Ode to Food

Food, glorious food!

Sumptuous tastes of

Slowly roasted beef

Drowned in onions

Covered in gravy

 

Potatoes gently

Browned, sprinkled

With parsley and chives

Arranged in spirals

Delicate designs

 

Green beans bathing in

Mushroom sauce, topped

With fried onions

Or drenched with butter

Stacked like lucky logs

 

Delightful desserts

Sugary cookies

Mouth melting cakes

Devilish  custards

Compelling desire

 

More, much more, awaiting

Consumption by

Mere mortals yearning

To taste the nectar

Of the golden gods

 

Food, glorious food!

Coming Home

Grandma and Grandpa Williams’ house rested on the crest of a small hill overlooking the Ohio River near the Gallipolis dam.  From the porch, if I looked between the houses across the road, I saw numerous barges and freighters, some clearly full, riding low, just above water line.  Others bounced on the wake of passing ships, much like a bar of soap floating in a tub of hot water.

Sunday afternoons were spent with my brother and I chewing the gum my mother forbade, while Grandpa worked on accurately spitting tobacco juice into an old tin can.  When he missed, there was a disgusting splat, adding to a constantly growing pile of partially digested tobacco.  I pretended not to see or hear, preferring to watch the ships and speculate as to what the cargo might be and where the ships might be going.

Much of their house was a combination of put-together rooms, a rather ramshackle affair that, at one time or another, housed up to ten people.  Not one board on the outside had ever seen a drop of paint, and the roof was nothing more than tin sheets nailed together in an overlapping pattern.  It didn’t leak, which was all my grandparents cared about. I worried about how they kept warm during Ohio’s cold, snowy winters.

The house was so old that there was no electricity or running water inside.  Grandma Williams lit the house with candles and kerosene lanterns, long enough to do “piece-work,” as she called it, for a few hours after dark.  She had a pedal-operated sewing machine that she used for “fine” stitching, such as sewing on a lace collar or finishing off her quilts.  Spools of thread sorted by color, with white always on the top, were stacked on a rounded stick that Grandpa had lovingly whittled.

Grandma’s hand sewing was accurate and precise, each stitch neatly following the next, marching in a straight line of equal length and breadth.  It amazed me that she could create such perfection without benefit of modern machinery, and while I owned one of the best sewing machines available, my workmanship fell into the barely adequate, yet serviceable category.

A coal-burning stove sat majestically in the front room, providing the only heat for the house.  When the stove was “cookin’,” as Grandpa colorfully said, no one could stand within a few feet of it without feeling feverish.  Next to the stove sat a black tub filled with odd sized chunks of coal and next to that, a dusty black shovel.

When Grandpa opened the door in the front of the stove to dump in scoops of coal, the interior reminded me of the fires of hell. While I relished the warmth it created, I was terrified of being sucked into its cavernous interior. The fire called to me, hypnotizing me, saying, “Come closer, come closer.”  Only when the door was shut and firmly latched was I able to break free and step away.

There wasn’t much in the way of furniture.  A crate served as an end table, covered with a dishtowel hand embroidered in rose-colored flowers and meandering vines.  A kerosene lantern took center place, with odds and ends scattered about, ceramic and pewter “doodads” that folks had given Grandma over the years.  Crystal birds, miniature horses, and dolls’ heads stood with a grace befitting gold bracelets and diamond tiaras.  While Grandma encouraged me to touch her beloved treasures, I never did; I was too afraid of breaking both the item and her memory.

There was a loveseat big enough for two and a half grownups, but plenty of room for four kids.  The cushioned seat lifted up, disclosing storage room underneath, like a pirate’s chest holding gold doubloons.  This is where Grandma kept her quilts and pillows, always ready for company in case anyone stopped by looking for a place to sleep.  Every quilt was of a different folk pattern, all made by Grandma, all perfectly crafted in mesmerizing patterns of shape and color.  The fabrics Grandma used amazed me: pieces of Grandpa’s well-worn overalls, a sleeve from Uncle Dowie’s flannel shirt, a pocket from a gingham apron, and the collar from her old calico blouse.

Not one picture hung on the walls or sat on a flat surface.  My grandparents believed that a person’s soul was a tenuous thing, easily stolen, and so they forbade photographs either being displayed or being taken.

As they aged, my grandparents relaxed a bit in their beliefs, and so after much begging, allowed the taking of two well-cherished photos which now sit in my bookcase as reminders of two people who loved me unconditionally.

Grandma’s kitchen was so small that two people could manage to work in there at the same time, but only by carefully orchestrating the changing of places.  When we visited, my mother helped while I watched from the back porch.  Too little to help, too inexperienced in the art of cooking, all I was capable of doing was running for more wood or sweeping up spilled flour. What amazed me, however, was the magical dance the two most important women in my life performed as they, soundlessly, moved past each other, butts touching in a tender way.

Longing to share in their loving togetherness, I stayed close enough that one of them could reach out and brush my cheek.  Sometimes my grandma blessed me with a floury kiss or a sticky touch, and then my heart leapt like a stag through the forest.

Along one wall was a good-sized cast iron stove.  A box of cut wood sat nearby.  Off and on Grandma picked up a stick, opened the bottom door of the stove and threw in the wood.  She then wiped her hands on her well-worn gingham apron and went back to peeling and coring apples or rolling out a crust or boiling eggs.

She cooked with heavy cast iron skillets that she stored inside the oven, and cast iron pans that stayed stacked on the flat burners until she put them to use.  She did own a few cheap aluminum cookie sheets, pie tins, and measuring cups that were dented like pockmarked faces, but she didn’t like to use them, believing that food never came out tasting as good as when cooked in cast iron.

Along the opposite wall of the kitchen was a metal sink as dull as an unpolished car.  On the end nearest the window was a hand pump that intrigued me.  Lifting the handle up and down, up and down, again and again, brought the coldest, crispest water imaginable.

When, Grandma pumped her arm muscles bulged with effort.   For the longest time, nothing happened, and then a dribble showed up, followed by another and another. The dribbles turned into a gush, caught by the bucket that Grandma hung just under the faucet.  As the bucket filled, I often wondered why it didn’t slip, no matter how full it got. Grandma never explained the mystery to me, but when I was much older and touring an old Louisiana plantation, the docent pointed to a barely discernable niche in the spout, just deep enough to hold a bucket handle in place: and then I understood.

Grandma knew how much I yearned for her attention, without my saying so.  One of the first things she did whenever we arrived was to bring me into the kitchen, dip the cup into the bucket and give me a cool drink of water.  She smiled as I drank, and then patted my head as softly as she would a newborn babe.  Grandma didn’t have to do much to let me know that I was loved, even though she never said the words.

Off the kitchen was the porch: Grandma’s greenhouse.  Over the years Grandpa had enclosed the room, using pieces of discarded wood and scraps of screen.  The floor’s composition was equally mismatched: boards and bricks, tiles and dirt. Being a hodgepodge affair, the porch emitted an aura unlike anything else I knew.  It was homey and peculiar, safe and mysterious.  A place of growth and death.

There were no tables, just a collection of old boards balanced on homemade sawhorses, reminiscent of shacks built by hoboes in days gone by.  Every flat surface was covered with plants: mostly vegetable, some flower.  They grew in cans, ceramic pots, old buckets and cups, tubs, glassware, all of various sizes and shapes.

Knowing that my mother would not have tolerated such a mishmash made Grandma’s collection even more amazing.  As a child I thought plants required properly identified, single purpose pots, but Grandma’s green house proved me wrong.  Her touch was as golden as King Midas’ in the fairy tales, for greenery sprouted far and wide.

Grandma carefully pinched off dead leaves, repotted plants that had grown too large for their containers, watered each plant, one by one with a gentle spray of water.  She hummed as she worked, quiet tunes that were mostly hymnals that I recognized from records my mom listened to in the afternoons when my dad was at work.

Once I joined in the humming, thinking that my grandma might share her love of music with me, bonding us together as tightly as a snail and its shell, but that was a mistake.  Grandma, immersed in her labor of love, had forgotten that anyone else was around until she heard my child’s soft voice blending with hers. Her face registered surprise and then horror, almost as if I had caught her performing a criminal act.  From then on, Grandma never hummed when I was nearby.

There was only one bedroom.  A large feather bed took up most of the space. A few of Grandma’s quilts covered the bed and a pair of pillows stuffed with chicken feathers sat at the head.  One for Grandma.  One for Grandpa.  A lace doily, reminiscent of the ones Spanish dancers wore in storybooks, daintily covered each pillow. The bed was surprisingly soft, an amazing thing for a child whose mattress was as hard as the cement floor of a garage.  I loved to crawl up on the bed, stretch out full length, and sink into the comforting softness.

The only other piece of furniture was a chest of drawers.  It was of a dark wood, with four drawers and mismatched knobs. A large doily spread across the top, along with Grandma’s hairbrush and hand mirror, facial powder and lotion, barrettes and combs and even a ragged hairnet or two.

If I looked closely at the knobs, I saw indentations where Grandma’s fingernails cut into the soft wood and smudge marks where Grandpa’s farm-dirt hands pulled open his drawers.

Next to the bed was an oval rag rug.  Grandma made one for the living room as well.  Beginning with odd sized scraps of cloth, Grandma twisted each piece into a “rope” of color, then wound and wound the rope around its center until a large oval took shape.

Most of the colors were shades of blue, pieces from overalls Grandpa had worn through.  One of my favorite things to do was to sit on the rug and run my fingers along the track of the rope, inside out, outside in, sensing Grandma’s tender touch as surely as a baker senses the yeast working to raise the dough.

Because there was no running water, there was no indoor bathroom.  One of the sons had built an outhouse in the field behind the greenhouse; nothing more than a narrow building with a plank for a toilet seat.  High on one wall a narrow window provided the only light, and that was always kept open thanks to a couple of nails and a piece of twine.  No toilet paper.  Old store catalogues with missing pages sat next to the hole, giving indication as to how they disappeared.

Flies buzzed around and spider webs clung to the ceiling.  The stench was indescribable and unforgettable, the sight intolerable and sickening.

Not understanding the nature of outhouses, I wondered why it was in a different spot on every visit.  Years passed before I broached such a sensitive topic. My Uncle Joe roared with laughter, making a point of sharing my outlandish question with every member of the family within calling distance.  From then on, whenever I stepped foot on my grandparent’s gravel driveway, somoene hollered out the location of the outhouse, to my endless embarrassment.

Primitive though it was, my grandparent’s house was bursting with love.  Anyone who wandered up from down below found a warm meal, warm hearts, warm fire, accompanied by welcoming company.

To me, arriving at the small house at the crest of the hill was like coming home.

 

 

Our Life Stories

 

all of life is a series of

nonstories

the might-have-beens

the almost becames

the things we dreamt of

doing

but never did

the wishes unfulfilled

presents never delivered

or received

places never visited

near-misses

chance occurrences

that developed into nothing

the left-behinds

and

soon-to-be forgottens

all stories untold

mysteries locked

romances closeted

things never experienced

foods never tasted

but secretly yearned for

nonstories frozen in place

and time

with no characters to lament

plots stagnant

themes dragging behind

do we obsess

over the lost stories

and live life in a

vacuum?

NO

we constantly create

our personal life stories

our dreams springing to

a life lived luxuriously

laughing joyously

over the endless

possibilities

My Legacy

When I am gone what do I expect?

Do I want people to miss me? You bet.

But not for long.

I want them to think fondly

Of whatever good I might have done

To recall interesting experiences we shared,

But then I want them to move on,

Forging their lives as the independent people

I hope they are.

My legacy is formed by my writing,

My singing, my service to church,

My work as a teacher

Being mother, wife, friend.

That’s enough for one person,

Don’t you think?

I pray that I won’t leave behind

Too many memories of mistakes I made,

Too many thoughts of things I said

That hurt feelings

The times I wasn’t empathetic enough

The times when I was so self-focused

That I failed to see the worry in those around me.

That’s not the legacy I hope to leave behind.

I don’t hope for fame after I am gone,

Which is good as there will be none.

I am an ordinary person who lived an ordinary life.

That’s my legacy and that’s enough for me.

 

 

Childhood Joys

well-loved children with sparkling eyes,

rosy cheeks, and happy smiles

glittering with unbounded joy

freely bestowing generous hugs and

warm kisses that leave cheeks glistening

with reminders of their passing.

 

laughter peels from hallway rooms,

giggles rising to the gloriously blue sky,

caressing souls, nourishing hearts

better than steak and potatoes

or a well-read book.

warm arms, tickling fingers

and conversations uninhibited by age.

 

playground games fairly played

indoors under the watchful eyes

of guardian parents, checking safety,

guarding friendships from the

ills of sibling rivalry.

growing up together in love.

 

meals broken and shared.

prayers offered with heartfelt sincerity.

special times protecting doors

to teenage rebellion, that tears

families apart, breaking hearts

and erasing the good times shared.

 

for now, though, life is good.

quiet times of reflection broken only

by stories told and songs sung.

well-love children with sparkling eyes,

rosy cheeks, and happy smiles

glittering with unbounded joy.

Thinking Back

I’ve been asked what I would do differently if I could go back in time. First of all, I wouldn’t do that. I didn’t enjoy my early years, hated middle school and despised high school. I didn’t start to truly enjoy life until I met and married my husband. The years we have had together have been the best ones of my life.

As a child I was sulky and miserable. I was born eighteen months after my brother and walked in his shadow even beyond college. I knew that my mom worshipped and protected my brother, and so I wanted to be exactly like him. I played sports of all kinds as a kid, which meant endless hours of kickball with the neighborhood kids, whiffle ball in our backyard, along with badminton, sledding,  and snowball throwing. While I was a decent athlete, I could not throw as hard as my brother did and so found myself with reddened palms time after time.

I was one year behind my brother in school, which meant being held up to his academic standards by teacher after teacher. I don’t know how much time my brother spent studying. For me, reading, writing, science and history did not come easy. I didn’t learn to read independently until fourth grade, but once I mastered the skill, you couldn’t keep a book out of my hands. Spelling didn’t make sense. How can cow, how, now and show have the same root, but sound differently? Science and history required memorization, something which did not come easy to me. I spent hour after hour on homework every night, rereading the same passages time after time. There were two subjects in which I excelled: math and languages.

We were as close as kids could be. Partly because we spent many hours together inside the house during the winter, during which we played board games, that I always lost, built castles with Lincoln Logs and had epic battles with armies of plastic men. We built igloos and had epic sledding hills that crossed three backyards. We explored the woods behind our house, jumped off boulders and climbed trees.

Neither of us had any mechanical skills, so while my brother was a disappointment to our father, I equally disappointed my mom. My brother had no interest in changing oil or tires. I had no desire to learn how to cook. Both of us spent time watching and getting yelled at when we didn’t pay attention.

I did not play with dolls. In fact, the only dolls I ever owned were several of the fancily dressed kind that simply rested against my pillow and a mechanical one that rolled about on skates. I was not allowed to play with the first because my mother feared that I would mess them up. She was probably right. The skater required batteries, which were expensive, and so not available. Barbie came out when I was a young teen, but I could only afford a cheap plastic cut-off whose arms fell off and whose “skin” was translucent.

My sister was born when I was seven. There was enough distance between us that we had little in common, and so we did not spend time together other than the sharing of a bedroom. It was probably my fault, as I put no effort into befriending her, finding her unable to do and uninterested in the things that I enjoyed.

That is one thing that I would change. I would find a way to embrace her, to search out those activities that we could have done together. She was into playing with dolls, walking them through pretend worlds and relationships that I could not understand or relate to. But what if I had tried? Would that have erased some of the years between us? Would it have brought us closer together? Part of me wants to believe that it would, but another part of me remembers how much my mother cared for my sister. How much she protected her and fussed over her, and then I’m not so sure.

School was one of many places where I felt most alone. I did not have playground friends, so spent much of my primary years sitting on a bench against the wall, watching others laugh and giggle and run around like nuts. I remember hating Valentine’s Day. While I had cards for everyone in my class, I seldom received cards in return. I was never invited to birthday parties and only once went to a sleepover when I was in middle school. My mom bought me new pajamas for that affair, as mine were old and faded. But I had been sheltered from the world of teen magazines and gossip television shows, so when the girls talked about kissing and hair and clothes, I had nothing to contribute. I felt even more isolated after that.

In eighth grade I transferred to public school and fell in love with my teacher. Mr. Bennington was kind and patient, two qualities that I desperately yearned to be the receiver of. When asked to do a research project on a college that we might like to attend, guess what I did? I found Bennington College in Vermont. I was proud of myself until I turned it in, and then I was too embarrassed to talk about it in front of the class. That is something else that I would change. I’d find a college closer to home as my target and report on it.

I went on my first date in eighth grade. Our school had a prom-like affair in mid-year. A dorky boy asked me out and I accepted. (Of course, I was also a dork!) I did not know how to dance and was uncomfortable with his touch. The evening was long and painful.

I was a shy child, not just in Kindergarten, but all the way through most of my college years. I was the kid in the class that no one knew. I did not raise my hand to answer questions, did not seek help from my teachers, and did not go up to the front of the room for group activities. In fact, I remember scooting down in my desk when my reading group was called and sitting there while all the others had the teacher’s attention. Yes, it held me back. As I sat in my chair, I yearned for the teacher to notice that I was not in the circle and call me forward, but she never did.

If I could have chosen my desk in middle and high school, I would have sat at the back of the room, I so feared attention from the teachers. Unfortunately teachers generally assign seats by alphabetical order of last name, so I ended up somewhere down the second row. That is something I did change when I returned to college as an adult. I always sat in the first row so as to better hear and be seen. It helped me build confidence and so I succeeded. It is also something that I did not do as a teacher. I let my students pick out their seats and then left them alone unless they were being disrespectful of the right of others to learn.

One thing that I would change, if I could go back in time, is to make a better effort at finding and keeping friends. Because I was shy, I was not one of those kids who was sought after to be part of a group. On occasion, someone did approach me and initiate conversation, but I never was the initiator. Imagine how different my life would have been if I had had the courage to walk up to someone and simply say, “Hi.” Wow! Even now this is hard for me.

As a college student I had more success in building relationships. I did not get to attend the college of my choice because my parents would only let me follow my brother to the one he had chosen, which, it turned out, was a good thing. He joined a fraternity, which had a support group called Little Sisters, and they took me in. Because of being a Little Sister, I had invitations to parties, actual dates to events on campus, and a place to spend Friday and Saturday nights.

Unfortunately I chose an impractical major. I entered as a math major, thinking I’d study statistics and find a job working with data. I pictured me sitting in a room with charts of information before me and knew that this was something I could do. The problem is that when I went to college, the women’s liberation movement had not yet evolved into a force, so it was no surprise when the math department chair called me into his office and told me that no company would ever hire a woman because all we wanted was to find a man and get married. I left his office and changed majors.

If I could repeat that day, I would defy him, earn my degree in math, get hired, and work long, happy hours doing something wonderful with numbers.

Instead I took a serious look at how many credits I had in each subject area, keeping in mind that I had to graduate in four years as that was how long my scholarship lasted, saw that only in Russian could I do that, so chose that as my new major. I told myself that I could get a job as a translator, without taking into consideration that I was too shy to ever speak Russian outside of the classroom. And that there were no jobs for Russian translators.

What I should have done was stuck with math and defied the chair, but women didn’t do that back then. We were raised to be compliant and to think of being wife and mother, not employee.

After college I returned home and joined the real work force. The one in which the only work experience I had was sitting behind the desk in a college dorm was meaningless. I had a hard time getting a job because I had no office skills. I was a poor typist and could not operate any of the machines in use at that time. When I did finally find work, it was at a furniture store, unfortunately as a customer service operator. I had to answer phones and had to pacify upset callers. I hated the job!

I’m not sure what I could have changed about that except for going way back in high school and sticking with my one and only typing course, honed my craft, and then I would have had marketable skills years later.

After that I was hired by the IRS as a tax collector. Not a job for a shy person, but I will credit the experience as helping me move past my fear of meeting and interacting with unfamiliar people. I had to knock on doors, walk into businesses and drive around San Francisco, up and down those hills and in and out of all types of neighborhoods. I learned to sit in my car and practice what I was going to say before walking into those situations. It was valuable experience for later on when I became a teacher.

There were two great things about that job. First, I made enough money to buy a car and then rent an apartment. That gave me freedom to simply be. I was in charge of my own life, had the ability to get myself places, and made decisions about where and how to spend my money. I learned to cook rudimentary things, just enough to survive. The second most wonderful thing was meeting Mike, who later became my best friend and husband.

Being married to Mike is one thing I would never change. He brings light to my life. He has been my strongest supporter in everything I have set out to tackle. He has been a role model for how to be as a person, wife and parent. Without him, my life would have been unrecognizable. He has never once held me back, never discouraged me from trying something new, never stopped me from tackling college courses or conferences or workshops.

There are things I did as a parent for which I am proud. For one, I always prepared breakfast for my kids. Most days it was a hot meal, but there were times when they preferred cold cereal, and I let them eat it even though, nutritionally, it was not the best choice. I packed their lunches except for once a week when they were able to buy lunch at school. I drove them to swim lessons, soccer, baseball and softball, all of which I supported as team mom, scorekeeper, coach, and referee. I attended parent-teacher meetings when needed, and even though I was working, took off to go on some field trips. During the summer months, when they were younger, I worked with them on academic skills in between swim lessons and soccer practice.

On the other hand, there were things I wish I could take back. I was not the most patient of parents. When my kids got angry, I didn’t know how to handle it. In my growing up years, anger was met with anger, tantrums with spankings, yelling with hurtful, cruel yelling. That was the only model I knew and so, despite what I read in parenting magazines, when my patience ran thin, I resorted to the poor models of behavior that I had benefited from. I wish I could replay those events and this time, instead of reacting poorly, simply walk away. Calm down. Allow my kids to calm down. And then later on, talk about what caused the anger and seek out appropriate solutions. If I could have done this, I would have been a better parent.

I am glad that we cannot revisit the past just to do it all over again. There is no way that I would choose to repeat any of my previous years of life. It would be terrifying to be a child today, faced with all the terrors that today’s kids deal with. Drugs, alcohol and tobacco were not the temptations back then. Kidnappings probably happened, but the news was not filled with story after sad story. I feel sorry that today’s children do not have the freedoms that I had to ride my bike through neighborhood after neighborhood, going miles from home, without worry.

I would not want to be a teenager who wants nothing more than to be a mechanic, being forced into college prep classes because that’s all that is offered. To want to be a nurse’s assistant, but having no opportunity to learn those skills. To want to be a doctor but unable to take advanced placement classes because my school does not offer them.

So, to answer the question, would I want to go back and redo my life, the response is a resounding no. I have worked through the issues that burdened me as a child, teen, and older adult, am happy with who I am at this point in time. I love my husband and my grown up children. I love my grandchildren. I love being able to write, to having enough savings to travel, and spending time with my husband doing things that we both love. I have a good life, filled with things to do and people to see. What more could a person want?