Category Archives: Quick Bites

Offerings

Against the dusky blue backdrop a hawk spreads its wings and glides in sweeping figure-eights back and forth across the sky at the onset of twilight. The figure-eights revolve as if gliding along an unseen disk moving slowly in a circular pattern like the top of the CN Tower in Toronto or the Space Needle in Seattle. It’s a pattern so smooth – in perpetual motion like a gyroscope.

The stars my father loved to look at, telling me about the stars, the planets. How they moved about. What they depicted. How far away they were and what they might signify. They spoke to him, drew him into discussions about astronomy, life, death. Where do we go? What happens after?

A child’s smile. Some children don’t, and you are grateful yours do. So sad for the others, it sometimes makes you cry. You cry for happiness when yours smile, when they laugh, when they comfortably lean into your body as you tell them a story, asking questions, thinking of the characters in the stories as real people. Like them: worried sometimes, fearful, brave, happy, sad. We are all the same. None of us alone.

A pile of clothes covers the bed. You’ve not worn them in forever and are giving them to someone you don’t even know who needs them. They will not be required to pay anything and the gift will be anonymous. You have washed and folded them neatly because it’s important and the doing of this will make the recipient(s) feel the importance you recognize they have to someone else. They will not be invisible, not to someone, not to you.

A grandchild who feels wanted, whose life is cherished. A child who wants nothing more than to be wrapped in the comfort of your arms to watch television, to be read to, to be sung to, to be rocked to sleep in safety. To be acknowledged in any way as being loved and cared about. Too many are important to no one.

An unusual bouquet of brittle, dead leaves that have lost their beautiful autumn colors because they were picked off the ground just before snow began to fall. You are careful to arrange them in a small vase so they don’t crumble to bits too soon. Your little one knows you love these pretty things, even if he’s not as discerning about which leaves it is you love. Here, he says, I picked these for you, Mommy. And you love them, love him, because he did.

An adult child who has blossomed into the most beautiful flower. Who has overcome the most difficult obstacles set in her path at almost every turn. She has survived, more than survived. She has opened her petals in the warm face of the sun. Bright, beautiful colors reflect the light within her. She shines though she thinks herself a useless weed with nothing to offer the lovely, fragrant garden that surrounds her.

A lost love, remembered and forever cherished for the ways in which his love helped you find your true self. With gifts of kindness, tenderness, intensity, and passion that knew who you were before you did.

A friend who loves you as you are. Imperfect. Flawed. You can tell her anything. Every terrible thing you’ve ever thought, or done, and she will love you the same tomorrow as she does today. She will care. She will listen. She will be there when you need her, drop everything to listen, to help. To show you she cares. And you will do the same for her.

Standing at the top of a snow-capped mountain in the Alps, awestruck by the stark, quiet beauty of the surrounding landscape, the crisp air, the height from which everything below you is there yet can’t be discerned because you are thousands of feet above it all.

Walking along the lowest point of Death Valley, its unrelenting heat radiating in ephemeral waves off the sand dunes, the roads, the vistas, silent save for wind gusts that stir the sand and heat under a blistering sun. Unprotected skin burns in no time at all. You thirst. You can barely breathe in this insufferable clime. So beautiful it takes your breath away. You stand there to feel it, to think about it. You don’t want to leave. You want to return in the spring when it comes alive with desert blossoms.

Guaranasia, Brazil. A place of love and laughter, of friendships both old and new made in several different languages, two of which you can communicate. The others you manage with hand gestures. So much fun. New experiences, new foods, altered landscapes. Parrots in the wild. Ant hills the size of small huts. Friendly, welcoming people in the town of a very close friend who is getting married that weekend. Different from any other place and wonderful in the best of ways. A place, and people, forever remembered.

Driving alongside the Rhine. Ancient castles, long past the point of keeping hoards of inhospitable, plundering armies at bay, dot mountaintops along the river’s edge. Ancient towns with ancient histories. So much to be learned from yesterday. And today.

Truly beautiful things are not to be hoped for in the dawn of a new year but rather in things given little if any thought in the course of a busy day. A tape recording thought lost. A beloved grandmother’s voice singing a Slovenian lullaby to her great-grandchildren. Her soft, lilting voice a comfort, a joy. Sorely missed, even after 41 years.

Slow down. Take time. Remove those earplugs from your ears and stop talking, if only for a while. Allow quiet moments into your life. Moments to recognize, to think, to reflect. To relish what the smallest things have to offer.

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Nightmare

Click-Click-Click. Click-Click-Click. Rats scurry back and forth down the short hall to her daughters’ cramped bedroom. Little rat claws Click-Click-Click along the linoleum floor and run along the rotting baseboards, squeezing through a hole two little girls plug with rags or wadded up newspapers every night, an obstruction the rats easily dispense with long before the sun rises. Click-Click-Click.

Mama sets mousetraps and tries beating the rats into oblivion with a broom when she sees them. They used to hide and she saw only their droppings, but their numbers have been multiplying and they are emboldened. Now they run across the girls’ blankets in the darkness. Ha, Ha, their high-pitched sqeakings say. Ha, Ha, you can’t stop us. Mina and Donna kick their feet under the relative safety of their blankets. They feel the rats’ heft depart.

They hear the rats at night eating through the thin walls that separate one room from another. Not long after, rats are chomping holes in the back of the dresser, jumping out of a drawer when someone opens it looking for socks or shirts to wear. Sharp teeth sink into the fleshy part of Mina’s palm below her thumb when she pushes aside the anklets and reached for her knee socks. She jumps back trying to stay upright but falls over a footstool behind her, screaming for fear the rat that bit her will jump on top of her. She cries for Mama as blood drops from her hand onto the threadbare rug beneath her legs. Her mother hears the Click-Click-Click of tiny claws running along the linoleum in the dark, narrow hallway. She finishes bandaging Mina’s hand and goes after the rat with a large broom.

A few nights later another rat bites Donna’s cheek as she sleeps in the twin bed next to Mina’s. Donna screams as a nightmare rooted in the real world draws warm blood that streams down her fast-swelling cheek. Mama comes running and tries to stop the bleeding. The ubiquitous Click-Click-Click tells her the rat she’s after will too quickly disappear. He’s too fast, too clever.

Click-Click-Click. There’s a baby in this house. A third girl who can’t jump up and run away. All she can do is scream and flail her tiny baby arms. Click-Click-Click.

They aren’t afraid of Mama’s broom anymore, and they’ve become accustomed to the noise, called screams, that the girls’ make. Click-Click-Click.

Click-Click-Click.

 

A Life Unlived

Antonia sits alone in the basement of her youngest son’s house, waiting for him to come down and talk to her. And Peter does. Often.

She listens but never says anything.

And though he’d prefer a more equitable interchange, like they used to have, Peter has adjusted to the altered circumstances of this one-sided discourse. When she was alive, Antonia was the only family member who listened to what he had to say, and now, from the urn Peter placed on a special shelf, she still is the only one who does.

Antonia had been in and out of the hospital for at least a year, and Peter went to visit her every day, sometimes bringing his wife along, though Jackie never once entered Antonia’s hospital room. Never once telephoned to ask how she was doing. Never once told Peter to say hello on her behalf. Jackie didn’t even ask how his mother was doing. When his visit was over, Jackie would pull her hefty frame from the chair in the hall, eager to be anywhere but here, and walk to the elevator without words, her heavy steps now purposeful. Peter, trailing behind, out the main doors and through the parking lot to the car, had given in long ago to what he felt too tired to try and change. He and Jackie rarely exchanged more than a few stiff words that were always poised for delivery of the sharp jab or a nasty reproof.

A much younger Antonia had once moved to Los Angeles with her older sister when both were in their late teens, lining up babysitting and waitressing jobs to pay the rent in a small, furnished flat. To her older sister’s chagrin, Antonia took a keen interest in the soldiers that frequented the downtown Los Angeles bars and restaurants, flirting with old and young men alike while keeping an eye out for the occasional movie mogul who, watching her from the corner of the room, might think her destined for greater things than waiting tables. The ingénue turned promising starlet. The new Elizabeth Taylor or Natalie Wood.

Antonia’s mission had been two-fold – to escape the tyrant of a father she loathed and to become a movie star. But in a year’s time, she and her sister moved back home because their father had become ill. Neither one of them cared all that much, but their mother begged them to come home because she thought he was dying, and they did so for her sake. Her sister, eagerly; Antonia, not so much so. No, not at all.

Sunset Boulevard turned out to be no more than a street like that in any other town across America – one of false dreams and broken promises.

But lives filled with bitterness and disappointment only sharpen the wanting.

As she grew older, Antonia turned her energies toward Englebert Humperdink. She became an ardent fan, organized a fan club in her area, and started following his concert tour gigs around the country – she and other groupies who worshipped him in like fashion. They became concert fixtures, managing to secure front row seats, or so Antonia claimed, as groupies tend to do after a while, eventually getting an invitation backstage on one occasion, maybe two. Maybe. It was sometime during this obsessive-compulsive phase that she began regaling her friends with vague and undocumented tales of her once-upon-a-time stardom. Antonia fashioned herself not as a Taylor or Wood, of course, or they’d know that wasn’t true, but as a person-of-some-significance in the world of fame and fortune.

If you did the math according to the timetable she propped up her career with, you knew it wasn’t remotely true. She’d spent the years in question ensconced in small Michigan town with her husband and three young children. He worked on a construction site and she complained because he didn’t take her out enough. But what would be the point in bringing that up? She was desperate to be, or to have been, a somebody. Desperate and determined to secure attention and fame in any way she could.

Long after her groupie days were over and her pseudo-life faded into the passing decades, the stories about those glory days witnessed a revival and were embellished with renewed fervor as her slow march to the end approached.

Then Bob Hope died.

“I’m really going to miss him,” Antonia said matter-of-factly, adding how sorry she felt for “Deloris” whom she knew from her days in LA, adding that she’d kept in touch with “Deloris” over the years, sending her cards and letters. She suggested they’d been close friends for years, corresponding regularly, though she’d uncharacteristically failed to mention this until “Bob” died. It was all she talked about for months afterward.

Her self-styled obituary referred to her as a singer, a dancer, an actress.  All make-believe, a supernova of distortions coalescing into a truth of their own. One that failed to paint the picture she thought it would. Instead, this one was a sad and pitiful portrait of the life she had never lived, despite the wanting of it she thought would make it so.

Over the years, she sent her sister greeting cards for holidays and birthdays. They contained poems Antonia had written on separate slips of paper.  Poems she’d seen in obituaries. Poems of remembrance, loss, hope. Poems plagiarized from the obituaries of strangers – like the one now taking up space in her own.

Poetry

          Jimmy asks Mina, their oldest daughter, where Mommy hid the money. Mary’s voice trembles with loosely controlled panic when she discovers it’s missing.

Did you tell yur fadder where it was? she asks Mina.

No, Mommy. I didn’t.

Mina wants to embellish the lie – make it sound more true. Instead, it lies there between her and her mother, heavy beyond measure, like Sisyphus’ eternal burden.

 

            Another payday.  The money lies under the rug that hides the brown and curling edges of the living room’s warped linoleum floor. Mary tells Mina they’ll all go hungry if her father finds it.

            His thin frame is nearly swallowed whole by the overstuffed armchair he sits in next to the window. Holding the newspaper upright in both hands, he reads the headlines in the dim lamplight. The lace curtain covering the scarred window billows softly in the cool, evening breeze and skims across the dark hair on his arm. Mina plays at his feet with her doll.

            Glancing over his left shoulder, Jimmy looks to see what Mary is doing.

The wall of newsprint blocking his face from Mina’s view ruffles slightly. Curling down one corner of the page, Jimmy peers at Mina over its now broken right angle.

            Psst! he whispers, Where’d Mommy hide the money?

The sharp sound of potatoes smacking the pan assaults Mina’s ears. The potatoes sizzle in the hot lard, hissing a rattler’s warning as their virgin side begins to brown.

            Come on, Sugar, tell yer Daddy.

With a dull thud, the frying pan comes to rest on the homemade potholder that Mary put in the center of the white, baked enamel, metal table.

I don’t know, Daddy.

The lie lodges in Mina’s throat, threatening to choke off her air supply.

            Come ‘n eat, Mary calls from the kitchen.

            Sisyphus’ heavy lie rolls down the hill. Fresh air rushes into Mina’s lungs.

 

Mary watches as Jimmy, wearing heavy work-boots, navigates the loose gravel lot between the plant and its perimeter gate at the end of his shift at B&W. Stealing a glance out of the corner of his eye, he picks up his pace, pretending not to see her, and at 3:05pm slips in the side door of The Knotty Pine for a drink or two. Maybe a little gambling, too. Most of the paycheck in his pants pocket will likely be spent behind those doors.

Carrying a baby in one arm and holding a five-year-old with her free hand, Mary calls out to him. He doesn’t respond. She calls to his friends.

Tell James this. Tell James that.

He is not taking care of his family. He is useless, self-centered. Her children are the evidence of his gross neglect of duty, so she uses them to beg for help. She wants Mina to confront her father in front of his friends. Standing behind her mother, Mina wants to see but not be seen, but Mary grabs Mina’s shoulder, pulling her forward into full view.

Go On! she says, extending her index finger to highlight Mina’s lack of cooperation.

            Mina’s sandals are rooted to the cracked, uneven pavement. The mid-summer temperature radiates in blistering waves across her toes and ankles. Pushing her through the thick wooden door, her fingers deftly placed between Mina’s shoulder blade and the hollow curve beneath it, Mary almost knocks Mina off her feet. Grabbing the heavily splintered doorframe to regain her balance, Mina stands firm.

Go ON! Mary cries, angered to the point of tears.

 

The poetry fades. Instead of open arms, Mary meets Jimmy at the door with grievances, demands.

A distaste develops for the way people fawn over him. The obsequious behavior of his friends sharpens her negative outlook. Frustrates her.

Don’t they know he spends his paychecks on booze and gambles away what’s left? Don’t they realize he is little more than a “flag-waving” father who brags about the children he calls “his” while failing to father them in ways that signal an understanding of what that entails? Can’t they see how hard she struggles to hold everything together, put food on the table, and keep them all from being thrown out of the shack they live in on the poor side of town? The one without running hot water? The one with no inside toilet? The one reserved for what other people call poor white trash and low-life hillbillies?

Anger suppresses a silence pregnant with fear. Harsh words rush in, filling momentary lapses in speech to keep the fear out. Mary dumps words by the shovelful into largely one-sided conversations like sand into a pail at the beach. She shovels faster and faster to keep the incoming tide from washing her words away with the undertow. It doesn’t matter much what the words are, what they mean, at whom they are directed. They just have to fill the empty space, provide a buffer between her and the world beyond her.

A Face in the Crowd

          At mid-morning the din was minimal, save for hollow-sounding wheels that rumbled over the wide grouting in the stone-tiled floor. They struck a discordant note in the relative quiet, making loud hiccupping noises that echoed in the large, open room. Turning in the direction of this auditory asymmetry, my eyes lit upon an older man leaning heavily on a large green trash cart of heavy-gauge plastic. Using it for support, he pushed it from pillar to pillar, clearing tabletops of the crumbled leftovers of class notes and the customary college staples – half-eaten cheeseburgers and French fries in Styrofoam containers – as he did so. Having contextualized the noise and satisfied my curiosity, I went back to taking note of my surroundings.

I’d told my students to go to the café in the Student Union and take notes on what they saw there. “Make some observations,” I had said, “then focus on one that interests you the most and develop a coherent essay.”

            We discussed what this entailed, as well as my hope that their commentary would segue into a social statement of some kind. Intending to model the writing process we’d been talking about for the past two weeks, I accompanied them, making my own observations – of them. Gradually, my students drifted to other parts of the Student Union and soon disappeared from my view entirely. First from one corner, then another. It became clear I would need to rethink my own essay’s focus.

 

I caught sight of the older man again as he re-entered my peripheral vision. Slowly dragging his cart with one tired hand, he pulled it alongside a group of students who absent-mindedly tossed their refuse into its open mouth as he passed. His shirt bore no nametag and he had, until now, no face either. Identification was established by the work he performed. Like the cart he pushed, he was more or less invisible. I hadn’t even thought to describe him myself.

            But now I took a closer look.

            His protruding lower jaw obliterated the rest of his face. On it hung a large, full lip too heavy to pull itself up and join the more manageable shadow of itself which rested against his upper teeth. Small rounded shoulders pulled his upper body toward the floor creating a discordant line that would, in a few years, become even more egregious. Inordinately large hands dangled on the end of elongated arms, forming a silhouette that conjured up the image of an orangutan. Not the occasionally aggressive ape of a Sumatran jungle defending his territory but one, perhaps, of this academic jungle.  Solitary. Peaceful. Keeping to his own territory. He struck me as out of place here. A never-was amid a throng of young men and women in pursuit of a better life.

            What had happened to his, I wondered.

            By default or by choice, maybe by accident, he’d wound up a nameless, faceless trash collector in a crowd of purposeful achievers each heading somewhere. I wondered where he was going. Where he had been.

 

            Except for the cart, which students occasionally sidestepped, he moved undetected amid the vignettes taking place around him. Both cart and collector mere props in a mise en scène in which primary roles are won by practice and hard work.  A scene from which my students were still missing. One which I’d asked them to color with their impressions.

            Was one of them destined to endure the same fate as this contemporary Sisyphus – his or her tomorrow bringing with it nothing more than a similar cart pushed toward other poles?

            The collector’s eyes cast themselves downward, scanning the tabletops once more for discarded trays. For remnants forgotten by busy students with places to be, and roles to play. Once his circle of the room was complete, he traded his cart for plastic gloves, a broom, and a dustpan with a closable lid. With a lumbering gait now unsupported by the cart, the collector set his feet on a well-worn road, reconnoitering errant trash from the cold, stone floor, brushing dirt and crumbs into the maw of a dustpan whose lid emitted an audible snap after each conquest.

 

            My class time at an end, I walked toward the door, deliberately taking a path that would converge with his.

“Good morning,” I said, attempting to make eye contact.

The collector, his eyes glued to the stone tiles on which he was standing, nodded. My face was one of many in the crowd that he did not see as he, almost imperceptibly, stepped aside to let me pass.

 

 

 

A “Resip” for Living

I never had a cute little recipe box where all my recipes cards where alphabetized according to food category with colored tabs for easy access. When I wanted to make something, I opened drawers bulging with cards, notes scrawled on torn envelopes, pages ripped out of spiral notebooks, and newspaper clippings, torn rather than neatly clipped. Many recipes had been in service as bookmarks over the years, so you can imagine what I went through when I couldn’t find what I wanted anywhere else. The largest share, however, were in an oversized manila envelope with “XMAS” scrawled in large letters on the outside.

I’ve always wanted to compile this cache in a reasonable facsimile of “orderly,” making them easier to locate, but spent years never getting around to it. So, what began as a brief collection of my grandmother’s Slovenian “resips” (as she called them) and family favorites morphed into a labor of love that consuming my days and nights for more than a year. It was a profusion of papers, books, pictures, memories; the more I found, the more I remembered – and wanted to include.

            I found myself remembering bits and pieces of family history and anecdotes – many of which I’ve included by way of little asides, and many more incorporated in the resips themselves as I went along. I added pictures of family dinners and collective holiday baking, and pictures taken to show the steps involved in producing Grandma’s potica and strudel.

            These are more than simple recipes. They are family. They evoke memories, laughter, tears. They represent love and devotion that lies beneath those bursts of anger and hurt feelings that have sometimes veiled those things we leave unsaid, both good and bad, which grace even the best tables.

            These recipes are a celebration of what it means to be a family and as much a history of family as are pictures, family trees, or baby booties.

There is so much to be learned, not just from the best times but from the worst times, too. Remember them all for each experience can enrich our lives in unexpected ways if we keep ourselves open so we can see what might be there.

           It’s about opening, rather than closing, the doors that block your way. That’s the best “resip” for living that I can offer.

Up-Top

When he is thirteen or fourteen, his father gets him a job in the mines. You can’t make much money swinging a pick axe to dig out the coal, but it’s better than what you’d get up-top. And it’s better than nothing at all.

 

There isn’t enough money for shoes. When it’s warm enough, Jimmy walks barefoot to school. When it isn’t, he just doesn’t go.

 

Since he’s bigger now, and since he doesn’t get paid for going to school anyway, his father says he has to work – and this is the only work there is. Of the six siblings, none will finish school because the choice is this – school, or food on the table and shoes on the feet.

 

Food wins out every time.

 

The tight posture he adopts allows a little more air to fall in around him as he descends into the mine for the first time. There is only so much oxygen down here, and the tight space makes him gasp for air. If he uses it all up, then what? His arms fold in on themselves, creating the illusion of space though the dampened rock on either side is close enough to touch without stretching his arms out completely. In the bowels of the earth he accustoms himself to tunnels, often smaller than the one into which he begins his daily descent from the top, where all the breathable air is. Down here what air there is, is speckled with coal dust.


 

Coming up at the end of each day, he carries the mine with him. His skin is black. The coal dust under his fingernails is hard to scrub off; something is always left behind, a little more at the end of every day. He coughs and sneezes with mucus full of black stuff. Black tears seep out of the corners of his eyes and the tight curves of his ears encourage the black dust to hunker down and hide there.

 

Miners are needed but miners have accidents. They get sick and die younger than most. They are crushed and suffocate in cave-ins, and only their families care.

 

Jimmy leaves the Kentucky hills and doesn’t look back, but he trades one confining job for another – in an Ohio factory. Working shifts, coming home dirty. Someone else always telling him what to do, and when.

 

At least the dirt here washes off more easily.