Monday, November 24, 2008

Recipe Box

I opened my grandmother's recipe box this week. I was trying to get a head start for Thanksgiving and wanted to make and freeze her poppyseed cake. Along with Texas cake and carrot cake and pumpkin pies,her poppyseed cake made an anticipated appearance each year. While thumbing through the thick collection of recipe cards , I found myself pausing to remember many friends and beauty shop ladies who shared recipes with one another on a weekly basis. Many familiar names topped the carefully written recipes. “From the Kitchen of Dorcas Herren” announced the recipes belonging to my piano teacher, Mrs. Herren. She arrived at my grandmother's beauty shop every Saturday morning before dawn to have her hair done for over 20 years.
As I read her recipe for peanut butter bars, and Amish friendship bread I remembered how competently her hands flew across the keyboard and how she never once was grumpy at my obvious lack of practice. I read so many names and could see the familiar faces, now gone.
I read my great-grandmother's recipe for lye soap and wondered how she managed a chore involving dangerous, combustible chemistry and simultaneously keep watch of her 17 children. I wish I would have thought to ask her how she managed.
I found favorite foods of my grandfather- like the mock strawberries my grandmother would make at Christmas. They were made with condensed milk, sweetened coconut, and strawberry Jello and looked and smelled like real strawberries. Not caring for coconut, I never thought they tasted as good as they looked- but it was the comfortingly familiar process of making them that announced that Christmas was coming. I found the Swedish Meatball recipe and recalled how much Papa loved them and how my grandmother had made the tiny, labor intensive meatballs by the hundreds for my parents' wedding reception.
I found an old photo of my brother, Nick, tucked between two recipes. Nick is wearing a chef's hat and rolling out pizza dough. I remembered that day and taking that picture. It was a good, happy day- one of thousands spent together. I am comforted that he knew how much he was loved.
I finally found the poppyseed recipe, but was momentarily daunted to find that it only listed the ingredients- not directions how to put them together. My grandmother must have assumed that whomever made the cake would have the experience needed to put it together. I should have payed attention. I forged ahead, overly confident in my abilities to remember how the batter should taste.
The resulting mixture looked familiar and as the cake baked, I was hopeful . During the last 5 minutes, however, it collapsed completely. I must have botched critical steps. Luckily, my grandmother is still with us, I have time to ask her, time to learn.
The recipe box is a tiny time portal. It can connect me with faces and events that once were. It contains glimpses of a life lived well- with family and close friends. I can open the box and within seconds, am transported to Christmases and holidays spent with people I loved, whom I love still-but whose time with me was limited. We are never certain how long we will remain together for grief and loss visits us all. Although I sometimes ache for those who have passed, I am grateful for having the chance to know and love them. I think of the wise words a friend once told me about loss: “ The holes in our lives created by those who leave us are enormous and will never truly go away, but somehow, we reassemble ourselves around it.”
I hold the recipe box in my hands- it feels warm and alive with the voices and faces it contains.
A mini Pandora's box of love and memory. For this, I am truly thankful.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

After the Election

Mending Wall by Robert Frost

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,

And spills the upper boulders in the sun;

And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

The work of hunters is another thing:

have come after them and made repair

Where they have left not one stone on a stone,

But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,

To please the yelping dogs.

The gaps I mean,

No one has seen them made or heard them made,

But at spring mending-time we find them there.

I let my neighbour know beyond the hill;

And on a day we meet to walk the line

And set the wall between us once again.

We keep the wall between us as we go.

To each the boulders that have fallen to each.

And some are loaves and some so nearly balls

We have to use a spell to make them balance:

“Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”

We wear our fingers rough with handling them.

Oh, just another kind of out-door game,

One on a side.

It comes to little more:

There where it is we do not need the wall:

He is all pine and I am apple orchard.

My apple trees will never get across

And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.

He only says, “Good fences make good neighbours.”

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonderIf I could put a notion in his head:

“Why do they make good neighbours?

Isn’t itWhere there are cows?

But here there are no cows.

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,

And to whom I was like to give offence.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That wants it down.”

I could say “Elves” to him,

But it’s not elves exactly,

and I’d ratherHe said it for himself.

I see him thereBringing a stone grasped firmly by the topIn each hand,

like an old-stone savage armed.

He moves in darkness as it seems to me,Not of woods only and the shade of trees.

He will not go behind his father’s saying,

And he likes having thought of it so well

He says again, “Good fences make good neighbours.”

Monday, November 3, 2008

Removing the Blinders

Bright before me the signs implore me
To help the needy and show them the way
Human kindness is overflowing
And I think it's going to rain today
-Randy Newman

My oldest son recently made his first solo trip to Chicago. With trepidation, we put him on an Amtrak and sent him off to his Aunt Tess in the Windy City. He arrived uneventfully and had a great time with my little sister- who showed uncharacteristic restraint, by the way, and wisely refused to allow him to get a tattoo.
After he came home, he related that one of the strongest impressions the city made was the many homeless families camped on each city block.
Statistics provided by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless show that Chicago has over 80,000 homeless people and shelters serve 15,000 any given night. Chicago is one of five cities that collectively have over 50% of the nation's homeless population,many of whom are mentally ill -displaced after deinstitutionalization and a broken mental health system, but many are also victims of family violence.. There are more than 18,600 homeless students attending Illinois Public schools- a truly staggering number. The causes of homelessness are many and often complex and Chicago has a vast network of good people trying to help people find shelter, however,my son saw only the desperation and despair. He saw statistics in human faces and it was a revelation.
Through my work with the Illinois Family Violence Coordinating Council's 6th Judicial Circuit, I see suffering family violence creates and which often leads to homelessness for women and children. Last week, I participated in hosting a large conference in honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Working in collaboration with the 5th Judicial Circuit, our own Piatt County Sheriff's Department, Prevent Child Abuse Illinois, HOPE,Dove,Inc, A Woman's Fund,Kirby Hospital, Piatt Probation, Safe from the Start,DCFS, and others, we were able to bring nationally renowned domestic violence speaker, Mark Wynn for a day long conference.
Mark is a 20 year member of the Nashville Police Department and served as a Lt. to the Domestic Violence Division. He is also a survivor and witness of years of brutal domestic violence. He brings his wealth of experience and training to law enforcement, yet the message that resonated with me-the image that will stay with me longest, is the same one that I have learned and witnessed throughout my years working with domestic violence; the image of children hiding under their beds, hands covering their ears, eyes squeezed tight- waiting for the violence to end. Mark related how he and his brother would hide under the bed and listen to their step-father brutalize their mother. They once even planned how they would protect their mother from further abuse by killing their step-father. They replaced the whiskey in his bedside bottle with roach killer and waited. The abuser drank the entire bottle, but fortunately for him and for the boys, he showed no adverse effects. Mark said they just kept waiting for their step-dad to flip over on his back with his legs up in the air, stiff like those bugs. Luckily, that didn't happen. I can't tell you how many times I have heard similar tales from child victims.
Contrary to the beliefs of wishful thinkers who profess, “we don't have those kinds of problems in Piatt County”- I assure you, we do. Sometimes we are blinded to the suffering of those around us, not by indifference, or because we have been hardened by the realities of suffering on our street corners, but by the absence of visible suffering. We are sometimes shielded by our own affluence. Immaculately groomed lawns are not violence proof. Although out most vulnerable citizens may not be living in cardboard boxes on our street corners, they are here. There are children in Piatt County who have become adept at finding hiding places and are waiting out the violence. We have domestic violence, child abuse, and even homelessness in this county. I have seen families without homes camped near corn fields. We must ask ourselves, can we do more to help in our own towns?