Sunday, November 28, 2010

Old stuff, Part II

On Thursday, when I was making Twice Baked Potato Casserole for the Thanksgiving brunch I hosted, I went looking for something to “mash the potatoes a little,” just as the recipe had instructed. At first, I used a big fork, but it wasn’t doing the trick. Then I remembered Mom’s old pastry cutter.

The first time I married—foolishly, in 1972, when I was 17—Mom went through her gadget drawer and pulled out some utensils she thought I might need for my new domestic duties. In the box she handed me was an old steel carrot and potato peeler and the pastry cutter. Picking up the peeler back then immediately brought to mind memories of Grandma coming out on the train from Los Angeles to Lakewood (a 20-minute drive in a car these days), Dad picking her up at the train station, Grandma bringing day-old cinnamon-raisin bread (because her boyfriend worked at a bakery), coloring books and crayons. She was always laughing. (Not so, my mother.) The two would sit in the kitchen for hours, preparing Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, occasionally conscripting me or my sister to peel potatoes (never the boys or my father). I would stand on a kitchen stool over the sink, peeling and listening, trying to understand the conversation of two aging women quietly denigrating men, marriage and menial chores. If only I had understood more….

After I married, I used the potato peeler often, and the pastry cutter as well, baking pies from scratch and other delectable goodies that my husband hardly took time to smell before consuming. I baked my own bread for the twelve years that I was married. After becoming single, I didn’t bake bread for almost two decades. Now I do again.

And I’m cooking again, at least when I have guests over. (Seems to be a lot of trouble to go to just for me, so most days it’s frozen vegetarian dinners for me.) A few years back, when I began to entertain and cook for others, I thought I should replace some of my utensils, get some nice, shiny new stuff in case one of my guests offered to help with the cooking. At Target, I found myself staring at a wall of bright utensils, wondering if, when I bought new ones, I’d be able to toss out those things Mom had given me so many decades ago. When I realized the answer was no, I turned and walked away.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Old stuff, Part I

When my daughter was in junior high, flannel shirts suddenly, for some strange reason, became popular. Shali was stylish and fashionable (unlike her mom), and somehow we ended up buying her a really cool flannel in a sky blue and pale green plaid. The predominant bright blue color brought out the crystal blue in her eyes, and she wore her shirt proudly over various t-shirts. It was such a cool shirt, in fact, that her little brother was known to snag it out of her closet (or off her floor) and sneak it to school in his backpack so he could wear it himself.

Eventually, Shali moved on to other trends in fashion, and the awesome flannel shirt became a cast off. No doubt it would have been donated to Goodwill, but I claimed it. And I wore the heck out of it, throwing it on over t-shirts on cool autumn and spring mornings when I went out to walk the dogs or work in the garden. I loved the soft warmth of it, and wearing it reminded me of an innocent and happy time in my daughter’s life.

She’s 37 now. After I moved to the mountain, the shirt got a lot of wear. But the frequent washings took their toll, and in recent days the fabric has become so worn that the collar has frayed and there is little warmth left in it. I need to discard it. But how can I? With every passing year, it has meant more and more to me, even as its colors have faded, the once plush flannel has become a gossamer version of its once sturdy form.

I feel the same way about a lunchbox the kids gave me many years ago. It was made of a soft, foam-filled vinyl of some kind, and Shali, Ezra, Sam and Jo covered it with their signatures in puff paint to decorate it, then gave it to me when I started teaching. I used and washed the thing so many times that now the vinyl is torn, the foam padding has all but disintegrated. But how can I throw it away? When I mentioned this to my daughter last year, she bought me a new lunchbox—an exact replica of the black metal ‘Thermos’ box my dad used to take with him to work. I love it, and now I use it every day, while the old one sits atop the fridge, collecting dust.

I’m not a hoarder by any means; I’m pretty good about tossing out or donating anything I no longer need or use. But these old things… I have a need for them that transcends utility, and I count them with my most prized treasures.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

On Veteran's Day

I think the happiest days of my mother’s life slipped by while she was serving in the Women’s Auxiliary Corp during WWII. I have sat with her in the past and gone through photo after photo taken back then. In every single one, she is smiling like she just won a million bucks. And for all that, she looks like a million bucks, with a stylish hairdo, tasteful cosmetics (including the bright red lipstick of the 1940’s) and a neat, trim uniform. Before she enlisted, she was somewhat transition, drifting around in the Midwest and stopping to work wherever she found a club with a house band that would let her sing along. Once she found her way into military service, she settled down into the routine of daily work—either doing clerical work or servicing military vehicles—and nightly play. In many of the photos from that time, she is sitting with handsome men around tables littered with beer bottles and cigarette butts. In my lifetime, I never saw her that happy.
My father’s story was a different one altogether. As a strong believer in patriotism, he felt it was his duty to serve his county. In 1942, he kissed his new bride good-by and told her he’d be home in a year. Then he picked up his army issue duffle and headed overseas. With the bombing of Pearl Harbor, his orders changed, and he wasn’t able to return home for five years. By the time he returned, his wife had annulled their union and had married someone else. The child she carried when he left had died before reaching the age of one. My father never got to see his firstborn son.
All soldiers make sacrifices. War is hell and most individuals return to civilian life different, in one respect or another, from the person they were when they became ‘military issue.’ I have old friends who served in Vietnam—both were marines—who have never talked about their experiences to anyone since returning home. Neither man was wounded. Both bear invisible scars.
Occasionally now I have former students who have graduated return to campus to show me their dress uniforms, to announce they’ve made it through boot camp and are shipping out to places we know are dangerous. I see in their eyes the zeal of the uninitiated. Experience will teach them much, I think, and my fervent prayer is that each will return to homeland, family, and friends as a whole person, sans scars of any kind. I know they may be embarking on one of the greatest times of their lives. Or they may be required to make sacrifices they could never have foreseen.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Time Change

Give me blizzards and frozen pipes, but not this nothing time.
Not this waiting room of the world.
                ~ Sir Anthony Hopkins as C. S. Lewis in “Shadowlands”

I walked the loop last Saturday morning at 5:00a.m. It was a great walk. Here is an excerpt from my journal:

Standing on the front porch in the dark, I can smell the rain coming, feel the negative ions in the air, against my skin. I drink them in with my breath, along with the scent of sweet wood smoke. I use the headlamp until I’m down the private road, then switch it off as I reach the highway, content to walk in the dark as long as I can follow the white lines in the road.

The wind thrums in the treetops. And then the sound changes. I hear thousands of tiny crystals falling through the leaves. I’ll never forget it. I’ll never truly remember how it sounds. I don’t feel damp, but I know by this sound that it’s hailing.

As I reach the turn in San Antonio Falls Road, I look down to the valley but see only huge dark clouds lowering over the east ridge. My face is freezing with the onslaught of the tiny ice crystals. My hands ache when I remove my gloves to switch the lamp on, then off, so I can see in certain sections of the road.

On the way back to the cabin, I hurry, almost jogging, as the hail turns to fat drops of rain which soaks through my sweatshirt and jeans. But I stop when I hear rocks falling on the opposite side of the canyon. I know there are Big Horn Sheep there, making their way back up the slope. I stand on the edge of the road, listening. When I realize they are waiting to see if the noise they heard, this intruder in their habitat will move on, I do.

At home, there is much to record as this walk proves to be, like many, a walking meditation.
And this is what I thought about as I walked:
I thought about how hard I work to keep to a regular routine--which holds the sadness at bay. That thought led to this: What am I sad about? And so much emotion rolled in it was like standing on a beach one moment, contemplating the ocean, then being toppled by a knee-buckling wave. I started to cry as I walked, then pushed it all back--with my super-hero powers--and laughed at myself for crying. I lose perspective when I'm sad, forget to smell the scent of the rain in the air, to see the glow of the moon through the clouds, the light from my headlamp refracting off the thousands of tiny ice shards falling around me. I forget that when I get home, I will drink an incredible cup of tea and enjoy the privilege of eating a seemingly inexhaustible supply of food. I forget that I have two strong legs that are carrying me through the forest, eyes that see the beauty, hands that will later skip across a keyboard and maybe, just maybe, compose a paragraph that will touch the heart of someone I've never met.

I'm trying hard--knowing that we are in this time, this waiting room of the world again, when we watch the light wane and the darkness creep in on us--to follow my routine, to eat well but not gluttonously, to give my body all the sleep it needs, to exercise every day, to stop the onslaught of negative energy from the world outside with my super-hero shield (which is energized, by the way, by the love of my friends).

I hate the time change because it signals the coming darkness. I’m counting the days till the Solstice, as I do every year, trying to be centered on what is good and present, not what is absent in my life.