A Thanksgiving Lesson

            I am not a particularly good cook. In fact, I am a pathetic cook because I have no interest in cooking except for the simple act of putting food on the table. I can usually follow a recipe, but there’s no guarantee that the finished product will look or taste as advertised.

            The problem goes back to my teen years when my mom insisted I learn to cook. She’d make me stand next to her and watch every move she made. It was incredibly boring. I needed to study. If I didn’t earn straight As I’d be punished. My allegiance went to books, so I’d stand next to her with book in hand.

            That meant I wasn’t paying attention. So when I was told to replicate her concoction, I couldn’t. My mom cooked from memory, not from books. Unless she wrote it down, there was no way I could produce the item. When she did record her recipes, she often left out an ingredient or a crucial step.

            One year my family decided that my husband and I should host Thanksgiving dinner. Mike is a good cook, so he took charge of the turkey and gravy, leaving me to handle the rest. I pulled out every cookbook I owned to find recipes for dressing, green beans and pumpkin and mince meat pies. I chose the easiest options.

            Things were in the oven or on the stove when my family arrived. Altogether there were fourteen hungry people crowded into our house. Fortunately we had planned snacks of cheese and crackers for that kept the kids happy and held the adults at bay while they downed mixed drinks.

            There was only about thirty minutes to go before the turkey would be done, the gravy could be made, the potatoes mashed and the green bean casserole put in the oven.

            The adults were getting restless. They had arrived with a preconceived notion of when the meal would be ready and we were not meeting their mental deadline. I was anxious. While everything looked okay, what if my concoctions didn’t meet their approval? My family could be obnoxious when disappointed, so as time ticked by and tempers began to flare, I knew things were going horribly wrong.

            Then the power went out. One moment the stove was working, the next it wasn’t. Was the turkey done? The beans? Potatoes? Everything appeared to be mostly done, but what if it wasn’t? You can eat the side dishes even if they aren’t quite finished, but you can’t serve an undercooked turkey.

            We waited for the power to return, but after thirty minutes it was obvious that it wasn’t happening. My dad and brother offered advice laced with sarcasm, almost as if it was something we had done to switch off the power.

            My husband is a calm, easy-going man. He moved the barbeque into the backyard and lit the coals. When it was ready, he placed the turkey outside. Everything else went into the still-warm oven.

            The troops, however, were impatient, frustrated and hungry. They had allotted only a certain amount of time to be at our home and that time was ending. Either food would be served or they would leave. The options were not politely phrased.

            I hung out in the kitchen pretending that I knew what I was doing and that things were in hand. Mike monitored the turkey, which meant he was outside leaving me inside getting the brunt of the criticism.

            When the turkey was finally done, I was able to breathe a tiny sigh of relief. As he cut and placed meat on a platter, I pulled everything out and got it on the table. He made the gravy and poured it into the bowl.

            Dinner was served. People sat. Grace was said. The food was edible even though most things weren’t hot. Tempers settled. A bit of peace entered the house.

            Just as the last of the dishes were being rinsed off, the power returned.

            People left, some bearing leftovers.

            The meal worked out, but never again would I host a family meal. The stakes were too high and I refused to bear the brunt of their anger when the fault lay not in something I had done, but in the failure of the power to stay on.

            Later on Mike helped me understand that things had worked out despite my nervousness and fears. After all, food had been served. No one left hungry unless by choice.

            That Thanksgiving was over thirty years ago, but it left an indelible mark. Never again, I told myself, would I host a family gathering.

            Little did I know that when my mother-in-law died that my husband’s family would decide that we would host a brunch for sixty people. I announced that I would cook nothing. I would take care of paper goods, but that was it. The family would have to prepare every dish and clean up afterwards.

            Guess what? I held to my pronouncement. When cooking was happening, I stayed out of the kitchen. I picked up no dirty dishes, washed not a single thing, refilled no snack bowls and did not monitor the ice chests of drinks. I found myself a quiet place away from the crowds and stayed there for the five hours that people were in my home.

            One failure was sufficient to keep me from ever cooking for a crowd. Even though I had had not control over the power going out, blame was still laid at my feet. If my husband’s family wanted a party, they would have to shoulder the effort. Never again would I shoulder the mantle of responsibility.

            It’s amazing how liberating it is to refuse, to loudly proclaim that I would not be in charge. If only I had applied that motto to other areas in my life, things might have been different. But that’s another story for another time.

Missing Him

           

I wonder where my dad is now?

What country or what town?

Do the people even know he’s there?

And care about his men?

I wonder what he’s thinking of?

While I stare at the clouds?

Does he see the same sky that I see?

And smile at the bright sun?

I wonder if he questions

What the war is all about?

Does it make a difference what he does?

And how will it all come out?

I wonder when he does come home

Whom he will smile at first?

Do you think he’ll even recognize me?

And know that I’m his son?

I wonder if he wonders

What I’m thinking of today?

Does he pray for me on bended knee?

And whisper I love you?

Mama’s Voice

Low and sweet Mama called, “Honey Bee,” and when Collette arrived, Mam wrapped her with a smile and glittering green eyes. “Can I have some cold water?”

“Of course, Mama. Want anything else?”

“We have any lemon bars? I’d love a piece.” Mama resumed rocking, eyes closed, mind most likely drifting somewhere in the past.

Collette nodded knowing that Mama was happy. It didn’t matter that names got mixed up. Collette didn’t bother asking anymore if Mama remembered who she was. Suzanne, Maria or Abigail. Or rare occasions when Mama’s eyes were wide open she knew Collette. Maybe today was one of them, but if pressed, Mama grew upset.

“I got your water,” Collette said as she placed the glass in Mama’s hands and a small paper plate with a tiny bite of lemon bar on a rickety wooden table next to Mama’s chair. Collette then sat in the empty rocker, the one Papa used way back when.

“This is nice,” Mama practically sang in that not-quite-southern twang of hers. “I love me some cold water when it’s hot like this.” She closed her eyes and resumed rocking, humming a church song that Collette barely remembered.

“Is that “The Old Wooden Cross”?”

“Nope. Rugged. It’s Rugged Cross. Much more meaning to it.” Mama began singing, “I love that old Cross, but then she stopped and tears filled her eyes. “Darn I forget the words.” Her knees started bouncing, a sure sign of distress. “I forget everything these days. Half the time I don’t even know your name.”

“Collette. I’m Collette, your surprise baby daughter.”

Mama stared at her as if she had no idea what she was talking about. “I didn’t have no surprise baby daughter.”

Collette patted her mama’s right knee, just enough to add comfort. “It’s alright. Not important. Have some lemon bar.” Collette put the plat in Mama’s hand. “Just a piece. No more right now.”

“I haven’t been to church in ages. Not since Matthew died. I just can’t bear walking the same places he walked.”

Mama said in that sweet, persuasive voice of hers, “Maybe it’s time you and I go. Sunday’s tomorrow. Preacher Davis will be leading the service. Oh, my, I love the way that man calls on the Lord.” She set the plate on the little table and leaning on her cane a little too much for Collette’s comfort, headed inside.

“Where you going?” Collette grabbed glass and plate. Can’t leave nothing outside unless ou want birds and raccoons and stray cats coming around.

Mama’s words floated over her shoulder as she turned to go down the hall. “Got to pick a dress for tomorrow. Folks haven’t seen me in a while. Want to make a good impression.”

Collette frowned. She didn’t want to go to that church any more than she wanted to go to the one at home. Matthew loved the Church of Christ chapel in downtown Chillicothe because he felt more comfortable with the merchant families that came to his five-and-dime store. Collette grew up in First Baptist in Sterling Crossings, the church her Mama still loved, but it was a thirty mile drive from home.

Collette pulled a whole chicken out of the refrigerator and washed it off in warm water. Using the butcher knife she cut it in pieces. Froze half. Rubbed the rest in a mesquite marinade. Zipped it up and put it in the fridge for cooking later. Next came shucking corn and peeling potatoes. She didn’t like potatoes, but Mama said it wasn’t a proper meal with spuds of some kind on the table. Tonight she’d bake them so she could control how much sour cream and butter landed on Mama’s half.

“I found me a dress,” Mama said. “Lookee here.”

It was an old yellow cotton dress that Mama last wore to the Fourth of July Picnic four years ago. It hung a bit loose, but the pride in Mama’s voice kept Collette’s mouth shut. “Pretty color. Perfect for summer.”

“Hm, hm. I know. Your daddy bought this for me on one of his trips out of town. I think it’s from North Dakota, but I’m not sure. Every time he went away he brought home something. Sometimes a bolt of cloth. Once he gave me a pretty necklace. When I asked where he got the money, he wrapped me in his arms so tight I could barely breathe.”

“Nice memory.” Collette lead Mama down the hall to change back into her every day clothes. “Lift your arms.” She pulled the dress over Mama’s head and hung it on the closet door.

“That’s what caused me to kick him out. Smelled perfume on him. A kind I never wore. Knew he was cheating. He didn’t deny it. Just picked up his traveling bag and left. When that door slammed shut I yelled to never come back. He didn’t.”

Collette brushed her mama’s hair. She had to be gentle as there wasn’t much left. Mama had what they call female pattern hair loss. She’d asked her hair dresser last time she’s had a trim. Paula, that was her name, said there wasn’t anything to do about it except keep it clean and use a soft brush.

“Why you using that soft thing?” Mama said.

“Paula said it’d be better on your scalp. Like a massage.” Finished, Collette pulled hairs from between the bristles and dropped them in a nearby garbage can. “Let’s get your clothes on so as to be ready for dinner.”

Mama started humming again, this time a song Collette knew and loved. She sang up high in her soprano voice while Mama hummed the alto line. “Amazing grace how sweet the sound…”

By the end of the song they’d returned to the porch, Mama in her rocker and Collette heading down the metal steps to pull the laundry off the line. She hated that Mama’s clothes hung out front for the world to see, but everybody in the Wagon Wheel Mobile Home Park did the same. At least Mama’s house wasn’t worse off than the others’. Joe Maxwell’s siding was peeling off and Pete Smith’s windows were covered with plastic to keep out insects, wind and rain.

Matthew had kept up the place, hosing down the outside and replacing any windows that cracked. He’d kept the appliances working and even when he was feeling sorry for something he’d said, installed two room air conditioners, one if the front room and one in Mama’s bedroom. He’d done all that even though it wasn’t his parent’s house and without Collette asking.

Mama was asleep when Collette finished folding and putting the laundry away. She got out the chicken and placed it on a plate for carrying outside. She fired up the gas barbeque she’d given Mama back when her mama still cooked. Thank goodness she’d brought a new tank or she would have had to cook if in the oven.

Her cooking skills were limited. Mam had tried to teach her, but Collette’s head was in books. She was always reading. Most of the time for school, but she’d read just about everything she could get out of the town library. Then she’d gone off to college where she’d shared an apartment with three girls she didn’t know. They rotated cooking duties so she checked out a Campbell’s Soup Cook Book because the recipes were simple.

Potatoes in the oven. Chicken cooking. “Dinner will be ready in about thirty minutes. You need anything?”

Thinking maybe her mama was asleep, Collette stepped as lightly as her two hundred pound body would let her. Mama’s floor creaked and groaned anyway.

At first glance, she thought Mama was asleep. She often slept ten or more hours a day. That’s why Collette had come home. Someone needed to be with Mama night and day and there was no one else to do it. No money to pay for help and even if there had been, Mama was too embarrassed about the condition of her house to let people inside.

Nobody with money lived out here, far from the center of town. It wasn’t on the wrong side of the tracks as no train came through, but it was the neighborhood that even the police didn’t like to enter. Not because of gangs, but because everything was so run down and dingy that it broke hearts to think that people actually lived there.

The tilt of Mama’s head wasn’t right. It leaned too far to the left at a crazy angle that made it appear as if someone’d snapped it. And her left arm hung limply over the chair’s arm, fingers too loose for comfort.

“Mama,” Collette said as she touched her mama’s shoulder. “You okay?”

She wasn’t and Collette knew it when she first saw her leaning like that. Mama had grace, even asleep. It didn’t matter how ragged the hem of her dress was, that dress was spotless and freshly ironed. A wide-brimmed fancy hat sat on that head everywhere she went, but her best ones only came out for church. She had ones with feathers, some with ribbons, a few with both. Mama knew which hat matched which dress and nobody ever changed her mind.

And when Mama walked about town with her head high and back straight as steel, people thought maybe she’d come from money. One of them debutante girls who’d fallen from grace.

Truth is, her family was dirt poor. Her daddy had been a tenant farmer who moved the family wherever he could find a bit of work. One time they lived in the barn with the horses. In summer it stank of moldy hay and manure. In winter their breath froze in midair.

The woman in the porch, this person leaning over the chair, was not her Mama. No pretty tune emanated from her lips, no humming “Precious Lord” in that sultry sound of hers.

Collette sat in her rocker and picked up her mother’s hand. She turned it over and rubbed the palm, over and over in gentle circles. “Mama, I guess your time has come. Too bad we’ll miss church tomorrow.”

Sobs broke loose, the loud racking kind that indicates a hurt so deep that it’s hard coming back. Just as in a movie, Collette felt a ray of sun warm her tear-streaked face. She looked up and noticed a flock of starlings high above, swirling in massive ever-changing streaks of black. They’d been Mama’s favorite birds because, as she’d said, “Them birds are like some people. They run in crazy circles, doing the same thing over and over expecting different results. Ain’t gonna happen.”

Mama’s voice was the sweetest thing Collette had ever heard. In times of trouble Mama sang to her soft, gentle songs of love and redemption, “Jesus Loves Me” a favorite of both of them. Collette closed her eyes and listened for the words:

Jesus loves me! He will stay,
Close beside me all the way;
He’s prepared a home for me,
And some day His face I’ll see

Even though Mama was gone to a better place, that home that Jesus has waiting for her, Collette would miss her Mama. No more late night bathroom runs. No more stories about the granddad she’d never known. No more cleaning this rickety home. No more humming in her precious Mama’s voice.

 

 

 

 

A Bear of a Man

My mother had many siblings.

Her brother Joe scared me because he liked to pick me up, turn me upside down and paddle my bottom, long after such things would be done to someone my age. Tears never deterred him and my parents never intervened. One time he threatened to stuff me in my grandparent’s coal-burning stove. I kicked and screamed and cried for help, but not even my grandmother stopped him. When I felt the heat on my face and thought my hair was on fire, Joe finally set me down. I scurried away as fast as I could. Thankfully he lived many hours away and so visits were limited to twice a year.

Clarence was a backwoods man. He lived off-the-grid before it was popular to do so. He was moody, somber and seemed to have had children with several of the women who shared the house. It was hard to tell who belonged to whom because they all looked the same. Because his home was so far off any civilized road, we only visited him once.

There were several sisters. Rachel lived on a huge chunk of land, her house sitting high on a hill overlooking meadows of green grass. Not only was it a peaceful environment, she was a calming presence in my hectic life. I loved visiting her. Her youngest son was older than me but still liked to play little-kids games. Only later did I learn that Jimmy was learning disabled. One time my brother and I got to spend a weekend with Aunt Rachel. It was one of the best weekends in my life. I missed her when we moved to Ohio.

The uncle I knew the best was Rudy. He had moved to California before we did and was established in Orange County. He had bought a house, had a good-paying job, and his three sons and wife seemed happy. When we first arrived in California we stayed with them for several days. The sons were rough-and-tumble, but overall good kids. The wife was merry, easy to be around, and a good cook. Rudy was a quiet, respectful guy, quick to hug and laugh. He told great stories and enjoyed athletic pursuits. He was also an alcoholic.

When Rudy drank his personality changed. He growled with anger at perceived insults, was argumentative and disagreeable. He grabbed me whenever I passed nearby and held my arms so tight that he left bruises. He pulled me to his chest and kissed my head, over and over, stroking my hair. It gave me the creeps.

He threatened my brother, called him names and made fun of him for being an intellectual. Rudy respected only his type of intelligence: mechanical skills. He could fix any engine, appliance, television or radio. When he was sober. Drunk he was useless, which is probably why he moved so often.

My family rented a miniature house a few miles away from Rudy. My dad was struggling to find full-time work. Rudy came over one evening and after quite a few drinks convinced my dad to be his courier. My dad was to go to a mail pick up spot, open the box, remove whatever was inside and deliver it to a different address each time. He was not to open the envelope or ask the name of the person receiving the package. For this Dad would be given several hundred dollars, an amount that would feed us and keep us sheltered.

I think my dad knew there was something shady about this business. After Rudy left my parents huddled together in their bedroom for a long time, the murmur of voices the only sounds we could hear. The need for money won so my dad made a few runs.

Each time he was handed a bundle of cash. The money was a wonderful gift at a time when we were desperate. But then something happened that frightened my dad and he was not easily frightened. A man was standing outside the box pickup spot, followed my dad to his car, knocked on his window and demanded the package. Dad sped away, but later noticed a car following him. A case ensued through the streets of southern California. Eventually my dad shook the tail and delivered the envelope.

When he got home he called Rudy and told him he would never do that again.

Within minutes Rudy stormed into our house. He threw his barrel chest out, bumped it into my dad and pushed Dad up against a wall. I believe that punches were thrown, but by now I was hunkering behind the couch. I heard thumps and bumps and tons of curse words.

My uncle’s bass voice reverberated against the walls. He threatened to turn my dad into the police for laundering money. He promised jail time and a long conviction. His verbal abuse continued for a long, long time.

When my dad did not give in, Rudy demanded a beer, which my mom delivered. He parked himself in our rocking chair and sat there, downing beer after beer until his words were slurred. Throughout it all, he ranged from being abusive, threatening, intimidating, and finally as the alcohol set in, he fell into uncontrollable sobs.

Shortly after that incident we moved to South San Francesco. My dad found work and things were going well. We were in school and finding our way about in the new environment.

Rudy reemerged, this time as the warm, loving bear of a man that I knew and loved. He was once again jovial, telling jokes and stories that brought guffaws. But I knew, I remembered the evil version, the threatening grizzly bear who intimidated my rock-solid dad, a man who was threatening when displeased.

If Rudy could intimidate Dad, then what could he do to me?

Even when Rudy moved back to Ohio I never forgot his temper, his strength, his posturing. The teddy bear when sober was a man-killer when drunk. I was glad that I never saw him again.