Slush and Grit

When we left for school, the world was covered in slush and glazed with ice. It was beautiful. Then the arguing started.

Caroline wanted me to drop her off in the parking lot and let her walk to the school entrance alone. I told her she could walk alone from the drop-off lane but not all the way from the parking lot. She whined about me not treating her like a “big kid,” and I warned her that it was basically my job to watch her walk in.

It’s not that I don’t trust her to make it to the door – I don’t trust the crazy drivers who race across school parking lots and practically toss their kids from moving cars.

Anyway, as we pulled into the parking spot she said, “Okay, you can walk me to the door.”

Stepping carefully across ice-cold puddles, we talked about the wet slush underfoot.

“Would you like a delicious slushie?” I asked.

“What flavor?” she played along.

“Salt and road dirt.”

“Yum.”

She half-hugged me and headed for the entrance.

When I got back to the car, my socks were soaked with slush. That’s when I noticed the handful of kids riding bikes to school, their dark coats splattered with salt slushies. I thought, God bless those winter bike riders. They have grit.

“Showing up is half the battle,” an old professor of mine with a strict attendance policy used to say. It’s what I tell myself when I’ve made some commitment that I now regret. I’ve had jobs in the past where I’d rather be in a car accident-induced coma or abducted by drug lords than show up another dreadful day. But I must confess there’s value in showing up.

I realize kids have their reasons for showing up to school, like being forced by parents, having a warm breakfast on a Styrofoam tray, being with their friends, or even wanting to learn. I don’t know the reasoning of those winter bike riders – I just know they made a real effort to show up, and I admired them.

For me, February is the month when winter seems never-ending. It’s the month when my energy is lowest. Do you feel the same? I write this simply to encourage you (and me) to keep showing up.

Winter will surely end and longer spring days will grant us a new dose of vitality. Until then, we have the chance to build up grit. And so, for others, for yourself, for your commitments (even the ones you wish you’d never made), keep showing up.

“So let’s not allow ourselves to get fatigued doing good. At the right time we will harvest a good crop if we don’t give up, or quit.” –The Message by Eugene H. Peterson, Galatians 6:9

snowflake

-Em

Ferdinand Jasper, a Pigeon Parable

In our house, we love animals. Caroline and I constantly dote on our Charlie-cat, we get excited when a hummingbird hovers at the window, and we give way too much attention to the caterpillars devouring our parsley plant.

We also tend to anthropomorphize every creature we meet.

We make up elaborate back-stories about squirrels, like one Dr. Paul J. Crumb who knows in his heart that chicken nuggets are bad for him but just can’t say no. The pigeons that hang out in our driveway we’ve named The Pigeon Brothers; they sell home appliances to local birds. And don’t even get me started on Stormie and Gloria, cats that roam the neighborhood.

***

Our summer vacation to visit friends in Hawaii required a night in an airport hotel. We checked in early in the evening and braced ourselves for a very early flight the next morning. Since this hotel is right across the street from LAX, we could look out the window and see planes landing and taking off, one after another.

Before the sun went down, Caroline spotted a white pigeon on the ledge of the seventeenth floor. He sat there with his little bird’s eye view of the airport, apparently absorbed in the non-stop action of take-offs and landings.

Suddenly, another pigeon had the nerve to land on his ledge. The white pigeon appeared to tolerate it for a brief moment, then squawked and shooed it away. Alone again, the pigeon sat there eyeing the giant flying beasts.

***

We couldn’t resist. And so, this pigeon quickly became Ferdinand Jasper who began to speak in a high, lispy voice about his longing to fly in an airplane.

“Oh, how I wish I could fly,” he said to no one in particular, having fended his ledge from every friend or foe.

Of course, none of his winged colleagues were there to remind him he actually could fly.

Maybe not as far as an airplane,

maybe not as fast as an airplane,

but more gracefully,

with more spontaneity.

After watching the others, comparing his wing span to theirs, dreaming of their faraway destinations—like Honolulu and Boston and Akron—he failed to remember what he was capable of.

All the hours spent watching the enormous aluminum birds—with fancy names like Southwest and Delta and United—had diminished his view of what he could do.

Ferdinand Jasper was a bird

who forgot his birthright.

His birthright was flight.

 

And what, my friend,

were you born to do?

pigeon 2 looking away

Safe Keeping

My parents cleaned out their storage areas last week—attic, garage, nooks, crannies—a time-consuming ordeal. They got rid of stuff that had accumulated over the thirty years they’ve lived there. Although it’s been twenty years since I lived there, Mom and Dad uncovered some old treasures of mine, including:

a faded Mickey Mouse Pez dispenser,

an artificial flower lei from my friend Leslie,

a sock monkey, made with love by our neighbor Mrs. Wheeler,

and much, much more.

Mom also spent an entire day laundering our old Cabbage Patch Kids, doll clothes, a Prayer Bear, and a Sparta High School cheerleading doll. She handed them over with the stipulation that I keep them until she’s dead.

Ummmm, okay.

Since Caroline has never been interested in dolls, she doesn’t want to play with them, so I plan to pack them away in the basement for some unknown future. They now hang in limbo, sprawled on the floor behind my desk chair, dead eyes staring at the ceiling.

(Poor Sock Monkey’s eyes fell off. He lies blindly on the floor.)

There’s already quite a stash in the basement – school yearbooks, dolls from my grandma, and many other things I can neither recall nor bear to part with. Soon I’ll add my Cabbage Patch Kid (little Hortense) and sock monkey to the stash for safe keeping.

These are the days I wish I were a minimalist. When I read about people who live in tiny houses with one cooking pot and seven items in their wardrobe, I think: that sounds intriguing. Then I remember how much perverse joy I get from decorative items that serve no other purpose than pleasing the eye.

My parents did the big clean-out for us – my sister and me. They are healthy, but they know the challenge of sorting through your parents’ belongings and making hard decisions about what’s worth keeping, what goes in the yard sale pile, what should be donated. I appreciate their foresight.

But as I contemplate adding another box to the basement, I’ve started cleaning out nooks and crannies in my own house, starting with the file cabinet. Goodbye, “Teaching Composition,” “Literacy Training,” and “PR Portfolio” files. Even the act of tossing you out bores me. If ever I teach composition again (held at gunpoint, perhaps), I’ll just have to do it without my old notes. With every leaf of paper that falls in the recycle bin, I feel lighter.

Some things are meant for safe keeping – for a time, for a reason. Safe keeping is for the things that help us remember the people we’ve loved and the ones who loved us even before we were born. Some things are lost – to moths, to rust, to death, to decay – and these are kept in the safest place, wrapped in memory. That is, the heart.

prayer bear

Best Wurst Day Ever

Order the Sausage Tower and a side of potato pancakes. It’s good stuff.

This past weekend, we finally made it to Hofbräuhaus on the west side of Belleville. The wait was less than thirty minutes, a band played bouncy German music, and a St. Louis FC soccer game was showing on a nearby TV—all in all, a barrel of fun.

Caroline ate mostly applesauce and a few tiny nibbles of potato pancake, but Phil and I sampled extensively from the three-tier “tower” of wursts, sauerkraut, potato salad, and pretzels. The dining room, with long, picnic-style tables, feels airy, its high arched ceilings adorned with Bavarian-blue checks. For a couple hours it seemed like we’d taken the world’s quickest flight to Munich.

A dozen summers ago, Phil and I, with his brother Jay, had visited Hofbräuhaus in Munich when we were there for the World Cup. While there, I remember being struck by how much the local people looked like my relatives, like my people who came to America from Germany in the 1880s. Back then, long before my mom took the deep dive into genealogy research, I had little interest in my German heritage. We were there for the sightseeing and soccer.

At the original Hofbräuhaus, I ordered the Hefe Weizen. (When in Rome . . .) I drank only a few sips, since I’d never really liked beer and thought it tasted like hair spray. (I’ve never tasted hair spray, but I thought it might taste like beer.) We snapped a picture of Jay holding two beers and checked Hofbräuhaus off our places-to-see-in-Munich list.

A couple of long years later, I was pregnant with Caroline, and while I never craved ice cream with pickles or canned peas with powdered sugar, I craved one thing: beer. It was like my German DNA suddenly woke up and started making unreasonable demands. Imagine a fetus in lederhosen; I did.

Funny thing is, people frown on pregnant women chugging beer, so I quenched my thirst with root beer. Mug, IBC, Fitz’s root beer—I liked it all. But my favorite was the strong stuff, Barq’s. Then after Caroline was born, when the coast was clear, I ordered beer. It was everything my pregnant self had dreamed of (and it didn’t taste like hair spray).

At Hofbräuhaus on Saturday night, we drank Coke. Maybe beer next time. We did have a lot of fun watching little kids dance to “Roll Out the Barrel.” Caroline is too mature these days to get on the dance floor (especially if the music is not covered by Kidz Bop), so we sang and laughed in our seats.

In my opinion, the food at Saint Augustine’s Wurstmarkt, held every fall, rivals that of Hofbräuhaus. But German oom-pah-pah music is good for the soul in June, too. All I need sometimes is to sit across from Phil and Caroline at a long wooden table where it’s too loud to have a conversation.

Because love is devouring a tower of sausage—with my people.

liney and me hofbrauhaus

Caroline liked the pretzels most of all.

Once Upon a Rookie Night

I’ve written before about Friday nights in our family, a.k.a. Rookie Night, the evening we look forward to all week.

Rookie Night entails dinner (burgers, pizza, BBQ, and Chick-Fil-A are favorites), maybe a trip to the bookstore or quick grocery run, and a movie at home. Caroline picks the movie, which is often Lego-related or High School Musical. The usual bedtime curfew is not enforced. And sometimes, when Phil’s up to it, he and Caroline sleep on the living room floor under a tent rigged from a parachute thrown over the kitchen chairs and anchored with chip clips. I retire to an actual bed.

That’s Rookie Night.

It sounds kind of ridiculous, but Rookie Night is tradition. Sometimes Rookie Night is sacred.

One Rookie Night we went to Five Guys and ordered our usual fare. Five Guys is quick, the food is good, and the blaring classic rock takes me back to roller rink glory days of yore. Munching on peanuts while waiting for our food, I noticed when a voice rang out from the radio, “Josie’s on a vacation far away . . .” It’s one of those songs from the 80s that everyone instantly recognizes but only knows the words to the chorus.

At the chorus, the atmosphere in the restaurant shifted, as if we’d all been waiting for it. When the voice from the speakers sang, “I don’t wanna lose your love,” all the Five Guys workers sang: Tonight. I looked up and waited for the next line, “I just wanna use your love,” and fry cooks and grill cooks and condiment girls in hairnets belted out, Tonight.

This spontaneous breakout in song was kind of magical, like the traffic scene at the beginning of La La Land but with more grease in the air. When the chorus rolled around again, I was ready to sing along—Tonight—and caught the eye of the guy at the cash register. He flashed a sheepish grin and turned back to the register, embarrassed to be caught singing or embarrassed to be sung with. Probably both.

By the song’s end, you might recall, the chorus repeats, like, a dozen times. But we—the mustard slingers and bun toasters and potato choppers and me—were still singing along to the refrain: Tonight.

So, this song about a guy trying to cheat on a girl named Josie while she’s on vacation became a surprise sing-along, a sort of call and response. Strangely, it reminded me of when a priest prays a request and the congregation answers, “Lord, hear our prayer.”

Although I wasn’t thinking about the meaning of the word “tonight” at the time, repeating it was like an acknowledgement of the present, gratitude for the presence of each other—the three of us celebrating Rookie Night and the people preparing the food.

family-pic-silly.jpg***

Often, when I pick up Caroline from school I ask, “What’s the best part of your day so far?” Her answer is usually recess-related. My favorite response, though, is when she grins and says: “Right now.” Because that’s just how I feel on Friday evening.

What’s my favorite part of the week so far?

Sing it with me: Tonight.

 

 

Hey, there – thanks for reading! It means a lot. If you have friends who might like this, share it with them. -Em

 

 

My Sister-Daughter

When my daughter Caroline gets in a goofy, giggly mood, I see my younger sister Amanda in her. When we’re at my parents’ house, I sometimes slip and call her by my sister’s name.

Amanda and I are close in age, just a smidge less than two years. These days, she’s pretty serious and straightforward, but when we were kids, I’d do little things to make her laugh, and, once set off, she’d take a good while to return to sobriety after cackling, snorting, and falling out of her chair.

“Now, don’t get your sister wound up,” Mom might say. But it was already too late.

Similarly, when Caroline cracks up, long after we’re done laughing, she’s still carrying on, wiping tears from her eyes. Several times, I’ve mistakenly called her by my sister’s name when she gets super-silly. Something takes me back to third or fourth grade, and my daughter is suddenly my little sister.

We see Amanda often these days, which I love. But at times I treat my sister like a child, telling her how I would do things, offering opinions in order to put her out of the misery of indecision. To her, indecision isn’t miserable. And my two cents are worth just that.

And I’m not her mother.

Is this big-sisterly feeling toward a child a common flashback? Is the maternal feeling toward Sis the culmination of big-sisterhood?

Or is this garden-variety senility?

I remember my Aunt Ernie’s confusion in old age, calling me by my mom’s name in an otherwise lucid conversation. As she aged, she found it hard to keep the generations straight. At a certain point in adulthood, time doubles over on itself like one of those old, fold-up yardsticks.

It wasn’t that long ago I was tickling my little sister until she cried. But that was so many years ago. See, there’s the yardstick folding up.

Watch the hinges; they can pinch.

amanda & liney

Goofballs, left to right: Caroline & Amanda

“If only my mother had known I was her sister instead of her daughter,” Terry Tempest Williams wrote, describing a new sense of kinship realized after her mother’s death. The things they shared in common made more sense in terms of sisterhood. I didn’t understand this sentence until I called Caroline by my sister’s name.

I couldn’t pass for my daughter’s sister; I was nearly thirty-three when I had her and she looks like her dad. But when I try to make her laugh until she spits out her drink or nag her when she doesn’t answer a question directly, at that point, time folds up and she is my little sister.

Maybe these brief flashes are about me wanting to make up for her not having siblings. Or maybe sisterhood is a type of relationship worth aspiring to, even for folks who are already otherwise related. Anyway, this I know: my daughter is blessed to have my sister who is like her in so many ways—and who loves her every which way.

Thanks for reading! Ever call your child by the wrong name? I’d love to hear from you. And if you have friends who might like this, please share it with them. Take care, Em : )

Winner Winner, Sunday Dinner

I’m not much of a cook. I really do try, but my meals tend to be disappointing. Edible, for the most part, but lackluster.

Fortunately, one of my daughter’s favorite meals is Red Baron supreme pizza and a cup of applesauce. That I can do. She also likes cooked broccoli with salt and butter. Momma can do that! Not to brag, but I’m pretty good at cutting up an orange. Still, meat loaf is a gamble, spaghetti is a letdown, and I’ve pretty much given up on chicken of any kind except rotisserie.

Last week I had a rare success with tacos. I used ground turkey instead of beef and stand-up shells instead of fall-over-and-break shells. The difference was dramatic. The turkey tasted great. Stand-up shells take the stress out of eating tacos. Caroline even ate two whole bites before saying, “I’m full.”

However, on Sundays we eat really well. For many years now, my mother-in-law Natie has had us over for Sunday dinner. It used to be just Phil, me, and my brother-in-law Jay. Now we have Caroline, whose main goal at Sunday dinner is to make everyone laugh. We also have Jay’s wife, Amber, and sometimes Aunt Dezie. Next year, there’ll be a high chair at the table for Jay and Amber’s little one.

My mother-in-law is a very talented cook. She enjoys it, and it shows. My job, matched to my skill level, is to clear the centerpiece from the dining room table and place seven hot-pads down the middle like a landing strip. One hot-pad is for the rice cooker, and the others are for main dishes and sides and salad and sliced mango and avocado.

We realize how lucky we are to have this Sunday feast. Natie cooks Filipino classics—pork sinigang, chicken adobo, afritada, puchero—for her sons and herself, and she also prepares more Americanized dishes for the daughters-in-law and Caroline, like mostaccioli, chicken curry, scalloped potatoes, and salad. Hence, seven hot-pads. (I sometimes bring a foolproof pan of brownies or store-bought salad: staying in my lane.)

The dish everyone loves is Natie’s pancit—rice noodles stir-fried with cabbage, shredded chicken, mushrooms, and carrots, garnished with boiled eggs. Although Natie has shown me how to make it and written out a detailed recipe, my pancit is notably lacking. She’s probably keeping some key ingredient a secret. Eye of newt? Fish sauce? Never mind.

I try not to think about fish sauce.

pancit

Natie’s pancit. (Garnished by Yours Truly.)

Years ago, I watched Martha Stewart Living a lot, hoping to imitate Martha’s techniques for the perfect pot roast or tomato bisque. These days if I watch Martha, I have no intention of attempting the perfect soufflé — I just watch to be impressed. 

My mother-in-law’s cooking is just as impressive—even the aroma wafting from the kitchen is heavenly—but her efforts arise from a generous heart. She’s giving Caroline sweet memories of Grandma’s cooking for the days to come.

Her not-so-secret ingredient is love.

She cooks not to impress but to bless.

And so, every Sunday we are blessed.

Bless us, O Lord,

and these, Thy gifts,

which we are about to receive

from Thy bounty.

Through Christ, our Lord.

Amen.

As always, thanks for reading! It means the world to me. If you have friends who might enjoy this, please share it with them.  -Em : )