one where the clocks came with history, and sometimes with pedigree.

then we traveled to london, and beelined our way to big ben, the best clock that ever there was, you might argue (and i might). we stood beneath that tower of chiming and gonging, feeling the sidewalk beneath us quiver with the vibration of the bells. we listened and listened, made sure we were there for high noon and midnight, to get the full bravura.

a year passed, and for me, another decade ended, a new one began. we went back to the clock shop, and this time, we both stopped in front of the clock that sounded just like big ben.

my beloved blair bought it, the clock man gave it a cleaning, and a few days later i drove back to carefully carefully carry it home.

it’s home now. it chimes now. we call it little ben. every time i hear its chimes, i melt all over again. i can’t seem to help it.

my sweet blair, a very wise soul in the deepest and surest of ways, he stood back the other evening, the glow of the lamps falling across his face, and whispered quietly, “it’s a celebration of time.”

and it is. every minute noted, every quarter hour chimed. every hour a loud and resonant reminder: the time is now, savor it.

bless you, and thank you, sweet blair. and little ben, too.

if you click the link just below the clock (way above), you can hear a bit of the ticking and half-hour chiming (i hope!). and be sure to note that i’ve linked to big ben announcing high noon in the paragraph near the bottom, the one about traveling to london. both are your clock songs for the day. 

a few things i learned about westminster chimes: they first rang out from the church of st. mary the great, in cambridge, england. the year was 1793. the chimes are comprised of four permutations of four pitches, all in the key of E major. three crotchets (or quarter notes) are followed by a minim (half note). and they’re believed to be a set of variations on the four notes that make up the fifth and sixth measures of “I know that my Redeemer liveth” from handel’s messiah. they were first heard in america in 1875, ringing out from the steeple of trinity episcopal church in williamsport, pennsylvania. and, the first two notes are the very ones heard to this day on every NYC subway train, warning that doors are about to close. the whole shebang is played at yankee stadium whenever the home team scores. and if there’s a 3-point shot that glides through the basket on the LA laker’s home court, you’ll hear it there too. 

do you, too, love the tick and the tock of a clock? do you have a clock story to tell? what are the sounds that most soothe you, or make you feel as if God is whispering in your ear?

and into my kitchen, they all congregated

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i’d ordered the brisket, five pounds of first-cut beast, as instructed. i was due to dash out the door to the butcher’s at the agreed-upon hour, but first i needed to quick-read my passover checklist. so i pulled my family cookery book off the shelf, the one where, over the years, i’ve tucked snippets and pages and odd scribbled notes. it’s my holding yard for guideposts to brisket and kugel and those chopped balls of fish called gefilte — decades and centuries of recipes, really, passed one generation to the next.

in my case, it’s the fat stash of invitations into an ancient tradition that was not mine, but now is. in my case, it’s my compendium of adopted jewish mothers and grandmothers and aunties and surrogate whisperers over my shoulder, all committed to paper and ink, and clicked into a three-ring binder.

and that’s when the first kitchen companion — unseen but certainly sensed — came into the room. before i got to the tab marked “jewish holidays,” i’d flipped open a page, and there was a name staring out at me, the name of my irish friend who’d just died, tagged in crisp typed letters at the bottom of her blueberry cake, one she must have passed along because once i’d oohed and ahh-ed. i paused for a moment, picturing her, picturing her blueberries, picturing her rare nod to domesticity (though she always loved a great meal). and then i turned another page; i found another now-departed instructor of kitchen arts. i scanned over the words, her careful instruction, her side whispers and peculiar idiosyncrasies, always tucked off to the margin in parenthetical insistence. (“Try not to burn it.” “yes, tablespoons,” “don’t food process, or you will have mush,” “it’s OK if it seeps over the rest…”)

i came to the brisket, the one my boys practically lick off the plate. i followed my scribbles for haroset, the mortar of apples and walnuts and cinnamon and honey, with a splash of manishewitz kosher concord wine. i read through kugel, one i’d not made before, but one my boys have counted on, ever since their very first passover at the long, long table of tribune folk, the one that for them will forever be synonymous with the exodus from egypt. with every page i turned, i drew in another to my sacred kitchen circle: harlene ellin’s mama, queen of the brisket; ina, whose claim to fame (besides her long-standing, much-loved chicago breakfast eatery) is the seltzer she adds to her matzoh balls to make them “floaters” of cloud-like proportion; andrea, who wandered by the other day, and did not scoot off before penning an all-new kugel and a middle-eastern charoset, now added to my collection.

and then, assured of my passover-cooking itinerary, i reached on the shelf for the mini-sized chopper of apples i’d employ for making old-fashioned haroset. as i lifted the sharp blade and bowl from the box, out toppled a post-it, now nearly 23 years old. it was from the grandma of my heart, my grandmother-in-law whom i loved fromIMG_7512 the get-go. just weeks after our firstborn was born, she’d packed up the mini-chopper and sent it from west palm beach to our little house in chicago. she tucked in a note, in her signature scribble: “dear children,” she began, declaring straight off that she counted me one of her own. “perhaps you will be able to grind veg. for willie when he is ready for them.” and suddenly grandma syl (“the teaneck tornado,” they called all four-foot-nine of her) was there in the kitchen beside me, pressing against my shoulder blade, her tousled silvery head barely reaching the top of my arm. wasn’t long till i was awash in the tears that come when remembering hurtles you back in time, erases the years, fills your head and your heart with unmistakeable presence. i could hear the squeak of her voice. i could feel, in an instant, as if it was the summer of 1993 all over again, the weight of the lump in my arms, the newborn lump who’d precipitated the need, apparently, for a rapid-fire way to make baby puree. (and, as i stood there blinking away my tears, i re-sealed my vow never to toss out a love note or a scrap that might come tumbling from the pages of a book, or the contents of a gift box, swirling you back in time every time, rekindling the thump of the heart that won’t ever fade.)

and so it went, hour upon hour yesterday. as i chopped and stirred and cranked the oven. by day’s end, when the table was set with dishes passed from one china cabinet to the next, when i’d pulled the haggadahs from the shelf, found the seating chart from last year, with yet another name no longer among us, i’d filled my house with those i’ve loved and lost.

it must be the sorrow that’s made me more porous this year. that, according to celtic tradition, has made for the thinning between heaven and earth, that’s pushed my soul soft up against the sacred openings, where angels seep in.

and why not fill my jewish holiday kitchen, my passover kitchen, with page after page of those who’ve shown me the way? those who took my unfamiliar irish-catholic hand, and led me into the back lanes and secret passageways of this jewish-catholic marriage? why not invite them all into my kitchen for the day, and set a place at the table — at my heart — for each and every one of them?

so tonight, when i bow my head and strike the match to light the blessed shabbat and pesach candles, everyone else will count a mere five at the table. i, though, will feel the embrace of a whole company of cookstove companions and patron saints of jewish cookery. and i will offer up a litany of prayer for each and every one of them. each and every one of the ones who’ve shown me the shortcuts to heaven, where too many now reside.

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brisket, before its overnight nap in the fridge

do you too find cookery books, the homespun kind, fill your kitchen with those you’ve loved, and those who’ve shown you particular ways? 

p.s. i know i promised field notes from my poetry get-away, and those will come — next week, perhaps. the bottom line was that paying attention is at the heart of poetry and prayer, and we’re all the richer for keeping a keen eye to the mystery and miracle that abounds.

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haroset: apples, walnuts, cinnamon, honey, with a splash of manishewitz

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roasted shank bone, roasted egg for the seder plate

history: lost and found

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four of us, before there were five of us. 

i’ve been pulled into the mists and folds of history, family history, tumbling across generations and centuries, drawn back to beginnings. and what’s pummeling me more than anything is the sense of stories lost. i sift through the barest scraps of biography: birth, death, name (or, too often, too confusingly, derivation of name, not the name that will lead me to slips of paper that nail down history, as much as history can be relied upon, can be trusted to those who put ink to government forms).

it began with a wisp of a note from my brother, a short bit of digging about our kentucky roots. didn’t take long to hop to ireland, that homeland that stirs me in ancient, primal ways. my attention — despite a deadline that pounds at me by the hour — was captured. i couldn’t resist. and in the wonders of the world we live in, a few clicks away i found birth dates and days of someones’ last breaths. any time i stumbled on a document, found corroboration for hint, for approximation of fact or of timeline, i heard a faint sigh. one more story with beginning or end. soon, but not yet, i will begin to sift through those dates, search for overlappings, for patterns, for sense. connect the dots, literally. fill in what i can of the story.

i finally determined that i’m only three generations away from ireland, at least on one strand of my story. i learned, too, because i found a letter along the way, that my irish great grandpa, teddy (though officially timothy, or thaddeus, depending on the document), spoke with a brogue so thick, so old-country, he was hard to understand for those who bumped into him on the streets of paris, kentucky, where my papa was born.

on my mama’s side, i tumbled into some stroke of genealogical good fortune when my tapping around bumped into someone else’s hours and hours of archival digging, and suddenly i was looking at 16 generations — dating all the way back to 1470 in the year of our Lord, dear Lord. i was charmed, on this side of familiar affairs, to discover that besides the name barbara (which i’d always been told had a long family history), the other name spotted with alarming frequency was none other than — hold your chairs, here — Apollonia. my favorite: one Apollonia Winter, born in 1659. she must be my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandmama. i admit to being charmed to have an apollonia for a grandma. (although my serial and lifelong protests of my own barbed name might now be put to permanent rest, for what if they’d reached in the archival closet and pulled out the feminine nod to Apollo, variously regarded as god of music, truth and prophecy, healing, the sun and light, plague, and poetry.)

by the end of the day’s digging and clicking i had a spread sheet that filled a few screens, and yet, i knew so little. while somehow i found comfort, embraced in the arms of time spread across decades, century, millennia, i was washed in a profound sense of loss — of stories lost. of moments of heroism, or plain old hearts cracked. i wondered what kept apollonia awake at night. i wondered who caught her fancy. did she know what it was to bury a child? and what of all the men i noticed, especially on the irish side, who’d buried a wife, and then started all over again (a predilection that sprang forth my very own papa). and, because it’s february, and because long ago now, my own papa died on the 10th of this month, i find myself achingly missing him all over again. only slighted comforted typing the name and the line of his mama, my dear anna mae shannon, born 1896, died february, 1954.

there was a yin to this yang, though, and it unfolded the other night, well past bedtime for my freshman in high school, the formerly named “little one” whose adventures have so filled these pull up a chair pages. he sat down for some reason, and pulled up a chair, and for a good hour or so i heard him giggling and sighing as he clicked from story to story. he was reading the bits of history i’ve left behind, the scraps i’ve put here on the table. for him. for his brother.

all along i’ve said the number one reason i write these tales from the front is so that my boys will have a record. a record of love, more than anything. i want them to be able to pore over the grains of their growing up years. i want them — and, goodness, maybe even their children’s children — to know the stories. to be able to grasp a detail or two, so it’s not lost. so that the whole of one someone’s life — and more importantly her love, her heart — isn’t washed away with my very last breath.

i’d give anything to gather up the scraps of story from long long ago.

i think of my father’s words to me, shortly before he died, one of the very last times i rested my head on his chest. we were standing in front of the refrigerator in the house where i grew up. he’d just read a love letter i’d written to him, to each one in my family. he said simply, strikingly at the time: “you have a real sense of history.” he could see what i didn’t yet know. and then he was gone from my everyday.

and that sense of history, one filled with so many blanks, it haunts me, it pulls me. it propels me to gather up stories. before they’re lost to all time.

has anyone gathered the stories at your house?

power of five. five.

and here is the fifth of our five, my forever dream come true.

any hour now

my papa and me, taking a walk.

love letters lost

love letters lost hands

sifting through the cyber-ashes, gathering up a flake or two of text, pausing long enough to read, to remember, to let the tears fill and fall. feeling the full-throttle pang of if-that’s-what’s-left-how-very-much-was-lost?

i’ve found the snippet dated april 10, 2009, on the eve of a baby’s birth, in which i wrote to the expectant mama and papa: “i am certain that we have entered into holy time….” a beautiful baby girl was born deep in the middle-night four days later. the email marked the beginning of the hardening rhythms of that labor and delivery.

i’ve been scribbling life’s every twist and turn, long as i can remember. i mark time with typed-out missives. short or long or in-between, doesn’t matter. all that matters is that, for me, it’s putting life to paper, etching time with written record.

i’ve found the one i sent hours after delivering our firstborn to his leafy college, in which i wrote: “poor teddy sobbed silently, melted in tears.” august 29, 2011. i’d sent that one off to my mama, who wanted to know how the parting went.

and there’s the one, three months later, when that firstborn came home for the very first time, and at the dawn of that first morning while he slept, back in the bed above where i was typing, i wrote to my brother: “i suddenly feel whole for the first time in three months….”

i even found the email, carefully tucked away in my meticulously organized treasury of emails — a virtual apothecary chest of drawers within drawers, each one labeled and stuffed with cyber-snippets — from november 4, 2008, when one newly-elected barack obama sent out a note letting me (and a few million other cyber-pals) know that we’d just made history and, by the way, he was heading over soon to grant park, a moment in history — a moment in my email trove — that won’t soon be forgotten.

i have been sifting through all week, discovering what was lost and what was saved. i find notes from the mother of a dying child who wrote, “as they say at NASA, failure is not an option.” another to a friend whose husband had just died, and who i tried to fill with comfort in the best way i know — words dispatched from the pulsing place deep inside my heart. yet another to a friend whose unborn baby girl had just died. and another, a note from the intensive care unit where our firstborn lay with a fractured neck bone. and one my little one (nine at the time) wrote to his uncle, “i will love max all my life,” after his uncle’s beloved golden retriever up and died.

it’s birth and death, and all the touch points in between. it’s loss and hearts filled up. it’s history and how i breathe.

i write because words for me are the vessels in which i pour my unharness-able heart. i pay acute attention to nuance and particulars. i make up words to try to stretch the periphery of that place that holds so much. i want the people in my world to know they’re not alone, they’re loved, their murky shadow is pierced by shard of light. there is a hand to squeeze in the darkness, and i offer it in words.

i render communion in banged-out letters on a keyboard.

and when your hard drive fails, and the trusted back-up drive does too, when you fall in the unheard-of 0.5 percent, you lose crucial threads, you lose what matters, you ache and you weep, the tears spilling to the keyboard.

and so it’s been all week, as i sift and sort and flag bits and snippets that piece the long-winding narrative — the story of a love that’s flowed without end for all the years i’ve been typing.

among the many chapters lost: the one of a boy with a broken neck and his triumphant bar mitzvah three weeks later; the story of that boy wending his way through high school and — finally, achingly (for his mother anyway) — heading off to college. i’ve lost all the emails that i sent, at every turn in those early far-from-home days that turned to weeks and months of learning how to be a long-distance mama. i’ve lost the emails i sent to beloved teachers, kindergarten through college. and, to pinpoint yet another now-missing chapter, the emails bandied back and forth between my sweet life mate and moi, as we decided whether to up and leave our house, our life, our humdrum everyday, to move for one short year to cambridge, mass., to go back to college, to dwell beyond our comfort zone.

in the life story of a family, much unfolds over the course of eight years. back when i first started typing on this particular apparatus, one boy had just turned 13, the other was barely five. i was working at a newspaper, longing to work from home. george bush was president. my brother’s first wife had just died. neither my beloved niece nor nephew had yet been imagined. my mother hadn’t been told that she had a tumor growing in her belly.

i recorded it all in the little blasts i type and send nearly every single morning, and through the whole day long.

the nice and very smart geniuses who live in apple-land, they did the best they could. for days and days and hours without end (or so it seemed when our phone calls ticked into sixth straight hour, three days in a row). but the sent emails could not be saved. nor the photo albums, all carefully edited and curated. i got back raw images, some 20,000, and i will sift and sort and delete the blurry ones, as i’d done before, in all those hours now lost. the books i’d made from those images — pictures and text, page after page — all gone.

and so, on this day of hearts and cut-out valentines, when words are scribbled in silly rhymes and riddles, i am left to consider love letters lost. and to hope and pray that the echo of what they meant, and what they tried to hold up to the light, i am left hoping that it lives on where it was birthed — deep inside me, deep inside the soul of a girl who’s been holding tight a pencil all her life, trying again and again to get it on paper, to get it right, this immeasurable, unfathomable force of life, of love, of understanding.

the one that sometimes is spelled out in quiet little emails. ones that arrive with nothing but the ping of a flat black box telling you something from the heart has just landed. please read, and know that you are loved.

forgive me for dwelling one more week on this nasty mess of a cyber-crash. it’s been just awful, the slow dawning realization of chunk after chunk that’s simply gone, vanished, kaput, kerpluey. like so many other losses in life, we console ourselves with the deep down truth that in the end the only thing that can’t be stolen, can’t be crushed, or lost, is the imperceptible and vast catalog of memory, of what’s held in our hearts and souls and minds. 

what love letters do you hold closest to your heart?

all at once

before i was barely awake, before i’d lifted that first cup of wake-up to my thirsty lips, i was reaching for the red-polka-dot binder that has long been my guide through days like today.

after 20 years — that’s 20 passovers and 20 high holidays, 20 purims and 20 briskets with latkes aplenty — i’ve stuffed so many road guides into one fat pocket, that all i need do is flip to the itty-bitty tag marked “jewish holidays” and a whole chorus of voices rises up, whispers, cajoles, reminds, takes the pan from my hand and shows me the right way, her way, of course.

oh, there’s grandma syl in there, and audrey, my adopted jewish mother. there’s jan’s mom with her working-girl’s-guide-to-making-a-seder. and harlene’s mom with her now famous brisket. why, the whole los angeles times test kitchen is stuffed in that slip, weighing in with their rendition of noodle kugel, though not the one i’ll use today.

i’ve got the rabbi’s wife’s gefilte fish, step-by-step on a yellow legal pad, back from the day i spent at her side in her kitchen, sloshing and dunking those fish balls just the way she instructed. and, scribbled on a paper napkin not too many pages later, i’ve got the matzo balls that ina pinkney, one of chicago’s great jewish mamas, insisted, in her much-above-the-din stage whisper, would keep my hubby happy forever. so far, so good.

they are my chorus, my girls, my back-up squad, there for me every time i, irish catholic as the day is long, tiptoe into the kosher kitchen to make like a bubbe.

and today, the climb is a steep one. i’ve got to crank out a kosher-for-passover kugel for 10, one that calls for farfel, 6 cups, doused and swimming in 6 cups hot water. mind you, i’ve never touched a box of farfel, let alone taken it swimming.

but i’ve got to get it all done, signed, sealed, awaiting delivery, by noon.

because today is an all-at-once day of supreme proportion.

in addition to being the first night of passover, it is the somberest day in my book: it’s good friday, and i am biologically wired for silence from noon to three, when the sky will go dark, will rumble, when the whole world — just watch, i always tell my boys — will weep for the long-ago death of jesus there on the cross.

it’s a full plate today, yes indeed, and right through the weekend, as the holiest of days unfold flat atop the retelling of the exodus, the action-filled story of moses leading his people — our people — out of egypt, across the red sea and on into the promised land.

it’s a story whose retelling for more years than i’ve been married has pulled me to the tables of crowds now synonymous with the seder. i’ll be back at the seat at the tables where i’ve sat single, and newly engaged, where i was a new bride, then a pregnant one, and, for all the years after, the mother of one boy then two who were growing up as i now am: weaving their jewish and catholic stories into one unbreakable braid.

but, far back as i can remember, the first night of passover hasn’t fallen on what we call good friday, a name that always prompts my boys to ask, “why is it good if jesus died?”

good question; one, like so many, that’s hard to answer. but when you raise your children jewish and catholic you get used to that; there are many good questions hard to answer, so you get used to thinking aloud.

fact is, i’ll be scrambling all morning, groping my way through this roadmap of a recipe for johanna’s farfel-soaked noodle kugel. it’s a recipe that melts me into a puddle of kosher-for-passover butter because, without even closing my eyes, i can see my little one, his arms still chubby in that baby-fat way, reaching across the table, grabbing for the spoon, because it was perhaps the first exotic thing he ever loved. and, oh, he loved it. and after so many years of watching him love it, spoon it high onto his plate, and gulp it down, i finally managed to get the recipe from johanna. and today i tiptoe into the land of farfel.

it’ll be out of the oven, if all goes as planned, by the time the clock strikes 12.

that’s when i’ll be up in my window seat, with all my holy books spread around me.

already i am achingly missing my usual companion in that sun-soaked window nook: for all of his high-school years, my firstborn joined me, though it never took long for him to slide down under a blanket and doze, while i drank in the stories, retracing the stations of the cross, jesus’ long cruel walk to calvary.

but we were together, he and i in silence, and even though my open wounds of missing him have healed over plenty, even though i can get through a week without hearing even a syllable of his voice, today, in the silence, i will miss him.

i keep saying  — and it’s true — grief is like that. for long unbroken spells of time, you’re just fine, used to someone you love no longer being around, but then, out of the blue — a sound, a smell, a thought — it hits you like an anvil over the head — or is it the heart? — and there you are oozing in the wide-open emptiness that just might swallow you whole.

might be fitting, come to think of it, that on this day of remembering — remembering the exodus, remembering jesus’ last hours, and most of all his last gasp of holy forgiveness — “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing” — i should spend a solid few hours aching for my faraway firstborn son, as i absorb once again the afternoon of shadows.

and then, well before sundown, i will slide my farfel-soaked kugel off the counter, and carry it back to the passover table whose story i now know by heart.

it’s the way i’ve come to know it on days like this, all-at-once days, guided as ever, by my chorus of cooks stashed there in the polka-dot binder.

here’s all i managed to scribble, on a pink sheet of paper, marked “Johanna’s Kugel”:

6 cups farfel

6 cups water, soak up &…[i am giving you these notes precisely as i scribbled them, thus you can see the holes in my roadmap]

6 eggs — beat 1st, then add

2/3 c. sugar

2/3 cup brown sugar

3-1/2 t. cinnamon

1-1/2 t. salt

9 Tbsp oil

6 apples

lemon juice

mix. bake 350 degrees. 35-40 minutes.

and now, you too, can swim in the land of waterlogged farfel

how will you spend these holy days? 

coming home

as much as i loved tiptoeing down to the porch that wrapped around the grand old hotel, as much as i loved creaking in those old wicker rocking chairs, my palms wrapped round the mugs of first-of-the-morning coffee, the just-blooming, just-exploding viburnum and magnolia doing a perfumed waltz up my nose, i am home now, and already i’m thinking there is no place that soothes me quite like coming back in the door of the place that knows me, the place that i know, that i love, that keeps time right with my heart.

we took ourselves a little road trip this week. not too far. not too long. down to nooks and crannies of the southern midwest, to hilly southern indiana, near where it brushes up against kentucky, and on over to kentucky, too. to where my roots begin.

on a bit of a whim, we rode out to the itty-bitty country town of paris. yes, as in kentucky, 14 miles north and east of lexington. out to where my papa was a boy, out to the horse farms he knew like family, even though he lived in town, before they up and moved to the big city, to get my papa to schools his mama must have decided were a better fit for a boy with a school mind like his.

the closer we got to paris, the more i missed my papa, missed him like i’d just left him yesterday but couldn’t ever get him back. i missed him so much my heart started to hurt as we rode along the road they call the paris pike, where century-old stone fences line the farms that roll, acre upon acre, blue-grass mile after blue-grass mile.

i wasn’t quite sure how to get to the farm that we claim as our own, the one whose name you might find on the can of baking powder there at the back of your pantry. calumet is the one. calumet farm. and my papa grew up there; his big brother, the one he loved who died in the war, he ran the place, and all these years later, when i sit down to watch the derby, the kentucky derby of course, i hear someone whisper “calumet,” or i see the crimson-and-white silks the calumet jockey always wears, and my heart skips a beat.

“our farm,” i think, as if a connection from back in the 1930s and ’40s, holds one drop of weight anymore. and sure enough, when we got there, the crimson iron gate was closed, all but locked. and the fellow who came to the phone let me know i wasn’t someone for whom they’d swing it open. place was closed for the day, he said loud and clear, made sure i heard it all the way at the end of the very long drive, even though we were talking over the dial-up intercom planted there by the gatehouse, and i heard every word all right. so i stood there on the outside of the locked, lacy ironwork, feeling quite wholly my place in its history: shut out. an insignificant afterthought. nothing more than a nuisance, there where they won’t let you in.

but before that, when i’d stopped in the offices of the town newspaper, and told the nice ladies that my papa grew up there, and i was looking for calumet farm, well, they couldn’t have been kinder. they all but pulled out the kentucky pie, and a plate and a fork. all but poured me a cup of afternoon coffee. instead, they asked me my papa’s name. then they started to tell me all about his family, where they lived, where they went to church. i tell you, no one with his last name has lived there for a long long time. but in little towns like paris, kentucky, they remember. make you feel just like family, there in the newspaper office on main.

but not at the gates of the farm now owned by someone altogether new. someone from far, far away, i’ve been told.

for four days and four nights, i slept in beds that don’t know my particular lumps. drank coffee that wasn’t brewed in my pot. i walked and looked and listened, and found myself quite content, out discovering a part of the middle of america i hadn’t seen in a long long time, and other parts i’d never seen before.

i do love mucking about, discovering, finding the familiar far far away.

but, once again, as always, i discovered just a short while ago that the familiar that i love best, the familiar that soothes me through and through, is the familiar that i know by heart: the particular tick and tock of all our old clocks, the pit-a-pat of the old cat’s paws as he ambled down the steps once he heard us there in the kitchen.

why, i love tossing old car-bumped apples back in the bin, finding everything there in the fridge where i left it, only a bit more wrinkled and the milk gone sour. i even found myself humming as i threw the first load of road-trip clothes into the wash, the machine whose groans and burps i know inside and out.

coming home will always be the closest i come to purring, pure and simple. give me the floorboards that creak just where i know they will. give me the garden whose every bulb i tucked in that holy sacred earth.

i’ll miss those front-porch rocking chairs, come morning. but the coffee will be just the way i like it, with two or three shakes of cinnamon, there on top of the mound before i close the lid and wait.

back home in my kitchen, humming.

what do you love best about coming home? or are you a travelin’ soul? 

and just in case you are interested, that lovely porch and those rocking chairs can be found at the west baden springs hotel, in west baden, indiana, just this side of the hoosier national forest, not far from brown county, a place worth a road trip, indeed.

one last bit of homecoming joy: my mama, closest thing i know to a saint plenty of days, she came by to stock the fridge and leave two fat bouquets of viburnums on the countertop, right beside the kitchen sink, so when we walked in from the road trip, first thing i inhaled was the viburnum waltz, same as the one that made me swoon back on the west baden’s wrap-around porch. oh, i wish there was a smell button here, so i could waft it right by your nose. you’ll just have to close your eyes now, and pretend. try this: imagine what heaven would smell like, if it bloomed on a bush.