It happened again the other day, at it has so many times in the last few months.  And it will happen again, I have grown to accept, until, well, until it finally doesn’t.

I reached for my phone, an instinct rooted in countless repetitions across my life, to call my mother.  She’ll know the answer, I was certain, to whatever small question I was considering about a recipe, or a plant, or the identity of some distant connection in our family.  In the age of over-abundant digital information, where some have never touched a cookbook or handwritten family recipe and turn instead to the words of distant strangers, I still trusted my mother’s knowledge, experience, and judgment on certain topics above all options.  Besides, it was a reason for a chat.  It was a chance to hear her voice, to hear “love you, too, sweetie,” one more time.

In the more than nine months since my mother died, I’ve thought about calling her dozens of times.  At first, my hand might even reach toward the phone on the kitchen counter before I caught myself.  Nine months into the grief journey, memory at last overcomes instinct before I look for the device, but the inclination still keeps coming.  I asked a beloved friend who lost someone the year before Mom died how long this pattern would go on.  “Until it doesn’t anymore,” she replied, with a sad, knowing shrug.

The phone call instinct hit me again when I contemplated a summer tradition during our first summer without Mom.  As far back as I could remember, she undertook the project every summer until she no longer had her own kitchen. A second or two later, still stinging from that urge to call, I reached instead for a small binder on my cookbook shelf, a little loose-leaf number she made for us with copies of recipes from family and friends she wanted to be sure she preserved.

I’d never checked the binder for applesauce hints.  After all, we’ve made it every summer for years, first under her direct supervision, then from memory of her guidance when working in the kitchen was no longer easy for her.  In truth, I didn’t really have any lingering questions about the relatively simple process, but I wondered if seeing her notes might help me make my way into the kitchen and get started.  How funny to realize that this perennial favorite was not included in her compilation.  Maybe she thought it was too obvious and simple to write it down; who knows?

So, with nothing to guide me but memories and a daughter’s fear that I would let Mom down if our family moved through a holiday season with no applesauce on the table, it was time to get busy.  Making applesauce is a fun and pretty labor-intensive afternoon in the kitchen with a team of like-minded helpers.  Over the decades, my mother made it with her mother, one of her aunts, her children, then her grandchildren.  But company in the kitchen this time was not for me.  Uncertain how it would feel with the grief still so fresh, I undertook it alone.  I wondered what memories it would invoke, and how it would feel to revisit them.  Deep down, I hoped it maybe it would help.  And there was also the opportunity to honor Mom’s habit of giving away her bounty to the sick or the sad, those in need of comfort food, or as a simple gesture of thanks.

Alone in the kitchen with the gorgeous green apples, knives and cutting boards, the saucepan and the mill, I got to work.  Sure enough, as the tart aroma of the cut fruit filled the house, the memories turned my kitchen into a movie theater of the heart, with images and voices moving around as though they were standing at the counter next to me.  In memory of those gone ahead who re-appeared to help out that afternoon, here is a faithful description of the process she taught us.

The Very Best Homemade Applesauce

Ingredients and equipment:

½ bushel of Lodi (pronounced Loe-die) apples

Good paring knives and cutting boards

5-quart stove pot

8-10 freezer containers, depending on size you prefer

Foley mill

Step 1:  Wash apples thoroughly.  Quarter and remove core.  Chop quarters into smaller sections about 1-1 ½ inches across; do not peel.  Using smaller pieces enables the apples to soften faster on the stove and helps prevent any burning on the bottom of the pan.

Add about an inch of water to the pot.  Don’t add too much water, or the sauce becomes too thin.  Heat water to near simmering, then begin adding apple pieces.  Increase heat to a gentle, ongoing simmer, stirring frequently, on low-medium heat until apples soften and break down. Continue adding additional apples and simmering until mixture reaches desired thickness.  Extra water can always be added if needed.

Mom always said that as long as you didn’t burn the apples in the pot, you couldn’t really mess this up.  The secret to the whole thing, she said, was choosing the right apples.  We always use Lodi, an early summer apple with a distinctive, lip-smacking tart flavor.  We don’t add sugar, believing the natural flavor is the secret ingredient.  Over years of offering our delicacy to guests, it’s become clear the tart flavoring is not everyone’s thing.  Recently I’ve made a second batch using a sweeter apple variety called Paula Red, recommended by the women at Jackson’s Orchard in Bowling Green, Ky, the only folks whose opinions on applesauce I value as much as Mom’s. (Jackson’s is a family enterprise that produces the best apples you’ve ever laid eyes on.)  I serve that second variety to friends and save the Lodi batch for family occasions.

Step 2:  Pour the simmered apple “stew” into a Foley mill positioned above a large mixing bowl.  The mill uses an angled blade and the circular motion of the crank to strain the stew into sauce consistency and retains the skins to be discarded.  Crank until all stew has been compressed into sauce; let cool before storing.  A half-bushel of apples makes about nine quarts.  Use or freeze in 2-3 weeks; freezes well for up to a year.

As I chopped, stirred and milled, I let the memories flow around the kitchen as they would.  There was Mom’s Aunt Dadie, who cooked with a sensible print cotton apron over her dress, which was always paired with nylon stockings and low-heeled pumps, even in the kitchen.  She was Mom’s favorite family cooking companion, competent, fast and focused in the kitchen.  There was Mom in my sister Kate’s kitchen the last year she was able to join in the process. She perched on a stool by the stove, also sporting an apron, stirring one pot patiently while I tended another, calmly reassuring her always over-anxious daughter that I was doing just fine, just fine.  There was my beautiful niece, sharing memories of her childhood time in her grandmother’s kitchen, mimicking the circular motion of the mill with her right arm and emphasizing, “That’s work!”  Finally, there was my own granddaughter, probably about four years old, caught at the Christmas table using both hands to up-end the delicate porcelain bowl (also Mom’s) so she could lick the final smears of applesauce off the bottom.

At the end of a long, hot afternoon in the kitchen with my memories and the visitors they brought along, I filled a freezer shelf and felt some relief that I had done Mom proud.  Thanksgiving will be here soon, and we’ll have plenty of applesauce for the family table.  Bowl-licking will be encouraged.

A couple of weeks after I finished, a kind neighbor with great handy skills loaned me a tool and expert guidance on how to fix my locked-up sink disposal.  When I knocked on the door to return his loan, I offered a container from the freezer.  “Homemade applesauce,” I explained.  “Thanks so much for helping me out.”

“Oh, great, thanks!”  he smiled.  “I love applesauce.  My mom used to make it.”

“Really?” I answered, surprised that I could keep a catch out of my voice.  “Mine, too.”

 

In the heady, post-war days in the spring of 1948, he was a three-year-old hero, a superstar before the term was coined, his name in the headlines everywhere and on the lips of the lucky punters who picked him in the Kentucky Derby and cashed in.  He thundered into history that June at Belmont Park by eight lengths, achieving what only seven before him had managed in more than a century:  An American Thoroughbred racing Triple Crown, having added the Preakness Stakes win in between the Derby and Belmont victories.

Citation winning the 1948 Belmont Stakes. Photo credit: The Blood-Horse library.

His name, Citation, was carved into trophy after trophy and into the long shadows cast by the greatest of all time.  He was born in the spring of 1945, a few short weeks before the Allies declared victory in Europe.  After four seasons on the track, 32 wins and more than a million dollars earned, his place secured in racing history and the hearts of millions of fans, he retired at six and returned to his birthplace in the rolling fields of Central Kentucky’s Bluegrass country at his birthplace, Calumet Farm.

By the time I met him, when I was eight and he was 20, he was living the quiet life of a celebrated old man.  Calumet was informally open to visitors back in those days, and we lived just down the road.  When my parents entertained out-of-town guests with a visit to the renowned Thoroughbred operation, with its red-trimmed white barns and pristine, white plank fences, they let their horse-worshipping middle daughter tag along.

To a child, it was hard to equate a thundering champion with this gentle old fellow, head drooping in relaxed fashion over his stall door, long back swayed deeply with age, soft whiskers twitching with gentle snorts as he sniffed hopefully for the treats customarily proffered by the still-frequent stream of admiring fans.  He ignored the patient recitation of his stats and remarkable accomplishments by the kind farmhand, who chatted proudly about the champion as he passed the feed bucket to visitors.  Just the treats, please, said those twitchy snorts, so I flattened my palm, as I had long ago been taught, and gingerly approached.  As long as I kept my palm rigidly flat, I knew, he could nibble the soft golden oats off without using those old teeth.  And so he did.

Did he shed his shoes after every brilliant triumph, like an exhausted ballet dancer whose magical athleticism broke down her ribbon-tied toe shoes after The Nutcracker?  The long-time farmhand was vague on that point, as I recall, but the discarded racing plates attributed to the old champion were free to the faithful who handed over the oats and maybe stroked the old, still powerful neck, which I was too timid to try.  It was a souvenir like no other, said to be straight off the foot of one of the fastest creatures to every streak across the earth’s face.  This shoe, I thought as I clutched it in the car on the ride home, could have won the Kentucky Derby.  It really could have, I repeated to myself, not daring to speculate aloud for someone to pooh-pooh.

I’ve been privileged to brush close to greatness a few times in my life, and when I think of those moments, I still think of Citation.  Half a century later, I’ve lost count of the number of homes where Citation’s shoe has resided with me, one of the tiny handful of souvenirs that ever meant enough to keep.  But I kept it for luck, for inspiration, and for fond memories every year at Derby time.

 

Why do siblings fight?

Why does the moon orbit the earth?  Why do cats dominate dogs?  Why do Kentucky basketball fans loathe the Duke Blue Devils so bitterly?*

Some things represent forces of nature, beyond the influence of humble beings like parents or grandparents.  Right, or not?

Buddy turns 11 this week, and Sis will be nine in another month.  With their ascent toward adolescence has come a distinctive evolution of fighting styles, a maturation, you might say, toward bust-ups that are more tactical than violent, more reflective of their particular personalities, more calculated and eye-popping in their ugliness.

After a late breakfast with the twosome on a recent overnight visit there was a distinct sour note in the air, the cause yet unknown.  Perhaps some fresh air would break the tension.  Out we went for a stroll down the hill, my little dog trotting merrily along between Sis and me.  Stopping to pick up after him and falling a few steps behind, I heard some low snarling between the two, then watched as Sis shouted “no!” and ran down the hill on her own, leaving her brother behind, a painful scowl on her face that often presages tears.

I caught up to Buddy in a few steps, halted his progress with a grip on the sleeve of his jacket, and stepped in front to face him directly.  What did you just say to your sister?  I demanded. When he answered, “I told her she has ruined my entire weekend,” my jaw dropped at the easy cruelty of children in general, and the immediate impact on the intended target of this accusation.  Of course, it was followed by a litany of all the tiresome and vexing crimes a younger sister may commit, wreaking despicable havoc on life for an older brother.

Should a grandparent dispense discipline?  Most I know would surely say no, preferring to leave all that to the parents and play a very different role in the lives of young souls.  Over the years I’ve come to agree, but still find the occasional need to draw a line.  This was one of those times.  I strove for a calm (possibly not in my top five skills) and serious tone. I know you love your sister, I delivered, straight into those blue eyes, but that was a very, very unkind thing to say.  Don’t do it again.  To his credit, he held eye contact, nodded his head, and whispered, “I’m sorry.”

While it is tempting to conclude that a younger female sibling is at a disadvantage in such situations in perpetuity, years of watching these two has taught me otherwise.  Sis’ tactics can and have been as reprehensible as her older brother’s, and every bit as effective in their mission to hurt his feelings, potentially re-arrange his life, maybe even make him vaporize.  Each takes a turn in the role of aggressor, each giving about as good (or bad) as they get.  No saints, only ordinary sinners, in this particular tale. And as quickly as we may write off sibling arguments as standard stuff, the meanness and hurt feelings is still painful to witness.

Are they really inevitable, or is that an old-school concept that helps me make excuses for these twin lights of my heart?  Dr. Sigmund Norr, a Cleveland Clinic pediatrician describes it this way:

“… the majority of fights arise due to underlying causes such as birth order and family dynamics. Competing desires for your attention and differences in developmental stages can lead to moments of jealousy or misunderstanding. Rivalry can even affect them as they get older with their self-esteem and even their friendships. Most of these causes, like age difference or temperament, are impossible to change. That makes sibling rivalry, unfortunately, inevitable.”

Great. Normal, but still treacherous.

When I take a few steps back from the immediacy of these bitter conflagrations, it is interesting to speculate on what they foreshadow about these precocious boneheads as teenagers and adults.  Sis fights with intensity and passion, sometimes the first to scratch or deliver a physical blow.  Her raison d’etre is defense against any perceived injustice, her task to wave the flag of defiance and never it let touch the ground.  There is no subtlety in any cell in her bone marrow, only blazing truth (at least, as she sees it) and often increased volume.  “That. Is. NOT OKAY!” she may shout, over and over until someone listens.  Buddy’s tactical maneuvering for war is much more subtle, even at his tender age, and calculated.  His deceiving calm may belie the dastardly edge of his needling, his worst verbal jabs sometimes aimed at his sister in a deceptively low voice.

When I was a child in a family of four siblings and explosions were as routine as sunrise and breakfast in the morning, my parents often imposed separation as a first solution.  After the recent Ruined Weekend argument, I was thus pretty excited to get a Saturday afternoon with Sis on her own.  At least they won’t be arguing, I think, and it will be a good chance to catch up with just her.  A shopping excursion for art supplies was planned, followed by lunch at a favorite Chinese restaurant.  These were known favorites that seemed sure to please.

It turns out, in the irony that so often intertwines our assumptions about children, the old one-on-one was not the blaze of glory I had anticipated. The hot and sour soup bowls and lettuce wraps had barely hit the tabletop when Sis delivered her five-word bombshell.  The shock of it deflated my raised right arm, the lettuce wrap choosing that moment to pop open and eject its contents back onto the plate, eluding my mouth, frozen in the open position.

“I wish Buddy was here,” she said with just a hint of affectionate melancholy.  And before I could readjust my jaw position, there was more.  “Can we take him some lettuce wraps? He really likes those.”

Why? was the only response I could manage. Why do you wish Buddy was here?

“He’s my brother,” came the simple answer, a small shrug implying the presence of the blazing obvious.  “Also, he’s really funny.”

That’s true, I agreed, readdressing the lettuce wrap and shaking my head.

Lunch finished, we started homeward, and a short call arrived from her mother.  She was checking on us and reporting on Buddy’s birthday gathering with school friends at the local water park, where I was to deliver Sis to join the activities later on.  All was going well, though a surprise had emerged.  The school friends were daunted by the largest water slide and declined their turns.  Buddy knew that his sister had already conquered this monster on an earlier visit.  “So, he’s really ready for her to get here,” and ride it with him, confirmed their mom.  This bulletin lit up Sis’ face like fireworks on the Fourth.

Driving home, I drifted into memories of ferocious arguments and dastardly plots against my own siblings through our growing up years, three people I grew to cherish and respect as adults more than anyone on the planet, save my parents.  This ying and yang should not surprise me, I told myself.  Perhaps there is always hope, as long as we as siblings recognize that no matter what, we still need each other. To conquer the water slide, tell a good joke, whatever the journey requires.

Why do cats smack dogs across the face and pull their tails?  Cleary, some dynamics in life may not be fully revealed to those of us with eyes to see.  We are just meant to watch them unfold, and ride along as best we can.

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*The Kentucky-Duke basketball rivalry has a long history, but no highlight was more bitter than a controversial game 30 years ago that eliminated Kentucky from post-season competition and burns in fans’ memories to this day.  The Sporting News remembers it like this:  “ …Christian Laettner fielding a 70-foot pass from Grant Hill, getting the rhythm just right as the Kentucky defense cleared out for fear of fouling, then launching a 17-foot jumpshot in advance of the buzzer that may be defined as the centerpiece of college basketball’s lore and allure.”

Dammit.  I can see it like it was yesterday.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today’s installment of the Chronicles is offered as a special tribute to G-ma’s longtime friend, Amy-Lyles Wilson, in honor of a recent landmark birthday.  G-ma has been fortunate enough for many years to participate in Pilgrim Writers, a collaborative writing group guided by Amy-Lyles under the principles of the Amherst Writers & Artists.  In this and other, related work, Amy-Lyles has coached, encouraged, advised, inspired and empowered scores of writers over the years.  Amy-Lyles has contributed to several books and published nationally, but her personal world view is delightfully shared in the persona of a character named Maybelle.  This little tale shares a friend’s perspective about Maybelle, a woman of many talents.  Read more about Maybelle and Amy-Lyles’ work here.

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Maybelle might not admit it about herself, being a modest person in all the best ways that we use that adjective, but she is a woman of distinctive style and flair, with wonderfully eclectic taste and a keen eye for the beautiful and memorable.

And Maybelle’s friends who have not yet joined the ranks of Bargain Hunters Eternal, an open society that welcomes all comers, might be surprised to learn that a primary source of Maybelle’s fascinating, ever-evolving personal collections is that most holy of all bargain opportunities. Friends, we speak here of the mecca of eclectic purchasing, as we bow to the Estate Sale.

For Maybelle, and indeed for her friends who are fortunate enough to occasionally trod behind her on the Path of Eternal Learning, the Estate Sale calls forth a finely-tuned blend of timing, observation, quality assessment, and financial analysis.  While some shoppers might turn away sorrowfully, reflecting sadly on the excesses of American culture, when they see a dusty driveway table jammed with travel knickknacks, or kitchen counters lined with chipped casserole dishes in the popular hues of the style-free 1970s—not our Maybelle.  Our girl, swift in her sweeping assessment and undeterred by appalling junk, unleashes her matchless powers of observation.  Her keen eye lasers in on the overlooked treasures, perhaps a small, elegant vintage handbag, or the beautiful hardcover book, apparently unopened, by an author she too, always meant to read and still intends to do so.  To say that one’s trash is another’s treasure is to mumble a concept that flourishes in the marrow of Maybelle’s bones.

Maybelle is a discerning and enthusiastic collector, but these acquisitions are not just for her.  A thoughtful and generous giver, Maybelle often bestows these finds on others, in the most joyful form of recycling imaginable.  One friend was stunned to receive, on her own birthday, a vintage tray emblazoned with the crest of a society in her home state that numbered both her father and grandfather as past members.  This ignited immediate memories of bygone times and people, and a few tears came in honor of both.

Illustrating her adaptability and soul for teaching, Maybelle hunts both solo and in pairs, sometimes even on a team.  If one is fortunate enough to tag along and pay attention, one may observe the Master at Work.  You may learn, for example, that it disturbs the equanimity of the universe to pay full price, and nearly all prices are slashed toward the end of the session.  If you spy a favorite and it is gone by the time price-slashing occurs, you probably didn’t need it, anyway.  Also, it is wise to clear the trunk of the car in advance of the expedition, in case a piece of furniture you had been searching for manifests itself and beckons you in an irresistible siren song.

One recent Sunday afternoon, Maybelle and a friend were en route to lunch after church when she let it slip that a promising sale was occurring on a street near the restaurant.  Should we stop? she asked.  I think everything is half off on the last day. Does the sun rise in the East?  Responded her companion.  As they strolled up the street toward the outdoordisplay, Maybelle inquired if her friend was looking for anything in particular for her new home.  The companion–who has adopted Maybelle’s discipline of keeping an acquisition target list in the head, kind of a running grocery list for estate sales—admitted that she would love to find a small, round coffee table.

Hardly were the words out of her mouth when they saw exactly that.  Perched in the middle of the driveway, as though plunked there by the Tooth Fairy of Estate Sales, was a small, round coffee table.  They could hardly believe it.  Still, Maybelle remained her authentic calm, cool and collected self.  What do you think?  Breathed the friend, excited.  I like it, Maybelle responded.  Maybe measure it to make sure it is the size you want and then you can think about it.  Steeled by the strength of Maybelle’s demeanor, the friend agreed they could go on to lunch and continue considering it.  Discussing it further over salads, the friend marveled at the keen balance of Maybelle’s advice.  It was supportive but not pushy, enthusiastic but not overwhelming, inspiring but not insistent.  It reminded her a great deal, when she thought about it later, of Maybelle’s beloved leadership in another environment, for a different purpose, where they first met and became friends.

This tale ended happily when the table was acquired at half-price with a small additional discount proudly negotiated by Maybelle’s disciple and eagerly mentioned for the Teacher’s approval.  Good girl, said Maybelle fondly. With some maneuvering, it went into the trunk of the car and was unloaded at home with the help of a patient and well-muscled neighbor.  When she saw the perfect fit in the intended spot, the disciple could hardly wait to send Maybelle a picture.

In the course of everyday family life involving school-aged children, schedule demands often dictate the shape and form of interaction. Conversation may feel less like an in-depth news interview and more like a quick declaration  aimed at a passenger who has just leapt on a departing subway.  The chance to say “have a seat and tell me all your news” may return someday, but now is not that season in the flowing river of time.

So, it was a particular, shiny little delight, unplanned and brief, to get some conversational time alone recently with my grandson Buddy.  His sister required his mom’s undivided attention for something important, so Buddy came over to hang out with me for a couple of hours.  As dusk began to settle over the neighborhood on the hot summer evening, we took the dog out for a stroll.

Buddy turned 10 when I was away for a few months in a temporary home, and I am still catching up to the people he and his sister became in my absence.  Perhaps it’s the warping of time in our pandemic era that distorts perfectly natural progression, but the changes in both of them have popped my eyes open since I came back to live nearby.

A young man of deep thoughts, Buddy is still not always the first to launch a sociable conversation. As we ambled down the street at the moderate pace natural to summer in the South, I nattered on idly, trying, without pushing, to land on a subject of interest. We approached a patch of woods with thick, spiky green undergrowth crowned with purple and white wildflowers.  A white-tailed rabbit sprang out of the bushes and bounded across the street in front of us in a flash, startling the dog away from his close inspection of a redolent street grate.  “We have a lot of bunnies in the neighborhood,” I offered.  “They drive the dog crazy.”

“Did you know,” Buddy responded thoughtfully, “that kangaroos can’t move their back legs separately?  They have to move together.  That’s one reason why they hop.”  Making my own leap forward to track with this hopping theme, I asked him the eternal, adult-to-kid query: Where did you learn that?  Pushing his glasses back up his nose, he shrugged his thin shoulders.  “I don’t remember; I think I read it somewhere.”

I nodded appreciatively at this nugget, and we continued downhill, where the road is bordered by an intriguing meadow that opens between two dense clusters of scraggly old trees.  You can’t quite view the full expanse of the grass, shrubbery and weeds from the road, and I am curious about what lies beyond the narrow, visible opening. One day you and your sister can bring your boots over and we’ll explore down there, I told him. There might be a little creek we could wade in, but you’ll have to have boots, because there might be snakes.

“Do you know,” he began again, “how to tell the difference between poisonous and non-poisonous snakes?”  I don’t, I admitted, beginning to feel like a batter in the practice cage who wasn’t warned when someone switched on the pitching machines at high speed.

“Poisonous snakes have slit eyes, and snakes with round eyes aren’t poisonous.”  Anticipating the previous query, he added, “We learned that from a ranger at the park where we went camping.  I’ll take him now,” he finished, reaching for the dog leash, the nature lesson concluded. The two of them went running down the hill ahead of me, leaving me to watch this long-legged, decade-old, human encyclopedia of facts sprinting for the joy of it on a summer night, the dog on his six-inch legs trying desperately to keep up.

When you get to observe a burgeoning young intellect up close, you learn that its beam roams widely, illuminating the joyful, the troubling, and things in between.  Not long before our walk, I stood by quietly as Buddy engaged his mother in a spirited discussion.  She’d been after him to learn a particular skill, and his resistance grew in equal measure to her pleas. This skill had been around for centuries, she reasoned on this particular go-round, and it wouldn’t have survived that long if it wasn’t worth doing.  He dispatched this logic with startling alacrity.  “Lots of things stayed around for a long time that shouldn’t have,” he riposted. “Racism. Sexism.” I could offer nothing here, stunned into silence by this precocious application of logic.

We all think our grandkids are brilliant, right? Hang on, before the chest puffs out too much.  If you delude yourself into thinking one demonstration of intellect forecasts another, a trap awaits.  A child psychologist probably has a clinical term for this, but mine is Office Hallway Brain:  If the noggin contains a complex series of passages, flipping the light switch in one clearly does not illuminate the others. Buddy may argue effectively against discrimination or spot a poisonous snake, but he often can’t find his way, literally, from Point A to B.

Reporting on the first day of school, his mother mentioned that pandemic restrictions prevented parents from accompanying the students to their homerooms that crucial first time.  As she ushered him out of the car, she encouraged, “Okay, remember, Buddy, room 245.  2-4-5.”  Clambering up the steps to the main entrance, he looked back at her, and she raised a hand to wave and signal a final reminder:  Two fingers, four fingers, then all fingers.  Still, he forgot his room number the second the huge metal door slammed behind him, a clash of cymbals proclaiming his official arrival at Middle School. He was on his own to navigate he knew not where.

Back at my house that recent summer evening, the dog’s walk concluded, he cast around for something else to do.  “Evie,” he inquired politely, “do you play chess?”  I don’t, I answered, instantly thrown back in memory to a day, a half-century before, when my father tried to teach me.  Maybe impatient about the complex analysis and slow pace of the game, or maybe cowed by Dad’s commanding skill level, I couldn’t stick with it.  With a brief swell of embarrassment that turned quickly to curiosity, I turned my next comment a different direction:  It’s so cool that you play, I continued.  Who do you play with?  Do you have your own set at home?  Tell me more.

I used to think the window would be open longer, the period of time when I had the privilege of sharing what I know with these children, where my own life skills, even the smallest, practical things, like how to slice a juicy summer peach, might help them along the way.  How quickly it is changing, in just a flash, to where I may learn (if I keep my mouth shut and listen) more than I can teach.  Maybe there will be other lessons to share later, fewer of the kind you teach with your hands and more of the ones you teach with your heart, and the ones you show with your behavior.  I guess we’ll see.  Meanwhile, it appears my job is changing from instruction and guidance to witnessing, to appreciation and encouragement, and to listening as I walk alongside.

I hope I have the sense to listen.  Because I sure wouldn’t know one snake from another, without a kid to teach me.

He raised his long, gangly arms instinctively, then dropped them again, uncertain.  The study in his light blue eyes was tentative, watchful, hopeful, but unsure.

I looked right into them, longing to restore his comfort, trying to beam away the weight of so many months of uncertainty.  Long, dry, confusing, lonely, frightening months.  The last time we hugged, he was a year younger, inches shorter, shoe sizes smaller.  Just a year?  Across the gulf of this moment, it felt like a lifetime.  It was before the emergence of that precocious intellect, with its crackling wit and love of puns, its astonishing vocabulary, before he asked things like how to use “irascible” in a sentence.  And before he debated his mother issue for issue, flashing terms learned so young in the long shadows of the extraordinary era, out of the deep, omnipresent tragedies of the previous year, terms like “racism” and “sexism.”

Reaching toward him, slowly but comfortably, I encircled his thin shoulders with one arm, then both.  Our Buddy is 10 now, tall, angular, thin, elbows and feet everywhere, an openly tender and vulnerable young soul.  Inside the safety of my arms, he signed softly for a beat or two, then squeezed back in response.

It’s OK now, I said out loud, while wondering if those words would ever really ring completely true to any of us again.  It’s OK, I repeated, mustering more confidence this time, my arms giving the signal that mattered most to this young man, little boy, grandson, brother, son, child of the times, one of millions.  It’s fine to hug me now.  It’s safe.  I’ve had my shot.

 

 

Nothing illuminates the beauty of the average day quite so brilliantly as the fear that the average day has vanished indefinitely, maybe for always.

And so, on the morning after the President of the United States declared the virus pandemic a national emergency, I ventured out to see how my little world would respond to this chapter of reality never imagined in my lifetime.  The strict government guidelines on cancelling large gatherings and restricting business traffic were a few days off yet, so I set out to see what was open, what was closed, and who might be out and about

First stop, the grocery store. Facebook updates had seemed incredible, with notes on shortages, featuring photos of empty shelves where abundance had reigned just days before. It seemed like something that happens in some sad, faraway place we have no desire to visit, yet suddenly, we have arrived there.  Still, this particular grocer—my personal favorite, Trader Joe’s—was ready for the small crowd that gathered for the 8 a.m. opening.  “Good morning!” said a cheerful greeter as customers filed in quietly, hopefully.  “We’re glad you are here today.”  Friendly charm as a talisman against panic?  It was a brilliant strategy.  I could feel myself breathing a little easier.  The woman just in front of me at the stack of carrying baskets grabbed one for herself, then turned around, extending her other arm and offered one to me. “Good morning,” she said companionably, and I accepted the basket, returned the smile, and breathed just a little deeper still.

I looked around, encouraged at the sight of full produce shelves, banana bunches brightly curled in piles of riotous yellow and ruby apples nearly spilling over their bins. Bread shelves were lined with plump, fragrant bags.  The amiable spirit of the crowd as shoppers spread out among the aisles seemed, indeed, to help stifle any urge to snatch multiples for hoarding, and I observed no one piling carts high.  I leaned over the freezer section to snare a particular favorite, frozen organic blueberries, and met the eyes of a woman acquiring raspberries from the adjacent bin.  “Good morning,” she said with a congenial nod, and I marveled at this group of strangers, so bent on offering civility.  Determined to respond in kind, I admitted, “I’m so glad to find my blueberries this morning! I was afraid they might not have any.”  For this, I received an empathetic eye roll. “People need to BEHAVE,” she answered firmly, with the authority of a sixth-grade teacher who brooks no foolishness from hormone-mad adolescents.  “They need to wash their hands, only buy what they need, and BEHAVE.  Now, you have a good day,” she concluded briskly, pushing her cart in the other direction.

A few aisles over, I was disappointed to find the shelves for canned goods nearly empty.  No beans or diced tomatoes for chili, not on this day. I stopped a box-toting staffer who was motoring past.  “No beans at all today?”  I asked sadly.  “We’ll be full on this shelf later today, closer to closing time, ma’am,” he said, shifting his carton to the floor briefly so he could face me.  “I’m sure you don’t want to make another trip, and I’m really so sorry.  We were caught by surprise by all of this, like everyone, I guess, but we’re starting to get a handle on it now.  It’s going to start getting better in the next few days.”  I get it, I answered with a shrug, thinking how hard it must be to disappoint so many people.  “Hang in there.”  He hoisted his carton again and grinned back at me as he sped away, adding, “You do the same.”

Next stop:  some professional attention for the toenails. It seems astonishing now, but just six days ago getting a pedicure still seemed like a logical, not risky, thing to do.  Is it petty to crave a pedicure during a national crisis?  Quite possibly, but I elected to view it as fuel for the local economy, and the urgent imperatives of social distancing were a day or two away from commanding the national consciousness, at least around here. I crossed the street to the popular nail salon that takes walk-ins and is regularly patronized by nearly everyone I know. On a pre-pandemic Saturday morning preceding spring break and beach plans for many families it would have been hopeless to get in without an appointment. Stepping underneath a large American flag prominently placed at the entrance, I pushed open the door and walked into an empty salon.

“We are very glad to see you,” said the smiling proprietor.  I followed him to a chair and caught a whiff of disinfectant as I sat down and waited for the technician.  As always, the place was sparkling clean, and I was impressed with the careful precautions—gloves, masks on all technicians, sterilized instruments– throughout the process, though I knew those had long been there and were not instituted to combat our national problem.  A few customers trickled in, probably a dozen or so on a morning when there would have been three times that many.  With smooth, exfoliated feet and sparkling toenails, I passed him again on my way out the door.

“Thank you,” I said, and paused, gesturing around the wide space.  “I hope things go OK for you, that people still come, you know…” I trailed off, struggling for something appropriate to say in this unknown territory. Nodding, he gestured in a similar manner and answered in a heavy Asian accent, “We have lots of space, we spread people out, we be very careful.”  I regretted that I couldn’t understand everything he explained, but his conclusion was clear as a bell.  He paused and gazed at me warmly, looking me straight in the eye. “It be OK,” he said, “It be OK. This is America.”  I turned to go, overwhelmed by the ache in my heart, uncertain if I smiled in goodbye.  Ducking again under his large American flag, I felt tears welling up and trickling out as I made my way to my car.  Whether they were droplets of appreciation, of sympathy, or of sheer terror, I can’t know.

And, of course, a few days later, the flag continued waving above the door emblazoned with this sign.